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BOOK REVIEW: THE BEST EXPLORATION BOOKS OF 2011

Published: The Scotsman (Books) 10 December 2011

INEVITABLY perhaps, given that the winter of 2011/12 marks the centenary of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated trek to the South Pole, it’s been a busy year for books about polar exploration. We didn’t just get re-releases of existing material in fancy new dust jackets either but at least one genuine treasure trove of new material in the form of The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott, (Little Brown, £30). These 109 images, taken by Scott in 1911, spent much of the last century gathering dust in a photo agency archive and were only recently rediscovered. In the main, they aren’t anywhere near as accomplished as the pictures taken by the Terra Nova expedition’s official photographer Herbert Ponting.

Ponting was a pro and Scott was little more than an enthusiastic amateur. However, although Ponting was involved in the early stages of the expedition and taught Scott and others the basics of photography, he was not among the men selected for the gruelling final assault on the Pole, so Scott’s pictures give us unique glimpses of the long trudge south. His shots of men and ponies disappearing into the icy vastness are undeniably dramatic, but it’s the more prosaic camp photos that really grab the attention. Nothing brings the exploits of these men more vividly to life than a picture of thick woollen socks and mittens hanging out to dry on a makeshift washing line. Two years before Scott and Co began their slog across the ice, Sir Ernest Shackleton led his Nimrod expedition to what was then the “Furthest South”, just 97 miles short of the Pole. In the winter of 2008/9, a three-man team set out to recreate the journey and, remarkably, in spite of some serious setbacks, they managed to reach the point at which Shackleton was forced to head for home exactly a century on to the day.

Soldier Henry Worsley, a descendant of Shackleton’s skipper Frank Worsley, undertook the journey with the great man’s great-nephew Will Gow and Henry Adams, great-grandson of Shackleton’s Number Two Jameson Boyd-Adams. In his very readable book, In Shackleton’s Footsteps: A Return to the Heart of the Antarctic (Virgin, £18.99), Worsley tells the story of their exploits at a cracking pace, yet also finds time to give a sense of the mental fortitude necessary to plod for days on end.

Books like those by Worsley and Wilson, which focus on the epic sledge-hauling achievements of Scott and Shackleton, can give the misleading impression that Antarctica is entirely flat and featureless. True, much of the continent fits that description, but Edmund Stump’s stunning book The Roof at the Bottom of the World (Yale University Press, £25) redresses the balance somewhat by focusing on the Transantarctic Mountains – the range that forms a mighty, dog-legged barrier to the north and east of the Pole. Stump is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, specialising in the geology of these mountains, and also an avid photographer. Over the course of his many scientific forays to the area he has amassed a library of more than 8,000 photographs and the best are presented here, alongside the stories of the men who first pioneered this most mysterious of mountain ranges, and maps of the routes described.

Polar exploration may have been all the rage in the early 20th century, but in the latter half of the 19th the world was obsessed with a very different geographical puzzle: locating the source of the Nile. In his book Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and the Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (Faber and Faber, £25), Tim Jeal sets out to re-assess the achievements of five key explorers, Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, Samuel Baker, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, doing much to renovate the damaged reputation of Speke at the expense of the flamboyant Burton.

Another explorer who had his reputation overhauled this year was the Scottish chemist and mountaineer Alexander Kellas, subject of Ian R Mitchell and George W Rodway’s book, Prelude to Everest (Luath Press Ltd , £20). On 14 June 1911 (just as Scott and his men were preparing to take on the South Pole) Kellas made history by scaling the 7,128m (23,386ft) peak of Pauhunri in the Eastern Himalayas – it was a world record at the time, and for almost two decades nobody climbed a higher mountain. Kellas also did important research into high altitude physiology, correctly predicting that one day men would climb to the summit of Everest without the use of supplementary oxygen. Somehow, his name slipped from the pantheon of mountaineering greats in the years following his death on the first British Everest expedition in 1921, but Mitchell (a historian) and Rodway (an expert in extreme environment medicine) argue convincingly that he deserves his place alongside such household names as George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.

Closer to home, 2011 saw the publication of three excellent books concerning the Cairngorms. It’s a Fine Day for the Hill, (Paragon, £29.99) by the world-renowned ecologist and mountaineer Adam Watson, is full of richly-detailed anecdotes from his formative years as a Turriff lad with a yen for the Ben. Not all of the stories take place in the Cairngorms, but the ones that do – notably the account of a 30-mile ski from Gaick to Luibeg in April 1951 – speak of a deep-rooted connection to place that must surely have informed much of his later work as a scientist. A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms, (Frances Lincoln, £16.99) by Chris Townsend, consists of a wonderful selection of the writer and long-distance walker’s photographs of these very special hills as they change with the shifting seasons, while in The East Highland Way (Sleepers Hill Publications, £11.95) Kevin Langan sets out to establish a new 78-mile hiking route from Fort William to Aviemore, linking the already popular trails of the West Highland Way and the Speyside Way and affording stunning views of the Cairngorms in its final stages.

It’s been a good year for fans of aquatic adventure, too. Beneath the Black Water, (History Press Ltd, £14.99) by Jon Berry, details the author’s endearingly unhinged hunt for giant ferox trout in some of Scotland’s more remote lochs; Rod Macdonald’s diving book The Darkness Below (Whittles, £18.99) contains a spellbinding account of his journey to the heart of the Corryvreckan whirlpool; and finally Chris Nelson’s lavishly-illustrated Cold Water Souls (Footprint Travel Guides, £24.99) tells the story of how recent improvements in wetsuit technology have allowed the sport of surfing to spread from its roots in Hawaii and California to chillier latitudes, from Canada and Japan to Iceland and – yes – even here in Scotland.

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