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 wrote yesterday a short memory of the 1989-90 TransAntarctica Expedition – dreamed up by American Will Steger and Frenchman Jean-Louis Etienne, after a fluke run-in three years earlier when each was on his way to the North Pole. While TAE may have been the biggest expedition to Antarctica in years (they spent something like $12 million over several years to pull it off), each season there are various characters on the seventh continent with big dreams of their own.
My friend Eric Larsen is there now, and a half-dozen other skiing teams (no more dogs, alas), all closing in on the South Pole at the very height of the austral summer. My friend Kraig Becker and his Adventure Blog does a great job of keeping up with the expeditions; here’s his dispatch from yesterday:
“While the rest of us celebrated the holidays with friends and family in the comfort of our homes, the Antarctic teams spent the days on the trail, heading due south, and closing in on their goal – The South Pole.
“The most recent update from Antarctica come from the Kaspersky Commonwealth Team, where we learn that the girls are a mere 20 nautical miles from the Pole. The ladies have been out on the ice for 36 days, and it appears that they will hit 90ºS tomorrow. The team was hoping that they would be able to see the polar research station located at the Pole on the horizon today, but so far they’ve had no luck in spotting it, which is adding a bit of frustration on the final days of the expedition. The girls also say that they will never take hot, running water and flush toilets for granted ever again.
“The last update from Ryan Waters and Cecilie Skog haven’t sent a dispatch since Christmas Eve, when they were within 100 nautical miles of the Pole, and it is quite possible that they have arrived at their destination today or tomorrow at the latest. They celebrated the holiday with a half-day on the trail, and some time in the tent, but since then, nothing has been heard.
“Similarly, Eric Larsen, and his team haven’t sent a dispatch since Christmas Day, which was their 39th day out of Patriot Hills. Eric and the boys spent the day locating their final supply cache, before turning South once again. With their sleds full once again, it was slow going throughout the day, which was mostly up hill. They’re now within two degrees of the Pole, and they hope to reach their destination within eight or nine days, which would put them in on the 2nd or 3rd of January, if everything goes according to plan.
“Meagan McGrath also sent an audio dispatch on Christmas Day with updates on her progress as well. She says she had a fantastic day out on the ice, and is covering great distances in the past few days, and spent much of the holiday thinking of her friends and family, who she is missing badly, but is still enjoying her journey so far. There was no update on her location, but because she was forced to restart early on, Meagan is still a good distance away from the Pole.
“Finally, the Shackleton’s Unfinished Business Team have wasted no time in their journey to the Pole, and according to their latest dispatch today, they are now at 89.2ºS and covered 9.3 nautical miles today. At this rate, they’ll finish off that final degree in the next few days, and they’ll stand at the Pole for the New Year.
“It appears that the next few days will be a busy one at the bottom of the world. Watch for updates from all the teams as they begin to arrive at the South Pole. The Antarctic season for 2009 will begin to wind down in the next few weeks, but not before plenty of action on Mt. Vinson as well, where the climbers will be looking to claim one of the seven summits.”
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.
Afloat on the Dead River in northern Minnesota just a few miles south of the Canadian border on a – finally – beautiful early summer day with my friend Will Steger we are on the lookout for the critters that habituate this part of the world – beavers, moose, painted turtles, loons, otters, minks, black bears and many more. The sky is indigo, studded with big white cumulus clouds, and the river’s banks lined with just-blooming lily pads backed by tall reeds. The river got its name not because it’s a dumping ground for bodies or badly polluted but because it is so still. Which is perfect for us, as we float its length after exiting Burnside Lake.
While much of the afternoon is spent in silence, listening to the wind, feeling the sun burn on pale skin, we talk about the state of, well, everything … from politics to small town gossip, climate change to the best way to plant rhubarb. I ask Will, whose dog sledded, skied, canoed and swum around the Arctic as much as anyone alive, what he’d heard about recent North Pole and Arctic adventures. (He’s casually starting to talk about an ambitious dogsled expedition tracing the Northwest Passage in a couple years time.) He mentions John Huston, a mutual friend, who managed Will’s 2007 expedition across Ellesmere Island. “What John did was really incredible, quite different from when we went to the North Pole in 1986 with dogs.”
