By John O’Connor

Everything Gets Worse: An Antarctica Story

True Story, Issue #32

In winter of 1912, as Robert Falcon Scott was striving to be the first to reach the South Pole, six of his men became stranded for 17 months. In this story that ranges from north to south and from past to present, John O’Connor chronicles the group’s efforts to remain not only alive but sane at “Inexpressible Island,” a 9′ x 12’ enclosure they hacked out of the ice, where they remained through the long months of winter darkness.

But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself.

—Marlow, Heart of Darkness


The winter of 1912 was Raymond Priestley’s third in Antarctica in five years. A palm reader had once told him that he would die in this year, his twenty-sixth. But Priestley figured that if he were going to die in Antarctica, he’d have already done so. During the 1907–9 Nimrod expedition, he had found himself adrift one morning on an ice floe that was surrounded by killer whales. After a harrowing day at sea, he somehow managed to drift back to land. Later, he had become trapped in a blizzard on Mount Erebus for seventy-two hours without food or a tent or a hope in hell of surviving. Scrunched inside his reindeer-skin sleeping bag and being blown slowly downhill, he was in constant danger of plunging off a hundred-foot cliff into Horseshoe Bay. The experience, he later said, steeled him for the trenches of Amiens.

By 1910, when he signed on to Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, which was racing the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to the geographic South Pole, Priestley was a hardened Antarctic veteran. A geologist from the Cotswolds with “a hereditary Nonconformist conscience which has frequently given me trouble,” as he put it, he had pale, appraising eyes, a spindly Vandyke, and a hairline that was holding on for dear life. In February 1911, while Scott began his preparations for a dash to the pole, Priestley and five others—the “Northern Party”—went exploring along Antarctica’s Victoria Land coast, in the southeastern part of the continent, hard against the Southern Ocean. It was a landscape that had swallowed men and ships for the better part of a century. They passed a winter in a hut at Cape Adare, where the men mostly sat around staring at penguins. After eleven months, the Terra Nova returned and eventually deposited them farther south, at Terra Nova Bay, where things took a turn for the worse.

The land was desolate, a heavily crevassed, wind-scrubbed plateau, and beyond that, impassable white-ruffed mountains rising and falling for a thousand miles. Their plan had been to spend some pre-winter weeks poking around until the Terra Nova returned again to fetch them. A sound plan, all agreed. And it was. Except for one detail: winter came early that year, and the Terra Nova couldn’t get through the pack ice. Gazing out to sea for a ship that wasn’t coming, the men discovered they were short on nearly everything, even matches. Their boots and wind clothes were rotting from their bodies. Gale-force winds had torn their canvas tents to shreds. The burning question in the back of all their minds was: Now what?

Some of them, being God-fearing men, prayed on it. Then, they chopped a hole out of the ice high up in the foothills where they could keep watch for the Terra Nova. Their “warren,” as Priestley called it, was nine by twelve feet and five and a half feet high. “Inexpressible Island” was the name that stuck—not a literal island but a figurative one, an island of the mind. Priestley’s sketch of it in his wonderful account of the expedition, Antarctic Adventure, is inexpressibly stark and horrid: two rows of sleeping bags laid three abreast, with penguin and seal carcasses stacked to one side and bones to the other, and a filthy sack strung up for privacy in the commode. There was barely enough room to stand. The roof was always close to collapsing and burying them alive, and they were almost asphyxiated in their sleep before they thought to add a chimney. There was no warmth to be found anywhere; it was never more than a few degrees below zero inside the cave, and often far colder. The walls were ice, the ceiling was ice, the floor was ice, the furniture, such as it was, was ice. Their sleeping bags, encrusted with ice and blubber, eventually shed their reindeer hair, which found its way into their tea, along with the ice and blubber. Everyone’s nose became a barnacled, frostbitten horn. Their skin itched miserably. Soot from their blubber stove caked their faces and hands and painted the walls coal black.

Priestley’s most frightful passages, however, concern the endless hunt for palatable, “clean-tasting” food. They ate seal blubber every day, for every meal. Priestley considered stewed seal brains their “best luxury,” while Lieutenant Victor Campbell, the party’s leader, thought them “simply perfect.” Partly digested fish found in the throat and belly of a Weddell seal and fried in blubber was a culinary miracle. Blood left on the ice after butchering penguins was simmered into gravy. For salad, they munched raw kelp.

Diarrhea became their greatest torment. They sometimes got up to shit seven or eight times a night. Simply making it to the toilet in time could be, as it were, a crapshoot. Campbell had his “privates & stern frost bitten changing drawers” after shitting himself in his bag one night. When full winter commenced, a great silence settled over them. The darkness became a double darkness: dark outside and in, as dark as the night sky, with the thinnest light flickering from their stove.

The winter before, fellow Terra Nova expeditioners Bill Wilson, Birdie Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard had nearly died while collecting emperor penguin eggs at a rookery at Cape Crozier. (Wilson was an ornithologist, and at the time it was thought that emperor embryos might reveal evolutionary links between birds and reptiles. The penguins lay their eggs in winter during Antarctica’s fiercest weather.) They hauled 850 pounds of supplies on two sledges, and thick snow forced them to work by relay, pulling one sledge at a time, gaining a mile for every three they walked. In eight hours they might cover a mile and a half, while shedding chunks of dead skin from their frostbitten feet. They traveled in total darkness, as temperatures fell to −77°F. At those temperatures your corneas freeze. Cognitive disarray causes speech to become slurred, and judgment and coordination go completely to hell. Despite the cold, the men sweated profusely as they walked. When they stopped, the sweat froze, forming a carapace over their skin. It sometimes took them forty-five minutes to chop into their sleeping bags at night. After they crawled inside, the ice melted, so they slept in puddles. When they finally reached the rookery, a gale carried away their only tent, and they all lay down and waited to freeze to death, only to have the tent miraculously reappear. After collecting five eggs (two of which broke), they stumbled back to Cape Evans, having finished the 140-mile round trip in five weeks. In his memoir, The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry-Garrard wondered whether the Northern Party’s suffering took a more desperate form:

They ate blubber, cooked with blubber, had blubber lamps. Their clothes and gear were soaked with blubber, and the soot blackened them, their sleeping-bags, cookers, walls and roof, choked their throats and inflamed their eyes. Blubbery clothes are cold, and theirs were soon so torn as to afford little protection against the wind, and so stiff with blubber that they would stand up by themselves, in spite of frequent scrapings with knives and rubbings with penguin skins, and always there were underfoot the great granite boulders which made walking difficult even in daylight and calm weather.

