Extremes: Surviving the World's Harshest Environments

Extremes: Surviving the World's Harshest Environments

by Nick Middleton

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Extremes: Surviving the World's Harshest Environments by Nick Middleton

Humans have a remarkable knack for surviving harsh environments. But how do people really endure the world's most remote and inhospitable landscapes, where nature still reigns and where the physical geography is raw and unforgiving? In Extremes, renowned geographer and travel writer Nick Middleton puts his body and mind to the test in an attempt to find the answer.
His mission is to learn how to cope with four especially horrendous habitats. Through arctic wasteland, jungle, desert, and swamp, Nick pits himself against the elements and explains the geographical conditions that conspire to produce the world's harshest ecologies. He also discovers the various human quirks that people have evolved to make life at the edge bearable.

In northern Greenland, Nick joins a group of Inuits hunting for narwhal, crucial to the group's survival, on the edge of fragile sea ice, while in the jungle he ventures into Congo's tropical forest, home of the Biaka pygmies. He joins the annual crossing of the Tenere desert by the women of the Tubu tribe to collect dates and then travels to Papua, one of the least explored places on earth, to find the Kombai people, a remote group of tree house dwellers above the Asmat region's flood plain.

Extremes is Nick Middleton's amazing account of four of the most unwelcoming environments on earth. Can he pick up enough tips from the indigenous people of these locations to hack it at the very edge of human existence, or will his mid-latitude sensibilities forever let him down?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466892095
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 755,501
File size: 359 KB

About the Author

Nick Middleton has traveled to more than seventy countries. He is the author of several travel books and the 2001 United Kingdom bestseller Going to Extremes. He won the Royal Geographical Society's Ness Award in 2002, in recognition of his widening the public enthusiasm for geography through travel writing. When he is not traveling or writing, he teaches geography at the University of Oxford, where he is a Fellow of St. Anne's College.

Nick Middleton has traveled to more than seventy countries. He is the author of several travel books and the 2001 United Kingdom bestseller Going to Extremes. He won the Royal Geographical Society's Ness Award in 2002, in recognition of his widening the public enthusiasm for geography through travel writing. When he is not traveling or writing, he teaches geography at the University of Oxford, where he is a Fellow of St. Anne's College.

Read an Excerpt


Surviving the World's Harshest Environments

By Nick Middleton

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Nick Middleton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9209-5


Kim Petersen was a Dane who worked in Kangerlussuaq at the post office. It was a part-time job. He was ready at any moment to stop sorting mail and don the gear for his other occupation, that of ice-sheet rescue worker. Kim had agreed to take me up on to the ice sheet to show me what was what. He made all the arrangements for the trip. We would have to take supplies for two days, he told me. 'There is no wildlife on the ice,' he said, 'so no food up there.'

Four-fifths of Greenland is permanently buried beneath its blanket of ice. Look at any atlas and you'll see that this giant island, the world's largest, is dominated by white nothingness fringed with tassels of green. People talk about going 'up' on to the ice sheet because it's shaped like a vast flattened dome with a summit more than 3,200 metres above sea level. It's like one enormous mountain, only it's made of frozen water.

No one lives on the ice sheet. A Danish company, Saga Maps, which sports a Viking longship logo, produces detailed sheets of the inhabited parts of Greenland around the edges of the ice. Their cartography adorned the corridor walls of my hotel in Kangerlussuaq, but the greens and browns were edged on almost every sheet with bald white patches depicting permanent ice, marked only with the words IKKE OPMÅLT (UNEXPLORED). They were reminiscent of European explorers' maps of Africa in centuries past, where a lack of knowledge about the dark interior was disguised by an artist's impression of the dangerous creatures that might lurk there. Saga Maps' cartographers indulge in no such frivolities, and not only because romance has been removed from the twenty-first-century map-maker's arsenal. They have learned enough about this icy wilderness to know that animals and plants simply cannot exist in its harsh terrain.

