Black Ice, page 1
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Part 1: Antarctica
Part 2: Capricorn Base
Part 3: The Big Eye Blues
Part 4: The Trek
Part 5: The Hero Returns
Also by Matt Dickinson
for my son
Research for this Antarctic novel would not have been possible without the kind invitation of explorers Julian Freeman-Attwood and Skip Novak to join their expedition to Terra Incognita. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much—or been more terrified—in my life, and the wonders we witnessed there have left me with a longing to return. I would also like to thank the personnel of the Argentine base on Deception Island and the Commander of the British Base Faraday on the Antarctic Peninsula for their warm welcome and their patient efforts to explain the mysteries of spectrophotometers, ion chromatographs and lakes beneath the ice.
You are welcome to visit the author’s website at:
Enchanted as a child by tales of the last unexplored continent on earth, Carl Norland had fallen in love with Antarctica. Now, not far short of his twenty-seventh birthday, the Norwegian explorer was beginning to appreciate that it was a love affair which might—quite soon—end with his death.
‘Great God! This is an awful place…’ Robert Falcon Scott had written as he dragged his dispirited and starving team into second place at the South Pole in 1912. Now, Carl knew exactly how he felt.
Carl turned his face to the north. Somewhere beyond that dark horizon, there was a world of warmth, of light and the love of a wife and daughter. But if he didn’t act fast, he was never going to see that world again.
Carl crawled into the tent and pulled the emergency beacon from the side pocket of the rucksack. He cradled the device in his hands, ignoring the searing pain in his fingers, the crackle of the frostbite blisters as his skin flexed and broke. Many days earlier the last battery on their main radio had failed, leaving this transmitter as their final lifeline. This box of tricks had to work, he prayed, or no one would ever find them.
The unit weighed 2.1 kilos and had been manufactured by a specialist communications company in Maine. Mostly they were bought by yachtsmen in case of capsize, but it would do its job just as well here in the heart of Antarctica.
The casing was yellow plastic, a stubby black rubber aerial protruding for six inches or so from the top. Next to it was a red switch marked Activate only in emergency. The switch was protected by a plastic seal to prevent it being fired by an accidental knock.
Once activated, the beacon would emit a constant radio pulse on the international distress frequency of 121.5 mhz. The pulse would be picked up by a passing satellite, the signal relayed instantly to a permanently manned station in New Hampshire. Their position would be fixed, and a rescue plane would be dispatched from Tierra del Fuego—the landmass closest to Antarctica.
More than anything he had ever desired before, Carl wanted to rip open that seal and throw the switch.
He stumbled out of the tent and stood swaying on his swollen feet as a bitter gust of wind ran through the camp. There was a haze of frozen fog lying a few metres above the glacier, but above it Carl could see as far as the Madderson Range, almost two hundred miles distant.
What were they trying to prove here? Carl squinted through windbeaten eyes at the immensity of the landscape that surrounded them and realised he was no longer sure.
Three and a half months earlier, he and one other had set out from the far side of this continent, men of supreme motivation and commitment, men who could endure phenomenal levels of pain. Their plan was an audacious one—a crossing of Antarctica at its widest point, a trek of more than two thousand miles, which would establish their names alongside the great legends of Antarctic exploration. It was a noble quest, they had thought, a prize worth fighting for—an opportunity to join the most rarified club in the world.
They were manhauling, each starting out with a sledge carrying five hundred pounds of gear. The weight had been crucifying, the straps chafing running sores into their flesh, their bodies deteriorating with every passing day until they were on the
They were unsupported. Totally alone.
Now—eighty miles short of their objective—they had failed. There was no food left on which to survive. The rolling ocean of ice had sucked the flesh from their bones, sapped the very essence of sinew and muscle away until they were reduced to the stumbling progress of a child. Carl reckoned he had lost about fifteen kilos, his skin tightening against his skeleton the way that vacuum-packed plastic clings to supermarket meat.
Winter was closing in on them. Daylight was down to just a few gloomy hours a day. Soon the permanent night of the Antarctic winter would fall across the ice sheet, and then there would be no escape.
It was time to get out. And fast.
