Wild winds whip and whine across the bleak arctic wasteland. Snow swirls and lashes against the jagged, razor-sharp mounds of ice, heaved up as high as seventy feet. The temperature is 60 degrees below zero.
Midnight! And yet the sun stands high in the sky, hidden by scudding clouds and blanketing snow. This is the polar region where cold, gray, frightening daylight holds sway for six months of the year. For the other half-year an even more terrifying black night covers the desolate reaches of snow and ice.
I was never a very brave or adventurous child and have become even less so as an adult. I’ve certainly never understood people who seek to test the outer limits of their physical abilities, even risking their lives and the lives of others for the sake of beating a record or “being first.” All the adventure I needed or wanted came out of reading books like Challenge of Ice. This is part of what I’ve always considered my father’s collection of childhood books, but looking inside the front cover, I discovered, written in a childish hand, my godfather’s name. So this book, at least, belonged to him, which is something I did not know before.
While I looked at a lot of nonfiction books as a kid, especially ones dealing with animals, space, or human anatomy, this is one of the few that I remember actually reading and comprehending. It definitely helped spark my interest in reading about the extremes of human endurance and the far reaches of exploration into places hostile to life. From glaciers to deserts to jungles to the depths of the sea to the outer reaches of space… all of that became deeply fascinating to me. And as I got older and discovered my grandparents’ stack of Reader’s Digest, I found new human extremes in surviving medical and health crises, terrorist attacks, and camping trips gone horribly wrong. But interest in reading those kinds of stories I think was seeded by reading Challenge of Ice and books like it around the age of seven or eight with a mixture of awe and horror.
Challenge of Ice collects in a narrative style that is almost like a string of short stories chronicling the trials and tribulations of different expeditions made to conquer the North and then South Poles. While there is a bit of a “Manifest Destiny” feel to the beginning of the book, it doesn’t diminish the amazing feats of physical endurance that this explorers underwent. It shares both the wins of men like , Commander Peary and Roald Amundsen, the terrible losses of Sir Franklin and Robert Scott, and the expeditions of Lieutenant Greely and General Nobile which technically succeeded, but at a terrible cost. The book charts a course through the late 1800s all the way to its present in 1963, from expeditions done by boat and dogsled to modern feats of airplanes flying over the South Pole and submarines going under and even surfacing at the North Pole. It ends on Camp Century, a military and research base established in Greenland by the United States and the bizarre juxtaposition of comfort within the base and certain death that lies outside its carefully constructed walls.
So if nonfiction written in a narrative style appeals to you, Challenge of Ice is a decent (if terrifying) primer into the perils of exploration at the extreme reaches of Earth.