Although they were at risk of starving to death, the Northern Party’s real hazards were mental. By this expedition, Priestley had become, he liked to say, something of an authority on polar madness. It was, by and large, a seasonal affliction, brought on by the unsparing cold and darkness of the austral winter and usually waning with the return of the sun. Taken on their own, the darkness and cold were tolerable. Added to a daily menu of filth, barrenness, silence, and solitude, they acquired a quality of redaction, as if one’s personality was being gradually rubbed out. “If it does not include depression to the point of suicide it appears to be curable,” Priestley wrote. He’d known a few incurables over the years, including his friend Bertram Armytage from the Nimrod expedition, who shot himself shortly after returning home.

The men of the Northern Party had all heard about the experiences of the British Southern Cross expedition, the first to winter over on the Antarctic mainland, in 1899, at Cape Adare. Led by a cranky Norwegian boozehound named Carsten Borchgrevink, ten men were crammed into a one-room hut while their seventy-five sled dogs laid waste to a colony of Adélie penguins outside, and then to one another. It didn’t take long, once the sun vanished, for the men to turn on each other as well. The darkness, it seems, freed them from an obligation to be nice. “A strange spirit of irritation prevails among members,” the Tasmanian physicist Louis Bernacchi wrote in his diary. “Scarcely bear [the] sight of one another. Some crusty and others morose, [making the] most unpleasant remarks they can possibly think of to one another.” He came to hate Borchgrevink, who stayed constantly drunk. “Wish [to] God I had never joined such a numskull and his expedition. Getting to positively loathe the sight of all.” In October, a zoologist named Nicolai Hanson died after a long illness, probably scurvy. Borchgrevink and another man nearly drowned. Like the Northern Party, they all came close to dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in their poorly ventilated quarters. Bernacchi’s diary is full of descriptions of the hemmed-in feeling of winter, of the darkness and cold pressing in, of sickly companions and of those he suspected of cheating at cards. “What beasts we all are and how astounding our conceit. One would think that here at the extremity of the globe one would at least be spared these contemptible human passions. But it is quite the contrary for I have never before seen them in such nakedness.”

As winter descended at Inexpressible Island, so did the Northern Party’s mood. Although none of them had the experience of Antarctica that Priestley did, they must’ve known what awaited them, how barbarous their suffering would be. With six months to go before they could expect a rescue, their “tempers were so much on edge that conversation was impossible.” The threat to their survival, Priestley suspected, would come from within.

• • •

I remember, years ago, reading the opening pages of Roland Huntford’s Scott and Amundsen and feeling awed, haunted, in the grip of something momentous. This was back when I knew squat about Antarctica, when in fact I had only the vaguest sense of a difference between Antarctica and the Arctic (for the life of me I couldn’t keep the two straight; one held the North Pole, the other the South, of that I was almost certain, but which held which?). “The poles of the earth had become an obsession of Western man,” Huntford wrote, summing up what those dueling maniacs, Scott and Amundsen, were doing in Antarctica in 1912, trudging off into “the lonely wastes” for the dubious honor of being the first to the South (!) Pole, without a single pair of Smartwool socks between them.

It was during a brief crisis, a stretch of self-isolation when I had little interest in anything or anyone, and no desire, really, except to reach the end of what was troubling me. In the absence of any real hardship myself, with no right to complain, I found Scott’s tragedy irresistible. “Since the obsession was there,” Huntford went on, “it had to be exorcised, and the sooner the better.” (Spoiler alert: when Scott arrived at the pole, he found a Norwegian flag snapping in the wind. Amundsen had beaten him by a month. “The worst has happened, or nearly the worst,” Scott wrote in his diary. Even worse was yet to come. He and his four companions died on their return journey.)

Ever since, I’ve been exorcising an obsession of my own. Or perhaps not obsession so much as, say, horrified fascination. For Antarctica, as Fridtjof Nansen wrote, is nothing if not a “realm of death,” a place of squandered lives and ravaged minds, of dashed ambition and futile courage—a place, experience also tells us, from which good news rarely transmits. Reading about Antarctica, I’m often reminded of something Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky, said about the message of his fiction: “Everything gets worse.” This is notably true of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when men like Scott contrived to meet the most appalling ends, hurtling themselves into the void for queen and country, slowly starving to death a million miles from home. Probably you’ve heard of Scott and Amundsen. But Priestley? The rest of Scott’s supporting cast? Their stories have, on the whole, gone unexplored. Most were barely more than teenagers who had led, like Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, “the normal applauseless life of us all,” until they found themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances at the bottom of the world. Some escaped with their lives.

