The South Pole that everyone thinks of is technically the geographical South Pole, the southern end of the earth’s axis of rotation, a fairly straightforward concept. As much as I’d like to go there someday, the trip I’m taking at the end of January doesn’t go anywhere near the South Pole. At our closest point, we’ll be about as far from the geographical South Pole as Chicago is from Los Angeles. Antarctica is big.
One reason I’d love to visit the South Pole is to see the literal South Pole:
The location of the literal south pole changes constantly as the ice at the South Pole flows, at a rate of about 6 feet a year. At least once a year, scientists at Amundsen-Scott station relocate the pole, topping it with a new marker. Here’s the 2021 marker:
Few men are more famous as explorers of Antarctica than Ernest Shackleton – perhaps only Amundsen and Scott. Shackleton died exactly 100 years ago ago today, succumbing to a heart attack on the remote Atlantic island of South Georgia at the start of what would have been his third major expedition to Antarctica. He was just 47 years old, a young man, but then many of the explorers died early – Scott at 44, Amundsen at 56.)
Reading on Shackleton, I’m struck by the fact that he is so famous despite, or maybe, indirectly, because, he never actually reached the South Pole. That failure somehow magnifies his stature as a leader of men. On his first expedition, the Discovery expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott in 1901-1904, Shackleton, Scott, and another man went as far south as 82º – a record for the time – but Scott then dismissed Shackleton for ill health.
A few years later, in January 1909, Shackleton’s own Nimrod expedition brought him and three others to 88º S, less than 100 miles from the pole and a new Furthest South. Though Shackleton longed to win the “race to the pole,” instead Amundsen did, in 1911, and Shackleton instead aimed at what would have been an even more impressive feat than merely attaining the pole: crossing Antarctica from the Weddell Sea on the South American side of the continent (the north, ha!) to the Ross Sea on the New Zealand side (the north again!) – and, naturally, crossing the pole on the way.
This was the famous, or infamous, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 which ended prematurely when Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance (surely one of the most ironic names ever), was trapped in pack ice in January 1915. They had not even gotten close to Antarctica proper, and in fact had been caught in the same region where a German expedition had been trapped in 1912.
Shackleton and his crew lived, barely, for the entire summer, fall, and winter of 1915 on the ship itself, hoping that warmer temperatures in the spring would allow them to free the ship and sail either home (which was in the throes of the Great War), or amazingly, deeper into the sea, toward the continent, to try the crossing after all. A separate group had already laid supplies on the other side of the continent, fueling Shackleton’s hope to lead the third party to the pole – and only the second to return successfully from it.
These plans disintegrated in October 1915 when the spring breakup crushed the Endurance, driving the men onto the ice. They tried to march north, but found the going too slow, so they camped on the ice until Shackleton decided to make another march, which also failed, just a few miles further along. They returned to the shipwreck to salvage supplies and lifeboats in the hope that they could find open water and sail to one of a few relatively nearby outposts of civilization, then camped for months.
All the while, the ice floes were drifting and splitting, drifting and splitting, and the men were starving, losing their wits, fighting and mutinying. They shot all their sled dogs and ate some of them, a complement to endless seal meat. Finally, in April 1916, with another winter approaching, conditions deteriorated enough that Shackleton ordered a desperate effort to sail the open lifeboats – now renamed, almost ludicrously, for the expedition’s main financial backers – to any of several islands they knew were nearby. A brutal five-day voyage brought them, without the loss of anyone, to Elephant Island, just off the tip of the Antarctica Peninsula.
Resting on the barren island, Shackleton determined that he and five other men would sail one of the boats through the rough seas of the Drake Passage to South Georgia, from which they’d departed about sixteen months earlier. This was an unimaginably harrowing trip that depended entirely on the ability of Shackleton’s captain, Frank Worsley, to navigate without proper instruments, maps and charts, or even, you know, a stable deck.
Worsley did it. After two weeks at sea, the tiny boat made it to South Georgia on May 10 – but on the uninhabited side of the island. After a couple days of recuperation, Shackleton, Worsley, and another crewman made a two-day trek through the wilderness to the whaling station at Stromness, the port from which the Endurance had left in December 1914.
