The best books about the coldest place on earth

Who am I?

I’m a Minnesotan, so I thought I was a cold-weather badass, but it wasn’t until my younger sister winter-overed at South Pole Station in the early 2000s that I realized that Minnesota is a balmy paradise compared with the ice chip at the bottom of the earth. Her adventures at 90 South inspired my interest in Antarctica, the history of how humans interact with extreme and dangerous natural environments, and the social dynamics of a community trying to survive in the most remote location on the planet. That interest grew so intense that I ended up spending four years researching and then writing a novel set on the seventh continent—South Pole Station.

I wrote...

South Pole Station

By Ashley Shelby,

Book cover of South Pole Station

What is my book about?

Do you have digestion problems due to stress? Do you have problems with authority? How many alcoholic drinks to you consume a week? Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver? These are some of the questions that determine if you have what it takes to survive at South Pole Station, a place with an average temperature of -54°F and no sunlight for six months a year. Cooper Gosling has just answered five hundred of them. Her results indicate she is abnormal enough for Polar life.

Unmoored by a recent family tragedy, Cooper’s adrift at thirty and—despite her early promise as a painter—on the verge of sinking her career. So she accepts her place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and flees to Antarctica, where she encounters a group of misfits motivated by desires as ambiguous as her own. Then a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax. His presence will rattle this already-imbalanced community, bringing Cooper and the Polies to the center of a global controversy and threatening the ancient ice chip they call home.

The books I picked & why

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The Worst Journey in the World

By Apsley Cherry-Garrard,

Book cover of The Worst Journey in the World

Why this book?

A strange, complex, and ultimately transformative chronicle of the Terra Nova expedition, including the Scott Party’s catastrophic 1912 attempt to be first to the South Pole, The Worst Journey in the World is part adventure story and part witness statement. Through Apsley Cherry-Garrard's jaundiced eye, we learn of the triumphs as well as the banalities of polar exploration, including a gripping narrative-within-narrative of the eponymous “worst journey in the world,” which was not the race to the Pole, but the dangerous winter trip to Cape Crozier, where Cherry, Birdie Bowers, and Edward Wilson almost died in their attempt to collect Emperor penguin eggs.

This book is a touchstone within the narrative world of my novel, South Pole Station, as Titus Oates (who committed “philanthropic suicide” during the Scott Party’s failed to return to camp), Bowers, Wilson, and others who died in pursuit of Antarctic glory, haunt the steps of anyone who chooses to live and work in Antarctica.

Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica

By Nicholas Johnson,

Book cover of Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica

Why this book?

There is no book that better captures the unique human culture present at modern Antarctic research stations than the late Nicholas Johnson’s Big Dead Place, a frank, funny as hell, and at times savage chronicle of a year working support at McMurdo Station. Like my sister, who winter-overed at South Pole Station, Johnson worked in the galley, but it was the bureaucratic nonsense, present even at the farthest reaches of human civilization, that caught his incomparable eye for absurdity.

As I wrote South Pole Station, Johnson’s wry, searingly intelligent voice was always in my mind. To me, he is the epitome of the non-scientist drawn to the world’s most unforgiving workplace: a wry, brilliant journeyman whose humor had a razor-sharp edge but who cared deeply for the work he did and the people with whom he did it. This is my favorite book about Antarctica.

South: The ENDURANCE Expedition

By Ernest Shackleton,

Book cover of South: The ENDURANCE Expedition

Why this book?

Antarctic explorer 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.” After reading South, Shackleton’s own account of his disastrous attempt to cross the Antarctic continent, you’ll understand why Priestly would choose this brawny, charismatic adventurer over all others. Published in 1919, South is a chronicle of the events that unfolded on board, and then off-board, the Endurance between 1915-1917. Trapped by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, the 28-man crew had to abandon the ship after it was crushed and subsequently sank.

What follows are a series of events that strains credulity. From soccer games played on drifting ice floes and tragic deaths in service to the survival of others to one of the most iconic adventures of all time—Shackleton’s journey to Elephant Island and his efforts to save his men—South is an unforgettable Antarctic adventure.

Ice Bound

By Jerri Nielsen, Maryanne Vollers,

Book cover of Ice Bound

Why this book?

Icebound is not a literary masterpiece nor is it a tale of exploration. It is, however, an essential Antarctic text, not just for the personal account found in its pages, but also because of the controversy still raging among Antarctic veterans regarding the decision to extract the author from Antarctica during the polar winter. Dr. Jeri Nielsen was the doctor at South Pole Station during the 1998 season. Her account of the challenges of polar medicine (Superglue is an essential medical supply at 90 South) and the stories of warm relationships with support staff at the station are fascinating. But the real story here is the diagnosis she made of her own breast cancer, which became a global news story when she was evacuated from the base during a dangerous winter flight.

Typically, there are no flights to South Pole Station during the polar winter due to exceptionally dangerous conditions and the deadly risk to pilots. However, without an evac, and without access to cancer drugs, Nielsen’s life was at stake. The world watched as bureaucrats hemmed and hawed about whether to evacuate her. They eventually green-lit the evac, approving the flight to extract Nielsen, in order to allow her to begin cancer treatment. To this day, Pole veterans still argue about the ethics of this decision.

Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine

By Jason C. Anthony,

Book cover of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine

Why this book?

A gumbo of meat (often penguin), fat (typically blubber), and maybe some crushed-up biscuits, “hoosh” is the catch-all term used for meals of desperation cooked up and choked down by different historical expeditions, and it’s an apt title for Jason C. Anthony’s engaging and unique look at a slice of Antarctic living. Forget Shackleton’s heroics—what did he eat? How did early explorers survive on penguin eggs? Exactly how desperate does one have to be to eat seal brains? Why is baking at South Pole Station so difficult? Why was the Russian base Vostok stocked with so much vodka? (A question that probably answers itself.)

Anthony is a support staff veteran who has done a number of stints at various research stations on the seventh continent, and his wry narration—which weaves historical accounts with his own experiences—is great fun to read. I only encountered this book after South Pole Station was published, though I wish I’d read it sooner. If I had, I might’ve found a way to work in one of Anthony’s polar recipes.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Antarctica, female doctors, and explorers?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Antarctica, female doctors, and explorers.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Eothen, or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East, Scott's Last Journey, and The Coldest March if you like this list.