by Galen Rowell
Dry Valleys, Antarctica
On a brisk October morning, three of us set off on a 20-mile hike through Taylor Valley, one of the unique Dry Valleys of Antarctica’s Transantarctic Mountains. We walk mostly on bare ground in a place that looks like a freeze-dried Death Valley. Sand dunes sit beneath dry mountains dusted with snow. Not a blade of grass or an insect is present on this moonscape, where it may not have rained since the end of the Pleistocene and the summertime temperature is -20°F.
Farther up Taylor Valley, obvious signs of life take me aback. Lying between the rocks is a furry creature the size of my golden retriever. This is one of several mummified seals that have been found up to 50 miles inland and 2,000 feet above the sea. They look as if they died last week, yet some have been carbon-14 dated at 9,000 years old. Because Antarctica has no land predators or insects, the frozen carcass gives off no scent or hint of organic decay.
To date only a few scientists and hikers have experienced the ice-free silence of the Dry Valleys, where mountains have blocked the flow of the polar ice sheet toward the sea. Getting benighted isn’t a concern. At 78 degrees south latitude, we have already entered the months of 24-hour daylight. At the end of one of the most unusual walks in my life, we spot the yellow dots of our tents from miles away in air so clear that it destroys perspective of distance.
Duration: Today you’d probably be limited by how long your cruise ship will wait (most common access is by helicopter from the ship), but soon an outfitter will be offering longer trips to this region.
Shackleton Route, South Georgia Island
In 1916, after being marooned on Antarctica for a year with his 28 shipmates, Sir Ernest Shackleton and a few of his men rowed an open boat across 800 miles of wild seas to reach a whaling station on South Georgia, a 100-mile-long island with icy mountains rising over 9,000 feet from the sea. Trouble was, Shackleton landed on the wrong side of the island. So he chose two tough companions and set out on foot with no sleeping bags, only three days’ rations, 50 feet of rope, and a carpenter’s adze. After 36 hours of crossing wildly rugged terrain and lowering themselves down a waterfall with ice cliffs on both sides, they reached the whaling station at Stromness Bay. Thus ended one of the greatest epics in expedition history, in which all hands eventually were saved. (If in your life you read only one expedition narrative, read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage). With today’s modern equipment and knowledge of the terrain, Shackleton’s route has become something of a classic, if outrageously exotic, alpine trekking traverse. Crampons and an ice axe will be needed for the icy sections of this roughly 30-mile hike. Anticipate fierce storms, which have defeated strong parties.
Duration: Three to four days if the weather is on your side.
Galen Rowell is the author of 13 books including Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and the Antarctic. He received a National Science Foundation grant to travel in Antarctica.