Exclusive excerpt: A frozen death at the bottom of the world


In August 1897, the first scientific expedition to Antarctica left Antwerp, Belgium, aboard a small whaler called the Belgica. Its untested leader, Adrien de Gerlache, 31, had assembled an international crew that included Belgian and Scandinavian sailors, scientists from Eastern Europe and two future legends of polar exploration: the American ship doctor Barnumesque. , Frederick Cook, and the Viking- like the first Norwegian companion, Roald Amundsen. The men of the Belgica were largely unprepared for one of the most hostile environments on the planet. After a tumultuous five-month voyage to southern Europe – during which de Gerlache had faced biblical storms, watched mutinous sailors, and stranded in Tierra del Fuego – it was like a miracle that the ship even approached the coasts of Antarctica.

The story here is based on the diaries and memories of the Belgica ‘s survivors.

Antarctica was imagined before it was seen. The ancient Greeks, who already believed that the earth was spherical, believed that there must be a large landmass at the end of the globe to counterbalance the known continents of the northern hemisphere. This hypothetical land has received different names over the centuries, one of which is Terra Australis Incognita. The one that stuck – Antarctica – is an antonym for “Arctic”, itself derived from the Greek wordρκτος, or “bear”, because the northernmost regions of the planet were squarely under the constellations Ursa Major (Big Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).

According to Polynesian tradition, the great seventh-century navigator Ui-te-Rangiora ventured so far south in a canoe, partly made of human bones, that he saw “bare rocks growing out of the sea. frost ”- icebergs, probably. If this story is true, it would be almost a thousand years before another man felt the freezing breath of Antarctica. It was the English privateer Francis Drake, who circled the earth at a time when cartographers populated the bottom of maps with chimerical monsters. Tasked with finding Terra Australis Incognita and claiming it for Queen Elizabeth (and guarding any Spanish treasure he might loot along the way), Drake sailed the Golden doe, one of three galleons under his command, crossed Tierra del Fuego in 1578. As he sailed out into the Pacific, a terrible storm blew up his ship in the unknown waters south of Cape Horn.

“The winds were such as if the bowels of the earth had set everything at liberty,” wrote Francis Fletcher, priest on board the Golden doe, “Or as if the clouds under the sky were called together, to put their strength on this one place.” The 500 miles from Cape Horn to the South Shetland Islands became known as Drake Passage. Another 65 miles – the Bransfield Strait – lies between these islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, or Graham Land, the mainland’s taut gimlet.

Roald Amundsen.From Everett / Shutterstock.

the Belgica left South America on January 14, 1899. It took him seven days to complete the Stygian passage between civilization and the icy hells of the planet. At first the ship enjoyed relatively calm seas, hardly feeling the fury described by Fletcher and many mariners since. De Gerlache knew how to keep the Belgica sufficiently stable for Polish flint oceanographer Henryk Arctowski to carry out a series of deep soundings, among the first ever recorded south of Cape Horn.

While he was working, some sailors had fun snatching albatrosses from the sky. Their method was curious: they baited a hook and threw a line in the air. A bird would come down to catch the bait before it reached the water, only to be pulled aboard and killed. The long, hollow wing bones of albatrosses, the men found, made beautiful pipes.

The crew had obviously forgotten their Coleridge. the BelgicaLuck over time turned almost immediately. The next day, bags of oil were needed to settle the angry sea. (In the 19th century, it was common to release oil to the surface of the water, where it spread in a broad layer but only one molecule thick which would reduce the ability of the wind to buy over the sea and whip whitecaps.)

On January 19, a glow was shining on the horizon, projected onto a blackened sky. It was ‘landblink’, a reflection of the snow-capped South Shetland Islands stretching beyond the curvature of the earth. Later that day, all of the men on board rushed onto the deck to see the first iceberg, a white spot several miles away. Curiosity quickly turned to terror. The fog thickened on the night of the 20th, and the Belgica walked slowly through the darkness, from which monstrous white masses, some higher than its masts, emerged without warning, one after the other.

When chief engineer Henri Somers lowered engine pressure to repair the faulty condenser one morning, men suddenly could hear the thunderous collision of ice in the distance, the roar of the Antarctic beast. A large iceberg materialized out of the mist. The 28-year-old captain, a brilliant but angry Belgian navigator named Georges Lecointe, tried to dodge it, but it was too late: the ship’s keel struck the shepherd with a sickening crunch. Fragments of wood floated to the surface.

Adrien de Gerlache.From KEYSTONE-FRANCE / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images.

Despite this warning, de Gerlache took the helm and propelled forward through unusually thick fog, eager to reach his long imagined destination. The cold and danger seemed to invigorate him. Creditors, critics, mutinous sailors and saboteurs were far behind – he was close enough to his destination to breathe the life-giving air, and nothing prevented him from reaching it.

His daring impressed Amundsen and even scared him a little. “The commander is not afraid. The engine is still running at 75 rpm, “Amundsen wrote in his diary on the night of January 21.” I can’t help but admire his boldness. Always ahead. I will follow him happily and try to do my duty.

Carl August Wiencke, 20, was at the helm shortly before noon on January 22 when high winds blew the sea into a frenzy. The penguins came in and out of the chop. By constantly adjusting the wheel for yaw, pitch and roll, Wiencke did his best to keep the ship stable and on board, and to avoid oncoming icebergs. He was new to work. Hired as a cabin attendant, the Norwegian had been promoted to sailor in Punta Arenas in recognition of his zeal and good humor after the dismissal of four rebel Belgians.

Wiencke had grown used to the music of storms, the way the winds “seemed to want to tear everything apart and howl from the rig with the highest highs to the deepest bass,” he told his diary. He came to life in such storms, which reminded him of Beethoven’s sonatas. Loved by the crew and officers, Wiencke had shown himself worthy of the faith of his leaders. He volunteered for the most dangerous jobs, eager to show his agility and too often ignoring Amundsen’s calls for caution.

Now he was facing his toughest challenge yet. Icebergs threatened to assault the ship from all sides. It started to snow, further limiting visibility. Sheets of spray slammed into Wiencke’s yellow sou’wester and waxed coat.

the Belgicathe captain, Georges Lecointe.From the Limburgensia collection of the Bibliotheek Hasselt Limburg.

Huge waves hit the Belgica amidships and flooded in the hold through the open main hatch. Wiencke heard Amundsen’s voice cut through the sound of the wind, calling him from the bridge to help him. After handing the wheel over to Belgian sailor Gustave-Gaston Dufour, Wiencke climbed down the ladder and splashed knee-deep in the water that was now flooding the deck. Normally, small openings in the rampart called scuppers allowed seawater to drain off the bridge, but they were now blocked by loose lumps of coal. As the ship swayed, the water swung from one side of the deck to the other. The pool got deeper with each wave that crashed into the railings. Wiencke ran alongside Amundsen, struggling to keep his balance. The first journeyman ordered Wiencke to help his comrade Ludwig-Hjalmar Johansen to lead out one of the scuppers. Various members of the crew had pricked it with a wooden dowel and only succeeded in wrapping the charcoal more tightly. Both should get creative.

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