Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica

Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica

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It is the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth, an icy desert of unearthly beauty and stubborn impenetrability. For centuries, Antarctica has captured the imagination of our greatest scientists and explorers, lingering in the spirit long after their return. Shackleton called it "the last great journey"; for Apsley Cherry-Garrard it was the worst journey in the world.

This is a book about the call of the wild and the response of the spirit to a country that exists perhaps most vividly in the mind. Sara Wheeler spent seven months in Antarctica, living with its scientists and dreamers. No book is more true to the spirit of that continent—beguiling, enchanted and vast beyond the furthest reaches of our imagination. Chosen by Beryl Bainbridge and John Major as one of the best books of the year, recommended by the editors of Entertainment Weekly and the Chicago Tribune, one of the Seattle Times's top ten travel books of the year, Terra Incognita is a classic of polar literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841972664
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 01/01/2001
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 2.75(h) x 6.30(d)

About the Author

Sara Wheeler is the author of many books of biography and travel, including Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990–2011 and Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through ChileTerra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica was an international bestseller that The New York Times described as "gripping, emotional" and "compelling," and The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle was chosen as Book of the Year by Michael Palin and Will Self, among others. Wheeler lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

The Big White

Each day was hotter than the last, and I soaked up the November sunshine like a lizard. Two Sundays after landing in New Zealand I had to present myself at nine in the morning at the headquarters of the U.S. Antarctic Program in Christchurch in order to be issued my Extreme Cold Weather clothing. I borrowed a mountain bike and cycled along deserted roads to the snoozing outskirts of the city. The bike had a matching helmet with a tiny rearview mirror protruding from the side. I swung up to the entrance of the institutional snow-white building where a sprinkling of fellow travelers had settled on the low walls and warm grass. I couldn't unstrap the helmet and was obliged to solicit the help of a vulpine Russian glaciologist.

At nine sharp we were ushered inside to take our places in a windowless room festooned with posters of icescapes, and there we waited for the last arrivals in the silence of strangers while a man ticked off our names on a clipboard and scowled like Beethoven. I felt very alone at that moment, in a strange country bound for a stranger continent.

The safety video began, optimistically, with Scott's "Great God, this is an awful place" delivered in a sonorous thespian voice and accompanying footage of well-clad individuals crashing into crevasses. When it was over we trooped through to the changing rooms. There were three other women, and our room was bare except for four pairs of tagged, overstuffed orange fabric bags the size of medium suitcases.

The bags yielded a bewildering array of footwear, underwear, headwear, handwear, eyewear and perplexing, unidentifiable items. At the bottom of one of my bags, underneath an enormous vermilion parka, lay a coiled chain and a pair of metal dog tags engraved with my name and a long number. I arranged my clothes in neat piles on the carpet and eyed the others. They were beginning to try things on, so I tackled a pair of thermal long johns with a willy-slit at the front. At one end of the room a curtain shielded us from a long counter to which we returned ill-fitting items to a blue-overalled clothing assistant who would scuttle away to pluck a different-size pair of wind pants or polypropylene glove liners from unseen mountain ranges of gear lurking in the hinterland.

As we pulled, zipped, laced and unrolled, my companions began to talk. One was a cook, another a senior ice corer and the third a NASA technician. The ice corer had six seasons of "ice time," and she showed me how to switch on the white rubber bunny boots. They were insulated by air and had a valve on the side that you had to open and close on aircraft.

When we had satisfied ourselves that no part of our extensive new wardrobe would chafe or pinch or expose our soft flesh to frostbite, we packed up our bags and the scowler dispatched us into the sunshine, marking our names down and issuing threats about the consequences of arriving late for the plane.

The sun made me squint as I cycled back along the straight artery into town. I groped around in my addled mind for the dream that had brought me here to the other side of the planet, but it seemed to have evaporated in the heat.

