« Shuffleboard At McMurdo
10.06.2016

Cape Adare

When we are twenty-seven nautical miles north of Cape Adare, whatever entity is in charge of Antarctic ambiance wakes up in a panic and starts mashing buttons on its console.

Cape Adare is not supposed to be a place you just point your ship at and sail to. When ice forms in the southern parts of the Ross Sea, it drifts north, hits the circumantarctic current, and piles up against this piece of land in a big jumble. The belt of ice can prove impassable even in the late summer, and ships normally enter the Ross Sea far to the east.

But we’ve been sailing a straight course to Antarctica for over a thousand miles without hitting so much as an ice cube. Only the stately icebergs that pass by on the horizon have given any hint that we’re in southern waters.

Now the air, which had been clear and still, starts moving, and brings in a thick fog. Within minutes the wind is blowing hard enough to whistle through the doors on the bridge, and the sea begins to answer with sharp little waves. Tiny buttons of white appear in the water. And with the kind of ham-handedness only Nature can get away with, a fancy Antarctic dolphin breaches right in front of the ship, a sure sign that sea ice is nearby.

Soon we can see it—a faint line in the mist. There’s an irregular tapping against the hull as the ship starts hitting larger pieces of ice. The Third Mate points to a curving line of reflections on the radar screen, starting to our right and crossing our path in an inverted J. We are sailing right into its pocket.

Within the hour, a swell has come up and the ship is rocking back and forth. The floating bits of ice now range in size from kitchen appliance to small car, and when we hit one, the hull rings like a bell. By the time I concede defeat and go to bed, the ship is tossing badly, the weather is awful, and we are heading due east, away from the Antarctic coast.

Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions.

I wake up in my bunk at some unknown hour, feeling for the first time in the voyage like I might be sick. The world is spinning around me in darkness. I can hear the desk chair wreaking havoc below, rattling around the cabin like a coin in a clothes dryer. My roommate must be too sick to get up and capture it. I need to get in the cold air outside right away, or I am going to vomit.

But sitting up makes things worse. The ship isn't just pitching and rolling; it’s heaving up and down in an irregular pattern, and my insides are heaving with it.

Getting down from the bunk means swinging my legs over the side, bracing one hand against the ceiling, and waiting in that position long enough to get a feel for the ship’s motion. If I pick the wrong time to jump, I risk breaking my ankle, hitting my head on the ceiling, or stepping on John’s heart in the bunk below. At this point, the poor guy might welcome the blessed release.

When I get down to the floor, the metal chair rushes over to greet me. We have a brief and painful reunion before I can imprison it under the desk. Then I feel around in the darkness for shoes and a minimal amount of clothing. Moving around on all fours with my head down feels even worse than sitting upright.

Getting dressed in these conditions is a comedy number from the crueler days of Vaudeville. I wish John could enjoy it, but it is dark and he is motionless in his bunk, past all caring. Putting on my pants means hopping on one foot while I get smashed against all four walls of the cabin in sequence. The brochure did not dwell on these aspects of Antarctic adventure travel. At least the painful smashing distracts me from the urge to vomit.

After a very long time, I’m dressed and can start my battle with the cabin door. This is an involved process: at times you are simply hanging from the handle, at other times you need to turn and pull, and if your across-the-hall neighbor tries to leave his cabin at the same time you do, you end up plummeting into one another's rooms in a Benny Hill routine.

The ship's corridor is brightly lit and has a neutral, institutional feel. Only the profusion of railings and handholds gives away that it's not a Holiday Inn. The stairs are steep, and climbing them in these conditions reminds me of trying to wade through breaking surf. Every three steps or so gravity strengthens, and it's all you can do to keep your footing and not get pulled backwards. Then there is a surge and a great lightness in your feet, and you practically float up three steps at a time before the next wave pulls you back down to earth again.

The bridge is two decks up from my cabin, and the motion of the ship is correspondingly worse. A metal hatchway at the aft end of the corridor has been lashed open to let in air from the outside. I wedge myself in and try to take deep, regular breaths while staring at the nothingness outside. Despite our exotic location, it’s not that cold—perhaps four degrees above freezing. All I can see are ghostly, shifting lines of surf. I spend a long time there.

