Copyright © 2000 Lennard Bickel. All rights reserved.
The Cruel Continent
The Antarctic is alien land. Desolate and barren, hostile tolife, it is a lost continent at the bottom of our world, nowsmothered under the greatest ice shield known.
This solid ice cap is an immensity. Three miles thick in places,with a mean, overall thickness of a mile and a quarter, it blanketsa region bigger than Europe and the United States combinedalmostsix million square miles of the earth's surface insouthern summer. In winter, when the sea freezes over, the areainundated with ice can be doubled. On the mainland, from thehigh and remote solitude of the South Pole and the so-calledPole of Inaccessibility down to the coastal fringes, only two percentof the rocky land is able to break free of the frozen mantle.
Far inland, the ice plains rise more than 12,000 feet abovesea level, and only the frost-rimed peaks of the mightiest mountainscan pierce this frigid shield. Cloaking, submerging thegreat ranges, the ice makes the Antarctic the highest overallcontinent on earth and exerts an influence and an impact on theworld's weather to an extent not yet fully understood.
This colossal canopy is of enormous weight and has prodigiouspower. Some 7.5 million cubic miles of ice puts the pressureof 24,000 million million tons on the buried continent andcrushes the mountains, plains, and valleys back into the earth'smantle. The contour of the planet is thus dramatically flattenedat the South Pole. Fortunately for mankind, the outward thrustof this gigantic mass is slow. The melting of the ice in theoceans is minimal. If, by some cataclysm, all this Antarctic icewere to melt, the resultant flood of 5.4 million million milliongallons of fresh water would raise the sea level of the earthabove the decking of the highest bridges, including San Franciscoand Sydney, and have catastrophic impact on many formsof marine life.
However, most of the southern ice is glacialever on themove outward and downward from those distant polar plains tothe great oceans that ring the globe at those latitudes. Its sizeand altitude and cold frame a climate unique to Earth, aclimate that breeds the worst winds known; for, from the rarefiedhighlands, the intensely chill, heavy air falls down theslopes, shooting through the glacial valleys and the shouldersof the ranges, gathering momentum with gravitational impetus,to launch unparalleled onslaughts on the coastal plains, tolash shore waters into turmoil and the fields of pack ice intofurious upheaval.
These deeply chilled winds are chisels of air that carve andcurve the surface of the ice as though it was water, shapingit into corrugations explorers know as sastrugi, frozen wavesthat, beneath blown drift, lurk as traps for unwary feet. Theyare but ripples on the face of an ice canopy that effectivelymasks the nature of the frozen, buried lands. Only fragmentaryclues escape; debris brought down by the grinding beds ofglaciers yield traces in the species of rocks of gold, coal, oil,uraniummineral treasures inaccessible under the most massiveice cap of all.
* * *
The land was not always smothered. Hundreds of millions ofyears ago, it seems, it was part of a vast landmass that, understress from movement in the planet's crustal plates, was sunderedinto separate continents. One magnificent expanse ofwide grassy plains, rich jungles, and high chains of peaks withgleaming lakes slipped westward to form the great Americancontinentand hanging on its toe, held by an umbilical cord oftough gneiss rock, the doomed land slid southward.
Slowly, through uncounted millennia, the land inched acrossthe bed of the young, dark seas. Stresses in the earth's tectonicplates unleashed the fury of enormous volcanoes to pockmarkthe face of the southerning land and caused earthquakes thatthrust mountain peaks 16,000 feet above the sea until, at last,the land reached the end of the earth.
Once out of the sun's direct warmth, the land was buriedunder the gigantic frozen overburden and enclosed behind seasof floating ice and towering ice ramparts.
Today the sixth continent sprawls over the bottom of ourworld, shaped somewhat like a white frozen fist. Out of thisclenched hand one rocky finger of territory breaks free andreveals the geologic link with the majestic mountain chain that isthe backbone of the whole American continent. Up throughrugged Graham Land and the South Shetlands the rock fingerstabs north, dipping beneath the stormy waters of the DrakePassage toward Cape Horn.
