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The Cruel Continent
The Antarctic is alien land. Desolate and barren, hostile to life, it is a lost continent at the bottom of our world, now smothered 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 blankets a region bigger than Europe and the United States combined—almost six million square miles of the earth's surface in southern summer. In winter, when the sea freezes over, the area inundated with ice can be doubled. On the mainland, from the high and remote solitude of the South Pole and the so-called Pole of Inaccessibility down to the coastal fringes, only two percent of the rocky land is able to break free of the frozen mantle.
Far inland, the ice plains rise more than 12,000 feet above sea level, and only the frost-rimed peaks of the mightiest mountains can pierce this frigid shield. Cloaking, submerging the great ranges, the ice makes the Antarctic the highest overall continent on earth and exerts an influence and an impact on the world's weather to an extent not yet fully understood.
This colossal canopy is of enormous weight and has prodigious power. Some 7.5 million cubic miles of ice puts the pressure of 24,000 million million tons on the buried continent and crushes the mountains, plains, and valleys back into the earth's mantle. The contour of the planet is thus dramatically flattened at the South Pole. Fortunately for mankind, the outward thrust of this gigantic mass is slow. The meltingof the ice in the oceans is minimal. If, by some cataclysm, all this Antarctic ice were to melt, the resultant flood of 5.4 million million million gallons of fresh water would raise the sea level of the earth above the decking of the highest bridges, including San Francisco and Sydney, and have catastrophic impact on many forms of marine life.
However, most of the southern ice is glacial—ever on the move outward and downward from those distant polar plains to the great oceans that ring the globe at those latitudes. Its size and altitude and cold frame a climate unique to Earth, a climate that breeds the worst winds known; for, from the rarefied highlands, the intensely chill, heavy air falls down the slopes, shooting through the glacial valleys and the shoulders of the ranges, gathering momentum with gravitational impetus, to launch unparalleled onslaughts on the coastal plains, to lash shore waters into turmoil and the fields of pack ice into furious upheaval.
These deeply chilled winds are chisels of air that carve and curve the surface of the ice as though it was water, shaping it into corrugations explorers know as sastrugi, frozen waves that, beneath blown drift, lurk as traps for unwary feet. They are but ripples on the face of an ice canopy that effectively masks the nature of the frozen, buried lands. Only fragmentary clues escape; debris brought down by the grinding beds of glaciers yield traces in the species of rocks of gold, coal, oil, uranium—mineral treasures inaccessible under the most massive ice cap of all.
* * *
The land was not always smothered. Hundreds of millions of years ago, it seems, it was part of a vast landmass that, under stress from movement in the planet's crustal plates, was sundered into separate continents. One magnificent expanse of wide grassy plains, rich jungles, and high chains of peaks with gleaming lakes slipped westward to form the great American continent—and hanging on its toe, held by an umbilical cord of tough gneiss rock, the doomed land slid southward.
Slowly, through uncounted millennia, the land inched across the bed of the young, dark seas. Stresses in the earth's tectonic plates unleashed the fury of enormous volcanoes to pockmark the face of the southerning land and caused earthquakes that thrust 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 buried under the gigantic frozen overburden and enclosed behind seas of floating ice and towering ice ramparts.
Today the sixth continent sprawls over the bottom of our world, shaped somewhat like a white frozen fist. Out of this clenched hand one rocky finger of territory breaks free and reveals the geologic link with the majestic mountain chain that is the backbone of the whole American continent. Up through rugged Graham Land and the South Shetlands the rock finger stabs north, dipping beneath the stormy waters of the Drake Passage 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, Australia—even Asia. Yet such links perished in the cold winds; but not all were totally obliterated. Today the plundered colonies of whales, seals, penguins, sea leopards, and the myriad birds that prey on marine life still haunt the coasts and finger islands in southern summer; inland, there are mere traces of long gone verdancy. A glacier cuts the thin face of a coal seam laid down in prehistory. Exposed are the fossil leaves of an extinct tropical forest. Glacial moraines bring down pieces of petrified tree trunks or fragments of bone from the mangled skeleton of some rare animal of antiquity.
On the frozen continent extermination of life forms was inevitable—and still is. Winter comes when Earth is at the most distant point from the solar center, and summer brings only angled glimpses of sunlight, for a few weeks. Elevated as it is above the warmer air at sea level, it is much colder than the Arctic north. High on the uplands, around the desolate polar plateau on those twelve-thousand-foot-high platforms, a cold of rare intensity freezes the air into a crystallized white-gray mist, a shroud over the frosted peaks and plains that trails down into the glacial valleys toward the coast.
