Matthew Price, writer and book critic
South with the Sun: Amundsen at the South Pole
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe , October 23, 2011

SOUTH WITH THE SUN: Roald Amundsen, His Polar Exploration, and the Quest for Discovery By Lynne Cox

Knopf. 291 pp, $26

One hundred years ago this month, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen set off from his base camp in Antarctica for the South Pole, which he reached in December. First to the Pole - he beat his English rival Robert Falcon Scott by several weeks - Amundsen successfully completed what Roland Huntford, the great historian of polar exploration, calls “the last classic journey of terrestrial discovery.’’

Amundsen’s feat was a triumph of technique, planning, and tenacity; men, skis, and sled dogs working in harmony across the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. A man of finely calibrated temperament, Amundsen left nothing to chance. He was exacting about every detail: “If we are to win,’’ he told his men as they prepared their gear, “not a trouser button must be missing.’’ Such meticulousness was only one reason why Amundsen and his team made it to the Pole and back (a 1,400-mile round-trip) with nary a scratch.

His journeys - he was also the first to sail through the treacherous ice pack of the Northwest Passage - have inspired the writer and extreme swimmer Lynne Cox to write “South with the Sun.’’ Timed to mark the centenary of Amundsen’s achievement, this trite and puzzling book is about Amundsen largely in name only. The subtitle - Roald Amundsen, His Polar Exploration and the Quest for Discovery’’ - is grotesquely misleading. While Cox, author of “Swimming to Antarctica,’’ provides superficial accounts of Amundsen’s expeditions, her book is really a memoir attached to the achievements of someone else.

For Cox, Amundsen’s travels serve as an airy metaphor for any physical or mental challenge. But she reduces his example to nostrums so saccharine they would shame a Hallmark card writer. “We are all explorers,’’ she writes, “trying things we have never done before, entering into the unknown of our lives.’’ Or, “Anyone who does anything of significance faces obstacles.’’

Following Amundsen’s journey through the Northwest Passage, Cox makes her way to Greenland and Arctic Canada, where she swims in frigid seas. (Cox herself did not go to Antarctica; a planned trip did not come off for logistical reasons, which she recounts in tedious detail.) “I wanted to write about him and compare his journey with mine, which would be about hundred years later,’’ she tells us. “But there was more to it. I wanted to see how far I could go, try something that caused me to reach further and explore the inner and outer worlds of what a human being could achieve.’’


In these sections, her prose sputters occasionally to life. Swimming off Baffin Island, dodging blocks of ice as she wills her way through 28-degree water, Cox observes how “the supernatural Arctic sun saturated the sound and made the water resonate with energy waves. The sea became fire blue and searing cold.’’ Yet such moments are all too rare here.

Cox’s experiences - she has swum the Bering Strait and the English Channel - are not uninteresting; it’s just that the way she shapes her material is maddening. She is a compulsive name-dropper and is forever calling in favors. She meets with the publisher of The New York Times, among others, a fellow arctic maven. Cox knows a lot of people. But her travel dilemmas and other worries, which include Greenland sharks and jellyfish, pale in comparison with the obstacles Amundsen faced on his dash to the South Pole. Her swims are highly controlled events; minders follow her every move. Amundsen had no backup, no margin for error, which makes his accomplishment all the more remarkable.

The chapters on Amundsen are primer-like, but offer no new reflections on the meaning of his exploits. Cox does succeed, however, in tracing the link between today’s Arctic missions and those of Amundsen. The link is aviation. For all his technical mastery, Amundsen’s scramble to the South Pole was an antique venture; after 1911, the future lay with the airplane. Amundsen conceded the fact: “The old order is changing. Aircraft is the new vehicle for exploration. It is the only machine that can beat the Antarctic.’’ Cox meets up with members of the US Air Force’s 109th Airlift Wing, which provides support to polar scientific missions. Landing a plane on the Antarctic ice cap can be an ordeal; ice, wind, and snow can present fiendish obstacles. GPS and sophisticated satellites are useless at the pole - like Amundsen, Cox notes, pilots still have to navigate by sextant.

“South with the Sun’’ is a missed opportunity. Cox is as worshipful as any apostle, but she never grapples with a central question of the coming centenary. That question is this: Why does the death of Scott, who perished on his return leg from starvation and exposure, echo more loudly through the ages than the triumph of Amundsen? Scott, a damn fool, did nearly everything wrong; yet a kind of heroism radiates from his failure. Amundsen was merely a success.

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