There are more bonds than geology. There were links in animal,marine, insect, and plant life with the ancestral terrain,with America, Africa, Australiaeven Asia. Yet such links perishedin the cold winds; but not all were totally obliterated.Today the plundered colonies of whales, seals, penguins, sealeopards, and the myriad birds that prey on marine life stillhaunt the coasts and finger islands in southern summer; inland,there are mere traces of long gone verdancy. A glacier cuts thethin face of a coal seam laid down in prehistory. Exposed are thefossil leaves of an extinct tropical forest. Glacial moraines bringdown pieces of petrified tree trunks or fragments of bone fromthe mangled skeleton of some rare animal of antiquity.
On the frozen continent extermination of life forms wasinevitableand still is. Winter comes when Earth is at themost distant point from the solar center, and summer bringsonly angled glimpses of sunlight, for a few weeks. Elevated as itis above the warmer air at sea level, it is much colder than theArctic north. High on the uplands, around the desolate polarplateau on those twelve-thousand-foot-high platforms, a cold ofrare intensity freezes the air into a crystallized white-gray mist,a shroud over the frosted peaks and plains that trails down intothe glacial valleys toward the coast.
It is cold that kills. It is the coldest cold on earth. It makes theair so heavy that it falls across the frozen plains with increasingspeed, hardening the ice to brittle rigidity so that the glaciersamongthem the greatest on the planetrend and fracture asthey twist their way to the sea and are riven into deep fissures,jagged, winding cracks, called crevasses, reaching to bedrock.The frozen rivers break their back and burst with enormousexplosions, like a bombardment by massed artillerywhen itcan be heard above the roar and the boom of the gales.
Cold makes the Antarctic alien, but winds make it moredeadly. The worst, and most dangerous, are katabatic winds, flyingrivers of air, cold and heavy, falling down the frozen slopes fromthe polar plateaus and, with gravity, increasing in speed to batterand assault those parts of the coast where they find outlet. Theyreach gusts of above two hundred miles an hour and can blowconsistently for days and not drop their force below eighty milesfor many hours on end. Such winds lift gravel and hurl rocksand heavy objects out to sea; they blow men from their feet andencase their eyes, nostrils, and mouths in ice formed from theirown breath. They are the worst winds in the world, a greatermenace than cold. Born in rare high solitudes, they pick upsnowflakes, ice crystals, and frozen pellets, compacted like hail,all of which, blown in the wind, become abrasive material thatcan polish rough metal to brilliant sheen and scour the woodfrom between the grains when they are left exposed for a winter.And cold and wind can reach the sheltered parts of a man'sbody and cause deadly frostbite, adding to his peril.
Men are always surrounded by danger, and the hazards canchange constantly. The canopy of ice is ever on the move, theglaciers strain and shift and break, and what may be safe todaywill be perilous tomorrow. The ice has a life cycle. Eachsnowflake that falls on the polar plateau may form part of theoutward flowing mantle and eventually reach the sea in one ofthe frozen barriers, a shelf, or a glacier tongue. Once there, itmay break off as part of an immense iceberg, a floating island ofice that the wind will carry north, to beyond the Antarctic Circle,above sixty degrees South, where the chilled southernwaters sink below the warmer tides of the Atlantic, Indian,Southern, and Pacific Oceanswhere the sun will melt the iceand lift the moisture back into the atmosphere, perhaps again tofall as snow over the South Pole.
The hostility of the sixth continent overflows its frozen borders.Outside the walls of sheer ice are savage defenses andseas that can be treacherously beautiful and which heldback exploration until two centuries ago. Men in wooden sailingships were spurred south in the Middle Ages to discover themysterious southland, which cartographers believed existed tobalance the terrain of the northern half of the world.
But these intrepid sailors were beaten back by the first linesof the Antarctic defenses. Tempestuous winds sweep those vastopen seas, and calm brings only dense fog and white mists thatshroud immense floating death trapsislands of ice, fields ofgrowlers, and jostling pack, tossing floes that can overnightinan hour evenfreeze over and squeeze a captured ship tomatchwood. And silently the massive bergs slide through thesea with submerged projections that can sink the greatest vesselwith a sideways graze.
