Cold Comfort

Nov 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland,by Gretel Ehrlich (Pantheon, $28). In annual journeys to Greenland since 1995, Gretel Ehrlich has chewed raw seal liver (and spit it out), robbed terns of their nest eggs (reluct-antly), gotten arrested as a Russian spy at Thule Air Base (twice), gone polar bear hunting (for the fur pants), and learned the socially acceptable way to bugger a sled dog (though not firsthand). Some days were cold, others colder, and yet the place kept pulling her back. "My visits," she writes, "became chronic, as if darkness laid down on ice held secrets I could not yet fathom." Having established a reputation as one of our finest nature writers with The Solace of Open Spacesand A Match to the Heart, Ehrlich pits her literary wits against this "Arctic Alcatraz." What she finds—in both winter, when the sun never rises, and summer, when the sun never sets—is a world where basic rhythms are turned upside down. It's not winter darkness that drives Greenlanders batty, but the blazing, sleep-depriving midsummer light that "spills onto the top of the world and keeps spilling." Ice isn't a burden, it's freeing: It means travel to other villages, visits with friends, and good hunting. Do the Inuit really have 23 words for ice? Yes—see page 142. Now, with Ehrlich's book, they have at least as many poetic ways to describe their extreme land and lives. —Bruce Barcott

Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer, by Anatoli Boukreev, edited by Linda Wylie (St. Martin's Press, $28). When he died in an avalanche on Annapurna on Christmas Day 1997, 39-year-old Anatoli Boukreev exited the world stage both hero and knave. As the climbing leader on Scott Fischer's 1996 Everest expedition, Boukreev was lauded for plunging into the storm to save clients' lives and criticized for guiding without oxygen. Although the Russian told his Everest story in The Climb, these translated journals—edited by his companion, Linda Wylie—uncover a more introspective side to Boukreev, as well as a lost generation of Soviet mountaineers. Set on McKinley, K2, Makalu, Manaslu, and Everest, the entries begin in 1989, as the Soviet Union and its expedition sponsorship collapsed, leaving many climbers penniless. Boukreev, who grew up cragging in the Urals, took the comedown hard. "My friends and teammates would not talk about climbing anymore," he wrote; "they struggled to earn money literally for bread." He hung on (selling his climbing boots to pay bills) until the market for commercial expeditions opened up, and hesitantly accepted the job on Everest. Junkies of 1996 will find a few morsels here—"I can look in anyone's eyes and say I did the best I knew how to do for our team"—but the book's heart is his battle to adapt to the world below the peaks. Boukreev "had more in common with [an] ascetic poet" than with super-athletes, Wylie notes, and indeed, the climber's prose—including one poem—reveals a more vulnerable soul than the world had reason to suspect. —B.B. In This We Are Native: Memoirs and Journeys, by Annick Smith (The Lyons Press, $25). Essayist Annick Smith has lived one of those quintessentially peripatetic Western lives: homesteading near Missoula, Montana, with occasional flights to Hollywood, Tijuana, Lake Titicaca, Spokane, and Pablo Neruda's house on Chile's Isla Negra. These graceful essays accrete into a rough-hewn memoir of her last years with her husband, who died in 1974 when she was 38, leaving her to raise four sons alone, and of her subsequent careers as writer (Homestead) and film producer (A River Runs Through It and documentaries about American Indian life). Smith has a gift for rich lyric description, as in these impressions of Texas's Palo Duro Canyon: "a black hidden in junipers along the trail by the creek, a mucky trail the colors of fire, which also holds my footprints." But she is also an old-fashioned firebrand. In "Anticipating Loss" and "Three Ways of Walking the Blackfoot"—pieces protesting the Plum Creek Timber Company's acquisition of vast tracts in her drainage ("like selling a corpse to vultures") and proposed pit mines along the Blackfoot River—Smith achieves an angry apotheosis that would have made Tom Paine proud.—Caroline Fraser


John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa, by John Muir, edited by Michael P. Branch (Island Press, $28).
With previously unpublished journal entries and letters, this volume captures the original mountain man's final trek: In 1911, 73-year-old Muir embarked alone on what Robert Michael Pyle, in his foreword, calls "one final, phenomenal Field Trip," a 40,000-mile, eight-month journey through South America and Africa. Those who thought Muir's last years were overshadowed by his failure to save Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley from damming should be pleasantly surprised to find their favorite Sierran heading up the Amazon, having "a glorious time in this fine wild America." —C.F.

The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition, by Susan Solomon (Yale University Press, $30). For decades after perishing with his men in 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott was the hero of big and little Brits everywhere. But with his ill-advised ponies and stiff upper lip, he became every pole-worshiper's favorite whipping boy. Now the Scott wars are heating up again. Atmospheric scientist Susan Solomon, who spent two seasons at McMurdo Station, conducts a fascinating forensic investigation of Scott as bungler, arguing that the explorer was done in not by ignorance but by (believe it or not) an unseasonable cold snap. —C.F.