Crossing Antarctica, Twenty Years Ago Today
It was twenty years ago today — March 3, 1990 — that my friend Will Steger and five international polar men completed what will forever be the most audacious crossing of Antarctica. Their Trans-Antarctica Expedition will last in Antarctica history for a variety of reasons: Its length and duration (3,741 miles in 221 days, requiring that it start in winter and end in winter). Because it was the last expedition by dog (dogs were outlawed the following year by an amendment to the Antarctic treaty). And its expense (upwards of $12 million).
The book Will and I wrote about the expedition – CROSSING ANTARCTICA – has just been republished. Readying the book for reprinting I have reread it several times during the past few months and was happily reminded of just how audacious an undertaking it was, beginning with the incredible complexities of coordinating a six-man team from six different countries on a continent ruled by international treaty.
But what I was re-impressed by most was that this was a REAL ADVENTURE story. There is nothing faux when you’re dealing with a fierce winter storm that lasts sixty days, or the threat of running out of dog food far, far from help, or the mental struggle of having to get up every morning for seven months, endure -40 degree days of pushing through deep snow … without giving in to the inevitable human desire to simply give up.
In one of its anniversary issues Outside chose a few of the “best opening lines ever” from an adventure book. The first paragraph of CROSSING ANTARCTICA was included:
“July 25, 1989 – The stench of wet dogs, kerosene, cigarette smoke, molding cheese and sweat-stained clothing saturated the air of the Soviet ‘flying coffin’ as we closed in on Antarctica. Fifty-odd passengers readied themselves for what we fully expected to be a crash landing. My partner in this expedition-to-be, a diminutive Frenchman named Jean-Louis Etienne, was standing beside my seat. He leaned over and insisted the smell that permeated the tense cabin and increased the tension was one he recognized; it was, he said, the smell of adventure.”
The expedition would end on the far side of the continent, near the Russian base of Mirnyy. No team has ever, or most likely will ever, cross a similar distance on the seventh continent. On the final day, March 3, the team was exhausted but exhilarated. Midway through the expedition a variety of options had been considered, including reducing the team to four, or perhaps quitting altogether. Its successful conclusion – broadcast live by ABC News, a huge deal and expense at the time – was one of those brilliant memories we will all carry for a lifetime.
On that last day Will wrote in his journal, “… we traveled the final sixteen miles under perfect, clear skies and temperatures hovering just below zero.
“We could see the deep blue of the Indian Ocean the entire day. Sunlight danced and glared off the icebergs that had lined up to greet us, and we crested the hill overlooking the Soviet base just before seven o’clock. As we headed down one last icy slope – men shouting encouragement to the dogs, the dogs howling out of pleasure at the scene that spread before them – an aura of peace swept over me as the responsibilities of the past three years and these last 3,741 miles lifted from my shoulders.
“As I skied the last half mile I could not erase from my mind a picture of another time, another cold place. It was April 1986, the middle of the frozen Arctic Ocean, when Jean-Louis and I first met. He stepped to the top of a ridge of jumbled sea ice, seemingly out of nowhere, and we embraced, like brothers, though we’d never even been introduced. Everything that we’d done these past years evolved from that fated moment, from that embrace. We had turned our dreams – about adventure and cooperation, about preservation and the environment – into realities. We had the confidence to take risks, and the scene splayed in front of us now was our reward, our affirmation.
“The Soviets had marked our entryway with red flags and made a Finish line. A gathering of one hundred, speaking a dozen different languages, swarmed around us as we came down the flag bedecked chute. As I called my dogs to a stop one last time and stepped out of my skis, Jean-Louis walked toward me. I lifted Sam onto my shoulder and Jean-Louis – completing the circle begun those years ago in the middle of the Arctic Ocean – wrapped us both in a bear hug.”