After this, I’ll be quiet about Antarctica for awhile

They did it.

They walked 1800 miles in 105 days, following Scott’s footsteps, and made it back to safety at Scott Base, Antarctica. And made history.

The band of armchair explorers followed on the blog, Google Earth, and Twitter yesterday evening as Ben and Tarka walked the final miles. The online community was buzzing. I can only imagine what the reception was like at Scott Base. And their relief. And how overwhelming people and buildings and furniture and everything else must have seemed.

There’s a webcam at Scott Base, with a bleak view of some storage containers, vans, and the choppy ocean. Last night, some online followers were begging the expedition support team to ask Ben and Tarka to step out in front of the camera.

At one point after their arrival, briefly, someone (or two) stepped into the lower right corner of the frame, and I took a screen capture. Was it B&T? I’ve no clue. But let’s just say it was.

Ben and Tarks at Scott Base?

I don’t know exactly why I’m so obsessed with Scott’s story, but I just plain am. And thank you for bearing with me.

I’ll wrap this all up by leaving you in the words of others: of the Irish poet Derek Mahon, who writes about the terrible last words and moments of Captain Lawrence Oates, who walked out into the white and never returned; of Herbert Ponting, expedition photographer, who survived; and of Edward Wilson, some say Scott’s closest friend, who perished with him in the tent, 11 miles short of One Ton depot.


‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.
The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time
In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go.
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

–Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 1985

The Sleeping Bag

On the outside grows the furside. On the inside grows the skinside.
So the furside is the outside and the skinside is the inside.
As the skinside is the inside (and the furside is the outside)
One ‘side’ likes the skinside inside and the furside on the outside.
Others like the skinside outside and the furside on the inside
As the skinside is the hard side and the furside is the soft side.
If you turn the skinside outside, thinking you will side with that ‘side’,
Then the soft side furside’s inside, which some argue is the wrong side.
If you turn the furside outside – as you say, it grows on that side,
Then your outside’s next the skinside, which for comfort’s not the right side.
For the skinside is the cold side and your outside’s not your warm side
And the two cold sides coming side-by-side are not the right sides one ‘side’ decides.
If you decide to side with that ‘side’, turn the outside furside inside
Then the hard side, cold side, skinside’s, beyond all question, inside outside.

–Herbert George Ponting
from South Polar Times, Vol. 1, 1911

The Barrier Silence

The silence was deep with a breathe like sleep
As our sledge runners slid on the snow,
the fate-full fall of our fur-clad feet
Struck mute like a silent blow
On a questioning “hush” as the settling crust
Shrank shivering over the floe;
And the sledge in its track sent a whisper back
Which was lost in a white fog-bow.
And this was the thought that the Silence wrought
As it scorched and froze us through,
Though secrets hidden are all forbidden
Till God means man to know,
We might be the men God meant to know
The heart of the Barrier snow,
In the heat of the sun, and the glow
And the glare from the glistening floe,
As it scorched and froze us through and through
With the bite of the drifting snow.

–Edward Adrian Wilson from South Polar Times, Vol. 3, 1911

The real goal is coming home

For the two or three of you not following the Scott Expedition blog on Boxing Day, refreshing your screen every hour through the evening, I’m happy to report that Ben and Tarka made it to the South Pole on December 26, 2013.

As Ben puts it, the scene was nothing like Scott’s arrival in that cold, desolate spot 101 years ago, yet entirely similar:

In short, I’m afraid to say -though it’s probably quite apt- that I concur with Captain Scott himself when he said of the South Pole “Great God this is an awful place”. For him, of course, there was nothing there at all. A patch of snow at the heart of a barren, deeply inhospitable continent. For us, it felt like walking into a cross between an airport, a junkyard and a military base. Or perhaps a scene that was omitted from a Star Wars film: skiing along with sacks swinging from our backs, futuristic mirrored goggles and hoods framed by coyote fur, we looked like two bounty hunters approaching some sort of outpost on a frozen planet.

In both cases, they were just happy to turn away from the long-aimed for spot and head for home.

And that, of course, is the tricky part. After 60+ days of pulling hard, laying depots, walking through whiteouts, and expending everything, they now have to retrace their steps, find the cached depots, and hope they planned well enough and travel quickly enough to make it back to safety.

There’s a sense that, in this Internet age, Ben and Tarka are not so alone as Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Evans, and Oates because we are watching. They’re in satellite communication with their base team and us, uploading blog posts, videos, and photos. But that really doesn’t lessen the hard work ahead that only they can do, one step at a time. They are most definitely out there on their own, walking another 900 miles across Antarctica to safety.

That they’ve chosen to make this journey of their own free will, just to see if they can do it, doesn’t mean it isn’t devilishly difficult to do. Many before, who had no more reason to go than the desire to do it, have tried and failed.

This armchair explorer, warm by her fire, will be watching with bated breath.

p.s. In a semi-related story, Conservators of the New Zealand Antarctic Trust have recently discovered a box of 22 negatives left by Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party. The negatives were found in a block of ice in Scott’s hut. Shackleton didn’t make it to the South Pole, but he made it home. And now so have these amazing photos.