It is cold that kills. It is the coldest cold on earth. It makes the air so heavy that it falls across the frozen plains with increasing speed, hardening the ice to brittle rigidity so that the glaciers—among them the greatest on the planet—rend and fracture as they 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 enormous explosions, like a bombardment by massed artillery—when it can be heard above the roar and the boom of the gales.
Cold makes the Antarctic alien, but winds make it more deadly. The worst, and most dangerous, are katabatic winds, flying rivers of air, cold and heavy, falling down the frozen slopes from the polar plateaus and, with gravity, increasing in speed to batter and assault those parts of the coast where they find outlet. They reach gusts of above two hundred miles an hour and can blow consistently for days and not drop their force below eighty miles for many hours on end. Such winds lift gravel and hurl rocks and heavy objects out to sea; they blow men from their feet and encase their eyes, nostrils, and mouths in ice formed from their own breath. They are the worst winds in the world, a greater menace than cold. Born in rare high solitudes, they pick up snowflakes, ice crystals, and frozen pellets, compacted like hail, all of which, blown in the wind, become abrasive material that can polish rough metal to brilliant sheen and scour the wood from between the grains when they are left exposed for a winter. And cold and wind can reach the sheltered parts of a man's body and cause deadly frostbite, adding to his peril.
Men are always surrounded by danger, and the hazards can change constantly. The canopy of ice is ever on the move, the glaciers strain and shift and break, and what may be safe today will be perilous tomorrow. The ice has a life cycle. Each snowflake that falls on the polar plateau may form part of the outward flowing mantle and eventually reach the sea in one of the frozen barriers, a shelf, or a glacier tongue. Once there, it may break off as part of an immense iceberg, a floating island of ice that the wind will carry north, to beyond the Antarctic Circle, above sixty degrees South, where the chilled southern waters sink below the warmer tides of the Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Pacific Oceans—where the sun will melt the ice and lift the moisture back into the atmosphere, perhaps again to fall 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 and seas that can be treacherously beautiful and which held back exploration until two centuries ago. Men in wooden sailing ships were spurred south in the Middle Ages to discover the mysterious southland, which cartographers believed existed to balance the terrain of the northern half of the world.
But these intrepid sailors were beaten back by the first lines of the Antarctic defenses. Tempestuous winds sweep those vast open seas, and calm brings only dense fog and white mists that shroud immense floating death traps—islands of ice, fields of growlers, and jostling pack, tossing floes that can overnight—in an hour even—freeze over and squeeze a captured ship to matchwood. And silently the massive bergs slide through the sea with submerged projections that can sink the greatest vessel with a sideways graze.
Nevertheless, penetration by man into this hostile region was opened by a wooden sailing ship, by the aptly named British vessel. Resolution. Conned by the intrepid Captain James Cook, it carried men for the first time inside the Antarctic Circle in late 1773 and, in the following January, thrust even farther south, Forcing his ice-coated ship into dangerous waters, creeping through fogs and mists, dodging bergs and pack floes, Cook reached beyond seventy-one degrees South. Then, in waters now called Amundsen Sea, offshore from territory we know as Byrd Land, he could go no farther south. He was faced with towering walls of ice. By dead reckoning he calculated that he was then some 1,250 miles from the geographical South Pole, and he believed he was very close to the mainland—but the Antarctic light tricked him. Cook could see south, beyond the icy ramparts, to where white-crested mountains soared into a distant sky and he was certain that he was close to an ice-bound land. He was most certainly the first man to glimpse the peaks of long-lost mountains—but he could not have seen them by direct line of sight. From his most southerly point the closest peaks, topped by the eight-thousand-foot-high Mountain Murphy, were perhaps three hundred miles distant—beyond the curvature of the earth.
Almost certainly Cook was a victim of the Antarctic mirage in which layers of cold air of differing temperature can reflect a landscape 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 they saw that day, they were certainly touched with awe. Cook made a 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 went on to circumnavigate the continent, sailing right around the globe before heading north with firm convictions on the Antarctic. The hostile southern land was inaccessible, and no man could ever penetrate it. "I can be so bold to say no man will venture further south than I have done, and that the lands to the south will never be explored." For him the sixth continent was "doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun's rays, but to be buried in everlasting snow and ice."
Cook's warning was not conclusive. Drawn south by his reports of teeming coastal life, predatory whalers and sealing boats plowed through twelve thousand miles of seaways inside the Antarctic Circle, taking profit among the whales, seals, and migratory birds that breed on the coasts, countless islands, and rocky southern capes. The men found new islands, saw distant white land, and, when profits were not high enough, turned to the slaughter of the timid, teeming penguins for the miserable amounts of fat and oil their bodies contain.
