In this debut memoir, a Beijing surgeon travels with a Chinese expedition to build a research station at Antarctica’s highest point.
Author Mao relates his four-month voyage in 2008 from China to Antarctica’s desolate interior with a crew of mechanics, builders and others. Their mission: to construct the first research station at Dome A—the frozen continent’s highest point at 13,422 feet above sea level. The team faced adversity from the start: As their vessel, the icebreaker Sea Dragon, made its way from Australia to the southern continent, it bucked furious, hurricane-force winds and 25-foot waves. After the seasick crew reached the jumping-off point for its interior expedition into Antarctica, it loaded sleds with provisions and pulled them with giant tractors 1,200 kilometers across “the boundless ice sheet” to Dome A. Even in summer, temperatures dropped to minus 40, and cyclonic winds howled, creating blinding whiteouts. The team braved the elements and made it to the dome but not without a few scares, including stuck and lost tractors, which in that environment could have meant starving or freezing to death. That said, they also enjoyed modern conveniences undreamed of by previous Antarctic expeditions—GPS, airline food and even movies on their computers. However, Mao relates his tale with great humility, wondering at his predecessors’ toughness and resourcefulness. The picture that emerges of the Chinese crew is one of impressive endurance, persistence and teamwork, despite the occasional bickering brought on by close quarters and imperfect hygiene. “We are all brothers on the ice sheet,” Mao notes, as they had to depend upon one another for survival. Mao’s prose has some nice flourishes; for example, he describes driving through the blowing snow as like “stepping on shifting clouds.” However, his story, told in diary format, occasionally dwells too much on the details of daily life instead of providing more specific information about the scientific research at Dome A. In the end, he writes, he returned to Beijing a changed man—although he’s does say that he’s still “not able to put the precise content and form of the impact it had on me into words.”
A worthy, no-nonsense addition to the body of Antarctic exploration literature.