Two men squat in a small tent on the Antarctic plateau, hungrily watching their Primus stove. With no hope of rescue, they’re trying to cross more than two hundred miles of treacherous terrain to base camp before they starve to death.
Members of the larger Australasian Antarctic Expedition, they’d left Hobart, Tasmania a year before, in December 1911, the Heroic Age of polar exploration. Crowds cheered, bunting flapped, and politicians made speeches. They sailed toward a barely-mapped continent, ambitiously planning to study and explore.
In November 1912, after months of challenging conditions, Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz left the expedition’s base at Cape Denison with a third explorer on a sledging mission. Their goal was to chart an unforgiving stretch of Antarctic coast in the region known as King George V Land. With supplies for their journey loaded on two dogsleds, they made good progress over glaciers and wind-carved ice, traveling more than three hundred miles in a little over a month.
Mertz was scouting ahead on skis when Mawson, second in line with the smaller of the two sledges, heard the whimper of a dog behind him. He glanced back. There was nothing there. Their companion, his sledge, and his dogs had vanished entirely. A huge crevasse gaped in what had seemed, a moment before, like solid ice.
The sledge lost with their friend carried the main tent, the shovel, and nearly all their food. Malnourished and emaciated, Mawson and Mertz are now boiling the skull of their last sled dog for breakfast.
It’s twilight as our ship pulls away from the dock in Buenos Aires. I watch the lights on shore shimmer and dwindle as we leave behind the purple froth of jacaranda trees, the leather shops, the sycamore-lined boulevards with vendors calling “tomate lo-co,” the pigeons and the flower stalls on Calle Florida, the stray dogs in the Plaza de Mayo.
Back beyond the darkening streets of Buenos Aires, beyond the Gran Chaco and the Altiplano, beyond South America itself, over five thousand miles away, lies Massachusetts, my husband, and our failing marriage. Now, for three weeks, I leave that behind as well.
Every winter, my mother and stepfather work on expedition cruise ships in the southern ocean, driving Zodiac landing boats between ship and shore. This year, at the last minute, room opened up for me and my ten-year-old daughter Jemma to join them for one cruise on the Minerva. I jumped at the chance to go, not just far away from my husband, but to the coldest and most distant place on the planet.
Our ship steams southeast along the Río de la Plata, headed for Antarctica. I’d been to the continent before. Years ago, I worked on a Russian ship as the assistant to the expedition leader for the course of an Antarctic season. I was dating Jemma’s father then, and I missed him acutely. With a portable tape player, I recorded the sounds of penguin colonies to play for him when I got home, and at night I slept in his red flannel pajama top. Now he and I are on the brink of divorce.
We were married on a sunny June day in 1997, on my grandparents’ sloping lawn on the south shore of Long Island. An opera-singer friend sang Ave Maria as I walked down the grassy aisle between the white folding chairs. We held hands and looked into each other’s eyes, vowing to have and to hold.
Rose petals rained down like confetti when the ceremony ended, and later fireworks exploded above the trees. On our honeymoon in Scotland we walked through fields of yellow buttercups that stuck to my new husband’s black leather shoes. Trust me when I tell you that we started out in hope and beauty. We were going to write novels and have children and grow old together. We shared the same pet name between us, interchangeably.
I remember a morning when he cried, “Oh bed, how can you let her go?!”
Our children were two and four when my husband had his first breakdown. He suffers from an anxiety disorder that went undiagnosed and untreated, with symptoms he hid from me—fear of flying, hypochondria, intrusive thoughts—because they left him ashamed and confused. Then a course of antibiotics for an infected spider bite sent him over the edge. I held him through a series of panic attacks, his body convulsing. “I’m afraid of what I might do to myself,” he told me. For weeks he was incapacitated, barely able to get off the couch. Eventually, after one medication failed to help, another started working. Through all of it, I was afraid to leave him alone.
