Miss Wheeler's feeling for snow

Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler Cape, pounds 16.99; Richard Eyre, whose grandfather went south with Scott, reviews a stunning account of a new polar expedition
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When I was a child I dreamed of walking across the unearthly landscape of Antarctica holding the hand of my grandfather. He was the First Lieutenant on Scott's first expedition and, although he died before I was born, his memorabilia possessed my childhood imagination - journals, sledging diaries, maps, letters, drawings, photos, wooden goggles, sealskin gloves, and a piano which he'd played in the hut on the ice at McMurdo Sound. Sara Wheeler visited the hut 90 years later and found a mummified seal, stacked tins of Huntley and Palmer biscuits, a frozen mutton carcass, and a "stillness like a benediction". I envy her journey as much as I admire it; I have only been there in my dreams.

Most people, like the chicken crossing the road, travel to get to the other side. Travel writers cross the road in order to write a book about it. They live vicariously, are generally disingenuous about their motives and, like explorers, paint themselves into the landscape with a noble, if melancholy, profile - the lone traveller conquering territory and loneliness in a sort of pissing contest for imperturbability. As my grandfather said with unquenchable stoicism in his journals: "What we shall continue to do is to behave like ordinary human beings ... with the help of a little tact, a little self-denial, and a cheery face, most of the monotony and discomfort can be overcome."

But then most travellers and most explorers are men, and it's not the least pleasure of Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita to find her confessing that when she was lonely, cold, and ignored by her male companions she burst into tears. This is not a book written by an honorary man.

During a trip to Chile in 1991 Sara Wheeler saw the distant icefields of Antarctica and felt she was "glimpsing the world for the first time" - space, time and territory without owner. The desolate continent became an obsessive object of desire, lodged in her mind's eye as a landscape of metaphor and a spiritual tabula rasa. It took her two years to organise her trip, and after countless applications, interviews, conferences and medicals she became the first foreigner to be accepted for the American National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers' Program. As W-002: Wheeler she became writer in residence at the American base on Ross Island. Less than a mile from the hut where my grandfather spent two ice-bound winters, it was now possible to get served a perfectly decent capuccino.

Whatever the comforts of improved food and clothing, heating and transport, there remained the immutable brutality of the cold, the wind and the ice and, for Sara Wheeler, the daily invasion of a more or less exclusively male social territory, whose patron saint - Scott - had proved, as the President of the Royal Geographical Society said, that "the manhood of our nation is not dead".

Wheeler travelled in the shadow of these self-deluding myths, accompanied by the ghosts of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, and Mawson, haunted by their pain, awed by their endurance. Eventually she arrived by plane at the South Pole, "a cluster of black dots", to find there a 12-foot poster of Elvis, a signpost marked "Graceland" and 130 people. She quotes Thomas Pynchon, perhaps for solace: "It is not what I saw or believed I saw that in the end is important. It is what I thought."

Whether she is describing the apotheosis of tourism or the heroic folly of generations of explorers she writes with a consistent wry wit: "So often it is the landscapes most inimical to life that are the most seductive. In this respect they are like boyfriends." She seamlessly weaves the narrative of her Antarctic journey with the history of the exploration of the continent. I have read many accounts of polar exploration, but never one which so touchingly describes its emotional topography, and the peculiar resonance for the British of the conquest of a Never-Never-land where nothing ever decays except souls.

Wheeler is detached from her subject, but never lacks empathy, compassion or generosity for people whose values, background and gender were the polar opposite of hers. She says of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the luminously elegant chronicler of Scott's last expedition: "His prose is divine, its mournful echoing cadences reminiscent of a great badly-lit railway station where people are saying goodbye." It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say the same thing of her writing.

"You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic," is the book's epigraph. What her Antarctic is we never discover, and perhaps it is churlish to want to know more about her emotional wasteland: "I had been living near the edge," she says. But in a book which is marinated in the psychology of loneliness and suffering, which is larded with inquiry into the power of the unknown over the human mind, insists that cold places are conducive to spiritual awareness and which affirms the existence of God, it is hard not to want to know what the author is escaping from, and, even if it is prurient, not to feel somehow short-changed by hints of too much drink and too little love.

Perhaps she was impelled by nothing more than the desire to go on a sentimental journey, to escape the nine-to-fiveness of life, and seek a loss of self and a new identity. At the end of her journey she spent the night with her head on Scott's pillow on the bunk in the hut from which he left on his last voyage for the Pole. She

identifies with a man who she regards as her hero, however vain, schoolboyish, and foolhardy, and if there is anything that clouds her candour, it is only the mask of romanticism: "It was the great thrill of my life... It had allowed me to believe in paradise, and that, surely, is a gift beyond price."

I find it difficult to resist a book about exploration which ends with a recipe for Bread and Butter Pudding (Antarctic Version), and although I'm genetically indentured to be curious about the Antarctic, unlike Sara Wheeler I have done nothing about it: you admire what you cannot do yourself. What she has done could not be done better.