Review of Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth

Michelle Fram-Cohen

Forum: The Objectivist Forum, 1987

Two rival explorers separately embark on a torturous 1500-mile trek across a desert of ice and snow, each striving to be first to stand at the bottom of the world—the South Pole. One man reaches the Pole and returns safely with his crew. The other arrives more than a month later and never returns; his body and the bodies of his crewmen are found ten miles short of the safety of their supply depot. The loser is made into a hero and the winner is accused of stealing his victory and contributing to the disastrous end of the loser's expedition.

This is a synopsis of the race to the South Pole in 1911 between the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott.

For more than seventy years commentators on this event have explained Amundsen's victory over Scott in terms of accidental factors such as weather differences and Scott's anxiety over the prospect of losing the race. But the dual biography of these explorers, The Last Place on Earth, sets the record straight. Author Roland Huntford shows that the outcome of the race was the culmination of lifelong differences in the moral character of the two men—dif­ferences, in effect, in their opposed philosophical premises. It was the manner in which each wrestled with the natural elements, not the elements themselves, which accounted for his fate. Each man was responsible for his own success—or failure.

Huntford traces the personal development of Amundsen and Scott from childhood through adult life. We see Amundsen, an avid skier from early childhood, deciding to become an explorer despite his family's disapproval. We see Scott, a mediocre cadet and incompetent torpedo lieutenant in the Royal Navy, a career chosen for him by his father, wondering, at the age of thirty, what he should do with his life. We see Amundsen begin long-range preparations for his future expeditions by studying the subject and training himself in the necessary skills; we see him join his first Antarctic expedition at the age of 25 and achieve the first successful crossing of the Northwest Passage (north of Canada) at the age of 35. We see Scott, worried about his promotion, seizing upon exploration as the means of advancing in rank, a familiar practice in the British navy at that time. We see Amundsen choose, as his idol and mentor, Fridjof Nansen, the renowned Arctic explorer who was the first to cross Greenland—while Scott chooses, as his patron and strings-puller, Sir Clemens Markham, the President of the Royal Geographical Society, "a typical moribund stronghold of institutionalized mediocrity," who had participated in but one Arctic expedition fifty years before.

When they raced to the South Pole, the two men were about the same age: Amundsen was 39 and Scott was 43. Amundsen had behind him the progressive mastering of Polar exploration techniques and years of Polar experience. Scott had behind him only the dreary routine of military regulations and one Antarctic expedition that had ended in near-disaster.

The contrast between Amundsen's and Scott's attitudes toward exploration is similar to the contrast between Howard Roark's and Peter Keating's attitudes toward architecture: a lifelong vocation motivated by love of the field versus an arbitrary selection of what happened to be admired by others; ambition for genuine original achievements versus a manipulation of the secondary benefits. In Huntford's words, "Amundsen was the supreme exponent of Polar tech­nique. He towered above his rivals; he brought an intellectual approach to exploration." On the other hand, "Scott smoldered with ambition. It was not, however, the kind directed to a particular goal... He possessed an inchoate passion to get on without any definite aim."

Huntford stresses another significant difference between Amundsen and Scott: their opposite views on the nature of Polar exploration. Amundsen regarded its hardships as the necessary cost of achieving his goal—a cost which was to be reduced whenever possible. He believed that an expedition, with all its difficulties and discomforts, could be enjoyable if morale was huge. The essence of exploration was, for Amundsen, learning how to do things better, faster, easier.

For Scott, however, hardships were the essence of exploration, and suffering was its meaning. His attitude reflected the popular view in England at that time: the Byronic view of existence as a doomed struggle against impossible odds with endurance of pain as the ultimate test of heroism. Scott, like any second-hander, was consumed by the desire for public acclaim. He wished to be thought of as a hero. Thus, while Amundsen trained himself and his men in dog driving and relieved his party of the burden of carrying their supplies, Scott resorted to man hauling, exhausting his men to the point of collapse. After his first Antarctic expedition, Scott stated his reason for pre­ferring man hauling:

No journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts, and by days and weeks of hard physical labor succeed in solving some problems of the great unknown.

Each man's attitude toward hardships was reflected in the way he dealt with the Polar environment. Amundsen followed the rule "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed" and devised ways to master the environment. He made constant improvements in food, clothing, shelter, dog driving, and skiing techniques—and applied painstakingly what he learned from the Eskimos, with whom he lived for several months during his Northwest Passage expedi­tion. Scott, on the other hand, intended to attack Nature by brute force and let the stronger side win. He expected his men to endure whatever calamities Nature had in store and did not bother to learn how to overcome them. When Scott tried to improve his chances for success on his second journey, it was by taking with him Siberian ponies and motor sledges—a shot in the dark which proved fatally inappropriate for the Antarctic conditions.

Gaining the title "First to the South Pole" was important to both men, but when Amundsen encountered a temperature of minus 43 degrees Fahrenheit on his way to the Pole, he and his party returned to their base in order to wait for warmer weather. In contrast, when Scott's ponies died and his motor sledges broke down, he had no scruples about returning to man-hauling, even knowing that his supplies and the skiing ability of his men were hopelessly inadequate for this grueling type of travel.

