Sunday, November 25, 2012

To the End of the Earth

Title: To the End of the Earth: Our Epic Journey to the North Pole and the Legend of Peary and Henson
Author: Tom Avery
Year: 2009
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir/history
Rating: 2

Foolhardiness often overlaps with bravery. Oftentimes, it's not until after the success that we dub it as brave; the most famous accomplishments were often accused of being ludicrous when they were first proposed. From the top of Everest to the bottom of the ocean's trenches, we are constantly encroaching on that legendary phrase-- "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
Tom Avery has dedicated his life to doing just that. In his young life, Avery has made expeditions to both poles, in the Andes, to a remote mountain range in Kyrgystan (don't ask me to find that one on a map) and various other places on earth. What's most interesting about these trips is not that he has done so many, but that he survived them at all. Some people might call him an adrenaline junkie for his numerous, at times reckless, brushes with death. In his 2009 memoir To The Ends of the Earth, Avery recounts dozens of moments where he thought he might have just missed the mark and sentenced his team to death on his daring expedition to the North Pole.
The adventure wasn't a passing fancy. After returning from his 2002 pursuit to the South Pole, Avery was surprised by an offer of sponsorship for his next trek, which he decided on the spot would be to the North Pole. Over the next two years before the actual trip took place, he would discover how monumental that idea actually was. The simple reason is that the North Pole is in the middle of an enormous, malevolent, frozen ocean, and Avery wanted to sled there. On foot.
The subtitle of the book alludes to a 100 year old mystery, the voyage of Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the North Pole by dogsled in 37 days. Upon his return, his claim was decried by the arctic exploration community as ridiculous, impossible, and false. For a man who had forever held aspirations of reaching the Pole, this was a crushing blow, and to this day Peary's assertion is doubted.
 With his 2005 expedition, Avery's goal was to prove once and for all that Peary was telling the truth. The most difficult part of organizing the mission was to recreate Peary's exploration team, composed of the nearly-extinct Eskimo dog (no, not a husky, an Eskimo dog) and two turn-of-the-century sleds. Not only did he want to do this whole 413-mile trek with 5 people and 16 dogs, he wanted to make the entire run in 37 days. To any onlooker, Avery was asking for death.
His memoir of the trip is gripping, with an expert's wry sense of humor. Readers come to know each of the dogs' names as well as the explorers do, to laugh at the little anecdotes of their antics, and to feel their pain as they struggle for life on the hostile plains of the Arctic. The explorers themselves keep a friendly, co-dependent dynamic, companions in this strange world where no man has ever lived.
We also come to know the landscape as well as Avery did, with his ardent descriptions of what could only be described as an icy wasteland. To him, it is a wonderland, and that love is communicated in his writing. As the book progresses and the conditions grow more desperate, we see that love grow briefer and more passing, but never entirely fades: here is a man obsessed, and come face to face with his deepest passion. No matter the hardships, Tom Avery pursues the poles, and that in itself is admirable, albeit the daredevil nature of his exploits.
Structurally, To the End of the Earth flows very easily, the history intermittent with the narrative, creating one cohesive story, in the purest sense of the word. Avery has even reconstructed dialogue between himself and his companions, which lends the book a feeling of personality rather than a dry historical memoir to be logged away at the Royal Geographical Society.
Taking another step back, the sheer topic of the book is incredible. So few men make the trip to the North Pole and live to tell the tale, let alone on foot, that the idea of it is incredible. Avery deserves applause for his incredible bravery and ambition for taking on a task that so many have failed to do, and for increasing our true knowledge of the planet that, day by day, it becomes apparent that we know very little about.
Because it's such a specific book and not of wide interest, To the End of the Earth is available in paperback for as little as $6.36 from Amazon, and $7.99 on the Kindle. However, even if you are not familiar with the story of the Arctic, take a look at this one. Avery's website gives a little more information on the background of the book if you are interested, and gives a list of his expeditions as well.

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