Maggie and I won’t complain about being cold or hungry for a while. We went to the Fram Museum, which about the Norwegian polar explorations. The whole afternoon, we read about people spending years in the Arctic or Antarctic, surviving on spoiled pemmican and waterlogged crackers.
All of these people were remarkable. They needed raw courage for starters, but beyond that, survival depended on planning, organization, leadership and ingenuity. The man who led the first expedition to the South Pole, Roald Amundsen, didn’t have a scientific background and he wasn’t a ship’s captain. He realized that success depended on having one man who both the leader on the long voyage and on the trek across the ice, so in preparation for the trip, he consulted with scientists and got his Master’s license. Fridtjof Nansen was an artist, zoologist when he led the first expedition across Greenland. Later he became a diplomat and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Attempting one of these journeys took a strong spirit of adventure, but there was a strong scientific justification, as well. Nansen collected tens of thousands of plant samples in Greenland. Amundsen’s first Arctic voyage could have been first one through the Northwest Passage, but instead they remained in the ice for two years, collecting data on the position of the North Magnetic Pole. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his instruments picked up data which was used decades later to examine solar winds, which were unknown in Amundsen’s time. The expedition of Adolphus Greely collected reams of data on the Arctic region, even though it resulted in the death of most of the explorers and the destruction of Greely’s reputation.
Death was a constant presence on all of these journeys. They figure that the exploration of the Northwest Passage alone cost about 1000 lives. That doesn’t count those lost at the South Pole or those who committed suicide afterwards. Undergoing that kind of deprivation must have taken a toll on the psyche that most of us can’t begin to imagine. Unbearable cold, unbelievable storms, ice that threatened to crush the ship could end a person’s life at any time. Medical care would be in short supply. Several people died from eating spoiled food. That doesn’t count the isolation of having to spend a year or two with the same dozen or so people as your only companions, with no link to the outside world. Suicide, either during the trip or afterwards, took several lives.
Why did they do it? It wasn’t for money. Early explorers to the New World had the promise of coming back with treasures that would set them up for the rest of their lives. They would get a little fame, but after the welcome home parade was over, the world’s attention moved on to other distractions. No, it was something beyond that. The desire to see what’s beyond the horizon is part of our make up as human beings. It led the first of us out of the Great Rift Valley, into the rest of the world. It’s taking us to the bottom of the ocean and out into space. At its heart, it’s the uniquely human belief that there is nothing in the universe that we can’t know, and so there is nothing that makes us more human.