Antarctica: The Land That Wants You Dead

Ice covers the cliffs of Antarctica
Antarctica’s ice covered cliffs closed in on both sides. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

On November 13, 2015, 55-year-old British explorer, Henry Worsley, set out on the west coast of Antarctica. He pulled his own sledge, loaded with his tent, skis and provisions to keep him alive for the 950 mile, 75-day expedition. The journey required an icy climb of 10,000 feet up Wiyek Ridge, crossing the South Pole, with an anticipated triumphant finish on the east coast at the bottom of Shackleton Glacier.

His goal: to be the first person to traverse the entire continent, solo, unassisted and without supply drops. Having made two previous expeditions to the Land That Wants You Dead, Worsley knew that Antarctica had earned that moniker.

On January 13, 2016, two months after Worsley began his expedition, the ship Crystal Symphony and her 600 passengers, my husband and I included, set sail from Buenos Aires on our journey to Antarctica. Also known as The Great White Desert, Antarctica’s harsh environment has an average temperature of minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, less than two inches of annual precipitation, 90 percent of the world’s ice, winds above 50 mph and an average elevation of 9,000 feet.

The Crystal Symphony floating in the water
The Crystal Symphony cruise ship sits in the water. Flickr/sales hassan

As we churned toward the tip of South America, the sun-drenched warm days turned distinctly colder. Each morning passengers looked bulkier with added layers of clothing. Shearling wool throws replaced the striped beach towels gracing the lounge chairs on open-air Deck 11. While nestled in the blankets, we sipped café lattes laced with Bailey’s Irish Crème and searched for albatross with binoculars skyward. Henry Worsley, on day 66 of his solitary struggle against the continent’s frozen surface and windswept bitterness, knew none of these pleasures and we knew nothing of his journey.

To get to the Land That Wants You Dead, we had to cross Drake’s Passage, ‘The Waterway That Makes You Wish You Were.’  A 500-mile stretch of ocean from Cape Horn to the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the place where the Atlantic and Pacific merge, boasts the roughest seas and the stormiest weather on the planet.  Over 20,000 sailors have lost their lives trying to outmaneuver these treacherous waters. But it’s the only way to get there.

During the two-day high seas crossing, our vessel pitched and tossed everyone and everything. While attempting a lap on the outside promenade deck, a fierce port side wind pummeled me. Waves splashed and spray showered icy droplets. Terrified that, ‘man overboard’ would blare on the intercom any minute, I clung to the rail and inched my way to an entrance. Inside the ship, panic drained from my drenched parka. While I cherished the safe, warm respite, a weakened Henry Worsley labored over the polar ice cap, his determination frayed.

The ship’s travelers looked like a colony of waddling, aged king penguins with patches that prevent seasickness stuck behind their ears. Seventeen foot swells and 40 mile-per-hour headwinds, sent many passengers to their beds, gripping their sheets and begging for mercy.

As Mark Twain said about his first ocean voyage in ‘Innocents Abroad’, “If there is one thing in the world that will make a man…insufferably self-conceited, it is to have his stomach behave itself, when nearly all his companions are seasick.” My husband and I beamed as two of few who were standing upright and taking meals without drama.

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