The inadequacies of Scott's expedition are more astonishing in view of the fact that it was his second attempt to conquer Antarctica. He refused to learn from his first failure, blaming it on natural conditions beyond his control. For example, one of the worst problems facing Polar explorers was scurvy, a potentially fatal disease. The cause of scurvy, Vitamin C deficiency, was as yet unknown. Amundsen had experienced the horrors of scurvy on his first Antarctic expedition, and resolved to find a way to prevent its recurrence. Later, on his Northwest Passage expedition, Amundsen followed the advice of his associate Dr. Cook who had observed, in a previous Arctic expedition, that the local Eskimos had not suffered from scurvy. Accordingly, Amundsen had his men stick to the Eskimo diet, and the problem of scurvy was eliminated. On Scott's first Antarctic expedition his party too was ravaged by scurvy, but Scott was not very concerned about it; he even took pride in the fact that their caloric intake was the lowest of any expedition since 1820. Scott did not improve the diet on his second journey, and his party was again plagued by scurvy (and malnutrition). Yet even when Scott and his crewmen lay dying, Scott wrote in his diary: "The causes of the disaster are not due to faulty organization but to misfortune." Huntford's exhaustively researched analysis amply proves the contrary: the outcome of the race was not a matter of luck but was the logical result of each explorer's character and actions. And he aptly passes his verdict on each man.

Huntford integrates the actions of each explorer by relating them to each explorer's values and view of himself, others, Nature, reality. For example, Scott insisted on subjecting his crewmen to military discipline and hierarchy even though some of them were civilians and the entire expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, not the Navy. Huntford relates this conduct to Scott's values: Scott regarded people as titles and ranks, not as individuals, and he longed for higher ranks, not the achievements they stood for; he could feel in control only when he had the authority of rank. Amundsen, in contrast, was single-mindedly devoted to building his knowledge and exper­tise. He selected his men by their ability, and demanded loyalty, not blind obedience. His values and outlook are best described by an entry in his diary from his Northwest Passage expedition:

After my own experience, I decided as far as possible to use a system of freedom on board. Let everybody have the feeling of being indepen­dent within his own sphere. In that way there arises—amongst sensible people—a spontaneous and voluntary discipline, which is worth far more than compulsion. Every man thereby has the consciousness of being a human being; he is treated as a rational being, not as a machine... The will to do work is many times greater, and thereby, the work itself. We were all working towards a common goal and gladly shared all work.

Thus the contrast between the two men becomes, in effect, a contrast between two philosophies. It is a contrast between the desire to achieve and the desire to be considered an achiever; between long-range planning and range-of-the-moment improvisation; between self-reliance and dependence; be­tween responsibility and recklessness; between dealing with men and Nature by reason and by brute force; between love of life and this world and a death-wish-like evasion of reality; between benevolent and malevolent world­views.

The Last Place on Earth also shows how Scott, the failure, became a hero and Amundsen, who succeeded, was almost forgotten. Scott's doomed expe­dition became the romanticized subject of numerous books, a movie, and a play, even a musical symphony. What could turn an incompetent bungler into a hero? The ideas that man is helpless before the unpredictable forces of Nature and that the hero is the man who battles the fates even though he cannot escape them. These were the Byronic ideas that motivated Scott and his contemporaries, but they emanated from a wider philosophical context in which Scott could figure as a hero. Huntford points out that Scott:

has been accepted as an orthodox martyr figure even among Marxists in the grotesquely alien surroundings of the Soviet Union where, in the words of one author, he has been sent as the personification of "A fight to the death with the forces of fate [like] the tractor man driving his machine into a wheat field which is on fire.

What could possibly be in common between Byronic Romanticism and Marxism? Huntford only implies the answer, but it is obviously the glorification of self-sacrifice—in one case to prove one's "heroism," in the other to benefit the Collective—and in both cases with a malevolent world-view as its base. It was appropriate that Scott and his crewmen were eulogized in a sermon for "the reminder they bring us of... the glory of self-sacrifice, the blessing of failure."

Amundsen did not enjoy any legend. His achievement was evaluated in technical, not moral, terms. His performance was derogated as merely "pro­fessional"—as if a calculated, realistic, successful expedition were unromantic. The public reaction to Amundsen was ambivalent. He was criticized for push­ing himself ahead of Scott and for succeeding "over Scott's dead body." The general feeling was that, if it had not been for Amundsen, Scott would have been first to the South Pole, and his judgment would not have been clouded by having to compete with Amundsen [!]. Scott's diary, a subjective outpouring of sentimentality about his expedition's martyrdom, became a best seller. Amundsen's writings, a precise, perceptive account of facts, did not appeal to the public taste. It is interesting that when, seventeen years later, Amundsen perished in a plane crash near the North Pole in an attempt to rescue an Italian explorer, he was not made into a martyr. He did not have the personality of a martyr and most certainly did not wish to become one.

The Last Place on Earth is an unusual combination of adventure, psycho­logical drama, and ideas. Although Huntford's terminology is not always accurate (he often uses the terms "heroic" and "romantic" in their Byronic, irrational sense), it is rewarding to read an author who traces actions and events back to ideas. His admiration for Amundsen's rationality, talent, and individuality and his contempt for Scott's irrationality and conventional mediocrity are the leitmotif of the book.

The Last Place on Earth is a dramatization of the contrast between good and evil—for once in their proper moral sense. On the side of evil are negative impulses: "Fear was at the head; fear of professional failure... the mentality of escape, and thinking by reaction, which means dangerous emotionalism and rashness." On the side of the good are "the positive force of undiluted ambition... a search for fulfillment instead of avoidance of what might be worse, the goal ahead instead of the goad behind."

© Michelle Fram-Cohen, 1987, 2000