At least six early Antarctic explorers committed suicide, either during or after expeditions, and many more went mad. Hjalmar Johansen, a sledge driver for Amundsen, shot himself on the streets of Oslo in 1913. Ten years later, a biologist under Scott, Edward Nelson, killed himself. Another of Scott’s biologists, Dennis Lillie, never recovered from a breakdown he suffered after the Terra Nova expedition. No fewer than three of Shackleton’s Endurance crew lost their minds during their open boat journey to Elephant Island. When the Deutschland became trapped in the ice in 1912, its crew split into rival groups, some sleeping with loaded guns. In 1913, the wireless operator for Douglas Mawson’s Aurora team began to suspect his companions were plotting to murder him; he later claimed he’d been hypnotized by Mawson. He was relieved of his duties and, upon returning home, hospitalized for schizophrenia. Things grew so strained between members of a 1953 French expedition that some would communicate with others only by registered letter. The same year, a thirty-nine-year-old British mechanic, Arthur Farrant, walked out of his hut on Antarctica’s Deception Island and shot himself in the head. In 1960, a Soviet scientist reportedly killed a colleague with an ice axe after finding that he was cheating at chess (Russia thereafter banned chess at its Antarctic facilities). A few years later, the doctor at Mawson Station began sending “lunatic incomprehensible” cables home and, after threatening to cut people’s heads off, was relieved of his duties. “It can happen so easily,” writes Stephen Murray-Smith, who in 1985 found the crew at Casey Station on a knife-edge. “A wrong word here, a suspicion of too much clubbiness among a few there, a decision to go out bivouacking in the old Antarctic way. . . . Suddenly authority has crumbled.”

Of the many descriptions of polar madness, none surpasses Frederick A. Cook’s Through the First Antarctic Night, a breathless account of an 1897–99 Belgian expedition that was the first to endure the soul-crushing darkness of Antarctica’s winter. It’s a spectacular case study of wholesale mental disarray. Cook was a physician aboard the Belgica, which became trapped in the Bellingshausen Sea pack ice in 1898. They started with nineteen men, including a twenty-six-year-old first mate, Roald Amundsen, on his first polar journey. Considering how catastrophically unprepared they were, the crew fared reasonably well at first, supplementing their meager tinned rations with seal and penguin meat and dutifully compiling climatological and oceanographic data (data that’s still used today to measure ice sheet loss in East Antarctica). The sun, however, was quickly fleeing their world. “Time weighs heavily upon us as the darkness slowly advances,” Cook wrote. “The night soaks hourly a little more colour from our blood.” In mid-May, the sun vanished for good and the men went instantly to pieces. “The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has also descended upon the inner world of our souls.”

Partly what makes Through the First Antarctic Night so remarkable is that Cook mentioned polar madness at all. Until then, as he tells us, madness was typically suppressed in polar narratives. To complain about such things was unheroic, ungentlemanly, and potentially disastrous from a PR point of view (in seeking recruits, polar expeditions tended to undersell the dangers and deprivations). Often led by ex-navy men, expeditions were run like military campaigns, with unquestioning allegiance and acceptance of one’s lot being the rule. I can imagine the advantages of such discipline while man-hauling sledges in the interior, where men’s lives hung in the balance. But it infected their private lives and correspondence as well. Among Scott’s polar party there’s almost no soul-searching to speak of, even after they’d begun to suspect that Scott was in over his head. (Huntford calls Scott a “heroic bungler” unequipped to lead a party of men.) They’re discreet to the point of being deceptive, as if they couldn’t tell the truth without bringing posthumous shame on themselves. Having lost confidence in their leader, the men nonetheless carried on across the ice, marching toward their deaths, and “being eminently decent, as perhaps only the English can be,” Caroline Alexander writes, “they did not complain, but hung on and hoped in dread for the best.” To my ear, Scott’s dying words—“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint”—have an impudent ring to them, as if five chums had encountered unexpected traffic after gambling on a shortcut to the pub. On this count, Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, widely judged to be the greatest polar narrative ever written, is a work of fiction. When he says of his Cape Crozier egg-collecting trip with Wilson and Bowers, “How good the memories of those days are,” you have to read between the lines, because what he’s also saying is, “It is a nightmare that has haunted me for years.”

Cook, at least, was more honest about what Antarctica extracted from you. All eighteen of the Belgica’s crew (a young sailor had earlier been washed overboard and lost) eventually developed what he called “polar anaemia.” The symptoms, as Cook describes them, read like the onset of zomboid contagion:

We became pale, with a kind of greenish hue; our secretions were more or less suppressed. The stomach and all the organs were sluggish, and refused to work. Most dangerous of all were the cardiac and cerebral symptoms. The heart acted as if it had lost its regulating influence. Its action was feeble, but its beats were not increased until other dangerous symptoms appeared. . . .

. . . The blood retreats from the skin, but the larger veins are abnormally full. Piles, hemorrhoids, headache, neuralgia, rheumatism, are the systemic complaints. . . .

All seem puffy about the eyes and ankles. . . . The skin is unusually oily. The hair grows rapidly, and the skin about the nails has a tendency to creep over them, seemingly to protect them from the cold. . . .

. . . The men were incapable of concentration, and unable to continue prolonged thought. . . .

. . . We have aged ten years in thirty days.

The ship also stank to high heaven. A −22°F day was considered balmy. And there was an abiding fear that they could be crushed by the ice at any moment or by giant icebergs that occasionally plowed right past the Belgica without warning (they were very nearly smashed by one), or that the ice would never release them. The captain, Lecointe, fared so poorly that he wrote out his will. Ditto the expedition leader, de Gerlache. Cook helped as best he could, but some were beyond help. On June 5, after languishing for months, a beloved geophysicist, Emile Danco, died of heart failure. Two others went mad. One attempted to walk back to Belgium. After thirteen months, the ice finally released the Belgica, and the survivors sailed home. Cook, undaunted, went on to make a stab at the North Pole, which he claimed to have reached in 1909 (a claim that’s probably hogwash).