Eventually, my stomach calms down, and I can work my way back to the bridge. I pass the cozy island of light around the map table, slip through the heavy blackout curtain, and grope my way to a safe spot where I can stand while my eyes adjust. The only source of light is a red glow from the radar screen. I can just make out the ghostly white lines of the surf outside, as well as a curious golden gleam by my shoulder. I realize with a start that this is the Second Mate's gold tooth. He has walked up to me and is smiling in the darkness.

“I found a way through the ice. There was a gap. We'll be at Cape Adare by morning.”

Sure enough, the compass shows we've turned around and are headed back towards the mainland, this time from the southeast. We are in the Ross Sea.

By five o’clock, the sky is starting to lighten, and there is a persistent shadow on the horizon that is not cloud, but the black outline of the Antarctic continent.

It is not a welcoming place.

The cliffs are steep, and look like they’ve been trimmed off with a knife where they meet the sea. Thousands of years of passing icebergs have scraped the rock into vertical walls. The continent looks like a malevolent chocolate cake, dusted with malevolent powdered sugar. There’s not a single place where you could land a boat.

Several icebergs are loitering around the bay. It's possible they’ve grounded on the bottom, and are simply spinning around with the tide. The crew's job is to not get us trapped between ice and land, where a change in wind could crack the ship open. The Chief Mate is full of energy as he examines the route, checks the radar, and growls orders at the helmsman, who cradles the tiny ship’s wheel in his hands like a bowl. After three weeks of open-water sailing, the crew are delighted to finally have something to do.

We pass within a cable length of one of the smaller icebergs, near enough to count the close-packed layers of snow along its fractured side. And then, just as the sun starts burning through the mist, we round the point. Two Adélie penguins standing on an ice floe in our path turn, run, and fling themselves melodramatically into the sea.

Ridley Beach is a triangle of gravel the size of a mall parking lot. It is the only accessible bit of land for hundreds of miles. The cape is covered in snow stained a beautiful rust color, which we later come to understand is the excrement of millions and millions of krill-fed penguins. From a distance, the penguin shit forms abstract and beautiful patterns on the hillside, tracing paths that these surprisingly adept climbers have taken during the recent breeding season. Had we come a few weeks earlier, the entire place would be packed with penguins. Now it's late in the season, and only a few of the birds are left. Amid the swirl of colors we can make out a little geometrical speck—Borchgrevink's hut, the oldest human structure in Antarctica.

As the ship drops anchor, our situation is enviable. The sea is calm. Ridley Beach is mostly free of ice, and ready for a landing party. It’s not even particularly cold out. Within a mile of the ship there is a tasteful selection of icebergs, laid out around the compass points. And to the west, the brightly illuminated glaciers of the Admiralty Range shine like a Technicolor movie. They have a tilted-forward look, as if they are being presented for purchase.

Someday there may be a contrarian take on the Adélie penguin, but I am not going to be the one to write it. The local birds are waiting for us on the beach, and we meet them almost as soon as we step out of our Zodiac rafts. For reasons of sea leopard safety, adult penguins enter and exit the water in groups, and they tend follow each other inland in orderly queues. Fledgelings are not as disciplined, and run towards anything that could conceivably be a parent until they get within a few meters, at which point they hesitate and stare, wings fanning more and more slowly, tiny brains working.

Of all the penguin species, Adélies are the most cartoon-like. They are entirely black and white, and their eye is a ring of white around a dark pupil. The fledgelings are covered in brown fluff, which falls off the trunk and wings first. The last part of the fluff to fall off is a mohawk. No human being has ever landed on Antarctica and not been charmed by this animal.

Adélie penguins don't have a lovely voice, but they have heart. Sitting among the king penguins on Macquarie Island felt like watching the deliberations of a select committee, whose members would confer among themselves before sending an inspection team to peck your boots. Adélie penguins give the impression of forever being late to an important appointment. When they run, they fling back their flippers and rock perilously back and forth.

Over time, we'll come to learn the several moods of the Adélie penguin. At its calmest, it is content and puffs up like a marshmallow, resembling a natural formation more than a bird. Equivalently, it may lie on its belly and collect the warm rays of the sun on its back, eyes narrowing into a nap, curved upwards like a banana.

When agitated, the penguin raises the ruff of feathers on the back of its head, flaps its wings, and doesn't hesitate to vocalize its displeasure. In an intermediate state of excitement, the penguin hurries along, or toboggans on its belly if the snow is deep enough.

