Lately--and for me, oddly--I've read a couple of books (and have also seen the film Shackleton) about Antarctic expeditions. Why? That's a question I've been trying to answer.
Previously I thought of expeditions to both the North and South Poles as relatively equal in terms of weather, difficulty of survival, the ice to be traversed, and so on. Of course I was aware that Antarctica is a continent and that there is no corresponding body of land at the North Pole, but since in my mind everything at either one is ice and snow, I hadn't realized how uninformed I was. It was just one of the infinity of things not on my radar screen, and my few impressions were vague and foggy, to say the least.
But Antarctica is unique.
According to the CIA's World Factbook, Antarctica is "the coldest, windiest, highest (on average), and driest continent." Natural hazards:
katabatic (gravity-driven) winds blow coastward from the high interior; frequent blizzards form near the foot of the plateau; cyclonic storms form over the ocean and move clockwise along the coast; volcanism on Deception Island and isolated areas of West Antarctica; other seismic activity rare and weak; large icebergs may calve from ice shelf
Those katabatic winds are something else. In Mawson's Will, the story of Australian Douglas Mawson, who braved the Antarctic in 1911, I first read about winds of 90 mph that blew steadily for as long as an hour at a time and at speeds much higher in short bursts, fierce, icy winds the men endured inside a wooden building constructed by the explorers themselves with materials brought on the ship that deposited them on "land."
I put "land" in quotation marks because the continent is 98% thick continental ice sheet and 2% barren rock.
Yet, again according to the World Factbook, in the 2002-2003 antarctic summer, over 13,000 tourists visited Antarctica, with the average tour (by commercial ship) lasting two weeks. Jim knows someone who did this because he is an avid birder.
Others go, no doubt, to see scenes like this. (For more amazing photos, visit Cool Antarctica.) Or because it is what it is, the strangest and most inhospitable continent on earth.
Not until 1820 was it confirmed that there was, in fact, land that far south, and not until 1840 was it confirmed that Antarctica is a continent and not a group of islands. The Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration lasted from 1900-1922, and the heroes include such famous names as Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen.
At that time, with the equipment available then, it would have been unimaginable that some day thousands of tourists would take their vacations in the Antarctic. An expedition party was dropped off by a ship that promised to return in a year's time, and those on the expedition had to be there waiting for it--or wait another year. There was a very small window during which the frozen seas could be navigated by the wooden, coal-fired ships that traveled there. All supplies had to be planned, gathered, organized, and transported with the thought that there was no backup. Neither was there radio contact, or, when there was, it was limited to telegraphic messages sent out on an extremely limited basis. Dogs, and in some cases ponies, had to be transported, fed, and cared for. Clothing was not the high-tech survival gear that it is now, and sleeping bags were made of reindeer hide. By today's standards, the equipment available to withstand the world's worst, most vicious weather was primitive.
But such is the lure of adventure and the quest for scientific knowledge. Reading these stories of exploration, hardship, suffering, survival, and sometimes death, it's hard not to be moved by the bravery of these men, their determination in the face of incredible odds against them, and the sheer will to survive. Did they hope to make it into the history books? To become famous? Perhaps some of them did; it would be surprising if the leaders of expeditions such as these had small egos. But reading the diaries of these men, what comes through again and again is the desire to know: to know, as much as one ever can, the limits of human endurance and the extent of human capacities, but to know also the scientific and the practical--the geography, the geology, the animal life, the weather features, the behavior of the ice and sea. To an extent, knowledge of these things increased chances of survival. Passing on this crucial knowledge to those who came later was also the expressed primary reason for keeping detailed diaries, but detailed logs, drawings, charts, and photographs helped to document the scientific discoveries they made. And in the process, we in the present are left with a fascinating history of that time, that place, and those experiences.
Thank goodness. For as the anonymous writer at Cool Antarctica says,
Contrast this for instance with space exploration and the moon landings that haven't resulted in a single quality piece of writing. Apart from seeing the video footage, we the public really know nothing of it, we don't understand the hardships, comradeship, rivalries or even the mundane day to day routines.
But these diaries and stories do detail everyday life and its concomitant danger, boredom, illness, joys, disappointments, obstacles, surprises, and spontaneous celebrations. For all their heroism, we see the men of the expeditions in their mundane human-ness, too. And that adds to immediacy and gives texture to these stories.
I can't say that I can imagine myself there, struggling against harsh circumstances and enduring multiple miseries. But I can imagine other humans there, and I can feel a keen interest in their outcome.
If I sometimes feel myself at a cynical remove from these men's allegiance to ideas like nobility, faith, trust in the leadership, trust in one's fellow travelers, duty, patriotism, and the like, or from their idealism, at others I feel a great sadness that our ideas and aspirations have contracted to such a small size and that such idealism is scorned by whole societies devoted almost solely to getting and spending. Perhaps it's this great divide that brings new generations of readers to this kind of literature.
I think, too, that despite the noble ideals so many of the explorers allude to, paradoxically it's the stripped-down quality of life under such averse conditions that is appealing. The need to stay warm and fed and dry, the need to make do, to deal with illness and injury, to fight for survival: these fundamental necessities co-exist with lofty abstractions and ground them. That makes for compelling narrative in a modern world in which we know little either of striving for basic survival nor of seemingly lost concepts like the greater good, honor among leaders, and living a life dedicated to something bigger than ourselves and our comforts.