Kim is unusual. Few people venture voluntarily on to the ice sheet. For most Greenlanders, it's just one big no-go area thanks to its bleak and lifeless topography. 'None of the locals, the Inuit, ever go,' he told me as we followed a rough track that led out of Kangerlussuaq towards the ice. 'They know there's nothing there.' We were bouncing along in a strange vehicle that looked like a prefab cabin mounted on wheels. The track followed the sandy bed of a fjord more than 200 metres wide on which Kangerlussuaq is situated. Appropriately enough, its name means 'the big fjord'. Kim told me that the modest stream that wound its way over the sands would become a major river as summer progressed, melting the snow. Snowmelt sometimes built up behind barriers of ice, he said, until the mounting pressure of water burst its frozen dam and a raging torrent would surge down towards Kangerlussuaq. 'On such occasions, half the village must be evacuated', he told me.

The snowmelt season that begins as spring fades into the long Arctic summer is important for many in Greenland, not least for the Inuit who make their living as hunters in this wild country. Prolonged summer days open the way for extended hunting trips and, far to the north, my ultimate destination, great tracts of ocean that spend the winter locked in an icy embrace are briefly liberated as the sea ice thaws, fragments and gradually returns to a liquid state. This is a window of opportunity in which, for a few months, Greenland's hunters can pit their wits against the biggest prize that nature has to offer in this, or any other part of the world: whales. Still caught using a harpoon cast from a tiny kayak, these giants of the deep, while protected elsewhere, continue to be fair game for Inuit hunters using their age-old techniques.

But while the sea ice was my eventual goal, to join a hunt for the fabled narwhal, I thought it would be apt to begin with a sortie on to the ice sheet that so dominates this most northerly of islands. From Kangerlussuaq, the ice was relatively accessible overland thanks to the track we were following. Kim would introduce me to the do's and don'ts of life on the ice and instruct me on how to stay alive in such a barren environment. As we made our way further inland towards the ice, we passed the scattered remains of a crashed aircraft. 'These are the unexpected visitors to the ice sheet,' Kim told me. The twisted metal fragments had lain in this position since 1968, but were so well preserved in Greenland's dry air and low temperatures that they looked much fresher. A US Air Force fighter, en route from North America to Germany, had planned on a refuelling stop at Kangerlussuaq but poor weather had prevented it from landing. If you're low on fuel over Greenland you have few options. The pilot had used his ejector seat and watched helplessly as his aircraft smashed into Greenland's ancient rocks.

Aeroplanes and helicopters can still get caught short by the unreliable weather, often a reason for Kim to drop the letters in his sorting office and assume his rescue role. Others who venture forth into the ice-bound wilderness do so with a purpose: scientists bent on unlocking the secrets of the ice sheet, and adventurers who hanker after the thrill of crossing the ice by foot or dogsled. I'd come across a Norwegian guy in Kangerlussuaq while he waited at the airport to fly home. He'd been airlifted out from his quest with two friends to ski the 500 kilometres from Kangerlussuaq in the west to Isortoq on the east coast. He and his companions had made thirteen hours a day for six days before growing blisters had forced Richard Larsson to radio for help. Beyond the range of Kim's helicopter, the rescue workers had arrived in a plane fitted with skis. They were forced to cut off the heel from one of Richard's £400 boots.

He looked Nordic and tough and had all the proper gear. A gymnastics teacher, he'd trained on Norway's small ice cap for this expedition, but his first visit to Greenland had ended in ignoble failure. He looked sad and dejected as he limped gingerly on his damaged foot.

'It is as much a mental task as a physical one,' he told me. After four days of skiing, his team had been hit by a whiteout, swirling snow obliterating the horizon and reducing visibility to as low as a metre. 'For a full day, I could see only the front of my skis.' This was when he first realized the deteriorating state of his foot. He had carried on for another forty-eight hours before giving up. His cheeks had been reduced to peeling crusts highlighted by the outline of his sun goggles. He told me his cracked and desiccated lips had been bleeding as he ate his breakfast in hospital that morning.

