Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Michael Palin's Erebus

Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time

by Michael Palin

Vancouver: Greystone Books USD $28
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada CDN $37


Reviewed by John Wilson


In the past century and a half, dozens of books have been published dealing with the lost Franklin Expedition but only a few have stood the test of time—springing to mind are Richard Cyriax’s magisterial Sir John Franklin’s Last Arctic Expedition and David Woodman’s examination of the Inuit testimony, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery. Many are stylistically dated or poorly written or just plain weird, but for anyone wanting to add to the corpus of Franklin literature today, there is a much more dangerous pitfall—time.

As Michael Palin puts it in Erebus, after Lieutenant Schwatka’s return from his exploration of King William Island in 1880, “The indignation that fuelled the search, the wounded national pride that gave it such imperative, and the appetite of newspapers…for the grisly details had all diminished. There was a palpable sense of closure.” The skeleton of the story was known in as much detail as was possible, the memorialization could progress and for a century little was discovered to disturb the narrative. As Canada’s national interest in the Arctic grew in the second half of the 20th century, so the mystery of Franklin’s fate revived, fuelled by Owen Beattie’s work on the bodies buried at Beechey Island and the politics of sovereignty. Then the lost ships were discovered, Erebus in 2014 and Terror two years later. Suddenly, the risk of almost anything written about the Franklin disaster becoming outdated or being proven wrong overnight mushroomed. The hundreds of artifacts and the possibility of written records preserved in the cold water offer the chance of discovering more about the expedition at one fell swoop than many lifetimes of dedicated researching have previously done.

Palin’s book is not -- at least yet -- dated; it is very well written and only weird where the author wishes it to be. Most importantly, Palin cunningly sidesteps the issue of having his book undermined by the next dive on the wrecks: instead of focussing on the expedition, Palin gives us a biography of one of the ships.

After a short introduction with a title that could be out of Monty Python—"Hooker’s Stockings"—Palin gets down to business with a concise section outlining the construction of HMS Erebus in the Pembroke dockyards in Wales and the development of British interest in the ends of the earth after the Napoleonic wars. We learn about the early expeditions and through this are introduced to the two main characters in the Erebus story, James Clark Ross and John Franklin. The rest of the book is divided into two sections covering Erebus’s two great voyages: Ross’ four year exploration of the Antarctic and Franklin’s tragic attempt to transit the Northwest Passage. On both occasions she was accompanied by Terror under the command of Ross’ close friend Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier.

In 1839, Ross set off for the Antarctic. After replenishing in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where John Franklin was Lieutenant Governor, they set off to explore Antartica. Over the following four years, the expedition mapped much of the continent’s coastline, located the south magnetic pole, named an active volcano Erebus, catalogued a plethora of animals and enough plants to provide the assistant surgeon, Joseph Hooker (he of the introductory stockings), with the 3,000 specimens that provided the basis for his classic six volumes of Flora Antarctica.

Ross’ expedition in Erebus and Terror was one of the great voyages of exploration—seventy years later Roald Amundsen said of it, “With two ponderous craft…these men sailed right into the heart of the pack [ice], which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death ... These men were heroes…in the highest sense of the word.” Palin’s judicious use of diaries and letters brings the voyage and the participants alive. It becomes almost a running gag as the Erebus’ Surgeon, Robert  McCormick catalogues the animals he slaughters on each trip ashore. Of course, that was his job and Palin gives him due credit for his love of nature and for his evocative prose, for example, his description of a penguin, “walking away upright as a dart… looking like an old monk going to mass.”

Palin, too, holds his own in vivid prose as when the expedition finally turns away from the ice and heads north: “More than a year of their three and a half years away had been spent in or near the most inhospitable continent on earth, with no relief from the relentless cold and no human contact of any kind, other than those men squeezed together on the two ships that carried them into this wilderness. And here they were, for a third season, grasping frozen lines with frozen hands, soaked to the skin, clinging to the rigging as the ships pitched and tossed and icebergs three times higher than their masthead loomed out of the darkness. And Cape Town still 2,500 miles away.”

