Antarctic Diary: December 6, 2002


I'm a day behind in my logs. Instead of writing things as they happen, I'm remembering them and realizing that remembrance is filtering. You choose to remember certain things, forget others. Lots of stuff happens that never gets recorded.

I went to the Coffee House last night and bought a glass of wine. I sat down and turned on my computer. Everyone left me alone for about an hour. I wrote a story while people around me played board games and ate burgers from the burger bar at Gallager's.

Eventually Pete came in. He's the guy I went hunting water with at Lake Hoare last week. He's a professor of nuclear chemistry in his real life. Tulane University. There he's a big shot. Here he's just another guy driving an ATV, picking glacier berries.

Pete's going back out in the field. He spent a week alone with Carolyn in the jamesway at Lake Fryxell. I asked him if it was an adventure.

He said he cooked jambalaya. They invited their neighbors to dinner. Tim and Karen are post doc and student staying at F6 across the frozen blue lake.

I wondered if it wasn't a little like playing house.

He scratched his head.

It wasn't. People get very close during those times, especially when storms come. But there's this natural barrier. An unwritten Antarctic rule everybody mutters to themselves in those situations.

You don't do anything that could lead to falling in love, even for a little while. Falling in love on the ice leads to disaster. Always. It never works.

So there you are eating steaks and crab legs by candle light, and you might as well be brother and sister. You get trashed on tequila. You give each other back rubs.

You put gas in the preway space heater so you don't freeze. You fetch ice for water. You make sure the generator is gassed up. You keep each other alive during storms.

Then you go home to the wife/husband and the kids.

I'm not kidding. I didn't believe it last year. I KNEW what happened in those remote two-person situations even when nobody would admit it.

This year I believe it. What happens is work. You keep warm. You talk about your families. You go back to separate tents and wake up in the morning and work through another day without an accident.

Anything else gets people hurt. Physically. Emotionally. The psychological hurt is as bad as the physical stuff. Being 20 miles from other people during a condition one storm with someone who's freaking out is bad. They may as well have broken legs.

Of course, the intelligent observer asks: how do they know this?

The way they know everything in Antarctica. Trial and error.

The megadunes guys came back from East Antarctica. The polar plateau. It was -40F every day. There were foot-long tendrils of hoare frost hanging from the ceiling of their tents every day. One of them slept in nested sleeping bags. Three. One inside the other.

Most days outside they had a 30 knot wind, for a wind chill factor of somewhere around -80F.

A lot of their gear broke. And because of the weather, their science cargo didn't get to them till they had already been there a week. So they only got in three days of science in an outing planned for two weeks.

It's a pretty big disappointment for them. Even worse is they had to stay as unwelcome tenants at someone else's camp. Those people didn't have provisions planned for an extra five people for a week. So there was a bit of friction.

And in one case, when the megadunes guys struck their tents waiting for airlift out, they had several hours outside where everyone was freezing. They had been asked to stay out of the warm camp buildings because there wasn't room for them.

In a fit of desperation, they asked to be admitted to a warm area--and were declined.

So their team leader got frostbite on his face while they built snow walls to sit behind.

Things like that happen when people are worried about survival.

Compared to them, where I went was Disney World.

Compared to them, I went to the tropics.