Before reading Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, my opinion of Antarctica went something like this: “Boring, monotonous ice dessert that deserves its lack of inhabitants.” After reading his book on the epic race to the South Pole, my opinion is as follows: “Soaring iceland full of intrigue, untapped frontier, and otherworldly landscapes I plan on seeing someday.”
As majestic as the continent can appear on the coasts, however, the view quickly becomes overwhelmingly (if not hauntingly) dull the nearer you get to the pole. To paraphrase Roald Amundsen, the well-prepared Norwegian who discovered the pole, much of the continent is blinding white upon blinding white for extended periods of time with little to no change in topography. In fact, 98% of the continent is covered by ice.
On a good day in the summer, for instance, when the sun never sets, you might see blue skies for a moment. But usually a disorienting whiteout of fog and snow rolls in. When that happens, you can’t distinguish the ground from the atmosphere, visitors say.
When there is a change in topography, it’s often too late to appreciate it, records show. Say, for instance, after falling down a 2,000 feet crevasse that only moments before blended in with the snow-covered surface.
In a word, mainland Antarctica is inhospitable. It’s the coldest and windiest place on Earth. In more exaggerated terms, it’s a slightly more forgiving Neptune.
Other polar explorers and scientists have made similar observations. In 2014, after becoming the first person to bike to the South Pole, Utah-native Daniel Burton remarked on the deathly quiet of the Antarctic plains (outside of the howling winds, of course). “Being alone for so long was messing with my emotions,” he told local media of his 700-mile ride. “I talked to myself a lot.”
With the blood of American frontiersman Daniel Boone flowing through his veins (whom he was indirectly named for), the self-proclaimed “average computer programmer” reached the bottom of the world 47 days after starting his journey on a fatbike. “The black dots on the horizon were the most wonderful thing I have ever seen,” he said of the U.S. research buildings that encompasses the pole. “Each day of this expedition was the hardest of my life.”
Yes, the piss-poor weather, average wind speeds of 20 mph, and endless ice certainly contributed to that belief. But the lack of life, sound, vegetation, and geographical diversity arguably took a greater toll on him, admits Peter West, polar outreach manager at the National Science Foundation. “On the Antarctic Plateau, where Amundsen and others have crossed, an unrelieved sea of white certainly fits the bill,” he says.
But life is changing for the 5,000 residents who temporarily live there in clusters to research the environment. “Life is more comfortable here than people imagine,” explained 33 year-old researcher Keri Nelson in a recent interview with Cosmopolitan. Similarly, even Burton made daily use of a satellite phone to call home, report his status, and update his blog.
According to West, that’s largely due to recent upgrades in infrastructure. “It’s a lot like being on a small college campus,” says West of McMurdo Station, the largest community on the continent. “We have electricity, internet, email, and working plumbing. Granted, it’s not like living in the U.S. But it’s not like living in the black-and-white past of early explorers either.”
Unlike the large swaths of tedium that Amundsen, Burton and others have crossed, Antarctica also offers a striking coastline. There you’ll find neon-blue ice flows, steep mountains, floating arches, exposed glaciers, and other visual phenomenon like the Southern Lights. “I can’t believe what I am seeing half the time,” admits Nelson.
Nevertheless, most of the freezing continent is absolute with its lack of life and variety. Ultimately that’s beautiful, because it enhances our appreciation for home—especially the more topographical, biodiverse, seasonal, and colorful ones we increasingly inhabit the closer you move to the equator.
Image: Jennifer Pickens, CC-BY
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.