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Adventures in Antarctica

It was to be the journey of a lifetime, a monthlong expedition through the frozen seascape of the Antarctic, following Shackleton’s pioneering path. But as it turned out, nothing would quite go according to plan…

The view from the Professor Khromov. Photo: Andrew Solomon

The view from the Professor Khromov. Photo: Andrew Solomon

It would have been worth noting, when we signed up for the “Nimrod Centennial Expedition” to Antarctica, that Sir Ernest Shackleton’s pole-seeking Nimrod expedition was a failure, and that venturing south under his name was tempting fate. But we were trying to do only what he had accomplished—in fact, only part of what he had accomplished—and not what he had aspired to do. We anticipated that with a hundred years of technological advancement, we would easily reach the hut he had built at the edge of the Ross Sea, meant to last one winter a century ago but still standing, testament to his high standards and to a climate hostile even to the microorganisms that cause rot.

Before we launched at 4 p.m. on New Year’s Day 2008 from the same berth in Lyttelton, New Zealand, that Shackleton had used at the same hour on January 1, 1908, we were blessed in the Anglican church where Shackleton’s party had prayed, and sang the hymn they had sung, whose Cassandra refrain asks, “Oh hear us when we cry to Thee/For those in peril on the sea.” A substantial public had gathered, including descendants of Shackleton’s crew. A brass band played and Samoyeds whose forebears had pulled Shackleton’s sledges barked as the crowd waved us off, and we were escorted out to sea by the very tugboat that had pulled the Nimrod.

Promotional material had touted our ship as the Spirit of Enderby, and tied onto the upper deck railing of our vessel, a small banner, the sort a laundromat might use to announce its grand opening, read SPIRIT OF ENDERBY. Gigantic Cyrillic letters on the hull, by contrast, proclaimed the boat as PROFESSOR KHROMOV, as did the lifeboats, the maps, and the equipment on board; we entered and left ports as Professor Khromov, because that was in fact the name of the ship. Spirit of Enderby was a flight of the enthusiastic imagination of Rodney Russ, owner of Heritage Expeditions and our trip leader. In the same advance material, there had been references to a “refurbished Russian ice-class ship,” which suggests a more active intervention than the installation of industrial blue carpeting throughout a battered Soviet research vessel from 1984—but the pretend name and the primitive accommodations seemed part of the bravado of our enterprise. (A number of far more luxurious ships sail to Antarctica, but few of them are equipped to make it through the ice to reach Shackleton’s hut. Heritage was recommended to me by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the New Zealand–based organization responsible for the maintenance of the historic expedition bases.)

The first attraction on our monthlong itinerary, two days later, was the Snares, some of the sparse scatter of subantarctic islands between New Zealand and Antarctica. The Snares pulse with such dense birdlife that every path disrupts nesting or breeding grounds, so we toured in Zodiacs and saw the charming endemic crested penguins. Back on board, my partner and I mingled with the other 46 passengers, including two other Americans, one Canadian, and a smattering of New Zealanders, Australians, British, white Zimbabweans and Namibians, and one guy from Costa Rica. Sailing onward, we ran into 40-foot swells, which made me feel like a lost sock endlessly stuck in a tumble dryer; the Professor Khromov’s ice capacities meant a loss of stability in rough seas. We figured out how to wedge our possessions so that the sound of laptops smashing into cameras was muted by sweaters and thermal underwear. Even in the relative safety of the cabin, there was a certain amount of one’s head ramming into one end of one’s bunk in a fashion that seemed to compress the neck, then one’s feet ramming into the other and compressing the knees. I had hoped to lose weight, not height, during an athletic adventure in challenging climates.