I was a guest in Christchurch of Roger Sutton and Jo Malcolm, who lived in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of the city. Roger's sister Camilla was an old friend of mine from her wild London days. The entire clan had embraced me as one of their own, and I enjoyed their company enormously. Jo was a news reporter on New Zealand television and Roger bought energy for SouthPower. He was obsessively committed to the outdoors and flung off his suit to go running or bicycling or climbing at the first opportunity. That evening they drove me to Lyttelton, a potent toponym in the history of Antarctic exploration and the last stop for most voyages early in the century. We went, on the way, to Kinsey Terrace and the clifftop house where Scott had stayed with his New Zealand agent, signing his name above the fireplace, and emerged from the high passes overlooking Quail Island, where he grazed his second-rate mules. In Lyttelton I saw hollow-eyed Russian seamen and tired brothels. The town was quiet, and old-fashioned even by New Zealand standards. It seemed to dwell in another age. In one bar, the table soccer was equipped with small wooden teams of Jews and Nazis.

The crews of the first ships to drop anchor off the unknown southern continent reported pleasing success with the women of Lyttelton, noting in their journals that mention of imminent departure for Antarctic exploration was the most effective chat-up line they had ever deployed. "No mere ship's officer had a chance against a polar explorer, even if only in the making," one of them wrote. Roger suggested keenly that I should test the contemporary application of this theory, and stopped the car outside several bars, urging me inside and saying that he would pick me up later. Apparently it still works, at least for men. I read in a textbook on Antarctic psychology published recently by Victoria University of Wellington that when two men placed a personal ad in a magazine asking for "active female companionship for a week for fit men about to go to the Antarctic," they were inundated with offers.

When we got home I called my friend Cindy in London; I needed to speak to her before I left. She said she was glad I'd rung as she wanted the recipe for pisco sours, which they were planning to have before lunch. I was furious that they were going to drink pisco sours without me, as I had discovered them in Chile and introduced them to my friends. Still, I told her how to make them, and at the end of the conversation, as we said good-bye, she said she felt as if I were disappearing into a black hole.

The taxi arrived at four, and Roger struggled out of bed to say goodbye. It had rained in the night, and the tarmac glistened in the deserted roads, the only trace of life a cat rubbing its ear in a pool of light from a sodium streetlamp. At the airport I found my orange bags in the changing room, layered up in my new cold-weather garments and slipped the dog tags around my neck so that in the event of a crash my charred remains could be air-mailed to my parents. Then I joined 30 other dim-eyed people in the lobby, and we all shifted from foot to foot while the pilot of our LC-130 turboprop, a ski-equipped Hercules, barked out the drill for the eight-hour flight.

"The toilet facilities on board," he said, "are primitive at best. They consist of a urinal and a honey bucket. I advise y'all to go for the major purge before departure, to avoid the honey bucket."

As the first creeping glow of dawn hesitated above the eastern skyline, we carried our gear through to the customs building observed by a handful of saturnine U.S. Navy personnel. Then we eddied around a machine that dispensed plastic cups and squirted out an inch or two of weak Nescafe until we were marshaled into line in front of our baggage by short-haired men in combat fatigues accompanied by a sniffer dog.

At this point we were dispatched into the watery dawn light and across the grass to have breakfast in the mess canteen. I was desperate for real coffee, but the shadowy form of a honey bucket loomed between me and the pot. In the strip-lit dining room, an American football game screaming from the television, we sweated in our thermals and ate eggs and hash browns while a biochemistry graduate from North Dakota who had recently learned the rules of cricket discoursed upon them at length. It took the rest of the table some time to grasp the basic principles. I dealt confidently with all appeals, as custodian of this British rite; it didn't matter that I, too, had never understood the rules. Those elysian Sunday afternoons on the edge of sunlit village pitches never seemed to have much to do with cricket.

Two hours later we boarded the plane, a line of bulky vermilion parkas differentiated only by Velcro strips on the breast pocket emblazoned with our names. As I stepped inside the belly of the plane, someone handed me a brown paper lunch bag and pointed to the end of a row. I strapped myself into a red webbing seat, wedged up against a stack of cargo crates, and looked around, like Jonah.

