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Excerpts from two new books on Antarctica

The Castle berg, a weathered iceberg photographed during

The Castle berg, a weathered iceberg photographed during the "British Antarctic ("Terra Nova") Expedition--(1910-1913)" led by Captain Robert F. Scott . Credit: Library of Congres Library of Congress

From "Antarctica: A Biography," by David Day

With the ships cloaked ethereally in ice, and the coats of the sailors stiffened by the intense cold, [Captain James] Cook finally became the first explorer to cross into the Antarctic Circle, on 17 January 1773.

However, the historic effort was for nought. Instead of the hoped-for continent, Cook was confronted by an ice-covered sea that blocked any further progress and imperiled his ships. Acutely conscious of the danger, and after having reached sixty-seven degrees south, Cook ordered the vessels to turn about. As for Bouvet's "continent," he supposed the Frenchman had mistaken an extensive, snow-covered iceberg for land.

In his persistent search for Bouvet's reported land, Cook had unknowingly come within 120 kilometers of the Antarctic coastline. Although it was just over the horizon, the continent was too far away to be seen from even the highest vantage point of the "Resolution." Had Cook turned east rather than retreating north, he and his men might have sailed sufficiently far to have seen mountains on the jutting edge of the Antarctic continent that would come to be known as Enderby Land.

Despite his disappointment at not finding Cape Circoncision, Cook remained determined to find the Great South Land in the temperate latitudes in which cartographers had long drawn it. He was mindful that searching in the high southern latitudes was only likely to find an isolated, ice-covered land that would not be of any use to England. His instructions from the Admiralty had called on him to discover and claim for the king "that Land or Islands of Great extent" that was located "in Latitudes convenient for Navigation, and in Climates adapted to the production of Commodities useful in Commerce." No one believed that the world's remaining continent would be almost totally confined to the polar climes.

So Cook tracked to the north before heading east again across the southern reaches of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, tacking north and south in a roller-coaster fashion to ensure that any continental-sized territory would come within sight of the watchers on his ships. Twice more he dipped toward the South Pole in desperate attempts to somehow spot the coast of the Great South Land. On the final dip, he sailed further south than anyone else had ever dared, reaching 71° 10' S at longitude 106° 54' W early in the morning of 30 January 1774.

Having lost contact with the "Adventure" in New Zealand, it was only the sailors of the "Resolution" who looked with trepidation on the frozen sea that stretched away to the south. Earlier, Cook had been misled into believing that he was gazing upon the snow-covered mountains of a continent, but they had turned out to be clouds on the horizon. Now there was just pack ice and locked-in icebergs, and no sign of the continent he had expected to find. Cook was finally convinced that the Great South Land, if it existed, must lie largely south of the Antarctic Circle. The Forsters thought that the missing continent might not exist even there, arguing that there was "little reason to suppose that there actually is any land of considerable extent in the frigid zone."

Whatever the truth of the matter, the discovery of the polar continent would have been some consolation to Cook, whose extensive voyaging had seen him find few wholly new discoveries. Yet he was again repelled by its protective belt of ice, having to console himself with the much lesser prize of claiming to have sailed further south than any other navigator. The young George Forster, who was more interested in scientific discovery than geographic exploration, noted with some satisfaction that "as it was impossible to proceed farther, we put the ship about, well satisfied with our perilous expedition, and almost persuaded that no navigator will care to come after, and much less attempt to pass beyond us."

Cook could not be so sanguine about the expedition being blocked by the impenetrable ice. Moreover, as he turned the ship about, one of his officers cheekily outdid him as the furthest man south by making his way carefully to the end of the ice-covered bowsprit, where he flourished his hat in the cold air and triumphantly declared, "Ne plus ultra!" With the ice now behind them, the sailors could look forward to some fresh food in the central Pacific, where they would spend the coming winter in more comfortable climes.

From "Antarctica: A Biography," by David Day. Copyright © 2013 by David Day. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.


From "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent," by Gabrielle Walker

McMurdo Station lies on a volcanic island, as far south as you can sail from New Zealand before bumping up against Antarctica -- which is how the earliest explorers discovered it.

