Deserts of Ice

June 12th, 2012

Baker secures an exclusive interview for the cameras of Westinghouse television on his 1983 trip to the North Pole.

This article, about Dr. Baker’s adventures in the polar regions, appeared in CHRONOS Magazine.

“Deserts of Ice”
An interview with William F. Baker
By Evan Leatherwood

“Out on the ice, I often imagined that if I veered off the path just a few hundred feet, I would probably be the first person in all of history to stand in a particular spot.”  As Bill Baker talks about his expeditions to the North and South Poles, he stares out into an echoing room decorated with hundreds of model ships.  It is the ballroom of the New York Yacht Club, a splendid gilded-age building near Grand Central Station in Manhattan.  An antique nautical clock by Tiffany & Co. keeps time in the lobby, and century-old photos of the Club’s library and dining room show them looking much as they do today.  It is the perfect place to sit and listen to explorer’s tales.

Baker blithely remembers falling into a 2000 foot crevasse near the North Pole:  “I only fell thirty or forty feet down. What saved my life was my camera strap, which snagged on an outcropping and stopped me from falling to my death.  I do remember looking down and seeing the bottom, though.”  When I ask if he was afraid, Baker shakes his head and says that the Arctic is too vast and beautiful a place to feel fear for long.  “It takes you out of yourself, makes all your human concerns small and fleeting.  It’s what the early Christian monks were looking for when they went out into the desert.  That’s what both poles really are.  Deserts of ice.”

The wind carves shapes in the ice similar to those seen in the rocky deserts of the American south west.

Baker is believed to be the 8th person in human history to have stood at both the North and South poles. He traveled to the South Pole in 1974, the North Pole in 1983, and back to the South Pole again in 1987.

But long before that, he was an explorer in his imagination, guided by the accounts of adventurers like Scott, Shackleton, and especially Admiral Byrd, who was the first person to travel to the South Pole by air.  “As a boy growing up in a lower-middle class household in Ohio, there wasn’t much chance for travel, let alone adventure.  Except for a family visit to Akron, I didn’t actually leave Cleveland until I was 21. But I read my way to the poles and back dozens of times as a boy,” Baker remembers.

Baker’s real-life polar journeys began when he was a TV producer in Cleveland. “One of the great things about working in TV,” says Baker, “is that you can meet people, often famous people, just by extending them an invitation.  You just ask, and they show up!  That’s what I did with Charles Kessler.”

Kessler accompanied Byrd on his first three polar expeditions, and was then touring America lecturing about his experiences.  When Baker found out that Kessler was going to be in Cleveland, he jumped at the chance to invite him on the air.

When they met, Kessler sensed just the right combination of excitement and determination in Baker.  He told Baker that if he really wanted to get to the South Pole, he should apply to the National Science Foundation for money to mount an expedition.

Baker in 1987 at the cliff’s edge of the polar ice cap, just seconds away from dodging a tumbling block of ice the size of an office building.

Within weeks, Baker had submitted an application, and within the year he found himself on a plane heading South into the Antarctic interior, just like his boyhood hero Admiral Byrd.  But unlike Byrd, Baker brought along TV cameras.  Despite a bad cold, the unexpected departure of the team’s cameraman, and nearly being crushed to death by a piece of falling ice the size of a Manhattan skyscraper, Baker persevered and led the first TV crew in history to get footage at the South Pole.

The report Baker subsequently produced eventually made it on to the ABC Nightly News, a big coup for a small-town producer in the 1970s.  A photo of Baker at the polar ice cap ran on the front page of the New York Times, and Baker’s raw footage was used by reporters and documentarians throughout the world of television and film.

But the trip brought him more than just professional success.  Baker was consumed by the richness of experience the pole offered him.  “It was like going to another planet,” he says, “nothing that I had read prepared me for the strangeness and the immensity of the landscape, or what it demands of you.”

The average annual temperature at the pole is fifty below zero.  Frostbite can cost you toes and fingertips if you’re not careful and even minor frostbite produces, as Baker says, “serious pain.”  Wind speeds can get up to 200 miles per hour.  Despite all the ice, Antarctica has been called the driest place on Earth.  In some spots it hasn’t rained for two million years.  For six months of every year, the continent is plunged in darkness.  Those who choose to spend the winter months there, cut off from the rest of humanity, are what Baker calls “special people.”  Crazy is also another word for it, I suggest, and Baker chuckles.

“I was the first to show up after the winter in 1974,” he says.  I ask if the residents seemed happy to see him, or if they’d grown strange during their months of isolation.  “Not really, unless you count the 300 Club,” says Baker.

Each winter a few brave souls at the US polar base would crank up the base’s sauna to a near boiling 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  Then they would strip naked and run outside, exposing themselves to the -100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures.  As soon as that became unbearable, they would dart back into the base and thaw out in the sauna, thus sending their bodies through a 300 degree temperature change in just a few minutes.