Nevertheless, penetration by man into this hostile region wasopened by a wooden sailing ship, by the aptly named British vessel.Resolution. Conned by the intrepid Captain James Cook, itcarried men for the first time inside the Antarctic Circle in late1773 and, in the following January, thrust even farther south,Forcing his ice-coated ship into dangerous waters, creepingthrough fogs and mists, dodging bergs and pack floes, Cookreached beyond seventy-one degrees South. Then, in waters nowcalled Amundsen Sea, offshore from territory we know as ByrdLand, he could go no farther south. He was faced with toweringwalls of ice. By dead reckoning he calculated that he was thensome 1,250 miles from the geographical South Pole, and hebelieved he was very close to the mainlandbut the Antarcticlight tricked him. Cook could see south, beyond the icy ramparts,to where white-crested mountains soared into a distant sky andhe was certain that he was close to an ice-bound land. He wasmost certainly the first man to glimpse the peaks of long-lostmountainsbut he could not have seen them by direct line ofsight. From his most southerly point the closest peaks, topped bythe eight-thousand-foot-high Mountain Murphy, were perhapsthree hundred miles distantbeyond the curvature of the earth.
Almost certainly Cook was a victim of the Antarctic mirage inwhich layers of cold air of differing temperature can reflect alandscape into the sky so that it can be seen far beyond the horizon.It is a deception now well known to southern polar travelers.But whatever the men aboard the Resolution thought theysaw that day, they were certainly touched with awe. Cook madea log entry:
It was indeed my opinion, as well as the opinion of most on board, that this ice extended quite to the Pole, or perhaps joins some land to which it has been fixed from the creation.
And from there even Cook was glad to turn north. He wenton to circumnavigate the continent, sailing right around theglobe before heading north with firm convictions on the Antarctic.The hostile southern land was inaccessible, and no mancould ever penetrate it. "I can be so bold to say no man will venturefurther south than I have done, and that the lands to thesouth will never be explored." For him the sixth continent was"doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun'srays, but to be buried in everlasting snow and ice."
Cook's warning was not conclusive. Drawn south by hisreports of teeming coastal life, predatory whalers and sealingboats plowed through twelve thousand miles of seaways insidethe Antarctic Circle, taking profit among the whales, seals, andmigratory birds that breed on the coasts, countless islands, androcky southern capes. The men found new islands, saw distantwhite land, and, when profits were not high enough, turned tothe slaughter of the timid, teeming penguins for the miserableamounts of fat and oil their bodies contain.
Cook's prophecy was to be proved false within fifty years. In1823, James Weddell of Britain sailed below America to seventy-fourdegrees South. Seven years later one of the captains of thefirm of Enderby Brothers of LondonJohn Biscoesightedland south of Africa. Another Enderby captain discovered agroup of islands and named them after himself, the BallenyIslands.
By the mid-nineteenth century exploratory, rather thanexploitative, expeditions entered the southern lists. Bellinghausenof Russia repeated Cook's circumnavigation of the continentand found an island or two south of America; theFrenchman, Jules Sébastian César Dumont d'Urville, whilelanding on an island, caught a glimpse of an ice-girt rocky capeand, claiming that sliver of landdirectly south of AdelaideforFrance, called it Adélie Land after his wife, a name far toograceful for such a harsh land.
Like mice nibbling at the edge of a vast, chilled cheese, theexpeditions came and went through the rest of the nineteenthcentury. Sir James Ross with his Royal Navy squadron hadprobed the Ross Sea region. Captain James Wilkes with aU.S. Navy flotilla swept the sea and was deceived into markinginto his maps land that others later sailed over. But a centuryand a quarter went by after Cook's farthest journey south beforeany man set foot on the Antarctic mainland. A whaling venturein 1895, led by an Australian, Henry Bull, with Captain LeonardKristensen, probed along the ice barrier of the Ross Ice Shelf,found a rare gravel beach, and got ashore for a few hours. Thisfirst landing site is due south of the New Zealand port ofDunedin. It was subsequently named Cape Adare, and bothlanding and site were primers for the invasion that ensued.