Enderby Island, the first shore stop, tended, as islands do, to stay mercifully fixed in one place. Again we saw a stupefying array of birds, including skuas, several species of albatross, and the occasional yellow-eyed penguin. Trekking through thickets and fields of megaherbs, we almost tripped over Hooker’s sea lions, which would leap up from slumber and roar, true to their name. More rough seas led us two days later to Macquarie Island, a nature reserve with a small research station that allows only a few hundred visitors a year. Its shoreline is carpeted in wildlife: royal, king, gentoo, and rockhopper penguins, as well as elephant seals. The penguins gather around you curiously, and if you hold out a hand to one of the royals, he will nibble on your finger. There is something arrestingly human about any bipedal animal, and the penguins, running around on their two feet and using their flipper-like wings primarily to gesticulate, nodding back and forth to each other, looked like commuters milling around Grand Central before their departure track has been announced, some of them molting like old ladies in moth-eaten fur coats. At one end of the island, more than 200,000 breeding pairs of king penguins live in conditions that make Tokyo look bucolic. The seals tended to plop on top of one another, forming the sort of pyramids that high school cheerleaders perfected in the 1950’s. The young ones and the females had inconceivably sweet faces with huge, liquid eyes; the older males had knobby trunklike noses, wobbling and battle-scarred.

Next came the protracted crossing of the Southern Ocean through the “Roaring Forties” and “Furious Fifties” of latitude, where there are no substantial land masses to slow the winds whipping around the globe. Rodney held a competition to guess when we’d see the first iceberg, and Adam Walleyn, the ship’s brilliant bird expert, counted off species at sea, and the immanence of the seventh continent was great in us. Shackleton attracts Gurdjieff-like devotion, and the ship was awash in fanatic experts on polar exploration. We talked of those intrepid trailblazers day and night. The waves gradually gave up the bright, rough quality they’d had in the Subantarctic; the water grew thick and sluggish, almost like the muscles of a slow-moving colossus rippling under taut skin. On the fifth day south, January 12, we found ourselves in a jigsaw puzzle of floating pack ice, the dark lines of the water sketching through snow-dusted frozen shards like a great black spiderweb.

The ice fragments were up to 20 feet across, and the shapes suggested an eagle, a Volkswagen Beetle, an emoticon, a relief map of Spain. The amplified ice-white light was like the momentary glare of a strobe sustained for hours on end. The bottom of the world has a frozen pedicure: some of the older ice wore aprons of turquoise just below the waterline, and a few of the icebergs had refracted pockets of cerulean. People talk about the mystery of the desert, but the locus of mystery is the frozen sea. Much of what is beautiful elsewhere can be seen in a glance, but what strikes the visitor to this area is the hostile, exquisite, primitive vastness of it. The tropics may be fire, but the world ends in ice.

Everyone went up to the bridge. Russian crewmen were at the front of the boat, on the lookout for thick ice, and the captain reviewed navigational charts while his first mate directed where we needed to go left or right. The boat would ride up a little on one of these jigsaw pieces, and then the weight of the hull would bear down, and the ice would crack open. Late that afternoon, we were all called onto the foredeck for mulled wine, and as we crossed the Antarctic Circle, Rodney told us we were inducted into the “Order of the Penguin,” and made an eloquent speech, and stamped our foreheads with a rubber penguin stamp, which was as charming as it was peculiar.

Heading south at about 180 degrees longitude, where seasonal currents usually facilitate passage through the Ross Sea, we entered the endless daylight of the Antarctic high summer, and we stayed up, many of us, until 2:30 a.m. to take it in, that night and the next. The morning that followed, January 14, we woke to bad news. At a “briefing” in the airless lecture room in the ship’s bowels, Rodney announced that the pack ice was thicker than expected, and that we had turned around at 3 a.m. to retrace our course so we could attempt to reenter it farther east. “The boat could have made it through the way we were going,” he said to us, “but we face a hundred and fifty miles of pack ice and were going just three knots.” My rudimentary math showed that this meant it would have taken us two more days to get through, and I wondered about the wisdom of losing a day going backwards, but lack of experience rendered me foolishly mute. Dmitri, the captain, spoke next. “This boat not icebroker,” he said in his affectingly poor English. “This ice too much.”

