Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Krakauer in Antarctica

  • Posted 02.11.03
  • NOVA

"Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It's like going to the moon." So says Jon Krakauer, noted mountaineer, author of Into Thin Air, and member of the eight-person NOVA expedition that summited Vinson, Antarctica's highest peak, by a new route in January 2001. In these excerpts from a series of interviews conducted during and immediately after the expedition by NOVA producer Liesl Clark, hear what Krakauer believes distinguishes the White Continent from anywhere else and why he is so attracted to wild places.

Jon Krakauer skis toward Mt. Vinson, Antarctica's highest mountain, which the NOVA team later summited by a new route. Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On exploring terra incognita

This place, to an amazing extent, is truly untrod. We're going to a place where no one's been before, where no one has set foot. It is a wild and unknown place, and you have a sense of that every time you stick your head out of the tent door.

There's a part of me that's sad—as every person who does this sort of thing must feel—that every time you go to a new place, it's not new anymore. You're using such places up. We try to minimize our impact so those who come after us won't know that we've been there unless they've read about it or seen the film.

You could say no one should come here at all, but I don't believe that. I think one of the reasons Antarctica has been preserved in its near-natural state is people have come here and brought back images and stories about how amazing it is. That, to some extent, has prevented countries from exploiting it for financial gain (although the main reason that people haven't done so, I have to admit, is that it's just too expensive and too difficult). We'll leave some small impact, but it will be infinitesimal in the big scale of things.

"There's real value in seeing a corner of the world that throws ordinary existence on its head."

One of the greatest joys of being in a place like this is its unearthly beauty. It's a very weird place, and a breathtakingly beautiful one. That to me is perhaps the main reason I love it here. We'll never get to the moon, we'll never get to Mars. This is as close as any of us are going to come. But it's pretty close in a way; that is, it's pretty far removed from day-to-day life in Colorado or Boston or all the places we come from. And there's real value in seeing a corner of the world that throws ordinary existence on its head.

The expedition's tents weather a sudden blow. Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On humility

There is this paradoxical sense one has of feeling very small in this huge and threatening landscape. Yet when you feel like you're holding your own, there is a tremendous satisfaction that comes with this—that you can cope with this and you can appreciate it, that you can survive and prevail if you just approach it with some humility and some forethought and keep your wits about you.

I'm really looking forward to getting into this place where people haven't been and testing ourselves against it and feeling that sense of power. I think all of us do this stuff in part for that sense of enforced humility, of being made to feel small, very small, in a very huge place. It's hard to explain it, but it's a wonderful feeling.

I think part of the appeal of Antarctica is experiencing some sort of power, the forces of the natural world. You're insulated from them so much in the lives we lead in the States, that when you have a chance to experience those forces.... You're just thrown out here. We have all this expensive gear, so we're not out here naked, but we have a lot of opportunities too feel how inconsequential we are.

That's uplifting. For me, and I think for most of us, it's sort of why we're here. You like to lean against that wind and feel that cold. It helps you imagine your place in the scheme of things. I don't know; there's nothing rational about it. It's why kids like to splash in puddles or dam creeks or play in waterfalls. It's all part of that same appeal.

The team on the Upper Dater Glacier Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On taking risks

You have to be willing to take risks. Amundsen took great risks, but they were very calculated risks. That's the key: to minimize those risks, and when you do have to take them, really measure them and decide whether the benefit is worth the hazard or the danger. We'll be doing that. Everyone who comes down here does that every time he leaves his tent and skies off a few miles. The other day we had this storm come in. It was a whiteout, and you couldn't see a hundred yards. It would have been very easy to get lost if you hadn't looked at a map or taken your GPS.

The remoteness is the thing that worries me most, because of potential injuries. You get a compound fracture in Colorado where I live, and you can probably be in a hospital within a matter of hours, certainly within a day. Here, you get a compound fracture and you could well die; you could bleed to death. It could be a month before you're evacuated with a serious injury. If any of us gets appendicitis, we'll probably die. The odds of that happening aren't great, but it's something to think about.

Jon Krakauer and team leader Conrad Anker return to camp from the Patriot Hills. Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On the cold and altitude

When I went to Everest I underestimated things. I just didn't know what altitude could do. Or the cold—I especially didn't appreciate the cold. It can be just debilitating, and things can happen so quickly. You can be fine one moment, but if your mitten blows away you're screwed. You'd better have a spare mitten fast or your hand is wood. And if your hand is wood, you can't zip up your jacket, you can't tie a knot, you can't do anything. It's sort of like going into outer space. You have to have your space suit on and make sure there are no leaks. Antarctica is a very alien environment, and you can't survive here more than minutes if you're not equipped properly and doing the right thing all the time.

"You're just this little fly up there, and the cold and the altitude are this big swatter waiting to whap you."