One of the ways Adélies protect themselves against predators is through synchronous breeding. A few weeks ago, this place would have been packed with birds. They arrive together in the spring (walking astonishing distances over sea ice), gather nests of pebbles, pair off, and hatch their eggs within a brief window of time in January.

It takes about thirty kilos of penguin barf to turn a penguin egg into a bird that can fish for itself. This is delivered on the installment plan by the penguin's parents, who take turns guarding the little chick. Skua birds harass the returning parents, trying to make them barf up the fish prematurely.

Once the chick is big enough to retain its body heat (helped by an ample covering of fluff), it leaves the nest and joins a group of other juveniles in a collective called a crèche. There it finds safety in numbers against the skua, the opportunistic jerk of the Antarctic bestiary. The child care arrangement frees both parents to go and hunt for food. When they come back, they identify their offspring by voice. An Adélie colony is not a quiet place.

Penguins and explorers have similar taste in beachfront property, and this has brought them into close proximity since the earliest days of Antarctic exploration. Both species look for a gradually sloping, ice-free beach with reliable access to open water in summer. The penguins also look for pebbles they can use to build a nest, a concern far removed from the mind of the celibate explorer.

The first landing at Cape Adare—possibly the first landfall on the Antarctic continent—was a comedy routine performed in 1896 by the captain of the Antarctica and Carsten Borchgrevink, a charismatic Norwegian forester who had talked his way onto the ship in Australia.

Borchgrevink was on the ship's boat as the captain prepared to make the historic first landfall. As the boat approached the gravel, Borchgrevink and a similarly inspired sailor leapt into the shallow water to help pull it in, ruining what was supposed to be a special day for the captain, who was crouched expectantly in the bow. Imagine Buzz Aldrin diving out of the Lunar Module on the pretext that Neil Armstrong was about to step on a sharp rock.

Not a modest man, Borchgrevink parlayed his shaky claim to be first on the continent into the leadership of an Antarctic expedition. In a bravado piece of fundraising, he got the British press magnate George Newnes to fund a voyage south in exchange for exclusive newspaper rights. For a British expedition, the crew was curiously full of Norwegians. The goal of the enterprise was to return to Cape Adare and be the first people to overwinter on the Antarctic continent.

There was a frat house atmosphere on the ship. Sailors tormented the cook by hiding his favorite dog, then telling him the animal had fallen overboard. They held rifle contests and measured each other’s chests. A Portuguese-speaking parrot picked up in Madeira quickly learned to swear in Norwegian.

A whiff of the ridiculous attaches to Borchgrevink. He was a comic figure forever trying to fit a heroic mold. Before even reaching Antarctica, he got himself stuck upside-down on his skis between a pair of ice floes, barely escaping with his life. A member of his crew nearly shot himself trying to club a penguin with the butt of a cocked rifle. The gun stock shattered against a piece of ice, but miraculously did not go off.

Against all advice Borchgrevink directed his ship through the thickest part of the ice pack, where they got stuck for weeks. At one point, he mistook the Balleny Islands for new, uncharted land, and got into towering arguments about this discovery with his men. Soon after, he attempted to forbid them from sending letters home with the ship, the only chance they would have for the next twelve months to contact their loved ones.

The Southern Cross arrived at Cape Adare in 1889 with a shore team of ten people, intending to stay the winter. The ship would leave the men and come back to get them the following summer. The shore party would attempt to travel inland on foot, and if possible locate the South Magnetic Pole. There were no contingency plans. If something happened to the Southern Cross, the party would be marooned. These were brave people.

The lodgers brought two cabins, complete with:

Gunpowder, silk tents, Eau de Cologne as a deodorant, 500 Union jacks for purposes of survey and extension of the British Empire, and between 70 to 90 dogs of Greenland and Siberian origin. These were the first dogs to be taken south for sledging operations and, for their sustenance, there were 28 tons of cod-liver oil, fish, meat and oatmeal biscuits.

Borchgrevink gives the name of these dogs in his account. They included Old Boy, Funny Face, Pickles, The Bo’s’n, Tsoppis, Murderer, Nansock and the inevitable Nigger.

The first thing the dogs did after disembarking was slaughter every penguin they could reach.

Before they could even unload their gear, Borchgrevink’s men learned Antarctica’s first secret: the remorseless winds that scoured the cape clean. Cape Adare was bare rock for a reason. Four of the crew were trapped on shore, and barely saved their boats from being blown away. The Southern Cross broke its mooring and had to run at full speed just to hold position.