Palin repeats his achievement in his use of letters from the participants of Erebus’ final voyage, in particular, James Fitzjames’ long letter home from Greenland. Fitzjames was third in command and captain of Erebus on Franklin’s attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage in 1845. He writes lightly and entertainingly, particularly in the pen-portraits of his fellow officers which Palin has dug out from the unpublished version of the letter—Stephen Stanley, Surgeon on the Erebus is described as, “…rather inclined to be good-looking, but fat, with jet black hair, very white hands, which are always abominably clean. and the shirt sleeves tucked up; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would not mind cutting one’s leg off immediately, if not sooner.”

Of course, unless legible letters or diaries are found in the wrecks of Erebus and Terror, Palin has nothing else to work with after the ships sailed from Greenland. Fortunately, Jane Franklin wrote letters to her missing husband and to anyone she felt could be of use in searching for him, however, the most moving work comes from much farther down the social scale. John Diggle was a veteran of Ross’ venture and signed on as cook on the Terror. After he had been gone for almost three years, his father wrote a letter to John to be taken on one of the many relief expeditions. He said, “I write these few lines to you in hopes to find you and all your shipmates in both ships well…” He then talks about his worry that his son is frozen in and in danger from scurvy. He concludes, “Dear son I conclude with our unbounded gratitude to you, your loving father and mother John and Phoebe Diggle.” The letter came back stamped “Returned to sender, There Having Been No Means of Forwarding It.”

Using Erebus as a structure for outlining British Polar exploration in the first half of the nineteenth century in general and Ross and Franklin’s exploits in particular is a wonderful idea and few could have carried it out as well as Michael Palin. His prose is lively and readable and he has an eye for the telling, unusual or odd detail and in the writings of McCormick, Fitzjames and others has some splendid material to work with. Palin has also visited many of the places important to the Erebus story, from what little remains of the dock where she was built and the dock she sailed from on her last voyage, to the Falkland Islands, Tasmania and the Canadian Arctic. This allows his travel-writer voice to come through and gives a modern, first-hand sense of the places her crew must have stared at in wonder.

There is not much in Erebus that will come as new to Franklin or polar exploration aficionados but there are snippets, such as that Ross wanted Fitzjames to come with him to the Antarctic as Gunnery Lieutenant but he was not available. Yet however much the reader knows of the background, Erebus is still a fascinating, readable account. For those with little knowledge but an interest tweaked by the recent discoveries, there are few better places to get a start.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Adventure at the Dawn of the Media Age

Flight to the Top of the World: the Adventures of Walter Wellman

By David L. Bristow

University of Nebraska Press, $29.95 (hc); $28.45 (kindle)

Reviewed by P.J. Capelotti


Walter Wellman is a unique figure in American journalism and exploration, comparable in some respects with Henry Morton Stanley.  However, since Wellman straddled many different fields: journalism, politics, exploration, aviation, technology, and the Polar Regions, he has been a particularly difficult individual to pin down in any one account of his life of writing and adventure.  His five expeditions in search of the North Pole from 1894-1909, along with an attempted stunt flight across the Atlantic in 1910, have long defined his life.  The present volume moves a bit closer to the goal of a full accounting but, in the end, as did Wellman himself so many times, it comes up short by failing to reach its stated goal.

The strengths of this biography are also its weaknesses.  First, the revelation of new details of Wellman’s youth and the beginnings and mid-career of his journalism, especially with regard to the prevailing management and labor turbulence and endemic corruption of the turn of the last century, are excellent.  Unfortunately, these make up a small fraction of the narrative.  Even here there are notable flaws.  Wellman’s coverage of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago is almost completely overlooked, and covered in barely a sentence.  This critical event in early middle age brought together and put on vivid display all of his eventual obsessions: technology (specifically aeronautics), the Arctic (specifically Franz Josef Land and the North Pole), and Norway (specifically its Arctic sea hunters).

