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Transcend The Heat

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

I'm on plane from Las Vegas, where it was a mild 99 degrees, to Washington, where it was 102, and even hotter if you ventured near Congressional hot air.

While these are not tolerable conditions for featherless bipeds to flourish in, warming up the globe is now the policy of our elected president and so, I suppose, that must be the preference of all of us superpower dwellers. So we had better suck it up, get used to it, and quit all the griping.

Here's my best coping mechanism: polar exploration.

No, I'm not going to the South Pole. As much as that is my dream, I must heed the call of 401(k)s to feed, carpools to drive, soccer games to coach and garbage to take out on Tuesday nights. While others guide teams of huskies over the ice ridges of the Ross Shelf, my fate is to schlep.

Even so, I can read.

When I'm sweltering to catch a breath in the humid Hades of August in Washington, I like to read about polar exploration, especially the South Pole. It cools me off. Proper polar reading also cures most cases of the blues, existential self-pity and general feelings of puniness in the face of destiny.

So if you're thinking of grabbing some books for an August vacation on our sizzling continent, I'd like to offer a few suggestions.

There are two indispensable starters.

The ultimate polar adventure book, the one that can get you hooked, is "Endurance" by Alfred Lansing. It is a narrative account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's attempt in 1914 to lead the first expedition to cross the entire Antarctic continent.

Shackleton never got to start the journey. His ship, the Endurance, was trapped and then devoured by the ice, stranding the crew in the most desolate, cruel conditions imaginable. Lansing's account of what happened next is the most addictive read there is — a story that has lingered in my imagination for decades and that is a knowing secret between a select group of relatives and polar friends.

The heroic deed Shackleton truly lusted after, however, was to discover the magnetic South Pole. He lost that race. A riveting, masterful account of that quest is Roland Huntford's "The Last Place on Earth."

Huntford tells the story of the showdown between Roald Amundsen of Norway and the Briton who hoped to beat him — Robert Falcon Scott — as the explorers raced to be the first to arrive at the South Pole in the winter of 1912.

Amundsen meticulously studied the survival techniques and dog-handling skills of North American Eskimos as well as the cross-country skiing tricks of his fellow Norwegians. Scott relied on English grit and a stiff upper lip.

Guess who won? Some Brits haven't forgiven Huntford for his portrait of their beloved tragic hero. But Huntford's account of the details of early 20th century polar exploration are mesmerizing. The BBC made a fine series — which is still available — based on Huntford's story, but the video is a poor substitute for the book.

From that literary base camp, you can follow trails of icy whims and curiosities in many directions.

There is a huge literature about Scott. Scott's own diaries are available but are, well, tough sledding. A member of the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, wrote a classic account called "The Worst Journey in the World." It is very long and detailed, perhaps best for connoisseurs.

For those who prefer fiction, Beryl Bainbridge's "The Birthday Boys" is a tender, plausible imaging of Scott's final expedition. I'm looking forward to taking to the beach this year a concise account of the Scott expedition by Diana Preston called "A First Rate Tragedy."

Shackleton has acquired a cultish following in recent years and there a many great books on his exploits. One of his crew on the Endurance, Frank Worsley, wrote a wonderful account called "Shackleton's Boat Journey." It's almost as good as Lansing's "Endurance." Huntford has written a good biography of Shackleton.

Shackleton's plan called for a whole other expedition to go to the other side of Antarctica from where he was to lay in depots of food and supplies for Shackleton's team. The first harrowing, detailed account of that futile, ill-fated but quietly heroic mission came out just this year. It's called "The Lost Men" by Kelly Tyler-Lewis and it's terrific.

Next on my Shackleton list is "Shackleton's Forgotten Expedition" the story of his earlier attempt to reach the South Pole by Beau Riffenburgh.

In 1990, an expedition tried to do what Shackleton couldn't, cross Antarctica by foot. That story is well told by Will Steger and Jon Bowermaster in "Crossing Antarctica."

Another classic of polar adventure, but of a different sort, is "Alone" by Richard Byrd. In 1933, with few "firsts" remaining in polar exploration, Byrd decided he would be the first to weather a winter in Antarctica solo. It is the stuff of escapist, Thoreau-esque fantasy until a broken stove oozing hidden carbon monoxide turns adventure into nightmare.

To my mind, there's nothing like a little frostbite, some rancid seal meat and a tin of pemmican to take the sweltering edge out of August and to make hours at the beach fly by. Mush to the nearest bookstore.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com.

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By Dick Meyer