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.”
My introduction to Antarctica, and first assignment for National Geographic, was twenty years ago right now. My friend Will Steger was leading, with his French adventuring partner Jean-Louis Etienne, a monumental first (the longest crossing of the continent, 3,741 miles) and a monumental last (the very last dog sled expedition in Antarctica).
We are republishing our book about the adventure, CROSSING ANTARCTICA, in honor of the twentieth anniversary and I’ve been thinking about those days a lot while on the ice this year. Lots has changed, particularly in regard to technology. Then, the team had a satellite beacon that tracked its whereabouts once a day; today those who ski to the pole are able to send live video and photos to their websites. Then, dogs pulled the heavily-loaded sleds, an homage to the early explorers of the continent; today, thanks to an amendment to the Antarctica Treaty in 1991, there will never again be dogs in Antarctica (the formal reason was to limit the potential for distemper to be introduced to the seal population, though I have always believed the banning of dogs was really targeted to eliminate private dog sledding expeditions from the continent). Then, the ice along the Larsen B ice shelf where the expedition began was hard and thick; today, that ice has been gone for more than seven years, broken off into thousands of bits. Then, maybe a few thousand visited the Peninsula by tourist ship; now it’s more than 40,000 each season.
These are Will’s journal notes from the last week of December, 1989. They had just left the South Pole and were two-and-a-half months from completing the seven-month-long expedition, the longest in Antarctic history:
DECEMBER 25, DAY 152
I spent today alone on the back sled, haunted by the fact that my dogs are sagging and unable to put my finger on why. It is no longer a minor problem—I am running fifteen minutes behind the second sled, so my team doesn’t get a break when the others stop to build snow cairns. I am late for lunch and into camp, which eliminates my spending even a few minutes with the others.
Since I am late into camp in the evening I automatically assume the tasks of the “Outside Man,” which includes cutting snow blocks for water. Tonight the blocks come from one of Dahe’s five-foot-deep snowpits, which he digs every thirty miles. It is the responsibility of each tent’s Outside Man to retrieve blocks from Dahe’s “well,” filling nylon bags with perfectly cut blocks. That simple chore is often the best time for socializing. You kneel at the edge of the pit, relax for a few minutes, all the while packing away snow and chatting with whoever has joined you at the “well.” Dahe is often still there, carefully scraping and bottling samples of snow and ice. Though our exchanges are brief, I always walk away from my visits to the “well” feeling satisfied. The scene reminds me of an African riverbank, with the natives gathering at the river’s edge to draw water for cooking and bathing. Except for the cold, our missions are very similar.
Once inside the tent Geoff wishes me a happy holiday, and we agree that the area of inaccessibility may be the best place to spend it, if for no other reason than it is always a White Christmas here.
Lunch, Antarctica, 1989. Photo: Will Steger
DECEMBER 26, DAY 153
It is amazing how we have acclimated to this weather. Overnight the temperature rose to -15° and we overheated inside and had to sleep with our bags fully unzipped. At home in similar temperatures it would be on the chilly side, even in the north woods of Minnesota. We’re all surprised that the winds have maintained their steady pace and that we are still crossing whitecaps of sastrugi. The surface is not that difficult for us to travel over; though Geoff’s sled tipped once today, it is an annoyance rather than a hindrance. It does make it a little harder to ski and you have to watch the sled carefully so that it doesn’t tip, but since the snow is on the soft side there is little worry of the sled’s breaking if it were to fall. The biggest advantage to our days remains the hard-packed surfaces (today we made twenty-five miles). I don’t think it’s going to be until 82° or 81° latitude, another three hundred miles, that we start seeing the wind cut back a little bit, which is fine with me, because less wind means deeper snow. The closer we can get to Vostok on hard surfaces the better off we are.
After comparing notes with everyone else, it seems that it is our thinking caps that are suffering most these days. The same thoughts keep recycling through your head, mile after mile, day after day, and you simply get tired of thinking. You can’t appease yourself by telling yourself it’s almost over, because it isn’t. We have become like snow nomads, with no sense of place; the only continuity to our days is packing up, traveling and unpacking. Our isolation is compounded by the spiritless, soulless emptiness of the landscape that engulfs us. If a person weren’t at peace with himself on a trip like this it would drive him crazy. If you were a primarily negative person it would be extremely difficult to survive in Antarctica. I used to think that space travel would be exciting; now I’ve had a glimpse of how exacting a psychological toll it must take.
We are expecting Brydon shortly after midnight, because that’s when the cairns’ shadows will be at right angles and easiest for him to follow. We stopped tonight as close to 86° latitude as we could determine, since that was the agreed-upon location for resupply. However, since radio conditions prohibited Brydon from ascertaining where we’d stopped, he left the Pole flying close to the ground, counting on finding our trail of snowmen.
We heard the plane before we saw it, and he flew right to us. He could stay just an hour, given the plane’s tightly calculated fuel allowance, so we hurriedly unloaded the Twin Otter and made arrangements with him to resupply us once more, at 82° latitude, on January 9.
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.
Dog sledding through the Transantarctic Range, 1989
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?