On the first day of spring, 1 March, much of England ground to a halt due to snowfall. Days later, supermarkets remained eerily empty of produce, the shelves laid bare by panic buyers, while trains ran a skeleton service and children enjoyed days off from schools closed for health and safety reasons. The collapse of infrastructure in the face of long-predicted winter weather forms a rather humbling contrast to the feats narrated in Edward Larson’s latest engaging account of polar exploration, To the Edges of the Earth. Here we read of Robert Peary losing most of his toes to frostbite in one of his three failed attempts to reach the North Pole, of the tribulations of having to exit your tent every hour in temperatures of –45º to cope with the diarrhoea brought on by eating rancid seal blubber in the absence of other foodstuffs, and of members of Ernest Shackleton’s South Pole expedition repeatedly disappearing down hidden ice crevasses as if through a pantomime trap door. While in the present day we may be rightly critical of the shibboleths of manly exploration that circulated a century ago, it’s not immediately clear that they are any less flawed than our neurotic obsession today with calculating risk.
To the Edges of the Earth interweaves the tales of three major explorations, all of which culminated in 1909. Two of them are well known and have been discussed often: Peary’s alleged feat of being the first to reach the North Pole and Shackleton’s failed bid to get