“When I saw Peter I Island, I felt that if Odysseus landed there, he would have gotten off as soon as possible thinking he was at the gates of hell.”
Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s Endurance crew was marooned for months, then heroically saved by Shackleton himself.
“Where would you go to find the answers to life’s deepest questions? Is there a God? Why am I here? Is there life after death? For seventy-six-year-old Professor Graham Collier, the answers were found in Antarctica.
Recently returning from his seventh trip to Antarctica, the World War II veteran of the British Royal Air Force found that being in the most remote regions of this inhospitable continent brings clarity to many of life’s mysteries. “In such solitude, you find yourself having conversations all by yourself, and those conversations are based on Alice and Wonderland-like realities. You discover a whole new self, mysterious to your own image, that has a sort of transcendence about it. I find myself believing in the things that are greater than myself — like the spirit. One could say, you touch a spiritual base in yourself. You can even go further and say, you encounter your own soul.”
All that from an uninhabited continent of ice? “Yes,” Professor Collier answers simply.
His fascination with the South Pole began at age twelve when he read Coleridge’s, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the poem of an albatross carelessly killed by an unlucky seaman, bringing forth his own death and the death of his crew. As a schoolboy, he was spellbound by the haunting images of the epic tale. His visions were further nurtured by the heroic stories of the first South Polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. “When I was young, every schoolboy in Britain dreamed about Scott, his fierce heroism, and his adventures in the still unknown South Pole.”
Years later, the opportunity to explore the icy continent himself came when his wife Patricia, a photographer, wanted to visit Antarctica to take some photos. Over their several trips, Professor Collier and his wife have visited the grand Elephant Island, the site where Shackleton’s Endurance crew was marooned for months, they’ve taken exclusive photographs of the Allardyce Range, and they’ve walked among the world’s “most aristocratic animal,” the emperor penguin.
One experience, in particular, that has deepened Professor Collier’s spiritual beliefs occurred when the couple landed on the reputably impossible Peter I Island. Their visit to the island marks only the seventh landing ever on the menacing site. Usually, “you can’t get near it, you can’t even see it, because the little island attracts bad weather.”
Even the most experienced explorers haven’t been able to get near it. “Well, you’ll never see Peter I Island,” a senior scientist of the Scott Polar Research Institute once told Professor Collier, “I’ve been trying for 25 years.”
But as Professor Collier and his wife sailed by, “There it was. We found a passage through the ice and we were able to land.”
The view was far from beautiful. “It’s the most terrifying place in the world,” Professor Collier said, “It’s black, all solidified lava, a volcanic cone really, a narrow black sand beach with towering cliffs and ice caps hanging over the cliffs. And it’s sinister and dead. There’s no life at all. And you know that you’re 3000 miles from the nearest ship and a weather change can trap you at any time.” He explains, “When I saw Peter I Island, I felt that if Odysseus landed there, he would have gotten off as soon as possible thinking he was at the gates of hell.”
So how would they have gotten off the island if the weather changed abruptly and the ice passage froze over, as is apt to happen without warning in Antarctica? “Well we wouldn’t,” Professor Collier said bluntly.
It’s moments such as these, close brushes with death, and the profound solitude found at the bottom of the earth where there’s no satellite communication and even the best polar technology can’t save you from nature, that brought Professor Collier to a heightened sense of enlightenment.
“The danger does change you,” Professor Collier explains. “And the way it changes you is philosophical. We grow up with a certain culture, in western civilization, that has a religious base, comfortable philosophies and a certain educational format. We tend to read the right authors and we grow into a culture that has a certain support to it. But when you are in Antarctica — and by that I mean, the remote regions of Antarctica — you’re experiencing the earth in its absolutely elemental nature. This is the world as it was 150 million years ago. It’s like going back in time before there was any life of any kind. It’s a primeval situation, and the first thing that begins to be meaningless to you is your wrist watch. Everything suddenly seems shallow, lacking in profundity”
And why does he and his wife keep returning? Professor Collier answers this question by reflecting on Frank Wild, the unsung hero of Antarctic exploration. Wild said, “Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices.” For Professor Collier, those voices are the conversations he has with himself, conversations “in which the eye speaks eloquently to the mind, and the mind equally eloquently to that interior arbiter we call the spirit.”
On one occasion, Professor Collier found himself stranded on a granite hunk of rock, and it was very clear that the pilot coming to get him may not make it because of the weather. “I was going to be stuck up there. At that point, I found myself very relaxed and perfectly content. I began talking to another Graham Collier, just about the very nature of things. And before the helicopter came back, I was on a pulpit preaching a sermon, and boy was it a good sermon. I just talked about everything that is the truth, everything that is true for human consciousness. All of the questions that I ever had were answered.”
Many may think he’s crazy. “Was that me? Or have I gone out of my head? Well of course I have.” Professor Graham quotes Plato, “The poet or the artist or the great composer or the great scientist, when he is inspired, he is out of his senses.”
“To be inspired,” Professor Graham continues, “is to be in the state of inspiration, and to be in that state, you’re a long way beyond your five senses. You’re somewhere else. In other words take the medieval root of inspiration, inspiritus, and you’re in contact with the little voices that Frank Wild talked about.”
Although Antarctica is thought to be a barren continent — the only continent with no native human inhabitants — and Professor Collier would go further to say no native inhabitants at all, (“The only indigenous life forms were some rock lichen and the odd Antarctic flea”), he would suggest that the solitude found there can instead give birth to another form of life, the real you.
“Past experiences comes surging back into consciousness. Not repressed memories, exactly, but aspects of yourself that have never been developed. The heroic aspect possibly, or the gentle side or the loving side, or the side of you that makes you extraordinarily curious. I don’t think the educational system today develops that. The real you doesn’t have much of a chance these days,” Professor Collier says, “Antarctica can bring it to you.”
Crossley, Louise. Explore Antarctica. (Cambridge University Press, 1995).