In 1897, Adrien de Gerlache of Belgium took the Belgicasouth to a harrowing winter. His ship was trapped in ice anddrifted for a whole year inside the Antarctic Circle; the firstmate of that ship was a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen.
By the time the Belgica broke free, plans were afoot for thefirst wintering party to go ashore on the mainland at CapeAdare. Out of Melbourne, the Southern Cross Expeditionnamedafter the shipsailed south in late 1898 under the commandof Carsten Borchgrevink. It was funded by the Britishpublishing tycoon, Sir George Newnes. Adventurer, explorer,whaling man, and a very practical soul, Borchgrevink was aNorwegian-born resident of Australia; he carried enterpriseinto the southern continent.
Landing safely on the beach he erected the continent's firstsheltera prefabricated hutand 124 years after Cook'sprophecy on the "doomed" land, the air echoed with the soundof barking dogs and men's voices. Borchgrevink introduced thehusky team and the sledge to the continent, though he waspenned in and could not travel very far because of ice conditions.He also lodged another "first"; he buried the Antarctic'sfirst victimNicolai Hanson, a taxidermist whose deathappeared to have all the signs of incipient scurvy.
At about the same time, national pride and interest werestirred in European capitals: there was a meeting in London ofthe International Geographical Congress, from which came theframework of a multinational assault of separate expeditions,and which also sealed the destiny of an obscure young torpedoofficer in the Royal NavyCaptain Robert Falcon Scottandset the pattern of exploration for the coming decades. Expeditionswere launched from Sweden and Germany. The Swedishship was trapped in ice, and the men spent two winters on SnowHill Island, in the American Quadrant, while the Germans,under Erich von Drygalski, were also icebound south of WesternAustralia at a place they called Gauss Berg, near the vastsheet of floating ice that was to be named for a young navelreserve officer then serving with ScottErnest Shackleton.
Scott's persistence overshadowed the German and Swedishfailures: he pioneered long-distance sledge travel. He firstlanded at Cape Adare and then went on to find anchorage forhis ship Discovery in McMurdo Sound, where Ross had nameda soaring active volcano after one of his shipsMount Erebusand a dead volcano after another shipMount Terror. ForScott these two peaks stood at the portal of what he was to makethe highway to the South Pole. With much to learnand sufferhe took the rigid formality of the Royal Navy onto the ice;officers were officers and men were always men, and the messwas run like a wardroom. On this regime in this most southernhuman habitation, he developed the sledging disciplines andthe hard rigorous approach on which his great reputation was tobe built.
Through the months of 1902, Scott imposed routines forsledging and camping, and in November set off to the southacross the Ross Ice Shelf for the first human invasion into theAntarctic interior. He had two companionsDr. E. A. Wilson,doctor and artist, and a rugged and ambitious reserve officer,Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton. They took nineteen dogs and acarefully allotted food ration. The wind, cold, and terrible terrainwore down their condition; the dogs died one by one; themen especially Shackletonsuffered from scurvy, but theyfought their way on a most harrowing, grueling journey to a latitudeof eighty-two degrees South, eight degrees from the bottomof the world. Scott was then compelled to turn back. Withcold, malnutrition, wind carving their faces, haggard from endlesstoil, they came back to safety by the barest margin. Theycarried the sternest warning on the savage nature of the inlandterritory.
Shackleton was very ill, and his illness was to have greatimpact on all that followed. Scott did not think he would surviveanother winter in the Antarctic, so he sent him home to recuperateaboard the Morning when it came south with freshstores and fuel. Shackleton was feted, lionized in England. Oneof the three Englishmen to get closest to the South Pole and thefirst to be home to tell the tale, he responded to fameandopportunity. Glowing with national pride and ambition, hebecame entrepreneur-explorer and soon enlisted the rich andthe influential to his openly declared objectiveto reach thegeographical South Pole.
Lectures, talks, articles, pleading, persuading, he peddledthe Pole as a national objective until finally he had his ownexpedition staffed and equipped. His men named him "TheBoss," a title he loved, and which suited him. Flaunting hisbattlecry, "First to the Pole," he went south in August 1907 inthe Nimrod, a former sealing ship.
