from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies
who makes and keeps his self-made laws."
The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî
So Anna was clever enough to book us tickets to a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society yest, the one that was founded in 1830, has counted amongst its members Darwin, Shackleton, Hilary, and Livingstone and Stanley both… spearheaded the unrivaled Victorian-era exploration of Africa, India, and both poles… and published many of the first maps, charts, and reports from places previously unseen (by white men).
But, much more importantly, I mean the Royal Geographical Society that sponsored Captain Burton's expeditions to the interior of Africa! Anybody who's happened to read my first book will know what a slavering fanboy I am for Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS, the nineteenth-century badass and polymath: explorer, soldier, swordsman, eroticist, poet, linguist, translator and a heck of a lot more. (Through the magic of Google Books full text search, you can now read my potted Burton bio from The Manuscript.)
Just getting in the building (at 1 Kensington Gore) was a thrill, and of course I immediately started running around, annoying and embarrassing Anna profoundly, looking for any and all Burtonalia. I initially found both a painting and a bust of John Hanning Speke the unspeakable Speke!, Burton's protege and subsequent betrayer (whole story there; Burton's life was all good stories) which kind of brassed me off. But… then… when I finally found a Burton portrait hanging in the hall just beyond the Map Room, well… You can see my giddy, goofy schoolboy smile below, which I couldn't stop beaming.
As for the lecture itself: I hadn't been paying close attention in the run-up, so I kind of thought we were just going to maybe an historical lecture, but no it was an actual presentation on the findings of the British Forces Antarctic Expedition 2012, subtitled "The Spirit of Scott" and commemorating the 100th anniversary of Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole. So, in fact, we actually ended up sitting in the same lecture hall where generations of immortal explorers delivered the findings of their expeditions to the Society listening to members of an expedition deliver their findings to the Society. Awesome.
The lecture was amazing. We heard from three leaders of the expedition, all serving military, including an Army Lieutenant Colonel who led the whole thing. All of them were and had to be amazing outdoorsmen. They basically did two years of training and preparation for a 60-day expedition and had to pack supplies, rations for 24 people, climbing equipment, man-sleds, and scientific gear all onto an 85-foot ice-breaking schooner. The whole thing was almost scuttled when all the supplies were held up at customs in Chile for seven days another day, and they would have missed their ferry, the next one of which sailed six weeks later! Had that happened, the Colonel related, their only option would have been to try to ground-ship it across Argentina. "Have you ever tried," he posed dryly, "sending a British military consignment across Argentina?"
There were maps, satellite views, and tons of photographs and video that made it very clear that Antarctica is a lot more complex, and magical, and dangerous, than the big ice sheet I think we kind of visualize. They dealt with 100-knot winds, thundering avalanches, sprawling crevasse fields and, in one case, an avalanche that they could only escape by racing out into a deadly crevasse field. They climbed previously unclimbed mountains and routes, and did scientific work the whole way. They decided that, instead of following in Scott's footsteps, they would follow "the spirit of Scott" whose body, along with his whole teams', was found frozen in their tent, 11 miles from safety, and still in possession of 35 pounds of rock samples that he declined to jettison. Certainly in that spirit, one sub-group of this team spent 30 days in the same clothes, man-sledding their way across the peninsula to place a GPS device (and its 54-pound battery) that would measure change in altitude and thus ice loss.
On the way back, one guy did go down into a crevasse 70 feet down. Naturally, he shot a video of himself while stuck down there waiting for rescue. (Naturally, I instantly admired this.) "Had a bit of a mishap," he began. Finished with, "Quite fancy getting back to basecamp, now." God love the British. Oh, wait! here he is:
More videos here. What a privilege to be present for the presentation and what a thrill to be in the building. (Next stop Burton's tomb at Mortlake. It's about eight miles from here, and I've been trying to get around to going there for nine years…)