The summer heat has been dragging me down. Usually this time of year I get up high in the mountains where the temperatures are cooler and the breezes are breezier. But this year, the trails and campgrounds are packed. With so many people shut out of their traditional indoor activities, they discovered the outdoors and apparently, they liked it. Plus, with schools out and businesses closed, families are looking for ways to keep the kids happy, healthy, and away from screens. Add the influx of tourists flocking to our state from hotspots like Texas and California and you have a whole lot of people out there. So I’ve been staying local this summer. Relief from the heat is hard to come by at 6,035′ so I chill out from the inside.
In the fridge, there’s a jug of fruity beverage for the heat of the day and some cold brews for the evening hours. And as the sun goes down, I close my eyes and dream of polar adventures. I’ve never hiked near the polar regions – never been north of Canada. My closest brush with the Antarctic is a distant relative – my fifth cousin five times removed was Nathanial Brown Palmer, an explorer for whom Antarctica’s Palmer Land is named. I never met him (he died in 1877) but I like to think we share a little polar blood and a preference for the colder way of life. In a few months, when the crowds thin out and the campgrounds empty, I’ll hit the high trails and pitch my tent in the snow. Until then, I’ll settle for the next best thing: a book on polar exploration.
My favorite one is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. This is the story of Ernest Shackleton, who sailed south in 1914 with the intent of crossing Antarctica by land. Instead, his ship was locked solid in pack ice. Shackleton and his crew abandoned the ship and watched it bend, crack, and collapse under the immense pressure of the shifting ice. The destruction of the Endurance is just the beginning of the tale. What followed was a trek on foot, a sea voyage, another trek, and…I won’t spoil it for you, but the ending is not what you expect. I’ve read this book half a dozen times, and it never gets old.
Recently, I read The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Cherry was the youngest member on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-1913 South Pole expedition. Though Scott reached the pole, it wasn’t without significant sacrifices – including his own life. Surprisingly, Scott’s trek isn’t the worst journey referenced in the title. That honor belongs to Cherry’s winter trek, where he and two other men from Scott’s party, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, headed east to Cape Crozier from the party’s base at Cape Evans. The trio was in search of penguin eggs for scientific research. The book is really three stories in one, and just when you think it can’t get any worse for the men – frostbite, snow blindness, starvation – killer whales surround their teetering ice floe, thirsty for polar explorer blood. Cherry’s writing, along with selections from Scott’s and other’s diaries, make this an engrossing tale. You’ll feel silly for complaining about the heat.
Finally, Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts introduced me to Douglas Mawson, whose 1911-1913 Australasian Antarctic Expedition is every bit as fascinating as Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar trips. Like Cherry, Mawson was more interested in the scientific aspects of exploration than simply reaching a geographic or magnetic pole. Also like Cherry, he survived unbelievable hardships.
All three books are filled with jaw-dropping terror, immeasurable suffering, and divine moments of relief. And they all take place in the bone-chilling cold. Head to your nearest bookstore or give them a call and ask them to reserve a copy of any one of these polar tales. On those long summer evenings when the temperatures barely dip below 90, the Antarctic adventures of Shackleton, Scott, Cherry, and Mawson will give you goosebumps.
In my happy place – high and cold on Chimborazo’s Veintemilla summit!
Photo by Doug Hatfield.