From the science fiction novel Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
It's a dog eat dog world, especially if you shoot half your huskies and feed them to the rest. This had been the Amundsen expedition's method of operation; they had started out with fifty two dogs, and most of those had not only pulled their sledges but somewhere along the way had been turned into food, for both dogs and men. Each dog eaten provided about fifty pounds of meat, and therefore saved that much from the sledge loads. It was a classic case of pulling your own weight , or of what the American weapons industry called 'dual-use efficiency' when pointing out that their high-heat laser weapons would also make very nice ice borers (which they did). Amundsen however lost a lot of style points for this particular dual use; he was criticized for it ever afterward, especially in Britain.
Obviously Val's 'In the Footsteps of Amundsen' expedition, the thirteenth to trace Amundsen's route to the Pole, was not going to be using the same methods the Norwegians had used. For one thing dogs were now banned from Antarctica; for another, the Ross Ice Shelf, the crossing of which had comprised about half of Amundsen's trek, was no longer there. The ice shelf had been an amazing feature in its time: a stable floating cake of ice nearly a thousand feet thick, covering an area about the same size as California or France, and at its outer edge towering a couple of hundred feet over the open sea. As it turned out, however, it had been highly sensitive to small changes in air and ocean temperatures, and global warming had been enough to break most of it up and carry it off to sea. It had been replaced by a jumble of thinning annual sea ice, remnant iceberg chunks of the shelf, and enormous ice tongues pushing out from the Transantarctic glaciers and the West Antarctic ice streams; with the brake of the shelf gone these outpouring had greatly accelerated, and they slid out onto the sea and floated there, long white peninsulas that occasionally broke off and joined the iceberg armada.
As a result of all of this the Ross Sea was no longer a viable proposition for foot travel. And Val was among those who considered this a great blessing, for to start a trek with three hundred miles of hauling over soft snow, entirely flat but frequently crevassed, was not really how modern wilderness adventure travellers wanted to spend their vacation time. In truth it had been the kind of miserable travel no one would do unless they had to. But of course there had been purists who had insisted on doing it because the early explorers had, so their guides had had to oblige and lead them across it, bored out of their minds and working to keep the rapidly disillusioned clients from getting surly. Now that option was gone, and no one was happier about it than Val.
So this Footsteps of Amundsen expedition, like the twelve before it, was taking turns hauling a single ultralight sledge full of their gear, and therefore travelling more like Scott's party than Amundsen's. And they started their trip, as had become traditional, a day's haul out from land, on the sea ice between the ice tongues from the Storm and Axel Heiberg glaciers. This gave everyone a taste of what it had been like to cross the level white waste of the ice shelf, and then without further ado they made landfall where Amundsen and his men had, on the gentle northern slopes of Mount Betty, named after Amundsen's childhood nurse. After crossing the tidal cracks in the sea ice at the shoreline, and setting a camp a couple of hundred metres up the slope, they were also able to visit the cairn that Amundsen and his men had built, on the exposed ridge of Mount Betty called Bigend Saddle. This cairn had marked the only depot Amundsen had made during his trek to the Pole, and now the chest-high stack of big flat stones was also the sole remaining object left by Amundsen's team anywhere on the continent, their base camp having calved into the sea soon after their departure.
So this stack of stones was it. Nothing in the century since had disturbed it, for no wind was going to knock it over, and Antarctica had very little in the way of earthquakes. Val's group stood around it reverently, almost afraid to touch it for fear of tipping it over. But it had been stacked with the kind of neat skill that marked all Amundsen's operations, and it would not fall unless someone deliberately dismantled it. And no one who cared enough to visit the site would do that.
Reproduced with kind permission from Kim Stanley Robinson and HarperCollins
Kim Stanley Robinson was born in 1952 and, after travelling and working around the world, has now settled in his beloved California. He is widely regarded as the finest science fiction writer working today, noted as much for the verisimilitude of his characters as the meticulously researched hard science basis of his work. He has won just about every major sf award there is to win and is the author of the massively successful and lavishly praised Mars series.
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