The men didn't realize it, but Cape Adare was a dead end. The same spine of high mountains that kept the glaciers from descending on the cape made it impossible to reach the interior. The party was confined to a small patch of gravel, especially after they learned Antarctica’s second big secret, that they could never trust the sea ice.

However cold the temperature, sea ice takes its cues from wind and tide. Even in sixty degrees of frost, the ice can break up overnight, leaving behind only black, smoking water. Even where it is meters thick, sea ice can rot from below, eroded by hidden currents. On their later hikes, when they fully appreciated the treachery of sea ice, the men took to sleeping in their canvas boats.

It was a rough winter. Borchgrevink was an obstinate lunatic who antagonized everyone on his crew except the two young Lapps, easily the most competent at polar living. In his memoirs he mocks them as simpletons. The Lapps—Ole and Savio—were the only men who could pack the crew's fur boots with finnesko grass, a necessary precaution against frostbite. They learned to speak English and play chess, and even built a sauna.

In Borchgrevink's own account, they are an endless source of fun. He insists on calling them ‘simple sons of the soil’ and lampoons their every move:

Savio, whose turn it was to prepare a meal, laid different utensils and tinned food on top of a sleeping-bag, without noticing that Ole Must was within. It was bitterly cold, and so tired was Ole that he did not notice when I suddenly sat down upon his head, thinking all the while I was sitting on a Dutch cheese, of which we had some with us, but which froze so hard that undoubtedly they would have been useful projectiles for a cannon.

You get a sense between the lines of his memoir how exasperating the Lapps must have found him:

Like most children of nature, [Savio] and Must seemed to have an instinct telling them when and where game was to be found; as usual they disappeared without saying a word to us.

Impetuous, prone to overreact, and easily offended, Borchgrevink was a terrible leader. The scientists on the expedition—Louis Bernacchi and the zoologist Nicolai Hansen—fell out with Borchgrevink over the letter-writing incident, and eventually lost respect for him entirely. He was lazy, lacked the patience or skill to take proper measurements, and would get into ridiculous arguments that destroyed his credibility. At one point he insisted that the proper way to view the aurora australis, a phenomenon that covers half the sky, was through a telescope. In the middle of winter he forged a preposterous document that warned his men could be imprisoned for mutiny if they disrespected him. He claimed it had been given to him in London, even though it was written in Norwegian, on the ship's stationery. Soon after he fired one of the crew (a man he was sharing a ten-foot cabin with) and sulked for a week before accepting a reconciliation.

Eventually Borchgrevink built himself a hut on Duke of York island, and stayed there quietly drinking, which kept the peace. There he discovered what he believed to be a lump of gold. From then on, gold fever consumed him. His crew suspected that he had found only pyrite, but he hid the mineral from them and made plans for how to come back and secure his fortune.

It’s interesting to imagine a reality in which Borchgrevink really did find gold.

In that world, the start of the 20th century brought a gold rush unlike any other. Men who had failed to get rich at the Klondike or in Nome sailed halfway round the world to Lyttleton and Bluff in hopes of joining a crew. The already secretive sealers and whalers faced a hard choice—rent out their ships to the desperate, or slip off and try their luck with their own men. The whaling industry collapsed as every available ship headed for the Antarctic. For a few brief years, Lyttleton was the richest city in the world.

The first winter saw unspeakable scenes on the ice: parties left starving by relief ships that never came, frontier justice meted out to claim jumpers, petty quarrels that escalated to murder in the long months of darkness. Some of the men found too much gold for their own good, and disappeared in the Antarctic night.

Nature proved more pitiless than the miners. Entire tent camps were blown out to sea by the astonishing winter gales. Men in the same tent could not hear each other screaming. Many simply froze to death in the darkness.

In the autumn of 1903, the men at Cape Royds stood in silence and watched their cabins burn, knowing that it was the last time in their lives they would feel warm. Four of them were found the next spring, huddled in a snow cave and incoherent with hunger.

The second summer brought the discovery of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where pieces of gold the size of a man's thumb lay out for the taking. Even after the fragile crust had been turned over with spades, and the ground no longer sparkled, new arrivals streamed in, stepping over the mummified bodies of men and mules that gave the place the look of a battlefield.