“It sounds silly,” says Baker, “but it shows that the people equipped for polar survival have two important qualities, and they aren’t physical.  Patience, and a sense of humor.  That’s what you really need.”  If you don’t have either when you get to the pole, says Baker, you pick them up when you’re there, or you don’t do well.

The next chapter of Baker’s polar story happened in 1983.  He had moved from Ohio to New York City and was presiding over Westinghouse Television and its 10,000 employees.  It was a stressful job, says Baker, but it gave him the financial freedom to do some wonderful things, like travel to the North Pole.

Sled dogs relax near Grise Fjord.

Baker took television cameras again, this time to film the trip for Westinghouse.  “I couldn’t just go on a vacation. I needed a good excuse to be away from work!” he jokes.

His lavish sendoff by the Explorers Club of New York made a splash in the society pages.  Strolling violinists at the party played “Climb Every Mountain,” themed hors d’ouvres like “harpooned meats” and Baked Alaska made the rounds, and Nanook of the North was screened.  The New York Times coverage of the event notes that, after the party was over, Baker was “last seen … trying to hail a cab on Madison Avenue.”

A few legs of the journey later, Baker and the rest of the expedition found themselves on two Otter turboprop planes flying north to Ellesmere Island, an 80,000 square mile wasteland off the west coast of Greenland. Their destination was the town of Grise Fjord, then the northernmost human settlement on Earth.  Though it has since been superceded as the northernmost human settlement by a small military base on the northern tip of Ellesmere, Grise is still the northernmost civilian settlement in the world.

“Grise is actually the site of a terrible human tragedy,” says Baker.  Seeking to maximize its territorial claims in the Arctic, the Canadian Government moved about 100 Inuit more than 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle and settled them there in 1953.  Even the Inuit weren’t equipped to live in such an inhospitable place, and many of them died when bad weather kept the Canadian government from resupplying the town the following year.  When offered resettlement back south, the population refused, unwilling to abandon those they’d buried.  A population of about 150 Inuit still lives there today.

The deep, clear blue of these cave mouths, each at least two stories high, means the ice that they are made of is at least 100,000 years old.

After another stop on Ellesmere Island, the expedition flew north over the Arctic Ocean and touched down at the North Pole on April 15, 1983.

“We drank champagne,” recalls Baker, “but once again the sheer sense of awe and wonder was much bigger than any sense of celebration.”

The real drama for Baker began when he returned from the 1983 expedition.  “I had this idea to bring back two tons of arctic ice, and sell it at Bloomingdales,” he says.

Polar explorers have a tradition of toasting a successful expedition by pouring whiskey over bits of ice chiseled from icebergs of the deepest and purest blue.  The color denotes age, explains Baker.  Deep blue icebergs are made of water and air at least 100,000 years old.  “I thought people would get a kick out of using ice that was twenty times older than all of human history,” says Baker, “and I usually end this story by telling people that I made millions.  In truth, I nearly lost my shirt.  Somebody tries it once a decade or so, and it always flops.  Nobody ever thinks to check whether it’s been done before!”

The lure of the South Pole brought Baker back in 1987, on another grant from the National Science Foundation, this time with cameras for the McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.  Baker brought along his brother Larry, who was then a producer and cameraman for NBC.  It was the first time the two had worked together in twenty-five years.  The report for McNeil/Lehrer was meant to document what had changed at the pole since Baker’s visit fifteen years earlier.  The verdict: not much.

“But there were still wonderful, dreamlike experiences,” says Baker.  At McMurdo station 900 miles from the Pole, Baker saw ninety-year old provisions from the Scott expedition, perfectly preserved by the natural Antarctic deep freeze.  “You wouldn’t eat them, because they’re historic.  But if they were all you had to survive on, you’d be okay,” Baker says.

At the time, Baker was President of WNET/Thirteen, New York’s PBS station.  He remembers: “We were some 1,000 miles from the nearest base, when we came across this little red tent literally in the middle of nowhere.  We peered in, all muffled up, and explained to the young woman who was there on a research assignment that we were from WNET in New York. ‘Oh no!’ she laughed, ‘not Channel Thirteen.’  I’m already a member!’”

Baker in 1987 stands at the South Pole for the second time in his life.

Baker has not been back to the South Pole since 1987, but the thread of polar exploration and polar science continues to weave itself into his life.  Since 1987, he has traveled to the coasts of Antarctica more times than he can easily remember, and also to the regions near the North Pole.  He lectured on polar science on the maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth II, and is still sought after as a lecturer on Arctic and Antarctic cruises, and at universities and clubs around the country. Baker’s younger daughter Angela met her husband on a trip to Antarctica in 2004.  Baker keeps a large library of polar books and artifacts in his house, and he still buys the occasional watch, gadget, or bit of gear that he imagines would be useful at the poles.  “I guess there is always a part of me,” he says, “that is busy planning a return trip.”