Virtuous Calamity

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.

"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."


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.  

Scott's failures in Antarctica are the stuff of legend--contradictory legends, in fact. His demise, beautifully and nobly chronicled in his journal right up to the point of his death, captured the popular imagination of a pre-Great War British Empire starving for heroes, and his widow, with the full cooperation of the British press, carefully orchestrated a campaign to secure his reputation. Yet his expeditions have been dogged by persistent and largely justified claims of wholesale bungling and mismanagement. He was certainly among the most ill-prepared and temperamentally unsuited Antarctic explorers.

In A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the Pole (Houghton Mifflin), Diana Preston sets out to salvage Scott's reputation from the fierce and almost meticulous thrashing it took in Roland Huntford's 1980 account, Scott and Amundsen. It is largely a failed attempt (which seems somehow appropriate to the topic), and there is little in Preston's book that has not been told exhaustively elsewhere. Even so, it is hard not to feel some measure of sympathy for a man who was so clearly in over his head, and even more keenly does one feel for his stalwart and grimly resolved cohorts.

The mistakes of Scott's last expedition were many, and though Preston gives them full play, she is at a loss to justify or defend most of them. Scott's clothing and diet were inadequate; he favored "more civilized garb," while his rival Amundsen appropriated the more effective Eskimo fur clothing. He failed even to attempt to master skiing or dog-sledding techniques, forsaking dogs and skis in favor of ponies that would eventually have to be shot, and the more debilitating (but "honorable") practice of "man hauling" his sleds across the ice. At the last moment, he chose to take four men with him on the push to the pole, when only three had been provisioned for. He kept erratic schedules on the ice, and drove his malnourished men too hard. The diaries of others on his team portray a man who was neither well-liked nor entirely trusted, a fussy worrywart who lacked the unshakable confidence and optimism of a truly great leader. Scott never quite managed to understand what his rival Amundsen so clearly grasped: "Adventure was just bad planning." Huntford found in Scott's ennobled failure nothing but "heroism for heroism's sake," the sort of absurdist glory that fed the public's weakness for "virtuous calamity."

As Scott and his exhausted men marched to within a few miles of the South Pole, they stumbled upon footprints, dog shit, and a black flag left by Amundsen to let the British know that the race had already been won. It is one of the saddest moments in all of exploration literature. Dispirited, Scott continued on to the pole and discovered the Norwegian flag flying over the tent left by Amundsen's party on their departure. Amundsen, breezing along with the rest of his crew on skis behind well-conditioned dogs, had beaten them by 33 days. Huntford notes that Amundsen documented his arrival in his typically terse style: The occasion, he wrote, would "certainly be remembered by all who were there. One soon gets out of the habit of protracted ceremonies in these regions--the shorter the better. Workaday resumed immediately." For his part, Scott wrote, "Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority....Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it."

They could not, of course, and the rest, as recounted in A First Rate Tragedy and Scott's own journals (reissued in 1996 as Scott's Last Expedition by Carroll & Graf), is a miserable tale. "Well," Scott wrote on departing the pole, "we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging--and goodbye to most of the day-dreams!"

The date was January 18, 1912, and by the first week of March, Scott reported that things were "going from bad to worse." One of his men, Edgar Evans, had collapsed and died on February 17, and the rest of the party were in serious decline. On March 14 Titus Oates, who had been crippled by frostbitten feet, left the tent and apparently walked away to his death. Finally, on March 29, the remaining three members of the pole party were pinned down in their tent by a blizzard, and Scott recorded his last journal entry: "It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more." In a farewell letter addressed "To My Widow," he wrote, in words that recall Edward Wilson's pre-expedition letter to his own wife, "What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better it has been than lounging in too great comfort at home." Pathetically, he concluded, "I wasn't a very good husband but I hope I shall be a good memory." And in his legendary "Message to the Public," Scott wrote the words that were to cement his immortality: "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale...."  


Ernest Shackleton's own ill-fated Endurance expedition, undertaken in 1914 just as World War I was breaking out in Europe, represents one of the most extraordinary good luck/bad luck sagas you're ever likely to hear, and though it has been the inspiration for any number of excellent books, the tale receives its most complete and wholly satisfying treatment yet in Caroline Alexander's astonishing new book, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Alexander does a fine job of piecing together Shackleton's story from the journals and papers of the men involved, and her book is a triumph of research and presentation, the whole thing made all the more gripping by the inclusion of Frank Hurley's grim, haunting, and frequently beautiful expedition photographs.