It’s New Year’s Day 1913, and Douglas Mawson is trying to pull Xavier Mertz, now his only companion, out of a bewildering inertia. Trapped in their makeshift tent by bad weather and Mertz’s failing health, Mawson cajoles him with promises of the penguin-egg omelets they can eat when they get back to base camp. Selflessly, he feeds Mertz the tenderest pieces of their scant supply of dog meat. After three days, they manage to pack up their gear and continue across the treacherous ice. They make it only four miles. Then Mertz simply stops, unable to go on. Mawson, himself exhausted and weakened by starvation, loads Mertz onto the sled and covers him with their reindeer-skin sleeping bags. And then, afraid of losing his footing on the jagged, wind-carved ice, he gets down on his hands and knees and pulls the sled on all fours.
That night Mertz vomits up the dog meat stew and the next day he shits himself. “You think I have no courage!” he raves. Mawson watches, horrified, as Mertz sticks a frostbitten pinkie into his mouth and bites clear through the joint. He spits the yellowed finger onto the snow.
Spent by this act of self-mutilation, Mertz quiets down. Mawson convinces him to drink some of their precious cocoa. Later he rages more violently, this time breaking one of the tent poles. Mawson has to sit on his chest to restrain him. He has another attack of diarrhea, which Mawson again cleans up. Then Mertz screams in his native German about pain in his ears and collapses.
At the bar on the Minerva, the bartender mixes my daughter a mocktail called a Coconut Kiss. Delighted, she swivels on her barstool while he garnishes her drink with a slice of pineapple and a little blue umbrella. My mother and stepfather swap jokes and stories with their well-traveled friends, and I try to listen, but fail, preoccupied by worries about how my looming divorce will affect Jemma and her little brother.
When we return to our cabin, the room steward has arranged Jemma’s stuffed animals in a fanciful parade. Our pillows have been plumped, our white comforters turned down. The Minerva carries just under 200 passengers and over 150 officers, staff, and crew, who are attentive to our every need. I don’t have to plan meals or do laundry or shop for soccer cleats or drive anyone to the dentist. I’m stuck with my thoughts in an ocean of time.
In the morning, Jemma stands at the railing with my mother and photographs the pintado petrels and the wandering albatross gliding in our wake. The cloudless sky is blue, and the sun shines on the rolling gray swells. Unable to sit still, I walk laps around the upper deck. My heartache is literal, a pain in my chest I wake to every morning and carry through each day. I can’t imagine it ever getting better. It feels like I’ll be trapped in this moment for the rest of my life.
The lecture schedule for our days at sea provides a welcome distraction. I sit in the auditorium and listen to the ship’s geologist explain that, millions of years ago, Antarctica was connected to South America and Africa, all part of Gondwanaland. Back then the landscape was lush and tropical. Hidden beneath the polar glaciers lie entire petrified forests, fossils of flowering plants, monkey puzzle trees, extinct marsupials and crocodile-like amphibians.
Nothing of that remains. Now it is the coldest place on earth, a frozen desert with ice caps up to three miles thick. Instead of trees, there are patches of lichen. The largest land animal on the entire continent is a species of fly that has no wings.
We’d been happily married, to the best of my knowledge, for nearly twelve years when my husband came home from a business trip agitated and distant. My first thought was that his anxiety medication had stopped working. Holding him while he wept, I tried to reassure him. He barely acknowledged me. “What happened?” I kept asking. We didn’t have fun any more, he complained, dodging the question. “Are you having an affair?” I finally demanded. He acted offended at the suggestion.
It took over a month for him to admit that he’d cheated on me.
Before this confession, when I knew only that something had gone terribly wrong, I used to wait until he fell asleep so I could put my arm around him the way I had before. After he told me, he claimed he was sorry. He loved me, he said. He wanted to save our marriage. A child of divorced parents, I was determined to spare my kids that particular rupture. I told myself there had to be a way back to our former love and closeness. I clung to the hope that we could achieve it again. We went to couples therapy and read the self-help books our therapist recommended.
