new on television: at the top of the bottom of the world

If you’re an armchair adventurer and have read books about mountain climbing like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or enjoyed miniseries on polar exploration like Shackleton, then you’ll want to watch Nova tonight on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). The episode, “Mountain of Ice,” gives you a two-for-one deal, combining climbing with polar exploration as it chronicles a new route up the never-explored east face of Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s highest peak. The eight-person team includes Jon Krakauer and Conrad Anker (who discovered George Mallory’s body on Everest a few years ago).

Nova being Nova, there’s science involved: Glaciologist Dan Stone is along to determine how altitude affects snowfall and to take the first high-precision GPS reading of Vinson’s summit. But in this program, perhaps unintentionally, science seems secondary to the experience of Antarctica itself, the last great wilderness on Earth.

As Krakauer puts it, Antarctica has a “mythic weight.” The largest desert on Earth, with less precipitation than the Sahara, it holds most of the Earth’s fresh water. The Antarctic also holds an unearthly beauty, and much danger — whiteouts, hidden crevasses, hurricane-force winds, and temperatures of 35 degrees below zero.

It’s a considerable challenge — both in skill and logistics — to climb in such a remote and uncharted area. The team was completely alone for 17 days, and had to haul 1,200 pounds of food, fuel, and equipment some 45 miles. Interspersed between the modern-day expedition is historic footage of Scott’s and Amundsen’s journeys to the South Pole. Krakauer’s voiceover makes his feelings quite clear: Scott was a bungler, and Amundsen a thoroughly prepared professional. Scott reached the Pole in January 1912, a month after Amundsen, and his team of five died on the way back. No mention is made of evidence that shows that the weather might have been unusually harsh — even for Antarctica — during Scott’s journey.

Krakauer believes in preparation and safety, and is suspicious of adventure, quoting arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanson: “Adventure is a sign of incompetence.” There are no mishaps on Vinson Massif, though there are some tense moments. The climbers eventually reach a 3,000-foot-high wall of house-sized blocks of ice called seracs that could dislodge and crush them at any time. Krakauer insists on taking an almost vertical route up the wall that avoids the seracs, and wants to leave the amateur climbers behind. He’d rather trust his climbing skills than the unstable blocks of ice, and his firsthand experience of amateurs dying on Everest is mentioned.

Veteran Antarctic guide Dave Hahn proposes an easier route that the less-experienced filmmakers could manage, but that goes through the seracs. The team splits up, and this is where the going gets hairy. Krakauer and Dan Stone ascend, unroped, like flies on the ice. Using a small DVD camera, Krakauer shot some footage of their climb up the wall, hanging on by the tips of his snow boots and his ice axe. There are only two short shots of the climb through the seracs. According to producer Liesl Clark, there was no place they could safely set up their larger high-definition film camera. So, unfortunately, the most dangerous part of the journey was barely captured on film. At the summit are the obligatory hugs, though what you’re seeing is take two, since the first was considered fake-looking. Dan Stone takes his measurements, and the only mishap is the cameraman’s frostbitten finger.

What you come away with is the alien beauty and harshness of the continent. Nova shows us the unexplored side of Vinson, and gives us a taste of the increasingly rare experience of true wilderness — all in the comfort of our own homes

Mountain of Ice
Airing at 8 tonight on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). Find the full Web companion to the program at

This review appeared in the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 2/11/2003.
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