“Polar T3 syndrome,” the term today for the illness associated with wintering in Antarctica or the Arctic, encompasses a range of psychosomatic disorders related to sensory deprivation and extreme cold, such as forgetfulness, insomnia, increased anxiety and anger, depression, and cognitive decline. “Winter-over syndrome,” as it’s also called, is evidenced by a fugue-like “big eye” or “Antarctic stare” and a corresponding feeling of your mind having gone totally blank. It can strike even new arrivals. The scholar Stephen J. Pyne spent the 1985 austral winter at McMurdo Station, the US National Science Foundation hub, and noticed in himself “a general feeling of being unwell, lethargy, disorientation.” The station is claustrophobic, insular, and in winter inescapable: “Living there was a process of social reductionism that led to a cultural numbing, a mental hypothermia.” It has a year-round population of about 250: Sno-Cat drivers, sous chefs, plumbers, construction workers, dishwashers, bartenders, hairstylists, janitors, air traffic controllers. Together, they endure six sunless months of constant blizzards and subzero temperatures and nights that grow so long they essentially never end, when life acquires the leaden, changeless tenor of a prison colony. Among the harder cases during Pyne’s stay were people suffering from “depression, outbursts of hostility, sleep disturbance, social withdrawal, and impaired cognition.” The following year, amid a winter of discontent, a cafeteria cook attacked two others with the claw end of a hammer.

“The quintessential Antarctic experience,” Pyne writes, “is of something taken away.” Namely, your sanity. Despite the material comforts of station life today, compared with the biblical scarcity of Priestley’s Northern Party, you’re still far from home, as far as it’s possible to get short of a space flight, enveloped in the world’s most inhospitable abyss. One could very well die of boredom. “Typical are the hazards of boredom arising from a progressive and pervasive lack of sensory stimuli,” Pyne writes. The most obvious corollary to boredom is a scrupulous lack of interest in everything and everyone, perhaps the sense that you have ceased to be of interest to others, and also to yourself. Your wisest course of action, it may seem, is to withdraw and become emotionally cold and vacant, like Marshawn Lynch in a postgame interview. “The relentless passivity, silence, emptiness, and deprivation” are immediate and overpowering, Pyne says. The antiseptic uniformity of the ice, its changeless and indistinct appearance—“singularly inert, empty with an awful simplicity”—begins to overtake you. May to October, when night is indistinguishable from day, are the nightmare months.

Which is roughly when, in 1934, Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd decided to isolate himself at a remote unventilated hut called Bolling Advance Weather Station, 123 miles from his expedition’s base at the Bay of Whales. Nobody had ever spent an Antarctic winter alone. It’s safe to say that nobody had ever thought of it, as the idea was plainly nuts. Byrd’s snowbound hovel, in which he planned to pass six months of darkness, was perched on an ice shelf riddled with crevasses and continuously blasted by Category 5 winds. Nighttime temperatures hovered between −58° and −76°F. Byrd justified his plan by claiming he wanted to do meteorological research. In truth, he harbored Thoreauvian pipe dreams of simplified living, a retreat to monastic solitude that would be, he predicted, “an experiment in harmony.” Recapitulating sentiments that go back at least to Ovid’s pastorals, Byrd hoped that out there, away from it all, he could finally “let the bodily processes achieve a natural equilibrium.”

“The desire to discover essences through deprivation is an ancient one, as old as the fast in the desert,” Pyne reminds us. “But the Antarctic desert is a ruthless reducer.” For starters, there are no trees, shrubs, grasses, meadows, rivers, lakes, dunes, beaches, wheat fields; no rain or lightning; hardly any animals or fecundity to speak of; for months not even light and dark; none of the stuff we take for granted and which our minds need to create context and contrasts. There is only ice and sky. As a result of “information underload,” Pyne says, “sights, sounds, smells, and feels erode away.”

Things started off okay for Byrd. Freed from the soft comforts of civilization, he found his senses sharpening, a veil of inner peace descending. “I came to understand what Thoreau meant when he said, ‘My body is all sentient,’” he wrote. “There were moments when I felt more alive than at any other time in my life.” Before long, however, he started hallucinating and soon lost sixty pounds. It didn’t help that he got carbon monoxide poisoning from his stove. After five months, he had to be rescued, at considerable risk to his rescuers, who’d become alarmed when Byrd’s telegraph messages all but dried up. His book about the ordeal, Alone, reads as if Robinson Crusoe had washed ashore in a Thomas Hardy novel: “The dark side of a man’s mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions,” he wrote. “It was as if all the world’s vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy. I sank to depths of disillusionment which I had not believed possible.” Like a slightly more ghastly version of apartment living in New York City. Except whereas you or I might struggle to breathe the suffocating New York air and become maddened by the city’s arrhythmic natural void, and by direct and daily contact with our fellow man, Byrd felt the opposite. He struggled to breathe the asphyxiating air of his final enlightenment. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, he went batty in civilization’s absence, by direct and daily contact with his own consciousness. “Solitude, too,” as Martin Amis says in his study of the Soviet gulags, “has its penal applications.”

It brings to mind John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, about a bunch of Antarctic scientists, holed up at an isolated post, who are stalked by an alien being that assumes the identity of its victims. Inevitably, the entire crew turns on each other, as nobody knows who’s human and who’s an alien wraith. Kurt Russell plays a hard-bitten, J&B-swilling chopper pilot named R. J. MacReady, wielding a flamethrower and formidable neck-beard (we’re to assume, given the blended Scotch and an absurd cavalry hat, that he’s a Vietnam vet accustomed to horrors of a different kind). Fresh off the success of Halloween, Carpenter reweaves themes of random vengeance and pained, plaintive heroism onto an icy scrim, with the silence of Antarctica filling the screen like the ominous mist in his 1980 film, The Fog. It’s extraordinarily violent. But the violence is cartoonish, as if Jim Henson had been in charge of special effects. The Thing invests Antarctica with malice and intention—it’s the ice that has preserved the alien in a natural cryo-freeze, unleashing it eons later on our unwitting men of science—when really it’s just a void, without kindness or cruelty, a place where nature gets boiled down to its Rousseauian, primordial elements.