Cook's prophecy was to be proved false within fifty years. In 1823, James Weddell of Britain sailed below America to seventy-four degrees South. Seven years later one of the captains of the firm of Enderby Brothers of London—John Biscoe—sighted land south of Africa. Another Enderby captain discovered a group of islands and named them after himself, the Balleny Islands.
By the mid-nineteenth century exploratory, rather than exploitative, expeditions entered the southern lists. Bellinghausen of Russia repeated Cook's circumnavigation of the continent and found an island or two south of America; the Frenchman, Jules Sébastian César Dumont d'Urville, while landing on an island, caught a glimpse of an ice-girt rocky cape and, claiming that sliver of land—directly south of Adelaide—for France, called it Adélie Land after his wife, a name far too graceful for such a harsh land.
Like mice nibbling at the edge of a vast, chilled cheese, the expeditions came and went through the rest of the nineteenth century. Sir James Ross with his Royal Navy squadron had probed the Ross Sea region. Captain James Wilkes with a U.S. Navy flotilla swept the sea and was deceived into marking into his maps land that others later sailed over. But a century and a quarter went by after Cook's farthest journey south before any man set foot on the Antarctic mainland. A whaling venture in 1895, led by an Australian, Henry Bull, with Captain Leonard Kristensen, probed along the ice barrier of the Ross Ice Shelf, found a rare gravel beach, and got ashore for a few hours. This first landing site is due south of the New Zealand port of Dunedin. It was subsequently named Cape Adare, and both landing and site were primers for the invasion that ensued.
In 1897, Adrien de Gerlache of Belgium took the Belgica south to a harrowing winter. His ship was trapped in ice and drifted for a whole year inside the Antarctic Circle; the first mate of that ship was a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen.
By the time the Belgica broke free, plans were afoot for the first wintering party to go ashore on the mainland at Cape Adare. Out of Melbourne, the Southern Cross Expedition—named after the ship—sailed south in late 1898 under the command of Carsten Borchgrevink. It was funded by the British publishing tycoon, Sir George Newnes. Adventurer, explorer, whaling man, and a very practical soul, Borchgrevink was a Norwegian-born resident of Australia; he carried enterprise into the southern continent.
Landing safely on the beach he erected the continent's first shelter—a prefabricated hut—and 124 years after Cook's prophecy on the "doomed" land, the air echoed with the sound of barking dogs and men's voices. Borchgrevink introduced the husky team and the sledge to the continent, though he was penned in and could not travel very far because of ice conditions. He also lodged another "first"; he buried the Antarctic's first victim—Nicolai Hanson, a taxidermist whose death appeared to have all the signs of incipient scurvy.
At about the same time, national pride and interest were stirred in European capitals: there was a meeting in London of the International Geographical Congress, from which came the framework of a multinational assault of separate expeditions, and which also sealed the destiny of an obscure young torpedo officer in the Royal Navy—Captain Robert Falcon Scott—and set the pattern of exploration for the coming decades. Expeditions were launched from Sweden and Germany. The Swedish ship was trapped in ice, and the men spent two winters on Snow Hill Island, in the American Quadrant, while the Germans, under Erich von Drygalski, were also icebound south of Western Australia at a place they called Gauss Berg, near the vast sheet of floating ice that was to be named for a young navel reserve officer then serving with Scott—Ernest Shackleton.
Scott's persistence overshadowed the German and Swedish failures: he pioneered long-distance sledge travel. He first landed at Cape Adare and then went on to find anchorage for his ship Discovery in McMurdo Sound, where Ross had named a soaring active volcano after one of his ships—Mount Erebus —and a dead volcano after another ship—Mount Terror. For Scott these two peaks stood at the portal of what he was to make the highway to the South Pole. With much to learn—and suffer —he took the rigid formality of the Royal Navy onto the ice; officers were officers and men were always men, and the mess was run like a wardroom. On this regime in this most southern human habitation, he developed the sledging disciplines and the hard rigorous approach on which his great reputation was to be built.
Through the months of 1902, Scott imposed routines for sledging and camping, and in November set off to the south across the Ross Ice Shelf for the first human invasion into the Antarctic interior. He had two companions—Dr. E. A. Wilson, doctor and artist, and a rugged and ambitious reserve officer, Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton. They took nineteen dogs and a carefully allotted food ration. The wind, cold, and terrible terrain wore down their condition; the dogs died one by one; the men — especially Shackleton—suffered from scurvy, but they fought their way on a most harrowing, grueling journey to a latitude of eighty-two degrees South, eight degrees from the bottom of the world. Scott was then compelled to turn back. With cold, malnutrition, wind carving their faces, haggard from endless toil, they came back to safety by the barest margin. They carried the sternest warning on the savage nature of the inland territory.
