John Freeman Gill
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After all I had heard about Antarctica's windblown hostility, it was a pleasure to find that in January the icecap can be more blush than bluster. The summer sun, which takes increasingly shorter naps the farther south you sail, often washes the icescape with a surprising, peach-sherbet light. And when the coast's ruddiness is reflected in a glassy bay, the resulting play of pastel blues and pinks, punctuated with jagged scraps of floating ice, looks like something out of a Monet.

Gaining this view is not easy, for traveling to Antarctica's Ross Sea, which my father and I undertook last January on a Russian-owned icebreaker, can feel a bit like going to the moon. The journey -- seven days each direction through the nauseating swells of the Southern Ocean -- is as arduous as the polar terrain is alien. Just reaching the Australian island of Tasmania, our launching point, required a marathon series of airplane flights.

Ninety-five percent of Antarctica's visitors opt for one of the shorter, less strenuous cruises that depart from South America and make a two-day passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. But my father, who had grown up reading about early polar explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, was eager to follow their route to the Ross Ice Shelf, a 23-day voyage extending as far south on the planet as one can travel by ship.

So there we were aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a 22,000-horsepower icebreaker chartered by Quark Expeditions, enjoying a jaunty bagpipe bon voyage performed by Tasmania's Finest -- a ring of tanned local policemen in shorts and knee socks. After the ship weighed anchor and headed down the Derwent River, the 110 passengers sat down to dinner. Sveta, our unflappable Russian waitress, earnestly asked each of us, "Meat or feesh?" thereby exhausting her English vocabulary. I chose the meat, my father the fish, and so began a shameless, multicourse eatathon orchestrated by our Austrian chefs: steaming vegetable soup, mixed salad, fruit, cheese, fine French or Australian wine and a delicate fish or hearty beef entree, followed by ice cream and fresh pastry.


Life at sea was looking awfully cushy -- until we emerged that evening from the Derwent into the Southern Ocean, where all hell broke loose. The Khlebnikov is a top-heavy behemoth designed for the flat waters of the Arctic. The ship resembles a boxy, 10-story hotel welded onto a hull, and on the open sea it acts like it, rolling side to side every 12 seconds. Moving about feels like balancing on the tip of a great metronome, and the clatter of breaking dishes from the kitchen (broken arms among the passengers would follow, ably set by the ship's American doctor) provided our first clue why Quark billed this trip as a voyage and not a cruise. Before the night was out, we discovered that any object placed on the desk in our Spartan beige cabin became a projectile almost instantly.

The next morning, after a sleepless night of being hurled against headboard and footboard, gray seasickness bags appeared in every hallway, tucked behind the handrail. They would prove necessary. Though the trip's organizers had taken on more passengers than the two dining rooms could accommodate, this overbooking was not a problem on the open sea, as each day a goodly number never made it out of their cabins to meals. Even New Zealand's government representatives, including a manager of the nation's Antarctic Program, were laid up for days, trapped in a windowless cabin on whose door a previous inmate had scrawled the nickname "The Vile Cupboard."

Over the next three days, we weathered storms that included a force 10 gale and 55-knot gusts, tons of water crashing over the Khlebnikov's bow. Staying put was advisable, and my favorite place to do that was in the library, a small, pleasant lounge with a broad selection of Antarctic titles. Over cups of fresh brewed coffee, the well-informed passengers, more than half of whom had visited the polar regions before, compared notes and researched the petrels and albatross they spotted. Though our group included many Americans and Europeans, Australians predominated, their dry wit proving contagious. When a tottery older woman crawled into the library as the ship was corkscrewing wildly, one man inquired, "While you're down there, can you pray for better weather?"


On day five, 833 miles southeast of Tasmania, the floors finally stopped seesawing as the ship anchored off subantarctic Macquarie Island. After bundling up like red Michelin men (each passenger had been issued a puffy parka), we trooped down the gangway and hopped into rubber Zodiac landing craft.

As we motored landward, we were greeted in the shallows by the wide-eyed stare of a three-ton elephant seal floating with deceptive grace. We splashed ashore, interlopers in a bleakly beautiful land. The gray sand was littered with cords of rubbery kelp, straight-backed king penguins strutted forth to inspect our gumboots, and amid it all, flopped on the beach with supreme indifference, lay a gargantuan pile of snoozing elephant seals, their flabby bodies as intertwined as a heap of elbow macaroni.

While we looked on, the young seals lounged cheek-by-jowl with their buddies, belching and snorting, one or another of them occasionally extending a surprisingly articulated flipper to scratch his belly. Now and then, someone in the pile got grumpy, reared up menacingly, and let loose a gurgling belch. His neighbor then rose up in turn, gave a hearty belch of his own, and the pair settled down again. This ritual, one of the Khlebnikov's lecturers explained, was a youthful imitation of the battle fought between the older bulls, or beachmasters, over cows.