Looking back, I can see that The Thing—I recall it being on television one winter break when I was twelve or thirteen and thinking, Carpenter’s a world-beating genius! Later I discovered it’s based on a novella by John W. Campbell—held for me the animating fear of Antarctica: not so much that you’ll be hunted by an amorphous manifestation of evil but rather, in a nutshell, that exposure to visceral, incoherent nature leads to an erasure of the self. MacReady and Co. are clearly somewhere they don’t belong, trapped in a landscape that may very well swallow them alive. Isolated and helpless, they come to dread not the monstrous cold or hunger, the gaping crevasses or ice falls, or even boredom, but something else entirely, something or someone that’s not one of them but is indistinguishable from them. Because no one can be trusted, because rescue brings the risk of exposing the outside world to the identity-less Thing, MacReady makes the executive decision to burn down the research station and with it the source of life for them all. (In a strange case of life imitating art, a couple of years after The Thing’s release, the doctor at Argentina’s Brown Station followed MacReady’s cue and burned the entire station to the ground, in his case to force an evacuation home.)

To some, of course, erasure is the whole point: to disappear, reinvent oneself, hit the psychic refresh button. A few years ago, when a friend of mine vanished in New York City—I suppose “vanished” is putting it dramatically, but that’s how people put it; what I think happened is he just switched off his cell phone for a while—I half expected him to turn up in Antarctica living under an assumed name, driving a forklift, smoking a Dunhill pipe and reading Alan Watts. Part of the allure of New York, to say nothing of Antarctica, is how easily you can disappear; the potential to refresh is omnipresent: shut your eyes, plop a finger on the MTA map, who knows where you’ll end up or who you’ll become? A Midwood yoga teacher moonlighting as a Mister Softee truck driver in Canarsie? Presto! When my friend resurfaced after a few weeks, without explanation, he was living in Bay Ridge, which back then might as well have been Antarctica. Today it’s exactly like every other neighborhood in New York, colonized by hipsters with rescue dogs named Django.

Even if we never intend on reinventing ourselves, few of us would truck with Nietzsche’s maxim of amor fati—the love of fate—a notion the philosopher struck on late in life, perhaps not coincidentally at the very moment he began cartwheeling between sanity and madness. The path to true happiness, he’d come to believe, lay in an uncritical acceptance of one’s life circumstances—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to the point where “one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.” Seeking change and insight, Nietzsche decided, was the express train to Crazytown. Most of us, it’s fair to say, believe the opposite of this; we put our faith in growth, in self-actualization, in changing trains at the next platform for the unlived life. We may occasionally even think of ourselves as free agents, unshackled from the petty inconveniences of work, kids, love, mortgages, and library overdue notices. Perhaps a sliver of chromosome from our nomadic past gnaws at the walls of our sedentary ribs? Deep down, we yearn for freedom, long to strike out for undiscovered country. Move aside, Scott and Amundsen, it’s the Age of Discovery and Midlife Crisis!

For all but a few of us, though, the fantasy of freedom is just that: a fantasy. Despite our noblest attempts, we’re undone by warring desire and dependence, subverted by comforting familiarity, manacled by fear, drowned by inertia, hopelessly cement-shoed in the murky estuaries of daily life. I am, of course, talking about myself. I’ve spent the past fifteen years in an idle, thumb-twirling stupor, toiling away on the corporate slave matrix, working without purpose, dreaming passively of a different kind of life. To say I’ve lacked drive and direction would be an affront to understatement. Mine has been an aimless, undisciplined existence, an ever-widening project of evasion and indecision and self-deception in which I’m forever having a circular conversation with myself: Which path should I choose? Which direction warrants the jettisoning of all others? How do I choose just one life knowing I’ll be unsatisfied with whichever I choose? Instead of choosing I do the safest thing: nothing. Doing nothing, as I’ve always done, comes naturally to me. Oh, the time I’ve wasted! The books I’ve failed to write! Thankfully the internet came along and suddenly doing nothing while pretending to do the opposite became totally effortless. We’ve moved into an evolutionary phase of frantic non-doing. In this light, my years of myopic dawdling, of hemming and hawing, of whining and self-editorializing in a bottomless, fatalistic chasm (see, I’m doing it again!) feel almost virtuous. The long and the short of it is, I’ve always been waiting. For what? For something new and better to come along, sensing all the while that nothing ever will, which is quite possibly what I wanted in the first place: to remain cozily settled among my possessions, mainlining Game of Thrones while sailing through my Xanax prescription, nevertheless feeling thwarted by circumstances from pursuing a different path. So I keep on waiting, making little progress in any direction, moving glacially, my life taking shape like Antarctica on a nineteenth-century map: an uncharted, meaningless blank spot.

Anyway, when the Terra Nova slipped its moorings in Cardiff, bound for Cape Evans, Raymond Priestley wondered if they were all sailing straight to their deaths. Even so, he was glad to be going. Glad to be going someplace, even to a forsaken place like Antarctica, especially to a forsaken place like Antarctica, perhaps the very last forsaken place left on earth and therefore well worth another peek. If he could get Antarctica out of his system, his thinking went, then he could get on with the rest of his life. He didn’t give a shit about the pole or being part of some desperate errand for a dwindling empire. Unlike Byrd, Priestley wasn’t using Antarctica to access a deeper, spiritual psychic realm. Driven by something more akin to Camus’s “longing, yes, to live, to live still more,” he simply had an aversion to sleepwalking through life. The continent’s indifference to human ambition, its deathly secrets hidden away in crevasses, its promise of hardship and repose, made him feel reckless and bold and alive. Plus there was the added bonus of getting away from stuffy old England and its Dickensian caste system, to find himself in a land, he wrote, “where a man stood or fell by his own merits” as opposed to his birthright. There’s something very moving about Priestley, just twenty-six but already a loner and brooder of intense gravity, taking Nietzsche to heart and finding solace in Antarctica, where so many others found pure terror. It was the kind of solace The Thing’s MacReady—another loner holed up and brooding away at the ends of the earth—went looking for, before he got sidetracked into stopping a global alien takeover.

