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Lots of rum and no fuss

Reading classic travel books during lockdown


IT WASN’T LOCKDOWN ALONE that made me want to re-read Terra Incognita (1996), Sara Wheeler’s brilliant account of her travels in Antarctica, but the fact that it coincided with the early summer heatwave.

As I struggled to sleep at night, made uncomfortable not only by the heat but the double anxiety generated by the pandemic and the sense that the weather wasn’t behaving as it should, I kept reliving Wheeler’s description of sleeping in “the coolest igloo on the West Antarctic ice sheet”. I relished her account of the blue fluorescent light filtering through the spiralling bricks – which “threw everything inside into muted focus” and made her feel as if she had entered a temple – because it was almost unimaginably remote from lockdown London. Yet since I couldn’t have gone myself, I also relished the descriptions of the “new torment” that her spartan home laid on every night: frozen clothes, a fresh hillock of snow on her sleeping bag, or ice cascading from the ceiling down the back of her neck. It was so cold that she couldn’t sleep, and eventually she retreated to the heated tents of the nearby camp.

Perhaps Antarctica was better read about than experienced – though Wheeler had spent years trying to get there, and whenever she left, she couldn’t wait to get back. Yet she also accepts that there may have been no need to go at all, for Antarctica represented an inner journey, a pilgrimage of the soul. She quotes a character in Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V, who thinks he might find peace at the South Pole, and one in Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak who thinks it might offer “a foretaste of eternity”; but when she gets there, she imagines those two novelists laughing at her: “If they had been able to see me at that moment, supine in a tent at ninety degrees south, I imagine they would both have said, ‘God, I didn’t mean it literally’”.

Wheeler travels to get away from what she calls the “Nomadic Thoughts” that periodically overwhelm her, while also acknowledging the old conundrum that “you can run away as far as you like but you’ll never get away from yourself ”. What’s more, you will meet others who have escaped but


brought themselves along: McMurdo, the largest of the three American bases on Antarctica, welcomes her, but the Rothera Station base of the British Antarctic Survey on the Antarctic Peninsula, the most northerly point of the continent, is populated by “British men doing what they do best – reverting to childhood and behaving like gits”. An earlier woman visitor had said it was like “living in a male locker room”.

Wheeler is rightly scornful of the “frozen beards” who still see polar exploration as a test of endurance. The British explorer Ranulph Fiennes dismisses Barry Lopez’s idea that the continent “reflects the mystery that we call God” and questions his right to talk about the subject, because “he’s hardly been there at all”. Wheeler points out that Lopez is a “highly respected author who has visited Antarctica five times” and that “his trips were not exercises in seeing how dead he could get – he went to see, and to learn”. But she also recognizes the heroism of the early explorers, particularly Apsley Cherry-Garrard (the author of The Worst Journey in the World, 1922, and the subject of her biography Cherry, 2001), whose delight in going South matched hers. Cherry-Garrard was one of the people who discovered the tent where Captain Scott and his companions were entombed with the cache of letters that formed the foundation of their legend. “As he lay dying, Scott somehow found the rhetorical language to invest the whole ghastly business with the currency of nobility”, Wheeler writes in Terra Incognita. “This is his greatest achievement.”

To The Times, Scott’s expedition was “proof that we are still capable of maintaining an Empire”, and to soldiers on the Western Front, it was an inspiring story of endurance and self-sacrifice. Wheeler quotes a chaplain tending to frontline troops who says that the story of Captain Oates disappearing into the night to improve his companions’ chance of survival is a “legacy and heritage of inestimable value in seeing through our present work”. Wheeler writes that Scott’s widow, Kathleen, received “scores” of letters from frontline soldiers “telling her they could never have faced the dangers and hardships of the war had they not learned to do so from her dead husband’s teaching”.

After the war, however, the expedition was cited


The travel writer Sara Wheeler, on the top of the Greenland ice cap

“Dervla Murphy decided on her tenth birthday, when she was given a bike and an atlas, to cycle to India, and finally set off twenty-one years later by those who set their sights on the last remaining terra incognita – the summit of Everest – as a failure that mustn’t be repeated. “We missed both Poles after having control of the sea for 300 years, and we certainly ought not to miss the exploration of the Mt. Everest group after being the premier power in India for 160”, said a Scottish scientist and explorer called Alexander Kellas, who would die during a reconnaissance of Everest. Kellas is quoted in Wade Davis’s book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the conquest of Everest (2011), which travels through the trenches of the Western Front, detailing the unimaginable horrors that drove the men of the Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924, and ascends nearly to the summit of the highest mountain in the world. Yet it begins far from the Himalayas – at the summit of the Lake District peak of Great Gable. “At 2,949 feet, Great Gable was not a serious or difficult climb, but it was said to be the most completely beautiful of English mountains”, Davis writes. Great Gable was the first mountain I climbed as a child. My mountaineering ambitions never exceeded its modest challenge, and coming across this fitting tribute to it in Davis’s book made me want to climb it again.

It wasn’t only Great Gable’s centrality in “the rounded hills and rocky crags of the Lake District, where so many English climbers had first discovered the freedom of open space and the feel of wind and rain and sleet on cold hands jammed into cracks of granite and slate” that made it the starting point for Davis’s history, but also a curious coincidence that ties it to the mountaineers of the Everest expedition in another sense. On June 6, 1924, the day that George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were last seen as they disappeared into the mist on the Northeast Ridge of Everest, in their final attempt on the summit, eighty-odd members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club climbed Great Gable to gather by a plaque inscribed with the names of the members of the club who had died in the war, and pay their respects. Seventy-five years later, Mallory’s body was discovered in the snow beneath the Northeast Ridge. His right leg was broken and there was a frayed cotton rope, 10 feet long, tied around his waist. It still wasn’t clear how he and Irvine had died, or whether they had succeeded in reaching the summit.

JUNE 19, 2020



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