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The Spirit of Exploration
This daring is an important part of history
It's been some time since I read To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration by Edward Larson. But, I was thinking of it again recently, and of what’s exemplified by the expeditions it talks about.
In this book, after a brief look at the "Age of Exploration" in general, Larson tells of what he calls that Age's culmination: the three great expeditions of 1909. The US Admiral Peary tried to reach the North Pole; the British Major Shackleton tried to reach the South Pole, and the Italian Duke of the Abruzzi tried to summit the Himalayan mountain K2. All three expeditions failed. (Technically, they probably failed; Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole. His claims were seriously doubted even at the time, and only a few people still argue he was telling the truth). But, all three set new records for how far they'd gotten
It took me some time to appreciate why the author had juxtaposed these three expeditions. They were very different in where their commanders came from, how they equipped themselves, and even in their goals. I could understand juxtaposing the two Polar expeditions, but - aside from superficial similarities of cold and ice - the mountain K2 is very different from the two Poles.
But then, I realized how these expeditions were driven by the same urge for great deeds and hunger for glory. There was no practical gain in reaching the poles or summiting K2. Shackleton did some scientific work on his expedition, but he did it by the coast of Antarctica before he went near the pole. When Amundsen did reach the South Pole two years later, his astronomical observations there were just for verifying that he had reached it. But, these explorers all wanted the glory and accomplishment of being there. That isn't totally foreign to me - as Chesterton had his detective Father Brown say, we're all humans with something of the same impulses, and if you look inside yourself in the right way you can understand even the strangest people more. But it's amazing how many explorers were eager to suffer such privations for this - even to the point of Peary returning to the Arctic after amputating his toes from frostbite.
This hunger for great deeds wasn't anything new. Previous explorers of the Age of Exploration - back to Columbus and de Gama, who sailed out to sea in different directions - felt it too.
Earlier - unlike in 1909 - exploration could be profitable. The survivors of Magellan's expedition made their fortunes off the spices they brought back in their one remaining ship. Numerous early explorers of North America hoped to find a waterway through to Asia to get similar rich cargos. Myriads of explorers and drifters in the 1800's American West were getting their fortunes in beaver pelts or mines or at least hoping to. But many of them also enjoyed - or learned to enjoy - the spirit of exploration.
And also, they founded a tradition. When we read about Columbus or Magellan, we don't remember how they were seeking a route to the riches of the East Indies (much less how Columbus was hoping to use those riches to finance a new crusade.) We remember their brave exploration. People at the turn of the twentieth century remembered the same thing, and some of them strove to follow in that tradition even though it wasn't profitable anymore.
Instead, they needed to raise money without the lure of future payoffs. It was amazing how resourceful explorers like Peary and Shackleton were in raising money from the public - going on speaking tours, sometimes with dogsleds on stage, and even selling tickets to look over the ship about to depart. This worked because they were popular. It wasn't just these three men and their companions who hungered for great deeds; myriads of people were eager to see them and support them in some way.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this often worked out to shoestring budgets. Shackleton, for example, had just one ship. If the ship got destroyed, or if the inland expeditions didn't make it back to the coast before the ship had to leave for the winter, they'd be stranded. (Things turned out fine on this expedition, but his ship would be destroyed on his subsequent 1914 expedition.) His inland transport was ponies, based on a personal hunch they'd do better than the traditional dogsleds. As it turned out, he was wrong - carrying grain for the ponies hurt the expedition more than any advantage they gave. Such ill-tested ideas and lack of backup plans was characteristic of this era.
It could have worked. These three explorers failed to reach their goals, but their schemes could have worked.
A similar sort of expedition did work - Roald Amundsen did reach the South Pole in 1911, on an expedition he'd planned personally. He got a little funding from the Norwegian government, but most of his funding was from private donations. However, Amundsen meticulously planned out his expedition with attention to Antarctic conditions, in a way Shackleton or Peary or the Duke of the Abruzzi didn't. His account of his successful expedition reads with little suspense, as everything goes according to the plans he'd made in advance.
In this way, Amundsen represents a bridge away from this Age of Exploration. Previous explorers set sail with one or a few ordinary ships, or walked west on their own legs perhaps with a horse, and the most vague plans. Even Perry and Shackleton needed just a ship and some dogs or horses. Amundsen meticulously planned everything, and he triumphed for it. We would see some future gasps of the old ill-planned explorations, such as Amelia Earhart, but even she had arranged for the US Navy to place a support ship at Howland Island before her ill-fated flight.
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Nowadays, the world is almost completely explored. Mount Everest suffers traffic jams of tourists. Airlines fly daily flights over the North Pole. To "boldly go where no man has gone before," we essentially need to follow the show whose theme piece that was and go to space. That's possible, but it takes ludicrous amounts of money and preparation, and we're just starting to see it done by non-governmental organizations. The modern era is much more hostile to the spirit of these explorers.
I'd venture that the modern expedition that reminds me most of this spirit is the OceanGate submarine that imploded above the Titanic. It was built by a few individuals following their own plans and their own innovative design, to go into an extreme location under hostile conditions. No, they weren't the first people to go to the Titanic, but the world is short on places where people haven't already been. Sadly, their submarine failed. Even more sadly, they - unlike Shackleton or Peary or the Duke of the Abruzzi - had actually sold places on their expedition, so their ticket-buyers died with them. But miserable deadly failure isn't new to this tradition.
I wouldn't want to join in this tradition of daring exploration, but it's an important part of history. On top of that, I have to agree it does speak to something in the human spirit. I wish the modern day did have more place for it.