Transcend The Heat

Antarctic landscape at Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica, 4-24-01
This commentary was written by'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.