From the Bottom to the Top

Rediscovering Antarctica

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine


EVEN IF YOU HAVEN'T VENTURED below 60 degrees south lately, chances are you've at least browsed one of the 18-odd books devoted to polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, or caught wind of an Antarctic climbing trip, or met someone setting out for the Weddell Sea to gawk at penguins and icebergs. Long considered too cold, too boring, and just plain too far away, the Big White is now stepping into the adventure travel limelight. Which is to say, as fashionably extreme destinations go, Antarctica is hot.

Inspired in part by Shackleton—the most celebrated of Antarctic explorers—tourist, exploratory, and athletic activity at the bottom of the world surged last year and promises to keep increasing into the next. This November, the start of the Antarctic summer and therefore exploration season, at least 16 groups and individuals are scheduled to ski, trek, and sail across great expanses of virgin ice (see "The Cold Rush"). Antarctica's highest peak, 16,860-foot Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains along the Ronne Ice Shelf, has emerged as a major destination on the mountaineering circuit, and other peaks are close behind. "You pick what [climb] you want to do, and about nine of ten will be a first ascent or descent," says Dave German, a Canadian expeditioner who has made 25 trips to the southernmost continent. "That gets people hungry...and it's as close as you can get to the explorers of old." At the end of last year a team of six Americans made the first snowboard and ski descents of Vinson, spurring a rush to claim similar firsts. It's not all happening on solid ground, though: Bay Area surf guru Mark Renneker led a safari to the South Shetland Islands in February, a sojourn that was cybercast to anyone in Webland who ever wondered what it would be like to catch waves spawned from fracturing icebergs.

The South Pole, naturally, is the ultimate prize, and the number of expeditions attempting to reach it on skis from the coast is growing—from 45 last year to 50 in the coming season, according to leading South Pole outfitter Adventure Network International. "To get into the interior is probably as much of a challenge as trying to get onto the mountain at Everest, and probably just as expensive," says Richard Bangs, founder of the adventure-travel outfitter Mountain Travel–Sobek. "You can get to the edge of it more easily, and thousands and thousands have."

Amazingly, about 14,400 tourists visited Antarctica in the 1999–2000 season, a rise of almost 50 percent over the previous year. (And soon they'll come toting the latest edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica. Choice quote: "Newspapers make good gifts for members of Antarctic stations, but don't overdo it; a little news of the world goes a long way.") The majority of these visitors stayed comfortably ensconced aboard Russian icebreakers and the like, snapping photos of tuxedoed birds for the folks at home, but a hardy 130 signed up with Adventure Network International, flying in from southern Chile to the firm's base at Patriot Hills to ski, climb, trek, and generally commune with the otherworldly landscape. (The firm's upcoming adventure offerings do not include skydiving—an ANI-organized attempt to parachute to the South Pole ended tragically in December 1997 with three deaths.)


TRADITIONALLY, Americans have looked north for unearthly suspense. The Arctic is nearer, and the race to the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century gripped the public imagination in a way that the south never did. While far-north explorers such as Robert Peary became international heroes, the U.S. Antarctic expeditions of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s languish in the basement of national memory. How many people know, for example, that on the morning of October 31, 1956, Admiral George Dufek stepped out of an R-4D plane called Que Será Será to leave the first American footprints at 90 degrees south?

Only in recent years, after the rest of the planet was mapped, claimed, and polluted, has the shadowy form of Antarctica begun to coalesce out of the freezing mist. "It's really the last frontier," says 36-year-old California resident and full-time explorer Doug Stoup, who made a string of first ski and snowboard descents in the South Shetland Islands and Graham Land in February and who has two similar jaunts scheduled for the coming season. "There's still so much to explore, so much untouched and unseen." Adventure Travel Society president Jerry Mallett is more blunt about Antarctica's unique allure: "We're filling up every corner of the world."

But then, adventurers have been feeling that way since about the time of Alexander the Great. Antarctica is the highest continent, as well as the driest, the coldest, and the windiest. But it isn't just superlatives that have appealed to the current generation of Shackleton's spiritual kin. It's the fact that nobody owns it. Unscarred by wars and largely unfettered by governmental red tape, something about this supra-national character seems to click with 21st-century Western consciousness; like it or not, we're all in this together.And there's only one enemy: the cold.

There is also one common hero: Shackleton. Now that Shackletonmania has passed through the publishing world, leaving a slew of biographies and coffee-table tomes in its wake, film and television productions are getting in on the act. In February 2001, IMAX filmgoers will watch Reinhold Messner, Conrad Anker, and Stephen Venables make a three-and-a-half-day traverse of the Triton range in South Georgia, retracing Shackleton's 1916 trek in which he and two companions bored screws through their shoes for makeshift crampons. Later next year, the PBS series NOVA will feature a documentary on the same trip. And, of course, there's a Hollywood film in development, slated to be directed by Wolfgang Peterson, who just did The Perfect Storm.

In many respects, Shackleton is the perfect icon for our times. "The Boss," as Shackleton's men called him, was bad-tempered in the morning, smoked and drank too much, and wasn't altogether faithful to his long-suffering wife, Emily. But for all this, and more, his leadership skills make him a very modern hero. He watched over his subordinates like a broody hen—when he noticed someone weakening, he would order extra hot milk all around, without revealing who needed it the most. He led by intuition, a practice recently rehabilitated by business-management programs that until quite recently dismissed any methodology that harbored a tinge of emotion. "The kinds of things that Shackleton was able to do are extremely appropriate lessons for the new economy, as businesses move into unexplored territory and have to deal with a level of ambiguity," says Dennis Perkins, the author of the just-published Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition.

Despite the sudden rush of polar conquistadors, Antarctica isn't just another testosterone zone for big guys to figure out how dead they can get. In an increasingly grubby world, it fulfills a human need for sanctuary. It is the only continent we haven't yet wrecked, a pristine land left untouched by the frigid armies of disillusion, and a fit setting for playing out high—if harsh—ideals and aspirations. Shackleton understood this mysterious appeal to the human psyche, and for him the continent was as much a metaphor as an explorer's dream. Some believe that before the ice came, Antarctica was the site of Atlantis. But we are beginning to see that Antarctica is within us. As the Boss himself once wrote, "We all have our own White South."  

Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (Random House, 1998).