The man next to me was an astrophysicist involved in the study of supernova explosions. He planned to send a balloon up over Antarctica to record the spectral properties of gamma rays. We pushed in our earplugs and the plane rushed down the runway and into the morning sky, and then it was too noisy to hear any more about his balloon. I couldn't see a window either, so I hurtled toward Antarctica in my own private capsule. I slept fitfully, squashed between the astrophysicist and the cargo. None of us could find space for our enormous feet, and our legs crossed in the aisles at our ankles like upside-down guards of honor.

After an hour the temperature rose swiftly from glacial depths to tropical heights, and we struggled out of our parkas and balaclavas and neck gaiters just in time to feel it plummet again. The Russian glaciologist sat with his head in his hands for most of the journey, staring at the floor, while the astrophysicist gazed benignly into the middle distance, serene and untroubled, floating along like one of his balloons. At a certain point he smiled beatifically and shouted in my ear that we had passed the PSR. Months later I found out that this stood for Point of Safe Return, which means over half the fuel has gone. It used to be called Point of No Return, but it frightened people, so they changed it.

We picked at our sandwiches and muffins and long-life chocolate puddings in plastic pots.

When we landed and a crewman opened the door, it was as if he had lifted the lid of a deep freeze. Bloodless icefields stretched away to mountains below softly furred cumulus clouds, and ice crystals came skittering toward us through the blistering air. The Hercules had landed on the frozen sea between Ross Island and the Antarctic continent, and along the wiggly island coast land met solid sea in a tangle of blue-shadowed pressure ridges or the pleated cliffs of a glacier. I began to readjust my perception of "land" and "sea." Not far off, a tabular iceberg was damped into the ice, its steep and crinkled walls reflecting the creamy saffron sun. The sky was a rich royal blue, marbled up ahead by the volcanic plumes of Mount Erebus, and a paler blue sheen lay over the wrinkled sea ice like a filmy opalescent blanket. A spur reached from the island toward the continent, and on a hump at the end I saw a wooden cross, man's tiny mark. It was Vince's cross, erected in 1904 by Scott's men in memory of a seaman who fell down an ice cliff during a blizzard. When I looked, it gave me an almost Proustian rush: I had been here so often in my dreams.

Tucked into a hollow between the spur and an arc of hills, and at first obscured, a hundred buildings huddled on the ice-streaked volcanic rock of Ross Island.

I was prepared for McMurdo, the largest of the three American bases in Antarctica. It did not shock me to find what looked like a small Alaskan mining town with roads, three-story buildings, the ill-matched architecture of a utilitarian institution and a summer population of more than a thousand people. The lower echelons of other Antarctic communities, none of whom had been anywhere near the place, are fond of parroting diatribes against McMurdo because of its size and sophistication, by implication asserting the superiority of their experience of "the real Antarctica." I liked Mactown from the beginning, as one is drawn to certain anomalous characters in films, and my affection for it never faltered.

After a hundred introductions I was allotted a bedroom in a chocolate-brown dormitory block. It was a pleasant room with two beds, two wardrobes, two desks and several sets of drawers, and it shared a shower and toilet with the room next door. I obviously had a roommate, but she was nowhere in evidence.

I duly layered up in my multiplicity of cold-weather garments, but when the wind dropped, the ambient temperature on Ross Island was no colder than a particularly bitter winter's day in London. Although the mean annual temperature at McMurdo is minus 17.7 degrees Celsius, in summer it can rocket to plus eight (it plunges as low as minus 50 in the winter). In those balmy days of summer when I first arrived the temperature hovered around minus five. It is true that if the mercury touches minus five in London the weather is headline news and the trains grind to a standstill--and one doesn't stroll around swaddled in three layers of polypropylene, two layers of fleece and an industrial-strength parka--but for many of the Americans on station, winters at home are a good deal colder than summers on the edge of Antarctica.

