Monday, April 09, 2007

Pain at the Poles

I just finished reading "This Was the North" by Anton Money, and it was absolutely wonderful. Particularly striking was the account of his first winter on Frances Lake, where he spent five months without another human being within 100 miles, building his own log cabin and waiting to start panning for gold (which eventually made him extremely rich).

Just before Christmas he realized how intensely lonely he was, and he started going a little batty. He watched herds of caribou wander across the ice of the lake, and he decided that he NEEDED to meet the caribou on Christmas day. So for several days he took huge quantities of salt from a distant mountain and spread it on the ice, letting the caribou get used to his smell on the salt that they apparently craved. On Christmas he went and stood motionless on the ice, and after a bit of uncertainty the caribou herd surrounded him to eat the salt. Within hours he was walking among them, feeding them out of his hands...hundreds of wild caribou. That was his Christmas miracle, and it got him through the winter.

But now I'm reading a somewhat less happy book: "Ice: Stories of Survival from Polar Exploration." The editor (Clint Willis) has found all the most harrowing and gruesome excerpts, perfect for a person like me who -- for some reason -- NEEDS to know how terrible and unforgiving nature can be. And also likes to hear gory stories.

In 1912, Douglas Mawson went on an Antarctic expedition with two other men and a dog team. Far from shelter, one of the men and most of the dogs fell into a glacial crevasse, taking most of the supplies with them. If there's one thing I'm learning it's that glaciers are really frightening places to be, and if you fall into a glacial crevasse you're never coming out.

During Mawson's 100-mile walk back to shelter, alone, starving, he starts noticing an "awkward, lumpy, squeltching feeling" in his feet. The following description is not for the faint-hearted, and it's kept me in a state of low-level anxiety for about 24 hours:
The sight of his feet was a hammerblow to the heart. The lumpy, awkward feeling came from underneath--where both his soles had separated into casts of dead skin. The thick pads of the feet had come away leaving abraded, raw tissue. His soles and heels were stripped; an abundant, watery fluid filled his socks, and it was that which had caused the squelching feeling. A wave of despair rode over him. He sat aghast, staring at the ruined feet he had trusted to carry him to Aurora Peak. He was to write later: "All that could be done was to heavily smear the red inflamed exposed flesh with lanolin--and luckily I had a good supply--and then replace the separated soles and bind them into position with bandages. They were the softest things I had available to put next to the raw tissue."
This man walked almost 100 miles with the soles of his feet detached. And you know what? He made it and lived another 40 years.


Eric Little said...

"Things have come out against us..."

--from final journal entries of Robert Falcon Scott, who in 1912 died, along with two companions, 20 km from a supply dump that would have saved them after they lost the race to the South Pole to Roald Amundsen.

I still cannot decide whether Scott's words are the product of willful, blind studidity; a heroic understatement; or a mixture of the two.

(By the way, is the accompanying picture meant to illustrate Muffy slowly succumbing to a case of low-level anxiety, or to induce in readers a state of low-level, or mid-level...very nice pic, nevertheless. ;))

Adam Thornton said...

This book reprints the final month of Scott's journal entries, and they're simply awful to read. I'm no expert on the Antarctic, but from I understand things really DID come out against them...but it started with his (apparently) very bad decision to take an extra man with him to the pole, simply because he didn't want to hurt the man's feelings.

Therefore they had to ration their supplies on the way back, and the "extra man" concealed his rotting feet until it was too late to help him. They had to stop for several days while he slowly died in the tent; their provisions (food and cooking oil) got lower and winter advanced further, though it was already unseasonably cold.

Apparently the speed of a party moving across snow (especially a glacier) depends mostly on the snow's quality; due to cold weather and a strange lack of wind, the snow drifted up and didn't melt under the runners of the sledges, so it was like pulling them through sand. This cut their mileage in half.

The real problem came when they started reaching their caches, and discovered that most of their cooking oil was gone (they probably never knew that the oil was evaporating, and the people who laid the caches suffered great guilt imagining what Scott must have thought). Without enough cooking oil they couldn't eat as much hot food or keep their tent as warm.

All of these things combined to slow them down and physically destroy them. Scott's feet started to unravel. They knew they were close to the next supply dump, but they were stuck in a week-long blizzard and couldn't get there, and that's where they died.

Scott was sure that even if they HAD reached the next cache, they would have died...they were only about halfway home. And there probably was very little cooking oil in that cache.

His last words, if I remember, were "Please look after our people." Strange.

The picture was taken of me reading "This Was the North," which was actually quite a happy book! Whatever anxiety it conveys is me wondering when the camera's flash will go off.