While I had read the great accounts of Antarctic exploration when I was a teenager, my firsthand introduction to travel here came in 1989, when I documented the longest crossing of the continent – 3,741 miles, 220 days – by dogsled. That Transantarctic Expedition, led and organized by my friends Will Steger and Jean-Louis Etienne, would be the final dog sledding expedition on the continent; in 1991 the Antarctic Treaty banned dogs for good, publicly worried they might introduce distemper to the seal population and privately tired of private dog sledders desiring to come to Antarctica.
That expedition, documented in the book Steger and I wrote about the expedition (“Crossing Antarctica”), had its lowlights: A forty-day cold storm on the Peninsula, which stopped travel or limited it to several miles a day. The death-by-freezing of one of Steger’s favorite dogs, Tim. Lost caches. A very impolite welcome by officials at the U.S. Scott-Amundsen base at the South Pole. Long, arduous days crossing the high plateau west of the Pole, known as the Area of Inaccessibility. But ultimately that $12 million expedition will be remembered as both the final dogsled adventure here and the longest of any kind ever.
Since then each season I pay attention to the variety of serious expeditions and stunts that come to Antarctica to test their mettle. By now the continent has been skied, kited and walked from almost every angle possible. Some are successful (Borge Ousland’s solo, unsupported ski), some less so (hot air balloonists and golfers), others simply too bizarre to understand why they are continued (a marathon on King George Island?).
This season a handful of teams and a few solo men and one woman are attempting to reach the South Pole from various starting points, with various goals. Todd Carmichael is speed skiing to the South Pole, unsupported, solo. The great grandson of Ernest, Peter Shackleton, is part of a team recreating the hundredth anniversary of grandpa’s great attempt. An old friend, Richard Weber, who was on Steger’s North Pole team in 1986, is part of the South Pole Quest Team. Veteran explorer Mike Horn is skiing from base camp at Patriot Hills to the South Pole, as part of his four-year-long round the world by-all-means Pangaea Expedition. And a couple dudes, as far as I know, are still planning to drive across part of the continent in some kind of motorized vehicle.
It’s cold in the interior today, but a balmy twenty degrees along the Peninsula, under gray skies and a light snow. Midday I picked up Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s “Worst Journey in the World,” one of the best-written books about early Antarctic exploration, for a quick reminder of how those first adventurers found travel on the seventh continent. Gerrard’s is an account of a trio of Robert F. Scott’s men who went, at their boss’s behest in 1910, on a wintertime march on the west side of McMurdo Sound, some 70 miles around Ross Island to Cape Crozier, to collect penguin eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter.
“The temperature tonight was -75.8 degrees, and I will not pretend that it did not convince me that Dante was right when he placed the circles of ice below the circles of fire … The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated; and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. The weeks, which followed were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better – they were far worse – but because, we were callous. I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be so easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on ….”
Makes me wonder what those traveling inland today are reading, and writing?