What no one ever quite gets used to is the brutalizing effect of the wind. The average wind speed at McMurdo is ten miles per hour (12 knots). Extremely high winds, common all over Antarctica and terrifyingly swift to arrive, can freeze exposed flesh in seconds. That, effectively, is what constitutes frostbite, not initially a highly dangerous injury but one that can soon become fatal if untreated. A wind racing along at 35 miles per hour (56 knots), for example, which is fairly usual, reduces an ambient temperature of minus six degrees Celsius to a windchill factor of minus 28.

The Crary Lab was a long, wet-cement-colored building on stilts, the showpiece of American science in Antarctica. It consisted of mysterious enclaves of petri dishes and microcentrifuge tubes, well-heated offices, antiseptic conference rooms, and a lounge presided over by a scrofulous penguin in a glass case. Each lab door bore a number corresponding to the project number of its occupants. These Science or S-numbers were the key to many things in McMurdo. The small and unfunded Artists' and Writers' Program, in which I was a participant, dispensed W-numbers (for Writer), and my number was W-002; a textbook writer from the Midwest had got W-001. On some doors, a metal sign had been stuck under the project numbers. Most of these signs were self-explanatory, such as Penguin Cowboys or Sealheads, but some were more gnomic: the Bottom Pickers, I found out later, were investigating the seabed.

The best thing about the Crary was the view from the window that ran the length of the lounge. It looked directly over McMurdo Sound at the Transantarctic Mountains. They stuck up like the bones of the planet.

I had been given an office, and its door sign said W-002: WHEELER. It was a windowless room about eight feet square with two modern desks, a set of bookshelves and a blackboard. Around the corner, in the wide corridor, a collection of startlingly ugly antarctic fish leered out from glass cases under bell jars labeled with Latin names. Among them a bright blue plastic fish with yellow protrusions and goggle eyes glared out of its own jar of formaldehyde.

Later that day I was inducted into the intricacies of the Waste Management Program. I learned that there were 18 different kinds of waste, ranging from Light Metal to Cooking Oil, though for complicated reasons a broken glass did not belong in "Glass" nor should a cereal box be thrown in "Cardboard." This explained the behavior of people I had seen standing in front of a row of bins clutching a small item in one hand and scratching their heads with the other. Hazardous Waste constituted an entirely separate department of even more byzantine complexity. The sprawling piles of rubbish once photographed by Greenpeace were a distant memory. Only veterans could remember the barrel that had been roped off between McMurdo and Scott Base after it allegedly fell off the end of the Geiger counter. The 413-ton nuclear reactor brought to the station in 1961 was long forgotten, as were the noxious brown clouds that used to billow from the high-temperature incinerator every Saturday. Two decades ago, waste was simply left on the frozen sea until the ice melted. This practice was outlawed by the U.S. Antarctic Program in 1980, however, before Greenpeace entered the fray. Burning, too, had subsequently been outlawed, and waste was now retrograded to the United States to be burned there, or used as landfill, or recycled. The reactor was removed in 1972.

The American presence in Antarctica, financed and managed by the National Science Foundation, a government agency, and maintained by a private contractor based in Colorado, has outgrown its Naval origins. With a budget hovering just below $200 million, the Antarctic program represents 6 percent of the NSF budget. As the U.S. Department of Defense has contracted, so the U.S. Navy (more properly, a joint military force) has been withdrawing from Antarctic operations, a process that seems set to continue.

At breakfast one day I sat next to a man with a chipped tooth and a ponytail who was fortifying himself with boiled eggs before setting off to collect meteors from the polar plateau. He had already discovered meteors from the moon, and he reckoned he had some from Mars, too. He told me this quietly over his yolky toast, explaining how he could identify whence the rocks came as someone else might tell the story of a film he had watched on television the previous night.

It happened that the elderly Oscar Pinochet de la Barra, the distinguished head of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, was then at the end of a short honorary visit to McMurdo. He had published widely on Antarctica and, like any self-respecting Chilean, had written poetry about his experiences. I sought him out, and we sat in a hut overlooking the frozen sound, talking about Chile. He was an enthusiastic character who seemed grateful to speak Spanish. The more famous Pinochet was his cousin, and he muttered uncomfortably, "We are not friends." In the midst of my grand passion for Antarctica, I occasionally looked over my shoulder at Chile, guiltily, as if at a lover I had betrayed. As I got up to go, Oscar touched my arm, and with his fingers resting in the crook of my elbow he said gently, "Chile is Chile, my dear. But Antarctica is about much more than ice."