But our marriage felt like a funhouse mirror, every once-familiar aspect of it now contorted and grotesque. I didn’t recognize the man I’d married in this cold, remote stranger. Paralyzed with fear and shame, he seemed unable to answer any of my questions. What did he want? Why hadn’t he told me he was unhappy? All he’d ever complained of was my singing in the car. When he talked, it was to insist he was “a good person.” When I talked, he took notes. One night in a restaurant, on a therapist-recommended “date,” I began to cry. He didn’t reach out, or say anything to comfort me. On the piece of paper in front of him I watched him write the word tears.
Hours after pulling the sled on his hands and knees across the snow, Mawson wakes in the dark to find Mertz dead in the sleeping bag beside him. His body is already cold. Mawson lies in the tent next to his friend’s corpse for several hours. “His mortal frame,” he writes, “toggled up in his sleeping bag, still offered some sense of companionship.”
Lost in the Antarctic night, Mawson goes over everything that has led up to this moment. He knows how slim his chances of survival are, on his own in a desolate expanse. “I seemed to stand alone on the wide shores of the world…There appeared to be little hope…It was easy to sleep in the bag, and the weather was cruel outside.”
But he hates the thought of all their effort wasted. Eventually he forces himself to crawl out of the sleeping bag and bury Mertz under blocks of snow. He refashions the sledge to make it easier to haul. He repairs the damaged tent prop as best he can.
Then a gale hits. For three days he fights to simply keep the tent from blowing away. His frostbitten fingers blacken and crack. Pieces of skin fall to the snow when he lowers his pants to defecate. “My whole body is rotting,” he writes.
When the gale at last subsides, Mawson continues across the snow and ice toward Aurora Peak. Not expecting to survive, he just wants his remains to be found some day, along with the charts and surveys he and Mertz made and the journal that he’s writing.
Mawson is staggering over the uneven ridges of ice when he feels a fresh pain in his feet. Sitting down on the sledge, he removes his boots. And the soles of his feet come off. Stunned, he holds them in his hands. He is literally falling apart.
What can he do? He ties the soles of his feet back over the raw tissue with bandages, pulls on every pair of socks he has left, and keeps walking.
Sometimes I felt like a human candle, anger burning through me like a wick. Other times, out of the blue, a wave of tenderness would hit me. One morning I noticed the gray hairs on my husband’s chest and thought of how young we’d been when we first met, and all we’d gone through together. He’d suffered so much from his untreated illness. I told myself I had to find a way to forgive him. I read our old love letters and studied photographs in which we smiled out at the camera, our arms around each other.
Then another lie would surface. He lied about things big and small: about his cell-phone plan, for instance, and the woman he’d been cheating on me with. About a series of mysterious charges to his credit card. One day he told me he wanted to feel my pain. This smacked of both pretense and cliché. I said, “Knock yourself out.” My anger felt like acid in a heavy vat with a pointed base; I could never put it down. I had to carry it with the utmost care, because if I spilled it our entire house would dissolve. Once I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, saying, “I want someone better than you.”
It took eight months for our marriage to break down completely. It happened wrenchingly. There was nothing clean or clear about it. We started out in beauty but the end was messy and painful, full of humiliation and defeat.
One night, on the Minerva, I dream I’m holding a large glass bowl that shatters. The shards fly into my arms. I’m alone, with no one to help me; I know I have to pull the splinters out myself. But as I watch, my skin begins to close over the jagged pieces, embedding the glass in my flesh as it heals.
Our couples therapist maintained that marriage naturally evolves toward emotional gridlock. Anxiety, vulnerability, the need to confront our own worst qualities: these are normal features of the marital landscape. Working through them is how we grow, both individually and together. “Marriage is a crucible,” she insisted.
Anton Chekhov was less optimistic. “If you are afraid of loneliness,” he advised, “do not marry.”
