Great explorers through the ages, from Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama to Marco Polo and Captain Cook to David Livingstone and George Mallory, have gone fearlessly to parts unknown, pitting their very lives against dangerous odds to do what no man has done and to go where no man has trodden. They have left in their wake tales of derring-do to amaze future generations. Before Mallory died on Mount Everest in 1924 along with Andrew Irvine in their doomed attempt to be first to climb the world’s tallest mountain, he had explained why he needed to do it: "Because it’s there."

Earlier, in the late 1890s, a "heroic age" of polar exploration began that would last until the First World War. This admirable book centres on expeditions led by three men – Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton. Scott and Shackleton were British and Amundsen Norwegian, and to be first to the South Pole on the vast icy and uninhabited continent was a matter of national pride.

"South. The Race to the Pole" details Scott’s first British Antarctic Expedition with the Discovery in 1901-04, the exploits of Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09, the success of Amundsen’s team in reaching the Pole in December 1911 and the tragic events surrounding Scott’s second British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-12. And, as if all that weren’t enough, finally there is the truly astonishing tale of Shackleton’s dramatic sea and land journey to seek rescue after the destruction of his ship Endurance, trapped and crushed in the ice, during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17.

The "race to the South Pole" followed the systematic and largely British Royal Navy quest for a North-West Passage across the top of the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in the 19th century, and then in 1876 the Navy demonstrated that the North Pole could not be reached by sea – although the South Pole lies on a continental land mass, the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean amid waters that are almost permanently covered with constantly shifting sea ice. As it was impractical to construct a permanent station at the North Pole, the main attention of explorers and scientists turned to the south.

For the British, there was a proud national tradition of heroic failure and the superior merit of "playing the game" rather than winning. For both Scott and Shackleton, the cultural prejudice in favour of man-hauling sledges or using hardy ponies rather than dogs, against the urging of their Norwegian colleagues, was to prove near-fatal in their first expeditions, and, with other factors, was finally so for Scott and his four colleagues in 1911-12. In the 1901-04 expedition the British were novices to a degree almost unimaginable in skills that were practically native, particularly skiing but also getting the dogs to work as sledge teams, compared with their Scandinavian counterparts.

As the book recounts, while the British certainly had a hunger for heroes, these should not be swaggering, bragging types. Britain’s dignity had long demanded understated, self-deprecating heroes, unfailingly cheerful in the face of adversity. The stiff upper lip was embodied by such as garrison commander Robert Baden-Powell, whose laconic telegrams from within the Siege of Mafeking during 1899-1900 during the Second Boer War included: "All well. Four hours bombardment. One dog killed." It was an era of good sports, the luck of the game and plucky losers.

Scott’s first expedition, setting out on the Discovery, set a southern record by marching to latitude 82°S and discovering the Antarctic Plateau, on which the South Pole is located. On the second venture, the Terra Nova expedition, Scott led a party of five who reached the South Pole on 18 January 1912, only to discover a tent and Norwegian flag left by Amundsen, who had beaten them to it some five weeks earlier.

Amundsen’s 2575-kilometre journey there and back took 99 days. His party of five spent two days at the Pole, meticulously recording the moment so that there could be no dispute. The Norwegian’s team contrasted sharply with Scott’s. Amundsen had chosen exploration as a career and was a focused "professional" experienced in travel over snow and ice. He was an expert skier and handler of dogs. Scott displayed polar inexperience and made a number of serious mistakes.

The British were naturally deflated, and on Scott’s return journey, a planned meeting with supporting dog teams from the base camp failed, despite Scott's written instructions. One of the five men, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, died as they struggled on malnourished and exhausted in deteriorating weather. At a distance of 150 miles (240 kilometres) from their base camp and 11 miles (17 kilometres) from the next depot, Scott and his companions died in their tent.

Just before they died, the disaster produced one of the foremost tales of any exploration anywhere. Captain Lawrence Edward Grace "Titus" Oates, a British army officer, was severely afflicted with gangrene and frostbite. Aware that he was compromising his three companions' chances of survival, and in what is seen as a heroic act of self-sacrifice, he chose certain death.

Scott wrote in his diary: "He was a brave soul. He slept through the night hoping not to wake, but he woke in the morning. It was blowing a blizzard. Oates said: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’. He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since." Scott added: "We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman."

The blizzard was -40 °C and his body was never found. His final words have never been forgotten.

"South. The Race to the Pole" is an exciting and exhaustive account. There is great detail on the major expeditions with terrific photographs and maps plus pictures of artifacts and memorabilia. Food, supplies and equipment are all detailed. The hardships that these intrepid men went through are staggering. Heavy sledges were dragged painfully over the snow. Dogs were eaten.

After one foray into the vastness, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson were photographed in 1902 with "Long beards, hair dirty, swollen lips & peeled complexions, & blood-shot eyes [that] made them almost unrecognisable." In another photo, four men look as if they have just returned from hell’s darker chambers, unable to forget the truly awful things they have seen.

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