Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Tag: travel

Madhouse at the End of the Earth

Welcome back to the Marquess Magpie‘s next entry in the series „people dying on the ice and/or mountains“. This time, we are following the crew of the Belgica into the Antarctic night.

It is the age of polar exploration, and Belgian Navy officer Adrien de Gerlache decides to lead an expedition to the Antarctic to make his nation proud. One of the expedition‘s goals was to reach the (magnetic) South Pole. And oh my, during their journey things go south indeed.

They were not even anywhere close to the South Pole before some of the crew members started brawling and they had to get rid of their cook. The beginning of the book therefore has a bit of a boys will be boys vibe. They also lose one of the crew members quite early on during a storm.

The book mainly follows the commander de Gerlache, the ships’s surgeon Frederick Cook and first mate Roald Amundsen. Having read an abbreviated version of Amundsen‘s account of his later expedition to the South Pole, it was very interesting to see everyone‘s favourite viking in his younger years. These characters are what makes the story so very interesting. Cook and Amundsen developed a kind of bromance, tinkering with the exploration gear and going on skiing excursions together.

When faced with the decision to either abort the expedition or to let the ship get trapped in the ice, possibly for months, de Gerlache made the conscious decision to stay. He would hate to come home and be known as a quitter. His desire for fame and glory by far outweighed his instinct for self-preservation, and his crew didn‘t get to have a say at all.

Trapped in the ice, every night got longer and longer, until the sun disappeared for seventy days. One can only imagine what this does to your mental health. The ones being least affected were Cook and Amundsen, taking it as a chance to prepare even harder for future expeditions. Amundsen, the weirdo, almost seems to be having fun. But soon they had to face the fact that – not unlike punk – scurvy‘s not dead.

Thanks to the primary sources Julian Sancton used, this feels like a very close and accurate account of the story while offering different perspectives. The description of the preparation phase was a bit slow, but once the crew got on board the story really took off. The German translation was great and for once did not feel clunky at all.

5 / 5 Magpies – ice, death and madness all the way. Remember to eat your penguin meat.

How Not To Die On A Mountain

… is not really something this book will teach you. Touching the Void is Joe Simpson’s account of his highly improbable survival in the Peruvian Andes. Together with his climbing partner Simon Yates, Joe set out to reach the summit of the Siula Grande via the West face. While the ascent was a struggle, bad weather turned the descent into a nightmare.

When preparing for their trip in the base camp (where they left their non-climber companion Richard Hawkins to wait for them, the poor guy), they did not pack enough gas to account for a delay in their progress. Sounds like a bad idea, right? Combine it with terrible weather and you get two very exhausted, cold and dehydrated climbers with no way to melt snow and ice for drinking water.

Disaster strikes on an ice cliff, when Joe breaks his leg in a fall. The descriptions are not for the faint of heart, let’s just say that his tibia ended up in his knee joint which is not a decent place to be. They both know that this is a death sentence for him. Simon’s chances of descending alone would be slim enough, without attempting to rescue Joe. They try it anyway, and Simon lowers Joe by using two ropes tied together to increase their length. Sounds scary? Now try to imagine that they have to repeatedly stop to switch the belaying device from one side of the know to the other, while Joe had to balance on his one good leg.

This works quite well for them. But one disaster just is not enough. Almost having reached safer ground, Joe is lowered over a cliff edge, hanging free with his whole weight on the rope. There was no way to let him down any lower, and he could not climb back up. After supporting Joe’s weight for the longest possible time and with his belaying seat disintegrating underneath him, Simon was forced to make the brutal decision of cutting the rope to save his own life. Traumatized, he reached the base camp alone and had to tell Richard that Joe was presumably dead.

Joe, meanwhile, had survived his fall into a crevasse and began the mind-boggling process of hopping and crawling towards the base camp. His injured leg was completely destroyed and useless by then. Nothing short of a miracle, he reached them mere hours before their departure back to Lima.

This book is filled with technical descriptions of the climb itself and the gear they used, but also offers a very interesting psychological angle. Simon Yates faced a lot of criticism for his decision to cut the rope. People argued that he should have decided to (probably) die with his friend instead of cutting Joe loose to save himself. Joe shows a huge strength of character. He offered comfort and voiced his complete support and understanding to Simon before being even remotely recovered.

Plunging headfirst into a snow drift

When I saw Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer at my library’s book flea market, I didn’t know anything about climbing, mountaineering or the sheer madness that is a Mount Everest attempt. My decision to pick it up was based only on the fact that I was headed for a skiing trip, the book cost only 1€ and had a mountain on the cover. Nonfiction was not something I gravitated toward. Once we got settled I picked it up, and spent the next couple of evenings alternating between reading it and weirding everyone out with details about Everest expeditions. From the comfort and warmth of my hotel bed, I was hooked. I knew I would never do something as extreme in my whole life, but I thoroughly enjoyed the danger seeping from every page. Give me all the carabiners, crampons and frostbitten details, thank you very much.

Although I may not get to them in the foreseeable future, I fell down the rabbit hole looking for books that may scratch the same itch. An obvious choice was Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams, a collection of essay about his own (ice) climbing trips and the mountaineering community at large.

These are some of the books I found:

  • The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev (Everest)
  • Left for Dead by Beck Weathers (Everest)
  • Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar (Ural Mountains)
  • Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (Peruvian Andes)
  • Buried in the Sky by Peter Zuckerman (K2)
  • Annapurna by Maurice Herzog

I’m especially interested in the first two books, as they recount the same ascent as Krakauer did with Into Thin Air, but from different or even opposing perspectives. Krakauer presents Boukreev as overly ambitous and egoistic, putting himself first instead of saving other people. This struck me as a highly subjective opinion, so I’m curious to read Boukreev’s perspective as well in The Climb.

In Into Thin Air Krakauer describes how Beck Weathers was left behind in a storm that killed five climbers that day. He was believed to be dying from hypothermia and therefore to be beyond rescue. Leaving him behind was a tough but rational decision. I vividly remember the description of Weathers stumbling back into camp against all odds, a man seemingly made of ice. Left for Dead will no doubt be a fascinating read, recounting Weather’s fight back to life in his own words.

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