Polar Madness

Written by Will on . Posted in Lore, Legend & Stories, Quirks, Working and Living in Antarctica

Antarctica‘s history is replete with tales of explorers and expeditioners going completely mad. One of my favorite tales is from the Mawson expedition of 1911. While Mawson and two members of his team were out doing sciencey stuff, disaster struck as a sledge loaded with most of their food was lost in a crevasse along with the team of dogs pulling the sledge and one member of the party. With no food Mawson and his remaining companion started the 500km journey back to their base of operations. They began eating the dogs. Unbeknownst to the men, dog livers contain toxic levels of Vitamin A. The combination of the stressful situation and Vitamin A toxicity drove both men to madness but had a greater effect on Mawson’s companion who eventually, in protest of eating the dogs, bit off his own finger and eventually died, probably of complications caused by Hypervitaminosis A.

Mawson continued on, facing even greater adversity. He fell into a crevasse, but was saved when his sledge acted as an anchor. Mawson admitted to considering cutting the rope at that point. The soles of his feet separated from the feet themselves. He cut his sledge in half with a pen knife and dragged it approximately 160km back to camp. Upon his arrival to the base camp, he discovered that his ship had left just days earlier. There was a party of six men left behind in case survivors returned – this party was able to radio the ship, but poor weather thwarted a rescue attempt. One of the men left behind succumbed to polar madness very early on, was locked up and eventually institutionalized upon the party’s return to Australia.

Admiral Byrd’s historic (but controversial) flight over the South Pole is seen as the line of demarcation between the heroic age of exploration and modern exploration. Things have gotten easier in Antarctica, but that doesn’t mean the crazies don’t still find their way down here and the winter seems to be their time to shine. There are stories about one man violently bludgeoning another with a hammer, mutinous crews, a doctor who attempted to build a time machine and a man who was convinced that aliens would land. More minor symptoms include memory loss, quick tempers and apparently hallucinations. Popular opinion is that everyone wintering in Antarctica will go crazy to some degree.

During my first winter at The South Pole I was quick to dismiss as myth the things that I had heard people talk about. I really do believe that people embellish the symptoms of T3 (AKA winterover toast) a great deal. I did, however, have a minor experience of my own in which I completely lost a four-hour block of time. The incident did at least cause me to be a believer.

This season I may have actually “lost it” in a more classic way, perhaps the isolation and lack of stimulation are finally getting to me, but the other day when I was returning from the Marr glacier I saw what I thought was a person (which my mind quickly turned into people). I went as far as to radio this sighting in. Upon my return to station quite a few folks were out with binoculars trying to see what I thought I saw. By this point I was quite a bit less sure about what I had seen, but to satisfy my own curiosity I went back out with another person and a pair of binoculars only to discover what I had seen were rocks that looked like a person and a bird fluttering which added movement to the scene. I expected to catch quite a bit of razzing, but it was fairly mild actually. Perhaps nobody wants to try to push the guy who’s seeing things too far or perhaps it’s because I turned the thing around pretty quickly by calling them all suckers.

At any rate, it might be time for me to take some time off. More to follow.



Will Brubaker has been roaming the world for over 20 years. He has been to all seven continents, has successfully landed lucrative contract jobs in international locations, spent two winters in Antarctica, recently lived in Taiwan and is currently enjoying sunsets with his wife from his ocean-view balcony in Huanchaco, Peru.