Antarctic Odyssey: In the Footsteps of the South Polar Explorers

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Collier's crystalline account of his several recent trips to the bottom of the world aboard scientific research ships--and once on a converted Russian icebreaker--is a wondrous, serendipitous adventure. A regular contributor to National Geographic, Collier set out to retrace portions of the historic journeys of pioneering polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott and James Ross. He visited remote, gale-racked Elephant Island, where Shackleton, after abandoning his ice-jammed ship Endurance, spent 105 days marooned with his men in 1915. The story of Shackleton's amazing escape in an Antarctic winter, and his return to rescue his crew, as re-created by Collier, is a remarkable odyssey of stamina, courage and faith in the face of hopeless odds. He also follows the tragic journey of Scott, who perished with his men in 1912 on his return from the South Pole after discovering that Amundsen had beaten them there. Collier's wife, Patricia, who accompanied him on his Antarctic treks, took the stunning color photographs, complementing his eloquent narrative with images of the continent's eerie beauty, incandescent blue icebergs and platoons of indomitable penguins. Drawing freely from the polar explorers' diaries to gauge his own adventures against theirs, Collier sees Antarctica as a metaphor for the brevity and frailty of human life on the planet. While David Campbell's The Crystal Desert (1992) offers a more thorough tour of Antarctica's biology and ecosystems, the Colliers' effort provides an eloquently expressed romantic view of the continent and of the human encounter with it. 50,000 first printing. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Collier, a regular contributor to National Geographic, has visited Antarctica seven times on various scientific research vessels. This book is a composite of these trips, beautifully illustrated with color photographs by his wife, Patricia. Even with modern-day equipment, it is extremely difficult to navigate the more remote islands of the Antarctic and even more dangerous to go ashore owing to terrible weather conditions. Collier does a wonderful job of describing the raw beauty of the continent, with its huge glaciers and vast bird populations. Penguins and penguin behavior are explained, as are the mating habits of other wildlife, especially albatrosses, leopard seals, and skua gulls. The author relates his voyage to those made by past polar explorers such as Shackleton, Ross, Scott, Campbell, and Mawson. A beautiful book for public libraries.--John Kenny, San Francisco P.L. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786706532
  • Publisher: Avalon Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/23/1999
  • Edition description: First Carroll & Graf Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 194
  • Product dimensions: 8.05 (w) x 11.46 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


POINTS OF DEPARTURE


PUNTA ARENAS, CAPE HORN AND THE CONVERGENCE IN THE
WAKE OF MAGELLAN AND FRANCIS DRAKE


Punta Arenas, Straits of Magellan, Beagle Channel, Cape Horn, Drake Passage: wild, wild places close to the bottom of the world, these names conjure up images of wind-wracked and icy mountain fastnesses, killer seas, and primitive peoples. They are hostile regions, forever associated with the legendary sailors who explored this maze of islands and waterways where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans join forces around Cape Horn.

    Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain in the service of Spain, was the earliest of them: searching for a passage to the west in 1520, he discovered the straits that now bear his name at 52° south. Navigating the waterway westward — a tremendous feat, working an unmanoeuvrable square-rigged ship against prevailing westerly winds up an uncharted narrow channel — he thought the land to his left was the northern coast of Antarctica. He named it Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) due to the smoke arising from the fires of the primitive Ono Indians. Nowadays, for those leaving Punta Arenas at night, the channel is lit by the burning fires of oil wells discharging gas.

    Some fifty years later Sir Francis Drake sailed these waters in his Elizabethan "cockleshell" of a vessel and was blown off course by one of Cape Horn's notorious and vicious southwesterly gales — much of the way to the Antarctic continent — and lived to tell the tale, so giving his nameto what we now call Drake Passage. Other pioneering captains and navigators followed: Le Maire — who, in 1616, rounded the Horn and found that Tierra del Fuego was an island; Captains Cook, Bligh, Ross, and Fitzroy of HMS Beagle who took Darwin along as his naturalist — hence the Beagle Channel.

