A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier by David Welky - review by Roland Huntford

Roland Huntford

Off His Crocker

A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier


W W Norton 502pp £22 order from our bookshop

David Welky’s story starts with the ambiguous figure of Robert E Peary, the American obsessed with being the first man to reach the North Pole. In 1906 he made his initial attempt. He did not reach the Pole, though he did come closer than anyone had before, at 87º6’ North (or so he said). It was a poor reward for so much suffering, and in despair he retreated across the pack ice to the Roosevelt, his expedition ship. She was held by ice off Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic until the summer thaws. With time on his hands, and seeking a consolation prize, Peary made a side trip across Ellesmere Island. There, from a vantage point, he observed in the distance to the north, across the frozen waters of the Arctic and tantalisingly out of reach, a range of unknown snow-clad mountains. It was another continent, for all he knew. He named it Crocker Land in honour of one of his benefactors. This was the discovery that he brought back home and trumpeted abroad. It is the subsequent search for Crocker Land that is the subject of this book. 

The moving spirit was a New England schoolteacher called Donald MacMillan. He was on another of Peary’s expeditions, in 1908–9, during which Peary (as he said) finally reached the North Pole. MacMillan was not in the polar party; he was only in support, and thus deprived of the ultimate honour.

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