|Scott's 1912 polar expedition. Assoc. Press|
The traditional definition of wilderness as undomesticated and uninhabited land is laced with denotations of unrestrained barbarism and violence. Historically, wilderness was to be feared with good reason. Adventurers exploring undisturbed wilderness understood that their lives were at risk. And among the most famous of those who undertook that risk was the Scott party who reached the South Pole second, on Jan. 17, 1912. None survived the return trip.
But a hundred years after that historic tragedy the same wilderness has become the latest playground for those who seek a wilderness thrill. The fact that we have changed the world’s landscape nearly everywhere to domesticated and inhabited – therefore safe – is an important determinant of this situation. However, the difference is that today’s adventurers are not explorers but tourists. The plans vary. Some expect to follow Amundsen and Scott’s routes on skis, but many more will travel to the pole in relative comfort. For $40,000 you too can fly directly there. For an additional $17,000 you can be dropped off a few miles from the pole “so they can ski the remaining stretch and feel the thrill of victory.”
They want that thrill without the threat of death. While I can relate to that – the urban wilderness premise is based on it – I firmly believe that there are some places that ought to remain untamed. We should never confuse the urban wilderness with any of the few truly wild, dangerous places left. The National Science Foundation agrees that
Antarctica is one of those places. The Times article quotes Robert Swan, an environmentalist: “It’s a place that wants you dead.”