Book Review: Extreme South

TrailRunMag 21.10.2012

Book Review: Extreme South by James Castrission
REVIEW: Chris Ord

Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll. It’s not what you’d expect from an adventure tome that took less time to hit our shelves than it took its protagonists to complete the adventure.

But adventurer James Castrission proffers all tenants in his latest, Extreme South, detailing his and constant companion in the field, Justin Jones’, most recent achievement of becoming the first people to trek unsupported to the South Pole and back. It’s a feat that rolls way too easily off the keyboard given the immensity of the challenge and, having read the book, I’d still opine that we mere mortals can never really get a true picture or appreciation of the effort. And no amount of standing in an ice bar supping frozen daiquiris will do it (what? Isn’t that how all literary critics work? It’s called immersion, people…the equivalent of hydrated method acting).

But back to the sex. Of course it’s all musings about wet dreams and how the vast, often visually barren expanse of the Antarctic sparks intense erotic visions while cooped up in a tent with your best mate; the drugs component is a pharmacy worth of Nurofen; and the rock ‘n roll is iPod-generated and occasionally degenerates to the Australian national anthem (no offence but I’m yet to hear a good hardcore rendition yet).

In a way, that encapsulates the key challenge of keeping a reader engaged in a journey that is relentlessly monotonous: day after pus-blister-inducing day spent performing the same exacting bodily movement over and over (foot forward, schlep, foot forward, schlep, foot forward, schlep, foot forward, schlep ad nauseam) all in a world of white, and often white-out, paired with unrelenting pain and misery and suffering.

Hey: let’s spend four years of our life in the planning to make that happen! Which is exactly what the fellas did. Imagine that? And for all of those 1408 days in preparation they knew their end game was boredom and pain.

Welcome to the world of true adventure. It’s not glamorous – it’s tear- and snot-filled. It’s not a life of riches – the pair had major sponsors drop out late in the day, and they are not now on a whirlwind global tour of inspirational presentations to become rich – they are doing it to repay the bills, auditorium crowd by standing ovation auditorium crowd.

Even the fame is of no real motivation – we Adventure Types know them, sure, but Cas and Jonesy aren’t on the cover of Who magazine just yet (although the six packs – one of the few hard earned benefits of their crossing –  may get them on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine. If Cas would just cut his hair and shave…).

No, there was nothing glamorous about the expedition, that much is clear. And beware any wanna-be adventurer that enters the fray with such celebrity-seeking thoughts. Talk to Cas and Jonesy first, for between them they are perhaps in the current day sense the most qualified to talk about real adventure, what it promises and what it actually delivers.

Which is what their trip delivers: Real Adventure.  It’s not a Boys’ Own adventure for shits and giggles, although there was plenty of the former, not so much of the latter. There was the literal version – their meticulously calorie-counted diet and stress on the body enforcing plenty of ice besmirching (not to mention leg and boot besmirching – it’s hard to defecate in howling icy winds). And there’s the relationship version where best buddies Cas and Jonesy constantly get the shits with each other.

This is perhaps one of the more insightful aspects of the book. The ideal of Cas and Jonesy as a harmonious unit bonded by friendship and mutual experience in tough times comes crumbling down as Cas delves into their shifting relationship dynamic. Here we have not just a voyeuristic titillation in the opening of a can of brotherly worms, but an indication of how the travails and constancy of true hardship can play upon and fracture once unbreakable bonds. It’s the ying-yang of adventure at close quarters accompanied by those near and dear to you as the pair explode at each other nearly as much as their bums explode over the ice and with nearly as much mess, albeit it of the emotional kind.

Cas then reflects upon such dynamics as played out in the field of adventure over the ages with particular reference to the Antarctic explorers he idolised before realising that they, too, were all too human and, like Cas and Jonesy, never felt more so than when out there on the belittling ice.

Not only was the duo comparing themselves to the past and hoping for a better outcome – one hundred years ago Norway’s Roald Amundsen beat England’s Robert Scott to the South Pole. A broken man, Scott died on the return journey – they also had to contend with the fact that there was another out on the ice at the same time, hoping to achieve the same feat. On the flight in to Union Glacier they had to stare down Norwegian Aleksandr Gamme, out to emulate his countryman, Amundsen. The race was unofficially on, whether any of the three wanted to admit it or not. And history was not on the Australians’ side.

And so, once the background of the trip is recounted replete with early dramas that pre-splinters the pair before hitting Union Glacier, we read of the breakdown of body and mind as their trip edges forward, slowly, slowly, the pace almost matching the drawn-out experience. At first chapters plod, occasionally punctured by challenges of crevasses and gear break downs and moods and spats and frustrations. As the journey the unfolds the rhythmic composition of Cas’s retelling is like large thick waves of chapters slowly thumping through, the reader willing them and the words to pick up the pace a little. Perhaps this was Cas’ intent in the writing, perhaps not – but in the context of the type of adventure we’re reading about, it works. You start to get a little frustrated. Another long day on the ice. I get it. Enough already! Give me some drama…and then, just when you can’t stand it anymore, you think you’ll put the book down for a breather, Jonesy pisses Cas off, Cas shits himself, a crevasse opens, an argument ensues and the possibility that they will even make it to the Pole, let alone the return, diminishes. And you turn another page as they take another step forward regardless.

There’s something about it that works – if a book and a writer can prompt even the slightest echo of feeling in a reader of what is transpiring in the story, then it’s a job well done. That includes frustration, anticipation, disappointment, hope…thankfully Cas doesn’t ever give you the real shits.

So, to be fair, just like there is only so many ways you can describe a scene of ice and snow, there is only so many ways to build a picture of the daily grind the fellas suffered out there. And that repetition is part of the suffering.

Cas’ delving into snippets of Antarctic history is welcome sideline – a mental gear shift for the reader – but like the ice fields, perhaps a little lean on detail. I would have liked to go further into what happened out there all those years ago, especially in exploring the mindspace and relationship dynamics of the Antarctic explorers of yesteryear – I wanted to know more about their drama to then compare it to where Cas and Jonesy were sitting, remembering that for all their modern day equipment and advanced logistics planning, they like those before them still had to deal with the same conditions, the same hurt, the same mental anguish. And like past adventurers, a lot of the time there was no way out – they could still die. In so many ways. 

Of course, there’s plenty more contained within Cas’ book, including his own humility in the face of the dealing with the fact that the pair may not to be ‘the first’ to complete the feat, with Gamme on a flier. In the quiet times, out there in the mêlée of pitch white, that fact plays with Cas’ mind.

Nevertheless, first or second, we know that the pair survive and, after 89 days, make it back to Union Glacier – the ice, the storms, the crevasses, the hunger, the pain, the breakdowns, the arguments… they live through it all.

And to get a little hyped, in the world of adventure, that’s pretty rock ‘n roll.

And worth reading about in Extreme South. Nurofen and iPod not required.