[personal|travel] At the Mountains of Madness – more thoughts on Antarctica

I’ve given some more thought to the idea of going to Antarctica, and done some additional research.

First of all, if I am going to do this, I simply have to take [info]the_child. I can’t imagine not doing that, but it literally doubles the cost of the effort, which makes the fundraising that much more daunting.

Second of all, my original thumb in the air estimate of costs was about right for a basic trip through Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. $15,000 will get a person there from the United States by air, keep them in hotels and daily expenses as needed, and put them on a cruise across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic peninsula with some opportunities for landing on the Antarctic shore, with a bit left over for clothing and gear. That’s a two- to three-week trip, door to door from the United States.

The other obvious option is to leave from New Zealand (which for several reasons I find mildly preferable), but the base cost is rather higher for that trip than for the Argentina option, running closer to $30,000 per person. It also takes more time.

The South Pole is possible, by the way, but is closer to $50,000 per person by the time it’s all rolled up.

And then, of course, double the cost for including [info]the_child.

Even the most basic approach is $30,000 under these parameters. That seems like an awful lot of money for a Kickstarter effort, though it’s well within their parameters. (I checked.)

The other issue, of course, is the creative positioning. That’s essential for the Kickstarter funding model, but also very important for me.

I see several angles here, both positive and negative. One is the journey through from the cancer being taken by me and [info]the_child. The idea of going to extremes to celebrate having gone to extremes. Another is a continuation of the travel blogging and photo blogging I’ve been doing for years, on my trips to China and New Zealand and around the United States. Another is bringing the adventure aspect home to all of my readers with the same prosaic approach I’ve brought to the cancer journey and everything else.

On the flip side, I’m already a well-off American white male with all the privilege that implies. It’s hard to escape an appearance, and even a reality, of entitlement and privilege, regardless of my conscious motivations. If I am going to ask other people to pay for this, I have to deliver some specific, focused value — in the form of entertainment and education, pace my role in the world as a writer and blogger and a creative artist.

So I’m thinking the creative output has to be layered and meaningful. For example, a high-end, limited edition hardcover book of photography and essays and some Antarctic specific fiction for top tier-donors, and possibly later limited sale. The donors would receive some personalized premium content from me as well. I’d produce a more accessible trade edition of the same book for mid-tier donors and general sale. An ebook edition for all donors, and general sale.

The name of the project, naturally, would be At the Mountains of Madness.

All of this has to include [info]the_child of course, her essays and her art and photography. And I’d being blogging the entire process from the very beginning, so the donor experience would be a reader experience, along for the ride on my metaphorical shoulder.

A question that I need to wrestle with is how much to frame this as a cancer/post-cancer project? From my internal perspective, that’s kind of the point — aiming myself at something audacious. So there’s an emotional journey here, from a hospital bed in Portland, Oregon to the polar ice cap, that would seem to underpin everything. At the same time, I don’t want it to be morbid.

Likewise, do I seek direct sponsorships instead of Kickstarter, or try to build a more traditional nonfiction trade book deal to support this project? Etc. etc. etc.

A lot to think about in order to make this make sense.

9 thoughts on “[personal|travel] At the Mountains of Madness – more thoughts on Antarctica

  1. Amy Thomson says:


    I went to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, several small sub-Antarctic islands, and down the Drake Peninsula back in December/January of ’82-’83. Oh wow! Do it, absolutely! It was a peak experience. Amazing wildlife, spectacular scenery, potentially wicked seas (pack your Dramamine!) I don’t recall needing a lot of special gear, and it wasn’t all that cold (high 20’s). Good shoes, good hats and gloves, and good windproof gear. I was there during the Antarctic summer when everything was breeding. Watching Wandering Albatross courting was wicked cool. Albatrosses are amazing flyers. If you can find a ship that stops at South Georgia Island, you should definitely go there. Grytviken is spooky and utterly amazing.

    If you go on a commercial cruise, try to find a smaller ship. I went on the Lindblad Explorer, no longer a working ship, with about 110 people. The fewer the people, the better the experience. Bear in mind that there are almost always a couple of nutbars and or assholes on any cruise. Spot them early and avoid them if you can.

  2. Michael says:

    That’s the thing about Kickstarter. It’s very egalitarian. If people find it compelling, or are big enough fans of the proposer (lots of musicians are doing albums through kickstarter, for instance), then many times there is no issue attaining the desired funding level. And you can certainly ask for any funding level you deem necessary – but, as they say, it’s easier to shoot for the moon than to aim for Columbus. I would seek funding for what you think you are going to need. You can also have a fairly long funding cycle (I’ve seen some as long as 6 months, some as short as 6 weeks). So, as planning intensive as this sounds, maybe you want to go with a longer funding cycle anyway? But the project doesn’t fund until the cycle is over (and the goal has been met). Be bold and be compelling and I think you should do okay. You have a fair number of fans taht might be willing to support something like this.

  3. Cora says:

    If you need some background information, specs, etc… regarding different Antarctic cruise ships, feel free to contact me. I’m a tech translator and one of my clients is a company who among other things does engineering work for polar cruise vessels, so I constantly work with people who know these vessels very well, including the parts most passengers never see. The safety standards for all vessels cruising in Antarctic waters are very strict BTW, so you need not worry on that account.