Rodney showed us the ice maps that his office in Christchurch was getting off the Internet and forwarding to him. Someone voiced our collective fear. “Is there a chance of our not getting through at all?” he asked. Rodney’s face was ashen. “It’s possible,” he said, “but I have made 36 trips to the Antarctic and I’ve always got through.” He barely held tears in check and spoke as though the continent were his oldest friend failing to show for a dinner in its honor. When we went on deck, those great expanses of sea ice that had given us such joyous anticipation now seemed aggressive barricades to our advance. The mood on the boat changed, and the constant sunny exchanges took on a forced quality, rather like comments about fine weather in a POW camp.

That night, the ship followed an iceward course at 178 degrees. The boat continued to rise up and sink down on the jigsaw pieces, and when the last of us turned in at 2 a.m. or so, it looked promising. After the roiling seas, the action felt oddly soothing. At a time when the earth’s fragile environment is under siege, when ice shelves are famously collapsing, there was something reassuring, too, about the dwarfing scale of the whiteness. It is true that global warming will create cold as well as heat as it changes the weather patterns of the world, but at some level all of us had come here fearful of the greening of Antarctica, and what we found was implacable frozen serenity, in which we were only a new crew of insignificant trespassers. Hoping that we would stay the course and break through to the continent, we were still awestruck and humbled by the majesty around us, and while we prayed the thick ice would vanish out of our ship’s course, we hoped it would not vanish from the earth.

The next morning, we woke in a motionless vessel and obediently trooped down to the lecture room yet again. Once more at 3 a.m., that hour when nobody was awake to argue or bear witness, the captain had declared that the ice was impassable. Rodney said it was atypically dense for the season, but kept emphasizing that the ship could do it. The captain, who had that Russian ability to be uncommunicative and melodramatic at the same time, said the ice was “still too much,” and shrugged. He said, “I try hardly,” which we feared might be more accurate than “I try hard,” which is what he had intended to say. To the casual observer, what we had been going through seemed much of a muchness, and the boat seemed to go through it now faster, now slower, but steadily. Rodney’s eyes filled with tears again, and he reiterated how hard it was for him to fail; in his view, it was his situation that warranted our sympathy.

Lunch on deck. Photo: Andrew Solomon

Lunch on deck. Photo: Andrew Solomon

At first everyone was terribly British and stiff upper lips were kept and socks were pulled up. A few of the passengers ascended into sanctimonious homilies about how inspiring it was to be reminded that one couldn’t always get what one wanted from nature. Then someone asked the obvious question: If we were not going to Antarctica, what exactly were we going to do for the next 15 days?Rodney said he hadn’t really thought about it. “What do you want to do?” he asked. Of course, it was folly to offer say to a group of travelers who were neither a united nor an informed force, and soon desperate and obscure proposals were flying around the room. Some passengers were sorrowful; some were furious; some claimed to be unfazed. At the meals that followed, people hedged their comments, like polarized Democrats and Republicans hideously aware that what seemed to some like simple logic was anathema to others. The British and New Zealanders tended to think we had been given lemons and had best make lemonade; the Aussies, Americans, and Africans thought we had been given lemons and might as well throw them at the authors of our frustration. We knew nothing about navigating through ice, but we knew enough pop psychology to perceive that the itinerary was being settled to a considerable extent outside the discourse of science.

That first night after the surrender, there were only a few of us sentinel to look at the endless expanses of sea ice. And yet it was in a way hard to believe how disappointed we all were to be in this strange world. I stood out on the deck and was lost in the wonderment of where we were as much as in the sorrow of where we weren’t, not because I loved being iced in, but because the so-called midnight sun had made a spectacular debut at about 10 o’clock and gilded a mackerel sky over the hummocky meringue of the furrowed ice. There were mammals and seabirds to see, and we vied to document them with our many digital cameras—the rare Ross seal and the common Adélie penguins alike. The Adélies were scattered, one here and four there, and sat complacently on their islets of sea ice until our boat was almost upon them, then belly flopped into the water. The snow petrels circled us, looking, when they caught the sun on their white feathers, like images of the Holy Spirit in Northern Renaissance paintings. If you stood on the metal steps so that you could lean over the prow, you could catch your own prismatic reflection in the shiniest bits of broken ice before the ship sundered them. The air itself was a purifying tonic.

