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Exclusive excerpt: An icy death at the bottom of the world

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In August 1897, the first scientific expedition to Antarctica left Antwerp, Belgium, aboard a small whaling ship called Belgium. Their untested leader, 31-year-old Adrien de Gerlache, had assembled an international crew that included Belgian and Scandinavian sailors, scientists from Eastern Europe, and two future legends of polar exploration: Barnumesque’s American ship medic Frederick Cook, and the Viking. as the Norwegian First Officer, Roald Amundsen. The men of the Belgium they were largely unprepared for one of the most hostile environments on earth. After a tumultuous five-month voyage south from Europe, during which De Gerlache faced biblical storms, looked at the mutinous sailors, and ran aground in Tierra del Fuego, it felt like a miracle that the ship even approached the shores of Antarctica.

The narrative extracted here is based on the diaries and memories of the Belgium ‘s survivors.

Antarctica was imagined before it was seen. The ancient Greeks, who already believed that the earth was spherical, reasoned that a large land mass must exist at the other end of the globe to counteract the known continents of the northern hemisphere. This hypothetical land received various names over the centuries, including Terra Australis Incognita. The one that stayed, Antarctica, is an antonym of “Arctic”, derived from the Greek word ἄ.ρκτος, or “bear”, because the northernmost regions of the planet lie directly below the constellations Ursa Major (Big Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).

According to Polynesian tradition, the great seventh-century navigator Ui-te-Rangiora ventured so far south in a canoe, made in part of human bones, that he saw “bare rocks growing in the frozen sea,” presumably cébergs. If this story is true, it would be almost a thousand years before another man felt the icy breath of Antarctica. That was the English privateer Francis Drake, who circled the earth at a time when cartographers were populating the bottom of maps with chimerical monsters. Tasked with finding Terra Australis Incognita and claiming it for Queen Elizabeth (and keeping any Spanish treasure he might loot along the way), Drake sailed on the Golden Hind, one of the three galleons under his command, crossed Tierra del Fuego in 1578. As he was leaving for the Pacific, a terrible storm threw his ship into the unexplored waters south of Cape Horn.

“The winds were as if the bowels of the earth had set everything free,” wrote Francis Fletcher, a priest aboard the Golden Hind, “Or as if the clouds under the sky had gathered to put their strength in that place.” The 500 miles that separate Cape Horn from the South Shetland Islands became known as the Drake Passage. Another 65 miles, the Bransfield Strait, lies between those islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, or Graham Land, the mainland’s extended tendril.

Roald Amundsen.From Everett / Shutterstock.

The Belgium He left South America on January 14, 1899. It took him seven days to complete the Stygian crossing between civilization and the planet’s icy underworld. At first, the ship enjoyed relatively calm seas, experiencing little of the fury described by Fletcher and many sailors since. De Gerlache was able to maintain the Belgium stable enough for Polish oceanographer Henryk Arctowski to make a series of depth soundings, some of the first recorded south of Cape Horn.

While he worked, some sailors amused themselves by plucking albatrosses from the sky. Their method was curious: they baited a hook and threw a line into the air. A bird swooped down to catch the bait before it hit the water, only to be hauled aboard and killed. The men discovered that the long, hollow bones of the albatross’ wings formed beautiful pipes.

Obviously the crew had forgotten about their Coleridge. The BelgiumLuck with the weather changed almost immediately. The next day, bags of oil were needed to calm the raging sea. (In the 19th century, it was common practice to release oil to the surface of the water, where it would spread in a wide layer but one molecule thick that would reduce the wind’s ability to gain strength at sea and churn the water cocoons. .)

On January 19, a flash shone on the horizon, cast over blackened skies. This was “Landblink”, a reflection of the snow-covered South Shetland Islands that lie beyond the curvature of the earth. Later that day, all the men on board rushed to the deck to watch the first iceberg pass, a white bacon several miles away. Curiosity soon turned to dread. The fog thickened on the night of the 20th, and the Belgium it sped slowly into the darkness, from which monstrous white masses, some taller than its masts, emerged without warning, one after another.

When the chief engineer, Henri Somers, lowered the engine pressure to repair the malfunctioning condenser one morning, the men could suddenly hear the thunderous collision of ice in the distance, the rumbling of the Antarctic beast. A large iceberg emerged from the fog. The 28-year-old captain, a brilliant but short-tempered Belgian sailor named Georges Lecointe, tried to dodge it, but it was too late: the ship’s keel crashed into the iceberg with a sickening crack. Fragments of wood floated on the surface.

Adrien de Gerlache.From KEYSTONE-FRANCE / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images.

Despite this warning, de Gerlache took the helmet and advanced through an exceptionally thick fog, eager to reach his long-imagined destination. The cold and danger seemed to invigorate him. Creditors, critics, mutinous sailors and saboteurs were far behind: he was close enough to his destination to inhale its invigorating air, and nothing was stopping him from reaching it.

Her audacity impressed Amundsen and even scared him a little. “The commander is not afraid. The engine is still running at 75 revs, “Amundsen wrote in his diary on the night of January 21.” I can’t help but admire your boldness. Go ahead always. I will happily follow him and try to do my duty. “

Twenty-year-old Carl August Wiencke was at the helm shortly before noon on January 22 when sudden gale force winds drove the sea into a frenzy. The penguins were in and out of the chop. By constantly adjusting the rudder for yaw, pitch and roll, Wiencke did his best to keep the ship steady and on course, and to avoid approaching icebergs. He was new to the job. Hired as a cabin boy, the Norwegian had been promoted to sailor in Punta Arenas in recognition of his zeal and good humor after four Belgian rebels were fired.

Wiencke had tuned in to the music of the storms, the way the winds “seemed to want to destroy everything and screamed in the rig with the highest treble to the deepest bass,” as he confided in his diary. He came to life in such storms, which reminded him of Beethoven’s sonatas. Loved by both the crew and the officers, Wiencke had proven himself worthy of the faith of his leaders. He volunteered for the most dangerous tasks, eager to show his agility and too often ignoring Amundsen’s pleas for caution.

Now he faced his toughest challenge yet. The icebergs threatened to assault the ship from all directions. It began to snow, further limiting visibility. Sheets of spray crashed into Wiencke’s yellow winter and rubber coat.

The Belgiumthe captain, Georges Lecointe.From the Limburgensia collection of Bibliotheek Hasselt Limburg.

Huge waves crashed over him Belgium amidships and flooded the hold through the open main hatch. Wiencke heard Amundsen’s voice breaking through the noise of the wind, calling for him from the bridge to help him. After handing the helm to Belgian sailor Gustave-Gaston Dufour, Wiencke lowered the ladder and dove into the knee-deep water that now flooded the deck. Normally, small openings in the bulwark called scuppers allowed seawater to drain off the deck, but now they were blocked by loose chunks of coal. As the ship rocked, water spilled from one side of the deck to the other. The pool deepened with each wave that crashed against the railings. Wiencke ran to Amundsen’s side, struggling to keep his balance. The first mate ordered Wiencke to help his partner Ludwig-Hjalmar Johansen unclog one of the scuppers. Several crew members had been prodding it with a wooden dowel and had only managed to pack the charcoal harder. The two of them would have to be creative.

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