Many images of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration have burned themselves into our imagination, but the wind-blasted huts are its most potent symbol, frozen set pieces of old socks and tins of Fry's cocoa. I was longing to see the huts. I wanted to pay homage, and I hoped it would help me understand the most highly charged chapter of the continent's history.

The Heroic Age began at the Sixth International Geographical Congress at London's Imperial Institute in 1895. On August 3 those present passed a resolution "that this Congress record its opinion that the exploration of the Antarctic regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken," and went on to urge scientific societies throughout the world to start planning. Six years later, on a balmy summer's day in 1901 in the middle of a glittering high-society yacht week off the south coast of England, a smiling King Edward VII stepped aboard Discovery and pinned the insignia of Member of the Victorian Order on the chest of her barely known young captain, Robert Falcon Scott, wishing him Godspeed on his journey to the ice. The period drew to a close little more than two decades later, on January 5, 1922, when Sir Ernest Shackleton clutched his heart and died in the cramped cabin of his last ship, Quest, off the lonely island of South Georgia.

Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Douglas Mawson: the Big Four. These were the heroes of a generation of children who pored over images of bergs towering above wooden ships and men and dogs straining in front of sledges. Queen Victoria had been dead only six months when Discovery steamed away from the Isle of Wight, and the twentieth century hadn't yet gathered momentum; when it did, it would steamroller these and many other dreams.

Scott, as English as overcooked cabbage, led two expeditions, setting out first in 1901 in the specially commissioned Discovery and ten years later in the spartan converted whaler Terra Nova. During the second expedition he reached the South Pole a month after Amundsen. When he saw the Norwegian flag flapping in the distance Scott wrote in his journal, "The worst has happened." Two men died during the march home, and Scott and his two remaining companions perished in their tent, holed up in a blizzard eleven miles from a supply depot.

Shackleton was an Anglo-Irishman who first went south aboard Discovery, under Scott's command. On that expedition he sledged to the 81st parallel with Scott, but was eventually invalided home with scurvy. In 1907 Shackleton set out aboard Nimrod as leader, at last, of his own expedition, and on that journey he reached within 97 nautical miles of the South Pole. It was, at the time, the farthest south any man had ever gone. In 1914 he went again, leading an ambitious expedition in which two ships, the Endurance and the Aurora, deposited parties of men on opposite sides of the continent. The plan was for one party, led by Shackleton, to sledge across Antarctica while the other laid depots on the opposite side. It didn't work out quite like that. Endurance was crushed by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, and Shackleton was obliged to embark on an epic struggle to save himself and his men. It was an exceptionally difficult ice year, and on the other side the Ross Sea party also encountered severe difficulties. After the First World War, Shackleton took off again, this time aboard Quest, with the aim of mapping an unknown sector of Antarctic coastline. On the journey out, he died.

Together with Ibsen and Grieg, Roald Amundsen brought his young country out of the shadowy realm of northern mists. He had had extensive experience in the north, made the first transit in one vessel of the Northwest Passage, and traveled with Fridtjof Nansen, the greatest polar explorer of all. Amundsen was planning to reach the North Pole, but when he heard that Frederick Cook claimed to have got there, he decided to go south and set out in 1910 aboard Fram, though he didn't tell the crew or the rest of the world his true destination until he reached Madeira, off the North African coast. Until then, only his brother knew. Amundsen and four companions reached 90 degrees south on December 14, 1911, and raised a Norwegian flag on the brick-hard ice at the South Pole.

Mawson was a scientist. A British-born Australian, he first went south with Shackleton, aboard Nimrod. Mawson was one of three men to reach the South Magnetic Pole, the south pole of the earth's magnetic field (as opposed to the geographic South Pole, which is the southern point of the earth's rotation). In 1911 he led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, also aboard Aurora, and made a legendary one-man journey, walking hundreds of miles back to base after his two companions had died, one of them disappearing down a crevasse with almost all the food and the other going mad from food poisoning. Sixteen years later Mawson led a joint British, Australian and New Zealand expedition to Antarctica. He ended his career as professor of geology and mineralogy at Adelaide University.