Wanting a break from self-help, I pick up books on the history of Antarctic expeditions from the ship’s library. As escapism, stories of polar adventure make for grim fare. I’m struck by how enthusiastically each expedition starts out, how full of noble promise, and then how many of them fail. The logs of doomed explorers read much alike toward the end. One member of the Greely Expedition to the Arctic in the 1880s watched nineteen out of twenty-five men die. “My God! This life is horrible,” he wrote. “Will this continual scene of suffering and death never change?” Later, during a heavy snowstorm at the end of May: “Of all the days of misery and suffering in my life… [none] compare with the tortures which I have borne during the last few hours.”
On a different Arctic voyage, Lieutenant George DeLong and his crew abandoned their ship after it became trapped in ice. They’d hoped to reach the North Pole by way of the Bering Strait. Instead, they washed up on the remote shores of Siberia. “Supper at 5 p.m.—one half pound dog meat and tea,” he wrote. “We cannot move against the wind, and staying here means starvation.”
From the journal kept by Apsley Cherry-Garrard on his trip to Cape Crozier, Antarctica, to retrieve emperor penguin eggs during the austral winter: “Such extremity of suffering cannot be measured.” He and his two companions lost their tent in a blizzard and huddled for days in their frozen sleeping bags, unable to eat or drink, singing the occasional song to keep their spirits up. Every few hours they poked each other to make sure they were still alive.
Robert Falcon Scott wrote in his diary, during his fatal trek back from the South Pole after finding Amundsen’s Norwegian flag already planted there: “Regret to say going from bad to worse…We cannot help each other, each has enough to do to take care of himself.” Then, “Things looking very black indeed.”
The suffering of the men stretches on and on, vast as the landscape, unimaginable and to no purpose. First they’re forced to eat their dogs, then their reindeer-skin boots. They watch their companions die and then, in most instances, they put down their pens and die themselves. All those visions of fame and scientific progress, the ships and the equipment, the charts and the plans—reduced in the end to nothing.
In Grytviken, on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, we stop at a whaler’s cemetery to pay our respects to one of the Antarctic greats, the explorer Ernest Shackleton. We stand at his grave as the ship’s historian tells us how Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica failed before he’d even reached land, his ship Endurance crushed by sea ice. To rescue his men, Shackleton sailed for more than two weeks across the stormy Drake Passage in a small boat and then crossed the unexplored mountains of South Georgia in order to reach the whaling stations on the eastern side. Enlisting the help of a whaling captain, he returned to Elephant Island and saved every member of his crew.
Awed by this stubborn refusal to throw in the towel, I raise my plastic tumbler of rum punch. Jemma raises her apple juice. “To the Boss,” the historian says, and we repeat, “the Boss.”
Down by the shore, young elephant seals squabble in the shallows, heaving their gleaming bodies against each other and then rolling their eyes as though startled by the impact. Jemma photographs a huddle of molting king penguins. She is having the time of her life and has decided to be an ornithologist when she grows up.
As we leave South Georgia, we pass Cape Disappointment, where Captain Cook realized the land mass he’d just discovered was not a continent after all, but something far less impressive. Other place names also evoke the dismay of early explorers: Deception Island, the Pole of Inaccessibility, the Isle of Desolation.
Sleepless in my bunk that night, I imagine my marriage like an archipelago I have laboriously mapped: Greater Anxiety and the Lesser Anxieties, the Duplicities, and beyond them Cape Adultery, on the Anguish Peninsula. Mount Anger and Mount Pain, both active volcanoes, and the twin glaciers, Integrity and Tenderness. Then there’s the island chain of Lies, comprised of Big Lie and the numerous Little Lies. In the Sea of Hurt, past the Point of False Hope, lie the Outer Limits, and then Divorce.
“We cannot help each other,” Robert Falcon Scott wrote. I think of how far my husband and I are now from rose petals and buttercups. Awash in shame and self-pity, he can’t help me. And I can’t help him either, no matter how hard I once tried.
