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.
The sky is gray, the air filled with a brisk wind and salt spray. A perfect day just south of Cape Horn. We are halfway across the Drake Passage and what is frequently called the windiest-place-on-earth is amazingly – and thankfully – calm. The gray/black seas are lumpy, the peaks of the waves tinged by white, but hardly the six to twenty foot seas that are common out here. A couple dozen albatross and petrels soar just overhead. We are about a third of the way — two hundred miles — into the crossing from Ushuaia, Argentina to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and, fingers-crossed; it appears we have dodged a bullet weather-wise. I’ve crossed the Drake dozens of times, always with a fair amount of trepidation. While big seas often equal good adventure, and I have nothing against adventure, but they can also be more than a little intimidating. And living without intimidation is a new goal of mine!
By midday tomorrow we should be taking footsteps on an island off the tip of the Peninsula.
I’ve been to Antarctica a couple dozen times; this trip is momentous because my introduction to the seventh continent was exactly twenty years ago right now, as part of my friend Will Steger’s Transantarctic Expedition. TAE, the last expedition ever by dog on the continent, was a big one: An international team of six men and thirty-six sled dogs spent 221 days on the ice, traveling 3,741 miles across the continent, from the tip of the Peninsula to the South Pole, across the Area of Inaccessibility to the far eastern edge. Among the expeditions many firsts and lasts, the spot on the frozen sea ice where that it began, near small black peaks known as Seal Nunataks off the tip of the Peninsula, is today open ocean. The ice where a Twin Otter from King George Island dropped the team has broken up and drifted off towards South America. What was then frozen sea guarding and protecting Antarctica’s glaciers – part of the Larsen B ice shelf – largely disappeared in 2002.
When it comes to traveling along the Peninsula it’s all about the ice. Each season the ice here is different. As the air and sea temperatures have warmed along the Peninsula – on average by five to nine degrees Fahrenheit, the greatest increase on the planet — the ice freezes later, melts earlier. But as I say, each season is different and I’m very curious to see what it looks like this year. What I’ve been hearing from friends who’ve already been to the Peninsula this early austral summer, they report seeing more snow and less snow, colder air than usual and many blue-sky days.
We are about to cross the Antarctic Convergence, an invisible line on the map between South America and Antarctica that indicates you’ve crossed into true southern territory and air temperatures drop fast. Despite the cold I’m going to try and spend as many hours outside today as possible, basking under the gray skies and in the salt spray, both of which remind me – always – of closing in on Antarctica.
It’s that season again – the beginning of Antarctica’s tourist season – and already there’s report of a ship struggling to free itself from heavy ice. The Russian icebreaker “Captain Khlebnikov” has apparently been slowed – though the company that manages the ship is being careful to say it is not stuck nor aground – by typical heavy ice on the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsula. According to company spokesperson the ship it is not in any danger; there are 100 passengers on board, most British.
According to the Associated Press the” Khlebnikov” will need to wait one or two days to resolve the situation. “The icebreaker’s crew is waiting for the weather to change and then the ship will resume its course. The passengers are in no need of assistance,” a spokesman told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. A film crew from the BBC is also on board filming material for a documentary called Frozen Plane; the ship is reportedly continuing its helicopter tours while stymied.
The ship is currently moving slowly, searching ice-free water, near Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, not far from where the Larsen B ice shelf famously collapsed in 2002. I was at Snow Hill twice last season, but not until about seven weeks later in the season when traditionally – but not always – more of the icebergs and pack ice have been blown out by big winds. Venturing into the Weddell Sea, even in an icebreaker, is always something of a crap shoot, no matter the time of year.
According to Argentine officials the “Khlebnikov” is trying to move slowly through the ice but the winds are too light to break up the ice pack, essentially suspending it in the ice and delaying its return to Ushuaia, Argentina, by three to six days.
“The icebreaker is trying to move and is waiting for more favorable winds,” said a ship’s spokesman. “After the winds get stronger, the ice grip will weaken … and it will break free.” Fingers crossed!
The cruise was advertised as a unique opportunity to watch Emperor Penguins in their natural habitat. The Finnish-built icebreaker has been used as a cruise ship for several years and carries two helicopters. Natalie Amos, a spokeswoman for the tour operator Exodus Travel, said 51 British tourists were among the ship’s 101 passengers. Paul Goldstein, a guide and photographer with Exodus, traveling on the ship, told the BBC News that the ship was trying to move. “We’re breaking ice,” he said Tuesday. “Obviously there’s frustration, but we’re going to get back perfectly safe.”
Rene Reibel, operations chief for the Argentine Coast Guard in Ushuaia, told The Associated Press that the icebreaker was moving amid floating ice and no one was in danger. “This ship was never stuck or run aground,” he said. “It’s floating, it has its engines and control.”
With tourism still growing along the Antarctic Peninsula groundings and tourist ships stuck in ice are becoming an annual happening. Last season it was the “Ocean Nova” and the “Ushuaia” which were stranded on rocks. In 2007 the Norweigan “Fram” lost power off the tip of the Peninsula and banged into a glacier. And of course in November 2007 the very first Antarctic tourist ship, the “Explorer,” sank off the tip of the Peninsula, spilling 185,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants.
You hear lots of talk among Antarctica scientists and cognoscenti about how the Peninsula is changing right before our eyes. Here’s the most dramatic satellite proof, showing how the Larsen Ice Shelf – the section known as Larsen B – has reduced in recent years: