Archive for Antarctica

the odyssey of the Endurance [book review]

Posted in Books, Mountains, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2022 by xi'an

While I knew of the Endurance crew’s extraordinary story of resilience in the toughest imaginable conditions, I had not yet read Shackleton’s South, a depiction of the many challenges met by the expedition after the Endurance got stuck in the ice pack. (The title in French is the Endurance Odyssey.) The above map describes the path of the crew once the boat became stuck, on 14 February, two months after it had left South Georgia on 5 December 1914. The ice pack carried the immobilised ship until 25 October 1915, when the ice crushed the boat hull beyond repair and it sank a few days later. (Incidentally, its remain were found at the bottom of the Weddel Sea last month!) For five months, the crew would camp on the ice, along the three lifeboats of the Endurance, drifting westwards until the ice pack broke and forced them to get on the boat on 8 April 1916, sailing in the heart of the Southern Winter with -30 temperatures and reaching the desolate Elephant Island on 14 April. As there was no hope to be rescued by a passing whaler, Shackleton decided to sail back to South Georgia Island with five crew members and against all odds, battled the worst possible weather and sea conditions for 14 days to reach the Island on 5 May. They were in terrible conditions and could not afford to circle the island to reach the Norwegian whaling station. Three crew members, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean, then undertook to cross the mountainous center of South Georgia with no map and no equipment, in another epic feat, and reached the whaling station in a 36 hour trek, on 20 May 1916. From there, they were able to rescue the other three sailors left on King Haakon Bay. Shackleton left almost immediately to rescue the rest of the Endurance crew, but due to ice conditions, it took him four attempts on four different boats to reach Elephant Island on 30 August 1916 and evacuate the twentysome sailors, who had been running short on food, with only two days left of supplies. Most amazingly, no crew member died of the endless hardships met by the men, albeit Perce Blackborrow lost his toes to frostbite… While the text is not written in the highest literary style, but built from the expedition journals, the plain depiction of the two years spent on the ice is telling most vividly of one of the most astounding survival epics of all times. (Most of the crew would survive till the 1960’s, earlier deaths being primarily due to WW I and WW II. Except for Shackleton, who died from a heart attack at the beginning of a subsequent Antarctic expedition, while on South Georgia Island, once again.)

Antarctic sabbatical

Posted in Mountains, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , on September 29, 2019 by xi'an

Airbnb is supporting 5 volunteers that wish to join next December environmental scientist Kirstie Jones-Williams, from the University of Exeter, on a scientific expedition in Antarctica, investigating the presence of microplastics there. The deadline for applications  is 11:59pm EDT on 8 October 2019. (I wish I could, but the news came a bit late to contemplate rescheduling a large number of classes.) As the offer includes riding snowmobiles and fat tyre bikes, and visiting sites over Antarctica, during the one week stay there, this obviously sounds more like covert tourism than a genuine expedition. With a dose of greenwashing by Airbnb, “inherently more eco-friendly than other forms of travel given that people are using spaces already built” to quote from the University of Exeter webpage, which does not mention the impact of airbnbing locals out of city centres by drying out long-term rentals and raising housing prices sky-high… (As a long-term user of airbnb, hence accomplice to the fact, I noticed a rising proportion of places that are sheer around-the-year rentals rather than occasionally let to visitors. And hope the alternative platform fairbnb.coop will launch soon.)

the snow geese [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , on May 21, 2016 by xi'an

Just as for the previous book, I found this travel book in a nice bookstore, Rue Mouffetard, after my talk at Agro, and bought it [in a French translation] in prevision for my incoming trip to Spain. And indeed read it while in Spain, finishing it a few minutes before touching ground in Paris.

“The hunters wolfed down chicken fried steaks or wolfed down cuds of Red Man, Beech-Nut, Levi Garrett, or Jackson’s Apple Jack”

The Snow Geese was written in 2002 by William Fiennes, a young Englishman recovering from a serious disease and embarking on a wild quest to overcome post-sickness depression. While the idea behind the trip is rather alluring, namely to follow Arctic geese from their wintering grounds in Texas to their summer nesting place on Baffin Island, the book itself is sort of a disaster. As the prose of the author is very heavy, or even very very heavy, with an accumulation of descriptions that do not contribute to the story and a highly bizarre habit to mention brands by groups of three. And of using heavy duty analogies, as in “we were travelling across the middle of a page, with whiteness and black markings all around us, and geese lifting off the snow like letters becoming unstuck”. The reflections about the recovery of the author from a bout of depression and the rise of homesickness and nostalgia are not in the least deep or challenging, while the trip of the geese does not get beyond the descriptive. Worse, the geese remain a mystery, a blur, and a collective, rather than bringing the reader closer to them. If anything is worth mentioning there, it is instead the encounters of the author with rather unique characters, at every step of his road- and plane-trips. To the point of sounding too unique to be true…  His hunting trip with a couple of Inuit hunters north of Iqualit on Baffin Island is both a high and a down of the book in that sharing a few days with them in the wild is exciting in a primeval sense, while witnessing them shoot down the very geese the author followed for 5000 kilometres sort of negates the entire purpose of the trip. It then makes perfect sense to close the story with a feeling of urgency, for there is nothing worth adding.

snapshot from Madrid

Posted in pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , on October 9, 2015 by xi'an

I am in Madrid for the day, discussing with friends here the details of a collaboration to a Spanish Antarctica project on wildlife. Which is of course a most exciting prospect!

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