I’m feeling warmer already

Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s account of a little trek across Antarctica in 1910. They were just going out to collect penguin eggs, a quick trip of 35 days.

The warmest temperatures topped out at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Only their intense exertions kept them from freezing in their tracks, but even so it’s hard to understand how they avoided frostbite in their hands, feet and faces. Somehow they carried on. Cherry-Garrard wrote that he was acutely aware of the absurdity of their efforts, but he did not mention that to the others. He was the youngster, at 25, and Wilson and Bowers, 38 and 28, were like older brothers to him. Whatever they did he was going to do.

For three days a storm forced them to wait in their tent; after that, they worked all day for a gain of about a mile and a half. Every morning it took them four hours to break camp. They began with a meal of biscuits and hot pemmican stew, eaten while lying in their reindeer-hide sleeping bags. Getting into their frozen outer clothing was like muscling into armor. When they were dressed, it was out into the icy darkness to take down their Scott tent, a four-sided canvas pyramid with a broad skirt that could be well-anchored in the snow. When all their gear was piled on the two sledges, they started the day’s haul. Bowers was the strongest of them and said he never got cold feet. Wilson monitored his own feet and often asked Cherry-Garrard how his were doing; when he thought they were getting close to frostbite, he called a halt, and as quickly as possible they put the tent up, got their night gear into it and made a hot dinner of pemmican stew. Then they tried to get some sleep before they became too cold to remain in their bags.

Nineteen days of this reduced Cherry-Garrard to a state of benumbed indifference. “I did not really care,” he wrote, “if only I could die without much pain.”

Wait until you get to the part where their tent blows away.

They huddled in their drafty shelter. Wilson and Bowers decided the wind was about Force 11, which means “violent storm” on the Beaufort scale, with wind speeds of 56 to 63 miles an hour. There was no chance of going outside. They could only lie there listening to the blast and watching their roof balloon off the sledge and then slam back down on it. “It was blowing as though the world was having a fit of hysterics,” Cherry-Garrard wrote. “The earth was torn in pieces: the indescribable fury and roar of it all cannot be imagined.”

It was their tent that gave way first, blown off into the darkness. This was shocking evidence of the wind’s power, because Scott tents, with their heavy canvas and broad skirts, are extremely stable. The same design and materials are used in Antarctica today, and have withstood winds of up to 145 miles an hour. I’m not aware of any other report of a Scott tent blowing away. But theirs was gone—the only shelter they had for their trek back home. And their canvas roof continued to bulge up and slam down. As the hours passed all the stones and ice slabs they had placed on it were shaken off. Then with a great boom the thick canvas tore to shreds. Blocks of the wall fell on them, and the ribbons of canvas still caught between stones snapped like gunshots. They had no protection now but their sleeping bags and the rock ring.

All right already, I’ll stop whining about my 10 minutes outside this morning now. Turnin’ the heat up.
Putting on warm slippers. Maybe some hot cocoa.


  1. Bruce Fuentes says

    I read the article when it came out last month. Now that you posted this I am going to reread it. I was overwhelmed by the details when I read it. Now I am going to go outside and try to imagine 35 days outside with temperatures 15 degrees F colder than it is now. I don’t think I truly can.

  2. says

    Those people did that on purpose. I would not do something like that on purpose, ever. I like being warm. And dry. And safe. With all bits intact.

    And I’ll feel free to whine about the godsdamn cold all I like.

  3. VolcanoMan says

    I dunno. I guess it’s fair to say that those explorers had it worse. But it’s hard to truly feel that way when it’s -33 C out, AIR temperature (at 8 in the morning, so not even night-time low). And apparently it’s quite anomalous…if you compare every region on Earth to it’s 1979-2000 baseline on December 28th, this is what you get:


    Basically all of Canada that isn’t northern Quebec, Newfoundland or the high Arctic, and everywhere in the lower 48 American states east of the foothills of the Rockies is at least a few degrees C below normal.

    We can blame it on the dreaded Omega Block, the horseshoe-shaped configuration of the jetstream which draws cold air from the Arctic into central North America. It has been chilling Winnipeg (my city) since the 23rd of December (when temperatures plunged from the minus teens to the low minus 20s Celsius), and models predict it will continue to be in effect until at least the 9th of January (2.5 weeks is a long time in the deep freeze). Blocks like this are not uncommon in the winter months, but this one has been brutal, with some models predicting that the coldest air won’t even arrive until January 5th. And who knows how the polar vortex will evolve; right now it’s weak and centered over northern Asia, thus the air is easier to pull away from the Arctic into North America; if it strengthens and centers out over the geographic north pole, it will lock up the cold air, neutralizing the jetstream effects and breaking the block. At least that’s how I understand the atmospheric physics. If it stays weak and displaced, we could see this stretch into mid-January.

    One side effect of this brutal cold here include parts of Alaska setting WARM records for the winter months (Fairbanks has had highs of above zero Celsius). CURSE YOU Alaskans! Take the cold air back! You can even give us Sarah Palin in return! We’ll get her to be the hypersexualized weather girl on a major news channel, or something (*shudders*).

