Remember the poem I wrote about helping penguins? Well, I seriously do love Antarctica. After being intrigued by the semi-recent tale of Henry Worsley, I discovered a host of frozen lore and legend centered on one mighty continent. The history of Antarctica is truly inspiring, but what’s more amazing to me is that there are people still accepting its challenge.
My mom also told me about another contemporary adventure someone was voluntarily undertaking — to rock-climb the wall of El Capitan without ropes or safety equipment. That’s about 3,000 feet that some insane contemporary of mine had just scaled on his own.
For sure, there were tons of articles written about these
lunatics bold men, as is made clear by all the links I wedged in up there. However, I wanted to express my own personal admiration of these accomplishments. I am continually astounded by the intense breadth and depth of ability housed in human beings. This is the first section from an encomium of some modern-day adventurers. Parts 2 and 3 will be specifically about Louis Rudd and Colin O’Brady (Antarctica-crossers), and Alex Honnold (El Cap-climber).
Captain James Cook confirmed the Greek’s theory in 1773: Antarctica did, in fact, exist. Since the day he declared mankind could “derive no benefit from it,” Antarctica’s frozen shores have served as a harbor for a multitude of ships (although for some reason it’s still not the most popular tourist destination). Whalers, explorers, scientists, and captains have visited the icy shelves, most of them staying there for an extended time (a few quite by accident!). Some of the more bold adventurers camped on Antarctica itself, not content on or below the decks of their ships. The most audacious, who sought to conquer and cross the mighty continent of ice in the name of exploration, are the ones emphasized in this article.
It should be stressed that great physical power is needed to attempt a crossing of Antarctica. Many explorers have trained for years, strengthening themselves to slog through ice, gaining weight to avoid starvation during their journey, freezing their limbs to practice untying knots with numb fingers, pulling tires along riverbanks, and much more. Quite a few of the modern challengers have served in the military for a significant time, indicating they have the physical strength, discipline, and determination that is needed on the trek. Ernest Shackleton, perhaps the best-known of Antarctic adventurers, wrote that a Polar explorer would need “First, optimism; second, patience; third, physical endurance; fourth, idealism; fifth and last, courage.”
The additional psychological difficulties encountered on an Antarctic trek cannot be lightly set aside. Along its coastlines, Antarctica boasts icebergs and snow sculptures that will snatch one’s breath away with their beauty; the inlands, however, are not a scenic destination. Many explorers, especially those traveling on sheer manpower, have found the constant whiteness to be blinding, something that whittles away at their sanity. Utter isolation, continual forward marches, sogginess paired with dehydration, moody winds and blizzards – such conditions can and have cracked the most stable of minds. Going to the end of the earth and striking out on a blank sheet requires the nerves, fortitude, strength, and determination of a hero.
There are many who believed themselves worthy of the gauntlet Antarctica threw down. In 1899, the same year newsies were striking in New York, Carsten Borchgrevink made what some say was the first official landing and camping on the continent at Cape Adare. His British expedition was the first scientific group to winter on Antarctica, but the glory-loving captain and the associated scientific accomplishments have been mostly forgotten. Two years later, Captain Robert Falcon Scott began his explorations, trying with Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson to reach the South Pole. Due to scurvy and snow blindness, they had to turn back before they arrived, but continued mapping the area and taking photographs for another winter.
Shackleton made another, purely explorative, trip starting in 1907. Five members of his team succeeded in scaling an active volcano called Mount Erebus (they were the first to do so), and three others (among them Douglas Mawson, one of the Heroes of the Antarctic Age) man-hauled their way to and from the Magnetic South Pole. Later, however, ninety-seven nautical miles from the Geographic Pole, Shackleton’s party realized they couldn’t finish the quest and survive; “We have shot our bolt,” Shackleton wrote, as the four men made a frantic dash back. They made it back the night before the rest of the crew was scheduled to leave.
Although Shackleton had failed in his goal of reaching the Pole, he was met with much acclaim and adoration, and over the next four years the popular world was swept up in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Captain Scott set out again in 1910, inviting Douglas Mawson to join him on his Terra Nova expedition. Mawson declined, instead leading his own Australasian Antarctic Expedition. He and two companions, Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, set out in 1912 on an expedition to map the coastline and collect geological samples. Disaster struck one day when Ninnis fell through a crevasse and couldn’t be found, taking with him six sled dogs, most of the rations, and the tent, among other essential items. The other two turned back, but Mertz and the remaining dogs perished on the journey; Mawson finished the last 100 miles alone, miraculously surviving despite falling through a crevasse himself.
Meanwhile, Scott wasn’t having such a good time of it, either. He and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had ended up racing for the Geographic South Pole. The advantage for speed was with Amundsen, however, as he was using a team of sled dogs. Captain Scott had a heartbreaking day in 1912 when he found the Norwegian flag flying after a wretched quest to the Pole. Unfortunately, the return trip went even worse, and all five men of Scott’s party died a tantalizing 11 miles from a supply stop. The men had reached the Pole on foot – an impressive accomplishment rightfully acknowledged by Amundsen and others – but one must wonder if the glory compensated for the price.
Shackleton continued to meet with failure, as well, as in 1914 he set out to be the first to cross Antarctica. He and his crew didn’t succeed in even landing on the continent, and just managed to survive despite the ice smashing their ship. This failed attempt marked the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, although there have since been many more expeditions to the continent; planes and ships enable cartographers, meteorologists, biologists, astronomers, geologists, and tourists to feel the dry crunch of Antarctica under their own boots. Twelve nations have established stations on the frigid desert, although Antarctica is considered “non-national.”
Antarctica was finally crossed in 1958 when Sir Vivian Fuchs led the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition to success. Using supply stops and vehicles, the team completed the crossing via the Pole in 99 days. Then in 1992-93, Erling Kagge from Norway put on his skis and completed the first unassisted solo journey to the Pole; at the same time, Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud were the first ones to cross – unassisted – the whole continent by ski.
In 1997, a remarkable feat was accomplished when Børge Ousland completed a crossing without any human assistance (he did use a kite), an astounding 1,864 miles in a mere 34 days. This was the first ever solo-crossing without a re-supply. (What an odd coincidence that so many polar explorers are Norwegian…) Felicity Aston was the first woman to cross Antarctica alone in 2011. She was resupplied twice, but went solo and used no kites, thus also becoming the first person to cross through sheer muscle power.
Henry Worsley, a suspected descendant of an explorer who accompanied Shackleton, sought to outdo all previous records and make a continental crossing on his own and with no assistance of any kind; no kite, no dog, no supply drops, nothing. Regrettably, after more than 900 miles, Worsley called for aid 126 miles from the end of his destination; in 2016 he died in a hospital of peritonitis. It was his tragic story of perseverance that inspired this brief history of Antarctica’s challengers and suitors. The list of modern polar explorers and their feats could go on for pages, and if they are not all mentioned here, it is only for the sake of brevity.
To be continued next week.
All photos taken from Google Images.
Text © 2019 Kimba Wisotsky