Shackleton was a veteran of two previous Antarctic expeditions, including Scott's failed first assault on the pole, during which the two men had a falling-out that was to dog and drive both of them for the remainder of their careers. Later, in 1909, Shackleton, along with three companions, had struggled to within 100 miles of the pole before turning back, weary and undersupplied, a difficult but characteristically prudent decision that prompted his famous words: "Better a live donkey than a dead lion."

Shackleton was a savvy and charismatic self-promoter, and by 1913 he was a married man with a family. He had tried his hand and failed at the more prosaic pursuits of business and journalism. Absent any other prospects, he authored a best-selling book on his expedition, hit the lecture circuit, and, with the pole now conquered, devoted himself to raising funds for another expedition south, this one with the purpose of making the first trans-Antarctic crossing. Later in his life he was to write in a letter to his beleaguered wife, "Sometimes I think I am no good at anything but being away in the wilds just with men."

Sailing from South Georgia, Shackleton's custom-built Endurance, with 69 dogs and 28 crewmen aboard, entered the pack ice in the Weddell Sea on December 7, 1914, just two days after departure. By mid-January the ship was stuck in the ice 100 miles short of its intended harbor, and began drifting back north, ever farther from Antarctica. The crew spent 10 months aboard the ship, trapped in the ice. "The idea of spending the winter in an icebound ship is extremely unpleasant," expedition photographer Frank Hurley wrote, displaying the almost comical understatement characteristic of so many of the men's journals. Eventually, on October 27, 1915, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, and the group set up camp on an ice floe and watched their vessel sink.

For over five months, they marched and camped on the moving ice, hauling with them their three boats and all the provisions they could pile on their sleds, all the while drifting with the floes back out to sea. The dogs, who had each been paid for by schoolchildren throughout England, were shot and butchered for pemmican. The men, wet, cold, and miserable, were eventually reduced to slaughtering seals and penguins for food and fuel.

Although no explicit details ever emerge, Alexander suggests that Shackleton's optimism began to wear on the crew, and hints at discord among the ship's sailors, none of whom were ever intended to be a part of the expedition's landing party. "From other accounts one gleans suggestions that [the sailors] were both more despondent and troublesome than was ever directly stated," Alexander writes. One of the difficulties of such books is that the officers and scientific staffs of these expeditions were often dry and less than candid diarists, and were generally loath to air any sort of dirty laundry that might provide a whiff of mutiny at some point down the road; and none of the sailors left any kind of record. Thus the reconstruction of events often involves a lot of hypothesizing on the part of both reader and writer.  

It is difficult, however, to imagine a man of Scott's formal bearing holding up under similar circumstances; he had been a naval man who always maintained an enforced and prideful distance from his men. Shackleton was from a merchant marine background, and mixed easily with all of his crew; he was if anything overconscientious in ensuring that the sailors got a fair shake, going out of his way to issue them the warmest gear and most generous rations. Despite intimations that there may have been larger discontent among the party than was ever acknowledged in the official record, Shackleton did succeed in keeping his men together throughout the ordeal.

On April 9, 1916 more than five months after abandoning the Endurance, the ice began to break up beneath their camp, and Shackleton ordered the three boats loaded for a desperate attempt at the closest land. For seven days the men navigated through the floes and brash, trying to make their way to Elephant Island, an uninhabited scrap of rock that would provide them with shelter but no hope of ever being found. The last four nights, the men had to sleep in the open boats, frozen, seasick, and surrounded by killer whales. On the fourth night, they attempted a landing on the island but were forced by a raging storm to abort. The men were wet, many had not slept in days, and they sat up all night bailing and trying to hold on. "It was a stern night," Shackleton wrote in his journal.

The next morning they finally managed to dock on the island, and the men tumbled ashore in varying states of shock and debilitation. "Many suffered from temporary aberration," Frank Hurley reported, but offered no further details. J.M. Wordie, the expedition glaciologist, was more specific: "Some fellows moreover were half crazy," he reported. "One got an axe and did not stop until he had killed about ten seals."

The men were forced to establish their camp directly atop a reeking penguin rookery and they were immediately assaulted by a storm that drove them to their tents. Shackleton reports in his own memoir, South (reissued in 1998 by Carroll & Graf), that on the morning of April 19, with a storm still raging, "Some of the men were showing signs of demoralization. They were disinclined to leave their tents when the hour came for turning out, and it was apparent they were thinking more of the discomforts of the moment than of the good fortune that had brought us to sound ground and comparative safety....They said they wanted dry clothes and that their health did not admit of their doing any work. Only by rather drastic measures were they induced to turn to." Alexander, noting this interesting item in the memoirs, comments, "The diaries leave one with a sense that all the facts have not been plainly spoken."

