After Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909, polar explorers looked toward the South. Robert Falcon Scott, whose 1901–1904 expedition into Antarctica's frozen shoulder had made him a celebrity in England, began plans to return. In June1910 the Terra Nova sailed toward the earth's underbelly.When Scott's party reached the South Pole on January 17,1912, after severe hardships, they discovered that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beat them to it a month before. Demoralized, frozen, exhausted, and starved, they started to retrace their painful steps over the ice but were forced to stop only eleven miles from a supply depot. By a supreme act of will, the captain managed to write his last letters, which were found with the bodies in November.

Elspeth Huxley draws on those letters and diaries in her luminous biography. It reaches back to Scott's first voyage to the Antarctic, introduces the charming sculptor he married in middle age after a whirlwind of self-doubt, and builds up to the last expedition—a marvel of teamwork—that will always be remembered for the nobility shown by men facing death. The story of Robert Falcon Scott is all the more interesting because he was a complex, self-questioning man whose conquest of the self was "a feat perhaps more admirable than the conquest of the Pole."