Up the beach, harems of adult seals lolled in the grass, often a few feet from the rusted digesters used by 19th-century sealers to extract oil from their blubber. Nowadays, the residents of Macquarie's Australian scientific station study the animals instead of killing them. Conflict is rare, though a leather-faced ranger told me he was once inside his quonset hut when a elephant seal crashed through the window: "The poor darling must've seen his reflection in the glass and decided to fight himself."

After the ship left Macquarie, running smack into a force 9 gale, most passengers retreated to their cabins. Ours, on deck 6, was a serviceable beige cell with a porthole, a good-sized wardrobe, a metal desk, a small private bathroom and two beds arranged perpendicular to each other. All over the ship, debate raged over who had it worse -- those who slept bow-to-stern, their elbows battered by the ship's roll, or those who lay port-to-starboard, their bodily liquids sloshing head to toe. Each camp was thoroughly convinced that their cabinmates were sleeping like babies.

Passengers fought off cabin fever by stumbling up to the lecture room on deck 7, where an illuminating program of films and talks stuffed our heads with Antarctic fact and lore. Among the superb lecturers was Wally Herbert, a polar explorer who mapped on foot some 46,000 square miles of Antarctica in the 1950's, originating hundreds of place names for the region we were to visit.

Three days out of Macquarie, the sea calmed and the Khlebnikov crossed the Antarctic Circle (66 degrees 33 minutes south). The previous evening, as the sky turned from silver to purple to black, we had spotted our first iceberg, a boomerang-shaped, half-mile-long beauty that had likely calved off the Ross Ice Shelf and floated northwest several hundred miles.

We had arrived at last -- and at a time rich with history. One hundred years ago that week, the Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink and two comrades had become the first humans to set foot on the frozen continent when they leaped ashore from a whale boat belonging to the steamer Antarctic. In a few days, we would visit the hut Borchgrevink left behind. In the meantime, we would confront the kinds of frozen obstacles that had threatened to crush his far more vulnerable ship.

I suppose most of us have some image of what an iceberg looks like, and that first, monstrously lonely silhouette, floating on the horizon at nightfall, had matched my expectations. But the following morning I stepped onto the bridge and was greeted by the shimmering spectacle of eight colossal bergs, dead ahead, hovering in the distance like some otherworldly gateway. As we drew within a few miles, another equally awesome flotilla appeared just behind the first, immense blocks resembling cliff-faced islands. Gleaming in the sun with beauty and menace, these were mostly flat-topped bluffs that had calved with a roar off the Astrolabe Glacier and floated north.

Soon the entire ocean, from ship to horizon in three directions, was an archipelago of towering white bergs. The passengers, bundled against the wind and clicking their cameras madly, thronged the decks, running from starboard to port and back again, behaving as though each 100-foot-tall ice mountain were the last on earth -- even as hundreds more could be seen ahead. Often, at a berg's water line, the light caught the sea and turned it the brilliant blue of liquefied lapis lazuli.

A few breathless hours later, the ship encountered pack ice -- floating sheets three or more feet thick. On the bridge, a lanky Russian in a sweatsuit tried to guide the Khlebnikov into the swaths of black water between the floes. But when the pack grew too dense, the helmsman headed straight into it, the horseshoe-shaped bow riding up onto the ice, then crashing through it, tossing aside great slabs while jagged fissures raced ahead hundreds of feet.

Now in her element, the Khlebnikov moved serenely onward with no hint of pitch or roll. The same ice conditions, which produced a celebratory mood on the Khlebnikov, were cause for alarm on the Antarctic in 1895. En route to Cape Adare, the steamer struggled for 36 days to penetrate 500 miles of pack that threatened to crush its hull.

Before long the Khlebnikov approached a region where no surface water remained unfrozen. Veering from the Antarctic's route, our icebreaker plowed into a vast plain of fast ice -- sea ice held fast to the coast. The shore was not visible, however, and since the fast ice looked as solid as terra firma, we appeared to be gliding magically overland. As the steel hull broke the ice with a rumble that sounded like a giant chewing boulders, we entered a world unlike any I had imagined. In all directions, as far as the eye could see, stretched a rose-tinged moonscape of unbroken, brackish ice, dotted with bergs held motionless by the frozen ocean. They call Antarctica the White Continent, but the Pink Continent might be more apt.

Over the next few days we hopscotched along the coast, staying north of the fast ice where possible and making landfall at the small French base of Dumont d'Urville and at Commonwealth Bay (known as "the windiest place on earth" but eerily calm during our visit). Finally, on Feb. 1, we anchored in the mirror-still open water at the entrance to the Ross Sea, where we landed at Cape Adare in Borchgrevink's footsteps. The Norwegian maverick's wooden hut -- built on a second expedition four years after his 1895 landing -- still stood on the sandy shore, literally frozen in time by the subzero temperatures. In these cramped quarters, 10 men endured the first winter ever spent by humans on the Antarctic mainland, each sleeping in a bunk that Borchgrevink described as "an enclosure which can hold its own with the modern coffin."

