A year ago I had just returned from my trip to Antarctica. When trying to get a feel for the region everyone of course recommends the famous books about the early explorers, such as:
The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford. This dual biography re-examines every detail of the great race to the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Scott, who dies along with four of his men only eleven miles from his next cache of supplies, became Britain’s beloved failure, while Amundsen, who not only beat Scott to the Pole but returned alive, was largely forgotten.
The Worst Journey in the World recounts Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard—the youngest member of Scott’s team and one of three men to make and survive the notorious Winter Journey—draws on his firsthand experiences as well as the diaries of his compatriots to create a stirring and detailed account of Scott’s legendary expedition. Cherry himself would be among the search party that discovered the corpses of Scott and his men, who had long since perished from starvation and brutal cold.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing. The tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s survival after his ship, The Endurance, became trapped and crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea.
Whilst these are incredible stories of undeniable heroic courage and provide a crucial understanding of the history of the region, they didn’t give me any idea of what I might expect on my journey. I started to read a series of books (coincidentally all by women) that gave me a much better perspective of what it was like to be in Antarctica over 100 years later. I thought I would share these with you as I found them to be a fascinating read:
Science on Ice – Veronika Meduna
‘For some scientific questions, Antarctica is the best – and sometimes the only – place to look for answers. Visiting this frozen landscape is to gain a fresh perspective on our world, almost like going to another planet and looking back with renewed wonder on Earth.’
In Science on Ice, award-winning science broadcaster and writer Veronika Meduna follows deep-south scientists who huddle in tents and dive under ice to study ancient mud, fat fish, migrating penguins and fossilised forests.
Meduna presents us with a fascinating frozen land – Antarctica’s ice cap holds three quarters of the planet’s fresh water, its layers of ice and sediment record past climate conditions going back millions of years, and the oceans around it drive the global food chain and a giant conveyor belt of currents that transports heat around the globe. The creatures that call Antarctica home have evolved to survive in conditions hostile to life, and the continent’s permanently ice-covered lakes may even hold the secret to how life began on Earth – and what it might look like elsewhere. And though it is the only continent without permanent human habitation, Antartica may yet hold the key to our survival.
In this lavishly illustrated book Meduna introduces us to an exhilarating landscape, to fascinating discoveries and to the people making them – those scientists tackling fundamental questions about life and the world around us from the frozen continent.
The Ice Beneath my Feet – Diana Patterson
Diana Patterson was searching for her path in life when she was bitten by the Antarctic big in her late twenties. With dogged determination, this bright and passionate woman from Mildura set her sights on becoming the leader of one of Australia’s Antarctic research stations – a lofty aspiration considering this was definitely a bloke’s world. She was knocked back four times, but it didn’t deter her – and at the age of 38 Diana became the first women in charge of Mawson, a small, mostly male community of scientists and tradies living in each other’s pockets 24/7, thousands of miles from the comforts of home.
Terra Incognita – Sara Wheeler
It is the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth, an icy desert of unearthly beauty and stubborn impenetrability. For centuries, Antarctica has captured the imagination of our greatest scientists and explorers, lingering in the spirit long after their return. Shackleton called it “the last great journey”; for Apsley Cherry-Garrard it was the worst journey in the world.
This is a book about the call of the wild and the response of the spirit to a country that exists perhaps most vividly in the mind. Sara Wheeler spent seven months in Antarctica, living with its scientists and dreamers. No book is more true to the spirit of that continent–beguiling, enchanted and vast beyond the furthest reaches of our imagination. Chosen by Beryl Bainbridge and John Major as one of the best books of the year, recommended by the editors of Entertainment Weekly and the Chicago Tribune, one of the Seattle Times’s top ten travel books of the year, Terra Incognita is a classic of polar literature.
Alone in Antarctica – Felicity Aston
In the whirling noise of our advancing technological age, we are seemingly never alone, never out-of-touch with the barrage of electronic data and information.
Felicity Aston, physicist and meteorologist, took two months off from all human contact as she became the first woman — and only the third person in history – to ski across the entire continent of Antarctica alone. She did it, too, with the simple apparatus of cross-country, without the aids used by her predecessors – two Norwegian men – each of whom employed either parasails or kites.
Aston’s journey across the ice at the bottom of the world asked of her the extremes in terms of mental and physical bravery, as she faced the risks of unseen cracks buried in the snow so large they might engulf her and hypothermia due to brutalizing weather. She had to deal, too, with her emotional vulnerability in face of the constant bombardment of hallucinations brought on by the vast sea of whiteness, the lack of stimulation to her senses as she faced what is tantamount to a form of solitary confinement.
Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Felicity Aston’s Alone in Antarctica becomes an inspirational saga of one woman’s battle through fear and loneliness as she honestly confronts both the physical challenges of her adventure, as well as her own human vulnerabilities.
Once I came back from Antarctica I sought out a couple of books that one of the historian’s on our trip recommended that give a fascinating perspective on and from the women behind the men that made the expedition to the South Pole:
Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition Through the Eyes of the Women They Left Behind – Katherine MacInnes
The men of Captain Scott’s Polar Party were heroes of their age, enduring tremendous hardships to further the reputation of the Empire they served by reaching the South Pole. But they were also husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.
For the first time, the story of the race for the South Pole is told from the perspective of the women whose lives would be forever changed by it, five women who offer a window into a lost age and a revealing insight into the thoughts and feelings of the five heroes.
A Great Task of Happiness: The Life of Kathleen Scott – Louisa Young
Louisa Young, is the granddaughter of the celebrated sculptor, Kathleen Scott. In A Great Task of Happiness: The Life of Kathleen Scott she tells us about an extraordinary woman and a celebrated artist. Kathleen Scott led a remarkable life despite an unremarkable start as a Victorian girl in a normal, middle class family; but she went on to grab life by the reigns and lead an extraordinary life. Her gift as a celebrated sculptor, her role as wife to Captain Scott of the Antarctic and her circle of artistic influencers was quite something. And here, in this biography, is captured the energy of a life lived to the brim, and a masterly account of a woman who up until now was only known as an explorer’s widow. Discover the story of Kathleen Scott.
And, although we didn’t get to visit Hillary’s Hut, I love the story of how Hillary went to help set up supply drops for an Expedition but in traditional Kiwi ‘can do’ attitude decided to head to the South Pole himself – by tractor. This book is available from the Antarctic Heritage Trust and helps to support their efforts in preserving Antarctic history and of course the future.
Hillary’s Antarctica – Nigel Watson, Jane Ussher
Beautifully illustrated with Jane Ussher’s photographs of the restoration of Hillary’s hut in Antarctica, plus historic images and never-before-seen ephemera and diary entries, this is a treasure. Sir Edmund Hillary and New Zealand were supposed to be a support act to the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955–58) crossing party. By heading on to the South Pole and reaching it before the crossing party, Hillary exceeded the brief. His actions created tensions, unleashed a media storm, and denied the British a historic first overland to the South Pole since Captain Scott. Hillary even had the audacity to achieve the feat with three farm tractors. Nevertheless, in doing so, Sir Edmund Hillary added another fascinating chapter to the exploration annals of Antarctica and he, and his expedition team, laid the foundations for New Zealand’s continuous, and increasingly important, presence in Antarctica.