My encounter with the Norwegian gymnastics teacher had filled me with a respect for the ice, mixed with a minor feeling of trepidation that offset Kim's boyish enthusiasm. Kim never tired of the place and had jumped at the chance of another excursion on to the ice. The ground all around us was rough and marshy, dotted with grey tussocks of grass. Every so often the marsh gave way to frozen lakes that were starting to melt from their shores inward, like winter scabs beginning to heal in the sunlight.

Kim pointed beyond a small lake towards a steep slope where two large creatures stood studying us from the hillside. 'Musk oxen', he said quietly. They were dark, lumbering beasts approximating to cows but more like yaks in appearance. From this distance, their long shaggy coats gave the impression of a couple of medieval jousting horses taking time off to graze the lifeless grass. Their name in Greenlandic, umimmak, roughly translates as 'one with a long beard'.

Above us in a perfect blue sky the sun was shining. It had been shining in Kangerlussuaq for a couple of days. Virtually non-stop. Most of Greenland lies inside the Arctic circle, that imaginary ring with the North Pole at its centre enclosing an immense area where the tilt of the Earth on its axis means that in summer the sun never sets and in winter it does not rise for many days on end. This is the land of the midnight sun, and the sunshine in Kangerlussuaq, my point of arrival, had confirmed the stereotype rather nicely. It had been troubling me since I'd first set foot in Greenland. The curtains in my hotel room were ineffective and I'd been experiencing difficulty in sleeping. It wasn't the best preparation for my two-day introduction to ice-sheet survival.

But the ice sheet was already in sight, a great grey blob sitting ponderously on the horizon as if it was taking a breather before swallowing up another hillside like something out of a third-rate horror movie. As we drew closer to its edge, dirty with sediment gouged from the earth below, it took on the appearance of a vast ceramic sculpture. Towering ridges and cracked cliffs twisted and turned in an arrested motion. From the plane flying into Kangerlussuaq, the ice sheet had looked like the rough hide of some ancient ice-age beast and here too it was cracked and textured like the skin of a rhino, a maze of crevices, fractures and crevasses.

Kim sighed. I turned to see him smiling as if at a familiar friend. 'Another month and it will be perfect,' he said. 'Later in the summer, when the snow melts, there are many more cracks and crevasses. Then you can see its true beauty.'

The track was climbing steeply towards the ice edge, where we would leave our Tonka-toy vehicle and climb aboard a snowmobile to continue our journey. Kim momentarily became serious. 'Nick, when we're on the ice you don't walk anywhere unless I say so. There are many crevasses here that you cannot see because of the snow cover.'

It's curious to think that a gigantic blanket of ice like this one, which is second only in size to the Antarctic ice sheet, is created by the accumulation of snowflakes. Admittedly, you need hundreds of thousands of years of snowfall to make an ice sheet several kilometres thick, but it still seemed strange to me that this vast expanse of frozen water that stretches 2,500 kilometres from north to south and 1,300 kilometres across could be produced simply by the gradual build-up of delicate, feathery snow crystals.

But that's how it happens. When snowflakes land they are slowly compacted by the weight of overlying snow and converted into ice crystals interconnected by air spaces. As more and more snowflakes float down to land these ice crystals are compacted further until most of the air spaces are squeezed out and pure ice is formed. In polar regions like Greenland, where the extreme cold means that winter snowfall rarely melts, this process can take a few thousand years. Each year the snow builds up to form layers in the same way that annual tree rings show periods of growth. This is why scientists are such frequent visitors to the ice sheet, because these layers are natural archives, used not only to decipher the age of the ice but also the atmospheric and climatic conditions at the time the snowflakes fell. The scientists study cores drilled down through the ice, and the deeper the core is drilled, the further back in time it probes.

Research on the ice sheet is relatively comfortable. The scientists might sleep in tents but hot meals are served in a heated prefab building. Kim was going to instruct me on how to survive should I ever get caught short, without shelter of any kind. We had finally arrived at the very edge of the ice, a spot known as Camp 660, though 'camp' appeared to exaggerate its importance. There were just a couple of snowmobiles parked haphazardly alongside a rusty shipping container. The name of the place dated from the first survey of the area. The hill we had just climbed was thought to be 660 metres above sea level. 'A better survey says the hill is closer to 580 metres', Kim told me. But the name still stands.