I feel for Richard Byrd, that Priestley wannabe, whose dream of perfect solitude in the Antarctic desert turned into a perfect nightmare. Brave and headstrong, he was no longer the man he’d been a few years earlier when he’d made a death-defying flight to the South Pole in a flimsy trimotor plane. Now, suddenly, a darkened room was life-threatening. It’s depressing to think about, this sensitive Thoreauvian fleeing the clamor of modernity for the solitude and serenity of Antarctica, imagining he’d be magically transformed, only to discover that the clamor of modernity was precisely what was keeping him sane. Life in the wild, Byrd found, can quickly shed its consolations, accumulating its own peculiar load of drudgery and disaffection. Without others around to share his experience, a crucial part of his identity went missing. It killed him to admit it, but like his snowbound hovel the realization was inescapable: solitude bred a strange kind of self-doubt. Or maybe not strange at all but perfectly natural, since the self isn’t an isolated, independent entity that requires no one else in order to exist—I’m baldly plagiarizing William James here—but is directed outward, toward others. Self-recognition is as much external as it is internal, based on the attention paid to us, no matter how fleeting, by our friends and enemies. Without such attention, Stephen Pyne decides, the Antarctic self can easily “succumb to solipsism or a whiteout of personality.”

For one reason or other, either because the men forgot to bring them or because they broke in transit, Scott’s expedition was curiously short on mirrors. The members of the Northern Party went almost two years without seeing their own reflections. Some of them wrote of the initial pleasures of going mirror-free, unburdened of the compulsion of “checking” themselves, and happily abandoning the habit. As with all things in Antarctica, however, it began to grate. The lack eventually fed a desire. Mirrors serve more than one purpose, after all. Like the narrator of Norman Rush’s novel Mating, looking into them, we’re not just making sure we don’t have spinach in our teeth; we’re checking to see that things are more or less as they were the last time we checked. We expect to recognize the person looking back at us and feel relief in knowing that person is us. When George Murray Levick grew a beard for the winter, he assumed it was the same color as his hair: a reddish brown. Priestley assured him it was nothing of the sort, but rather “like burnished gold.” Mirrors are a kind of compass that return us to ourselves. Without them, we can lose our way.

During their first winter, the Northern Party had some welcome company in the form of several hundred thousand Adélie penguins at Cape Adare. The men grew fond of these curious, companionable animals, and it pained them later when they were forced to butcher them for food. Levick, a meticulous, buttoned-up Edwardian if there ever was one—his personal motto was festina lente: hasten slowly—became the first scientist to study the penguins’ entire breeding cycle, and he was ill prepared for the wild bacchanal he encountered. Cape Adare appeared to be a kind of Plato’s Retreat for Adélies: males having sex with females and males; males raping females and chicks and, as if that weren’t enough, even killing them. Horrified, Levick recorded his observations in Greek so that few would understand the blood orgy he’d witnessed. Prone to anthropomorphizing, he chalked it up to moral decay as a result of too much loafing: “It is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men degenerate in idleness,” he later wrote. (Levick seriously misread Adélies, however, and it took biologists a century to parse everything he’d gotten wrong—viz. all that rape and murder stuff.)

In his Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog asks the ecologist David Ainley whether penguins suffer from “insanity or derangement.” A lone Adélie has marched away from his colony toward the mountainous interior and, Herzog assures us, certain death, an inexplicable event that sends Herzog into a tailspin. He wonders aloud whether the acute, elemental violence of Antarctica has driven the poor fellow over the edge. (No one captures the music of glum indignation quite like Herzog.) Ainley, who has studied Adélies for almost twenty years, is clearly irked by Herzog’s question but remains a good sport for the cameras: “I’ve never seen a penguin bashing its head against a rock,” he monotones. When I called him at his office in San Francisco, Ainley said that Herzog “kept harping on about penguin insanity,” having fallen for the same kind of anthropomorphizing that Levick once had. “It’s not right to call them insane,” Ainley said. Some penguins just lose their ability to tell left from right, as if their internal radar had gotten knocked askew. “The same phenomenon has been shown in migratory birds, where they end up going in the opposite direction that they mean to. The Adélie in the film simply had a loose wire in its neural capacity, an imperfection in its brain.”

An imperfection in the brain, then, might be a way to think about how some people process Antarctica too. It’s not only that, as life winnows down to its most abstract and invariant form, insanity awaits us around the bend. It’s that a kind of reversal takes place, wherein an inherited trait is seemingly scrapped for its opposite. The process of winnowing coincides with the inability to register what’s being winnowed. If Priestley’s years in Antarctica had taught him anything, it was that the things we take for granted as being most fixed and solid in ourselves—our inner strength, character, virtue—have a dramatic way of faltering. Crammed into his icy warren at Inexpressible Island, he became mindful of the dread that, as Pascal described, can arise in “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.” Darkness and barrenness begin to exert a gravitational pull, he noted. In fact, darkness and barrenness are pretty much the sum total of experience in Antarctica. To be sure, there’s real menace there, insofar as there’s anything there at all.