The additions to the Wellman story are offset, as well, by the short shrift given to the final two and a half decades of Wellman’s life.  A full account of what he was doing in those years has been particularly lacking, especially so since Wellman’s expeditions have been covered in varying amounts of detail and accuracy in numerous prior accounts.  Wellman’s deep and complex secret life, beginning also in middle age and involving mistresses and illegitimate children in the U.S. and Europe, may never be known to a satisfying certainty.  It is possible if not probable that he was a bigamist, married simultaneously to Laura McCann, with whom he had five children, in the U.S., and Bergljot Bergersen, with whom he had three, in Norway.  Wellman likely met Bergersen during his final attempt to reach the North Pole from Spitsbergen in 1909, when Wellman was 51 and Bergersen 27.

Wellman died of cancer in 1934 at the age 74 and was cremated, his ashes scattered no one knows where.  Laura McCann died in April, 1938, at the age of 76, and was buried in a solitary grave in Waterford, Virginia, under the name Laura Wellman.  Bergersen died exactly a month later, at the age of 56, and was buried in her father’s plot in Vestre Gravlund in Oslo under the name Bergljot Wellman.  To the last, Wellman’s first wife despised him, while Bergersen’s story is wholly dark.  The stories of both relationships, along with at least one other that produced a child, remain largely hidden behind Wellman’s conspicuously public persona of the adventuring writer.

The second strength of the work is in the author’s overall thesis that Wellman was not so much a journalist or explorer as he was the packager of media events and, in this sense, one of the creators of our modern media environment, which sometimes can feel like our entire environment.  That Wellman was an augury, or even the progenitor, of the 24-hour media cycle, is an area ripe for exploration.  Unfortunately this theme is not reinforced enough to form a continuous thread throughout the work.

As this reviewer wrote more than two decades ago, there was a definite “hype effect” revealed by the confluence of Wellman’s journalism and his expeditions.  Ever since his first expedition, a lark to the Bahamas in 1891 to discover the precise landing spot of Columbus in the New World, Wellman continuously over-promised and under-delivered.  This worked so long as editors, sponsors, and the public, could be convinced that Wellman had an actual chance to reach the North Pole, or cross the Atlantic.

In these large and complicated quests, Wellman’s journalism always served not to inform but to entertain and, more critically, to mask his innate incompetence as either a qualified technologist or a properly prepared expedition leader.  In places, the author himself falls for this.  Describing the 1894 slaughter off the north coast of Svalbard of Wellman’s cohort of Belgian draft dogs, the author asserts: “Other expeditions planned on a high mortality rate for their dogs…” (p. 33).  This is a grotesque oversimplification of Wellman’s inexcusable shooting of all of his dogs just days into his first polar expedition.  Other expeditions did occasionally shoot their dogs, but these sad events came near the end of long and grueling treks or when the explorers were either in extremis or as part of a planned usage of dog meat to save men from scurvy.  For Wellman to make no attempt to bring home his dogs and instead shoot them before he had traveled anywhere, was disgraceful.

Such incompetence allowed professional explorers to quickly size up Wellman and agree that there was no chance of him ever reaching the North Pole, with or without an airship.  Robert Peary knew before 1900 that he would have no competition from Wellman.  Fridtjof Nansen in 1899 had been appalled at Wellman’s casual attitude to planning an escape route from Franz Josef Land.  A decade later, staring at the pillaged ruins of Wellman’s airship base on Dansk√łya, Nansen scathingly described Wellman as an advertising fraud.

By the time of his aborted 1909 polar airship flight, Wellman was all but ignored even by his own newspaper.  This chronic under-delivery of hard geographic results, more than anything, signaled the end of the explorer’s road for Wellman, and renders the 1910 transatlantic attempt more of a true ‘stunt,’ whereas the polar airship expeditions can be seen, at least in their early iterations, as serious attempts at pioneering fraught new technologies in a most extreme environment.

