The ship pitches and rolls across the Drake Passage. I brace myself and look out at the deep, velvet blue of the ocean, relishing the feeling of my stomach dropping as though at the precipice of a rollercoaster, waiting for the horizon to disappear. I turn to a map mounted behind a sheet of Plexiglas and place a finger on King George Island. Then I trace a path through familiar territory. Deception Island: Eight years ago, the volcanic shores of that flooded caldera were the first place on the Antarctic Peninsula on which I ever set foot. Then, Hannah Point on Livingston Island where, four years later, I sat on the rocky shore in the Antarctic sunshine, waiting for the horizon to right itself after I had crossed the treacherous Drake in a sailboat. And Neko Harbour — forever the spot where I first recognized that somewhere so alien could feel so much like home.
There are other sites, too — Port Charcot, Pléneau Island, Marguerite Bay — places that still flicker like movies when my mind drifts to that wonderland of ice. And this, the Drake Passage — the roughest sea in the world — is familiar, too. Four years ago, I spent four days crossing the Drake in the S/Y Sarah W. Vorwerk as the southern latitudes lived up to their sobriquets: the “furious fifties” and the “screaming sixties.” We were tossed around the sailboat, some among us crippled by sea sickness, subsisting on nothing more than water and crackers.
On the other side of the Drake, our discomfort continued. Landings left us windburnt and sunburnt. The bitter chill of sudden katabatic winds stormed down from the mountains, and the surprise of postholing into knee-, thigh-, and waist-deep snow over and over again was exhausting. Most of us were strangers to each other at the start of the journey, and we lived in tight quarters — our sailboat was home for nearly a month. We went weeks without a shower (unless we jumped into the 30˚ water).
My stomach drops again and pulls me back to the present as the ship rolls hard to port and a chair tumbles and slides across the room. A man beside me clings to a railing.
“You did this on a sailboat?!” he asks.
I grin and nod.
Towards the end of the sailing expedition, we arrived beneath threatening skies at a small island. A light snow was falling as we explored the penguin rookery, winding around snowbanks and exposed rocks. Slowly, the seven of us scattered until we were out of sight of one another. I looked forward to these moments, when I could taste solitude in Antarctica.
I crouched down before a nesting gentoo penguin and watched a chick nestle alongside an unhatched egg in the feathers of a parent. I smiled and snapped a few photos.
The snow started to fall harder. There were no human sights and no human sounds save for the crunching of my boots. The wind strengthened to a howl, drowning out the squeaks and whistles of the penguin chicks. It was time to head back. I looked around. Visibility had diminished. My foot prints had filled in with fresh snow and could no longer serve as a bread crumb trail back to shore. I felt the snaking vines of panic start to wrap themselves around me.
But as quickly as they formed, I pushed them away.
Knock it off, I told myself as I took a deep breath. You know how to get back. I looked around and started walking, using the landmarks I’d noticed along the way to lead me back.
Twenty minutes later, I still hadn’t seen anyone else from my group. I stepped forward and gasped as my leg plunged through the snow up to my thigh. I’ll never get used to that, I thought as I pulled my leg out and stepped forward. Again, I went through, this time to my waist. And again, I pulled my leg out. I took another step, more tentative than the last, transferring a little weight at first and then a little more. The snow held.
Fifteen minutes later, I crested a hill and looked out. Visibility had improved for the moment, and spreading out before me was the bay by which we had entered. Bobbing in the distance was our boat. I breathed a sigh of relief and bounded down the hill.
My initial panic was irrational. I knew where I was. Visibility had diminished, but it wasn’t gone, and I had modern safety nets to rely upon. But the situation had been so unfamiliar and so uncomfortable that I’d doubted my ability to handle it. That doubt, I realized, was a luxury.
A glimpse was all it took. When a young Australian geologist named Douglas Mawson traveled to Antarctica with Ernest Shackleton aboard the Nimrod, he stood at the rim of Mount Erebus, laid eyes on the distant Trans-Antarctic Mountains, and was instantly bitten with the desire to explore the vast expanse.