Every camp had its story of a lucky strike, some man who stumbled back to his tent out of a blizzard carrying a lump of gold in frozen hands. At Terra Nova Bay, three unfortunates dragged a boulder of gold-flecked quartz the best part of ten miles, leaving a deep furrow to the spot where they died of exhaustion. The boulder was recovered and brought to Marble Bay, but the furrow remains, a warning to the ambitious.

By the third summer the penguins, whose nests of stones sometimes contained a nugget, were gone from the Ross Sea. Any that tried to return were eaten by the dogs that patrolled the shoreline in hungry packs. In their hunger, the dogs sometimes attacked their masters. The whales and seals disappeared as well, slaughtered for meat and fuel. Only the skua thrived.

Rumor of fortunes found in the interior spread like a bacillus among the desperate. Antarctica consumed men by the hundreds, and sent a parade of unfortunates back to New Zealand, men with noses and toes frozen off who crowded the rails of their ships and wept at the first sight of trees.

By the fourth year, the easy finds were gone. Placer mining had given way to digging, then blasting, and finally open pits. The richest miner in the gold rush was the man who found a seam of anthracite coal. It was the only source of fuel besides blubber on a continent with six months of darkness.

Men headed south in search of more dry valleys, and some of them came back. The Royal Navy arrived with two ships, a wireless set, and a Governor General. The staff of scientists they brought quickly ran off to the gold fields. On the other side of the continent, the Chileans and Argentines fought a bitter war over the Antarctic Peninsula, where there turned out to be no gold at all.

The closest thing to a city on the Antarctic mainland was the sprawling settlement on Ross Island, a mess of tents, shacks, boat hulls and caves dug out of the volcanic scree. There were dozens of saloons, some no bigger than a packing crate. A man could spend a year's wages in one afternoon in the infamous McMurdo brothels. One intrepid soul got rich growing strawberries under glass; they traded for their weight in gold dust.

As late as the thirties, when the gold had been long been blasted out of the hills, and the shanty towns stood empty, there were still stories of men who ventured into the deep ice to make their fortune. Their bodies, and the wrecks of their aircraft, turn up in the remoter parts of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains to this day.

Well, not really. They would if Borchgrevink had found gold. But the bits of rock he pinned his hopes on were fool’s gold, pyrite.

Later explorers came to understand what a tragedy it would be to find wealth in Antarctica. To avoid awkward discoveries, the International Geophysical Year in 1957 intentionally left detailed mapping and geology off the science program. The 1961 Antarctic Treaty formalized the idea that Antarctica was set aside for science, not commerce. And the Madrid Protocol from 1994 explicitly bans mining on the continent until 2048.

If any geologists doing field work in the remote mountains have found precious metals or gemstones since, they've had the wisdom to keep quiet about it.

Cape Adare gives us our first taste of Antarctic bureaucracy. For a stateless place with no government, visiting Antarctica involves an awful lot of fuss. The area around Borchgrevink’s hut is a Specially Protected Area, an imaginary rectangle where only forty visitors may enter at a time. Measures like these are important to prevent overcrowding on a continent with two thousand people. The restriction is even funnier since the hut has recently been emptied out by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is gutting the hut in order to save it. All its contents are now in Australia, where they will be restored into facsimiles of their original condition. Cape Adare is too inaccessible to do this kind of work in place. You run the risk of stranding the conservators and forcing them to use the hut for its original purpose.

We enter the shell of the hut reverently, scrubbing the salt off our boots with special brushes. The hut has no windows, so we have to pick out details with a flashlight. The men slept in coffin-like boxes, an arrangement borrowed from whaling ships that offered them a few cubic feet of privacy. One lonely soul has decorated the bunk above his head with a pen drawing of a woman’s profile, ornamented with fancy filigree. A few bottles of Victorian chemicals and a box of two of matches are all that has escaped the restorers' attention.

Otherwise the place is bare. It’s not somewhere I would want to spend a winter with nine other dudes.

Outside the huts is a broad Mars-colored plain. Adélie penguin poop doesn’t smell too bad, which is fortunate, because the entire beach is made of it. Imagine an octopus’s toothpaste and you get an idea what the substance is like—fishy, pasty, sticky, light pink in color. A little of it goes a long way. You wouldn't want to live in a room built on top of the stuff, even after your sense of smell had been deadened by a winter spent with nine other pipe smokers.

Here and there there’s a penguin skeleton embedded in the ground, picked clean except for the indestructible little wings. The flatness of the beach is another testimony to the incredible winds. Anywhere else, a seabird colony like this would be a mountain of guano. But here the ground is swept clean every winter, and penguin crap flies far into the ocean.

