The physical setting of the book is the mysterious, frozen and isolated continent of Antarctica, the highest, coldest, windiest, strangest continent on earth. The author man-hauls from the Ross Ice Shelf, the vast floating ice barrier over which the explorers of the golden age – Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen – travelled. He penetrates the high glacial plateau of the interior on the far side of the forbidding Trans-Antarctic Mountains by way of the Axel Heiberg Glacier, the glacier that Amundsen discovered before arriving at the South Pole. From there he kite-surfs to the other side of Antarctica, via the Theils Mountains, to finish at Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice Shelf. The mystical panorama of Antarctica comes to represent a suite of metaphorical settings – the white page or the vast imaginative interior of the mind.
Antarctica is a continental land mass buried in ice, sometime up to 4km thick. It therefore contains more than 70% of the world’s fresh water locked in its ice vaults. Sticking out through this shroud of ice are mountain ranges (like ice bergs, they are even more vast beneath the surface) and a bewildering variety of different snow-scapes, from the hardest and clearest of blue ice to the softest of powder snow. Antarctica offers hard wind-carved ramps and fantastical frozen waves as well as sand-paper smooth surfaces. Every mountain feature can be found here: crevasses, snow caves, bergschrunds, nunataks, glaciers and volcanoes.
The setting is a page from a book. This journey to Antarctica was undertaken precisely because the author wanted to become a writer and saw the symbolic qualities of Antarctica as the imaginative space he sought to fill with words; the book itself is therefore an extended metaphor for the writer’s journey.
The tracks of my sled were a scratchy calligraphy on the blank page of the white desert, sketching out what I felt about the world and my place in it; my path soon to be covered in snow just as my words will be recorded in this book and then soon forgotten on a dusty shelf.
The author is dragging his sled slowly and painstakingly across a vast empty page. The expedition is part of the Odyssey of trying to become a writer. The discipline required to cross the blank page is something demanded from all writers. The author is delineating, in the emotions recorded in the narrative, the feeling of pointlessness of artistic endeavour; the anxiety that it has all been said before - just as all exploration is only following in the footsteps of more glorious and accomplished predecessors, and the escape to Antarctica is mirrored by a writer’s escape into the imagination.
Is not our own interior white on the chart?
Antarctica is an empty landscape, a white page, a symbol for the unexplored regions of the world and, more essentially, of the mind. The real setting for the book is therefore pyschological. Antarctica is a place that represents escapism, fantasy, a place to dream, a mental test, a proving ground. The challenges of the expedition are as much mental as physical. The facts of Antarctica are transcended by what it symbolises.
The book is intensely personal. Its setting is that of a psychodrama. It is not, like other expedition or travel books, dependent upon concrete facts, descriptions of place, figures, statistics. The ‘how cold?’, ‘how far?’, ‘what conditions?’ are secondary to the ‘why?’, ‘what did it feel like?, ‘how did it change you?’. The landscape is metaphysical and gnomic, which is why the descriptions that are most apposite to the landscape are those out of classical myths, legends, literary texts, symbols, paintings, and imaginings.