Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

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I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons.  Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.

So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition.  I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.

In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books.  Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South.  I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing.  They’re all good books, Brent.

  • Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent – Gabrielle Walker

An excellent book covering everything you could possibly want to know about the “last great wilderness”, and the people drawn into its icy grasp for science, discovery and adventure.  Walker weaves together personal stories gleaned from her travels in Antarctica, from the heroic age of exploration through to current climate breakdown studies, from scientists in the distinctly earthbound fields of geology and ecology to cosmetologists looking into deep space and deep time.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧 /5

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RRS Discovery next to V&A Dundee on the side of the Tay.
  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing

Lansing is a powerful storyteller, and this is one of the most epic stories ever.  In 1914, the Endurance* set sail for Antarctica to establish a British base on the continent, and attempt the first overland crossing of the continent, but became trapped in the pack ice long before reaching her destination.  The shifting, thawing, and freezing ice splintered the vessel, stranding Shackleton and his crew on the floes.  The rest of the expedition is far more remarkable than the original plan, and against all odds, all survived.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

*a three-masted barquentine, which I know you needed to know.  Discovery, pictured above, is a barque.

  • The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors of the expedition, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south, touched with survivor’s guilt.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

  • Icebird – David Lewis

I’ve included book recommendations on sailing expeditions in the previously Armchair Travel series, but this one is, without doubt, about the greatest and most terrifying feat in singlehanded sailing; a solo circumnavigation of Antarctica in 1972.  Leaving Australia, Dr. Lewis sailed out of radio contact for three months.  On reaching Palmer Base on the Antarctic Peninsula, he revealed his 32′ (9.4m) steel cutter had capsized and dismasted twice (and would do so once more before the end of the expedition).  A phenomenal undertaking to read as a non-sailor, and your worst nightmare if you are a sailor.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

  • Alone in Antarctica – Felicity Aston

In 2012 Aston became the first person to complete a solo ski journey across the Antarctic land mass using muscle power alone**, taking 59 days to cover 1,744km (1,084 miles).  Having worked as a British Antarctic Survey meteorologist, Aston was familiar with the landscape and weather conditions she was to face, but not with the solitude and sensory deprivation in the vast white expanse of the polar plateau.

Penguin rating: 🐧/5

** Norwegian Børge Ousland made the first solo ski crossing in 1997, using a kite to assist his 3,000km (1,864 miles) journey, crossing from sea to sea.

  • The Last Viking: The Life of Road Amundsen – Stephen Brown

An excellent biography of Amundsen, the ultimate polar explorer, who in the UK is often sadly view as the villainous foil to Scott’s heroic failure.  The Norwegian expedition to the pole was meticulously planned, using indigenous knowledge gleaned from Amundsen’s time with Inuit in the Arctic, and relied on dog teams to haul sleds rather than mechanical transportation and manhauling.  In addition to winning the South Pole, he was the first to lead expeditions to traverse the Northwest and Northeast passages, and with Italian aeronaut Umberto Nobile, was first to reach the North Pole.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

  • End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica – Peter Mattheissen

An account of his time spent guiding guests on Antarctic voyages across the Southern Ocean, carved out in sparkling, spare prose, at a serene, glacial pace through the geology and ecology of the continent.  His trademark austere writing style will not resonate with all readers, but the book is worth persisting with until it becomes all absorbing.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

  • The Library of Ice – Nancy Campbell

A journey into the beauty and power of the forces of nature, combining travel writing, memoir, science narrative, and literature, on a tour to observe the icy cold corners of the earth before they become irreparably diminished.  Beautifully and poetically written, with an artist’s eye, and an engrossing read as Campbell moves from curling rinks to cryo-labs to the crevasse that concealed Austrian iceman Ötzi.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

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My Antarctica “shelfie”.
  • Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins – Gavin Francis

Francis was posted to the isolated Halley V research station as base doctor for a 14-month deployment, driven by a longing to see penguins since a childhood visit to Edinburgh Zoo, where my own fascination with Antarctica began.  A blend of personal memoir, polar history, and nature writing, meditating on the isolation and solitude of his experience.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

  • Penguins Stopped Play – Harry Thompson

Yes, this is a book about cricket.  About a rubbish village cricket team with an epic losing streak at that.  But this hilariously funny and touchingly poignant account of an incompetent, disaster-filled attempt to play a match on every continent, including Antarctica, is the perfect companion book for tales of heroic expeditions, proving that passion and endurance in the face of tribulation isn’t just the reserve of adventurers.  Thompson is an excellent writer, and provides a handy chart of fielding positions, if like me silly mid off, cow corner, and third man mean nothing to you.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

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Have you enjoyed any of these books?  Which ice adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains

Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.

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The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up an a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…

  • Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer

Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes eyewitness to the 1996 disaster.  On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives.

*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.

  • Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane

A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills.

What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.

Robert Macfarlane

  • The White Spider – Heinrich Harrer

A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall).  He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team.

It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama.  It might make it into another list in future.

  • Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown

The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land.  But women have been present from beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do.  This book gathers lesser known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today.

  • My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George

I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it.  I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…).  Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure.

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

Jean Craighead George

  • Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dylatov Pass Incident – Donnie Eichar

This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins.  But not my mam.  If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains.  If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain.

  • Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Walk Home – Nando Parrado

You may know this story already.  The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir.  His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book.

  • The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman

Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this).  A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas.  Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.  

  • Space Below My Feet – Gwen Moffat

Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps.  As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow.  She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming better connection to the rock.  Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it.

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  • The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring.  A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction.  It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings.  I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know.  READ IT NOW!

However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.

Nan Shepherd

A recent biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock, explores more of her mountain exploration and writing.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s firmly on my TBR list.

What is your favourite mountain book?  What would you recommend to me?
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