And yet some churlishness in us couldn’t be satisfied with the permanent light of the white non-world in which we were hopelessly adrift, short of our last continent and outside of time. It is true in general, but especially true of travel, that people are thrilled with anything extra and distraught about anything expected and missed. You may never have heard of the pudding-toed tree chameleon or the Cloister Court of St. Yvette, but when your guide tells you that you’ve been privileged with a rare sighting of the lizard, or that you are catching the cloister open at the whim of the nuns, you are elated. When the opposite happens, you feel not just disappointed but betrayed. You curse yourself for having spent so much money on an experience you’re not having; you imagine the missing experience as nirvana. You resent in advance the reprise that will begin, “Well, actually, we didn’t get there.” That night, our disappointment rose more from expectation than from experience; nonetheless, the Professor Khromov filled up with contagious sadness. Among the passengers, one man’s extended family had saved for eight years to give him this trip as a 50th birthday present; one man’s mother had asked him on her deathbed to take the little inheritance she could give him and spend it to realize his childhood dream of visiting Antarctica; one man had used up all his vacation and some unpaid leave, and he was not to have time off again for 18 months; one woman had come out of her retirement and worked for an entire year in order to pay for her trip; and five cool kids who were all professional crew on high-level yachts had signed up for this expedition three years earlier, using up their life’s savings. There was something Shakespearean about the disappointment, and there was absolutely nothing to be done about it.

Our hopes radically reduced, we lined up a day later for a Zodiac cruise around Scott Island, a seldom visited outcropping of rock north of the thickest pack ice. Thrillingly, we saw a predatory leopard seal—they have been known to attack humans—sunning himself, looking like a cross between a sea slug and a dinosaur. At that afternoon’s briefing, Rodney said he thought ice might be clearing to the south, and proposed that we wait by Scott Island a day or two, on the chance that we could still make it through. Even the atheists went to bed that night thick with prayers. There was a fragile camaraderie in staving off despair, as though going through this experience all together were forging soldier’s bonds among us, though there was also the creeping Huis Clos feeling that we could not escape one another.

We waited for the next terrible briefing. They were getting to be like consciousness-raising sessions of the mid-1970’s at which everyone got to say their piece while everyone else gritted their teeth. Rodney now focused on how long it would take us to get out of the Ross Sea if we got in, but the prospect of getting out late seemed less alarming than not getting in at all. I began to understand those historic explorers who wanted to reach the poles so much that they trekked into uncharted territory not knowing if they would ever return, losing limbs to frostbite, disappearing into crevasses or whiteout storms. Dmitri explained that to get through the ice would take several days, that we’d have to come back through the same ice, and that we no longer had sufficient time to make it there and back. He had grown into his role; it was now all about heroic, tragic knowledge of harsh realities. Since there was still no clear alternative plan, we decided to sit still where we were overnight.

Of course, people were both shattered and outraged. Now the problem was time, after all these days had been expended on so much back-and-forth. It seemed obvious that Rodney had thought all along that we could get through the pack ice; that Dmitri had refused to go; and that we had all been pawns in their impossible contest of personalities. Who knew which of them was right?A number of people on board were reading The Worst Journey in the World, a brilliant account of Scott’s fatal expedition of 1910–13, and we began referring to the Nimrod Centennial as “the second-worst journey in the world.”

But we had two weeks left. We would go west to hunt icebergs, then head back to New Zealand via the Subantarctic. In the 15 days so far, we had been on solid ground four times, and we were going stir-crazy; some lovely friendships were forged, but no sane person would have chosen this as a holiday. I have always hated being cold, but for those imprisoned days, there was something oddly thrilling about going on deck and shivering, and I relished that touch of frozen numbness in my fingers and at the tip of my nose. The cold was antarctic even if we didn’t have the continent under our feet; it physicalized our brief kinship with the penguins and seals and whales. We tossed off new vocabulary: grease ice and pancake ice, frazil ice and hummocky ice, tabular bergs and bergy bits, first-year ice and multiyear ice, and brash ice and sastrugi. It’s not the Eskimos who have a hundred words for snow; we do.