    In southern Chile, roughly in the middle of the Straits of Magellan is the small city of Punta Arenas — a bustling commercial port, just about at the end of the inhabited world. Lapped by the waters of the Straits of Magellan and buffeted by the violent winds and weather surging off the high icy mountains of Tierra del Fuego, this far-south outpost, in its magnificent setting and some thirty hours sailing time to Cape Horn, possesses an unexpected but genuine romantic appeal. It is home to some 45,000 people and is frontier-like in the rugged plainness of its old buildings and streets, yet it boasts some extraordinarily exuberant baroque architecture with domes, broken pediments, and bold cornices in the town centre that would not be out of place in far grander European cities.

    Somehow the town manages to hint — like an experienced and well-preserved matron — that there's a rather sophisticated and pleasurable way of life available for those with discerning tastes: an urban maturity that springs from its proud history as a base for southern exploration and trade; from the "know how" gained in making the most of things when living in a far from benign climate, and remote from any cultural centre. Cut off from its capital city, Santiago, in the north by close to 1500 miles of untraversable mountains, Punta Arenas has had to develop its own ambiance. The result is a town which conveys to the traveller a sense of eccentric yet satisfied well-being — an unpretentious mix of homeliness and civilized values set in a landscape of wild and desolate beauty.

    Now in midsummer the waters of the Straits on the left are almost Riviera-blue. To the right the immense, empty heath of wispy olive-green grass and scattered rock is sprinkled through to the middle-distance with colour: long-stemmed wild flowers — poppy-reds, cornflower-blues, yellows, whites — all swaying back and forth in the breeze.

    Reflecting this exuberant sweep of colour, and standing in small patches of trim garden, is a long line of small box-like houses. These give little hint of the grander historic architecture to be found in the city itself, where the most remarkable building is the museum a civic mausoleum into which every exhibit even remotely linked to the community's past has been placed for veneration. Rather like the town itself, the heterogeneous mix of objects and styles evokes an atmosphere of parochial self-involvement that seems out of step with the growing universality of the modern world's galleries. Yet it is appealing precisely because of this: it is honest — a catch-all collection representing the unedited life of a region apart.

    The interior is a heady, paradoxical combination of rooms and exhibits. Classically proportioned chambers, well lit and dressed-out with baroque swags of satin falling from coiling to floor, give way to smaller rooms — dark, shabby, mysterious and cobwebby places — charged with wonderful Gothic creepiness, and housing the most macabre and bizarre of exhibits.

    The overall effect is like walking into a film-set for a dark and melodramatic nineteenth-century thriller. And it works. The museum invites one to prowl, to move expectantly from room to room wondering what could possibly come next after the two-headed sheep ... and the bit of mylodon skin with its incredibly old covering of hairy floss. (The mylodon is a vegetarian giant sloth that lived millions of years ago, pulled down trees for food while sitting on its huge tail, and is thought to have been extant in Patagonia as recently as 10,000 years ago.) There is much enlightening information about the region's history: photographs of the original Fuegians — short, stocky and nude beneath their tent-like, animal-skin cloaks; many worthwhile geological, natural history, and "exploration" exhibits; and some of the worst, and funniest, examples of the taxidermist's art to be seen anywhere on earth.


Magellan sailed out of the Straits on a day so calm that he called the wildest of the oceans the Pacific. Few others have been so lucky. Certainly Drake Passage — the Southern Ocean route to the Antarctic — well deserves its notorious reputation, traversing as it does that 600-mile gap between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula where two great oceans come together — the Pacific and Atlantic, hammering out their respective sovereignties before sweeping unchecked around the Antarctic continent as one momentum-building sea. Imagine Sir Francis Drake, in 1577 or thereabouts, in the Golden Hind — a square-rigged galleon of a mere 400 tons — running before a southwesterly gale, fighting a thirty-foot swell, and moving inexorably closer to the ice, thus inadvertently making the first Antarctic voyage ever recorded, though Hakluyt, Drake's chronicler, did not, of course, describe it as such. What a visual image it conjures up; and what terrors were experienced by those men who found themselves in these wild southern latitudes for the first time.

    Our vessel is an ice-strengthened expedition ship of 2,500 tons, designed and equipped to withstand the rigours of the Southern Ocean, yet at times we feel as much a plaything of the wild winds as Drake and his Golden Hind.