At your wedding, you set out on a two-person expedition toward a place you try to envision but have never seen. Later, you may wake one morning alone under an alien sky with a frozen corpse beside you. Looking around, you wonder how you ever came to be here. You think, like Scott at the pole he worked so hard to reach and died returning from, “Great God, this is an awful place.”
Coddled and spoiled on the Minerva, we are as far from the deprivations of the early explorers as we could be. Only the landscape resembles their descriptions. Off Penguin Island, icebergs and ice-choked seas stretch in every direction. There is not a house, not a car, not a tree, not a dock, not even another ship. Adélie penguins burst up from the glossy surface of the water and porpoise toward the shore. This is a place outside the realm of human time and human concern: a separate, self-contained world, glittering and cold.
We land on the rocky beach and Jemma sets off across the thickly crusted snow toward the volcanic cinder cone. She has always wanted to climb a volcano, she tells me. In fact, now she wants to be a vulcanologist when she grows up. Ahead of us, a man using a walking stick has left a line of holes in the ice beside his footprints. Each puncture glows with a blue light as if illuminated from below. It is both more beautiful and more inhospitable than I remember from my time here on the Russian ship. Part of me wants to stay at this cold remove forever, for the trip to never end.
Mawson, half-blinded by the glare from the ice, slogs on across a glacier that echoes with ominous cracks and booms. He realizes that the ship is due to leave for Australia soon with the other members of the expedition. Even if he manages to make it back to base camp, he’ll be too late. Still, he tells himself, they might delay their departure if they haven’t given up hope.
Two days later, in the middle of a snowfield, the ground collapses under his feet. Mawson plummets suddenly into empty air. Then the sledge rope jerks, breaking his fall. The harness bites into his skin. Above him he feels the sledge moving across the uneven ground, pulled by his weight toward the mouth of the crevasse. He thinks, “So—this is the end!”
He waits. But the sledge doesn’t fall. Fourteen feet down the crevasse, he swings on the end of the rope. Nothing but blackness stretches below him. The walls on either side are slick, without a toehold. He wonders what the sledge has caught against on the surface above him, how long it will stay there. Tentatively, he swings his legs a little. The sledge holds.
Somehow he musters the strength to climb the fourteen feet of rope, hand over hand toward the surface. At last he makes it to the top. And the lip of ice gives way with a crack beneath his weight. Mawson falls the full length back down into the crevasse.
This happens twice.
Hands raw and bleeding, he dangles yet again in the same icy space. The cold is seeping through his weakened limbs. There is a knife on his belt. How tempting it is, in that moment, to reach for it! With one swift cut he can sever the line and end his suffering. He has done his utmost, he thinks, and he failed.
Before the Australasian Antarctic Expedition set out, Mawson made a speech to a roomful of dignitaries and benefactors, explaining the challenges that lay before them as they set off into the unknown: “It is impossible to tell how men are going to act until circumstances arise…In that land of desolation, in that land of great loneliness, there are the conditions that measure a man at his true worth.”
With superhuman effort, Mawson pulls himself up the rope again toward daylight. On his third try, the ice holds his weight. He flings himself out onto it and faints.
On our last day in Antarctica we tromp through thick, granular snow up the steep hill above Paradise Bay, on the continent itself. A track made by another landing party runs from the top of the hill to the bottom. From the rocky peak, we look down on the small red buildings of the empty Argentine station, once purportedly set on fire by a doctor who couldn’t face the thought of over-wintering here. True or not, there is, in the fierce resplendence of the landscape, a vastness that reduces the thought of a blazing building to something puny—a momentary flicker, like striking and extinguishing a match. The magnitude of Antarctica’s indifference provides a strange, unexpected comfort. Human life, human suffering—what do they amount to here, so far from the human world?
Staggered banks of gray and white clouds hang heavy in the sky. Wind furrows the water. Below the cliff, brash ice foams against the shore. As far as I can see lie ice and snow and high black peaks capped and striated with white. A curving snowdrift sweeps along the low beach across from the research station, and beyond the beach, blue-white glaciers tumble toward the sea.
