The Lure of Antarctica

From the first moment I saw the Antarctic Peninsula, I was absolutely enthralled by the place. It was, in the true sense of the word, awesome — as in filling one with awe and wonder, not as in today's "awesome!", which can be applied to everything from a cheeseburger to a TV show. My first glimpse of the continent came in January 2004, the height of the Antarctic summer. The scene that day, however, was anything but summery. In fact, the continent first came into view as a foreboding mass of ice and rock rising out of the frigid, battleship gray Southern Ocean, which was dotted with icebergs. This glacier-covered mass, part of the South Shetland Islands at the northern tip of the 900-mile Antarctic Peninsula, rose into thick clouds, and cruising through those frigid waters, with the ice-covered islands looming in the mist, I was simultaneously elated and filled with a sense of foreboding. I was aboard the steel-hulled Laurence M. Gould, which was equipped with the very latest in radar, sonar, GPS equipment, etc., and I thought to myself: Imagine sailing through these waters 150 years ago in a small, wooden sailing vessel, without the slightest idea as to where the reefs, islands, and other hazards lay.

On that first visit to Antarctica, I was working on a story for National Geographic magazine and spent a month at Palmer Station observing the work of Bill Fraser and his birding team. When I first saw the Antarctic Peninsula in bright sunlight, under an enormous blue sky, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. The great dome of the Marr Ice Piedmont behind the station, the glaciated ramparts of the mountain chain that formed the spine of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Southern Ocean stretching before me, full of icebergs of all shapes and sizes. This sight was also awesome, and I was thrilled by the grandeur of the landscape and my utter insignificance in it.

I returned to Antarctica in the summer of 2005-2006 to work on Fraser's field team for my book, and in the space of nearly five months I saw more beauty than I'd seen my entire life. When I returned to the U.S., I spent many months reading the diaries and memoirs of legendary Antarctic explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd. For the most part, their books and journals were beautifully written and erudite, and I was moved by the accounts of how these men, too, were constantly overcome with the beauty of Antarctica — a beauty that they, far more than I, realized could quickly turn lethal. It was also a beauty that constantly kept pulling them back to Antarctica.

After reading the first draft of my book, my wonderful editor at Henry Holt, Jack Macrae — the kind of editor that writers imagine once populated the tweedy, gentile world of New York publishing —  politely told me that I had filled my book with far too many quotes from earlier Antarctic explorers. He was right, and I knew I had to cut quite a few of these passages, but it was tough to axe sentiments that I treasured and intuitively understood. Not that I, or anyone at Palmer Station, would ever liken our experiences in the relatively cosseted world of a U.S. Antarctic base to those of Ernest Shackleton. But the descriptions of the beauty, the wildlife, the exhilarating feeling that one experiences, day after day, in the wildest place on the planet — all of these had the pure ring of truth.

What follows is a random sampling of some bons mots from legendary Antarctic explorers about the lure of the continent. Some of these appear in my book. Some do not. I was gathering them as I prepared for my book tour, and thought I'd share them with readers of this blog. As random as they are, they nevertheless convey the mixture of wonder, ecstasy, dread, and longing that these men — and in that era they were all men — felt. I may add some more quotes later in another blog:

“We were now reveling in the indescribable freshness of the Antarctic that seems to permeate one’s being, and which must be responsible for that longing to go again which assails each returned explorer from polar regions.”
Ernest Shackleton,  from The Heart of the Antarctic, an account of the 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition, in which a team led by Shackleton nearly made it to the South Pole.

“The stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can hardly be understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civilization.”
Ernest ShackletonThe Heart of the Antarctic.

“Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices.”
Frank Wild, second in command of Shackleton's Endurance Expedition, 1914-1916.

“When to the beautiful tints in the sky and the deep delicate shading on the snow are added perhaps the deep colours of the open sea, with reflections from the ice foot and ice-cliffs in it, all brilliant blues and emerald greens, then indeed a man may realize how beautiful this world can be, and how clean.”
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, in The Worst Journey in the World, an account of Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, 1910-1913.

“One’s dear self becomes so miserably small in these mighty surroundings.”
Lt. Kristian Prestrud, a member of Amundsen’s successful South Pole expedition, 1910-1912.

"There was great beauty here, in the way that things which are also terrible can be beautiful.”
Adm. Richard E. Byrd, who explored Antarctica numerous times.

"To me those peaks always will and always did represent silent defiance. There were times when they made me shudder.”
Edgar Evans, a member of Scott’s last expedition.

“Approaching this sinister coast for the first time, on such a boisterous, cold and gloomy day, our decks covered with drift snow and frozen sea water, the rigging encased in ice, the heavens as black as death, was like approaching some unknown land of punishment, and struck into our hearts a feeling preciously akin to fear  . . . It was a scene, terrible in its austerity, that can only be witnessed at that extremity of the globe; truly a land of unsurpassed desolation.”
Louis Bernacchi, Southern Cross expedition, 1899.

“The will that gives man might to rule and dominate avails nothing here. The breeze which wafts the snowflake, the ripple which stirs the lead, the tiny crystals which in countless millions build this gleaming ice-world, are all indifferent to a man’s word or will.”
Frank Hurley, photographer on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, 1914-1916.

 “From the distance at which we reviewed the lands every projection seemed a continuous mass of impenetrable crystal solitude. Could there be a place more desperately silent or more hopelessly deserted?”
Dr. Frederick Cook, member of the Belgica Expedition, 1897-1899.

“When you look upon such things there comes surging through the confusion of the mind an awareness of the dignity of the earth, of the unaccountable importance of being alive, and the thought comes out of nowhere that unhappiness rises not so much from lacking as from having too much . . .
“And you guess the end of the world will probably look like that, and the last men retreating from the cliffs will look out upon some such horizon, with all things at last in equilibrium, the winds quiet, the sea frozen, the sky composed and the earth in glacial quietude.”
Charles J.V. Murphy, 1933-35 Byrd expedition


  1. Thank you for such useful article. Thanks God we didn't met an iceberg, while traveling to Arctic. This guys informed us that it is possible, but we were lucky.

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