    A grim and utterly bleak sight greets us when the cloud cover over the Beagle Channel breaks, and Tierra del Fuego's dark, forbidding rock and tree-clad slopes are partially exposed — the snow-covered mountains and glaciers of the Darwin Range looming over the water. It is a grey, grey world, growing ever more menacing as the heavy stratus pulls away to reveal a jagged and dramatic line of peaks.

    At the northern edge of the black depths seven hundred feet of blue-white ice cliff drop sheer and vertical to the water's edge — the Romanche Glacier. In staring upward from the narrow beach, the worm's eye-view of this tortuously twisted plunge of ice causes one to sway vertiginously, to lose the sense of solid ground beneath the feet, to feel as minuscule and insignificant as ants. Did I say seven hundred feet? From here at water level it seems a thousand at least. I try to imagine how small a man would appear to be up there on the sloping edge of the icelield: he would be a tiny figure — microscopic.

    Only when one becomes accustomed to the scale of this visual phenomenon does the sound — hitherto merely background noise — manage to break through as a dinning roar in its own right. It is generated by a huge orgasmic jet of ice-foam water erupting from top-dead-centre of the ice cliff, falling and forking to form two waterfalls which slide down the steep face and plunge deep into the waters of the channel, creating a churning maelstrom of spray and wave.

    If one visually climbs slowly and warily up the falls to the summits of the mountains above, the glacier itself comes into view: a huge body of ice, descending at a 50° angle to fill a broad saddle between two peaks — left and right flanks riddled with a maze of criss-crossing and razor-sharp open crevasses which swoop diagonally across the steep ice field from top to bottom. Deathtraps all.

    A rasping tearing-at-the-air crack cuts through the general tumult, and a tall buttressing column breaks away from high on the precipice of ice and topples — a white cathedral in miniature — to splinter into glittering shards of glass as it falls, seemingly in slow motion, into the depths of the Beagle Channel. We are transfixed, incapable of movement. Senses and feelings are numbed by the sheer scale of these irresistible forces as one is attracted, like any moth to the flame, by that which is both beautiful and terrifying.


The first sight of the Cape Horn landing area is not reassuring. A slight swell is running in the South Atlantic from the Horn where a narrow kelp-streaming and rock-girt inlet gives access to a steep, cramped beach.

    Fog and drizzle graze the rounded summit, lifting briefly from time to time to expose a wilderness of grey-green scrub and tussock grass — concealing the burrows of breeding Magellanic penguins, and permitting views at sea level of long Clark fingers of water racing between skinny rock promontories, which grasp the island without mercy or remorse. Here, in the force of the flow, one sees for the first time the full power of the combined South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans — a run of sea which already, here at the Horn, may justifiably be called the Southern Ocean.

    The ground squelches and sinks underfoot, peat-like bog not far from the surface. It is monochromatic desolation. It is the end of the world: the place where the shades of the dead in Greek mythology would gather to await Charon and his boat to be rowed to Hades — the land of the dead that must surely lie somewhere just across the water in Tierra del Fuego. As if to dispel such feelings of dread, a tiny wooden chapel emerges from the mist, about the size of a ship's longboat and sited on the highest point of the island. Inside it is a quiet, holy place — or so I find it to be. In one of nature's bleakest outposts it is a symbol of a human religious dream, a spiritual refuge from a physically violent world — lending heavenly support to the few men of the Chilean navy who man the rock.

    "Rounding the Horn": the phrase evokes pictures in the mind of vessels under sail trying to beat from east to west against the prevailing winds, to survive the ferocity of the westerlies rushing against them out of the vastness of the South Pacific — winds building, continuously intensifying, as they rush on their unimpeded race around the bottom of the world. Captain Bligh in the Bounty tried for thirty days to round Cape Horn — perhaps within sight of where I am standing — and enter the Pacific; like many others before and after him, he could make no headway. To the crew's relief he finally turned and sailed east, taking the westerlies in his sails to blow him across the Atlantic to South Africa, where he passed safely by the treacherously-reefed Cape of Good Hope, thus taking the long way round to Tahiti and the South Pacific. However, there were those historic figures who were lucky enough to slip through during lulls in the weather: Sir Francis Drake was one, but only after sustaining a hell of a battering. Before the opening of the Panama Canal countless ships were lost in these waters. Even the most experienced sailors, or perhaps especially the most experienced, grew anxious once south of the Falklands and heading southwest, ready to take in sail as they approached this barren outpost of land.