I nearly weep to think of the relief they must have felt to see ships, houses, and other people after so long a time, and so much an ordeal – but also to think of the need they felt to rescue the rest of the Endurance’s crew.
After retrieving the three other lifeboaters who’d stayed on the far side of South Georgia, Shackleton made four successive efforts to sail back to Elephant to rescue everyone else – not even knowing if they were still alive, three months after he had left in the lifeboat. The damn sea ice defeated the first three attempts over three months until finally Shackleton reached Elephant Island in August to find the entire party still alive, though they had suffered horribly through another austral winter – starvation, depression, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene, amputation. Again, I can hardly imagine the mixture of feelings they must have felt, sailing back to Chile and then home to Great Britain: elation and relief, certainly, but probably also sadness and frustration. All that effort, all that suffering, all for naught.
Shackleton was recognized as a hero, however, and after service in the British military and a period of lecturing, he organized another Antarctic expedition – partly to pay off debts from the failure of the Endurance trip. (That these insane treks required so much financing and were even seen as possible ways to make money by discovering minerals or other resources or simply by publishing newspaper and books, seems ludicrous.)
This expedition was to have conducted a wide range of scientific research during a circumnavigation of Antarctica. Shackleton fell ill on the journey south but insisted on continuing. Finally, on the morning of January 5, 1922, with the ship docked in, yes, South Georgia, a crewman discovered Shackleton in terrific pain. He cautioned “the Boss” about his hard living. Shackleton replied, “You’re always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” Moments later, Shackleton had a coronary and died. The expedition carried on, as he would have wished, but did little of the work he’d planned. Shackleton was buried in South Georgia.
Roald Amundsen won the race to the pole on December 14, 1911, reaching that blank, featureless spot with four other men.
Five weeks later, on January 17, 1912, Robert Falcon Scott and four others also reached the pole, discovering Amundsen’s tent and flags as well as a letter to him. They had lost the race, and they lost their lives on the way back.
So who reached the pole next? It depends. But what’s striking about subsequent efforts to reach 90º S was how much later they occurred. Amundsen and Scott did not open a highway to the pole. Rather, they emptied the journey of any meaning.
Only in 1929 did more humans reach the pole: the American Admiral Richard Byrd and a copilot flew over the pole on November 29, 1929. Byrd did did not land at 90º S, so it’s hard to say that – compared to Amundsen or Scott – he even “reached” the pole. The flyover was almost ludicrously American: dependent on on technology, mostly devoid of value except as spectacle, and unreal – they “reached” the pole in the same sense than someone with a layover in a city’s airport can be said to have been to that city. The overflight was also a sequel to Byrd’s apparent flight over the North Pole in 1926, an achievement which has been doubted ever since.
So cross Byrd off the list of those who reached the pole. Next? In October 1956, American rear admiral George Dufek one-upped his former and then-current commander Byrd by actually landing an airplane at the South Pole. Dufek and his six crew members thus became the first Americans to stand at the pole, and humans 11 through 16 to get there.
Dufek’s flight was part of “Operation Deep Freeze,” an huge effort – a campaign, really – to use scientific inquiry as the front for establishing an American military presence in Antarctica. While the possibility of a militarized Antarctica was prevented by the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 (see my post “A continent with no countries”), Deep Freeze and its successor operations did make the United States the key agent of exploration and science in Antarctica after mid-century – a position that has endured till today. Interestingly, that quintessential American Walt Disney was an honorary participant in Deep Freeze, having designed the operation’s official patch and sent employees to Antarctica to film the expedition.
So: Amundsen’s and Scott make “manhauling” expeditions on foot in 1911-1912. 18 years pass, then Peary makes his overflight in 1929. 27 more years pass before Dufek flies to and lands at the pole in 1956. Finally, in January 1958, during the International Geophysical Year that led directly to the Antarctic Treaty, another expedition – the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition – reaches the pole by an honest overland route.
