The Literature of Cold
Beaufort Island. Ross Sea, Antarctica, Edward A. Wilson, 1911
by Eric D. Lehman
Many years ago, influenced and inspired by several years of reading Arctic and Antarctic literature, I took a January hike in the northern mountains. I planned to stay the night in a hut halfway up a peak, hike to the top the next day, stay in the hut again, and head out on day three. I was told by a reassuring booking agent that this particular hut was “winterized,” and remembered with delight a cold snowy night in May I had spent at the same elevation.
After a six-hour drive, I stepped out of my truck at the trailhead and was shocked by the raw, dry air. When I had made the reservations in December, several degrees latitude to the south, a warm snap had given me an illusion of safety. Now, several weeks later, and higher in both latitude and elevation, I began to question my judgment. Snow squeaked under my boots and my exposed skin immediately crystallized, but I figured that once I reached the hut I’d be fine, warmed by a woodstove and insulation. So, I hefted my very full pack onto my shoulders, fastened the waist and chest supports, grabbed my ski poles, and tramped into the wild.
Immediately, my fingers began to cramp through heavy ski gloves. Shaking, breathing heavily, I found the trail that led up the piney slope as an icy breeze whistled through the hills. My breath froze into crusty ice on my beard and frosted my sunglasses. After an hour or so, I edged around a frozen lake, and could see the hut, perched on a small ridge on the far side. I reached it just as two climbers with ski poles and crampons were leaving. They had been nearly to the top of the mountain that day and were headed back in defeat. I asked about conditions, and they told me of sheets of solid ice that even mountaineering gear had slipped on. When they heard I was staying the night in the hut, these experienced climbers raised their eyebrows. “Be a bit cold…”
They shrugged and headed down the trail. I frowned, crunching apart my ice beard, and entered the octagonal hut. There was no appreciable change of temperature, and in the corner the wood stove sat dark and unused. I put down my gear and pulled out a tea mug, turning on the gas stove. A few minutes later I poured a cup of tea, carelessly spilling a little on the wooden slats of the floor. A minute later it was ice. My ice beard remained firmly on my face, steaming where the tea touched it. I rummaged in my backpack for my lighter, and found everything coated with a thin layer of brittle ice. The tiny amount of moisture in the fabric had been leeched out and frozen.
I searched for the bunkroom, but it was not attached to the main building. Venturing into the crackling cold, I found a line of thin doors and swung one open. Its thin wooden walls held a few wood-slat bunks and was exactly as cold as the exterior. The privies were also outside, sparking visions of nighttime trips through temperatures even colder than this. Ice hung from everything, giving the hint of a dark fairytale. I shivered back into the main hut. What was I doing here?
I put the blame squarely on literature. Over a few winters, sometimes romantically sitting on my chilly porch, I had absorbed Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North and Knud Rasmussen’s Across Arctic America, Douglas Mawson’s Home of the Blizzard and Richard Byrd’s Alone, along with dozens of lesser masterpieces. These were stories of survival and exploration, but also stories about a particular kind of human endurance – our ability (or lack thereof) to endure cold. Rather than “polar exploration,” we might even call these the literature of cold, the way we have a literature that deals with hot, wet jungles or dry, baking deserts.
The giant of this sub-freezing genre is Aspley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. It details Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole, and the disaster that overtook them. Cherry-Garrard tells a gripping tale and beautifully brings both the singular characters and the Antarctic environment to life. At Cape Evans on McMurdo Sound, the midwinter night is “clear, with a blue sky so deep that it looks black: the stars are steel points: the glaciers burnished silver.” He makes us feel the unfathomable cold of the polar winter, as well as the lengths humans go for the smallest of gains.
The centerpiece of the book may not be Scott’s “Polar Journey” but rather the preposterous scientific expedition Cherry-Garrard makes with Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson to get an Emperor penguin egg, “the weirdest birds’ nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be.” They have to make this in the winter, because that is when the penguins nest, and the descriptions of the horrors they endure is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever read.
The three companions set off into the near-total dark of southern winter, dragging 253 lbs. each on sledges across the Ross Ice Shelf. The temperature is -47 degrees, discounting the considerable wind chill. Their sweat and breath freezes and accumulates in great patches. “My clothing had frozen hard as I stood – maybe fifteen seconds,” he writes. They eat only pemmican, biscuit, butter, and tea, after painfully long hours struggling with the primus to cook it up and ingest it. Their reindeer sleeping bags, full of the moisture of their breath at night, freeze into solid chunks during the day. Soon the temperatures drop to -75 degrees. Blisters, frost-bite, and shivering fits assail them. Their hearts fight to push thickened blood to their extremities. A routine of seven hours of sleep, nine hours of “camp work,” and eight hours of dragging quickly becomes untenable.