Within days Shackleton announced to his men that he intended to strike out with five others in the James Caird, a 221Ž2-foot open boat, for the whaling station at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles away. This proposed trip would take them across the roughest winter seas in the world, where the winds commonly topped 80 miles per hour and the waves could be as high as 60 feet. No one, of course, believed such a feat was possible. They would be shooting for a tiny island, with limited opportunities for navigational sightings, and with virtually no margin for error; if they missed South Georgia they would be swept out into 3000 miles of ocean. They were attempting the equivalent of trying to hit a quarter with a golf ball from 400 yards out.

Shackleton launched the Caird on April 24. He took with him Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, plus two of his sturdiest and most trusted men and the two men he feared would be most likely to stir up trouble if left behind on Elephant Island. The men sailed for 16 days; the skies were mostly overcast, and Worsley had an almost impossible time getting precise navigational observations in the rolling boat. Yet on May 10, after 48 hours without fresh water, they managed, miraculously, in the middle of a hurricane, to land the James Caird on South Georgia. They were, unfortunately, on the opposite side of the island from the Norwegian whaling station, and to get to the station Shackleton and two of his men had to climb over a previously uncrossed and uncharted range of mountains, a feat they managed in 36 hours of continuous marching and climbing; three times they had to retrace their steps after scaling unbreachable passes.  

Three days after arriving at the Norwegian station and arranging the rescue of the remaining three men on the other side of the island, Shackleton was on board a borrowed Norwegian ship and headed back to Elephant Island. His first attempt would be turned back by the ice, as were two subsequent attempts in two different boats. Finally, aboard the Chilean Yelcho, on August 30, 1916, Shackleton completed the rescue of the remaining 22 men on Elephant Island. Not a single man was lost. It had been more than 600 days since the Endurance had left South Georgia and headed into the pack ice. In Punta Arenas, Chile, Shackleton dashed off a letter to his wife: "I have done it," he wrote. "Not a life lost and we have been through hell."

For a brief period of hard-earned grace Shackleton was Job triumphant, but he would return to an England preoccupied with the carnage of World War I, and his astonishing tale was largely met with indifference. He allegedly began to drink heavily, and in 1921 he was to stage one last aimless cruise into Southern waters, accompanied by eight members of his old Endurance crew. It was there in South Georgia that he suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of 47. At his widow's request, he was buried in South Georgia among the Norwegian whalers.


By the time John Behrendt headed to Antarctica in 1956 as part of the United States presence for the International Geophysical Year (IGY), huge changes had come to the continent, and the massive IGY presence during that 18-month period (from July 1, 1957 until December 31, 1958, 12 countries established and maintained more than 40 Antarctic stations) was the harbinger of even bigger changes to come. Behrendt was a 24-year-old assistant seismologist assigned to the IGY glaciological program operating out of the recently established Ellsworth Station along the Weddell Sea, and he recounts his experiences in Innocents on the Ice: A Memoir of Antarctic Exploration, 1957 (University Press of Colorado).

At the time, the U.S. presence on the continent was run by the Navy, and the nine-man IGY scientific staff spent much of the 1957 Antarctic winter butting heads with Capt. Finn Ronne, the naval officer in charge of the station. Ronne was the only man among the 39 at Ellsworth that season who had had any previous Antarctic experience, and Behrendt portrays him as a rigid and often highly irrational man whose "Navy ways" and insistence on strict adherence to military discipline and protocol confused and infuriated the scientific staff. Behrendt's account, which is basically his journal from the period fleshed out with additional historical perspective and commentary, is an often informative and curious look at Antarctica's first days as a world laboratory of grunt science.

By the time of the IGY, the men who journeyed to Antarctica--and they were still all men--were far more likely to be scientists or military personnel than explorers in the traditional "Golden Age" sense of the term. While Behrendt and some of his colleagues did undertake a 1,200-mile over-snow traverse into territory that was largely uncharted and even unvisited, they traveled and lived in large heated Sno-Cats, enjoyed regular air support and communication, and spent much of their time poking around in the ice and making seismic readings of its depth. Behrendt's account of life at the station, with its parties, bridge games, classical music classes, and regular film screenings (Dial M for Murder and Julius Caesar, among others), makes the chronicles of the earlier expeditions seem all the more harrowing. And given Antarctica's then-designation as a hardship military post, the men stationed there got to do some serious eating as well. By the end of the book, poor Capt. Ronne seems like little more than a grumpy old man.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Innocents on the Ice is the appearance, at the conclusion of Behrendt's stay at Ellsworth, of naval psychiatrists. Along with the others at Ellsworth, Behrendt submitted to a series of interviews. "The questions were quite interesting and I enjoyed answering them," he writes, although he does admit that "during the interview, I refused to discuss masturbation...." Which is something of a disappointment, it has to be admitted; throughout all these accounts and journals of long travels and privation in Antarctica, not once does a single reference to sex make even a veiled appearance. Certainly one must wonder.