On the Discovery expedition Scott's men built a hut on the spur protruding into McMurdo Sound. The spur became known as Hut Point, and the hut was primarily used for storage, though they also performed plays in it--larky rituals being de rigueur. It was subsequently used as an advance base by other sledging parties.

McMurdo had risen up less than a mile from the point. The wind was blowing steadily at about 25 miles an hour when I first walked down to the hut, and the exposed flesh between my goggles and balaclava immediately began to feel as if it were burning. I quickly covered every square inch. I was already used to subzero temperatures, but I only had to take off my gloves and glove liners for five seconds to feel what would happen to me in a high wind if I failed to dress properly. Trying to take a photograph without my glove liners in hard-blowing wind, however speedily I went about setting up the shot, I almost invariably lost sensation in one or two fingers. I couldn't begin to imagine what the old explorers had suffered when they pushed farther south, month after crucifying month. I saw them with fresh eyes then.

When I entered the hut, the stillness came upon me like a benediction. There was a mummified seal, a frozen mutton carcass, and stacked tins of Huntley & Palmer biscuits. It was colder than a sepulchre. They used to light a blubber stove, but the heating was always inadequate, according to the diaries. Shackleton wrote later that "the discomfort of the hut was a byword of the expedition," and when he was back there in 1908 he reported that some men preferred to sleep outside in their tents, as it was warmer. In the sixties a New Zealander stepped on a mousetrap that had been brought down by Scott's men to protect the food stores. I wouldn't have fancied a mouse's chances in those temperatures.

Of course, the Heroic Age didn't suddenly appear on the global landscape like a meteor. It grew out of what had gone before. Nineteenth-century explorers had been gobbled up by Victorians hungry for role models embodying the aspirations of the age. As Peter Fleming wrote in Bayonets to Lhasa, his book about the 1904 British invasion of Tibet, "By the end of the nineteenth century there were few major enigmas left on the African continent. Save for Antarctica, whose austere secrets were already arousing the competitive instincts of explorers, Tibet was the only region of the world to which access was all but impossible for white men ..." But Tibet was small fry. Press attention shifted from the Dark Continent to the Arctic and thence to Antarctica, and the conquest of the last white spaces became a metaphor for the triumph of imperialism. The cultural vacuum of Antarctica provided the perfect tabula rasa on which to play out a vision. At Scott's farewell dinner Leonard Darwin, president of the Royal Geographical Society, said in his speech: "Scott is going to prove once again that the manhood of our nation is not dead and that the characteristics of our ancestors who won the Empire still flourish among us."

Twenty-four-hour daylight was desynchronizing, and watching Mount Discovery glittering away busily in the small hours felt like stealing a march on time.

Although McMurdo had two bars, as well as a coffee shop where temperate people sipped cappuccino, the best place to go drinking was an unofficial nightspot on the gloomy top floor of a dorm. It was known as the Corner Bar, and any reprobate who arrived on the ice was drawn toward it like iron to a magnet. It was not advertised, it was not even spoken of very often, and some people spent whole seasons on base without knowing of its existence. Yet anyone with lowlife inclinations appeared at the Comer Bar within 48 hours of arrival.

The Comer Bar was the creation of four enterprising support staffers who had fumed their two-bedroom-plus-connecting-bathroom configuration into a communal lounge bar and four-bed bedroom. No money ever changed hands there. The bar, presided over by a hyperactive carpenter called Mike, ran on goodwill, and customers contributed bottles or cash or sent care parcels from New Zealand at the end of their tour. As the curtains were never drawn back, the room was as Stygian and smoky as a shooting gallery. The Comer Bar kept erratic hours, but its schedule was simple: if the door was shut, then so was the bar. It was equipped with a large, low, smoked-Plexiglas table and bar paraphernalia ranging from a huge Budweiser clock to a life-size model penguin with the concentric circles of a shooting target painted on its chest. There was constant through traffic, and new faces would loom out of the smoke among the hard-core movers and shakers. It was a great place.

