Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It may seem strange that the first blog post I write on Antarctica is not about the cute penguins, or the lazy seals, or the majestic whales, or the impossibly desolate landscape with all its pale beauty. Instead I wish to write about its people.
No one lives in Antarctica save a handful of scientists in research stations. But Antarctica is a land rife with human legends. The early explorers were men cut from uncommon cloths. Men like Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen, the contestants in the race to the South Pole in the heroic age of exploration, were remarkable individuals capable of the most romantic feats of courage, whether or not such courage was attended by wisdom.
Shackleton went to Antarctica four times between 1901 and 1922, initially as Scott’s junior before striking out on his own. On his second journey he reached a point just 112 miles from the Pole, the farthest south anyone had ever gone, before starvation forced his party to turn back.
On his third trip, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped and eventually crushed like crumpled paper by the merciless ice. He and his men abandoned ship and spent the next 497 days living on an ice floe and sailing in lifeboats to the nearest uninhabited island. From here Shackleton sailed again in a lifeboat with a few men to the island of South Georgia, where a whaling station could provide assistance. In an improbable feat of navigation, he reached the island, only to find that he was on the wrong side of it, so that he had to hike across its length, a mountainous and icy terrain riddled with deadly crevasses. And he and his men had to do it with barely any food and no proper mountaineering equipment.
And then there was Scott, that national martyr in the British imagination. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, in The Worst Journey in the World, portrayed him as a sphinx of contradictory qualities:
Temperamentally he was a weak man, and might easily have been an irritable autocrat. As it was he had moods and depressions which might last for weeks…. He cried more easily than any man I have ever known.
As for his comrades, Cherry-Garrard wrote:
The members of this expedition believed that it was worth while to discover new land and new life, to reach the Southern Pole of the earth, to make elaborate meteorological and magnetic observations and extended geological surveys…. They were prepared to suffer great hardship; and some of them died for their beliefs.
For such beliefs, such articles of faith, they volunteered, indeed jumped at the chance, to live in a barren wasteland of 70 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit, not that it matters at that point) in the interminable winter without a glimpse of the sun, to keep company with the same half dozen colleagues, and to risk their lives at every juncture, for even years at a stretch.
Cherry-Garrard himself went to Antarctica even though his eyesight was so bad that in his own words he “could only see the people across the road as vague blobs walking.” There he took part with two others of Scott’s men in an insane mission to cross Antarctica in the depths of winter to... do what exactly? — to study a colony of emperor penguins in their rookery.
Scott would reach the South Pole only to find the pragmatic Amundsen’s Norwegian flag already firmly planted in the ice, proving that the Norseman had beaten him to it. And he and his polar party would die on the return journey, leaving their surviving comrades to discover their mottled remains.
And Antarctica is such a remarkable land and so extreme in its environment that even today the men and women who inherit that cold legacy are of an uncommon caliber. I shall come to the stories of the ever-surprising individuals who accompanied me south in the next post.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."