Today marks the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen becoming the first person to reach the South Pole.
Arriving on December 14, 1911, he beat British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, by a month, but the value of his accomplishment is, to this day, hotly disputed. Sure, Amundsen got to the pole first, say the Brits, but Scott was slowed down because he was gathering scientific data along the way. But Scott wasn’t a real polar expert and was merely following Shackleton’s earlier routes, say the Norwegians.
You say tomato…
Regardless, the 100th anniversary has turned the South Pole into one hot tourist destination (not literally, of course). Being a lover of polar history, I’ve had my Google alerts for the date set for months and have read with bated breath each web posting about who is attempting to cross Antarctica on land by herself and which mother trained in the freezer to prepare herself for her trip to the Pole.
Although such brave adventurers reap the benefits of modern technology (Felicity Aston, for example, is keeping her followers abreast of her progress via Twitter), such bravery at the ends of the earth isn’t new.
Polar history is rife with stories of heroism and courage. Being one of the more formidable places on earth, how could it not be? The mean annual temperature in Antarctica is -70F . The average wind speeds are measured on three levels–below -100 and above -75. The continent boasts almost no vegetation and only a few species of wildlife, most of which inhabit only the coastal areas. Any person crazy enough to venture there has to be made of extraordinary grit.
Today, with all eyes on the Pole, I turn my own attention to those who went before the Gortex and Northface-clad folk who follow a well-marked path with plenty of hot-cocoa breaks along the way. I think of Byrd, wintering alone in an underground shack, who was almost killed by a carbon monoxide leak in his stove’s chimney. I think of the men sleeping on shifting seas when the ground cracked open, dropping one unsuspecting crew member into the open ocean. I think of Ernest Shackleton who, without hesitation, reached down into the frigid water and pulled the man (sleeping bag and all) out of the frigid water just before the ice slammed back together again. I think of men sleeping in the bowels of a tiny boat, in nothing more than a wet (and disintegrating) fur sleeping bag, hoping beyond hope to find a tiny speck of an island in a huge freezing ocean, the only hope of saving the sailors they’d left behind on the mainland, praying for rescue.
Have you ever wondered how people with such pluck got to the point where they were able to pull off such almost-inhuman feats? I do, and sitting on the couch watching Hogan’s Heroes reruns ain’t it. We’re spoiled in this day, thinking that if Pizza Hut takes more than three rings to pick up their phones, we’re being deprived. It makes me wonder how the explorers of tomorrow are living their lives today. Do they sit in 71-degree rooms waiting for their mothers to deliver their mac and cheese or are they outside, facing the elements, working a callous or two into their fingers? Do our kids know how to do without? Do our children have what it takes to go through extreme discomfort if their life’s pursuits (or life’s curveballs) require such a thing? Who is raising today tomorrow’s men (and women) of grit?
I hope I am. And I hope you are, too. Giving our children a comfortable life is well and good, but reading about those who, amid terrible suffering, conquered the hinter parts of the world, I’m convinced a comfortable life is not all we need to give our children. Since we never know when our children (or we ourselves, for that matter) are going to need some inner fortitude in order to survive, we would be wise to give them opportunities where they are forced to try to find–or develop–some.
Which reminds me, I’ve got to go get the beasts off the couch, turn down the heat, and have somebody cook us something over an open fire.