    I still think you should try if you can get a sort of “writer aboard” deal with the cruise operator, so you’d get a reduced fare in exchange for doing readings or blogging on the company website or some such thing. Polar cruise vessels regularly have scientists, etc… aboard to give talks, so a writer isn’t too far off the mark. I can get you the contact info of the cruise directors in question. Again, let me know if I can help. Of course, I’d also donate a few bucks for the kickstarter as well.

    Something else to remember is that trips to Antarctica, whether cruises or research trips, usually take place during the Antarctic summer. This means that you can’t schedule the trip during the summer holidays and would have to take the child out of school for the duration of the trip. Probably best to check with the school beforehand.

  4. Jay says:

    I can get you the contact info of the cruise directors in question.

    As this progresses, that would be awesome!

  5. Stevie says:


    On dreaming possible dreams: I have a different view to Cora on this, primarily because I have severe health problems, and my daughter is a doctor, so I have some insights into the way cruise companies see people like you and me. Earlier this year my daughter took me on a surprise important birthday holiday, flying to the Caribbean and cruising back; even though I do have travel medical insurance she still had to point out to them that I was travelling with my own physician, ie her, before they accepted the booking.

    What you need to recognise is that getting travel health insurance for yourself may be very difficult indeed, and that even if you do get it the small ships are quite likely to turn you down anyway. They recognise that a fair number of their passengers may spend much of the duration throwing up because of:

    a. sea sickness, and/or

    b. noro virus.

    Someone who has had hefty chunks of his guts removed is not likely to handle either of those well, and small ships simply do not have the facilities to care for you. You have to bear in mind that the ship’s Medical Officer has an absolute right to stop someone boarding even if the entire Board of Directors of the company owning the ship say otherwise.

    My daughter and I went through a Force 11 gale on the now retired P&O ship Artemis, when half the crew were queuing up for the sea sickness jabs alongside most of the passengers; neither of us was affected but until you find yourself in that situation you simply don’t know how you, and more importantly, your guts, will react.

    You also need to bear in mind the huge cultural gap between the US and most of the rest of the world when it comes to inspirational stories; for every one person who wants to be inspired by you there will be at least 10 and probably closer to 100 who do not want to hear the word cancer mentioned at all, particularly when they are booking their holidays.

    What makes it even worse is that all cruise lines have a common policy of refusing passage to people who have been diagnosed with a terminal disease; apparently booking a lifetime experience cruise is a not infrequent response to receiving that sort of news, and the companies do not want to find themselves either trying to provide some sort of palliative care until they can get into port or dealing with people who want to commit suicide in areas of outstanding natural beauty.*

    What worries me is that if you approach companies with a plan to be an inspirational speaker then you may not only get turned down as a speaker but also blacklisted as a passenger.

    *Obviously this does not apply to you but the companies do not know that; it’s all a question of numbers.

    So, sticking the inspirational thing aside, you can approach companies as a writer who can teach people to write about the amazing adventure they are on, so they have words as well as pictures for the rest of their lives. You are eminently well qualified for that, but cruises to the Antarctic tend to be short so companies may feel that they don’t need to fill in the time.

    My daughter and I did the long slog up the West coast of Africa from Capetown en route back to England, and there was a poet aboard, travelling free with his wife, in return for teaching us the basics about writing poetry, giving us homework- writing types of poems- critiqueing the results and so on. If you could get that deal for an Antarctic cruise then I assume you would be happy with it.

    None of this is reason to abandon the Antarctic dream; I’m flagging it up because I would love to see you make that dream reality. It’s all a question of the best way to make it come true…

    1. Cora says:

      Discrimination against chronically ill passengers does not match my experience with the cruise industry. Because in my experience – not just as a translator, but also because my Dad used to design ships for Germany’s biggest cruise operator – cruise liners do their best to accommodate chronically ill passengers, probably because the companies know that a lot of their customers are elderly and not in the best of health. For example, big cruise liners are outfitted with dialysis machines, so people with kidney failure can go on cruises. There’s a morgue, too, in case someone dies on board (because these things do happen).

      Of course, there may be a cultural difference between US and European cruise companies in dealing with severely ill passengers. Never mind that the demographics of cruise passengers in the US skew younger and therefore healthier. And considering how much Disney dislikes people dying on their premises, I wouldn’t be surprised if their cruise ships refused terminally ill passengers. And no cruise company likes to have their schedule (which is very tight and set for months in advance) disrupted for any reason (e.g. to take a severely ill passenger to hospital), because this is hugely expensive.

      It must be remembered that a cruise ship is not a hospital and that the smaller ships that travel to Antarctica are less well-equipped in that regard than the big ones. Stevie’s point about sea-sickness (and the sea around Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica is notoriously rough) and possible noro virus infections (common on cruise ships) is a good one. You should definitely check with your doctor, if this would cause a problem given your missing guts.

      Though I agree with Stevie that if you’re going to shoot for a “writer on board” gig, it’s probably best to downplay the cancer angle and play up the writer angle.

  6. Stevie says:


    I don’t think it’s discrimination, more a question of economics, as you have noted; even the largest of P&O’s ships carries only 2 doctors and 3 nurses. Elderly people popping their clogs as elderly people do are routine because of the cruising demographics; it is the younger people with health problems that cruise companies worry about. You mentioned dialysis, and P&O says this about it:

    ‘Yes, but only peritoneal (fluid) dialysis which must be carried out by yourself or travelling companion rather than the medical staff on board. You must be self sufficient and arrange your own supplies. We cannot accept haemodialysis (blood dialysis) passengers on board.’

    Obviously there are much bigger ships with more medics but they don’t go to Antarctica…

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