Although Cape Adare was the beachhead in man's conquest of the continent, no one had bothered to tell the Adelie penguins. Half a million of them were disrespectfully waddling over century-old canned provisions. Thousands of hungry baby Adelies, many sporting punk hairdos as a result of irregular molting, chased their mothers around, raising a marvelous hullabaloo.

By the time the Khlebnikov parked in the fast ice of McMurdo Sound, the farthest south a ship can penetrate, our landings were coming fast and furious. In one extraordinary day, we flew by helicopter (the Khlebnikov carries two) to American and New Zealand bases on Ross Island; flew into the Dry Valleys, a cold, ice-free desert where no rain has fallen in two million years, and entered the huts of expeditions led by Scott and Shackleton early this century.

Of the five historic huts the Khlebnikov visited, Scott's wooden shelter at Cape Evans, base for his fatal trudge to the South Pole, seemed most populated with ghosts. In January 1912, Scott and four comrades man-hauled sledges to the bottom of the world, only to discover a flag left by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who had beaten them by a month. Exhausted, depressed, and short on rations, the five men headed back, all freezing to death.

Inside the restored Cape Evans hut, sun slanted through the windows, illuminating the lives that had preceded those deaths. In the center was a dining table, setting for the photograph of Scott and his men celebrating their leader's last birthday. Resting on bunks along the walls were reindeer-skin sleeping bags and battered boots.

Before the day was out, a stunning wildlife display provided a vivid contrast to Scott's demise. Standing on the sun-bleached bridge at 10 in the evening, with the Khlebnikov parked in a prairie of ice, a dozen of us watched with binoculars as a killer whale poked his head out of the channel the icebreaker had made.

Prompted by our Australian expedition leader, Greg Mortimer, we descended the gangway to the frozen Ross Sea. How surreal it felt, standing below a 10-story icebreaker, looking up at its rusty hull as we prepared to walk on the sea. But walk on the sea we did, slip-sliding the quarter mile to the hole where the whale had surfaced.

Moments later, as we stood seven feet away, out shot the orca, punching through the Antarctic stillness, his handsome head blowing spray in a mighty exhalation. With a grace that seemed slow motion, he rose six feet, appeared to stop midair, then slipped back down. He repeated this balletic motion four times, now flaunting his dorsal fin, now rolling to show off his jet black tail.

So transfixed was I that I failed to notice, until someone nudged me, that the orca had chosen as backdrop the tallest mountain in Antarctica, Mount Erebus. My fingers were numb beneath two pairs of gloves, and my earlobes were stinging, but not for the world would I have missed the finale. As the late-night sun painted a frozen sea, wonder layering upon wonder, the killer whale surged 10 feet out of the water and rotated slowly to face us, his black-and-white head silhouetted against the Pink Continent.

Following explorers of the Antarctic

Quark Expeditions visits the Ross Sea every Antarctic summer, between late November and late February. This season, the Kapitan Khlebnikov will travel the explorers' route, which I took, from Feb. 1 to 25. Per-person cabin rates range from $8,890 (triple) to $11,890 (lower-deck twin) to $15,990 (corner suite); all cabins have private baths.

These costs include all meals and shore excursions, and up to two hours in the ship's two helicopters, which are used to reach extraordinary geological sites like the Dry Valleys and the Ross Ice Shelf, a floating 150-foot-tall ice barrier. (Before entering these helicopters, passengers are required to sign a form acknowledging that they do so at their own risk.) All landings are subject to weather conditions, with some scheduled destinations inevitably bypassed. On our voyage, the ship encountered the heaviest ice conditions in 40 years and lost too much time to visit the ice shelf. Spaces on this season's trip are limited, so travelers should book passage immediately.

In addition to the education program aboard the Khlebnikov, which features daily talks and films in the comfortable lecture room, shipboard diversions include a bar tended by a mustached Alsatian with a flair for recommending the right wine. The brochure also promises modern gym equipment, but don't expect the Vertical Club. What you'll find is not much better than a Cold War Soviet merchant-marine gymnasium, with rings and dumbbells strapped to a folded-up Ping-Pong table to keep them all from careering around at sea.

Next season, Quark will follow the explorer's route from Jan. 7 to 29, 1997, aboard a super ice class ship, the Bremen. A less top-heavy, more luxury-oriented ship than the Khlebnikov, the Bremen is equipped with stabilizers and experiences a bit less roll on the open sea. As an ice-strengthened ship rather than an icebreaker, however, it must avoid heavy ice and is therefore more constrained by adverse weather conditions around the Antarctic continent. Additionally, it has no helicopters. The rates per person range from $8,890 (standard outside double) to $16,490 (suite with veranda).

For those keen on feeling the crunch of ice beneath an icebreaker's hull in 1997, the Khlebnikov makes two longer voyages whose itineraries include the Ross Sea region. A 30-day expedition departs from the Falkland Islands on Jan. 27, crossing the Drake Passage and cruising along the Antarctic Peninsula and half the continent before heading north to New Zealand. A 66-day circumnavigation of the entire Antarctic continent leaves the Falkland Islands on Nov. 24, 1996.

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