The best books about British explorers freezing to death in Antarctica

The Books I Picked & Why

The Worst Journey in the World

By Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Worst Journey in the World

Why this book?

This is one of the greatest memoirs of Capt. Robert Scott’s last and fatal expedition to Antarctica, written by expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The ‘worst expedition’ in the title is, believe it or not, not even the one where Scott’s entire party starved and froze to death on the way back from the South Pole. It’s about an earlier jaunt by the explorers to try and acquire the egg of the emperor penguin. Only after that did Scott make his shot for the Pole, get beaten to the punch by Roald Amundsen, and then died, trapped in his tent in a blizzard, on the way back. Even though everyone knows how it’s going to end, you can’t put Cherry’s account down. One of the great adventure narratives of all time.


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The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole

By Roland Huntford

The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole

Why this book?

Robert Scott was a failure, and beloved for it. He died like a British hero should, gallantly and writing it up in his journal. He, and the four other men who died with him, are memorialized all over Britain: plaques, statues, museums. Huntford is the first modern historian to kick a hole in that mythology, pointing out the many mistakes that Capt. Scott made that, cumulatively, doomed his quest for the South Pole. Was it really sensible, to put cavalry captain Titus Oates in charge of the ponies but then not let him choose the animals? For that matter, ponies? On a glacier? Huntford contrasts him to Scott’s rival the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who did everything right, breezed to the Pole with teams of sled dogs, and even gained weight on the way back.


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Scott's Last Journey

By Robert Falcon Scott

Scott's Last Journey

Why this book?

One of the things that made Scott’s expedition legendary was the photographs. His was the first scientific expedition to include a professional photographer on staff. Herbert Ponting used the cameras and glass plates of his time, and the images are stupendous. This book reproduces all the great ones, images that renovated the human imagination and which you can see to this day imitated in movies and special effects. 


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South!: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-1917

By Ernest Shackleton

South!: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-1917

Why this book?

Ernest Shackleton was Scott’s rival and companion, the one who was smart enough not to die. A later Antarctic explorer, Sir Raymond Priestly, famously said, “For scientific discovery give me Scott. For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen. But when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Shackleton’s last expedition was the stuff of legend. His ship the Endurance was trapped in the ice for ten months, and finally crushed by the ice and sunk. Shackleton marshalled his men to march across the floes dragging their boat, and then they sailed across the polar seas to Elephant Island where they finally were rescued more than two years after they set out. It’s an almost unbelievable feat.


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The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition

By Susan Solomon

The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition

Why this book?

Author Susan Solomon is a senior scientist with the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. She has uncovered what I believe is the real reason why Scott’s party couldn’t stagger back to safety. In the polar regions, the reason is always the climate. Even if you prepare carefully and well, sometimes it’s just too cold for human life. Scott and four companions were fighting an unbeatable foe, and they knew it. They died gallantly anyway, which is why a hundred years later we haven’t forgotten them. Solomon’s book came out in 2001, and she brings the tools of modern climate science to bear on Scott’s fate.


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