A Century of Polar Exploration

(Photograph courtsey of Martin Hartley)

Robert Peary, the American explorer, claimed he reached the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909. Although the claim was disputed, the fact they survived at all in such an incredibly hostile and harsh environment is testament to man’s thirst for exploration, for knowledge, and for pushing the human body to the limits. Peary was a smart guy. He had carefully studied Innuit techniques and clothing and replicated them where possible and it served him very well, well, except for losing eight fingers. And by a long shot, that’s not the most remarkable survival story, but we’ll come onto poor Douglas Mawson later…

Peary’s dog-sled expeditions were part of a burgeoning interest in polar exploration that besotted the world at the turn of the 20th century. Ever since Sir James Clark Ross returned from the frozen seas of Antarctica in the 1840s, having mapped sizable portions of the continent, the lust for polar exploration has never abated. Even in these days of satellite communication and advanced aviation, man has never, and likely never will, tame the polar regions. Records continue to be broken, new Antarctic peaks summited, and some feats are still beyond our grasp: a winter crossing of Antarctica for example.

One man who knows acutely the environment of the polar regions is Montane-sponsored Martin Hartley, a photographer who specialises in the challenges of the Arctic. “The main attraction is the huge combination of cold and time pressure the Arctic Ocean environment puts on a photographer.”

(Photo courtsey of Ann Daniels) 

It was commerce, inevitably, that first funded the expeditions in the north. The search for the elusive Northwest and Northeast Passages had been a priority for European nations looking for ways to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans since it was first attempted by John Cabot in 1497. It was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who first broke through the Northwest Passage in 1906. By the time Peary made his attempt on the North Pole, it was scientific endeavour that that drove polar exploration, well that and a hefty dose of competition. It most spectacularly manifested itself in the race to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott in 1926. The Norwegians beat the British by 34 days, and Scott and five of his men perished on the return journey, just 11 miles from safety.

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s well-documented story of survival while attempting to cross Antarctica is one of the era’s most compelling tales. But Douglas Mawson’s story, often forgotten in the UK at least, sums up the brutality of polar exploration. Perhaps because the Yorkshire-born Australian geologist wasn’t out to get the big prize, to become the first or the fastest, but for genuinely scientific study. Mawson, after turning down Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. He was part of a three-man sledging team to map the eastern coastline. Five weeks into their journey and 300 miles away from their base, Belgrave Ninnis fell into a vast crevasse taking much of their supplies with him to his frozen grave. Along with Xavier Mertz, Mawson decided to return immediately with only a week’s worth of food and none for the dogs and no tent. On a diet of dog (“their meat was stringy, tough and without a vestige of fat”), they plodded on. Mertz slowly went mad, not helped by the toxicity of Husky liver and he died. Alone, Mawson continued the last 100 miles having had to strap the soles of his feet on with rags, only to watch his ship sail away. He had missed his ride home by five hours. He spent the next winter in Antarctica with the six men who were left to look for their leader. He died in 1958, aged 76, having served in World War I, returned to Antarctica, and a quiet life of teaching in South Australia.

In what is known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, the names Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and Mawson resonate, but so do the names of modern explorers: Ranulph Fiennes is the first person to reach both poles and the first person to cross Antarctica on foot, the longest unsupported polar journey in history. And then there’s the remarkable Ann Barcroft who became the first woman to reach the North Pole on a doglsed, and the first to cross both ice caps.

“From a psychological, physiological and equipment point of view the Arctic Ocean environment is, I believe, the most difficult environment to take photographs on Earth,” Martin Hartley told Montane. “Having been exposed to desert, jungle, alpine, Antarctic and Himalayan environments I do feel it is safe to say that.”

(The Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra, Photo by Yann Besrest-Butler)
Montane has always had a keen interest in the polar regions right from our beginnings in 1993. We’ve been inspired, created clothing and supported numerous expeditions such as the Catlin Arctic Survey. Supported the world’s leading arctic photographers and explorers, including Martin Hartley and Montane also sponsors the world’s coldest race, the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra which has temperatures of -40°C.

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