• • •

Had there been a Northern Party yearbook, George Percy Abbott was a cinch for most likely to survive. Legend were his courage and cheerfulness, his daunting physical prowess (he was judo champion of the entire Royal Navy), his unfailing decency. A contrary word about his five companions never passed his lips. Nicknamed Tiny, he was big and bony and fearless, with hair the color of gunmetal and a hammered prow of a chin. A navy man, he came from a tradition and training, the historian Meredith Hooper writes, “that assumed and expected an ability to cope in all circumstances.”

Yet he couldn’t cope with Inexpressible Island. Priestley dated Abbott’s decline to an accident that occurred while he was killing a seal: Abbott’s knife slipped, cutting the fingers on his right hand down to the bone and severing ligaments. Levick patched him up, but Abbott was never again able to bend his fingers more than an inch. For “a man whose physical well-being was central to his sense of self and whose career was now at risk,” Hooper writes, this was catastrophic. According to Priestley, the physical torments tended to double back on the mental stuff, so that one turned the other inside out, until the whole package got laid open like a chest of drawers. Abbott wasn’t alone. Petty officer Frank Browning had recurring night terrors and delusional premonitions. Levick, who’d busied himself with penguin pederasty at Cape Adare, had nothing to distract him at Inexpressible Island and suffered for it. Restless and panicky, he pissed himself at night and told no one. His otherwise ceaseless journaling stopped altogether. In their letters home—which wouldn’t be posted until long after the fact—the men made hardly any mention of what was troubling them.

Something else that goes largely unmentioned in early Antarctica literature, refusing to surface again and again, being so resistant to surfacing that it comprises a distinct subgenre of self-censorship, is the total absence of women and, by extension, one presumes, sex (the first woman to set foot on the continent, the Scandinavian explorer Caroline Mikkelsen, arrived in 1935). Edwardian decorum all but forbade mention of sex in official accounts, but it’s missing from diaries and letters as well, and even from scholarly histories. These were twentysomething men, most of them, away for three or four years without a woman in sight. It stands to reason that this particular lack might have ratcheted up the (ahem) hardship considerably, and maybe heightened any latent existential angst. While I can kind of imagine spending nine months in an ice cave without Netflix or Grubhub and nothing to eat but seal blubber, under no circumstances can I imagine doing so in an all-encompassing dungeon of testosterone. No wonder they went nuts.

True, maybe some of them didn’t care for women and therein lay Antarctica’s charm. Perhaps desire merely took on new dimensions. Ranulph Fiennes, who came close to completing the first unassisted crossing of Antarctica in 1993, claimed he never once thought of sex. “Food took the place of sex,” he said, “anticipated with salivating eagerness and savoured to the last lick.” Priestley and the others were racked with hunger. Their wet dreams, I suppose you could call them, were about food. He says in Antarctic Adventure that all six of them had recurring dreams of sumptuous banquets being whisked away at the point of eating, or of arriving at a grocer’s shop moments after it had closed. Suffering silently was part of their code, but talking about food got a pass because they had food of a sort, with the promise of a windfall if they ever made it back to Cape Evans. Sexual deprivation was a whole other deal. The reality hit too deeply. Levick might’ve even feared something like the dismal tide he’d recorded among Adélies at Cape Adare.

To put another spin on it, familiar to anyone who’s been in a slow-burn, long-distance relationship, there’s no cave deeper and darker than jealousy. Every Northern Party man save Browning had a wife or girlfriend back home. It’s best to keep images of betrayal bottled up, lest they become unbearable. In Scott and Amundsen, Huntford claims that at the time of Scott’s death, his wife, Kathleen, was having an affair with none other than Fridtjof Nansen, the legendary Norwegian explorer and booster of Scott’s loathed rival, Amundsen. We can’t know for sure, but whether or not it was true, if Scott suspected this, it’d be impossible to imagine a more emphatic and humiliating betrayal, or a more solitary torture, given the absence of a potential revenge fuck within five thousand miles. I have to wonder whether, as Scott lay dying in his tent in 1912 a mere dozen miles from safety, his inability to continue—or as Huntford implies, his refusal to continue—wasn’t colored by it. Could the hero’s death have been, in part, a farewell middle finger to a philandering wife? There’s not a hint of it in Scott’s letters. No public shaming ensued. Neither he nor Kathleen would’ve risked the ignominy of exposure. The case remains, as it were, cold.

Incredibly, for the most part the men of the Northern Party got along all right, bonded by their misery. In such circumstances, according to Byrd, “Everything that one does, or says, or even thinks, is of importance to one’s fellows. They are measuring you constantly, some openly, others secretly—there is so little else to do!” An unspoken rule emerged to “avoid controversial subjects as you would the devil,” Priestley wrote. Campbell kept strict discipline, docking the men for infractions like being late with the tea, and maintaining traditional divisions between officers and sailors, which everyone took as welcome reminders of their former lives. They also drew a literal line in the ice, and agreed to act as if what was said on one side couldn’t be heard on the other. You’d expect the knives to come out, for a nest of vipers to bare their fangs. But things rarely reached a simmer. They dwelled on the positive, took their grief silently. Priestley, in his way, even thrived. “I have dreamt the day away again,” he wrote of having lain in his bag all day, day after day, determined to take refuge in his enforced idleness, seemingly inured to the drama going on around him. “I could never have imagined that I could have been so contented, even happy in a circumscribed way with nothing to do but just exist, with insufficient to eat & an utter lack of news about anything & anybody I cared about.” Buried in ice at the edge of the known world, sleeping, eating, and shitting in a pit of concentrated darkness, he found himself “content for the most part to lie and dream about past times, and not worry my head about the future.” This wasn’t some solipsistic rabbit hole. Nor was it God that bore him up (in all of Antarctic Adventure, God hardly warrants a mention). Priestley could just . . . endure. As a hurricane shrieked over the roof of the cave, he scrawled in his journal: “The happiest days of my life.” The extreme deprivation served to amplify smaller comforts: “We could get as much pleasure out of an unexpected lump of sugar, or a peaceful day . . .  as the most costly luxury or the most entrancing holiday could give to us now,” he wrote. “It has been a most decisive proof that in many cases the luxuries of civilization only fulfil the wants they create.” I love this about Priestley. His ability to do absolutely nothing, to remain contentedly stuck for months on end, feels less like laziness than a hopeful vision for humanity, a refutation of the very idea of progress.