Before him, slumped in a despondent heap against his sledge, was Julian Fitzgerald, crosser of continents, planter of flags, conqueror of the heights and depths, and member of that elite band of media-friendly explorers whose faces are as familiar on TV chat-show circuits as they are in the hallowed corridors of the Royal Geographical Society of London and the Explorers Club of New York.
Fitzgerald was as close as an explorer could ever get to a celebrity with a truly global profile, an obsessive expeditioner for whom the expression ‘been there, done that’ might have been invented. He had dived the deepest trenches of the oceans, walked alone across the deserts of Australia and Namibia and put his marker on the summits of Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga. When it came to playing the media, Fitzgerald was a grand master: just as the press tired of mountain exploits, he would announce his intention to explore the deepest cave system on the planet; if seafaring was in vogue, he would enter a round-the-world yacht race, and no sooner had the oceans begun to pale than he would pop up in the colour supplements with a plan to conquer the poles.
The fact that a significant number of Fitzgerald’s expeditions had ended in failure never seemed to diminish the media’s appetite for more of the same.
Fitzgerald had his fans, but they wouldn’t have recognised the faded figure lying on the ice in front of Carl. He was staring into the white beyond, his bloodshot eyes oblivious to the glare, his face locked into what could almost have been a death mask so devoid was it of expression.
He showed no sign that he was aware of Carl standing next to him and no sign that he had seen the emergency transmitter in the Norwegian’s hand.
Carl watched him for a while, noting how Fitzgerald’s reddening beard was matted with ice where fluid had dribbled from his mouth and nose, how his cheeks were sunken, his powerful frame reduced to fractions of its former strength. Even the aristocratic sweep of Fitzgerald’s nose was encrusted with the blisters of radiation and frost.
Carl sat, easing the pain in his legs, wondering if he had the courage to tell Fitzgerald what he had decided and wondering, also, how this adventure had ever gone so wrong.
The two men had met a year before, a chance encounter at the Alpine Club, where Fitzgerald was holding a launch party for the publication of his latest expedition book. Carl had been in awe of the great man, a little embarrassed even, tongue-tied in the presence of this legend who had been something of a childhood hero. Fitzgerald was initially offhand, but on learning that Carl was an expeditioner himself—and that he had recently skied across the Greenland ice cap in record time—his attitude changed. The explorer gave Carl his card, asked him to make contact to arrange a longer meeting and then moved gracefully on to apply his legendary charm elsewhere in the room.
Three days later, the two men lunched at Fosters—a traditional English restaurant steeped in old-fashioned charm, where fare such as jugged hare and spotted dick was treated with due gastronomic reverence.
‘My favourite restaurant,’ Fitzgerald confided. ‘I dream of it while I’m out on the ice.’
He went on to tell Carl of his planned Antarctic journey and asked the Norwegian—quite bluntly—to explain his background.
Carl told Fitzgerald about his home town of Trondheim, on Norway’s western shore, and about his current role as fisheries researcher on a three-year postgraduate attachment to London University. He told him of his English wife, Sally, about his six-month-old daughter, Liv, but mostly he talked about what Fitzgerald was really interested in—his passion for polar travel and overland expeditions.
Like many of his countrymen, Carl was a natural on cross-country skis—a skill which enhanced his passion for the extreme limits of the earth. Nansen and Amundsen had been his early inspiration, and their tales of polar exploration had led him to seek places on expeditions whenever the opportunity arose. His crossing of the Greenland ice cap had been a great triumph, and now he had his sights set on bigger things …
Carl had done his Antarctic research, had read the expedition accounts of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen and Fuchs. He had attended lectures by contemporary explorers, been inspired by the extraordinary achievements of modern Antarctic stars such as Reinhold Messner, Robert Swan and Ranulph Fiennes.
If he was offered the opportunity to go south, Carl told Fitzgerald, he would jump at the chance.
Fitzgerald had been impressed with the young Norwegian’s enthusiasm and proposed—straight out—that they might team up for the attempt.
‘Publicity is vital on these things,’ Fitzgerald had told him. ‘A Brit and a Norwegian teaming up will get the press stirred nicely. They’ll want to know if it’s going to be a race between us!’