I met a seismic geologist from Texas in the Comer Bar. He had blond hair, come-to-bed eyes and been-to-bed clothes, and one night he said to me, "Being in McMurdo, I feel I've come halfway round the world to find the outskirts of Austin." I often heard people expressing disappointment at finding modern conveniences on Antarctic stations. I never felt sorry or guilty or upset about it; bases are the tiniest fragments of human life on a vast, unspoiled white continent. It was like complaining about a couple of specks of dust on the Bayeux tapestry or one inharmonious note in a Mozart sonata.

Before moving out of McMurdo and into a field camp, I was required to attend Survival School, a training course that would equip me to handle tents, stoves and radios and enable me to swing nimbly out of a crevasse or come to a halt should I slide uncontrollably down an ice hill. "Survival School" sounded more like a group therapy class you might come across on the Upper East Side, or in Islington. People called it Happy Camper School, and as Americans are often not strong on irony I thought the nickname was promising.

First was a snowcraft lecture. It took place in the Crary lounge and the teacher, a field leader called Bill with eyes the color of cornflower hearts, produced a fistful of frozen sausages from a glove to illustrate the danger of frostbitten fingers.

The Berg Field Center managed the practical aspects of life off base, and in it tents languished in various states of undress, stoves lay dismantled and sleeping bags were stacked in neat rows and categorized according to temperature requirements, the ones at the bottom marked "Snowy Owl. Minus Fifty." Ice axes stood menacingly in close-ranked battalions among small armies of harnesses, ropes, thermarests, neoprene water bottles and first aid kits. A large poster hijacked from colleagues in the Arctic warned of the dangers of polar bears. It was at the Berg Field Center one mild, sunny morning, the ambient temperature minus 12 degrees Celsius, that 14 of us loaded up a tracked vehicle in preparation for Survival School. There were two instructors, one of whom was Frozen Sausage Bill, and eleven pupils besides me--three Navy personnel and eight scientists. Everyone was in high spirits.

We headed out a few miles onto the ice shelf. By the time we embarked on the first session, at the foot of a snow hill, a band of clouds had descended and visibility had shrunk to 30 feet. The morning culminated in techniques for self-arrest while sliding down a snow hill on your back and upside down. You plunge your ice ax into the snow at your side with the blade pointing toward the sky, twist your legs over, and roll and pivot yourself around the ax until you are lying facedown, head at the top, with the weight of your body over the ax, knees in and bum up.

