Most Brits (certainly older ones) are familiar with the heroic and ultimately fateful endeavours of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team. They lost the race to be the first to the South Pole, beaten by less than 5 weeks by Norwegian, Roald Amundsen’s party. In a sense Amundsen and his party set the first of the long-distance polar records.
Nonetheless Scott was hailed as a hero, at least within the UK. A proud nation erected memorials in his honour, and family members and survivors rewarded. In the eyes of British high society Scott and his team represented the values of the British empire – adventure, daring, bravery, verve and leadership. Reality was different. Although his legacy has since been questioned, the fact remains that exploration and feats of endurance are held up as a matter of national and personal honour.
As more and more of the world has been reached, national endeavour now focusses beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Instead it is now individuals who look for eye-catching adventure, none more so than in Polar regions. The “first”, the “youngest”, the “fastest”, the “whatever” person to achieve an objective transfixes the media and helps find content for it. The media rarely explores how noteworthy each objective really is. It rarely discerns the motivation behind the achievement.
I remember reading media reports earlier this year about the achievement of a so-called record – the first unassisted crossing of Antarctica. A race between an American, Colin O’Brady, and a Brit, Henry Rudd, gripped the tabloids. Two years before their “crossing”, another heroic failure by a Brit had occurred. Then, tragically, Henry Worsley died in a Chilean hospital. He had been taken ill whilst attempting a similar route to that of O’Brady and Rudd. He was just 120 miles or so from completing his crossing when ALE had to rescue him and transport him back to South America. So the “record” remained for the taking.
O’Brady beat Rudd and so “won” the race and set a “world first”. His PR machine went into overdrive. The media and his sponsors feted him. He had achieved “An Impossible First”.
That claim very much diminished much more worthy efforts such as that of Borge Ousland. Borge Ousland’s 1997 solo crossing was almost double the distance of O’Brady’s effort as shown by this map.
I then remember reading the article by Damian Gildea on the Explorersweb site, an excoriating critique of O’Brady’s claims. It also summarised the history of long distance travel in Antarctica and how people have sought to define their achievements in aid of glory and commercial gain. You will find the article via this link.
More recently experienced polar guides, Christoph Höbenreich and Eric Philips, have tried to make sense of what is going on. They ask the questions “What is still a pioneering achievement? Something never attempted? A risky adventure at the edge of the impossible? An extreme sporting challenge? And which among them are mock adventures?”. In so doing they seek to develop a classification system to describe what these trips actually involve.
They have published a series of blogs entitled “Circus Antarctica” to explore these issues, the first of which is here.
The blogs are well worth reading. You can then make your own assessment. Is the publicity spun by adventurers to polar regions and are their “polar records” really all that they claim to be? In the first of the blogs there is also a link to a good National Geographic article from earlier this year. This article discusses the O’Brady claims.