Book Review: The White Darkness

Spoiler alert — I talk about how this book ends.  If that bothers you, maybe read the book before reading this.  Overall, I’d give the book 3.5 or 3.75 stars, but the dude the story is about — yeah, I wasn’t really interested in him by the end of the book.

Let me start out by saying: I LOVE Antarctic adventure tales. I love tales of climbing huge mountains. I love stories about people overcoming the adversity of the harshest, coldest conditions on earth, what they felt, the diary entries, what went wrong, and how they survived. That said, I listened to this as an audiobook, and all I could think was — man that dude was a total ass.

From what I’ve gathered from other reviews, this “book” was originally a New Yorker piece that had some pictures added to it and was re-released as a book. When I downloaded the audiobook (PSA, support your public libraries kids! And Libby is a great app to access those resources if it’s available for your local library.) I honestly thought that the file had been corrupted or the download was incomplete — the entire reading only takes about 2 hours. Will Patton is the narrator, and his voice is so wonderful to listen to. So it’s a short investment in your time, and it’s not a bad story.

What I couldn’t get over was the guy who the story is about. He was a descendant of one of the men who explored the Antarctic with Ernest Shackleton, and he became obsessed with the idea of following in his ancestor’s footsteps. Even though he had a successful trip through the polar landscape earlier in his life, he decided to take a solo trip across the continent when he turned 55 and retired from the military. The book points out, I assume from interviews with his wife, that before he started on the trip they were celebrating and planning out what they were going to do now that he retired and wasn’t going to be deployed anywhere in the world anymore. But instead, he went off on what was essentially a publicity stunt. He was going to hike alone across Antarctica, pulling his sled of necessities, without any assistance, to raise money for a fund for injured servicemen. So to be clear: this was a vanity project, with no scientific contributions, and it wasn’t even the first time that someone had solo crossed the Antarctic continent. Sure it raised money, but he could have dedicated the next 10 or 15 years of his life to doing the same thing — I think the book said he ultimately raised about $250000, which is not a lot for a dedicated fundraiser.

So he starts his trip, reaches the South Pole, and is miserable, but chooses NOT to go into the South Pole base to get checked out medically, or get resupplied, or get warm, or even just enjoy the company of other human beings because he was doing this trip “unassisted.” Then, a few days/weeks later (sorry, I don’t have a clear timeline because I was too annoyed at this point to be taking notes), he’s almost done with his trip, but gets dehydrated and sick. His wife wants to call in a rescue team, but some other explorer-type convinces her to let him (her husband) make the call when to give up because he’s got an emergency beacon that would get him a flight team to pick him up. So he spends a few days wallowing in misery because he thought that he would just get picked up and the only thing that would be hurt was his pride. Yeah, no. He ended up having a bacterial infection, had to be flown to Chile for emergency surgery and died anyway.

So this guy (1) has a great life ahead of him with his wife and kids (2) embarks on a vanity project that he thought would make him happy (despite an earlier trip that was supposed to do the same thing) (3) doesn’t succeed and (4) dies anyway. And now, get this, his son wants to follow in his idolized father’s footsteps. I just … can’t. One thing that irritates me is that he did all that, made all those bad decisions, because he apparently thought that he would be easily rescued and his life would just go back to normal if something bad happened. It was all for no good reason, other than he just wanted to do it. I had a friend who used to spend a few months a year in Antarctica doing research, and that place is no joke. If something goes wrong, and you need to be rescued, the people doing the rescuing are risking their OWN lives for you. It’s not just a helicopter flight up and out to take your dumb ass back to civilization. If this guy worshipped Shackleton like it’s said that he did, how did he not know that? How did he not understand the real and true danger to his life that he was taking? How did he not not take into consideration how much his family would be destroyed if something happened to him?

Anyway, if you’re interested, it’s a quick story, well written, and wonderfully narrated in the audiobook version. But the story itself is about a guy who should have really, really made some different life decisions.

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