Shackleton's personal magnetism was striking, his sense ofpromotion remarkable. The Pole was the goal, science a sideissue; but, still, he astutely added Australian and New Zealandscientists to his staff, thus winning cash support from both governments.Among those enlisted was a fifty-year-old professorof geology at Sydney University, a deceptively gentle man andlovable tutor known as "Tweddy"Dr. T. W. Edgeworth David.David thought Shackleton should have a magnetician, cartographer,and surveyor, and to fill all three posts, he recruited a formeroutstanding student, then a lecturer in geology at AdelaideUniversity, Dr. Douglas Mawson, who, at the time of the invitation,was investigating an outcrop in South Australia that provedto be the first discovery of uranium in the land.
Like Cook, Mawson was born in Yorkshire. When he was twoyears of age his parentswhose family had lived there forgenerationsmigrated to Australia with Douglas and hisbrother William. When Shackleton's invitation arrived. Mawsonwas twenty-six years old, a man of exceptional physical strength,gifted with an adventuring spirit, a scientist's mind, and a naturalbent for leadership. Hardened, weather-browned by manyexpeditions into Australia's outback, six feet three inches in hissocks, blue-eyed, Mawson joined "Tweddy" and went southwith Shackleton to face a world of ice. Aboard the Nimrodhe met two men who were to share his future; the first mate,John King Davisa glum, red-haired Irish sailor, soon to gainthe nickname of "Gloomy"and a tough veteran of the firstScott expedition, Frank Wild, whose mother was said to bedescended from Captain Cook.
Shackleton's first expedition was given the popular keynoteof rugged, tough endeavor, but the main aim was the glitteringprize of all explorationfirst to the South Pole. In that openingdecade of the century the bitter desolation at the end of theearth was publicly vaunted as a diamond-bright magnet for thebrave British spiritand so helped to enlist money from privateand public purses alike.
Although the dominant drive was to be first at the South Pole,Shackleton saw other challenges from which to win glory. Therewas the Antarctic's only active volcano, which no man had everscaled. And in the west, in wasteland no man had seen, was thepoint of the intriguing South Magnetic Pole, that position towhich the compass needles always turned, quite distinct from thegeographical South Pole. Shackleton wanted complete conquest.
He sent the three Australiansmiddle-aged ProfessorDavid, Dr. Douglas Mawson, and the Sydney doctor, AlistairMacKay, to achieve both these objectives. Their initiation intothe reality of Antarctic travel was staged on the slopes of theroaring volcanoMount Erebus, They were given a supportparty to help them up the ascent with their heavy sledges, butthe exploit was to demand courage and endurance.
Mount Erebus, the only known active volcano in the continent,soared 12,300 feet above the ice plain, rising out of desolationwhere, today, the U.S. station of McMurdo (establishedfor the International Geophysical Year in 1957) standsa moderntownship of more than one hundred buildings, with a summerpopulation of some eight hundred men and women andequipped with community services, a cinema, a nuclear powerhouse,telephones, laboratories, and a hospital.
It was a daunting, backbreaking challenge. The laden sledgewas hauled up steep frozen slopes, across rising fields of serratedice, slippery wind-polished sheets, and areas of sastrugiand ice falls with fissures and crevasses all around. Across fieldsof broken ice they often had to carry the sledge to gain ground.Upward they fought their way, with deepening cold and bone-cuttingwinds testing their stamina and resolve. After two days,they reached nine thousand feet and were trapped for anothertwo days in a blizzard. For the next forty-eight hours, they layshivering in their sleeping bags, wet, cold, hungry, and unableto light the primus, knowing that to suck snow or ice at such lowtemperatures would crack the flesh of their lips and tonguesand cause intense pain to the alimentary tract. Thirst became anagony worse than hunger. The day after they could leave thecamp, they climbed to the first of three known craters.