And who led this third, or fourth, or fifth effort to get to the pole? None other then Sir Edmund Hillary, who had with Tenzing Norgay had been the first to the top of Everest/Chomolungma in 1953. Among other innovative aspects to his effort, Hillary drove specially modified tractors to the pole, and used airplanes to both resupply his team and reconnoiter for it.
And – in an amazing echo of the race between Amundsen and Scott almost a half century earlier – Hillary defied, or at least ignored, orders from his expedition’s commander, the Briton Vivian Fuchs, to stop before actually reaching the pole, presumably so Fuchs and his team, coming from the other direction across the continent, could be third/fourth/fifth to the pole. Regardless, Hillary got to the South Pole on January 3, 1958, just over two weeks before Fuchs arrived. The pole then was not the barren spot in the ice that it had been in 1911: in November 1956, as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. had flown in men and supplies to establish the Amundsen-Scott Station at 90º S.
Fittingly, Hillary did not drive his tractors back to the coast along Fuch’s track. No, he hopped on an American plane and flew out.
So if Amundsen and his three men were the first men to the South Pole, who was the first woman? It took 58 years after the Norwegians, but… it was a six-way tie.
The excellent Wikipedia article on women in Antarctica points out that the continent was, in a very real sense, an extraordinarily male space until fairly recently:
Antarctica was seen by many men as a place where men could imagine themselves heroic conquerors. In Western culture, frontier territories are often associated with masculinity. Antarctica itself was envisioned by many male explorers as a “virginal woman” or “monstrous feminine body” to be conquered by men. Women were often “invoked in terms of place naming and territorial conquest and later even encouraged to have babies in Antarctica.”
The first woman known to have visited the continent was Norwegian Ingrid Christensen, who set foot on the mainland in 1937. Tell me she doesn’t look like the sort of person who would have gone right to the pole if she’d had enough biscuits and tinned beef.
Not till 1969 did women actually visit the South Pole. An international group of scientists, led by Lois Jones, a geologist from Ohio State, interrupted their research elsewhere on the continent to fly to the South Pole for what was basically a tourist jaunt:
Still, first! Honestly, I’m a bit surprised both that the first visit by women took until 1969, and that the Soviets didn’t do it as a sort of Valentina Tereshkova effort to prove the supremacy of socialism. I guess they were too busy measuring temps at Vostok.
The Chileans and Argentines had a different approach to female firsts on the continent:
Using women as territorial conquest is probably at its most literal in the way that Argentina and Chile have flown pregnant women to Antarctica to give birth and stake a national claim to the area. Silvia Morella de Palma was the first woman to give birth in Antarctica, delivering Emilio Palma at the Argentine Esperanza base 7 January 1978.
Madre y bebe Palma are probably still kicking around Argentina. I should look them up!
Without much soil, Antarctica naturally lacks much plant life. The British Antarctic Survey – which is pretty much the most reliable source of natural-history info on the continent – claims that only two flowering plants can be found on Antarctica, and then only on the peninsula, the area where the Carleton trip will go:
Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and
Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).
Neither is the sort of plant you’d like to have in a pot in your house. Or could, since they thrive in cold, dry, windy places, not your damn living room.
BAS reports that besides those “flowering plants,” Antarctica is home to
around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, 300 to 400 species of lichens and 20-odd species of macro-fungi.
Incredibly, some moss and lichens live in rocks in the coldest, dryest parts of the continent. So much for being “lower plant groups,” right? Show me some dumb oak or pine that can do that.
As Antarctica warms, plants are the among the most dangerous invaders – but as you’d expect given humankind’s colossal stupidity, we also brought some invasive species to the continent. For example, Poa pratensis was introduced as part of a study in 1954-1955. It’s since been eradicated.
To prevent this kind of disaster, travelers to Antarctica – even or especially tourists a-larking – have to carefully disinfect themselves before going ashore. Glad to do it!