A more fitting title for the self-described hustling newspaperman would have been: WELLMAN! The Meteoric Rise and Stunning Crash of America’s Most Adventurous Journalist.  The chosen title, with its ironic claim of a Flight to the Top of the World that never came close to happening, copies Wellman’s optimistic hopes but masks his ultimate grinding unhappiness.  This is reflected nowhere so much as in an image of Wellman in 1926 (p. 292), looking utterly worn and vastly older than his 68 years.  It is a portrait of a beaten, forgotten man, one without a single legitimate public success to his credit and with his private life a hopeless shambles.  Wellman would never admit it but he had always been more Barnum than Nansen, yet without a fraction of Barnum’s success, fame, or legacy.  That Wellman is yet to receive his due.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

At the Edge: A life in search of challenge

At the Edge: A life in search of challenge

By Stephen J. Trafton

Amazon Digital Services LLC, $37.50 paperback, $7.49 eBook

Reviewed by Regina Koellner



To say Stephen Trafton led an interesting life would be an understatement. His achievements are many and versatile. Climbing Boulder Peak in Washington State, at the age of twelve led to an impressive career in mountain climbing, with numerous first ascents and subsequent leadership in mountain rescue.  A college job in a bank became a professional career which peaked in taking the US government to court and so saving what became Citibank. Later in life, he discovered a passion for car racing, and there he also excelled. He set the Ferrari land speed record in a car that he restored himself, and had an impressive racing career including an unsuccessful attempt to complete the Peking to Paris Rally. His passion for exploring led him across the USA on solo hikes and by kayak and on eleven expeditions to the High Arctic. His interest in the Franklin Expedition brought him to King William Island, where on his second visit he discovered a note left by Franklin searcher Frederick Schwatka.

This, Trafton’s first book, is entitled At The Edge – A life in search of challenge and covers his adventurous life from the early beginnings in the 1940s to the present time. In the foreword, he encourages his readers to push their own boundaries and challenge themselves by walking up to their personal edge, peeking to the other side, and walking back, being proud of the achievement. For that he includes tools of self-evaluation and goal setting. He also takes us on a wild ride through his life on edges most of us wouldn’t even dream of taking on.

The first part of the book deals with his expeditions into the Arctic and stories of mountain rescue. They are not in chronological order which is not too distracting as all are stand-alone, easy to read and always entertaining chapters. You know you are in for a wild ride when in the acknowledgements Trafton apologizes to his brother for the “ice axe in the forehead incident”. Unfortunately we never find out what exactly happened but it’s a synonym for the compelling, nail-biting and often hilarious tone the book is written in.

We learn intimate details about the perils of rectal body temperature measurement for a sponsor while climbing a mountain on Ellesmere Island or doing one's business in double-digit sub-zero temperatures, not to mention spending a night in frozen sleeping bags while a polar bear sniffs out the camp. Trafton takes us on a thrilling glacier crossing where deep crevasses are hidden under fragile snow bridges that when crossed shed icicles into the abyss. We also find out how you use spit to get your bearing when buried in an avalanche. Living on the edge indeed!

A more light-hearted paragraph deals with the group arriving at the remote DEW station on KWI telling the stunned personnel that they came to sell magazines. This is not the only part that makes one chuckle while reading. If it’s practical jokes in camp, being (temporarily) declared persona non grata on Spitzbergen for messing around with Russian observers, or a photo illustrating what happens when you discuss politics in the Arctic, Stephen Trafton’s sense of humour makes the book a very enjoyable read.

For Franklin aficionados the most interesting parts of the book are without a doubt those about King William Island. Just much of an Arctic buff Trafton is himself shows in the chapters on Ellesmere Island ,when he describes how he named several of the newly ascended peaks – in true discoverer fashion – after Arctic explorers and their ships. Unfortunately, the Canadian government had other ideas and gave the mountains Inuit names instead.

For those new to the topic, Trafton provides an overview on the Franklin expedition and the subsequent searches. Even the most seasoned Franklin scholar will be fascinated by the account of how Trafton found Schwatka’s note, possibly wince a little upon reading how he fished it out of its bottle to read it, and ponder his still holding a grudge against the Prince of Wales Museum in Yellowknife for not handing it back to him after conservation. Although it was found on Canadian soil, Trafton is still convinced that, since it was written by an American explorer, it should have gone to the US. The bottle in which the note was found now is part of Trafton’s Arctic library.

