Virtuous Calamity

Stories of polar exploration are filled with stoic heroism. But what's so courageous about icy shipwrecks, corpses, and dogmeat dinners?

"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised," Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote in his classic account of mind-boggling suffering in Antarctica The Worst Journey in the World. The journey in question--in which Cherry-Garrard in the company of two colleagues made a near-disastrous midwinter trek to Cape Crozier seeking, of all things, emperor penguin eggs--was an absurdist little sidebar to Robert Falcon Scott's more wholly disastrous trip to the South Pole on that same British expedition to the continent in 1912. Cherry-Garrard's title, however, might have just as conveniently been appropriated for every one of the dozens of books that have been written down through the years on the always harrowing exploration of the brutally inhospitable icebound continent at the bottom of the world, and the past year has seen a fresh round of reissues, new assessments, novels, and general interest in the continent itself, as well as in what was called by the British popular press in the years before World War I "the Golden Age of exploration."

This most recent glut of books has no doubt been spurred by the huge and frightening success of more contemporary accounts of adventure disaster (the Into Thin Air phenomenon) and the new cult of radical travel experience championed by Outside magazine. A decade or so after Minnesota's Will Steger trekked to the North Pole, a hundred imitators seek lucrative Gore-Tex endorsements to achieve heretofore unimagined feats--speed-skating the Bering Strait, perhaps--and desk jockeys across the Western world pay good money to have their lives imperiled alongside grizzled pros. (The entire trend was given the perfect tag in a New York Times Magazine article last summer: "Explornography.") Thomas Orde-Lees, a member of Ernest Shackleton's expedition on board the Endurance, demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the genre and its appeal in a journal entry he wrote in 1916 while marooned and waiting for rescue on Elephant Island. "If we had everything we wanted we should have no privations to write about and that would be a serious loss to the 'book,'" he wrote. "Privations make a book sell like anything."


If you could see me now: Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 28 men spent 10 months trapped on board the Endurance (above) in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. This image was captured by expedition photographer Frank Hurley.
If you could see me now: Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 28 men spent 10 months trapped on board the Endurance (above) in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. This image was captured by expedition photographer Frank Hurley.

The literature of Antarctica represents a unique body of work even when measured against the wildest standards of true adventure reporting, and the men who made the discovery and exploration of the last continent their life's obsession are a decidedly odd and fascinating lot. Beginning in the 19th century, each subsequent foray into the ice-packed waters south of the Antarctic circle represented a new round of limbo, with the challenge "How low can you go?" taken to ever further extremes--geographical, physiological, psychological, and purely existential.

Even if one ultimately recoils from the relentlessly grim and almost inexplicable suffering these characters withstood, there is no denying the continued fascination such accounts hold for the moribund and morbid popular imagination: Who hasn't at one time or another, while camped out on a couch in the middle of yet another interminable winter, cold panic straining at the roof of his skull, imagined his tedium as a barren continent all his own? Surely it's not difficult to find some grudging admiration for a bunch of obviously repressed, stoic characters who were willing to travel to the bottom of the earth in search of some appropriate and challenging metaphor for their own loneliness, trudging across the ice looking for a pathetic fallacy that less ambitious folks can generally find without too much trouble in their own backyards.

Consider this puzzling letter Edward Wilson, who died with Scott in Antarctica, penned to his wife to justify his trip south: "I am getting more and more soft and dependent upon comforts, and this I hate," Wilson wrote. "I want to endure hardship and instead I enjoy hotel dinners and prefer hot water to cold and so on--all bad signs and something must be done to stop it." What manner of man is this? Who doesn't enjoy hotel dinners and prefer hot water to cold? Still, bully for him, I suppose, but pity his poor wife, because you can rest assured that Wilson got all the hardship he could weather and then some on his fateful journey with Scott.

Survival in Antarctica, one may safely assume from all published accounts, boils down to pure sublimation; you hunker down and you hope only to survive. You keep moving and you endure, and in the process maybe you manage to lug home a few rocks and just possibly locate your own huge and howling emptiness in a real and tediously engaging place outside yourself.


Nobody personifies the harsh realities of Antarctica more than Robert Falcon Smith, the doomed, sad-sack British explorer who along with two colleagues died in his tent on a miserable march back from the South Pole in 1912. Scott had made the quest for the pole his life's ambition, and had undertaken an earlier failed attempt in 1902, struggling to 82.28 degrees south--at that time the farthest south yet attained--before turning back. But in 1912 he had competition; Norwegian Roald Amundsen and a team were staging their own assault on the pole at precisely the same time, and the race was on.

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