Just a few days before I’d had an email from John, with some insight into his recently completed North Pole expedition:
On April 25, 2009 we Tyler Fish – and -myself became the first Americans to reach the North Pole unsupported and unassisted. Our 55-day journey, which began at the northernmost point in North America, Ward Hunt Island, Canada, has been called ‘the hardest trek on the planet.’ We skied and snow shoed over 480 miles on the frozen dynamic surface of the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic Ocean is perhaps the place on earth most affected by climate change. So having just spent almost two months living there, people always ask us “Did you see the effects of climate change?” or “Did you see the ice melting?” The answer is never simple, but surely the ice we traveled over is quite different from the ice 25 years ago.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, over the past 30 years the ice on the Arctic Ocean has decreased drastically in area and in thickness. Thinner ice is weaker, more susceptible to melting and cracking than older sea ice.
During the last month of the expedition we donned dry suits and swam across 10 or 12 open leads (cracks of water between ice flows). Swimming is not that cold of an experience since the water temperature can be up to 60°F warmer than the air temperature. In recent years most expeditions to the North Pole from Canada have not had to swim more than just a few times.
Over the last two weeks of the expedition we were battered by winds out of the northwest. These winds pushed the pack ice to the southeast 6 to 8 miles every 24 hours, in a direction away from the North Pole. In order to reach the pole in time for our scheduled pick up by a Russian helicopter we slept only 3 of the 66 hours before setting foot on the North Pole. Most of that time we were skiing on the extremely slippery snow/ice crust that has not been visible this early in the season until the past few years.
Some scientists say that the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free during the summer within 30 years. In as few as 10 years it may not be possible to ski to the North Pole.
Especially around his native Minnesota these past four years, Will’s been leading the charge in regard to trying to get local governments to start including warming temperatures in any long-range planning. Like John Huston, Will has seen the changes happening across the Arctic up-close, and is both saddened and angered about what’s happening. But on a warm July day on the edge of the Boundary Waters its best to keep those sentiments – sad and angry – at bay and instead keep your eyes peeled for painted turtles slipping off logs into the Dead River.
Ten years ago today we were in the heart of the Aleutian Islands, pushing off from Herbert Island and headed back to Chuginadak. Last night I went back to the voice messages I’d left on National Geographic’s website – we weren’t able yet to send text, photos or video via the satellite phone, only audio – and got a kick out of both the brevity of the messages and the slight tone of fear I could hear. (“Probably our wildest days of adventure were left for the last days of our 25-day trip…. we got out in the middle of a pretty strong current…swamping the boat…it was a good ride. What we expected to be the homestretch was a monstrous wind…Mother Nature was not making that last day easy for us.”)
This morning – home comfortably but soggy in the Catskills, about to spend the long weekend in the Boundary Waters with my friend Will Steger – I’ve gone to the book about our Aleutian Adventure, “Birthplace of the Winds,” to remind myself exactly what we we’d gotten ourselves into.
“When I awoke I had virtually no anxiety about the upcoming – most likely final – crossing. Rested by a good, eight-hour sleep, feeling as good as I had all trip, I was anxious to get going.
“Our first clue should have been aural. From the beach at Herbert the roar coming off the pass was ominous. It isn’t the sound of the wind or waves, but like a locomotive river splitting Chuginadak and Herbert. I’ve never heard a current so loud before. That alone should have warned us this would be a wild day. But by the time the tents are down, we are anxious to get moving. We’ve been camped on Herbert for four nights, and it has been most luxurious. Now we’re ready to get back to base camp, in part for that dry bag of ‘real’ food that waits. Plus, once we are back at Applegate, the trip will have been a true success. All five islands explored, all crossings made safely.
“As soon as we push the boat onto the water, I am overwhelmed by an ominous feeling. The normally kelp-filled cove is wind-churned, foamy. We push out first and try to wait for Sean and Barry, which proves impossible. We are forced to paddle full-strength, right off the bat, just to avoid being sucked out to sea. Beyond, the roar grows louder.”
Suffice to say the day, eight hours later we were still paddling, into an offshore wind blowing from the four-mile long beach on Chuginadak. I remember shouting back to Scott McGuire, suggesting maybe we should hunker down in the kelp – like the seals do, during big storms – but he was afraid it would only grow worse and we’d spend the night on the water.
When we did finally pull the boats up on shore we were cold and cramped, but thrilled. It was our last big paddle of the adventure. I remember my partner Barry Tessman’s words to this day: “It doesn’t get any better than this!”