Shackleton was very ill, and his illness was to have great impact on all that followed. Scott did not think he would survive another winter in the Antarctic, so he sent him home to recuperate aboard the Morning when it came south with fresh stores and fuel. Shackleton was feted, lionized in England. One of the three Englishmen to get closest to the South Pole and the first to be home to tell the tale, he responded to fame—and opportunity. Glowing with national pride and ambition, he became entrepreneur-explorer and soon enlisted the rich and the influential to his openly declared objective—to reach the geographical South Pole.
Lectures, talks, articles, pleading, persuading, he peddled the Pole as a national objective until finally he had his own expedition staffed and equipped. His men named him "The Boss," a title he loved, and which suited him. Flaunting his battlecry, "First to the Pole," he went south in August 1907 in the Nimrod, a former sealing ship.
Shackleton's personal magnetism was striking, his sense of promotion remarkable. The Pole was the goal, science a side issue; but, still, he astutely added Australian and New Zealand scientists to his staff, thus winning cash support from both governments. Among those enlisted was a fifty-year-old professor of geology at Sydney University, a deceptively gentle man and lovable 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 former outstanding student, then a lecturer in geology at Adelaide University, Dr. Douglas Mawson, who, at the time of the invitation, was investigating an outcrop in South Australia that proved to be the first discovery of uranium in the land.
Like Cook, Mawson was born in Yorkshire. When he was two years of age his parents—whose family had lived there for generations—migrated to Australia with Douglas and his brother William. When Shackleton's invitation arrived. Mawson was twenty-six years old, a man of exceptional physical strength, gifted with an adventuring spirit, a scientist's mind, and a natural bent for leadership. Hardened, weather-browned by many expeditions into Australia's outback, six feet three inches in his socks, blue-eyed, Mawson joined "Tweddy" and went south with Shackleton to face a world of ice. Aboard the Nimrod he met two men who were to share his future; the first mate, John King Davis—a glum, red-haired Irish sailor, soon to gain the nickname of "Gloomy"—and a tough veteran of the first Scott expedition, Frank Wild, whose mother was said to be descended from Captain Cook.
Shackleton's first expedition was given the popular keynote of rugged, tough endeavor, but the main aim was the glittering prize of all exploration—first to the South Pole. In that opening decade of the century the bitter desolation at the end of the earth was publicly vaunted as a diamond-bright magnet for the brave British spirit—and so helped to enlist money from private and public purses alike.
Although the dominant drive was to be first at the South Pole, Shackleton saw other challenges from which to win glory. There was the Antarctic's only active volcano, which no man had ever scaled. And in the west, in wasteland no man had seen, was the point of the intriguing South Magnetic Pole, that position to which the compass needles always turned, quite distinct from the geographical South Pole. Shackleton wanted complete conquest.
He sent the three Australians—middle-aged Professor David, Dr. Douglas Mawson, and the Sydney doctor, Alistair MacKay, to achieve both these objectives. Their initiation into the reality of Antarctic travel was staged on the slopes of the roaring volcano—Mount Erebus, They were given a support party to help them up the ascent with their heavy sledges, but the 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 desolation where, today, the U.S. station of McMurdo (established for the International Geophysical Year in 1957) stands—a modern township of more than one hundred buildings, with a summer population of some eight hundred men and women and equipped with community services, a cinema, a nuclear powerhouse, telephones, laboratories, and a hospital.
It was a daunting, backbreaking challenge. The laden sledge was hauled up steep frozen slopes, across rising fields of serrated ice, slippery wind-polished sheets, and areas of sastrugi and ice falls with fissures and crevasses all around. Across fields of broken ice they often had to carry the sledge to gain ground. Upward they fought their way, with deepening cold and bone-cutting winds testing their stamina and resolve. After two days, they reached nine thousand feet and were trapped for another two days in a blizzard. For the next forty-eight hours, they lay shivering in their sleeping bags, wet, cold, hungry, and unable to light the primus, knowing that to suck snow or ice at such low temperatures would crack the flesh of their lips and tongues and cause intense pain to the alimentary tract. Thirst became an agony worse than hunger. The day after they could leave the camp, 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 and sharp-edged frozen confusion to more than twelve thousand feet. Ice crystals in the biting air stung their faces and eyes and caught in their nostrils. But they found a geologist's paradise, an unknown crater with steaming fumeroles—open cracks—in the base of a vast saucer with spuming steam that at once froze into delicate draperies of ice. They found huge crystals of feldspar and rare rocks coated in yellow sulphur thrown from this boiling crater—three times deeper than Vesuvius and almost a mile, lip to lip. It was riven in its basin by a great fissure that ran down 400 feet to the bowl of lava fire. From there the spitting steam leaped a thousand feet into the air, along with fire dust and the glowing rocks that were hurled high. Mawson was enchanted. The fury of the heated earth bursting into this frozen setting was the example for him of the wonderful contradictions and 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 rumpled cloth of white and lavender, the great ice shelf vanishing into distant haze; and to the west behind the camp, sawing the sky toward the South Pole, was the endless range of the Transantarctic Mountains, a scene of alpine grandeur unmatched in the world; and beyond and beyond, rolling westward for thousands of miles, was an unseen, untrodden, white land.