The book is a handsome softcover, illustrated by clear, easy-to-read maps and numerous colour photographs. It provides an entertaining read, not only for Arctic buffs and the historically inclined, but also to anyone who just likes a good adventure story.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Limits of the Known

Limits of the Known, by David Roberts.

336 pp. New York: Norton ISBN 978-0393609868

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore



After half a lifetime of mountaineering, and another half of canyoneering and writing books and magazine features, David Roberts has pulled together the various threads of his life in a book that is part memoir, part historical anthology of notable exploration, and part meditation on the meaning and limits of adventure and adventuring. Its summatory and valedictory flavour come from the autobiographical element, disclosed early on, that the author is living with an aggressive cancer (he guards us against the well-meant but double-edged metaphor of “battling” or “fighting” the disease), already spread and metastasized but against which, as of late 2017 when he finished writing, he was holding his own.

Each of the seven chapters of this artfully constructed book interleaves an account of one or more historical expeditions with an episode or aspect of the author’s own life that resonates with them, providing a parallel that Roberts then uses to discuss a series of themes that are fundamental to the mindset and actions of explorers and adventurers. While providing some finely written and thoroughly enjoyable expedition narratives, therefore, the book is much more than the sum of its narrative parts.

The most famous expedition covered in the book—Nansen’s polar drift in the Fram of 1893–96—is the subject of the opening chapter, where it’s interleaved with vignettes of Roberts’s childhood, discovering the joys of hiking and mountains in the Rockies, his imagination fired by space exploration, then by polar exploits like Nansen’s, and finally by mountaineering, the one arena that, in the 1950s, still seemed to offer the possibility of new discoveries—unclimbed peaks—of a kind that had once beckoned the great names of Arctic and Antarctic travel.

Another factor linking his experience with theirs is isolation, the underlying theme of the second chapter, which interleaves an enchanting account of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s reconnaissance of the remotest valleys of the Karakoram in 1937 with a description of an expedition that Roberts and a small group of companions, hungry for first ascents of unclimbed peaks, made to the Revelation Range in south-western Alaska in 1967. Roberts encountered his share of disappointment, failing to climb the peak he attempted in several campaigns over seven weeks, just as Nansen’s early optimism about sledging to the North Pole was crushed less than a month after leaving the Fram. Looking back from an age of satellite phones, the fifty days he spent without contact seemed to Roberts unfathomably isolated compared to today, giving him a kinship to Shipton and Tilman who, after leaving Srinagar with their porters and supplies were completely alone for four months—and with the crew of the Fram, a dozen men away from all other human contact for three years. Although extreme, such isolation was not an uncommon feature of expeditions during the great ages of exploration, an unavoidable sacrifice and a challenge that some rose to meet while others were crushed by it. In retrospect Roberts reports that the freedom to have no responsibility to contact the outside world for a time was an aspect of his Alaskan expedition that he treasures most—but at the same time is glad it was not much longer.

From the 1980s Roberts began to explore the landscape of the Anasazi in the American south-west, and his third chapter explores a conundrum that, as a climber, he became fascinated by as he visited the famous cliff-dwellings and, in remote canyons, discovered some previously unknown to archaeologists. Before the age of modern climbing equipment, how did those ancient people climb rock walls that seem dauntingly difficult even today? Samples of surviving Anasazi rope show they did not have enough strength to hold the weight of an adult, so they cannot have rappelled down from the clifftops. The ancient dwellers of the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, by contrast, had stronger rope, and their burial caves in the cliffside commonly show a stout stick thrust into the rock at an upward angle near the cave mouth. Their method, it seems, was to hazard a dangerous free climb to a cave, put the stick in place, and then loop enough rope over it for both ends to reach the ground, from which point they could haul up their relatives’ bodies. With the Anasazi, as with the Toraja of Sulawesi and the Chachopoya of Peru, there is the additional complication not only of climbing to a ledge or cave but transporting materials to build elaborate structures there. But where ropes are too weak to bear human weight, they may be strong enough to hold some kind of frame to a vertical surface, and Roberts concludes that series of log or bamboo ladders, connecting one ledge to the next, may have been the method used.

