History Tour: Adventures at the Poles - Atlas Obscura Lists
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History Tour: Adventures at the Poles

The race to the ends of the Earth, in 14 remarkable places.

Humans have long been fascinated by the frozen, distant reaches of the world. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the earliest description of polar ice and dazzling, dancing auroras dates to the fourth century B.C., when Pytheas of Massalia, a Greek merchant, sailed north from Britain and described a place he dubbed “Thule.” Its identity has been debated, but the name came to stand in as shorthand for the limit of what was known or knowable. (It was later appropriated by the German Nazi Party as an imaginary, Aryan land.)

By the late 1500s, European rulers pushed for Arctic exploration to find a zippier route to China, and forays into the Arctic continued for centuries. The 19th and 20th centuries saw a flurry of activity at both the North and South Poles, especially during the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration.

The conditions were brutal and the competition was, too. Even when European crews partnered with indigenous guides, who had deep knowledge of some areas that explorers set out to ‘discover,’ many expeditions were foiled or forced to turn back. Some so-called ‘conquests’ of the poles were later steeped in controversy. Many expeditions were forced to turn back before reaching the North Pole, and others that claimed to have made it were later steeped in controversy. The African-American explorer Matthew Henson, who trekked with the U.S. Navy engineer Robert Peary on several expeditions over roughly 20 years, claimed to be the first person to arrive at the geographic North Pole in 1909, but later calculations cast doubt on that (more likely than not, the team was a little off). Fellow American Frederick Cook claimed he had gotten there first. The first confirmed arrival by land was via snowmobile, in 1968.

Down at the South Pole, things were a little more cut-and-dry, though no less cutthroat. In December 1911, the expedition led by Roald Amundsen, from Norway, was the first to reach the South Pole, just before Robert Falcon Scott’s British team arrived there, with the first fossils found on the continent in tow. Ernest Shackleton, an Irish-born Brit explorer, embarked on several other missions, including crossing the continent by land. By the early-20th century, teams were using ice breaker boats; within decades, submarines and autonomous underwater vehicles delivered a firmer grasp of the chemistry, geology, and other aspects of life in the frozen lands. Today, many of the people who flock to the poles are researchers. Antarctica is a wonderful place to study the distant reaches of the sky, and scientists are also interested in taking a closer look at the tardigrades and other small creatures that thrive there. The crews that hunker down at McMurdo Station and other southern research bases have an arduous journey that often entails flying to Christchurch, New Zealand, and then transferring to military transport aircraft that ferry them down to Antarctica. Once they get there, they participate in all sorts of traditions, from sprinting back and forth between the South Pole and a sauna, to a rollicking Halloween party.

You don’t have to visit the Arctic or Antarctic to learn about the adventurers and present-day researchers who have reached their icy landscapes. Here are some places that highlight the past and present of the poles.