Just a few years later, he led his very own expedition to do just that. In 1911, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition set out aboard the Aurora to chart thousands of miles of Antarctic coastline south of Australia and to survey various inland areas. They established a permanent camp at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay — a place Mawson nicknamed the “home of the blizzard” — and from there, Mawson, Belgrave Ninnis, and Xavier Mertz departed on a sledging expedition to survey an inland region known as King George V Land. Three weeks in, Ninnis was killed when he fell into a crevasse on the posthumously named Ninnis Glacier. With him went most of the party’s food, their tent, and other critical supplies. Mawson and Mertz turned back immediately, but Mertz died during the perilous journey in a violent haze of dementia and pain, his skin peeling away like sheets of tissue paper. Only Mawson made it back to Cape Denison — barely.
Upon returning to the Cape, Mawson learned that he’d missed a rendezvous with the Aurora by hours. Though the ship had been radioed back, the “home of the blizzard” proved to be too much for the Aurora’s return. With the threat of encroaching pack ice and with other members of the expedition waiting to be retrieved, the Aurora left. A severely malnourished and ill Mawson remained at Cape Denison, along with a half dozen men who had been searching for Mawson’s team. It would be almost a full year before the Aurora returned.
From beginning to end, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition lasted more than two years. Not only did Mawson travel through land that had yet to be mapped, he subjected himself to physical maladies that had yet to be named. Among the latter was the disease that killed Mertz — what we would now call Hypervitaminosis A, a debilitating and sometimes lethal excess of vitamin A that, in the case of Mawson and Mertz, was caused by eating the livers of their sled dogs as the dogs died.
By comparison, my little sailing adventure in the age of satellites and Gortex was tame, to say the least. But still, I get the sense that a century later, more people ask me why —“Why put yourself through that?” — than had ever asked Douglas Mawson.
Human history is marked by exploration and discovery. Ever since our ancestors left the savannas of Africa we have been venturing into the unknown. We have crossed seas and oceans, traversed ancient bridges of land and ice, endured hardships that are difficult to fathom. Even when we created permanent settlements, building kingdoms and cities, we never stopped discovering. And while the discomfort and danger of exploration was often extreme, the discomfort and danger of everyday life was only somewhat less so.
At the turn of the 20th century, the spirit of exploration thrived as sights turned to the far north and the far south — the Age of Exploration had reached the poles. Whether in the name of science or simply in the name of being first, the men who dared to sail the treacherous waters and cross the unforgiving lands were lionized. And as they sledged across crevasses and scaled icefalls, men like Douglas Mawson didn’t just push boundaries. They risked their lives to define them.
But today, the age of exploration, we’re told, is over. For humanity as a whole, the world is more accessible than it has ever been. We live in more comfort than we ever have. We face fewer risks than we’ve ever faced. And with the decrease in risk has come a concurrent decrease in our tolerance for it, and a widespread belief that those who would intentionally take certain risks are foolish. We don’t have to sail across the Drake Passage, or cross the Sahara, or trek through the Himalayas because the Douglas Mawsons of an earlier era did it for us. They made maps and took pictures, and all of that information is an Internet search away. So why, in this modern age, would we seek out discomfort and danger?
Maybe it is because the value of exploration doesn’t have to be as grandiose as the betterment of humanity. Maybe it can be as simple as learning to trust our abilities and instincts when we can’t see the path back to shore.
Adventures live inside us long after they end. For me, the bruises of the Drake faded, but the exhilaration I felt as I traveled the edges of human civilization have never left me. And that is why I am back on a ship in the Drake Passage. I am returning to a place unlike any other on this planet — a place where I can sail into an active volcano; where penguin chicks hop up onto my boots like squeaky balls of curious gray fluff; where ice that began as snow in another millennium has been sculpted into towering castles by the most basic of elements.
If only for a moment, it is a place where the the arc of human history — of exploration and discovery — intersects with my own.
...and that is the uncomfortable reality of nature: that it is indescribable beauty and arbitrary destruction.