But they couldn’t very well stay there, not for another winter. Priestley admits they’d all have gone mad. Browning was gravely ill with dysentery, probably from rancid seal meat. Someone else—he isn’t named in Levick’s diary—lost his head for a day and had to be talked back to his senses. Each of them found their thoughts losing shape and meaning. “The dismal misery of this dull & filthy hole is beginning to work on us a little, & that’s a fact,” Levick wrote. They hadn’t bathed in ten months and were down to their last candle. Although they suspected that as the winter pack ice began to break up the Terra Nova might soon try to reach them, or that a rescue party could also be on its way by land, they were tired of waiting. In September, with the first glimpse of the sun, they bolted for Cape Evans, 230 miles south.Now that they were out on the ice, they became aware of how poorly suited they were to deal with it, debilitated as they’d become by idleness and a starvation diet that had reduced them nearly to skeletons. “We were entirely free from fat, and, indeed, were so lean that our legs and arms were corrugated,” Priestley wrote. Carrying only a week’s worth of chocolate and biscuits, they needed food, real food, desperately. One morning, they managed to kill a seal that turned out to have a golf ball–size cyst in its liver, but they ate the liver anyway, along with the brains. A few days later, they happened upon a depot laid earlier that year by fellow Terra Nova crew, including tea, butter, cocoa, sugar, salt, and raisins. The cache very likely saved their lives. Levick sat in his tent gobbling chunks of butter from one hand, the first fat of any kind besides blubber they’d had in ten months. “We have had such a blow out today, as we haven’t had for a year,” he wrote, “. . . and tea of the proper strength too, and not just coloured water.”

Sledging along the coast over unexplored land, falling into and hauling themselves out of crevasses, suffering painful snow blindness and diarrhea, the men marveled at how thoroughly they were enjoying themselves after their long captivity. It’s worth recalling that they had no flashlights or GPS to point the way, no Gore-Tex gloves or moisture-wicking base layers, no dehydrated quinoa bowls or glycogen energy gels. They navigated by sextant, wore frozen blubbery wool and gabardine that later had to be sawed off, and survived by killing seals and penguins as they went. The weather, predictably, was abominable—“every step was like drawing a tooth,” Priestley wrote—and with Browning being pulled along in a sledge, the pace was maddeningly slow. By all rights they should’ve died several times over. But the thrill of saving themselves acquired a particular flavor. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say they were ecstatic at the dangers that stood in their way.

They reached Cape Evans after five weeks, swinging open the door to Scott’s hut to find no one at home. Sitting in chairs for the first time since Cape Adare, the men soon heard the barking of dogs. Walter William Archer and Frank Debenham walked in, stone-faced. There was a stammering silence, then an explosion of joy. Debenham told them the Terra Nova had made several attempts to reach them the previous year, at one point getting frozen in ice for two days, before abandoning the effort, and that an overland party had also given up after forty miles. Scott and his polar team, he told them, were presumed dead, lost on the barrier. But never mind that now. Put your feet up. Have a bloody drink.

In another five weeks, safely aboard the Terra Nova, Abbott finally cracked. He’d kept it together through two awful winters, but now all at once a seam opened and he started raving about this thing or that. No one recorded the details. Priestley says only that Inexpressible Island “left its mark on all of us.” But we know what it must’ve looked like: too exhausted to sleep, or with his sleep beset by nightmares, Abbott likely grew sullen, disoriented, and withdrew from the others; perhaps there was an outburst, an undertone of dementia. Abbott’s was a special case, of course, his period of darkness and danger being greater than any other man’s save that of his five companions, and amounting to unimaginable stress. After a hospital stay in Southampton, he was forced out of the navy on account of his injured hand, as he’d long feared. Slowly, over months, he regained himself, but in a way he never recovered. He died of pneumonia, of all things, at age forty-three. Today, Mount Abbott, a 3,300-foot-tall granite dorsal fin that backs up to Inexpressible Island and dips into the sea, is being cored by scientists studying glacial erosion. The story there isn’t a sunny one. The entire West Antarctic ice sheet may eventually collapse, adding sixteen feet to global sea levels. Cape Adare’s Adélie colony, which has thrived there for millennia, is expected to vanish before the end of the century, owing to rising seas. It might be said that Antarctica—with its calving glaciers, fast-warming Southern Ocean, and mass penguin deaths—is where humanity is hurtling itself into the void, where we’re contriving to meet our collective, appalling end.

It’d probably be of little consolation to Abbott to know that not far from where he sliced open his hand a century ago, there sits an Italian research station whose year-round crew is served by thermal generators that heat their quarters, a seawater filtration system that makes drinking water instantly, and nitrogen-helium liquefier refrigerators that round out a well-appointed kitchen. There’s a landing strip, harbor, helipad, isotope laboratory, and administrative buildings linked by power, sewage, and state-of-the-art surveillance. It looks remarkably like a self-storage facility: deliberately nondescript, repulsively utilitarian. From on high, the roof resembles a blood-red lattice scattered over ash. At twilight the mountains beyond are like bodies thrown into black space.

About the Author

John O’Connor

John O’Connor was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and attended the creative writing program at Columbia University, where he wrote his thesis on competitive eating. His writing has appeared in The Believer, Quarterly West and Gastronomica, among other publications.

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