From our distant African origins to the igloo-dwelling Greenland Inuit, humankind has always extended our reach into whatever new and unexplored land lay at our domestic frontiers. We have not shied away from the most extreme of environments. Rather, we have learned, through trial and error, how to enter, how to survive and even thrive in them. There is no place on earth so inhospitable that we have not sought to make it our own. Even today new launches of Mars probes are looking for ways to make other planets our own.
There was a time when the Antarctic continent was the last frontier. Whatever secrets it held, whatever promise, could only be revealed by facing the dangers of the unknown, by extending the limit of the known world a little farther each time out. Always accepting the risk of extending too far, of exceeding the limit, of going beyond the point of no return. Driven by ambition, the leaders of the early expeditions decided, each for his own reasons, to take on a little more risk. Sometimes, it was much more than just a little. In the spirit of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” the men under their command agreed to go along.
Many of them survived by the slimmest of margins, making it home to base camp in the last throes of starvation and exposure. Their first-hand accounts make for captivating reading, tales of privation and sacrifice, examples of generosity and heroism and endurance from which we call can benefit. Think of Scott on the Polar Plateau in 1903, dangling in a crevasse with Taff Evans, with only Bill Lashly hanging on by a hair to save them. Think of Shackleton’s Polar Party making it back to Cape Royds with only a single day left to make the relief ship. Think of the men of the sunken Endurance leaving the ice in their three overloaded open boats, of Shackleton’s crossing the Southern Ocean in the James Caird, then crossing South Georgia late in the Antarctic autumn. Of Mawson dangling alone in a crevasse, starved and wracked by vitamin A poisoning and starvation.
Most of the explorers made it back alive with their notes and specimens, their charts and sketches, of what had once been Terra Incognita. Some did not.
All had faced the big risk. Had they not, had the exploration of the last continent been delayed because the risks involved were too great to face with the resources at hand, science would be so much the less. Our understanding of the Earth’s physical makeup and the forces shaping our environment today, has its foundation in their early work.
All had made their own answers to the question, “When do you take the big risk?”
What will your answer be?