Antarctica is extremely extreme. Everybody knows it’s cold, but not only is it really cold, it’s also very dry, very high, very empty, very far from everything else…
Dry: obviously, very little rain falls in Antarctica, though the peninsula – the most temperate part of the continent – does see significant liquid precipitation: about 20 inches (500 millimeters) a year. Other coastal regions get about 8 inches (200mm) a year. Everywhere else on the continent, all the water falls as snow, and then only in tiny quantities that total about 2 inches (50mm) a year. The amazingly named “McMurdo Dry Valleys,” though, have a whole ‘nother thing going on:
In fact, scientists believe that in some parts of the Dry Valleys it hasn’t snowed or rained for 14 million years!
High: The average elevation across the continent is 1.5 miles (2,500 meters). The South Pole is a bit higher, at 1.8 miles (2,830m), and the highest spot on the continent, the Vinson Massif, is almost exactly three miles high (4,892m) – about half the height of Qomolungma/Sagarmatha/Everest, and the fifth highest of the Seven Summits.
Empty: Yeah, there’s not much there except snow and ice. No permanent human inhabitants, for starters. No terrestrial animals – no mammals, no reptiles, no amphibians. Just a few plants, all low to the ground, slow growing, and native to the few spots of open land near the coasts.
On the other wing, the continent has lots of birds, at least along the coastline, and of course lots and lots of ocean life, from fish and krill to marine mammals, including the elephant seal, which is the largest carnivoran! (This, I don’t quite understand yet: orcas are larger, but they’re not “carnivorans.”)
Cold: Even the Antarctica Peninsula, the warmest part of the continent, doesn’t get very warm. During “austral summer,” temperatures on the peninsula can rise to around 40º F (4º C), but are often below freezing, and can drop to 10º F (-12º C). The South Pole is way colder all the time:
The average annual temperature is -49 °C (-56 °F), ranging from about -28 °C (-18 °F) in January to about -59.5 °C (-74.5 °F) in July. The lowest recorded temperature is -83 °C (-117 °F), while the highest is -12 °C (10 °F).
And yes, -117º F is pretty damn cold, but not the coldest! The continental and world record for cold was recorded in 1983 at the Soviet Union’s Vostok station, about 800 miles from the South Pole. In July 1983, the poor bastards there recorded a low temperature of -128.6 °F (-89.2 °C). The highest temperature ever recorded at Vostok 7º F (-14 °C). Be glad you’re not the guy who has to check that thermometer.
A fun part of my prep for the Antarctica trip is watching documentaries on Antarctica. They’re naturally focused on penguins *() and the South Pole, but the German auteur-weirdo Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) was refreshingly different – though if you have watched any Herzog docs, you knowhe’s going to focus on the fellow-weirdos he meets. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of weirdos in Antarctica!
Over the film’s 99 minutes, Herzog performs an artful bait-and-switch that’s worth the price of the rental. The movie starts by dwelling at length on the ugliness of the American base on McMurdo Sound (he compares it to a mining camp) and the nuttiness of the people who work there – folks who could be working at a small-town gas station. There’s the survival trainer who puts his students’ heads in white utility buckets, leashes them together, and then has them try to find their way around an open snowfield. They can’t. They’d all die in a whiteout blizzard. Less terrifyingly, Herzog talks with a heavy-equipment driver who says with undergraduate profundity, “The universe dreams through our dreams. And I think that there are many different ways for reality to bring itself forward, and dreaming is definitely one of those ways.”
After his stay at McMurdo, Herzog gradually goes further and further into the wilderness of Antarctica – true wilderness, devoid of any humans but scientists. He journeys to the lip of perpetually-erupting Mt. Erebus – named for one of the ships sailed to Antarctica in 1839-1843 by the eminent 19th century explorer James Clark Ross – to talk with the volcanologists there. One helpfully offers tips for surviving a rain of lava from the lake below, where the earth’s crust is torn open. (Don’t turn your away from the lava lake: back away it, don’t run from it, so you can see the lava bombs sailing toward you and duck, or maybe contemplate your obliteration.)
