The Unknown

What is it about the unknown? Why are we drawn to it? Why the fascination? Is it the rustling of the chimeras at the misty edge of perception? Perhaps it is the apprehension, that strange mixture of hope and fear that draws us onward, one eye cast back to keep the shadows at bay, the other trained forward searching out possibilities. Will the tiger be crouched in the shadows when I open the door? Or will sunlight flood a field of wonder, sights unseen by eyes of Man before? The distribution of our species attests to great migrations and voyages before recorded history, populating the distal reaches of the planet beyond memory of homeland and time. Quests run deep in our collective core, the myth of the Hero venturing into miraculous lands, vying with monsters, the plaything of Gods. Humans have always pushed toward the retreating horizon, or at least the Hero’s among us have.

Snowmobiling toward an unnamed peak on the west side of Scott Glacier, December, 1987.

In contrast to geographical boundaries which are ever diminishing, in science the boundaries to the unknown appear only to extend with each new discovery. Each deeper revelation opens new worlds. But as we come to contemplate a deep-field landscape of cold, dark matter and flat space/time, as we map the codes of life drawing ever closer to being one with the Creator, the mystery becomes no more explicable. Nature transcends in detail and in scale. What is the purpose, the cause, what is the nature of the Spirit? Why are we drawn to these questions at all? Perhaps we are drawn to the unknown for an understanding of ourselves. What does the seeker seek after all, but insight?

Ice-cored moraine swirls in the interior valley of the La Gorce Mountains, December, 1980.

[nggallery id=30] The week's gallery features a set of random shots from the 1986-87 field season in the Scott Glacier area.

Amundsen Reaches South Pole; Scott Starts up Beardmore Glacier

December 14, 1911, 100 years ago this week, the Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen arrived at the South Pole. Their apprehension that the British team had beaten them to their goal evaporated like breath in the cold air. Here at Earth’s still turning with the sun inscribing a perfect circle in the sky, Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting posed, heads bare, before their nation’s flag. Olav Bjaaland, operating the camera, missed out on the heros’ shot.

Norwegian party at the South Pole. (From "The South Pole" by Roald Amundsen, 1913.)

Meanwhile, the British party, led by Robert Falcon Scott, was toiling its way on the lower Beardmore Glacier, still more than a month out from the end point of their march. On December 9, two miles short of The Gateway, they had shot their five ponies. The next day the 12 men (combined polar and support parties) man-hauled through the pass that Shackleton had discovered three years before in his own, failed bid for the Pole. Where the mighty, outlet glaciers of the Transantarctic Mountains enter the Ross Ice Shelf, they tear great chasms of crevasses. Such features had stopped Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson in 1902 from reaching land at the mouths of both Byrd Glacier and Nimrod Glacier. However, at the mouth of Beardmore Glacier the land head on the north side is an isolated mountain (Mt. Hope) with a narrow passage of smooth ice between it and the main portion of the mountains.

The route through The Gateway shielded Scott's party, and Shackleton's before them, from the savage crevasses where Beardmore Glacier enters the Ross Ice Shelf.

On December 13, the day before the Norwegians reached the Pole, Scott had written that the day was “most damnably dismal,” and that he had had trouble sleeping because of indigestion and his soggy condition. On the 14th, conditions improved as deep, soft snow gave way to harder snow and easier pulling, but the race had already been lost. (The following figures are from "The Roof at the Bottom of the World.")

Shaded-relief, topographic map showing route taken by Scott's party enroute to the South Pole.

By December 17 Scott's party was rounding The Cloudmaker, the broad ridge midway up Beardmore Glacier, and heading south along the snowy, less-crevassed margin of the glacier.

By December 20, Scott's party had reached Mt. Darwin, the last outcrop of rock at the head of Beardmore Glacier. What lay ahead was the polar plateau and uncertainty.

Gallery – Transantarctic Mountiains (TAM) 1.0

This week's gallery features four photos of the Transantarctic Mountains that were to appear in an App that never materialized..