Joan Larsen’s Travel: Whiteout at the End of the World

Posted on March 26, 2014


By Joan Larsen


On Christmas Day in my childhood years – when “big” presents were still the first ones opened, the largest had been sent by “my maiden aunt”.  My first thought on this present should have been “educational” as school teachers were wont to see that their nieces were the smartest people on earth.   But the very mammoth size told me it wasn’t books again, so I excitedly ripped it open.

A very large globe on a spinning stand appeared.  The beautiful colors flashed by in a blur, a blur that was magic if I really put my mind to spinning it .  .   . and I did!!  And so it became my favorite present, whirled to death in my free moments – of which I had more than could be believed.

And then, my days as a small child must have ended – well, most of the time.  I stopped the globe.  I began to sound out the names of the countries and where they were on this moving map until I was definitely “Jeopardy” material.  I know if I ever got on that show, I couldn’t be beaten — in geography at least!

But perhaps in all that spinning I did, my mind took one whirl too many.  I made a list of every one of those strange sounding names of countries that sounded tiny and remote, determined that I was going to travel the world in my lifetime.  Like Robinson Crusoe, I planned to be the first to plant my bare footprint on these tiny, hardly visible pieces of land.

I don’t think this was exactly what my maiden aunt had in mind when she gave me this whirling wonder.  However, I think she would have been amazed that – with much fortitude and often sheer guts and quite a bit of danger over too many years to mention —  I have checked off every country on that now battered, child-written penciled list, copied from that globe, in full.

On one journey I was first in the world to set foot on a very remote location, untouched until then.  A few times, I was one of the first hundred – and those that had made it before me were scattered over centuries, leaving me in wonder.

7-mapGetting to dots on that globe the size of a pencil mark is the challenge.  It can take years.  And years.  The best name for a string of islands that are the most inaccessible, formidable, inhospitable places on Earth – plagued by the most incredibly rough seas to keep curiosity seekers away – have to be The South Sandwich Islands, “found” by James Cook in 1775.  Even back then, there had to be humor involved that “a Cook” named “a Sandwich”.

Even being a passenger on the largest icebreaker in the Antarctic, to get to this arc of volcanic islands in nowhere was not to be easy.  The ice that year was 10 feet thick and no one had been even close for many years.  The Russian captain was uneasy about making it.   However, one passenger – me – was determined.  I had come too far.  I talked about the predominantly ice-covered islands on top of active erupting volcanoes directly on the Earth’s moving plates that we alone would see.  .  . and be among the first to ever walk upon.

The Russian captain –well, he didn’t want to miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance – at least by the time I was finished regaling him with this rare opportunity.  OK – it took me more than once to get him on board but I was very convincing.

And so, our small group of passengers were one of the very few to not just view the steaming volcanoes on these islands from the ship as others might if they got close.  We had helicopters on board.  This hadn’t happened before.

The photos below will give a bit of the feeling of our arrival at the sea of islands.  Sometimes we landed by Zodiac rafts.  The most memorable were the islands with no safe landing or climbing spots.  We went in by helicopter.

11a-Candlemas Island



On Zavodovski, even the chinstrap penguins in the millions found it the most scenic.  The volcano was smoking, the ground itself was hard lava, making a fall not only a possibility but potentially dangerous as this was the very end of nowhere.  You could die here.  We jumped only when necessary to pass over a hardened lava crevasse.  .  . but when the call was made to come back to the helicopter, a few of us didn’t want to leave.  We were mesmerized by the island, its penguins and its volcano that seemed ready to go off.


But the weather was turning quickly – and the last 5 of us were asked to run to the helicopter.  It was to be touch-and-go as “a white-out” was making the world disappear as we took off.


14-findingship-whiteoutThe windshield was fogged, and the helicopter pilot was navigating by hanging out the side window as we descended the cliff edge (when we could even see it) toward the sea.  But there was no sea.  No one spoke.  Only later did we understand that the pilot was trying to get beneath the “white” to just above sea level without going into the sea itself.  And then – which should be mentioned, wasfinding our ship in the white-out.  .  . another challenge altogether.

Silence reigned  — but it was so disconcerting to see the pilot half hanging from the window from the waist up.   When sea was found, our wheels could have touched it.  Later, when the side of our icebreaker was glimpsed for seconds only before the white reappeared, we knew it wasn’t over yet.  I have been in quite a few very chancy circumstances in remote places.  .  . but this was the worst.  Never had I heard anything but silence from my fellow passengers on life-and-death experiences.  The small helicopter went up the side of the ship – – when we could see the ship at all – and then the heli deck was there – with a heck of a large number of crew that certainly wouldn’t be on call for a normal landing.

With the whiteout, might-as-well-be-blind escorts were needed to get each of us out without knowing where the deck was.  We were told to duck the blades (what blades??) and – like the blind leading the blind – the door to the ship’s interior was opened and we slipped in.

Someone said:  “We need a drink”.  We had come back to the land of the living again.

I often wonder if there is one other person on this earth whose whole life, life of children, life of grandchildren, has been shaped by a gift of a large spinning globe.  But my own belief, now shared by a much larger family has been that – when we each come into this world, we are given this world  – the whole world – as our oyster.  From then on, it is up to us what we do about it.

All I can say is what a life we have led or are leading in continuing that quest.  Life could not be better.  Life has been one of amazing experiences on this spinning globe.

As for me, I am far from ready to get off.


JoanAvatarWriter Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”



Cover image copyright:  Oceanwide Expeditions.