Captain Alfred McLaren's Fight for the North Pole
Credit: Photograph by John Loomis

One is that explorers have always brawled with one another, like the great Titans of Greek mythology. Even today Explorers Club members feud over who reached the surface North Pole first. Some support the club's second president, Frederick Cook; others back the third president, Robert Peary.

Second, politicians have always stepped on the boot heels of men who lead the way. After Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, club members both, scaled Mount Everest in 1953, an avalanche of propaganda came down. India had recently won independence from the British empire and celebrated the Everest summit with stirring, patriotic songs about how the local Sherpa had dragged Hillary, the queen's subject, to the top. Never mind that, until Norgay's death, neither man divulged who reached the summit first (it was Hillary), or that Norgay was most likely born in Tibet, not India.

Considering the context of exploration – in this case the friction between countries, the rush for oil, the lure of achievement – it seems inevitable that individual men might be crushed in the grind toward glory.

"A sham," McLaren says of the whole affair. "A charade."

His life carries on. He's planning another submersible adventure, but nothing so grand. Nothing historic. That chance – his legacy – disappeared the moment a Russian flag settled into the Arctic silt.