From there the uphill struggle was across the ice falls,through deep snow, an almost vertical ascent over ridged andsharp-edged frozen confusion to more than twelve thousandfeet. Ice crystals in the biting air stung their faces and eyes andcaught in their nostrils. But they found a geologist's paradise, anunknown crater with steaming fumerolesopen cracksinthe base of a vast saucer with spuming steam that at once frozeinto delicate draperies of ice. They found huge crystals offeldspar and rare rocks coated in yellow sulphur thrown fromthis boiling craterthree times deeper than Vesuvius andalmost a mile, lip to lip. It was riven in its basin by a great fissurethat ran down 400 feet to the bowl of lava fire. From there thespitting steam leaped a thousand feet into the air, along withfire dust and the glowing rocks that were hurled high. Mawsonwas enchanted. The fury of the heated earth bursting into thisfrozen setting was the example for him of the wonderful contradictionsand baffling complexity of nature.
They could not stay here long, despite the wonderment.Through broken cloud, base camp was a black dot in a wide rumpledcloth of white and lavender, the great ice shelf vanishinginto distant haze; and to the west behind the camp, sawing thesky toward the South Pole, was the endless range of the TransantarcticMountains, a scene of alpine grandeur unmatched inthe world; and beyond and beyond, rolling westward for thousandsof miles, was an unseen, untrodden, white land.
It was a glimpse all too brief for Mawson. He had to shieldface and eyes from the biting frost and start the fight downward;yet the awe-inspiring moment went with him and brought arare emotion that touches some southern travelers. In thatethereal setting, his mind caught a shred of longing, a desire towalk that land beyond the great mountains, to explore its snowwastes, coasts, and uplands, to taste its timeless solitude.
It was a limpid stream of thought, he told himself, a gossamerthat would vanish in the reality of the downward fight.But it never was banished; it lay on the edge of his mind toreturn again and again in the miles of sledging that lay ahead. Itrested on the fringe of conscious thought to emerge and challengehis ambition until at last he was compelled to put the aspirationto the test of reason and positive action.
* * *
The story of Shackleton's attempt to win the South Pole on this1909 journey is now a major classic in human exploration. Withthree companionsone of whom was Frank Wildand supportedin the early stages by four Siberian ponies, he slogged hisway to within 112 miles of the South Pole and a plateau altitudeof 11,600 feet. There the threat of starvation, incessant inroadsby cold, wind, toil, and the constant enmity of the land drovehim into unwilling retreat.
Like Scott, Shackleton brought back a clear warning of theimplacable nature of the continent; but he also won some personalglory in the confrontation. As such, his journey overshadowedthe greatest unsupported foot slog ever made in the souththe march to the South Magnetic Pole.
The journey to the elusive southern axis of the earth's magneticfield was made by the same three men who had conqueredErebus in 1908. Davidthen over fiftyMawson, andMacKay hauled a half-ton sledge across sea ice into the northwestand then fought up a glacier and through the Prince AlbertMountains of south Cape Adare. Suffering from hunger andsnow blindness, they made an incredible march of 1,260 miles,which included geology studies and finally came as near as possibleto the Magnetic South Pole as the simple equipmentallowed. This was attained at a point registered as 72 degrees 25minutes South latitude, and 152 degrees 16 East longitude.When severe snow blindness disabled David, Mawson took overleadership and for 500 miles led them back to meet the ship onthe west coast of the Ross Seaa feat that David praised all hisdays:
"Mawson was the soul of the march to the Magnetic Pole,"he wrote later. "In him we had an Australian Nansen, a man ofinfinite resource, splendid spirit, marvelous physique, and anindifference to frost and cold that was astonishingall theattributes of a great explorer."
The journey cut deeply into their physical condition; only byeating seal meat on reaching the coast were they saved fromscurvy. Through thick snowdrift, bitter winds, over difficult terrain,they made long burdensome marchesand each of themswore they would be happy to never see this awful land again;yet Mawson's mind turned again and again to the dream on Erebus.Not for years was he to know that, while inflicting its ferocityon him, the Antarctic had already claimed his spirit and wascalling him back before he had departed. The challenges of thecontinent imparted sharpened intellect; mental and bodilyeffort were improved, but there was something else, somethingintangible in the total magnet of the southland. Years laterMawson was to write: "We came to probe its mystery, to reducethis land to terms of science, but there is always the indefinablewhich holds aloof yet which rivets our souls...." The pull of theunknown on the soul of the explorer was irresistible, and Mawsonwas committed, in his own special way.