Book Review:

Polar Reaches

The History of Polar Exploration

by Richard Sale

220 p., many illus & maps, $29.95
ISBN: 0-89886-873-4
Seattle:  Mountaineers Books
London: HarperCollins

The literal blizzard of Polar books and reprints in recent years offers the expected tapping of a new interest market in the history and personalities which have made the story of the ends of our earth so attractive to readers.  In fact, the quirks of publishing bring the same book in two titles, equally intriguing:  To the Ends of the Earth in Great Britain and its U S counterpart, Polar Reaches.

Author Richard Sales is a British glaciologist who by his own account has "trekked and traveled all over the world," with an affinity for the Arctic regions.  He also is a mountain climer of some accomplishments, having authored a previuos book On Top of the World, a history of the larger peaks.  Thus Sale is more than the usual "armchair" observer, and his comments may offer greater currency than others.

The book, profusely illustrated with period images, woodcuts, photos and maps as well as contemporary and largely color views of both Polar caps (Sale's apparently huge personal collection of the Arctic and Antarctic result from having become an accomplished photographer during his travels), is "coffee table" 9x11 inch size with a hauntingly beautiful cover photograph on the dust jacket which Sale took in Paradise Bay in the Antarctic.

Mosf of his illustrations, in fact, are not the usual "morgue file" selection by an editorial assistant, but with the care and knowledge of one who knows his subject.  These alone are wroth the price of the book, many of them taken after personal search at the Scott Polar Research Institute, the Byrd Polar Research Center, the National Archives, Library of Congress and other repositories.

Sale's narrative is equally impressive, and his style is measured and not given to the passions of many Polar writers.  he gives equal commendation to the Inuit pioneers as well as the European and North Americans who depended upon them to penetrate to the "Big Nail."  From Parry and Franklin to Peary and Cook almost a hundred years later, he gives credit and includes the largely neglected Russian explorers of the eastern Arctic.

Of Cook and Peary he is straight forward, using both of their photos "at the Pole," and saying that "...the truth of the two claims can no longer be ascertained."

He finds that one of the "compelling" arguments for Cook is "...that he did indeed travel a long way out across the (frozen) ocean towards the Pole and so, perhaps, might have made it."  Sale also found that Cook's journey was "more interesting and tougher" than Peary's.

Five pages are devoted to the "Belgica" expedition and Sale is lavish in his praise for Amundson, Cook and the journey itself.  he notes that the Amundson tent, which Scott found at the South Pole, was sewn to Cook's design (from 1898) and that Amundson had used "Cook's snow goggles on his trek."  The "Belgica," he says had the man who was the first to set foot at the South Pole, and arguably the fist to see the North Pole and the man "whose claim to have reached the North Pole...has never been discredited."

A splendid reading experience, a photo and image treasure and worth more than just a place on the coffee table.

Russell Gibbons

Read other reviews of polar literature


Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society