Two Unique Polar Crossings

Covers two books about long-axis polar crossings

And of what value was this journey? It is as well for those who ask such a question that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask.

Wally Herbert, quoted in Across The Arctic Ocean (2015)

We repeatedly ask ourselves ‘why do we do this?’ It is impossible to say.

Geoff Somers, Antarctica: The Impossible Crossing? (2018)

In 1968-9, The British Trans-Arctic Expedition, led by Wally Herbert, made the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean, using skis and dog-sleds. The four men set off from Point Barrow, Alaska, on 21 February 1968, and made their next landfall at Vesle Tavleøya*, a tiny island in the extreme north of the Svalbard archipelago, on 29 May 1969, after crossing the Geographical North Pole and spending an astonishing 464 days on the Arctic pack-ice. They then trekked across the ice floes for a further 13 days before being picked up by a helicopter from their recovery ship, HMS Endurance. Only a very few people have made such a surface traverse since, and they’ve all done it the “easy” way, between Siberia and Arctic Canada—Herbert’s is the only expedition ever to have traversed the Arctic Ocean along its long axis. And it is likely that no-one will ever do it again, at least in the next few centuries, because the retreat of the Arctic pack-ice means that such a crossing would encounter open ocean on frequent occasions.

In 1989-90, the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition, co-led by Will Steger and Jean-Louis Étienne, crossed the long axis of the Antarctic continent, using skis and dog-sleds. The team of six set off from Seal Nunataks, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, on 27 July 1989, crossed the Geographical South Pole, and reached the Davis Sea coast at the Russian research base of Mirnyy on 3 March 1990, 6048 kilometres and 220 days later. This is the only long-axis crossing of Antarctica, and it is certainly unrepeatable in its original form, since dog teams were removed from the Antarctic in 1994. In addition, the early part of the journey avoided the mountainous, glaciated terrain of the Antarctic Peninsula by crossing the Larsen Ice Shelf—but large parts of the shelf-ice traversed in 1989 have now broken away.

Here, I’m reviewing two recent books dealing with these two journeys. Wally Herbert’s original memoir of the journey was entitled Across The Top Of The World (1969); he also wrote a more technical report for the The Geographical Journal in 1970, entitled “The First Surface Crossing of the Arctic Ocean”. The book I’m writing about here is Across The Arctic Ocean, published in 2015. It’s subtitled “Original Photographs from the Last Great Polar Journey”, and lists Huw Lewis-Jones as a co-author with Herbert. As the subtitle suggests, it’s a collection of Herbert’s photographs from the journey, combined with a short new narrative written by Herbert shortly before his death in 2007. Lewis-Jones, as well as being a historian of polar exploration was also Herbert’s son-in-law, and he has not only seen the work into print but has expanded it into a festschrift for Herbert, with the core narrative bracketed by contributions from other explorers, who reflect both on the hardships of polar travel, and on the lasting influence of Herbert’s pioneering journey.

There have been a number of memoirs relating the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Jean-Louis Étienne produced Transantarctica: La Traversée Du Dernier Continent in 1990, and Will Steger followed with Crossing Antarctica in 1991, in cooperation with Jon Bowermaster. All the other expedition members have now produced their own accounts in their own languages, but it was almost thirty years before the Briton, Geoff Somers, finally pulled out his old journals, realized that they “weren’t too bad”, and compiled them into Antarctica: The Impossible Crossing? (2018).

So both books have the advantage of a historical perspective. We can now appreciate the uniqueness of the two journeys better than might have been understood at the time. And we can now see them as having taken place during a narrow window of polar exploration—after the Heroic Age (because rescue by aircraft was at least theoretically possible), but nevertheless at a time when navigation was still largely being done with compass and sextant and a surveyor’s wheel at the back of the dogsled.

Route of British Trans-Arctic Expedition 1968/69
Click to enlarge
(Source of base map)

The photographs in Herbert’s book are the main focus—some distributed through the text, but many gathered together in groups (grandly labelled “portfolios”) between the chapters. The reproduction is good, and the best images are spread over one or two pages. The subject matter ranges from informal blurry snaps, to well-composed illustrations of what life was like on the ice, to beautifully composed vistas and portraits, and each carries a paragraph of explanatory text. Perhaps the most striking image, for its implications rather than its content or composition, comes early in the book—an unassuming lump of granite, picked up on the shore of Vesle Tavleøya at the conclusion of the crossing. Herbert wrote:

That modest piece of rough, wet rock was worth more than anything on this Earth at that moment.

