The quest to explore unknown regions and better understand the world is at once timeless and fraught with daunting challenges. Complicating the explorers’ motivations and their financiers are the competitive instinct to be the first to reach a given region as well as claiming the economic benefits for one’s nation.
We’ll focus on the Age of Exploration, which began with British explorer James Cook’s goal of mapping the southern region of the world, which resulted in a fundamental revision of what constituted that part of the earth. Before his second voyage to the region (1772-75) the consensus was that the entire Southern hemisphere was dominated by a landmass known as Terra Australis. Although massive ice flows prevented him from reaching the Antarctic, he determined the landmass theory was a universally accepted myth.
After a hiatus of several decades, between 1819 and 1843, a number of explorers were determined to map the southern region. Prominent among them was James Clark Ross, who in 1841 was in command of the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror when he discovered Victoria Land, a part of Antarctica.
However, demonstrating the extreme risks associated with such voyages, in 1845 the same two ships under the command of Sir John Franklin endeavored to map the last unnavigated portion of the Northwest Passage. The ships became icebound in the Victoria Strait, and all 129 men, including Franklin, perished. It was Ross who was sent to locate Franklin, a fruitless pursuit. A fascinating PBS special titled “Arctic Ghost Ship” details Franklin’s aspirations, the ships’ perils, and tragic end.
We segue to one of the great explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who began his work under Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose party set a record in 1904 on a land journey, reaching 82 degrees south. Several years later Shackleton came within 112 statute miles of the South Pole.
But it was the steely Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who ultimately claimed the prize in 1911, which made him the first to reach both poles. Unlike his British competitors, Amundsen preferred the lighter Inuit-styled furred skins as opposed to wool, and his men set up strategic supply depots which sustained his team. In addition, he planned to slaughter and eat his sled dogs along the way, which predictably shocked British sensibilities.
To highlight the role ego plays, after Amundsen’s triumph, Shackleton was determined to cross the Antarctic, sea to sea, traversing through the pole. His seminal voyage in his ship Endurance (1914-18) has become a legendary story of exemplary leadership. With his ship trapped in pack ice and being slowly crushed, the crew camped on sea ice and then launched ill-suited lifeboats to make the 720 nautical miles trip to Elephant Island, and ultimately south Georgia. Remarkably, he didn’t lose one man. His enduring legacy and efforts in extremely dire circumstances was captured in the gripping book by Alfred Lansing, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.”
Although exploration and the competitive instinct are often intertwined, in the case of those wishing to scale the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, the personal triumph is often the motivation. On his third attempt in 1924, George Mallory and his companion, Andrew Irving, were last seen 800 vertical feet from the summit when they disappeared into the clouds. It’s unclear whether they were successful. Mallory’s sun-bleached, frozen and mummified body was found in 1999.
But all of these compelling stories make us question why people are willing to risk their lives under absolutely brutal circumstances. It comes down to the will to prevail, and the desire for better understanding, of both our world and of ourselves.
Philip Mella serves on the 4th Judicial District Nominating Commission and is a health care administrator with a passion for history, politics and the written word. He also served on the Woodland Park City Council for seven years. Email Philip at firstname.lastname@example.org.