For Roberts, an important element of this question is that pursuing it provided a release from the essentially solipsistic pleasures of mountaineering: “However thrilling my canyon play … the game was not about me. It was about them.” Searching for modes of adventure that had a longer resonance with human history also led him to an interest in rivers, which have always been “far more central to human existence than mountains”. What were the potamic equivalents, he wondered, to the last great unclimbed peaks? Surely it would be the last undescended rivers—those not yet navigated by boat from their source (or close to it) to their mouth. These need not necessarily be technically difficult exercises in whitewater, although many are. A more common problem is the remoteness of the spot at which the boats are put in the water, often requiring a long hike or helicopter ride just to get to the jumping off point. In a series of writing assignments Roberts accompanied Richard Bangs, who has made this his life’s work, in descending rivers in Ethiopia and, in the book’s longest sustained episode of comedy, New Guinea, where the BBC crew filming their descent were more focused on their hotel accommodation and the structure of the finished documentary than they were on actually filming. Roberts felt the thrill of encountering people along the riverbank who often had almost no exposure to the outside world—“What are they thinking? Who do they think we are? Why do they think we’ve come?”—but in the end the lack of answers seemed to become a metaphor for their frustratingly fugitive interaction with people and landscape alike, forever borne onwards by the water without time for reflection.

The quest for human contact is at the heart of chapter 5, which focuses on the journeys the Australian gold prospector Michael Leahy made in the interior of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, when he was the first outsider ever to contact several tribes whose boundaries of experience seldom extended beyond their own valleys. With a mixture of genuine anthropological curiosity and a crude reliance on firearms to overawe all those he met, Leahy never found his crock of gold but did leave behind some five thousand photographs and several reels of 16mm film as a record of his travels, along with diaries that became more detailed and thoughtful as he progressed and gained confidence as a writer, providing modern anthropologists with a now-irreplaceable record of highland Papuan societies before any appreciable contact had taken place. Ironically, such first contact was for Leahy an unlooked-for side effect of his main purpose, yet it is what today places him in the line of first-contact explorers from Marco Polo to Bernal Diaz and James Cook.

In an age when satellite imagery can reveal every inch of the Earth’s visible surface—whether humans have trod there or not—we are accustomed to thinking of the physical exploration of the planet as being completed. But in two respects it is just beginning. The first, which Roberts does not go into, is the underwater world—both the geographical interest of the abyssal plain and submarine mountain ranges and the human interest of shallower seas that are the new frontier for archaeologists investigating the drowned surfaces on which our Palaeolithic ancestors walked. The second, which Roberts does write about, are the secret spaces underground: the world of caves. While everyone knows the location and height of the highest points on each continent, he points out, no one knows where the deepest points of the deepest caves are, because they probably haven’t been discovered yet. While a mountain might be seen and measured a century before it is climbed, no one can see and measure a cave—or even be sure of its existence—until they are actually descending into it. And this exploration is happening right now: over the last two decades the title of “world’s deepest cave” has been contended by various cavern systems in France before rival teams began “pushing” the cave systems of Chev√© and Huautla (in Mexico) and Krubera (in the Caucasus of Georgia) in long campaigns involving huge quantities of equipment and dozens of international cavers, resembling the Himalayan mountaineering assaults of the 1950s. Currently Krubera holds the record at 7,206 feet, but that is surely not the last word.

In the final chapter Roberts recounts his ongoing medical treatment and writes movingly of the deep friendships that his life of adventuring have led to, but also of the toll that life has taken on his wife Sharon, acknowledging the unthinking cruelty with which he brushed off her worries about accidents and bear attacks during his climbing trips even as he remembers a golden week they spent alone camping on an Alaskan lake island before their floatplane pickup. But for those in the future who, despite their loved-one’s misgivings, find their pulse quickened by the thought of adventuring into the unknown, Roberts sees no end in sight to the riches Earth has to offer.