During this unbelievable haul, some of the tensest moments in literature occur. “The moon was showing a ghastly ragged mountainous edge above us in the fog, and as we rose we found we were on a pressure ridge. We stopped, looked at each other, and then bang – right under our feet.” The three men barely make it to the penguin nesting grounds, where a hurricane-force blizzard traps them on the side of a mountain. They build an igloo of snow to sleep in, weighting the already ice-encased canvas of the tent down with heavy rocks and a sledge. Nevertheless, the wind rips the tent right off their equipment, and the other piece of canvas above their heads breaks into thousands of pieces in the blow. Snow sucks into the broken igloo and covers them like dirt thrown down on the coffins of the dead.
“As for me,” Cherry-Garrard writes, “I never had any hope at all; and when the roof went I felt that this was the end…In the cold temperatures with all the advantages of a ten over our heads we were already taking more than an hour of fierce struggling and cramp to get into our sleeping bags – frozen were they and so long did it take us to thaw our way in. No! Without the tent we were dead men.” But somehow they do survive, perhaps because the blizzard warms the air up to a balmy -12 degrees. Then, the miracle happens and they find the tent caught on rocks a half-mile away rather than “on the way to New Zealand.” They salvage it, “making our way back up the slope with it, carrying it solemnly and reverently, previous as though it were something not quite of the earth.”
I remember walking down that slope – I don’t know why, perhaps to try and find the bottom of the cooker – and thinking that there was nothing on earth that a man under such circumstances would not give for a good warm sleep. He would give everything he possessed: he would give – how many – years of his life. One or two at any rate – perhaps five? Yes – I would give five. I remember the sastrugi, the view of the Knoll, the dim hazy black smudge of the sea far away below: the tiny bits of green canvas that twittered in the wind on the surface of the snow: the cold misery of it all, and the weakness which was biting into my heart.
This has the rhythms and impact of the finest literature ever written. And indeed, the only book I have read that compares to both its grand realism and emotional impact is Moby-Dick.
Amidst the disaster at the penguin rookery, Bowers, Wilson, and Cherry-Garrard somehow manage to harvest three eggs. On the return journey they have to “lever the mouths of the bags open” with their feet, and slowly, using the heat of their bodies, slip in inch by inch to slowly unfreeze the bags. “I do not believe that any man, however sick he is, has a much worse time than we had in those bags, shaking with cold until our back would almost break.” Five weeks after setting out they at last reached the main camp at Cape Evans, with unhatched Emperor penguin eggs in hand. Later, when he gives the eggs to the London Natural History Museum, they are unenthused, and “little” was added to scientific knowledge.
Twenty-four-year-old Cherry-Garrard’s beard had turned stark white. The following November, he was among the search party to recover the bodies of Bowers, Wilson, and their leader Captain Scott and learns the details of that famously doomed expedition to the South Pole. “We took risks, we knew we took them,” Scott wrote just before dying. “Things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.” Cherry-Garrard has a slightly less “stiff upper lip,” and leaves it to the reader to decide whether any part of the entire enterprise was worth the lives and effort. “If you march your Winter Journeys,” he writes at the very end of the book, “you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin egg.”
Or, we might say, a book. After all, Cherry-Garrard came out of the wreck with one of the most epic pieces of travel writing ever achieved, a history and an adventure, scholarship and poetry wrapped into one thick volume. Is that enough to justify the attempt? Often, he seems to think so. “Is it not remarkable,” he writes of his friend Wilson, “what such a man can do not only when he is alive but also after his death?” Other times he is not so sure. Does a great story balance with five years of a life? What about the death of your friends? Does The Worst Journey in the World stand as a very cold warning about the limits of human achievement? He echoes Melville: “Man, having destroyed the whales, may end by destroying himself.”
On my own winter journey on that icy January day, the young, bearded caretaker returned to the hut and told me that if I wanted to I could build up a fire in the wood stove and sleep on the floor in the main hut, rather than in the supposedly “winterproof” bunkrooms. However, the few others who had made reservations had canceled. “30 below is enough to intimidate anyone,” he said, while declaring that his small, enclosed bunk with propane heater would keep his nose from cracking off. So, as the sun set over the mountains, I tramped back down the squeaking hill. At the windswept trailhead, my brand-new truck barely started, even though it had only spent a few hours with the engine off. I carefully drove back up the slick black highway to a motel, where I turned on the heat in my room, took off my now-sopping-wet clothes and sorted through the sodden mess of the pack. After steak, fries, and several beers at the motel bar, I retreated into the room and cranked up the temperature, feeling the heat seep into my bones, ashamed and relieved.
It wasn’t exactly a heroic entry in the literature of cold. There was a minor consolation when the next morning I found out that it was the bitterest weather those mountains had seen in decades. None of the cars in the parking lot would start, and after waiting for the slightly milder temperature of midday, the motel’s entire contingent of disappointed skiers and winter sports enthusiasts consented to have our batteries jumped before roaring off to warmer climes.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.