It was a long winter for the Southern Cross expedition. The men stayed in their boxes and gradually stopped talking. Mealtimes lasted five minutes at most. The menu was a monotonous series of seal dinners, but there were touches of the macabre. On Sundays the men might have a meal of roast penguin hearts as a treat. Borchgrevink thought seal blood was a good way to avoid scurvy, so he encouraged his men to drink it hot, straight from the source.

Meanwhile, the expedition's zoologist was slowly dying. Nicolai Hansen was only 29 years old, but his health had begun to fail on the voyage south, and he never got better. Over the winter months he progressively lost strength in his legs, until eventually he couldn't feel them at all. The ship's doctor tried administering purgatives, and shocked his legs daily with a galvanic battery, but nothing helped.

Hansen bore his illness and decline with strength,working through his illness, collecting specimens, making drawings, and filling notebooks with meticulous notes (which the abominable Borchgrevink would later lose).

Half an hour before Hansen died, the first penguin returned to the ice. The bird was immediately brought to the zoologist's bedside, and the sight gave the young man comfort. His last wish—whether out of love for the place, or a passive-aggressive cussedness—was to be buried on the heights overlooking Ridley Beach. His comrades carried his body up the 300 meter hill, and tried to dig a grave, but the ground was frozen hard as iron. They had to blast a hole for his coffin with dynamite.

The burial party ate their lunch crouched in the fresh grave, to get out of the wind. Then they laid Hansen to rest, erecting a simple cross with a brass plaque. The Lapps sang a funeral dirge, and Bernacchi photographed the grave for Hansen's wife and family.

Back on the ship, Rodney decides that the weather is good enough for us to attempt the hike to Hansen’s grave.

In theory we are all fit walkers. Signing up for the trip, we had to promise we were nimble enough to handle slippery Zodiac rafts, climb on ice and perform feats of strength like balancing on one leg for a minute.

In practice, we are a disaster. Some of the passengers have difficulty walking. Our previous hike, on Enderby Island, ended with our party strung over three kilometers of rough terrain, with two passengers falling over every tussock because they couldn’t bend their knees. Unable to gauge our fitness, or to learn whose self-assessment can be trusted, Rodney tries to be scary. He uses the word 'strenuous' a lot. Once you go on this hike, you're committed and can't turn back. Most of the climb will be a scramble where if you slip you might hurt yourself badly, but there is one exposed section (immediately dubbed the Hillary Step) where a false move can kill you.

A thrill goes through the audience and Rodney starts trying to walk this statement back. He's not saying that if we slip and fall, we'll die. He's just asking people who can’t keep their head to please stay on the ship. But it's too late. The fires of adventure have been lit.

Three hours later, I am clinging to the rocks of the Hillary Step, thinking about what Rodney said, wondering if I have overreached. My body is pressed against the stony ice and my heart is racing. To survive, I have to stay calm, and I need to find my next handhold before my fingers go numb. Everything in my life is reduced to this moment.

The Third Mate steps around me and squats down to see how I’m doing.

“Everything alright?”

“Yeah.”

He looks out at the tiny ship, far below us.

“The wind’s picking up. But it’s from the north, so we’ll have good sailing.”

“Okay.”

“You’re not looking.”

“Sure I am.”

I make an effort to turn my head and look down at the Shokalskiy, a toy boat on a field of dark blue. I grip the rocks even harder.

A similarly panicked passenger ahead of me has dropped her water bottle. The Third Mate notices this and trots over to put it back in her pack. A little queue of penguins is forming behind some of the more skittish climbers. We are holding up traffic.

It's amazing how high the penguins go! They hop awkwardly, but they are indefatigable, ascending one rock at a time, wings extended for balance, slow but determined to reach the nests they’ve built high in the hills. Occasionally a descending bird will slip and slide a bit, and penguin corpses at the foot of the cliff testify to darker mishaps. But mostly they keep to the trail, sure-footed as goats.

Even up here we meet fuzzy juveniles crying for food. The sight is comical and heart-wrenching at the same time. It seems impossible that these birds, whose parents picked such an improvident nest site, could survive to adulthood.

But I underestimate the Adélie penguin. Months later, the penguin expert David Ainley reassures me that a midsummer hill climb is nothing to an Adélie parent, even when it's laden with krill. Nearly every bird we see up here will survive into the autumn.