It was a glimpse all too brief for Mawson. He had to shield face and eyes from the biting frost and start the fight downward; yet the awe-inspiring moment went with him and brought a rare emotion that touches some southern travelers. In that ethereal setting, his mind caught a shred of longing, a desire to walk that land beyond the great mountains, to explore its snow wastes, coasts, and uplands, to taste its timeless solitude.
It was a limpid stream of thought, he told himself, a gossamer that would vanish in the reality of the downward fight. But it never was banished; it lay on the edge of his mind to return again and again in the miles of sledging that lay ahead. It rested on the fringe of conscious thought to emerge and challenge his ambition until at last he was compelled to put the aspiration to the test of reason and positive action.
* * *
The story of Shackleton's attempt to win the South Pole on this 1909 journey is now a major classic in human exploration. With three companions—one of whom was Frank Wild—and supported in the early stages by four Siberian ponies, he slogged his way to within 112 miles of the South Pole and a plateau altitude of 11,600 feet. There the threat of starvation, incessant inroads by cold, wind, toil, and the constant enmity of the land drove him into unwilling retreat.
Like Scott, Shackleton brought back a clear warning of the implacable nature of the continent; but he also won some personal glory in the confrontation. As such, his journey overshadowed the greatest unsupported foot slog ever made in the south —the march to the South Magnetic Pole.
The journey to the elusive southern axis of the earth's magnetic field was made by the same three men who had conquered Erebus in 1908. David—then over fifty—Mawson, and MacKay hauled a half-ton sledge across sea ice into the northwest and then fought up a glacier and through the Prince Albert Mountains of south Cape Adare. Suffering from hunger and snow blindness, they made an incredible march of 1,260 miles, which included geology studies and finally came as near as possible to the Magnetic South Pole as the simple equipment allowed. This was attained at a point registered as 72 degrees 25 minutes South latitude, and 152 degrees 16 East longitude. When severe snow blindness disabled David, Mawson took over leadership and for 500 miles led them back to meet the ship on the west coast of the Ross Sea—a feat that David praised all his days:
"Mawson was the soul of the march to the Magnetic Pole," he wrote later. "In him we had an Australian Nansen, a man of infinite resource, splendid spirit, marvelous physique, and an indifference to frost and cold that was astonishing—all the attributes of a great explorer."
The journey cut deeply into their physical condition; only by eating seal meat on reaching the coast were they saved from scurvy. Through thick snowdrift, bitter winds, over difficult terrain, they made long burdensome marches—and each of them swore 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 ferocity on him, the Antarctic had already claimed his spirit and was calling him back before he had departed. The challenges of the continent imparted sharpened intellect; mental and bodily effort were improved, but there was something else, something intangible in the total magnet of the southland. Years later Mawson was to write: "We came to probe its mystery, to reduce this land to terms of science, but there is always the indefinable which holds aloof yet which rivets our souls...." The pull of the unknown on the soul of the explorer was irresistible, and Mawson was committed, in his own special way.
Posted January 4, 2000
I read Mawson's Will several years ago but I haven't forgotten the courage and endurance displayed throughout the book. I remember reading the book and thinking that if I was ever confronted with an impossible task needing exceptional endurance all I needed was to re-read Mawson's Will. It will affect you in a positive way and give inner strength. This book is recommended to teenagers and adults with a desire to explore the strength of the human spirit.
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Posted December 14, 1999
This book tells the true story of Antarctic exploration. It reads like an action thriller complete with insurmoutable odds, cliff hangers, and super-human feats. I have read it to my 8th grade students and they literally came running into class to hear the next installment. I used it to illustrate what some of the knowledge we have, and take for granted, has cost. The price in terms of human life and hardship has often been very high and this story shows that in a dramatic way. I am glad it is back in print! I have looked for it for years so I can give it as gifts.
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Posted January 2, 2014
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