Antarctica Episode Seven: The Seventh Continent

For me, setting foot in a new place is quite an emotional experience. Not in the crying sense, but in the sense that I’m excited about an accomplishment. And truthfully, most of that “accomplishment” belongs to the pilot flying us there. Rarely can I take much credit for an achievement like this. Landing in Antarctica, however, was a bit different.

In all of the previous episodes, I’ve been writing about what brought other people to Antarctica.

It turns out I found great joy in each of those reasons. But the reason I came in the first place was [insert cheesy drumroll]…Stepping onto the Seventh Continent. After this trip, I’ll have been to every continent. That means this was to be the final time I’d step onto a continent for the first time.

We were along the Palmer Peninsula in the top right corner of this map. Image courtesy of Google.

We were along the Palmer Peninsula in the top right corner of this map. Image courtesy of Google.

Believe it or not, defining “Antarctica” is actually a somewhat controversial topic. Surprising, I know. There are many, many islands in this part of the world. We began our journey, for example, on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. It would be easy to consider a visit to one of these islands as my first step on Antarctica. But some folks would argue that an island doesn’t count. There are still others who say you haven’t made it to Antarctica until you’ve crossed the Antarctic Circle, which is at 66° 33′ 39″. We only made it as far south as 65° 08′. Now, there’s a third camp occupying the middle ground who say you haven’t arrived until you’ve set foot on the Continent itself. I’d tend to agree with them.

So, on the fourth day of our trip, it was time to settle the argument for good. We dropped anchor at Orne Harbor and were given two options. We could either take a relatively straightforward walk or we could opt for a snowshoeing expedition. Obviously, I chose to snowshoe. The day before at the British station at Port Lockroy, I’d had a very lovely (cold) experience snowshoeing across a gently rolling hill. How could this be much different, I thought?

Sure, the first day's trek was cold. I think the picture shows that. But it was pretty easy, too!

Sure, the first day’s trek was cold. I think the picture shows that. But it was pretty easy, too! That’s our ship over there in the corner.

Allow me to explain some geography. One of the most visually appealing aspects of the Continent are the massive cliffs that mark the edge of the Palmer Peninsula. I can’t understate the sheer nature of these cliffs and fjords. It turns out that those cliffs are so prevalent that there are very few places where people can get onto Antarctica proper.  I didn’t know that when I said I’d be happy to showshoe. So, we got onto a zodiac and motored away from the ship.

“Boy,” I thought, “there doesn’t seem to be a spot to get out of this boat. I guess we’re going around that bend. There must be a gently rolling hill on the other side of that giant cliff.”

Again, I was wrong. Dead. Freaking. Wrong. The zodiac driver went straight for that giant practically-vertical cliff. Only thing was, he couldn’t quite get us onto shore. He tried one spot, but the rocks were to craggy. Another spot and the ice was too thick. A third, and both the ice and the rocks got in the way.

Finally, on our fourth attempt to find a place to park the zodiac, I realized this was going to be difficult. Really difficult. We gave up trying to get the zodiac onto shore. The ice was simply too thick and the rocks just too close to the surface. The zodiac got as close as it could and we walked the last few steps onto the Continent through the ice-laden sea.

Achievement earned: I’d literally carried myself onto the Seventh Continent!

But, wait. It ain’t over yet…

There's my Antarctic Plymouth Rock. My first step on the Continent was on that spot.

There’s my Antarctic Plymouth Rock. My first step on the Continent was on that spot. In hindsight, I should have gotten back into that zodiac and headed to the warm ship.

Finally there, I looked straight up at a cliff that was probably 500 feet high and about 65 degrees of slope. Not vertical. But remarkably close.

“Are we going up there?” I asked, tentatively.

“Yeah! This is some of the best snowshoeing in Antarctica!”

We needed harnesses, but didn’t have enough. I drew the short straw so our guide concocted one for me with rope. We began the slow march up the cliff face. This was an all out climb, not a pleasant stroll. Every man for himself. My challenges began with the first step:

  • My harness wouldn’t stay on.
  • My right boot wouldn’t stay strapped onto the snowshoe
  • My trekking poles wouldn’t lock in place.
  • My lack of coordination, which is ordinarily a slight challenge, became a violent disadvantage.

As we climbed, I’d fall, on average, every five or six feet.

The worst part? I didn’t ask for any help. Why would I do that? That would make too much sense. I’m a man! I don’t need anybody to show me how to do anything. I’ll figure it out. Or look like a fool doing it!

Sorry I don’t have more pictures, but I was struggling up there. In fact, I’ve probably never been so uncomfortable in my life.

But I did it.

Thanks, in part, to the fact that the guide finally realized I was having problems and — without me asking — gave a quick lesson. Apparently it’s important to “double tap” every footstep and dig your feet in. Who knew? I wish I’d known sooner than halfway up the cliff. As I was gingerly implementing the new technique, I looked to my left and saw a pair of penguins leisurely walking along like it was no big deal. Damn you penguin!

That little dot down there is our ship.

That little dot down there is our ship. You know, the one you probably can’t even see.

We finally reached the top and it occurred to me that we’d need to figure out a way to get down. But, no. We weren’t leaving yet. Our guide had other plans. He took us across the ridge — into the 30 mph wind — to yet another penguin rookery. The penguins that passed us on the cliff were headed there.

Apparently there's a crevasse in this picture that I failed to notice. When we were all done, our guide expressed genuine fear that I hadn't noticed it.

Apparently there’s a crevasse in this picture that I failed to notice. Do you see it? Didn’t think so. When we were all done, our guide expressed genuine fear that I hadn’t noticed it, either. It could have swallowed us all.

When we finally reached the penguin rookery, the guide explained to our group where to go to get the best pictures. Then, he looked at me and told me where to go to get off the mountain. He said, “The exit is over there.” Exit? That was a nice way of describing the long, barely contained fall that got me back to the ship.

So, my final first step on a new continent was quite possibly my most challenging. Although in all honesty, I don’t remember my first step on North America. But, unlike that one, I’ll never forget my first step onto Antarctica mostly because it was so personally painful.

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