March Madness

Dangers of March in Antarctica


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In this season of marking South Pole centennials, March is the last and cruelest month. On March 17, 1912, a starved, injured and frostbitten Lawrence “Titus” Oates famously crawled out through the tube door of Robert Falcon Scott’s tent to die deliberately in a blizzard. His last words, “I am just going outside and may be some time,” were transcribed two days later by a storm-bound Scott, making notes as his own death closed in, ice crystals already claiming his insensate right foot. Two months earlier, Scott, Oates, Edgar “Taff” Evans, Edward Wilson, and Henry “Birdie” Bowers had reached the South Pole, but instead of a blank nexus of latitude and longitude in an unmapped wilderness of ice, they found Roald Amundsen’s tent and Norwegian flag. The British team’s return was dismal, a trudging descent from the polar plateau into crippling starvation, dehydration, and nutritional deprivation. Having become a limping hindrance to his team’s already slow progress, Titus Oates hoped in his self-sacrifice to give the trio of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers (Taff Evans was already dead) a chance to reach their next depot of fuel and food. They would not, dying instead at month’s end as Oates had, prone and frozen solid under the snows of the blizzard-swept Ross Ice Shelf.

Not that anyone here is paying attention. In the U.K., sure, there continues a year-long flurry of centenary activity in the expected places — London, Plymouth, and the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge — as well as farther afield in Cardiff, Dundee, Kendal (Cumbria), and then other relevant corners of the old Empire: Sydney, Australia and Christchurch, New Zealand.

And in Antarctica, an unrivaled hubbub at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an American facility, has come and gone. It peaked on December 14, when more than 200 staff stepped away from their work and 93 tourists (including Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister, and a hodgepodge of expeditioners) clambered out of their tents to gather at the actual Pole on a sunny, windless, minus 25 degrees day, in celebration of Amundsen’s 1911 arrival. The second act of the season was a more somber, slightly-less-well-attended January 17 commemoration of, and memorial for, Scott’s party. In lieu of celebration, speeches invoked the familiar refrains of the nobility of Antarctic science and of the ongoing spirit of exploration. Excerpts of Scott’s diary entries were read aloud. But just as late January was an unhealthy time for Scott to be so far from home, so too is it a time for today’s visitors to be moving on. The South Pole station usually begins its winterover — the staff and scientists closed off from the world for eight months — in mid-February. Now, in March, with the season advanced well beyond time for safe travel, the summer’s flock of visitors has long since been safely flown from the continent.

But in the U.S., the response is now muted, if not mute. The American Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen’s competitive journeys to the South Pole closed well over a year ago, moving on to Washington, D.C., before its current showing in Genoa, Italy. No other major exhibits exist, nor are there any funereal commemorations planned, not even by the British embassy. Institutions such as the Explorer’s Club and the Climate Change Institute (at the University of Maine) that noted the happier, historic December and January centennial arrivals at the Pole seem to have let the matter end there. All of which makes sense: The Pole is our Pole (we built our year-round base there 55 years ago), but the dead are not our dead.

By a coincidence more fascinating than surprising, there were other desperate Britons at the time of Scott’s party’s miserable death. Just a few hours after Titus Oates left his tent, Victor Campbell’s Northern Party scrambled on hands and knees out of the same ferocious weather (though 250 miles to the north) into a cramped, hand-dug ice cave. An autonomous arm of Robert Scott’s expedition, the Northern Party had been tasked with exploring new coastal territory, rather than sent to seek a pole. Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, had picked them up after their first winter in a hut at Cape Adare and then dropped them off for a six-week surveying expedition in northern Victoria Land. Early Antarctic exploration being what it was, the ship ran into thick sea ice in its attempt to pick them up. By mid-March, the castaways could no longer hope for rescue.

These six men — three sailors, a geologist, a doctor, and Campbell — would eventually rescue themselves with a 200-mile coastal trudge, but first had to wait out the six-month polar winter in their decaying, blubber-soaked, caribou-skin sleeping bags. They had few spare clothes, little light, and for reading material only Boccaccio’s Decameron (“a most boring production”), an already-well-thumbed copy of David Copperfield, and the New Testament. With little else to occupy them, the narrative of the Northern Party’s ice cave hibernation, perhaps the most interesting in Antarctic literature, unsurprisingly revolves around food. About the time Oates’s viscera froze as hard as cordwood, the crew hunkered down at the end of their own fateful day to find respite in a pint of hot seal blubber “hoosh.” “Hoosh” was British polar slang for their stew of meat and fat — often combined in the form of tinned pemmican — boiled up in melted snow and thickened with crushed biscuit. Short on pemmican, the Northern Party could look forward to dining on some slaughtered penguins, a modicum of biscuits (which they craved every waking and dreaming hour of those six months), and a handful of raisins per month, but mostly they would live on hooshes made of the meat, organs, and blubber of 18 seals they clubbed, bled, eviscerated, and then cooked on an improvised blubber-fueled stove. Antarctica had little else to offer.

