Eleven decades ago there were still places on Earth unseen by human eyes. The previous centuries had brought Europeans to every habitable — and profitable — location on the globe. A few remote realms, however, remained unreached. For those seeking glory for themselves and their nations, the last places left to behold offered little to plunder and colonize; and the only reason to go to them was to be the first. The Age of Exploration was drawing to its inevitable close, and the final races were on.

1909 was a climactic year for great accomplishments at the global extremes, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Edward J. Larson tells us in his history of that year’s events, “To the Edges of the Earth.” It was the year attempts were made at the North and South poles as well as the third pole of altitude. Only one of the objectives was claimed to have been met, and there is considerable reason to doubt that story. But along the way the limits of human endurance were redefined and the world became smaller by dint of human endeavor.

Larson weaves three separate accounts here of excursions that took place during that fateful calendar year. Most famous, of course, is Robert Peary and Matthew Henson’s claim of being first to the North Pole. Less well known is a run toward the South Pole by Ernest Shackleton that came just 100 miles shy. On this same expedition to Antarctica, a second team that included Australians Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson reached the south magnetic pole. Meanwhile, in the Karakoram Mountains, Italian Luigi Amedeo, the Duke of Abruzzi of the House of Savoy, launched the first attempt at standing atop K2, the second highest peak on Earth.

Larson places the three journeys in the broader context of Western culture at the dawn of the 20th century. It was the tail end of the Gilded Age, he explains, when optimism about the limitless capacities of human beings was at its peak. A rapidly urbanizing public, meanwhile, was inexorably drawn to stories of adventure that could assuage fears that men were growing soft as they shifted from hard labor to office jobs. It was also the dawn of global mass media, with newspapers engaged in brutal contests to outsell each other, making accounts of exploration a key subject for attracting readers. And so, even though reaching poles and peaks served no economic value for nations, doing so was a source of patriotic pride for an adventurer’s countrymen.

Larson explores the character and motivations of each of the central figures. The North Pole had been an object of European fascination since antiquity, and a goal of explorers throughout much of the 19th century. But it was the American Peary who made reaching it his life’s work. Singularly driven to make his mark on history, Peary had sought the Pole for decades, and by 1909, then in his 50s, knew he had one last chance.

Shackleton, meanwhile, had been part of previous attempt on the South Pole and was similarly consumed by the quest for glory. But where Peary let nothing take second place to his ego, Shackleton was tempered by a leadership ability that thrived under intense pressure, leading him to make wise decisions and earn the respect of his men, something Peary rarely knew. The Australian geologist David, meanwhile, was an accomplished explorer who nonetheless usually refused to place himself above others. And when David’s abilities faltered due to age and exhaustion, his student Mawson rose to the occasion.

Amedeo was perhaps the hardest to know. In contrast to Peary and Shackleton, he neither wrote much of his experiences nor took his stories to the media. Exorbitantly wealthy, he could mostly do as he wished, and he mostly wished to climb mountains. Prior to his attempt at K2 he had already scaled many of the Alps and had led an expedition into Africa, where he claimed 11 first ascents in Uganda. What does seem apparent is that he was calm and steady, with the instinct to know when to turn back, to this day the most important skill a climber can possess if he or she wishes to reach old age.

In a fast paced and eloquent narrative, Larson tells the stories of each of these men as they endure hardships of cold, ice, crevasses, open leads in Peary’s case and, for the men in Antarctica, near starvation.

Peary does not fare well in this book. Ruthless and racist, he used his cohorts and sent them away. Accompanied only by a pair of Inuit and Henson, the first black polar explorer, Peary later emphasized that he was the first white man to reach the Pole, virtually ignoring the others. And he returned to face Frederick Cook’s fraudulent claim of having beaten him, as well as suspicions that he faked it as well (a belief that has only grown stronger with time).

Shackleton emerges as flawed (among other mistakes, he ignored advice from polar veteran Fridtjof Nansen to clothe his men in furs), yet he still kept a cool head when survival grew doubtful, a talent that would serve him well a few years later when he led the crew of the Endurance to safety and earned his now legendary status.

Amedeo was unwilling to risk lives to reach the summit of K2, turning back and settling for the nearby 25,000 foot Chogolisa, but still reaching the highest elevation of any climber at the time and contributing important knowledge about human survival at high altitude.

Larson evokes an era when such exploits thrilled the world. But beyond being firsts, even he admits these feats “gained value only by the meaning people attached to them.” And in half a decade, the buzzsaw of World War I would obliterate what meaning they held as European and American optimism about human potential died in the trenches. 1909 was a glorious year for adventurers, but the shine of their accomplishments was short lived.

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

“To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration”

By Edward J. Larson

William Morrow


352 pages