Authors: Matt Dickinson
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for my son
Research for this Antarctic novel would not have been possible without the kind invitation of explorers Julian Freeman-Attwood and Skip Novak to join their expedition to Terra Incognita. I don't think I've ever laughed so muchâor been more terrifiedâin my life, and the wonders we witnessed there have left me with a longing to return. I would also like to thank the personnel of the Argentine base on Deception Island and the Commander of the British Base Faraday on the Antarctic Peninsula for their warm welcome and their patient efforts to explain the mysteries of spectrophotometers, ion chromatographs and lakes beneath the ice.
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Enchanted as a child by tales of the last unexplored continent on earth, Carl Norland had fallen in love with Antarctica. Now, not far short of his twenty-seventh birthday, the Norwegian explorer was beginning to appreciate that it was a love affair which mightâquite soonâend with his death.
âGreat God! This is an awful placeâ¦' Robert Falcon Scott had written as he dragged his dispirited and starving team into second place at the South Pole in 1912. Now, Carl knew exactly how he felt.
Carl turned his face to the north. Somewhere beyond that dark horizon, there was a world of warmth, of light and the love of a wife and daughter. But if he didn't act fast, he was never going to see that world again.
Carl crawled into the tent and pulled the emergency beacon from the side pocket of the rucksack. He cradled the device in his hands, ignoring the searing pain in his fingers, the crackle of the frostbite blisters as his skin flexed and broke. Many days earlier the last battery on their main radio had failed, leaving this transmitter as their final lifeline. This box of tricks had to work, he prayed, or no one would ever find them.
The unit weighed 2.1 kilos and had been manufactured by a specialist communications company in Maine. Mostly they were bought by yachtsmen in case of capsize, but it would do its job just as well here in the heart of Antarctica.
The casing was yellow plastic, a stubby black rubber aerial protruding for six inches or so from the top. Next to it was a red switch marked
Activate only in emergency.
The switch was protected by a plastic seal to prevent it being fired by an accidental knock.
Once activated, the beacon would emit a constant radio pulse on the international distress frequency of 121.5 mhz. The pulse would be picked up by a passing satellite, the signal relayed instantly to a permanently manned station in New Hampshire. Their position would be fixed, and a rescue plane would be dispatched from Tierra del Fuegoâthe landmass closest to Antarctica.
More than anything he had ever desired before, Carl wanted to rip open that seal and throw the switch.
He stumbled out of the tent and stood swaying on his swollen feet as a bitter gust of wind ran through the camp. There was a haze of frozen fog lying a few metres above the glacier, but above it Carl could see as far as the Madderson Range, almost two hundred miles distant.
What were they trying to prove here? Carl squinted through windbeaten eyes at the immensity of the landscape that surrounded them and realised he was no longer sure.
Three and a half months earlier, he and one other had set out from the far side of this continent, men of supreme motivation and commitment, men who could endure phenomenal levels of pain. Their plan was an audacious oneâa crossing of Antarctica at its
point, a trek of more than two thousand miles, which would establish their names alongside the great legends of Antarctic exploration. It was a noble quest, they had thought, a prize worth fighting forâan opportunity to join the most rarified club in the world.
They were manhauling, each starting out with a sledge carrying five hundred pounds of gear. The weight had been crucifying, the straps chafing running sores into their flesh, their bodies deteriorating with every passing day until they were on the very point of collapse.
They were unsupported. Totally alone.
Nowâeighty miles short of their objectiveâthey had failed. There was no food left on which to survive. The rolling ocean of ice had sucked the flesh from their bones, sapped the very essence of sinew and muscle away until they were reduced to the stumbling progress of a child. Carl reckoned he had lost about fifteen kilos, his skin tightening against his skeleton the way that vacuum-packed plastic clings to supermarket meat.
Winter was closing in on them. Daylight was down to just a few gloomy hours a day. Soon the permanent night of the Antarctic winter would fall across the ice sheet, and then there would be no escape.
It was time to get out. And fast.
Before him, slumped in a despondent heap against his sledge, was Julian Fitzgerald, crosser of continents, planter of flags, conqueror of the heights and depths, and member of that elite band of media-friendly explorers whose faces are as familiar on TV chat-show circuits as they are in the hallowed corridors of the Royal Geographical Society of London and the Explorers Club of New York.
Fitzgerald was as close as an explorer could ever get to a celebrity with a truly global profile, an obsessive expeditioner for whom the expression âbeen there, done that' might have been invented. He had dived the deepest trenches of the oceans, walked alone across the deserts of Australia and Namibia and put his marker on the summits of Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga. When it came to playing the media, Fitzgerald was a grand master: just as the press tired of mountain exploits, he would announce his intention to explore the deepest cave system on the planet; if seafaring was in vogue, he would enter a round-the-world yacht race, and no sooner had the oceans begun to pale than he would pop up in the colour supplements with a plan to conquer the poles.
The fact that a significant number of Fitzgerald's expeditions had ended in failure never seemed to diminish the media's appetite for more of the same.
Fitzgerald had his fans, but they wouldn't have recognised the faded figure lying on the ice in front of Carl. He was staring into the white beyond, his bloodshot eyes oblivious to the glare, his face locked into what could almost have been a death mask so devoid was it of expression.
He showed no sign that he was aware of Carl standing next to him and no sign that he had seen the emergency transmitter in the Norwegian's hand.
Carl watched him for a while, noting how Fitzgerald's reddening beard was matted with ice where fluid had dribbled from his mouth and nose, how his cheeks were sunken, his powerful frame reduced to fractions of its former strength. Even the aristocratic sweep of Fitzgerald's nose was encrusted with the blisters of radiation and frost.
Carl sat, easing the pain in his legs, wondering if he had the courage to tell Fitzgerald what he had decided and wondering, also, how this adventure had ever gone so wrong.
The two men had met a year before, a chance encounter at the Alpine Club, where Fitzgerald was holding a launch party for the publication of his latest expedition book. Carl had been in awe of the great man, a little embarrassed even, tongue-tied in the presence of this legend who had been something of a childhood hero. Fitzgerald was initially offhand, but on learning that Carl was an expeditioner himselfâand that he had recently skied across the Greenland ice cap in record timeâhis attitude changed. The explorer gave Carl his card, asked him to make contact to arrange a longer meeting and then moved gracefully on to apply his legendary charm elsewhere in the room.
Three days later, the two men lunched at Fostersâa traditional English restaurant steeped in old-fashioned charm, where fare such as jugged hare and spotted dick was treated with due gastronomic reverence.
âMy favourite restaurant,' Fitzgerald confided. âI dream of it while I'm out on the ice.'
He went on to tell Carl of his planned Antarctic journey and asked the Norwegianâquite bluntlyâto explain his background.