    Without warning a bleakness of spirit abruptly descends on me — a mood of despondency at the sudden apprehension of the futility and inconsequence of human affairs in the face of such dark wastes of sea and rock. Reeking of melancholy at its best, and spitting malevolence at its gale-ridden worst, Cape Horn must surely represent the ultimate isolation and desolation. The Romanche Glacier fires the spirit, Cape Horn subdues it.


The relatively narrow channel between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula was caused by the breakaway of the Antarctic land mass from the Americas some fifty million years ago — a separation responsible for the ultimate glaciation of Antarctica, a once warm, tree(beech)-clad land. Through it runs a body of water incorporating the force of three oceans: the Pacific to the west, the Indian Ocean to the east, and the Atlantic to the north. In latitudes 40°, 50°, and 60° south, this mighty oceanic force, having no substantial land in its path for thousands of miles, races unimpeded around the Antarctic continent building into what must surely be the most powerful, long-rolling swell in the world.

    Some 400 miles from Cape Horn, we pass through the Antarctic Convergence. Generally recognized as the oceanic boundary of the Antarctic regions, this is an invisible boundary, but one which can be felt as a distinct drop in air temperature. A stream of water some twenty to thirty miles wide, it represents the region where the cold currents moving up from the south sink beneath and lower the temperature of the warmer water flowing down from the north. This ocean mix rings the entire Southern Ocean — some would prefer to say it establishes the northern boundary of the Antarctic Ocean around the continent — and follows roughly latitude 50° south in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean sectors, and 55° to 60° south in the Pacific region. Not only is the ocean's surface temperature affected, but changes in chemical composition are apparent at the convergence.

    Just before we reach the Atlantic Convergence, the first icebergs appear. Small and irregular, weathered by wind and sea on their long journey from the glacier front that calved them they move steadily toward inevitable dissolution in the warmer northern waters. Biological differences in the sea's plant and animal life also occur, providing a richer harvest of food for all sea-going animals — pelagic birds being visually the most obvious beneficiaries.

    Convergence, icebergs, birds — all are signs of the nearness of true Antarctic waters.

    Birds: every hour of each increasingly long day they are with us. A panoply of birds. More birds performing more spectacular feats of flying than one would expect to see in a lifetime. Formations of black-and-white-checked cape pigeons fly undulating sea-level sorties. They are followed by southern giant petrels with their four-foot wingspan, together with the smaller storm petrels zigzagging across the sky, skimming the waves a fraction of an inch above the surface, one minute straight and level, the next making a startling 180° turn with a single wing tip downturned in a 90° bank and actually drawing spray from a racing wavecrest: a ballet of flashing scimitar-like wings governed by a wonderful aerobatic judgment. The larger petrels in particular can make a quick half-roll to level-out, a sudden soaring upward from the sea with no discernible stretch of wing or flick of feather — where they then stay, gliding, in full forward motion without any obvious means of propulsion. Breathtaking flying. One has to wonder at that small chip of a brain up there in the bird-skull, and the marvellous complexity of "wiring" that could produce such consummate aerodynamic performance.

    And then, behind the bold and marauding petrels, are the more solitary-flying birds, higher in the sky at, say three hundred feet — wandering albatrosses together with a number of the slightly smaller royal albatrosses, all maintaining a surveillance of their ocean territory — and no less riveting to watch, both by virtue of their great size and the arresting nature of their flying virtuosity. For if the petrels are the experts at close-in manoeuvrability, the albatrosses carve great spatial arabesques, wheeling, soaring, and gliding on air currents with what seems to be supernatural ease and grace — their ten feet or more of dihedrally-fashioned narrow wing giving an appearance of aerodynamic invulnerability as they sweep the sky. Possibly the albatross cannot match the tight turns and bursts of speed while poised on a mere wing tip which give the petrel low-flying supremacy, yet surely no petrel can out-soar, out-glide, or surpass the efficiency and artistry of the albatross as the long-distance maestro of the upper air.