Everywhere, the white snow carries a hint of azure. The glaciers and the distant snowfields look thickly clumped over something blue and luminous. As I watch, the gray clouds open far beyond the choppy strait. A shaft of sunshine burnishes a distant valley, spotlighting it. The blazing yellow, tinged with gold, seems in that moment like a vision or a sign.
“I’m going to slide down,” Jemma announces, bringing me back to earth. Packed hard, the narrow track beside our footprints is as steep and high as a luge chute. I can’t see the bottom over the angle of the hill, but she’s undaunted and excited.
What can I tell her? She’s eager for adventure and the track was made for sliding. “Okay.”
Jemma scoots away, holding her feet up off the ice to get as much speed as possible. “Like this!” she calls over her shoulder, happily shrieking as she disappears over the long curve of the hill.
The urge to follow her is irresistible. One by one, the rest of us take our turn sliding down the high Antarctic slope: mothers and grandmothers, crew members in insulated coveralls, gray-haired men brandishing canes and photographers with expensive cameras, red parka after red parka, as if every one of us were ten years old again.
In the Drake Passage, on our way back to South America, the ship begins to roll. All night I cling to my bunk as hangers bang against the closet walls. “It’s noisy in here,” Jemma remarks at one point before falling back to sleep. I lie awake in the dark, feeling nausea and dread at the thought of returning home.
We cross the Drake and reach the Beagle Channel. The ship steadies. On our last night on board, the sun sets spectacularly, tinging our wake and the lenticular clouds that hang in the sky behind us. The water is flat calm. The air on deck smells of greenery, unexpected but familiar. Antarctica has long since disappeared beyond the horizon.
Back in Massachusetts, in the house my husband and I bought together, I feel surrounded by mementos of failure. The Morgue, I come to think of it, the Failure Museum. I clutch the memory of Antarctica like a talisman, returning to it in my mind, again and again. All through the endless meetings with lawyers, the drawn-out divorce proceedings, I remind myself of the glimpse I had from that peak at Paradise Bay: a future, far in the distance, waiting to be explored and claimed.
Much later, rereading Robert Scott’s final missive, a different line will strike me. “For my own sake I do not regret this journey,” he wrote in his tent, trapped by a blizzard and dying of starvation and exposure. “We took risks, we knew we took them…therefore we have no cause for complaint.”
And, later still, I will stumble without warning into that once-distant light. I’ll be at work on a novel set in Antarctica. My kids will be teenagers, thriving and happy, Jemma studying the Russian Revolution and the concept of infinity, her brother learning to fly planes. It will be the tail end of summer and I’ll be driving alone through honeyed rays of sunshine with the car windows rolled down, singing out loud to a song on the radio, my heart brimming with love and hope, past stands of goldenrod and leafy, vine-tangled trees, and fields of grazing horses where flocks of yellow goldfinches burst up from the dark, clumped thistles into the shimmering sky.
Douglas Mawson comes to his senses at the mouth of the crevasse he nearly died in. Later, through the windblown snow, he’ll be surprised to spot a cairn draped with black cloth. He’ll find a note there from a search party, giving him the bearings to a cache of food: They have left him, among other things, a pineapple. He will reach the main base camp at Cape Denison to discover that the ship has sailed for Australia. But six members of the expedition remain behind as a support team. Ravaged by his ordeal, unrecognizable, he’ll have to tell them which of the original three he is.
Later still, he will marry his sweetheart back in Australia, have two daughters, be knighted. Twenty years after leading the Australasian Antarctic venture, Mawson will return to Antarctica as leader of another expedition, from 1929 to 1931. He will live a long life and die an old man without ever learning that Mertz’s baffling decline was due to vitamin A poisoning caused by the dog liver Mawson fed him out of kindness, because it was the easiest part to swallow.
But Mawson doesn’t know yet that he will survive, or even how long he has been lying unconscious in the snow. His bloodied hands tremble. Slowly, he pitches his broken tent against the wind.