Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Crossing Antarctica by Will Steger

Crossing AntarcticaCrossing Antarctica by Will Steger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is not very good, but it is a chance to think about Antarctica and the limits of human experience for a little while, and so I read it one evening in the hotel room while Laura slept.

Antarctica! It is more like an abstraction than an actual continent. No one owns it, no one goes there save a handful of scientists, no one really knows -- really knows -- how cold and dark and unforgiving it can be.

At least, that is what everyone says, including the team of adventurers led by Will Steger who in 1989 became the first people to cross Antarctica by dogsled, traveling from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, across the South Pole and all the way to Mirnyy Station on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. They made it, but still didn't unlock the continent's secrets. Not their fault! That's hard to do!

The book is structured like a diary of that journey and it gets sort of repetitive -- today we went 15 miles and the dogs are tired; today we couldn't go anywhere because of white-out conditions; rinse, repeat. Boy it sure is cold here.

"Antarctica's identity is starting to reveal itself to us, and it feels distinctly feminine," Steger writes on page 50. What does that mean? Who knows! He doesn't elaborate or return to the thought. Nor does he quite explain the math behind his conclusion that "Traveling in these conditions is 70 percent mental." When a member of the traveling party says he's having doubts about his decision to take the trip, Steger writes "That is the biggest difference between Jean-Louis and me ... I rarely question the path I've taken" and keeps things moving right along.

So, not a good book. Fine. Still, it is possible to step back from all that workaday sled-diary stuff and contemplate the incredible extremity of Antarctica. Temperatures of 80, 90, 100 degrees below zero. Blizzards and windstorms that come on in minutes and last for days or disappear in hours. Twenty-four-hour darkness followed by 24-hour light. Impossible. A place that for you or I exists only as an abstraction because we will never go there. A place that cannot exist and yet does.

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Anonymous said...

I really liked "The Last Place on Earth" by Huntford.

Chris said...

I get what he means about the path thing.

stridewideman said...

I've actually met this guy. He does a lot of global warming advocacy and has a foundation dedicated to it.

Say what you will about his writing, there are few things more interesting than watching a socially inept older man with an ax to grid showing pictures of polar bears eating each other to a totally mortified conservative lawmaker.

It's better than the office. And more socially useful.