These days, however, most people fly there, in big, noisy, military troop transporters, strapped into webbing seats and packed around with cargo.

If you're lucky, you'll get through first time. If you're unlucky, the weather will turn bad just before the plane reaches the 'Point of Safe Return' at which there is still enough fuel to make it home, and you will boomerang back to New Zealand, for another long, uncomfortable try tomorrow. (The far end of the boomerang used to be known as the 'Point of No Return', but was changed for purposes of reassurance.)

Known to its inhabitants as Mactown (or just "town"), McMurdo is the operational headquarters of an American research program that reaches out from here to the entire continent. But if this is your first sight of Antarctica, and you're expecting great sweeping vistas of snow and ice, you're likely to be surprised.

Coming in from the sea ice runway, on a massive bus whose wheels are taller than your head, you bump endlessly over invisible obstacles, craning your neck to try to peer through the windows. But they are hopelessly steamed up by the crowds of people around you, who are all quietly overheating in the many regulation layers of clothes they have been obliged to wear in case of breakdown.

And then at last you arrive, and tumble down the steep steps of the bus to see...a grubby, ugly mess. McMurdo itself has no ice and little romance. It is more like a mining town, planted squarely on dirt. The buildings are squat and mismatched, with tracked vehicles and heavy plant lumbering along the roads in between, churning up the black volcanic soil and spreading dust and grime. There is nothing to soften that hard industrial edge.

You will find no trees or other vegetation here, and nor are there children or nonnative animals. All foreign species other than adult humans are banned.

I remember my first few hours at Mactown, but they were also strangely blurred. There was a constant buzz of helicopters overhead; trucks were shifting materials from one building to the next. People were running past, dragging the big orange bags that were issued to everyone back in Christchurch, to carry the regulation red parka and wind pants, and thermals, and water bottle, and a bewildering array of gloves and mitts and scarves for every occasion. Others were heading down to the sea ice on skiddoos that roared like motorbikes. And we newbies were trying to fill in the many, many forms, and take in the dizzyingly detailed instructions about where we needed to be, when, and why, and with what.

At one o'clock in the morning when everyone else had finally got off to their allocated dorm rooms to sleep, I stole away in the bright midnight sunshine to the edge of town and climbed up Observation Hill, a local cinder cone shaped like a child's drawing of a volcano.

The path was rocky but clear and after about an hour I reached the summit, marked by a tall wooden cross. This was erected back in 1912 by the colleagues of the doomed Captain Scott, after he lost his life on the way back from the South Pole. It was inscribed with the names of the five men who perished, along with a line from 'Ulysses' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "To search, to seek, to strive and not to yield."

Scott based his two Antarctic expeditions on Ross Island. The second expedition, the more famous of the two, started from Cape Evans, around the coast from here. But the first was built at "Hut Point" at the end of the peninsula in front of McMurdo. I could see it now over in the distance, near where the icebreaker ship docks on its annual resupply. With its clean wooden walls and tidy low roof, the hut looked as if it were built yesterday -- a reminder both that ice is a great preserver, and that the heroic age of Antarctica wasn't so very long ago.

I sat with my back to the cross and thought about the many dramas that had taken place around that small hut. The messages fixed to the door for returning field parties, which had spoken of disaster at least as often as triumph. The people who had trudged and strained their way over the ice, hoping for bright lights and a warm welcome, and found only darkness.

To the left I could see the white expanse of the great Barrier, a floating glacier the size of France that we now call the Ross Ice Shelf. Its edges form giant cliff s of ice above the ocean (and even bigger stretches of ice below), which prevented the early explorers from sailing farther south than here. Instead, any attempt to reach the South Pole meant slogging for hundreds of miles over its surface, a place that one of Scott's men described as "a breeding place of wind and drift and darkness." It was on the Ross Ice Shelf, some ninety miles from here, that Scott and his men finally succumbed to cold and hunger.

From "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent," by Gabrielle Walker. Copyright © 2013 by Gabrielle Walker. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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