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Book Review: Near Death In The Arctic: True Stories Of Disaster And Survival Edited by Cecil Kuhne

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Cecil Kuhne continues his Near Death anthology series with …In The Arctic, a collection of fascinating tales that finds adventurers and explorers traveling to the figurative ends of the Earth.

The book’s foreword is taken from 1992’s Polar Dream by Helen Thayer, the first woman to travel solo to the magnetic North Pole. The excerpt throws the reader right into the harsh elements as she and her dog get caught in a savage storm. Hours later when she can assess her situation, she finds the wind ripped her tent, absconded with days’ worth of food, and left her face and eyes bloodied.

Valerian Albanov’s advice that “One should not poke one’s nose into places where Nature does not want it” from the appropriately titled In the Land of White Death, his account of the three-month journey across the Siberian Arctic in 1913 or 1914 after being trapped for almost 18 months on the ice-locked Saint Anna, proves wise though none whose exploits are documented here took his advice.

The reason why is best explained by Lennard Bickell in Mawson’s Will about Douglas Mawson’s expedition of Antarctica, which he organized after declining Robert Falcon Scott’s offer in 1910. Bickell writes, “Succinctly, clearly, the frozen continent said This is no place for man! Yet because it erected such barriers, the continent was spiced with the temptations of discovery and challenge.” However, high rewards usually have high prices, and death is not just near but right upon Mawson’s group as Belgarve Ninnis plunges into a crevasse. Bickell’s description of the moment would be fitting in a horror novel:

“The fine snow choked his eyes, ears, and throat, and he did not hear his own smothered death cry. Down in cold blackness, 150 feet down, his falling body smashed into a projecting ledge of ironclad ice. With the shattered remains of his sledge, with the doomed dogs, Belgrave Ninnis plunged deeper and deeper into the abyss.”

The best aspect of …In The Arctic, as opposed to the other books in the series, is seeing history from multiple viewpoints and the connections between the men. In the race to the South Pole, Captain Roald Amundsen was the victor and rightly used it as the title of his book. On the Fram, which contributor Dr. Fridtjof Nansen used almost 20 years earlier attempting to reach the North Pole in 1893, Amundsen had planned to go to the North Pole in 1910 until he heard Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, whose account we get in The North Pole, had beaten him. Although some historians now dispute both claims, Amundsen changed course and headed south, beating Scott by 35 days. Amundsen left a note for him among supplies left behind.

Scott’s Antarctica expedition ended tragically as he and the members of his team who journeyed to the pole never returned. The excerpt from his journal made clear that they knew “the end cannot be far.” Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a part of Scott’s expedition, which was dubbed The Worst Journey in the World, and the search party that discovered their remains. Cherry-Garrard not only mentions the impact Amundsen had, but uses passages from South Pole.

Another member of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is Ernest Shackleton. His attempt “to be the first to cross the south polar continent from sea to sea” ended with the Endurance breaking apart due to damage from ice. Shackleton and five people took a lifeboat to South Georgia Island for help for the remainder of the team. The ship’s captain, Frank Arthur Worsley, was one of the five. They describe different parts of the adventure.

The book is filled with other stories, none spookier then the intense isolation experienced by Admiral Richard E Byrd in 1934 who spent five months alone at the South Pole Advance Base meteorological station, and David Lewis in a selection that could have been in the …On The High Seas as he became the first to sail around Antarctica in 1972 on Ice Bird.

After reading these harrowing tales, I find myself in complete concurrence with editor Kuhne who states, “the globe’s apexes are best observed from the relative comfort of the pages related here.” Make sure to dress warm when you cuddle up with this one, as you may feel an inexplicable chill no matter what your surroundings.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS