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Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Worst Journeys In The World–The Age Of Exploration, ‘Because It’s There’, And The Personal Validation Of High Risk

In 1911-12 both Scott and Amundsen travelled to the South Pole, a feat never before accomplished.  Scott made it to the pole but died of starvation, scurvy, dehydration, and hypothermia.  Amundsen was first to the pole and back with relative ease and no casualties. Both men wrote exhaustive diaries very different in tone and spirit.  Amundsen’s is filled with the wonder of the Antarctic, the best skiing in the world, the camaraderie, and nationalistic spirit.  Scott’s, particularly as he knew that he would never make it back to the Terra Nova, is a tragic memoir of facing death in the most impossibly difficult conditions.  Temperatures in the Antarctic in both summer and winter months routinely reach –75F;  hurricane-force winds and whiteout blizzards are common; and navigation along the featureless landscape of the 200,000 sq. mile Ross Ice Shelf across which both men had to travel to the Pole was at times impossible.  Both teams had to cross the Antarctic Mountain range with peaks over 12,000 ft., wide glaciers, crevasses, and deep moraines. The high plateau on which the Pole is located is over 10,000 ft., so in addition to temperatures of over 100 degrees of frost, Force 10 winds (over 120 MPH), the think air of high altitude also made travel arduous, slow, and painful.

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As Roland Huntford explains in his book Race to the South Pole – The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen, the strategy, preparation, and and skills of the two men were very different.  Scott felt that horses and motorized sledges were the ideal transport for the region; while Amundsen, who had spent years in the Artic with indigenous Eskimo tribes, understood that dogs were the best if not only means of travel.  Dogs exerted little pressure on the surface of snow, could eat hunted seal meat, were indefatigable and obedient, and could keep warm in the most severe weather.  Amundsen dressed his team like the Eskimos with animal skin and fur in multiple layers, like the Eskimos kept exertion within limits to avoid excessive perspiration and freezing, and ate their kinds of food.  Amundsen paid attention to detail, assumed breakdowns and malfunction and planned for them in his inventory, chose his men with both practical skills and years of skiing experience.  Scott’s team was comprised of scientists, volunteers, sailors and soldier, all ill-prepared for the mission they were to undertake.  Amundsen, like his English predecessor, the Antarctic explorer Shackleton, was a brilliant manager both in temperament, social skills, intelligence, and understanding.  It was not surprising that Amundsen’s journey to the Pole as reported in his diaries and memoirs was close to a travelogue, while Scott’s was one of difficulty, suffering, and death.

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In his The Worst Journey in the World – Antarctic 1910-13, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an aristocratic volunteer on Scott’s team chronicled the entire expedition including his own recollections and those of his expedition mates.  In addition to an account of the Scott team’s march to the Pole, Cherry-Garrard also detailed his own side trip to study Emperor penguins, one which was undertaken in winter under the most extreme conditions experienced by any Antarctic explorer to date.

Antarctic exploration is seldom as bad as you imagine, seldom as bad as it sounds. But this journey had beggared our language, [and] no words could express its horror…

In the pauses of our marching we halted in our harnesses the ropes of which lay slack in the powdery snow. We stood panting with our backs against the mountainous mass of frozen gear which was our load. There was no wind, at any rate no more than light airs : our breath crackled as it froze. There was no unnecessary conversation.  I don't know why our tongues never got frozen, but all my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces…

In the following passage, Cherry-Garrard describes the perceptual and psychological distortions that occur in superficially featureless landscapes, but in the dark and with diminished mental acuity due to the onset of scurvy, unable to be seen by the men.

These holes became to our tired brains not depressions but elevations , hummocks over which we stepped, raising our feet painfully and draggingly. And then we remembered, and said what fools we were, and for a while we compelled ourselves to walk through these phantom hills. But it was no lasting good, and as the days passed we realized that we must suffer this absurdity, for we could not do anything else. But of course it took it out of us.

One of the most common ailments of the Antarctic travelers was frostbite – not the small, almost unnoticeable spots of frozen skin experienced by skiers, but large pieces of frozen, blistered skin.

During these days the blisters on my fingers were very painful. Long before my hands were frost-bitten, or indeed anything but cold, which was of course a normal thing, the matter inside these big blisters, which rose all down my fingers with only a skin between them, was frozen into ice. To handle the cooking gear or the food bags was agony ; to start the primus was worse ; and when, one day, I was able to prick six or seven of the blisters after supper and let the liquid matter out, the relief was very great. Every night after that I treated such others as were ready in the same way until they gradually disappeared. Sometimes it was difficult not to howl.

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It is hard to imagine the difficulty Cherry-Garrard and his crew had in managing the simplest of tasks.  Dressing in the morning took at least an hour, for clothes which had become wet with perspiration during the night in sleeping bags, froze on contact with the –50F temperatures even in their tents.  The freezing was so quick and so solid that clothes were like a suit of armor.  Eventually the men learned to bend from the neck, so that at least the clothes would freeze to allow for the day’s sledge pulling. 

The air inside the tightly-closed sleeping bags became so foul with carbon dioxide that they couldn’t breathe, but even the smallest airhole invited pain and frostbite.

Moisture collected on our matches if you looked at them. Partly I suppose it was bringing them from outside into a comparatively warm tent ; partly from putting boxes into pockets in our clothing. Sometimes it was necessary to try four or five boxes before a match struck. The temperature of the boxes and matches was about a hundred degrees of frost, and the smallest touch of the metal on naked flesh caused a frost- bite. If you wore mitts you could scarcely feel anything — especially since the tips of our fingers were already very callous.

Even though the Barrier (since named the Ross Ice Shelf) was, compared to more featured landscape of the mountainous regions, reasonably flat, the details of its surface was anything but.  Not only were their hummocks, crevasses, and sinkholes, but rough wind-waves, corrugated landscapes of jagged, impassable ice.

As we approached Terror Point in the fog we sensed that we had risen and fallen over several rises. Every now and then we felt hard slippery snow under our feet. Every now and then our feet went through crusts in the surface. And then quite suddenly, vague, indefinable, monstrous, there loomed a something ahead. I remember having a feeling as of ghosts about as we untoggled our harnesses from the sledge, tied them together, and thus roped walked upwards on that ice. The moon was showing a ghastly ragged mountainous edge above us in the fog, and as we rose we found that we were on a pressure ridge. We stopped, looked at one another, and then hang — right under our feet. More bangs, and creaks and groans ; for that ice was moving and splitting like glass.

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As difficult as these Antarctic journeys were, there were others taken during the Age of Exploration which were equally dangerous. Sir Richard Francis Burton describes trekking through the uncharted jungles of East Africa to find the source of the Nile.  He and T.E. Lawrence describe their travels through the Arabian desert.  Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail single-handedly around the world, wrote of his experiences and the impossible conditions of the Southern Ocean, the ‘Roaring Fifties’ and sailing around Cape Horn.  Francis Chichester wrote of his circumnavigation in Gypsy Moth Circles The World.  Edmund Hillary wrote a memoir of the first successful climb of Mt. Everest; and Jon Krakauer, in Into Thin Air wrote of the disaster on the mountain in 1996 in which eight climbers were killed.

Krakauer’s book is most like Cherry-Garrard’s.  Climbing the highest peaks in the Himalayas is not unlike polar journeys – both need depots and waystations; both rely on logistics, strategy, and management; and both are undertaken in the harshest conditions.

Why do men and women undertake these journeys?  In the Age of Exploration at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, nationalism was important.  The British were especially generous in financing expeditions to explore the uncharted and to determine the source and flow of waterways (e.g. the Nile and the Niger), study the flora and fauna of isolated natural zones (as Cherry-Garrard did for the Emperor penguins); but scientific inquiry was always done in the context of national discovery.  Being first to the poles was of national significance.

In later years, exploration and conquest was done for personal reasons.  Climbing the Himalayas ‘because they are there’.  Peter Beaumont  a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber, recounts the indescribable thrill of taking life-threatening risks

So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."
Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:
Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.
Beaumont writes about another more personal and poetic aspect of risk-taking – it can be liberating, and meaningful:

So while you can find risk-minimizing disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.

For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.

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When asked by a mountain man why he wants to take a trip down the (fictional) Cahulawassee River, Lewis Medlock in James Dickey’s Deliverance responds, ‘Because it’s there’.

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That's right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it's there.
Griner: It's there all right. You get in there and can't get out, you're gonna wish it wasn't.

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Arthur C Clarke was perhaps the most romantic writer about exploring the unknown.  His 2001 A Space Odyssey was less about exploring the far reaches of Jupiter and beyond than spiritual enlightenment.  It wasn’t so much that space was ‘there’, but that its possibilities were limitless, unexpected, and transformative.

Endurance, courage, discipline, ingenuity, work, and hope – the hallmarks of all extreme travel are the best of human nature.  While Scott may have made amateurish mistakes, his last diary entries are poignant testimony to fundamental character and integrity.

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