Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why Antarctica?

Roald Amundsen left Norway on board his ship, Fram, in August 1910 and reached the South Pole on December 14th, 1911. He is known as a model of efficiency and success in exploration, although in a way even his great successes were failures. The Fram expedition was planned as a march to the North Pole, but that goal was claimed in 1909 by both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook (although neither man, in fact, reached the Pole) and Amundsen turned his own voyage southwards and struck out for the other end of the world. “Can anything more topsy turvy be imagined?” he wrote when he arrived at the South Pole. So his greatest triumph was a kind of second place in his own mind.
Although my name might prompt images of Ukranian Easter eggs, Balalalikas, and men in puffy pants with their arms crossed kicking out their legs like gymnastic cancan dancers, I am also an Amundsen on my mother's side, and since Roald Amundsen had no direct descendants (at least not officially), I'm pretty close to an heir which is one of the reasons I have been planning for twenty years to follow in his footsteps on the 100th anniversary of his expedition south and to return to write about it.

And I won't make it to the South Pole, although I wanted to. You can get someone to yank you there if you've got about $65,000 to spare. I don't. I originally hoped to ask the National Science Foundation in the United States for help – they might have been able to get me to the Pole without the expense -- but as the anniversary date of Amundsen's expedition drew closer, I couldn't contact anyone at the Antarctic Artists and Writers program. American government agencies were all reeling after eight years of George Bush and all the phones were on hold. Amundsen said there is no such thing as bad luck, just bad planning and so I suppose I should have started planning earlier. Or saving. I shouldn't have relied on luck to get me to Amundsen-Scott Base.  But sometime in the spring of 2010 while I was staying at my friends' place on Protection Island, I realized that it might still be possible to go. How much would that cost? Was it even imaginable? Maybe I could get pretty close, at least as far as penguins and icebergs, maybe over the Antarctic circle. And wouldn't that be pretty good? Wouldn't that be enough?

I'm not Amundsen's financial heir but that's probably okay. Amundsen spent most of his life deep in debt despite raising millions for his expeditions. He kept his plans secret to divert the Fram to the South and was able to happily write that he was leaving his “creditors behind” when he sailed from Madeira – the spot where he informed the crew of the change in plans. My creditors are the handful of plastic cards in my wallet which are worn with abuse at the moment. I have no idea how I'm going to pay for this trek but I resolve to worry about that in the New Year, after I come back. I do still have both kidneys and could probably live with just the one.

Tomorrow I'm off. I have my gear spread out around the living room—boots, lots of warm socks, waterproof everything and high-tech breathable winter wear. I have some new Merino wool long underwear and just thinking about them makes me warm. I've also got bathing suits, sunscreen, and t-shirts because I'm going to pinball my way down through South America on my way: Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, IguaƧu Falls, Buenos Airies, and, finally, Ushuaia, Argentina, at the very tip of South America where I'll board the Polar Pioneer and sail south across the Drake Passage, a nasty stretch of water that makes fish feel seasick.

Amundsen relied on his brother to take care of his affairs back at home in Norway. I'm taking my brother with me. If anything, he's the practical Amundsen, the efficient one. And he's still got room on his credit cards so we may be able to eat.

Dozens of people have told me that what I'm doing is “cool” and it is. Cool. And Cold. And the kind of adventure that makes me wonder just when it was that I started really living my life? When did I get to be so lucky?

I'll do my best to send updates along the way. Leave a comment if you feel like it; let me know that someone's reading.  


  1. An interesting adventure before you, Jay. Looking forward to viewing the different stages and challenges and exciting things you and your brother will experience.


  2. This is awesome. :) I have no doubt that you'll have the adventure of a lifetime down there. :) Just don't get attacked by penguins.

  3. Thrilling journey . . . it begins . . . Bravo!

  4. Hi Jay....Henrietta forwarded this to me. What an will have so many stories buzzing around in your head when you come back that you will have to take time off work just to write! Best wishes and I look forward to reading your updates!

  5. Nap & Shirley RuzeskyDecember 12, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    We are proud of you - Jay & Scott - for the adventure you are experiencing to celebrate Roald Amundsen's 100 Anniversary of discovering the South Pole. Shirley Amundsen (now Ruzesky)is related to Roald Amundsen, so it is fitting that you both undertook this adventure. What a great experience! Congratulations!-+
    Love, Mom & Dad