One of the things I learned on Everest is that the cold and the altitude lull you into complacency. When you're on steep technical ground, every moment you look down and you're reminded, "I better not mess up. If I slip, I'm going to fall 3,000 feet." You're constantly reminded to pay attention and stay on guard. When you're up at altitude on relatively gentle ground, which is what the summit plateau of Vinson is like, you think "Oh, no worries. I can't even fall off here."

But because of that, the cold and the thin air are insidious. They don't remind you that they're out to hammer you at any moment. You're just this little fly up there, and the cold and the altitude are this big swatter waiting to whap you, and you don't see that swatter.

The cold truly creeps up on you. You're coming to camp, you're sweaty, you've been hot, and then you enter the shade. Conrad [Anker, the expedition's leader] calls it "the steel glove." It resonates with me because one minute you're hot and sweaty, and the next you're chilled, and you become apathetic. You can't even summon the energy to go put your jacket on. It's this quick downhill slide. We'll have to guard against that.

Jon Krakauer likes to remind himself of the quote from another explorer: "Adventure is a sign of incompetence." Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On adventure

There is a quote I think about all the time when I'm climbing or on expeditions. It's by the great polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanson: "Adventure is a sign of incompetence." Stefanson was a guy who bragged that he never had adventures. He said that if you have an adventure, you're doing something wrong, that if you really plan things out in the vein of Amundsen, you don't have adventures. (Now, having said this, Stefanson relates sort of proudly how he almost got ambushed by a polar bear. Stefanson had plenty of adventures!)

We're deliberately hoping we have some adventures, but not too much adventure. We'll be miserable at times, and we'll wonder what the hell we're doing here. But we know what we're doing here. We came looking for this sort of thing. I like that quote because it speaks to the sense of absurdity of this whole business. That sense of absurdity has been there from the beginning of polar exploration. People have always gone to the poles for a sense of adventure. They wanted to go out and get scared and get miserable and enjoy themselves in a way you can't really understand unless you do this stuff and like to do this stuff. That's what Stefanson was speaking to.

I think the motivations for doing something like this are many, and they're hard to comprehend. There is a certain perversity, at least other people would regard it as such. But for me it's a wonderful thing, for all kinds of reasons. It's the joy of physical effort. The joy of feeling confident in a harsh place. The way you [Liesl Clark, the NOVA producer] were all bundled up in three feet of down clothing out in this raging Antarctic blizzard the other day saying "This is great!" You think, "I can deal with this." There's a sense of satisfaction in that.

Dwarfed by the landscape, a Twin Otter flies over a crevasse field on the polar plateau. Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On light

The thing that is most beautiful about Antarctica for me is the light. It's like no other light on Earth, because the air is so free of impurities. You get drugged by it, like when you listen to one of your favorite songs. The light there is a mood-enhancing substance. And the sun just circles the horizon. It never sets this time of year. It stays very low in the sky, so it has this really soft, wonderful glow, and it casts long shadows from the peaks.

"I've just spent most of today staring at the clouds streaming over Vinson. It's mesmerizing."

When we were in the Flowers Hills [on the east side of Vinson], we were on this high promontory overlooking the frozen vastness to the east and the mountains to the west, and because we were on a promontory the sun circled all day; it never set behind mountains. And that was pretty cool.

On color

People describe Antarctica as monochromatic because there's nothing green. It's all whites and blues and blacks. There's really a limited palette. But it's a nuanced palette, and it's a rich and fascinating one to me. I've just spent most of today—it was the first rest day we've had on this whole trip—staring at the clouds streaming over Vinson. It's mesmerizing. It's sort of the opposite of the jungle: It's not verdant, it's very sterile, but it's a beautiful landscape. I don't think there's anyplace more beautiful. The light and the way it plays off the ice and sky—you know, I can spend a lot of time here just looking at things and be quite satisfied with that.

Krakauer says the snow was "like a blanket of sugar." Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On snow

Snow here, it takes some getting used to. We went skiing the other day in what looked like beautiful, fluffy powder, and it was wonderful to ski in. It was this creamy snow, but it wasn't powder. It was like a blanket of sugar. It has this density that you don't see elsewhere, and it's all because the snow isn't falling from clouds. It's been blown there from somewhere else, maybe from halfway across the continent. It has its delicate, crystalline edges knocked off, and it becomes these little microscopic pellets. It behaves differently.

The snowfall here is so scant. In many places in Antarctica, it snows a few inches or less a year. And yet you can get drifts that are five, six, ten feet deep or more. It is simply that the snow crosses featureless plateau and has nothing to stop it. So it'll blow and blow until the wind hits some obstruction and creates a little swirl, a little vortex. That vortex will cause the snow to drop, and then it will build up in these dunes. It's a really interesting phenomenon. It's hypnotic. You go out in the blizzard, and if you're well dressed, you just watch this snow blowing and these dunes forming before your eyes. It's unlike anything you'd see in the rest of the world.

