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.
He wanted 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 Preparation Starts:
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.
Waking at 5 a.m., pulling back the black-out curtains, I gasped at the sight of my first Antarctic iceberg. A blue-hued mass, about the size of Macy’s building in New York, floated by within yards of the ship and I sensed the danger of a sea craft hitting one of these solid-ice forms.
The tilt-a-whirl ride of the Drake Passage forgotten, we had entered the calm and serene Neumayer Channel that snakes with S-shaped bends appearing to have no exits. Weighted down with layers of clothing, parkas, hats, gloves, cameras and binoculars, we lumbered to the ship’s bow to experience this baffling enchantment.
A subtle dawn’s light, a flurry of swirling snowflakes, and a stiff bitter wind that stung our eyes like shards of glass provided a surreal backdrop, as Antarctica’s ice-covered cliffs closed in on both sides.
Humpback whales frolicked off the stern, Emperor penguins on the starboard side hitched a ride on an iceberg water taxi, and fifty earless fur seals, stretched out motionless, and glided by on a flat frozen slab. We found ourselves running fore and aft to take it all in.
With fingertips frozen and noses numbed, we ducked inside to the cozy glass enclosed observation area for some proper 6 a.m. Antarctica ‘viewing’ fare; freshly baked sticky buns, hot chocolate, Mimosas, and Bloody Marys. Revived and re-energized we headed outside to Deck 12 for more ‘wows.’ This activity continued non-stop for two full days.
As we raised champagne glasses to toast the thrill of being among the privileged ones to embrace this beautiful, but dangerous place, Worsley lay in his tent, suffering, unable to push on.
How It Ends:
Having traveled 913 miles over 71 days, he could no longer put one ski in front of another. Just 30 miles and four days from achieving his goal, he radioed his GPS location to base camp and a helicopter air-lifted him out.
The next day, Jan. 24, 2016, as the Crystal Symphony headed back into Drake’s Passage, Worsley died from bacterial peritonitis. The ship’s 600 exhilarated passengers remained unaware that The Land That Wants You Dead had taken a life while enriching theirs.
Author Bio: After a life-long profession of treating the mentally ill at a PA psychiatric hospital for 33 years and also serving as its Director of Admissions, Carol retired to Lake Chapala, Mexico in 2006 with her husband, to pursue more positive passions. Her family thought that she, too, had ‘gone mad.’
She’s been teaching English to Mexican adults for 10 years in a program operated by volunteer ex-patriates, and writing for local online and print publications. Using her adventures experienced during visits to over 80 countries, Carol also dabbles in ‘memoir.’ A frequent contributor to Lake Chapala English Magazine, El Ojo del Lago, she’s won several literary awards from that publication, including Best Feature in 2010 and Best Fiction in 2014. She also netted a story regarding her psychiatric field work in the published anthology, Tales from the Couch.
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