March in Antarctica has little to offer any species. Temperatures around the continent plummet as the sun sinks toward the horizon. All charismatic terrestrial life — emperor penguins, those odd penitents, excepted — retreats northward from the Antarctic beachhead briefly established during the austral summer. The ice caps of interior Antarctica, inhabited only by non-colonizing microbes and humans brought in by air, become a platform for deep space. Winterover skeleton crews at Antarctic research stations stay close to base. The Southern Ocean cools (not that it wasn’t chilly already) and eventually expands its 3-million-square-kilometer summer mantle of sea ice cover to an extraordinary winter maximum of 18 million square kilometers; the re-growth of that ice is often described as the largest seasonal event on the planet.

It’s worth pointing out that March has never been kind to Antarctic explorers. At the dawn of the heroic age, on March 3, 1898, the ill-prepared officers and crew of the Belgica found themselves beset in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea. Ready or not, they became the first men to winter below the Antarctic Circle. They were a polyglot bunch: Belgian, Norwegian (including a young Roald Amundsen as second mate), Romanian, Polish, Russian, and American. The American was Frederick Cook, later of North Pole infamy, but here the expedition’s doctor and savior. His pioneering treatments for scurvy and seasonal-related depression saved the expedition from total disaster, but the diseases would haunt the men during their eerie winter drifting with the ice, killing both the magnetics expert and the ship’s cat, and turning two Norwegian sailors insane. One never recovered.

And on March 6, 1912, just 11 days before Titus Oates’ snowy suicide and the Northern Party’s troglodytic subnivial interment, the ship Deutschland was trapped in Weddell Sea ice. True to the season, disaster preceded the event and madness waited in the wings. The Second German Antarctic Expedition was led by Wilhelm Filchner but piloted by the secretly syphilitic and openly malevolent Captain Richard Vahsel, whose scheming had two weeks earlier led to a fiasco in which Filchner found his hastily-built winter expedition quarters to be on the wrong (iceberg) side of a suddenly-calving ice shelf. (The Germans had time to retrieve everything except some supplies and a wilful dog, which was left to one of the stranger fates in Antarctic history — roaming and barking on the edges of a drifting berg. She was no doubt dead before March tipped into April.) Filchner’s plan to cross the continent, years in the making, was suddenly a lost opportunity. Captain Vahsel would die of his syphilis during the winter of the Deutschland’s imprisonment in the ice, but he never let up on his inexplicable campaign of lies and rumors against Filchner. One evening the expedition leader found a pile of feces in his cabin.

In the frozen stillness of late March on the Ross Ice Shelf in 1912, with the steady whisper of downy flakes brushing across and piling up against the threadbare canvas of the British tent, Scott’s pencil finally stopped moving. The slow process of simultaneously starving and freezing to death had given him days to write a swan song unlike any other in history, something akin to an epic jisei, a Japanese death poem. He wrote a small set of personal letters, composed a Message to the Public, and brought his diary to a lyric close. That diary, removed months later from beneath his icy arm (which cracked like glass, a witness said), is by all accounts an astonishing piece of writing. (Amundsen, by contrast, wrote exactly like he skied, in prose that is direct, methodical, and aware of its limits.) Scott’s final days of poignant — nay, heartrending — scribbling capitalized on his abilities as a natural narrator of the Romantic struggle, in which a writer produces either a failed melodrama or a successful mythology. Luckily for Scott, his death “became a parable for the dying British Empire,” as historian Stephen Pyne put it, and readers embraced the version of Antarctica his ghost had manhauled home.

Antarctica is now known generally for what Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen did, but today’s experience of the ice, at the collegial, hard-working national research bases, is still ennobled in large part by what Scott wrote. His prose swelled from the patriotic — relating to an anxious empire “the act of a brave man and an English gentleman” that was Titus Oates’s suicide, and that “Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past” — to the intimate — “[Wilson’s] eyes have a comfortable blue look of hope and his mind is peaceful with the satisfaction of his faith” — to the Tennyson-esque closure — “These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”

In the end, though, it is his clean, clipped rendering of their final days which bears repeating. In these excerpts, we hear not a mere accounting, but a lyric opera. “I can write at lunch and then only occasionally,” he says on March 17, still in admirable prose. “The cold is intense, –40° at midday. My companions are unendingly cheerful, but we are all on the verge of serious frost-bites, and though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think any one of us believes it in his heart.”

