John Messick reviews Think South: How We Got Six Men and Forty Dogs Across Antarctica by Cathy de Moll
Minnesota Historical Society Press | 2015 | ISBN: 9780873519885 | 304 pages
Above all, we speak to the children of the world—those who will, together, become the caretakers of this frozen continent and of the entire globe in the 21st century. We say to you, take care of this, your last great wilderness as if it was your own garden. For in this place will grow the peace and knowledge we will use in order to survive.
– Statement from the Trans-Antarctica Team at the South Pole, December 11, 1989
The International Trans-Antarctic Expedition originated in an encounter that sounds like the opening line of a bad joke: an American and a Frenchman meet while walking to the North Pole. While they drink tea together in a tent, they decide to meet again in two years’ time to journey by dogsled across Antarctica.
As a result of the meeting between the explorer/activists Jean-Louis Etienne and Will Steger, six men from six different countries completed the most ambitious polar expedition ever undertaken—3,700 miles by dogsled and ski, a journey from the tip of the Palmer Peninsula up to the polar plateau, across the Area of Inaccessibility (yes, the Area of Inaccessibility is a real place), and back down through windstorms and crevasse fields to the far coast of Antarctica.
A journey across the southern continent on foot may never occur again. Trans-Antarctica took place during a unique moment in history, when enormous political, social, and technological upheavals were reshaping the globe. In 1989, worldwide satellite communications were only just becoming common for civilians, the Soviet Union was headed toward collapse, and the Antarctic Treaty, the document that designated Antarctica as a land free of political boundaries and economic development, was due for revision. In Cathy de Moll’s account, Think South: How We Got Six Men and Forty Dogs Across Antarctica, the former executive director of the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition shows us how delicate and tenuous the realization of this journey really was.
We tend to imagine the great and successful expeditions of history—and Trans-Antarctica is certainly among those infamous treks—as products of human willpower and sheer luck. The hazardous chances explorers take, and the grace by which they survive encounters with unknown and inconceivable landscapes, plays a major role in our attraction to their stories. Douglas Mawson, during his death stumble back to winter quarters, twice avoided plummeting into crevasses. Ernest Shackleton’s best guess navigation to reach South Georgia Island and save his crew was nothing short of miraculous.
Cathy de Moll lets us experience a more relatable, and also more intangible, landscape. In Think South, we discover the miracle of logistics, and we learn to have faith in even the most foolish of human endeavors.
De Moll served the Trans-Antarctic expedition on four different continents, in six different countries. She maneuvered the world of corporate sponsorship, kept the budget balanced (a task that had the entire French logistics team sleeping on the floor of their office during the planning process), and managed the political fallout in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests for the expedition’s Chinese member, Qin Dahe, a glaciologist who didn’t know how to ski. She tells the stories of these logistical nightmares as an executive director would—straightforwardly, without bragging and without selling herself short. These are stories about her co-workers and about the expedition members, hilarious, stunning, heart-wrenching stories. I imagine she was an excellent director.
Think South takes us behind the scenes of the first Soviet airplane landing on U.S. soil—and recounts the Soviet citizens who tried to sell matryoshka dolls out of the cargo hold while the plane sat broken on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport tarmac. It recalls a dubious exchange of fuel between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that allowed the team to continue on from South Pole Station. It takes us to meetings with world leaders, and to back-alley deals with hotshot pilots. It takes us to classrooms, where ten million children from around the world followed the dogs and explorers as they slogged across the wasteland.
Here, I have a confession to make. I was one of those children who followed Trans-Antarctica. In 1991, my grandparents sent me to a children’s day camp at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was seven. For a week, I learned about the expedition members and their journey. I visited the penguins at Como Zoo, built replicas of icebergs from foam blocks, and met Will Steger.
In 2009, I took my polar obsession further, and found a job shoveling snow at the bottom of the world. I spent four months on the continent in order to experience for myself the communal power of international cooperation that exists at the farthest corner of the globe.
More than the strange stories of the quirky and sometimes crazy people de Moll worked with, Think South deserves accolade for the message that it delivers. “While most of us never think twice about the white mass at the bottom of the globe,” she writes, “the importance of its preservation as shared property grows ever larger.”
Today, dogs are banned on the Antarctic continent, Cold War politics have been replaced by a culture of global, corporate cooperation, and the internet has changed the way we disseminate and receive information. The heroics of polar explorers get lost in the fog.
The takeaway point in Think South is the same one that Steger and Etienne delivered 25 years ago. The effort it took to bring six countries with wildly different politics and policies, countries that, in many cases, hated one another, is a story of hope, “symbolic of our frayed optimism that countries can unite to protect a fragile place.”
In a world of shrinking resources, where politics are increasingly polarized, where climate change has become an obvious reality, Trans-Antarctica’s message—that only cooperation can save us—is more essential than ever.
Header photo of research team on Antarctica by Mariusz Potocki, courtesy Shutterstock.