A bestseller when it came out in 2001, “Ice Bound” is the personal memoir of Dr. Jerri Nielsen who served as the physician for a team that wintered at the South Pole in 1999.
During the long, frigid winter when the team could not be reached by boat or plane, Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast, performed a biopsy on herself and learned that she had breast cancer.
This makes for quite a story, involving a daring rescue, but the heart of Nielsen’s book lies in her experience of Antarctica.
Nielsen, who succumbed to her cancer 10 years later, was crazy about the place she called her “beloved Pole.” She devotes many pages of her book to describing the cold, the beauty, the cold, her co-workers, the food, the cold, the parties, the close friendships, and the cold.
I had barely warmed up from this book when our local library notified me that “Endurance” was in. I want to read it because my emotions are running high: I’m going to Antarctica soon. This is the gift my husband and I are giving each other for our 35th anniversary.
Published in 1959, “Endurance,” reportedly got its title from the ship in the story. The Endurance, formerly named Polaris, was purchased by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his sponsors for what they hoped would be the first crossing of the Antarctic continent in 1914.
Having failed in his attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, this was to be Shackleton’s new feat. Shackleton took the name of his ship from his family motto, “fortitudine vincimus,” which means “by endurance we conquer.”
It’s a good title for the ship and for the book, but given the disasters that befell Shackleton and his crew, who endured the worst nature could throw at them, the title could also refer to the men.
Only 60 pages in, I am profoundly uncomfortable. The book’s author, Alfred Lansing, has already shown himself to be a remarkably vivid storyteller with an amazing combination of restraint in descriptive moments and release in moments of high drama.
One of those moments of high drama occurs less than two months into the voyage. Shackleton and his men are already trapped in ice, forced to winter on the immobile ship in the long Antarctic darkness with no way of communicating their location or their plight to the outside world.
Food dwindles, temperatures plunge and the ship leans sideways as pressure from the ice begins to shatter and finally sink it.
As I read about Shackleton and his men, I think about my own upcoming experience, tame by comparison — petting a kitty versus petting a lion — and yet new enough and strange enough to give me a shiver even in Davis.
When we arrive in early December, we hope not only to walk on the coldest continent but also to kayak there, if the weather cooperates, a special supplement Bob bought because of my passion for kayaking. Two months ahead, we are already purchasing cold weather gear.
Last time I traveled to a location that was completely new to me, Cambodia, I read only a little about it ahead of time and played catch-up on the trip and afterwards. This time I’m determined to be well-informed before I go, which means spending the warm fall months in Davis reading about being cold and, as I continue with Shackleton, about being hungry and, in all probability, afraid of dying.
Then again, maybe not. Shackleton’s crew is remarkably calm about their misadventure and stoic about living for what could be months in a confining, tilting, icebound vessel.
What is the explorer mentality and what parts of it can ordinary folks like my husband and me experience? On the safe, pampered deck of an Antarctica-bound vessel, with all the comforts of a small modern cruise ship, will I experience fear?
Or will it be up to my imagination to recreate what it was like for those long-ago explorers as I see — on the 100th anniversary of their voyage — the places they traveled when they were bedraggled, frostbitten, hungry, thirsty, and carrying on with inadequate equipment in extreme cold?
I think my imagination is up to the task, because only a few chapters in, I’m pulling covers higher when I read in bed, and in the living room I turn off the air conditioning and put a blanket on my lap.
It’s 82 degrees in Davis, but 17 degrees below zero on page 43.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]