A day later, he took stock: “My right foot has gone, nearly all the toes — two days ago I was proud possessor of best feet. These are the steps of my downfall… Bowers takes first place in condition, but there is not much to choose after all. The others are still confident of getting through — or pretend to be — I don’t know! We have the last half fill of oil in our primus and a very small quantity of spirit – this alone between us and thirst.”

Without their hoosh, the men grew weak. Dehydration, hunger, and nutritional deficiencies had slowed them; the harsh March weather was finishing the job.

Wednesday, March 21. Got within 11 miles of depot Monday night; had to lay up all yesterday in severe blizzard. Today forlorn hope, Wilson and Bowers going to depot for fuel.”

22 and 23. Blizzard bad as ever — Wilson and Bowers unable to start — tomorrow last chance — no fuel and only one or two of food left — must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural — we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.”

This would not be true, as it turned out, with a blinding storm blowing into their faces. They would die in their sleeping bags.

Thursday, March 29. Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.

It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

Last entry. For God’s sake, look after our people.

These were first drafts, for God’s sake. It certainly was a pity he couldn’t write more. But note the polite distance, even in extremis, of that “seems.” Only in his last entry does he dare the imperative verb. The line is the more powerful for it, the actual jisei, the crux of his entire morbid literary production: Our march across the ice was a great and heroic thing, and a grateful Britain should not neglect our mothers, widows, and orphans. The letters to officials, to friends, to the public all spun the theme. As a literary appeal to authority, Scott’s deathbed writing is in a class of its own. As a justification of his expedition and the decisions that led to him and his men trudging home from the Pole in the middle of godforsaken March, not so much. Had Scott planned his expedition with half the elegance and poise of his narrative gifts, he might have tangoed to and from the Pole. As it turned out, he was better at aftermath than math.

The exploration and occupation of Antarctica has always been limited by what might be called the continent’s concrete abstraction. Antarctica, the only significant realm actually discovered by colonizing Europeans, presented a perfect irony: A place truly untouched by man and awaiting a remaking in the image of its discoverers, and yet in most ways unworkable. The last century of discovering Antarctica, literally removing the veil from the unknown ice, has maintained that irony; the veil returns every time ships, planes, tracked vehicles, and electronics and their users are stymied by blizzard, cold, or the winter which intensifies both. Little that we’ve invented or accomplished can survive very long on its own in the conditions that March has come to symbolize. As Stephen Pyne first pointed out, the absolute reductionism of the ice — its ferocious climate, nearly-abiotic surface, and empty aesthetics — reframed what it meant to explore. Rather than awaken some sleepy inhabited hinterland to the ideals of science, reason, and European commerce, these new arrivals found themselves reeling across an abstract landscape more suited to cold mathematics than they were.

I spent most of a decade in Antarctica, six months at a time. But I always left in February, in the flurry of final flights that closes out the busy research season of austral summer. I’ve never felt the blustery crepuscule of an Antarctic March, never awaited the long Antarctic night. Plenty of people do, wintering as part of smaller, quieter communities hunkered down without interruptions from the outside world. For me, though, Antarctica was about seeing what isn’t there, traveling through the absence of life, the continent-sized gap of ice, and the perfect bell jar of sky closing over all. I had no desire to sit in the March dark and imagine it. I could do that at home, with my own pencil in hand. While eating a peach.

For those Antarctica-watchers looking ahead, another morbid March centenary awaits us just four years hence. The Ross Sea Party, the lesser-known half of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, spent the first week of March 1916, stumbling home from a journey quite similar to Scott’s. The usual affair — pinned down by blizzards, out of food and fuel, so ill with scurvy that they strapped pieces of bamboo to their crippled legs, and a dying Reverend — was more-or-less salvaged (minus the dead Reverend) by a sled dog named Oscar, who “just lowered his great head and pulled.” Stay tuned. • 19 March 2012


Jason Anthony has been writing about Antarctica for years. He is the author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, which was published recently by the University of Nebraska Press. Previous publications of his Antarctic essays include Orion, the Virginia Quarterly ReviewThe Best American Travel Writing 2007, and a Notable Essay listing in Best American Essays 2006. He worked various jobs — garbageman, fuels specialist, cargo handler, skiway groomer — in Antarctica for most of a decade as part of the United States Antarctic Program.