We left our four-wheeled vehicle and proceeded on to the ice riding a snowmobile, a cross between a small boat and a motorcycle to look at, with two skis at the front and a caterpillar arrangement beneath the seats. The terrain here was flatter than before but the snow and ice took on a thousand shapes and textures. In some areas the residual covering of snow had been sculptured into aerodynamic shapes reminiscent of sand dunes, all pointing in the direction of the predominant winds, their crests sparkling into the distance in the late afternoon sunlight. We sped past twinkling sugar-coated ridges and small blue pools fed by constant trickles of meltwater. Here the vista was smooth as only snow can be, there rough and wind-hewn with elongated crystals directing my gaze to some far-off vanishing point.

Half an hour in, we stopped briefly at a metal box the size of a small garden shed wreathed in snow two metres high on one side. I had to dig at the drift where it had been whipped round to almost obscure a door. Inside were two bunk beds, a two-way radio mounted on a small table next to a carton of rations, a box of matches and a stack of candles. I paused briefly to drink in the calm of this oasis in a land of ice. A light wind was blowing outside, little more than a breeze but enough to bring the air temperature down well below zero. It had stung my face and numbed my fingers. And so I realized the importance of shelter, but it struck me that anyone in trouble out here would have to be very lucky or extremely skilled with their compass to come across this haven practically buried by snow.

Kim stopped more frequently after that. He would cut the snowmobile engine and unfold a thin length of metal more than a metre long, rather like an extended dipstick, and walk in a direction testing the depth of snow with it. 'We need the right conditions,' he kept pronouncing. On the first occasion, I ambled along behind him, and Kim reminded me of the dangers of wandering off his course. 'Only follow me,' he instructed. 'This is very important.'

By the fourth stop, I still hadn't made out what exactly Kim was looking for, but he announced that the place was appropriate for our shelter. 'There are no hidden crevasses here and the depth of snow and ice is good,' he said. 'We cannot dig down too deep so we will have to build up also with snow. We call the shelter an "ice grave".'

Kim returned to the snowmobile to unload two red shovels and a large saw. He took in my questioning look. 'For cutting through the ice,' he said, holding up the saw. 'You dig your own grave and then you lie in it.' He smiled. 'If you don't survive, this will save time later – it is pre-prepared.'

Where we had stopped, a couple of hours inside the rim of the ice sheet, Kim reckoned that we were standing on ice about a kilometre thick. It was nearly 9 p.m. by the time we started to construct our ice grave. Kim began by outlining an elongated coffin-shaped patch with the tip of his saw. 'Why so long?' I wanted to know. 'We will sleep up this end,' he replied, 'and enter through this end.' He walked to the entrance end and drew a much shorter rectangle at right angles to it. 'Steps down here,' he pointed, 'and we make the entrance just big enough to squeeze through. The corner will make sure no wind disturbs our beauty sleep.'

He knelt down and began to saw through the ice at the corner of the coffin-shaped patch, cutting a half-metre square. 'Shovel,' he said, extending his hand, and he levered up the square block that was about 20 centimetres thick. Manoeuvring the hefty slab to one side, Kim sank the shovel into the square hole. 'This powdery snow we must dig out,' he told me, 'about to waist-height. Below that is solid ice on which we can sleep.'

He handed me the saw. 'You cut while I dig.'

I found getting the saw into the ice to be tricky but, once in, cutting it was fairly straightforward, like sawing through reinforced polystyrene. There the resemblance ended, however. The ice block itself was surprisingly heavy and difficult to lift. I levered it up and pushed it over to one side but Kim told me to be careful with the slabs. 'We will need them later', he said, though I couldn't imagine why.


Excerpted from Extremes by Nick Middleton. Copyright © 2003 Nick Middleton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Ice: Greenland,
Jungle: Congo,
Sand: Niger,
Swamp: Papua,

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