Carl smiled, disguising the slight unease Fitzgerald’s comment had roused inside him: the idea of capitalising on the ancient South Pole rivalries of Scott and Amundsen was not in the least attractive to him.
Nevertheless, Carl was flattered by the approach, and realistic enough to realise that such an opportunity was unlikely to come his way again.
‘Just one thing,’ Fitzgerald had added. ‘Even though there’ll only be two of us out there, I’m still the leader of this expedition. You accept that my decisions will be final?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Carl gave a mock salute in a failed attempt to make the moment a humorous one.
But Fitzgerald did not smile.
‘Just so long as it’s understood.’
‘I can’t take another step,’ Carl told Fitzgerald, ‘and that’s all there is to it.’
Fitzgerald stared right at him for long moments before he spoke, the booming, operatic voice of which he was so proud reduced to a plaintive croak.
‘You want to quit?’ he asked. ‘When we’re so close?’
‘I don’t want another fight,’ Carl told him quietly. ‘We’re talking life and death now, and I think you know it.’
Fitzgerald pulled a map from his pocket and stabbed at it with a finger.
‘Eighty miles, Carl. It’s nothing after what we’ve been through. Eighty miles and the widest crossing is ours. Write our names in the history books once and…’
Fitzgerald’s voice fell away. Carl would have laughed if he could have found the energy. Instead he felt the stab of tears prick at his eyes as a vision of his wife and daughter flashed momentarily through his mind. He breathed deeply to recover.
‘You think anyone gives a damn?’
‘Just three or four more days…’
Carl felt the familiar frustration well up inside him.
‘And if the weather closes in? Think about it, for Christ’s sake. We haven’t eaten for a week. Winter is just around the corner. If that plane can’t get to us, we’ll both starve to death.’
‘I should have gone solo.’ Fitzgerald retreated to his habitual mantra. ‘I’d have been faster without you.’
They sat in silence for many minutes, looking out across the unending expanse of ice, while Carl pondered the manner in which his relationship with Fitzgerald had deteriorated. Locked into each other’s presence, Fitzgerald’s hoped-for balancing act of the master and his apprentice had been way off the mark. The concept of Carl deferring to Fitzgerald’s greater range of experience had been sorely tested by a number of bitter arguments be
Carl had tried to make it work, tried so hard he sometimes felt the rigours of living at close quarters with his fellow explorer were sapping more of his energy than the physical demands of the sledge journey itself.
But his attempts came to little. On an emotional level, Fitzgerald had been reserved, taciturn even, giving little away. Carl’s mission to peel back a few protective layers resulted in little by way of revelation. On the subject of his single status, Fitzgerald’s only comment was a brief ‘Marriage? Never had the time.’ About his family background he was similarly tight-lipped, adding nothing to what Carl had already gleaned from press cuttings and biographies about a restless, globetrotting childhood spent moving from one embassy to another with his diplomat father.
The one subject on which Fitzgerald could get emotional—and Carl had seen him flare up into a rage more than once—was on his past failings, whether imagined or real. Criticism, particularly by the media, of any of his previous expeditions could leave the explorer apoplectic with fury. When he heard on the radio that an investigative reporter was putting a damning documentary together about his recent disastrous Tierra del Fuego Youth Expedition—a trip which had ended with several of the participants hospitalised with serious injury—Fitzgerald went ballistic, going into a sulk which lasted for weeks.
Faced with a virtually silent travelling companion, Carl sought solace with his diary. He wrote for hours in the tent each night, venting his frustration at what he saw as his companion’s increasingly irrational decision-making and his growing fears that the trip would end in disaster.
The crux had come at the South Pole, halfway point and effectively the moment of no return. According to Carl’s calculations, their food would run out before the challenge was over. He was tempted to call a halt.
Fitzgerald had turned to Carl and fixed him with a look he had not seen before.
‘You can’t pull out,’ he said quietly. ‘I won’t let you.’
Carl had experienced a curious stab of emotion which, at the time, he was hard pressed to recognise. Was it apprehension? Or a new wariness about what lay beneath Fitzgerald’s protective layers?