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On the morning of April 7, 1909, renowned explorer Robert Edwin Peary made history when, after years of effort and more than a few lost toes, he stared through a sextant and determined that he had reached the North Pole. He wrote in his journal, “The Pole at last!!! … I cannot bring myself to realize it. It all seems so simple and commonplace.”
Turns out, it would not be so simple. Peary’s claim to be the first man at the North Pole, along with his longtime assistant Matthew Henson and four Indigenous guides, would be challenged for decades afterward—illustrating the passion and ambition that the North Pole has planted in the minds of explorers for centuries.
The many attempts to reach the North Pole represent the human desire to make sense of mysteries, to solve riddles of geography and the soul. In iHeartRadio and Mental Floss's newest podcast, The Quest for the North Pole, science editor Kat Long takes a deep dive into the history of Arctic exploration and examines what pushed explorers to go ever further into the unknown, even as they faced death at every turn—from starvation, exposure, disease, and their own fatal choices. If they lived, explorers earned fame and the admiration of their countrymen. But if they died, their names became immortal.
In each episode, we’ll look at the important expeditions and what they found, as well as the tragedies and triumphs of figures like Sir John Franklin, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, and Matthew Henson. We’ll also delve into the racial and nationalist dynamics of exploration, and recognize the many critical roles of Indigenous people, without whom few European adventurers would have survived. And we’ll learn how the climate crisis is changing the Arctic and polar exploration today. We speak with historians and adventurers to bring you insight into the social context and psychology behind the race to the Pole.