Cathy de Moll didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the task in front of her when she signed on to be executive director of explorer Will Steger’s International Trans-Antarctica Expedition in 1990. Indeed, the St. Paul resident said that, if she had, she’s not sure she would have attacked the challenge with the same fervor.
In her new book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, “Think South: How We Got Six Men and Forty Dogs Across Antarctica,” De Moll revisits the expedition on its 25th anniversary. Offering a unique portrait of what goes on behind the scenes, she describes the international glad-handing, political wrangling, legal snafus, and life-or-death decisions that were involved in getting six men, 40 sled dogs, and 100 tons of food and gear across 4,000 miles of wind-whipped, ice-laden terrain that makes up the Earth’s southernmost continent.
Since the expedition, massive areas of ice upon which the team traveled — the first 400 miles of the route — have melted and disintegrated owing to a warming climate. What’s more, the project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the then-Soviet Union. In a recent interview, De Moll, 64, discussed the unique window of time during which the expedition took place, as well as why this story is now more environmentally relevant.
On first meeting Steger
I got a call from Will right after he finished the North Pole expedition. Someone who I knew through my work with Garrison Keillor at Minnesota Public Radio [De Moll worked as the director of communications and promotion] suggested he call me. At the time, Will wanted help in figuring out how to deal with the fame he was suddenly hit with. It went from there, and before I knew it I was doing all the organizing for the trans-Antarctica expedition.
On getting involved with the expedition
I had no idea the long-lasting influence it would have. It’s one of those things, particularly when you’re younger and you don’t know how hard something is, you keep at it because you assume you’re going to be able to figure it out. It’s only with the 25-year perspective where I look back and think, how did we do that? How did we have the courage to keep going? There were so many setbacks and major challenges, and no one had ever done this before in terms of the expedition itself or the organization of such a project. It dawned on me more and more as we went along how hard and dangerous it was.
On the biggest challenge she faced organizing the expedition
The hardest part for me was dealing with the flight supplier — the private company that was flying the airplanes in and out of Antarctica. Getting that organized was a three-year slog. Certainly raising the money was difficult, but when I was arguing with the folks supplying the flights, it was a life-and-death situation, and there was a very strong possibility that the expedition would end at the South Pole. We ended up shipping about 20 tons of food and fuel down with the team, but a year before that we shipped around 80 tons down on a Russian transport ship, which they then flew in and dropped off along the route in advance.
On the successful completion of the expedition
It was unbelievable. We had organized the first-ever live broadcast from Antarctica, so I watched it from a television studio in Paris. When there was some downtime, I got to talk to Will and Jean-Louis (Etienne) and make all the arrangements to get them home, which was a really emotional experience. It was partly emotional because I could see their faces and the penguins and the dangerous ice in the harbor that we needed to get them through. The adventure wasn’t yet over. Getting out of the harbor, the captain told us that he had never seen the ice flows open up the way they did to let those guys out, and then it closed behind them. After that, they ended up hitting a cyclone and had to reroute to Perth, Australia.
On why people love outdoor adventure stories
One of the things we talked about back 25 years ago was that we didn’t want Trans-Antarctica to lure everyone to the continent. In some ways, the more public expeditions can end up being stand-ins for people. By exploring things in books and documentaries, we satisfy that hunger for the different and the other without going and tromping all over it. With improved communication and travel, some of the most precious places on Earth are becoming easier and easier to reach, which is when issues arise, like on Mount Everest. These places are so fragile; hopefully these stories can serve as stand-ins for actually going.
On the environmental importance of the expedition then and now
We did this project when the ozone was first discovered and when the Antarctic Treaty was at its 30-year anniversary — which was a time when if someone challenges the treaty, it gets renegotiated. Looking back on it, certainly things have changed. The treaty is still in effect, but we are coming up on the next 30-year anniversary when it could be challenged again. Also, the first 400 miles of the expedition route have melted, and Antarctica is melting faster than even the science at the time predicted, so it’s really important to bring this stuff up. A lot of kids at the time were raising “save our planet” banners, but nobody really knew what that meant. Now we’re actually living the consequences, so there’s a need for even faster and more specific change than there was at the time. The oceans around Antarctica are the single-most influencer of ocean currents around the world. As the oceans change there, so do the sea levels. Plus, how the currents move, so it’s extremely important.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.