THE BIG MELT: THE LAST ANTARCTIC EXPLORERS ARE SEEKING ANSWERS INSIDE THE CONTINENT'S ICE
In all mythic, transformational trips—acid, ayahuasca, Mars or across the river Styx—the voyagers must, at some point, face down their deepest fears. For expeditions into Antarctica, the most deeply strange place on Earth, the Drake Passage is where that happens.
This tumultuous realm—where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans converge at a latitude where water unimpeded by land flows in a continuous circle around the globe—was first sailed by Sir Francis Drake, the storied 16th-century English naval explorer. Winds and swells in the passage are commonly “hurricane” on the Beaufort scale. Its harrowing reputation prompted a 19th-century theory that the Drake Passage was a planetary drain leading to the South Pole, a notion Edgar Allan Poe used to terrifying effect in his short story “MS. Found in a Bottle,” in which a cargo ship passenger narrates the destruction of his vessel and the events before his death.
The Drake is not a drain, but it has sucked down more than 1,000 ships and countless sailors in the four centuries since men started crossing it, lured by dreams of ice and adventure. According to lore, in 1914 over 5,000 adventure seekers responded to an ad that Ernest Shackleton placed in a London newspaper for something called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” The text of that advertisement might be a myth, but what is certain truth is that Shackleton handpicked 28 applicants from a large and eager pool to accompany him. They, plus packs of sled dogs and a ship’s cat, set sail from Plymouth on August 8, 1914, on a ship called theEndurance, aiming to become the first men to traverse Antarctica on foot.