Research Blog Antarctica #32

Non-fiction: Peter Hillary & John E. Elder: In the Ghost Country – a Lifetime spent on the Edge (Free Press, 2003)

What a rarity: A novel kind of an Antarctica book. What starts as the usual sports narrative of accomplishment typical of modern-day accounts of expeditions attempting to reach the Pole by foot soon transforms into an experimental narrative borrowing its shape from the novel. The book, about Hillary’s expedition in 1998-99, builds on the classic idea of the Fourth Man present in Shackleton’s book South and immortalized by T. S. Eliot. Where Shackleton mentions this detail in passing, Hillary positively wallows in it, the idea of the empty continent as a ghost country.

The book combines the travails of Hillary’s miserably failed expedition and autobiographical dreams drawn from his life as a mountain climber, following in the footsteps of his legendary father. In this sense, its a crossover book, perhaps best read after you’re already familiar with Antarctic and mountaineering literature.

Refreshingly, Hillary or his co-author don’t stoop to explaining all the usual stories, but instead limit themselves to the personal effects and meaning of those stories. Usually these quotes at the beginning of books and chapters seem to be a tool meant to prop up weak material, but the way they do it in this book, its tied integrally to the mental landscape of the explorer. It feels as if all the classics, from Tennyson’s Odysseys to Eliot’s the Waste Land came to Hillary in his mother’s milk.

It’s also very rare to see such a miserable account of all the social failings and catastrophies of an Antarctic expedition. Hillary’s descriptions of his crushing loneliness and estrangement from his companions fully merit the Sartre quotations, and are especially poignant when seen against the wider backdrop of macho Polar literature.

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