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.
LUNCH, Trans-Antarctica Expedition 1989-90, Photo by Will Steger
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.”
I spent part of this early Antarctic morning on the back deck of the ship reading a summary of the past eleven day’s events in Copenhagen, a long story downloaded at very slow rate from the New York Times. Between readings I looked up, to remind myself where I was, surrounded in a narrow bay by miles of glaciers running down to the ocean’s edge; icebergs calved off the glaciers littered the blue-black sea. It is this very calving and melting of the glaciers which should have been on the mind of everyone who participated in the climate talks in Denmark, because if they continue to dissipate at the current rate due to warming air and sea temperatures along the Peninsula, it will help raise sea levels around the world by ten feet or so.
A now typical summer day in Antarctica: Melting ice + Rain
Rather than being filled with optimism after this long-trumpeted confab, without much reading between the lines it’s clear that not a lot was accomplished in Copenhagen other than the expulsion of a lot more hot air. Some highlights from the Times summary:
· “A grudging agreement to ‘take note’ … not a blinding pledge ….”
· “A compromise seen to represent a flawed but essential step forward many of the delegates of the 193 countries that had gathered here left Copenhagen in a sour mood, disappointed that the pact lacked so many elements they considered crucial …”
· “President Obama called it a ‘modest step.’
· “… The chaos and contentiousness of the talks may signal the end of reliance on a process that for almost two decades had been viewed as the best approach to tackling global warming.”
· “… Virtually impossible to forge consensus among disparate blocs of countries fighting over environmental guilt, future costs and who should referee the results.”
· “… Even if countries live up to their commitments on emissions, a stark gap remains between nations’ combined pledges and what would be required to reliably avert the risks of disruptive change in rainfall and drought, ecosystems and polar ice cover from global warming …”
· “The Copenhagen accord … hardly moved the treaty process from where it was in 2007.”
· “Speaker after speaker from the developing world denounced the deal as a sham process fashioned behind closed doors …”
· “As his motorcade idled in front of the conference center, Mr. Obama took to a rostrum …”
(Per an earlier promise, I tried to search out some figures on the carbon footprint of the event, but found few specific numbers, though I did find others, i.e 1,200 limousines, 140 private jets, 15,000 delegates, 10,000 environmental activists and lobbyists, over 100 world leaders and 5,000 journalists. According to summit organizers the 11-day conference, including the participants’ travel, created a total of 41,000 tons of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” equal to the amount produced over the same period by a U.S. city, population 225,000. Next time, perhaps, try tele-conferencing?)
It’s interesting to ponder all this debate, which seems very far away from where I sit, from a place that is pretty successfully governed by international treaty. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by 49 nations, was and is clearly less complex than any international climate change agreement. But, amended in 1991 to exclude any exploitation of oil or minerals until 2041, the Antarctic Treaty is proof that countries can come together to try and protect a place. Whether or not they’ll ever do that regarding climate change also seems a long way off.
Sunrise brings flying fish gliding, risso’s dolphins porpoising and seabirds squawking. In the near distance, about fifteen miles as the red-footed booby flies, silhouetted by an already bright sun, lies the northern tip of Madagascar. Surprisingly green (I have the impression that much of Madagascar’s forest has been denuded, clear cut) the tip of the island – the 4th largest in the world, bigger than France, considered by some the eighth continent – is bounded by Pleistocene coral uprisings and mangrove forests. But this is all seen from a distance. Landing on Madagascar these days is out of the question thanks to several months of civil unrest threatening civil war.
Why the upheaval? A dismal economy, of course. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world with seventy percent of its twenty million people living on less than a dollar a day. When in January the charismatic young mayor of its biggest city, Antananarivo – 34-year-old Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey – accused the sitting president of failing to tackle poverty and of personal corruption, the country erupted in street riots. That the long time president, 59-year-old Marc Ravalomanana – a self-made millionaire, whose fortune began in the yogurt business – had recently bought himself a new presidential jet, made moves to sell off vast tracts of land to South Korea and offered up the country’s vast oil and mineral reserves to the highest bidder made him an easy target.
The resulting riots cost more than one hundred people their lives, the worst violence for years on the historically politically volatile Indian Ocean island. (The last big contretemps were in 2002, when disputed election results triggered eight months of nationwide political chaos and brought the economy to its knees before Ravalomanana was declared victor.)
The tourist economy has taken a huge hit; typically this most biodiverse island in the world takes $400 million off visitors each year. Today, with civil war a daily fear, that economy has dwindled to near nothing. In central Antananarivo, usually home to throngs of international tourists, blackened buildings gutted by fire scar the central 13 May Plaza, the epicenter of Rajoelina’s month-long campaign of rallies and strikes. Though I am several hundred kilometers north of the capital, there are still concerns.
Today up and down Madagascar the desire for change is palpable among people in the thronging market places and from behind the metal grilles of businesses whose owners remain too nervous to re-open. They are fatigued by what they call “la lutte” – the struggle. For me it is a green/golden opportunity, lying just off the bow that must be missed. I’m sure we’ll come back … one day.
VIRGIN GLOBAL ROW GIVES UP
My young friend Olly Hicks, who sailed with us to Antarctica a year ago, is apparently giving up his goal of rowing around the world. He left 83 days ago from Tasmania with the intent of taking 500 days to circumnavigate 15,000 miles by oar in his custom-built “Flying Carrot.” But at the rate he’s been rowing since leaving Tasmania, far slower than expected, it was looking like it might take him more like five years. So … he’s headed for port in New Zealand.