Later – or maybe earlier; it’s hard to tell since the film has no real narrative direction – Herzog visits a team of biologists camped on an ice shelf to study the seals that swim, invisible but audible, under them. Some of the researchers gently ambush female seals by covering their heads with a bag and then milk them to analyze their milk – thick like latex paint, amazingly devoid of lactose – and understand how they can possibly perpetuate their species in a place like this. One of the seal-ologists says, almost sheepishly, that the place is so quiet she can hear her heartbeat. Then Herzog films them splaying themselves out on the ice to listen not to their own heartbeats, but to the seals’ otherworldly submarine songs.
That is the sort of arresting image that Herzog loves, and that fills this beautiful film – not empty whitescapes, but nearly empty ones where a trio of researchers crouch on the ice, geologists perch on the rim of a volcano, or a tiny vehicle zooms over the white vacuum , or a diver, taking his last plunge, swims along the sea bed, taking video of the bizarre animals that – unlike the humans – are perfectly at home in this harsh, beautiful place.
I hope that I always remember the scent of wearing a mask: warm, soft, slightly humid, breathy. It’s not appealing, exactly, but it’s not gross either; it’s more like the olfactory equivalent of the taste of a medicine. I like the scent inasmuch as perceiving it tells me that I have my mask on, which is usually the right thing to do. And I’m used to the smell enough now that it fades away after a few minutes. This afternoon, I almost tried to take a drink through my mask, I’d gotten so used to it!
Wearing a facemask is by far the strangest, most ordinary, and most indelible part of the coronavirus pandemic. In the past couple weeks, I’ve finally habituated myself to putting a mask around my neck as I leave the house for work or errands or whatever, and pulling it up anytime I’m in a place where it’s required (work, Target, Imminent, Little Joy, the grocery store) or where it’s just a good idea (almost anywhere else). It’s still a little weird to have my face covered for so much of the day, but the weirdness fades a little every day.
The ubiquity of masks in my life and everyone else’s right now (even the lives of the covid-deniers!) contrasts sharply with their total absence before about March – except on the faces of a few Asian students or elderly people. From that standstill till now, about six months later, we’ve seen masks and mask culture expand into almost every facet of public life. They’re a big and interesting business now, for one things, available everywhere from Target or Walmart to Amazon or mom-and-pop shops to niche manufacturers or crafters. I must have about ten masks right now, a few handmade, some standard ear-loop mass-market, a couple high-end nearly-custom ones. (The last work the best.)
Masks are also a point of personal pride, civic duty, and political controversy. Places that have mandated masks teem with signs to remind people to wear them and why they should wear them. On social media, mask wearers talk about how they wear masks not for themselves, but for others. Covid-deniers reject the practice and the science and the responsibility, often conflating masks with some sort of social control by… someone: the government? doctors? Bill Gates? The logic escapes me, as does the resistance – wearing a mask is almost effortless! But at this crazed moment in American history, everything has to be charged to the highest possible pressure, and masks are no different.
Today Shannon and I had the privilege of attending the funeral for our longtime neighbor, Mary Erickson, who died last Saturday at age 95.
As her obituary shows, Mary was a wonderful person, someone who exuded calm and quiet happiness. She was a devout Christian, and the sermon at her funeral made clear that she lived her faith in an exemplary way. We experienced that in her exceptional generosity. She stopped over frequently to drop off books for Shannon (though fortysomething stay-at-home moms don’t necessarily enjoy all the same books as octogenarian widows!), magazines for me (she loved National Geographic and knew I did too), and many gifts for the girls, from birthday and Christmas presents to random things she thought they’d enjoy – dolls, books, even an entire toy house that they indeed loved.
She was also an amazingly active and tough old woman. Well into her eighties, she was still gardening, filling bird feeders, and retrieving her own garbage bins. I fondly recall how she was a bit embarrassed when I or another neighbor would shovel her sidewalk. And even past 90, she’d come out to her driveway to watch the girls shoot baskets, clapping when they made an especially good shot.
After hearing that she’d died, I realized that Mary was our neighbor for longer than any other neighbor I’ve ever had – eight years. We’ll remember her beautiful kindness for much longer than that.