In a half year full of geographic exploration to places I'd never seen, I inadvertently developed an appreciation for people who have risked their lives in pursuit of the unknown. I may have little in common with these people, but we do have a shared respect for, and the desire to see, the unseen. If you've never really put yourself out on a limb and in an uncomfortable situation for the potential reward of personally inventing a genuine experience, allow me to recommend it.
In 1916, Earnest Shackleton and his crew took refuge on Elephant Island. Their vessel, Endurance, fell victim to the antarctic winter's ice sheet, and they were forced to settle at Point Wild on this craggy and snow buried island. It was from here that Shackleton would launch one of the most daring voyages in the history of oceanic exploration. He would lead a six person team on a two week, 800 mile rescue mission aboard an open lifeboat (the James Caird) toward South Georgia Island.
Miraculously, they reached land, climbed an icy mountain and slid down a frozen waterfall to a known whaling station on South Georgia. Shackleton made his men stay awake through the night and press on through the cold for fear that if they laid down to rest, they would freeze to death in their sleep. Over the course of four months, he would attempt to return to his remaining men on Elephant Island and was eventually successful. John Robert Francis "Frank" Wild, second in command aboard the Endurance, watched over the men for those four months and is immortalized there in the form of a bust.
It's hard to read any of this and fully digest it without standing on the same godforsaken rocks that these men stood. While I was a member of a lucky group of people who took advantage of a rare break in the weather to land there, I still can't. We wore expedition parkas and wellies to stay dry. It's even harder for me to fathom their two week long crossing between South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula aboard a 24 foot open air boat when it took me only two and a half days and everyone aboard was throwing up due to sea sickness in the comfort of their semi private bathrooms on our 240 foot vessel. To speak bluntly, it can't be done. Perhaps not ironically, those are words that these men would proudly never speak.
It was on this boat that I read "The Worst Journey In The World," a tale of southern exploration and #1 on National Geographic's list of Top 100 Adventure Novels of All Time. A quote from that book has come to mind several times this week as I've reflected upon my trip with old friends. Some have asked me why anyone would want to go to Antarctica. It's OK. We drank a toast to you on the boat after hiking the snowy interior cone of an active volcano. You didn't know that because you were sitting at your desk.
"..the highest object that human beings can set before themselves is not the pursuit of any such chimera as the annihilation of the unknown: it is simply the unwearied endeavor to remove it's boundaries a little further from our little sphere of action."
My roommate aboard the Ocean Nova, Perth Australia's The Sir Peter Worsley
Frank Wild memorial
"Roll on, deep and dark blue ocean, roll. Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain. Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore."
- Lord Byron