“It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that we will be suspending the global row in New Zealand,” he said. “The main reason is our incredibly poor progress.
REAL CHANGE IN WHO CAN VISIT ANTARCTICA
At the meetings of representative nations with interests in the Arctic and Antarctic last week in Baltimore, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would take the lead in calling for the Antarctic Treaty to be amended to address tourism and its potential impacts on the seventh continent. But amending the fifty-year-old treaty will be tricky since it requires a unanimous vote of its 49 voting signators. Yet the media at large – including Discover – are already announcing “big changes” for Antarctic tourists and tour operators.
I’m not sure that wish will happen too quickly, so stay tuned. My guess – though I hope it won’t take this – is that such an amendment will only come when there is a tragedy of a proportion we’ve not yet seen along the heavily touristed Peninsula.
The unique treaty that governs Antarctica – written in 1959, signed by 46 countries in 1961 and amended in 1991 to keep the seventh continent off limits to oil and mineral exploitation until at least 2041 – is facing its most severe test yet.
In November 2007, the United Kingdom, citing decades-old territorial claims, claimed for itself 385,000 square miles of the continent, including the 600-mile long Peninsula and – most importantly – the coastal shelf that lines it.
When the treaty was written after the successful International Polar Year of 1957-58 it defined Antarctica as all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south. No mention was made of the continental shelf, nor specifically who had rights to it. By international law every coastal nation “owns” 230 miles off its coastline. But if no one “owns” Antarctica, who owns its continental shelf? Today a fight has begun over who owns what in Antarctica, a struggle that promises to last long into the future.
Why the fight? Simple: Potential oil and gas reserves. Why now? Because this May the U.N.’s Convention of the Law of the Sea will expand each coastal nation’s sovereignty over its continental shelf from 230 miles to 380 miles off shore. But claims must first be approved by the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which also meets in May.
Which is why in historic manner lawmakers from long-squabbling Chile and Argentina flew to Antarctica last week to publicly denounce the U.K.’s claim and instead suggest that those same icy plains – and shelf – belong instead to the two South American countries. Last Thursday they met at the Chilean base of Eduardo Frei and on Friday jumped to the Argentine base known as Jubany to announce their very rare collaboration.
The Antarctic claims of Argentina, Chile and Britain are particularly difficult to sort out since they are all claiming the same sizable pie slice of the continent. The British territorial claim goes back to 1908. Another eight countries (Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, France, Spain and Norway) also still claim pieces of the continent, which, according to treaty, is supposed to be unclaimed and open only to science. The U.S. has never (not yet?) made a claim in Antarctica, though it operates the largest science base on the continent (McMurdo) and controls the South Pole (Scott-Amundsen).
It’s long been thought that Antarctica and its coast was too foreboding, too far away and chocked by too many 15-mile-long icebergs to make drilling for oil and gas possible, or cost-effective. But as we are witnessing in the Arctic as its ice disappears, as the ice along the Antarctic Peninsula lessens – thanks to temperatures that have warmed more than anywhere on the planet during the past fifty years – territorial battles have begun.
I’ve been up and down the Antarctic Peninsula for many years and can testify there is still lots and lots of ice both on land and afloat. Today it still looks like a tricky place to put up oilrigs. But who knows how technology will change – and how Antarctica will change – in the coming years? All of these nations are simply planting new flags all over the continent … just in case.
Forget Walt Disney. This particular scene is far more Spielbergian, straight out of something like “Jurassic Marine Park II.” Which dawned on me as I walked across the flats here, over short moss and through tall tussock grass, literally surrounded by thousands of fur seals and tens of thousands of King penguins. It didn’t help that Pete Pulesten had told me earlier in the day of a friend who’d tried to outrun a sizable fur seal, only to be taken down from behind. The resulting chomp in his back was big enough to expose part of his lung. “You could see it sucking in and out through the wound,” said Pete, cheerily. Which meant I was keeping both eyes peeled 360.
Climbing above Salisbury Point
The beach here is short, steep and rocky, and covered by seals. We carve a path among them to get onto the flats. While half of South Georgia is covered year-round by ice and snow, the other half is incredibly rich in deep hues of green, brown and gray. Latitude-wise, if this island were in the northern hemisphere it would rival the countryside of Labrador or northern England, though much steeper. Two sizable mountain ranges – the Allardyce and Salvesen Ranges, form its backbone.
South Georgia is what is known as a ‘sub-Antarctic’ island, a term unfamiliar to many from the north because, well, we don’t have any. They lie outside the Antarctic Treaty boundaries but within the Southern Ocean and south of the Antarctic Convergence or Polar Front.
Circling the globe, in the so-called Furious Fifties, a dozen like-islands – Macquarie, Kerguelen, Heard, Crozier, Marion, and Campbell – are variously territories of New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa. South Georgia is governed by the U.K. While there is small debate over which of them is the most stunning, it’s largely agreed that South Georgia takes the prize for most otherworldly.
It’s without question the most surreal place I’ve ever been. As I navigate the spongy, flat fields I fully expect massive giant petrels to come swooping from behind the hills, followed by seals the size of dump trucks and giant penguins, which is not so far off … remember it wasn’t too far from here that the fossils of a 300 pound penguin were discovered.
Before climbing a heavily tussocked hill for a grand look out over the sea I stop along a shallow river lined with King penguins and watch the molting one-year-olds interact, like schoolyard toughs. As always when among big colonies of penguins I wonder what they see when they look at me? Given their non-chalance, I have to think they see just a big, red-furred brother.
Meditating among the King's
Photos, Fiona Stewart