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Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
to Antarctica, of all places. Wheeler describes her discovery of a long-sought sense of peace and global harmony at the bottom of the earth. This is a fascinating read by a career traveller with the flawless prose to take us with her and see things we never imagined.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It probably takes an odd duck to think that traveling to Antarctica would be simply amazing. I am that odd duck. I would love to one day visit this ice bound continent. And that's not likely to happen any time soon so reading about someone who did make that trip is next best. And if I'm an odd duck for thinking I'd love to go, Sara Wheeler is probably an even odder duck (or perhaps that should be odder penguin) for having gone.The book is both a travel memoir and a history of man's famed and forgotten travels in the frozen south. Wheeler interweaves her own travels, planned and spur of the moment, through the icy continent, visiting scientific bases and outposts, learning about the realities of life on the ice now with excerpts from Scott and Aumundsen and Shackleton's journeys. The historical information is never overwhelming, instead adding dimension to the experiences that Wheeler herself has in her journeys through Antarctica. Both the modern day and historical travels are fascinating. Wheeler also spends much time describing the other people who live and work on the ice. All of them are clearly a breed apart and all are moved by their time on the ice.This is more contemplative than many travelogues but it is no less descriptive than most for taking place in a landscape that is, on first impression, so uniform. Wheeler captures the hardships that plague life on the ice in vivid language but she also celebrates this still so unknown continent also. Wheeler's trip to the actual South Pole is merely one instance of her travels around and given no more importance than her other camp visits. Her final weeks, spent with only one artist companion, in a hut set aside for their creative endeavors offers a sense of peace and closure to the end of her journeyings. Readers with an interest in history and the Antarctic will enjoy this slow and thorough narrative of a summer (and part of a winter) in the south.
TadAD on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a book that has sat on my shelf for a number of years, awaiting that moment when I was in the mood for an Exploration Memoir. I had a certain degree of high expectation about the book based upon initial reviews that talked about a "rare" and "extraordinary" book. After finishing the book, I can't quibble with "rare"—how many authors have travel books about Antarctica, after all? I do, however, disagree with the "extraordinary" part. Ms. Wheeler does some things quite well. The book is full of stories about Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, Wilson and a host of other figures from the early days of polar exploration. These stories are timed beautifully and go into just enough depth that they bring those early days to life. Rather than being a distraction from her adventures, they serve as a backdrop that provides color and contrast to the present. She does an equally good job of giving you a picture of what life is like now, filling the book with tiny little details that turn abstract facts into vivid images—calling -50°C "cold" is true, but abstract; saying that -10°C "had come to seem tropical" is only slightly more real; saying that they threw a cup of boiling water in the air and it hit the ground as ice makes it all very clear.The book is also full of a fair amount of humor at life in this extreme environment, ranging from the simply amusing (hang your clothes by a quick lick on the collar and then pressing them against the ice-covered walls of the cabin) through the faintly appalling ("solids only" outhouses that can short out and electrocute you if you deposit liquids).There is no central theme or defining journey in this book. Her adventures were mostly spur-of-the-moment, taking advantage of opportunities to visit this station or that as they presented themselves. Rather than feeling diffuse, I think this worked well. It gave the book a real feeling of "I want to see everything!" as she moved from helping unload cargo to apprenticing at one scientific site or another.Yet, the book fails to reach "extraordinary." She is, at times, mean-spirited. The inhabitants of the Antarctic stations are mostly male and, of course, any largely-single-sex environment is going to provide amusement or annoyance to members of the opposite gender...depending upon how much they are affected by it. However, her tone was not one of amusement or even irritation; it was one of unending condescension and superciliousness. Her British hosts (she was a guest at several national camps during her time in Antarctica) come in for particular slighting. This appears to have been triggered by the fact that she wasn't made much of on her arrival (though it's not explicit, my reading of the events is that she arrived during the changeover period when those who had been isolated for nine months by the winter finally got to see their friends again) and wasn't immediately made an intimate in a group of individuals who had spent months and years isolated together.I also found the story a little too mawkish. There are those books where the author articulates a spiritual journey and I find them fascinating. However, I'm not so fond of those books where the author substitutes a vague sentimentality instead of finding words to describe something meaningful. A paragraph ending in "The dignity of the landscape infused our minds like a symphony; I heard another music in those days." is fine...a pretty, poetic picture. However, when these types of paragraphs occur every few pages throughout a 341 page book, when "the landscape spoke to me so directly that I no longer seemed to be made of ice" is succeeded by "It's as though God has given me a gift, once in my life, to step off the planet for two months and listen to a different music," it becomes tiresome. By the end, I found that my mind would skim these paragraphs rather than savor them.It's not a perfect book. However, Ms. Wheeler wri
co_coyote on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the sort of book I like best: you go some place, you have some interesting experiences, and you learn something about yourself that chances are you wouldn't have learned had you stayed at home. If I ever manage to get my children through University (and one of them looks like he plans to stay there for at least 20 years, like his father), I'm going to become a travel writer and write books like this. I work with a bunch of the "beakers" Sara Wheeler hung out with, so I enjoyed reading about her impressions of these interesting people. The first two-thirds of this book were fairly mundane, with quite a bit of re-hash of books I've also read. But I thought the last third, when Wheeler and another artist spent a month on the ice not in the company of scientists was the best. The book took a turn for me I didn't expect. You can't ask for too much more from a book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago