Sunday, January 16, 2011

Polar Follies

Longtime readers of this blog know that I rarely editorialize -- I know that those with an interest in the history of polar exploration come from a wide variety of social and political backgrounds, and are of all ages and persuasions. I would hesitate to say anything here which might limit the appeal of this seemingly inexhaustible subject, but this article in today's New York Times about planned excursions to the South Pole on the upcoming anniversary of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions of 1911-12 has got my dander up. The idea of dropping off tourists -- many with no polar experience, no prior training, and (in some cases) even novices to skiing, at a cost of $30-$40,000 a pop -- is wasteful, irresponsible, and quite likely to lead to some serious injuries or deaths.

I can, to a degree, speak to this issue from experience. When I was in Resolute, Nunavut in April of 2004 for the filming of the Channel 4 documentary Search for the Northwest Passage, there was another group in town -- they consisted of the participants and organizers of the 2004 Fujitsu Polar Challenge, as well as a BBC film crew sent to cover the event. In teams of three, these Arctic novices were to "race to the magnetic pole" --- sort of. The problem was that the Pole had moved out into the polar icecap, which led the event's planners to shift the goal to an abandoned mine site located where the Pole had been in 1996. The members of these teams were young people, many between 18 and 25 years of age, who had raised money through their schools and various fundraising events back home to pay for their journey. Their "training" -- much like that of one of the persons preparing for the 2011 Antarctic events -- often consisted simply of dragging tyres around by a rope. Many of them had never been north of 60 in their lives, and had little cross-country skiing experience.

The events of that year were sobering. At the Resolute airport, I talked with some of the backup and rescue staff assigned to protect the teams during the race. Two racers had had to be brought out by rescue teams when they collapsed from exhaustion. A third young man was the least fortunate of all; because he had not vented moisture properly from his wind coveralls, water had condensed inside his crotch area. He lost sensation, and later that day became incontinent; his urine also froze. By the time rescue teams reached him, profound frostbite and necrosis had set in; he had to be flown out in a helicopter and the word "amputation" was muttered by the medics who'd treated him.

The "winning" team was a British one, and among their other privileges was to plant the Union Jack out on the ice of Resolute Bay, between two Fujitsu company banners. The fact that their victory was an artificial one, possible only through enormous and expensive logistical support from experienced persons, and came at the expense of injuries which were 100% attributable to lack of experience, was ignored as they posed for photos and chatted with the BBC crew.

On the fight back from Resolute to Iqaluit, I chatted with the BBC's cameraman, who recounted how he'd just read a book on R.F. Scott which attributed his death and that of his comrades to unusually bad weather conditions. And surely this may have been a factor -- but Scott and his men, at least, had undergone considerable training and preparation. How might a party of novices have fared under such conditions? Who would have had to pay for the cost of rescuing them?

Such exploits as these tourist "races" to the South Pole are only possible at enormous expense and risk, and offer no new discoveries, perform no scientific work of any value, and confer only the most artificial sense of achievement. Like the paid tourist guides to the top of Mount Everest documented by Jon Krakauer, these kinds of "expeditions" have no business being in business. They are profit-making sham operations, and it would do much more to honor the memory of Scott and Amundsen to have them banned by the international authorities who administer the Antarctic continent.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tom's a-Cold

To the annals of dramas inspired by the plight of Sir John Franklin's men in the last stages of their fatal Arctic expedition -- a noble list that begins with Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens's "The Frozen Deep" of 1857 -- one can now add another play: Canadian playwright David Egan's "Tom's a Cold." The play, which takes its title from the storm scene in King Lear, embodies the psychological drama of two men in a boat -- a boat which any follower of Arctic history will recognize as that found by Sir Leopold McClintock with two skeletons aboard -- in their final extremities of cold and despair. It might seem a grim subject -- but here in the twenty-first century, with Samuel Beckett known to us, it gives the word "endgame" a curious new twist. The play opened in London this summer, where the reviewer for TimeOut London, while he thought the play a bit overlong, praised the last portion of the performance, declaring that "Egan conjures a devastating end stretch, poetic and stomach churning."

The play now comes back to its literal and metaphorical home turf -- Canada -- where it is now appearing as part of the Factory Theatre's Next Stage Festival. But if you want to see it, you'd better hurry -- the last performance will be just a few days from now, on Sunday, January 16th.