    Having made this comparison, I must then report that it is the kind of generalization which does not always hold. For when one sees a royal albatross suddenly abandon straight and level flight and spiral upward like an aerial corkscrew, it is with a certain measure of disbelief. And when the bird breaks abruptly from the updraft, appears to rake the leading edge of its wings backward about 25° while simultaneously pushing head and body forward and down, careening for the water in the fastest, most controlled, free-fall dive you can imagine — all of two hundred vertical feet at the very least — anyone who has ever flown will have the stick pulled right back into the groin at least halfway down in the bird's dive. But the albatross will have none of it. Keeps on coming, dive-angle and velocity unchanged. Only at the last minute, just a few feet above the surface, forward goes the leading edge of the wings, up come the wing tips in an 50° arc, the tail spreads, and with belly drawing spray from the wave, the great bird takes its catch.

    You have to grab a quick breath at this: for you expect the albatross to lower its trailing wing-edges to act as flaps, spread undercarriage-feet forward as air-brakes, and land on the water. Not a bit of it: somehow conserving all the speed gained in its momentous plunge, this incredible aviator — without a single beat of its wings, or real break in the continuity of its flight — manages to pull upward, shape a perfect parabola, an ascending arc, the mirror-image of its line of descent. Up and up it goes, back to the wide reaches of altitude where, joyously and abandonedly, it turns to glide away, still soaring, to the north.

    When one is in the presence of a solitary albatross — and particularly a wanderer, larger than the rest — aloof and extraordinarily beautiful in its own airspace, it is easy to understand how such a creature aroused strong feelings of a mystical sort among southern sailors — and this before any naturalist investigated the bird's way of life and told us about the solitary early years spent entirely at sea gliding and riding the air currents; or about the long wait for the onset of a breeding maturity that finally, perhaps after three years on the wing, would drive male and female to return to their natal island — yet even then merely as apprentices so to speak, as young performers of the elaborate courtship-dance-rituals which would be repeated for the next few summers: a way of creating a bond which usually lasts for life. And, bear in mind, the wanderer may live to be fifty. Small wonder that many professional observers of these birds are fascinated by them; that writers after Coleridge have been inspired to romantically invest these long-distance solo flyers with such powerful symbolic properties.

    For myself, I suspect that no other bird in the world will ever command such a profound image of avian grandeur and presence.

    Following the solitary bird through binoculars, mesmerized by the high figure-of-eight wheelings when it seems totally uninterested in the sea as a source of food, I have found it impossible to escape the feeling that this great ocean-going flyer possesses a rare aura of dignity and purpose in playing its role in the scheme of things, and is of a wise and gentle nature. If asked to expand on such a personal opinion I can only say that I imagine its three-year quest on the wing over the Southern Ocean to be in the nature of a vigil — a watchful and formal ritual to which this glorious bird, obedient to some profound inner directive, is irrevocably committed.

    More than once I have had the thought that it would be wonderful to be descended from the great birds rather than from the great apes.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vi
List of Illustrations and Maps ix
THE ANCIENT MARINER xi
PART ONE: WEST ANTARCTICA
1 POINTS OF DEPARTURE Punta Arenas, Cape Horn and the
Convergence in the wake of Magellan and Francis Drake 3
2 MAROONED Deception, Elephant and Shackleton's race
for survival 17
3 THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE FEARSOME From the Antarctic
Peninsula to Peter I Island 35
4 LITTLE ICE, BIG ICE The Ross Ice Shelf, Ross Island,
and Shackleton's dash for the Pole 56
5 SCOTT'S LAST EXPEDITION 75
6 THE HOME OF THE BLIZZARD With Campbell and Mawson
south and west of Cape Adare 90
PART TWO: EAST ANTARCTICA
7 SUBANTARCTIC SURVIVORS The tough birds and beasts of
Crozet and Kerguelen 111
8 THE FAR SIDE Icebreaking with the Adélics 140
9 THE MONOLITHS AND THE EMPERORS OF EAST ANTARCTICA 155
THE CALL OF THE LITTLE VOICES 181
Appendix A: Biographical Notes 183
Appendix B: Further Reading 189
Index 191
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