The psychiatrists, Behrendt reports, later published a paper on their findings and conclusions, which noted, "As might be expected 'oral needs' were enhanced because of the absence of other basic gratifications. Appetite and consumption were enormous." There is one particularly interesting passage in the report that manages to recall the strange, earlier remarks of Edward Wilson and Robert Falcon Scott: "One curious source of disappointment and disillusionment that affected an appreciable number of the younger or romantically inclined members," the psychiatrists wrote, "was the relative luxury of the living conditions and the comparative absence of excitement, danger and real hardship. This spoiled the whole adventure for them."  

The job of filling in the gaping cracks in the written history of polar exploration and exploitation must ultimately fall to the novelists, who are free to imagine all the fierce and unacknowledged lusts and ambitions of the adventurers who voyage into the ice at the top and bottom of the world. It is these writers who can fully explore motives, qualifications, and decisions--free, finally, to acknowledge the fact that while there was undoubtedly something missing from the lives of these men, it almost certainly wasn't a continent.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica (Bantam) is set sometime after the turn of the 21st century, when guides are leading groups of adventure tourists onto the continent to retrace the great and often tragic expeditions of the past, pirate geologists are beginning to root around beneath the surface for oil, squatters are building secret encampments out in the ice, and a band of ecoterrorists is sabotaging the work of oil researchers and geologists. The number of people on the continent is beginning to pose a threat to the fragile ecosystem, and every official presence there seems to have an agenda, what with the Antarctic Treaty set to expire.

Interwoven with all these strands, which Robinson does a credible job of handling, are recurring discussions and examinations of Antarctica's most famous expeditions. Val, a guide for the aforementioned adventure nostalgia company, has come to disdain her wealthy clients and has grown weary of all the aggrandizing of dead explorers. She realizes that her clients on the "Footsteps of Amundsen" expedition are little more than "people going out ill-prepared to repeat the earlier expeditions of people who had gone out ill-prepared, and thinking therefore that you were doing something difficult and courageous, when it was simply stupid, that was all. Dangerous, yes. Courageous, no. Because there was no correlation between suffering and virtue."

She ultimately reaches a conclusion that one must suspect was shared, but never acknowledged, by men like Scott and Shackleton: "The world was stuffed with things harder than walking in Antarctica....The whole game of adventure travel was essentially an escape from the hard things." Robinson's novel is an ambitious and cautionary book, and also serves as an excellent and comprehensive primer in the history of Antarctic history, exploration, and geology.

Andrea Barrett stages The Voyage of the Narwhal (Norton) aboard a ship trapped in the ice at the opposite end of the world from Antarctica, but her book does a commendable job of bringing to light all the unspoken secrets and psychological dramas that one senses creeping underneath all the nonfiction accounts of Antarctic exploration. The Narwhal's catastrophic expedition presents many of the conflicts and complications that we know or at least may reasonably suspect were features of the tragic southern treks: ugly, uncertain ambition; personality clashes and complete loss of privacy; terrible hardship; scientific goals subordinated to the egos and ambitions of expedition leaders; the strain and impossible challenge of men forced to live in close quarters with other men, many of whose company they've been raised to shun. And against these terrible circumstances, she gives us convincing and human responses from the disparate but equally beleaguered crew of the doomed ship.

"What is it you want?" naturalist Erasmus Wells demands of expedition leader Zeke Voorhees late in the Narwhal's journey.

"I want my name on something," Voorhees replies, "...something big--is that so hard to understand? I want my name on the map."

Ultimately, however, the most damning words in The Voyage of the Narwhal are those from Thoreau's Walden that Dr. Jan Boerhaave scrawls in the journal left behind after his death on the ice: "What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him; that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific ocean of one's being alone."

Finally, there is no getting around the fact that all these men who muddled around at the ends of the earth were, at the least, masters of the most challenging sort of sublimation. And masters perhaps of nothing but that.

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