On ice

The ice has this sense of motion and power, frozen in time. You have that sense all over Antarctica, where ice is the solid that doesn't really behave like a solid. It's a solid that's so near its melting point, relatively speaking, that it flows imperceptibly most of the time, but it flows nonetheless. Seeing glaciers pour through gaps in the mountains is sort of like a snapshot, like a flood frozen in history, frozen for millennia.

You have a very clear sense of this when you're on a glacier. We call where a glacier pours over a steep cliff an icefall. It's like a waterfall that's frozen in time. These jumbled blocks are just sitting there, and we'll have to weave our way up through them as Scott and Shackleton and others have done before us.

Glaciers and ice streams bully their way through the Ellsworth Mountains. Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On ice streams

Looking at this icy vastness you can see from different textures in the ice where the Rutford Ice Stream is, and it's something like 25 or 30 miles across and hundreds of miles long. You see this jumbled chaos. As this stream bullies its way through the rest of the ice, it tears things up. We all sat there contemplating it, that this ice is moving a meter a day or more, and that right near our camp was the point where the Rutford began to float. At that point it was riding on seawater rather than bedrock. That was sort of a wild concept.

Talking about it doesn't do it justice. It's such a huge expanse of flat ice, and it all looks uniform if you don't look carefully. But then you see this shear margin on either side, this rough, jagged jumble of ice where the stream is moving through the rest of the ice, and you realize that it's not this static sheet of ice, that a lot is going on there.

Most of Antarctica's ice forms more or less in the middle of the continent. It builds up there, and when it builds up thick enough it's like pouring a big glob of pancake batter on a pan. It has to flow somewhere. The griddle is flat but if you pour the pancake batter in the middle of the pan, it's going to flow out towards the edges. That's what the West Antarctic Ice Sheet does. It's flowing towards the sea.

"You think something's going to take you 15 minutes to get to, and it takes you two hours."

On the other side of Vinson from where we are, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is three or four miles thick, I think. What's happened is that that pancake batter is trying to get to the sea, and it has run into this range of mountains, Vinson and the rest of the Ellsworths. Just 100 or 200 miles north of us, it's found a gap, a way through the mountains, and for whatever reason—scientists are trying to figure out why—the batter flows quickly. Whereas on the rest of the continent, ice flows can be measured in not very many meters a year, the Rutford Ice Stream flows more than a meter a day.

All but invisible against the vastness, team members make their way toward Vinson's colossal headwall. Enlarge Photo credit: © Liesl Clark/WGBH Educational Foundation

On Vinson

The mountain is this hulking mass, and it just throws off your scale. You think something's going to take you 15 minutes to get to, and it takes you two hours. It's such a huge, complicated mountain, with huge vertical relief. On the west side, the side we didn't climb, it's about 9,000 vertical feet from the glacier base, and on our side it's 15,000 or 16,000 feet of relief. That's as big as any mountain anywhere. Vinson Massif is an appropriate name because it is this hulk of rock and ice that defies easy description. It's so big that it kind of hides itself. It's so big that the summit remains hidden until the penultimate moment.

What's really nice about Vinson is when you get to the summit wart, it is in fact a very lovely, slender, graceful ridge leading up. It is just beautiful. First you get to a false summit—from below it looks like the true summit—and then another quarter mile or so farther on is this sinuous rocky ridge with a great drop-off to the right and a lesser but still impressive one to the left. You walk this tightrope for the last couple hundred yards.

The summit itself is very satisfying. When you're on top, God, you look out to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, this sea of ice, and you look all around you at these unclimbed mountains. You can see the Dater Glacier, this huge ice flowing down to the Rutford Ice Stream and the Ronne Ice Shelf and some of the peaks we climbed on the way. As summits go, it doesn't get a lot better than that.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Mountain of Ice.

Interviews of Jon Krakauer conducted by Liesl Clark, producer of "Mountain of Ice," and edited by Lauren Aguirre and Peter Tyson, executive editor and editor in chief of NOVA Online

Related Links

  • Secrets Beneath the Ice

    Is Antarctica headed for a catastrophic meltdown? New evidence of ancient climate change may hold clues.

  • The Real Iceman

    In this interview, glaciologist Lonnie Thompson outlines just what we’re losing with melting glaciers.

  • Extreme Ice

    An acclaimed photographer teams up with scientists to document the runaway melting of arctic glaciers.

  • Life Cycle of a Glacier

    Follow the adventures of a snowflake as it takes up residence in a glacier and goes for a prolonged ride.