Twenty-five years ago, six men from six countries, including Minnesota's Will Steger, took a dog-sled trip across Antarctica. It was the first trip of its kind, and it is likely to remain the only one: Dogs are no longer allowed in Antarctica, and part of the route has been lost to climate change. "Think South" is about that historic expedition, but despite its title, it is as much about getting men and dogs to Antarctica as across it. As the former executive director of the 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition, Cathy de Moll recalls forging international ties, winning corporate sponsors and figuring logistics for an undertaking that involved several countries and millions of dollars.
Although only a few secondhand anecdotes take place on the ice, readers will find drama of a different sort. At one point the expedition team is trapped on the tarmac in Cuba in a hot plane (literally hot and figuratively hot); in another they head toward a supposed fuel-and-supply drop that won't be there unless De Moll can negotiate a legally questionable deal between the U.S. and the USSR. Their plans are often frustrated by Cold War standoffs and other political concerns. They are also complicated by history, particularly the looming collapse of the Soviet Union and the crackdown on perceived dissidents in China.
De Moll seems to take most of this in stride and sees her way through various crises with steady nerves. When one essential partner tries to wring more money out of the expedition, she also proves she's not to be trifled with. Yet, De Moll strives to write only passingly of her own accomplishments, and of the effects of the job on her personal life. There isn't a lot of bragging here, but no false humility, either: She simply focuses on other people.
In fact, De Moll centers most chapters on a particular person, sometimes one of the six men on the expedition, and people in other supporting roles: a wheeling-dealing Russian trying to turn a profit and stay out of trouble during perestroika; a driven Chinese scientist who has studied glaciers from the Gobi Desert but is ill-equipped for time on the ice; a usually reserved explorer who sends increasingly amorous messages to his girlfriend; a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covering the story; a Japanese dog trainer who gets lost in a blizzard only 16 miles from the finish line.
This is an interesting narrative strategy, compelling De Moll to abandon a chronological narrative, but her genuine appreciation for the skills, personalities, eccentricities and sacrifices of the people she came to know gives her memoir warmth and heart. It also betrays something of her role as a leader and the spirit of the expedition. It's probably worth mentioning that she doesn't give herself a chapter.
Kurtis Scaletta is a writer in Minneapolis.