Lessons for the Arctic: How Roald Amundsen Won the Race to the South Pole
Lessons for the Arctic: How Roald Amundsen Won the Race to the South Pole. Geir O. Kløver. 2017. Fram Museum. 582 p. hardcover, illustrated. ISBN 978-82-823-5085-3, NOK349(c.£33).
Recently, I found on my bookshelf a book titled Lessons from the Arctic by Geir O. Kløver, the director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway. At the first take, the book appears to be a quite hefty volume of almost 600 pages. However, with more scrutiny, the book does not deliver what otherwise was presumed and the book contains little material which can be regarded as a new.
The author’s thesis is that Amundsen won the race to the South Pole because he went native by subscribing (learning) to Inuit knowledge (igloos, sled-runners, front-runners, clothing, …) over Scott's essentially "non-native methods".
However, Kløver's native sentiment is wide of the mark. Going native, whatever it means, is not an exploratory method. Does the author suggest that the British, instead of using ships in the exploration of Pacific, should go native and use local canoes? The point is that the greatest explorers of the past – Humboldt, James Cook, Leif Erikson, Shackleton etc. – never went native with exploratory methods. Using camels to get to Timbuktu was not native, but practical for local people and the Westerners. The author is not telling why the dogs are superior over caribou as a draught animal. Besides, did Amundsen know about at least one Inuit dog-sustained expedition over a consecutive four months and/or ~1400 geographical miles? Of course not. Did Amundsen test a band of dogs in the conditions and time period expected to be encountered in Antarctica? Of course not. Did Amundsen test native fur clothing at similar extreme weather and time conditions? Of course not. None of that occurred during Amundsen's "meticulous planning," and this new paradigm re-invented by Kløver is rather imaginary. The author's approach belongs to the unsubstantiated re-inventing of a new paradigm, and not to investigating legitimate questions from the past. Historical accounts of Antarctic exploration are loaded with a great number of fallacious and counterfactual accounts. Provided that Kløver digs the question of racing, he would at some point contemplate about Zeno of Elea and his Achilles and the Tortoise paradox. Amundsen's advantage over Scott is buried in the fact that his daily sustained shedding velocity was about 3 miles bigger (during the Barrier stage). Not much for a given day.
The author’s thesis of the superiority of native methods constitutes a reader’s placebo that gives simplistic answers that contradict the supposedly arrogant Scott. The ill-posed question of a race to the South Pole forbids Kløver from detailed scrutiny and analysis. Besides, only about 3% of the book is concerned with actual Lessons from the Arctic (pages 475–491), while the rest of the book essentially recycles what was otherwise well known before. The simultaneous quotation of Amundsen and Scott's diaries was presented a few years ago by Huntford (Huntford, 2010).
The book requires a good deal of editing, as clearly the author is not in the expected command of English. Despite the above, the real value of the book is a collection of some 600 photos and artworks from Amundsen’s time. Thus, Kløver’s work is rather a picture album than a book contributing new insights into past events.
Huntford, R. (2010). Race for the South Pole: The expedition diaries of Scott and Amundsen. London: Continuum.