The most dangerous journey on earth has begun. A group of four British explorers (plus one Canadian) are trying to cross Antarctica’s 2,000 km diameter in the middle of winter, on skis and via heated caterpillar tractors. As Canadian team-member Spencer Smirl from Peace River said on CBC: “You’ve got to have with you at least a year of food and fuel so if something goes wrong, you can be self-sufficient until the next summer when airplanes can come down and rescue you.”
In fact, failure is practically guaranteed. Darkness will reign for four months. Temperatures will fall to below –90 C. Indeed, the inspiration for the epic journey, the world’s most famous living explorer – Sir Ranulph Fiennes – had to abandon the trip before it even began because of frostbite.
It’s all reminiscent of Edward Shackleton, who advertised 100 years ago for men to join him on his ill-fated trip to Antarctica with a promise that defined the spirit of the age: “Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
But the meaning of exploration has changed so profoundly in the last few years that explorers are forced to set ever more contrived and trivial goals in order to achieve ever smaller portions of glory and gold. Last June, 250 people reached the summit of Mt. Everest in a single weekend; meanwhile, in 2003, the same Ranulph Fiennes ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days; and entire TV series are now devoted to adventurers reaching goals that celebrate only the tyranny of tiny differences.
Besides, even the world’s coldest journey promises the warmth of virtual connection. “We do have lots of amenities,” Spencer Smirl said: “We have TV, full internet, lots of music and movies, so we can keep entertained.”
So if every foot of explorable earth has now been conquered, and amusement attends all our frozen steps, perhaps it’s time we redefined the meaning of the pursuit entirely.
As the explorer Sven Lindblad observed: “In the 21st century, exploration and adventure travel are no longer about firsts, at least on the earth itself, and especially on the seas. But there is no less wonder and opportunity now. In fact, I would say that the experiences offered now as a consequence of navigational tools, underwater technology and access to information, allow for far richer expeditions.”
But where should we take that new spirit of exploration?
It’s easy to say there’s no place left in the world that hasn’t heard a human heartbeat. However, in the next five to 10 years, huge swaths of what was under ice will be under water, and what was under water will be dry land. A vast part of that will be in the Canadian Arctic. If you’re an explorer or a trader or a country exerting your sovereignty, a whole new world will open to you: in a few years, you can take a ship through the Northwest Passage, opening what was the world’s second most desolate place to new trade routes and adventure. But this century, unlike the last, let’s please not allow the world of exploration and tourism to exploit Canada’s natural resources. This time, let’s heed Sven Lindblad’s call for a new spirit of exploration in an entirely new context recently defined by the Canadian anthropologist and explorer, Wade Davis.
He views the Arctic not as a vista of endless desolation, suitable only for the hardiest explorer, but as a critical part of what makes us Canadian: “The historic quest of the Passage and the Pole, the remarkable culture of the Inuit, their dark passage through much of the last century and the promise of Nunuvut, the looming crisis of the ice, the irrefutable evidence of climate change, the unprecedented geopolitical challenges as an entire ocean claimed by several nations, is within a single generation opened to the world’s shipping and industrial ambitions and hunger for resources.”
“Canadians should get to see first-hand this unfolding cultural, climatic and geopolitical saga upon which so much of this century will turn.”
So for a world seeking real and timeless adventure, perhaps it’s time we urged ourselves and the world to look in our own backyard.
Bob Ramsay is a Toronto writer and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.