We’re on the same wavelength, Dr. Hillbrand and I. He is a 37-year-old scientist from Davis who spent three months researching in Antarctica last year, and I’m a traveler whose pleasure trip to Antarctica starts soon.
We both marvel at what the early Antarctic explorers did under staggeringly adverse conditions, especially Brits and Norwegians in the early 1900s. Themes of our discussion were misery, risk of misery, stiff upper lip, more misery and how things have changed.
“The early explorers had thick trousers that they’d be working in during the day,” said Hillbrand.
The pants would fill with sweat, he explained, and once their owner removed them, they became blocks of ice.
“These men had to stand their pants up or hang them and make sure they weren’t folded or lying down because when they woke in the morning, the pants would be frozen. If they weren’t open, they couldn’t get them on. They’d put on these ice trousers and melt the ice with their body heat before they could actually move anywhere.”
He smiles. “You’re going to go down to REI and buy some pretty sophisticated gear that will keep you very warm.”
Dr. Hillbrand went far deeper into the continent than I will. My ship touches toe to the Antarctic peninsula, while his research on microwave radiation took him all the way to McMurdo Station and onto the Ross ice shelf.
Each day he traveled an hour over ice from his well-supplied living quarters to his work station, a trip confirming that much of old Antarctica is fiercely alive.
“Storms gather; there’s nothing stopping a storm from blowing across the entire continent. It will barrel down the ice shelf. When that happens, everyone goes into lockdown and no one is allowed outside of the buildings. You hunker down and wait for it to stop.”
And if you were caught outside?
There are warning systems, but “if you get caught out in a snowstorm, you can’t see anymore. You literally can’t see in front of your face.
“In no way would I compare our experience with Shackleton’s or any of the other early explorers’, but you can very easily get a sense. The line between comfort and a slight amount of trepidation for your own safety is very, very thin. Are you close enough to get back to the building if a storm sweeps in?”
This was important to Hillbrand who sometimes jogged or skied on the ice.
“You don’t have intermediate markers for your vision to process how far things are. It’s all white or blue. No trees. You have nothing to give you a sense of scale, so looking off in the distance, a mountain could either be enormously tall and very far away, or it could be much smaller and closer.”
The book I’m reading, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World” (1922), confirms this observation. Quoting a companion, Cherry-Garrard records,
“We had no light, and no landmarks to guide us, except vague and indistinct silhouetted slopes ahead, which were always altering and whose distance and character was impossible to judge We never knew whether we were approaching a steep slope at close quarters or a long slope … miles away … We continued thus in the dark in the hope that we were at any rate in the right direction.”
I told Dr. Hillbrand that I’m reading British accounts of their voyages and I have yet to uncover an admission of terror, panic or even despondency.
“Do you think,” I asked, “that the Brits were unafraid?”
He laughed in a way that gave me my answer.
“Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s a bunch of hogwash, but it certainly would not have been true for me or anyone I was down there with. We were very, very conscious of the dangers involved.
“You’re driving to work under an active volcano on a glacier. There are some unique circumstances surrounding that.”
Some of the early explorers were scientists, some were ordinary workers (seamen) and some, including Scott and Shackleton, were look-and-see’ers like me.
After talking with Hillbrand, I’m struck that scientific fervor continues, even though research topics have changed. Cherry-Garrard took the “worst journey in the world” to find penguin eggs. Hillbrand’s team traveled to Antarctica to study microwaves, for which they needed unencumbered air space and dry atmospheric conditions.
Hillbrand’s team seeks clues to the origin of the universe, and he is excited. He told me that science comes before poetry for him, yet he waxed poetic when describing this work.
“We get closer with every step. It’s a series of small steps. We’re looking for some lever that can help us pry just a fraction of an answer away from the universe’s grasp.”
It’s the non-scientists, what I call the look-’n’-see group — everyone from explorers to vacationers like me — that has changed the most since the early 1900s. In ever larger numbers, we travel in safety–even luxury.
I signed up for sea kayaking, but I know we won’t go if the weather is bad or the seas choppy. I know we’ll walk out on glaciers, but only if the wind is not too strong. I wonder if I’ll feel even the slight shimmer of danger that Hillbrand experienced when out on the ice. Maybe not.
My astonishment at what early travelers accomplished only grows stronger.