An iceberg at last. Photo: Andrew Solomon

An iceberg at last. Photo: Andrew Solomon

We did eventually reach icebergs. Many of them looked almost avant-garde; we saw the Frank Gehry iceberg and the Santiago Calatrava iceberg and the endearingly old-fashioned Frank Lloyd Wright iceberg, not to mention various Wal-Mart icebergs along the way. They put to rest the common wisdom that snow is white: Snow is blue, with white reflections glinting off it in certain light, except that it is sometimes green or yellow and very occasionally striated with pink. Caught in its glacial heart is the dense snow that absorbs all but the bluest light, that glows as if neon fragments of the tropical sky had been trapped in a southbound gale and transported here. The last tabular iceberg we approached marked our final farewell to the fantasy of Antarctica that had brought us together. It was the most beautiful we had visited, and the largest, and while we were close to it in our Zodiac, it calved a slab the size of a walk-up apartment, which plunged into the gelid sea with a roar worthy of the Fourth of July.

Among the islands of our funereally slow return, Campbell Island was a joy. It is the nesting ground of the royal albatross, and a group of us were privileged to see a rare changing of the guard, when the male comes to relieve the female from sitting on their egg, so she can fly out to sea and get food. The birds engaged in half an hour of affectionate mutual grooming, and then the female cautiously stepped off the nest and the male settled in for his long shift. Even Adam the ornithologist had never seen this before.

Otherwise, our strategy consisted largely of approaching an island to take in the view of its hills, then climbing the hills to look at the view of the boat, then returning to the boat for a last look at the hills. Rodney would charge ahead, leaving his older clients to struggle over steep and muddy ravines unassisted. People were crossing off the days: not that the islands were uninteresting, but Heritage offers tours of the Subantarctic that last as little as a week and cost about $5,000 per person. This trip, by the time we had paid the various extras, had cost us over $40,000 for a premium double cabin, not including airfare to New Zealand or unreimbursed time away from work.

We waited for Rodney to offer at least a partial refund, or even to give us an open bar for one night, but it never came. When I confronted him, he said “This trip has cost me as much as if we’d made it.” That last evening, the weather was inconceivably lovely, and we stood in that bright warmth, so opposite to our purpose, and were depressed as hell by the clear blue sky, the shimmering water, the gentle beauty of the summery New Zealand shore.

We were like foreign visitors who had dreamed all their lives of seeing New York City, and set off with that goal only to end up stuck in Larchmont, with no way home for a month. Disappointment had surged in waves. There was the initial shock. Then there was a lulled feeling that one couldn’t stay upset indefinitely, and the very real pleasure of seeing more than a hundred species of birds, some two dozen mammals, and a sea’s worth of ice. Finally, there was the sensation of getting off that boat without having done what we set out to do—a feeling of rage and failure and gullibility, self-blame and doubt. We had boarded the vessel with the hopefulness of youth rekindled in us, and we came back with the disaffection of age. We had initially viewed the informality of Heritage Expeditions as unpretentiousness, and relished the aura of discovery that Rodney conjured. The Nimrod Centennial had turned into a disaster because a real problem in nature had coincided with equally real amateurism; we later learned that another boat, the Marina Svetaeva, faced with the same ice at the same time, had changed course and made an Antarctic landing in Commonwealth Bay. There was something lovely and fresh about Heritage’s bluster, something almost heartbreaking in the feeling that we were all in this together. We never quite felt like we were tourists who’d purchased services; we felt like strangers who’d met in friendship and all agreed to hold hands and stride boldly into the world’s greatest remaining wilderness. There is a potent romance to traveling this way, and there is also risk, and for us, alas, the risk outstripped the romance. Had we reached the great white bottom of the world, I would have loved the very qualities that, in our failed trip, I deplored. Still, we had witnessed kinds of beauty that few men have seen. We held that warm happiness against the hard ice of our regret.