  4. robro says

    It’s a balmy 53° here in San Francisco…hope that doesn’t make you feel colder again. If it’s any consolation the air quality isn’t great. The sky is gray or hazy or smoky. The Thomas fire is still only 92% contained. Other fires are better “contained”…contained merely means they’ve got a perimeter around the fire. They’re still burning. They’re a long way from SF, but wind brings the smoke in. It’s very, very dry…which is scary given this fire season. There’s a promise of rain this coming week.

  5. SchreiberBike says

    Google “Scott tent” for some cool stuff. There’s a great writeup by astronaut Don Pettit. They have two layers with the outer one windproof and the inner one permeable, so that the interior frost collects on the outer layer and doesn’t snow down on you with each gust.

    The thing I liked best about winter camping is that there were no mosquitoes. Maybe Antarctic’s the place for me.

  6. hemidactylus says

    Reminds me of kids being assigned eggs at school either to protect like parents or drop from heights inside a protective container as an experiment in design. But you missed the ultimate irony of that dangerous journey (tsk,tsk). It was to find emperor penguin eggs under the mistaken impression they were primitive amongst the birds and their development would yield a snapshot of the evolutionary transition between the evil manipulative reptilians and birds as groups and also feathers from scales as a character state. This quest was an unintended consequence of the popular Haeckelian notion that development is something of a stagewise retelling of ancestry read literally in the embryo. I recall reading about this journey in Rudy Raff’s _The Shape of Life_

    Brace yourself for the ironic denouement:

    “Eventually, these eggs were added to the collection at the Natural History Museum. Twenty-three years after they had been collected — after the “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” hypothesis had been discredited — a study was published by zoologist CW Parsons, who concluded that “they did not greatly add to our understanding of penguin embryology”.”

    Nice video linked in that article.

  7. Larry says

    If you haven’t read it already, you have to read Cherry-Garrard’s Worst Journey in the World. You make think you know about suffering but Scott’s expedition takes it to eleven.

  8. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin wonders what all the fuss is about. There were no rampaging peas or lumps of British Industrial Cheddar being blown by a gentle spring breeze. And also no walruses. Admittedly, that wasn’t the local season for either MUSHROOMS! or Pterodactyls, but a few days without a Cassoulet gives more time for enjoying the many regional vins. (The 1909 / 1910 Antarctique vintage was small but highly prized, with the few surviving bottles now selling for silly prices.)

  9. says

    Read “The Last Place on Earth” by Roland Huntsford sometime if you want to appreciate how hellish Antarctica is for the unprepared. Scott and the British were improvising and trying to make it through good British pluck. Amundsen planned meticulously and made the trip with flying colors.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    The British never forgave Amundsen for coming first.
    In particular, they criticized him for shooting sled dogs to get meat to feed the remaining dogs.
    As the Scott expedition managed to kill their horses by bringing them into conditions no horse can endure, this seems like blatant hypocrisy.

    PS Happy new year. I have curled up under a warm, purring felis catus.

  11. says

    In particular, they criticized him for shooting sled dogs to get meat to feed the remaining dogs.

    I didn’t know that. It seemed to me to be a british tradition to get stuck someplace and eat one’s dogs while writing journal entries about how noble they were, etc. Never occurred to them that maybe they could have fed a few upper class pinheads to the dogs for a change.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @14: It seems to me that certain Americans have very weird fantasies about British traditions.

  13. felicis says

    I must say that, while the weather in Antarctica can still be pretty bad, working there is not nearly so rough! I wintered back in ’98 at Amundsen-Scott station – and the longest I was outside was just a few hours to repair a phone cable (only about -60, little wind that I recall). We only had one bad case of frostbite (one of the astrophysicists had a small gap in her scarf, and when she got back from the Dark Sector – about a kilometer walk – it had frozen a spot of skin on her neck. It looked like a really horrible hickey).

    Heck – we had a fairly large video library, a pool table, even internet access for about 14 hours a day!

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Since Mars is far worse than deep-winter Antarctica, it seems to me Elon Musk could save a lot of money by building his colony down South.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    I suppose this would be expensive, but to escape frostbite some kind of ambient- pressure space suit would be in order. Air would be pre- warmed before reaching the face, the exhaled air would go out past a heat exchanger, fingers, toes and heels would be electrically heated and the heat insulation would adjust to the degree of physical exertion.

  16. Derek Vandivere says

    #8 / Larry:

    Definitely a plus one for The Worst Journey in the World. It’s a big book, but wow is it good.

  17. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Given that the daily high is “SQUEAL LIKE A PIG” for about 9 months out of the year here…

    …can I, like, have about half of that?

  18. says

    In addition to ‘Worst Journey in the World’ I’d recommend the ‘Voyage of the Discovery’ which outlines Scott’s first expedition to the Antarctic. Along with the sledging expeditions, it covers the voyage down there and the conditions at base camp. If you can get it, there is a version which includes all his sketches, charts, and equipment manifests. It paints a fascinating picture of explorers finding their feet in an utterly hostile environment and having to learn how to survive from brutal, bitter experience.