Herbert’s text occupies three central chapters. The first describes his early adventures in the Antarctic, during which he did extensive mapping work on the Antarctic Peninsula (which involved the first ever crossing of the peninsula), made the first ascent of Mount Fridtjof Nansen, and descended from the Polar Plateau through the icefalls of the Axel Heiberg Glacier, reconstructing the route Roald Amundsen used when he returned from the South Pole. The latter two chapters describe the Arctic crossing itself. Although brief, they’re effective at conjuring up the dangers of spending more than a year afloat in the Arctic Ocean, supported by a few inches of ice that’s in constant motion. Floes suddenly fracture and open up leads of open water almost underneath the party’s tent; pressure ice builds up into chaotic walls at the edge of each floe, over which sleds must be laboriously hauled; open water in the middle of the pack must be circumvented, or sleds and dogs floated across. Travel across the ice becomes impossible both at the height of summer and in the depth of winter, so the travellers must make long-term camp in these seasons. Herbert had hoped to make his winter camp in a location at which the flow of the ice would carry his expedition northwards while they rested. But a back injury to one of his team means that they can’t get to the right location before darkness closes in, and they lose the benefit of the drift. And of course no supply caches can be laid in advance, after the fashion of Antarctic travel—the moving ice would make them impossible to find. So Herbert’s team are supported by air-drops. There’s probably no better way of showing the problem of trekking across drifting ice than by quoting the distance actually travelled. For a direct journey, Barrow-Pole-Svalbard, amounting to about 2700 kilometres, the drift of the ice and the constant route-finding deviations meant that the expedition actually covered 5987 kilometres.

The additional commentary by knowledgeable contributors means that the book is not just a gripping and beautifully illustrated account of a unique journey, but also a fine tribute to Wally Herbert himself.

Route of International Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1989-90
Click to enlarge
(Source of base map)

Geoff Somers’s story has more immediacy, constructed as it is from his daily journal entries, which he supplements with biographical, historical and geographical context. The present-tense narrative immerses the reader in the daily grind of living in the Antarctic. Anything laid on the floor of the tent chills to ten or twenty degrees colder than the warm, humid air higher up. When lifted off the floor, it immediately becomes coated in frost, and then soaking wet once thawed. If this is to be avoided, every single item must be put inside a plastic bag before it is set down. Then when the object is retrieved the frost that forms on the bag must be brushed off (but not inside the tent) before the warmed and still-dry item can be removed from the bag.

Somers’s principal duty was as a dog-handler. His love of the dogs shines through on almost every page, but it has to be said that the dogs suffered miserably, despite Somers’s solicitude and the fact that injured or sick dogs could be airlifted out. While the humans knew what they were getting into, the dogs had no say in the matter, and were operating over distances and under conditions that were well beyond their usual working environment. In a telling moment, two members of the expedition who have become separated from the others in a white-out try to discover the route taken by their team-mates by looking for the spots of blood left in the snow by the dogs’ paws.

A trans-Antarctic expedition has some disadvantages when compared to the Arctic—crossing crevassed areas and operating at the high altitude of the Polar Plateau, for instance. But there are advantages, too. The ground doesn’t drift below one’s feet, so all distance made good stays made good. It’s also possible to lay out supply caches along the route and have them stay where you put them—though there were still huge difficulties in actually finding some of the caches in confusing terrain and drifting snow. And finally, there are human habitations. The expedition made a huge detour around the Ellsworth Mountains to visit the privately operated Patriot Hills Base Camp to rest and resupply. At the pole they arrived at the American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where they received the notoriously lukewarm welcome mandated by the National Science Foundation. In contrast, when they arrived at the various Soviet bases along their northward course, they were made almost too welcome, with some expedition members paying the penalty in hang-overs the next day.

Somers is frank about the irritations of expedition life—exhaustion, cold, anxiety and forced proximity make everyone irritable, and his journal entries frequently brood over the annoying habits and character traits of his companions. And the intermittent contact with documentary film crews and journalists drives him to distraction, as the expedition schedule is disrupted by the requirements of filming—towards the end of the journey, as impending winter brings plummeting temperatures and frequent bad weather, they’re told they’re travelling too quickly, and need to delay their arrival at Mirnyy until the documentary film-makers are ready. While accepting that expedition sponsors need pay-back in the form of publicity, Somers points out that such a delay actually put human and animal lives at risk.

The book is let down somewhat by the poor reproduction of Somers’s photographs, which are printed muddily on the same kind of plain paper as the rest of the book’s pages. But making a comparison with Herbert’s book, which was specifically produced to show photographs to their best advantage, would be unfair.

They’re both fascinating books, and the personal detail of Somers’s account in many ways is complementary to the photographic record of Herbert’s.

* Vesle Tavleøya is a remote and lonely place, rarely visited. The Boon Companion and I sailed past it in the late summer of 1999, by which time it was surround by open ocean, the edge of the pack ice lying many miles to the north. I dug through our old photographic slide library and scanned in this telephoto view for you.

This is the Romanization of Cyrillic Мирный used by Somers. Depending on the scheme used, it can also be spelled Mirny, Mirnyj or Mirnyĭ.

3 thoughts on “Two Unique Polar Crossings”

  1. Also amazing that the Russian on the Transantarctic expedition started each day with a snow bath if I recall correctly. A man with appetites was the suggestion in the book.

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