Reading: The Antarctic Diaries of Edward Wilson

Photo: M. Deany

Yesterday Deany and I went skiing on the Castle Rock trail. As was the case when Anne and I hiked up there a couple of weeks ago, we were met at the trailhead by a vicious headwind. It was full-on balaclava and goggles weather, with each of us peering into the face of the other to look for any slivers of exposed skin before setting out; frostbite was a real possibility. Neither of us said anything to the other until much later down the trail, but it turns out that as we were bundling up to get started we were both thinking "damn, what a stupid idea this is." As is usual with such ventures persistence is rewarded, and by the time we reached the first tomato (the emergency shelter) the wind was already slackening. It was blissful and quiet, with only the slide of the skis and the crunch of the poles audible in the air. The snow was hard and brittle so we weren't exactly kicking and gliding, but the skis beat trudging along on foot. Beyond Castle Rock conditions were much calmer, and we shushed our way down the side of the mountain with only a handful of spectacular and catastrophic spastic collapses between us. Tumbling on cross country skis down an icy hillside has the graceless, unnaturally angular quality of a shot heron falling out of the sky and plummeting to the ground. Deany managed to shatter one of his bamboo ski poles and had to finish out the trek using a bamboo flag as a replacement. This flapped over our heads all the way home, as if we were a very small parade.

It's a long walk for one run, but how many people have snowboarded from Castle Rock down to "the Great Ice Barrier"? Martin, thrashing.

The turn out of the steep slope down to the west of the rock opened the door to an immense vista of sea ice stretching endlessly to the south, towards the Pole. Here before us, had we stood on this spot some 104 years ago, on November 2nd, with binoculars, we might have seen Scott's party setting out on the "Southern Journey," of 1902. Accompanied by E. A. Wilson, biologist, artist and expedition doctor, and Wilson's close friend Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, Scott aimed to reach farther south into the continent than any preceding expedition. Within days, in fact, they had pushed beyond the mark set by Carsten Borchgrevink some years earlier.

Wilson's diaries help illuminate the degree to which Scott was concerned with reaching record latitudes, and by extension, the Pole. "I am afraid this long southern journey is taking me right away away from my proper sphere of work to monotonous hard work on an icy desert for three months, where we shall see neither beast nor bird nor life of any sort nor land and nothing whatever to sketch," writes Wilson. Scott has just informed him that rather than do scientific research with Emperor Penguins he is to leave the relative pleasures of camp and ship and walk south. And then back north. For ninety days.

Erebus, smoking

As Deany and I could see when looking out from the slope behind Castle Rock, the southern journeymen had not even the prospect of encountering land to sustain them in their long uncomfortable slog towards the Pole. The icy winter slip for the ship Discovery, here at McMurdo, and the establishment of McMurdo as the US Antarctic Program base in the 1950s are both thanks to our being on the dividing line between the seasonal sea ice and the permanent ice shelf, which Scott's party referred to as "the Great Barrier." Immediately off the point, in front of the collection of pale green outbuildings that make up New Zealand's Scott Base, just a kilometer or so from our office as the skua flies, immense undulations of buckling ice mark the line. From the foothills of Erebus, where Deany and I were skiing, no land relieves the endless view across the permanent ice shelf to the south. Scott, Shackleton and Wilson sledged this way, butchering their weakest dogs to feed those that continued to pull weight. (It is notable that two of the major criticisms which continue to be used to diminish the accomplishment of Amundsen's stroll to the Pole are that he savagely killed his dogs off along the way and that he was single-mindedly focussed only on reaching that elusive spot on the end of the earth, to the exclusion of all science. Nothing in Wilson's account suggests that much about Scott's approach differed. In fact, the "failure" of Scott's dogs appears to have much to do with their being almost grotesquely overburdened, in contrast to Amundsen's.)

For sixty days the trio marched southwards, managing very little mileage, as the dogs could not cope with the overloaded sledges. The party ended up dividing the cargo, making two trips each day to move it all, walking three miles distance to cover each mile south, like a terrible and endless series of canoe portages. Eventually they did sight land, and even got close enough at the very end of the journey to some cliffs, from which they hoped to secure geologic samples of the rock. This proved impossible because of an enormous ice cliff, and finally, on New Year's Day, they turned back. We might describe them as returning empty-handed, but they were by now pulling their own sledges, and faced a full month of snow-blind twenty-four hour graylight ice-shelf trekking misery before they would stumble back into camp. Wilson's account of how he spent my birthday in 1903 is typical: "Turned out at 6AM to another hopelessly overcast day, with nothing to steer by or fix one's light-dazzled eyes on. After an hour's marching we found the steering so erratic that we camped and waited to see if it would clear. At 4PM there was enough break in the cloud ahead to steer by, so we had another breakfast and at 6PM started off again. We did nearly three hours and then camped as Shackle was feeling bad. Now it is nearly midnight and we have turned in. Outside one can see nothing at all, either in the sky or below it, all one uniform brilliant gray light without a break. One cannot see one's own footsteps in soft snow in this light, nor any of the inequalities that one stumbles over.... My eyes today have been very weak and painful."

What a contrast with our day yesterday staring out over the ice shelf from the hills of Ross Island! As we skied down the slope of Erebus onto the sea at the edge of the great barrier, we had brilliant blue sky overhead. Scarcely a breath of wind rustled the bamboo flags, and the snow was packed so solid that the edges of the skis left little trace. Deany and I peeled off our balaclavas, opened the vents on our technical parkas, and whizzed along, getting long smooth glides out of each ski-step. In the crisp subzero snow-pack each thrust of a ski-pole made a sound like the cry of a distant tern fishing over the ocean. "Man," said Deany, "we're skiing, in Antarctica!" At Scott base, the circuit complete, we unbound our skis and set off walking across the hill to McMurdo, warm and energized and looking forward to a good cup of tea.

"A nice cuppa Jasmine Green?" Photo: M. Deany


Anonymous said...

hi rich,
you look as if a "nasenriemenschneider" would come rather handy!

love & hugs
from the queen of schmergeling

Anonymous said...

Hey Rich!
That's great to get some news of the team, that way!
Merci de nous les faire partager... J'echangerai bien un bon plat francais, contre une descente a ski en Antarctique.