Instead of a tree line, the climb has a penguin line. One moment we are surrounded by Adélie chicks, and the next moment there are no penguins at all. From here up it's strictly skua, swooping at us half-heartedly, or sitting attentively on their little promontories of rock, making sure we don't get too close to their frantic, cantaloupe-sized chicks.

The skua chicks run around the mountainside, while the parents swoop to scare off the intruder. Past the penguin line, the trail flattens out, but it’s still a considerable distance before we find the wrought iron cross that marks Hansen’s resting place. I have no idea how Hansen's comrades got his casket up this path in difficult weather. The passengers pose, grinning, for a macabre group photo. Then we stop to eat.

For biosecurity reasons, we have not been allowed bring a proper lunch with us. I think any plant that can get a toehold in Antarctica should be allowed a chance, but we're a New Zealand operation and have to play by New Zealand rules. We’ve even brought a Government Observer along on the trip to enforce quarantine. Everyone carries an approved snack pouch of juice boxes, trail mix, mini Snickers and popcorn. There's also a Ziploc bag to serve as a toilet.

My gloves are wet with snow and penguin crap, and I struggle to open the various foil packets. The wind wants to grab the wrapper of my granola bar in the worst way, and I’m terrified of losing my hold on it and watching it blow away into the Antarctic interior.

Then it happens. A single peanut slips between my fingers and lodges in the rocks. With my luck, some skua with a nut allergy is going to peck at it, and then a giant petrel with a nut allergy will eat its corpse, and so on until a chain reaction of anaphylactic shock has driven the Antarctic scavengers to extinction.

I look around discreetly to see if the Government Observer is anywhere nearby. She is standing directly behind me, staring me down.

“Did you see that?”

“I saw that.”

“I owe you a drink.”

“You violated the Antarctic Treaty.”

“Two drinks.”

The trip down the slopes is much faster. In portions, it’s almost like a toboggan run. We slalom between hungry penguins, and the less reverent among us slide on our butts down the snow. From above, the fearsome Hillary Step is just a gentle bend in the trail. The only risk now is dislodging a rock that might fall on someone’s head.

The clouds are gathering as we head back to the ship. Those who hiked the trail are already preparing tall tales for the passengers who stayed behind. All of us are relieved. Nothing on this trip was guaranteed, but a landing on Cape Adare was particularly uncertain. Whatever else happens, we’ve walked on the Antarctic mainland, we've slipped in the vast fields of penguin poop, and no one can take our seventh continent away from us.

There's also the excitement of knowing that our real journey has finally begun. The Southern Ocean, with all its discomforts, is behind us. For the next two weeks we'll be in the lee of the Antarctic continent, protected from the constant swell and round-the-world gales. For most of that time, we'll be the southernmost ship in the world. Having sailed so long to reach this destination, the furthest south any of us passengers have ever been, there is a deep sense of wonder when the ship lifts anchor, rounds the cape, and turns south again into the Ross Sea.

« Shuffleboard At McMurdo

Greatest Hits

The Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel
The story of America's most awesome infrastructure project.

Argentina on Two Steaks A Day
Eating the happiest cows in the world

Scott and Scurvy
Why did 19th century explorers forget the simple cure for scurvy?

No Evidence of Disease
A cancer story with an unfortunate complication.

Controlled Tango Into Terrain
Trying to learn how to dance in Argentina

Dabblers and Blowhards
Calling out Paul Graham for a silly essay about painting

Attacked By Thugs
Warsaw police hijinks

Dating Without Kundera
Practical alternatives to the Slavic Dave Matthews

A Rocket To Nowhere
A Space Shuttle rant

Best Practices For Time Travelers
The story of John Titor, visitor from the future

100 Years Of Turbulence
The Wright Brothers and the harmful effects of patent law

Every Damn Thing

2016 May Oct
2015 May Jul Nov
2014 Jul Aug
2013 Feb Dec
2012 Feb Sep Nov Dec
2011 Aug
2010 Mar May Jun Jul
2009 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep
2008 Jan Apr May Aug Nov
2007 Jan Mar Apr May Jul Dec
2006 Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov
2005 Jan Feb Mar Apr Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2004 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Oct Nov Dec
2003 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2002 May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

Your Host

Maciej Cegłowski


Threat

Please ask permission before reprinting full-text posts or I will crush you.