Antarctic Diary: November 30, 2002

In the giant's house

And then there are the big rocks.

We climb up the hills beside the camp to where the glacier meets the roof of the world. Up to where the ice spills from over the polar plateau like foam from a beer stein. Here the winds blow unimpeded. The katabatics pressurize and get warm--from -50F to 0F as they fall and compress.

The mountain side is a conglomeration of stones, rocks, and pebbles. Between them is a fine grit, mostly coarser than beach sand, and in places, glacier flour, yellow green like some form of moss--it's a compote of rocks ground as fine as talcum powder. Trudging on it is like walking up a huge sand dune.

The rocks here are mostly hand-sized. Red. Black. White. No jagged edges. But unlike stones worn to smooth ovoids by a fast-flowing river or the ocean, these are blown smooth by the wind. They're angular with no sharp edges. Shiny.

This is God's rock tumbler.

And then we come upon a stand of the huge wind-carved stone.

I'm fairly chilly in this warm zero-degree wind. Climbing warms me up.

We're searching for a spot for the webcam. Somewhere amidst the giant ventifacts, lumps of granite the size of ranch houses, riddled with holes, serpantine curvies, surfaces brittle.

The rocks look like fired clay moulded by an incomprehensible intelligence. A natural Stonehenge evoking supplication to a long-forgotten god.

Stand on some of these giants and hear a hollow sound like a wooden tiki drum. Tap it, it resonates. Hit it hard enough, granite will break under the force of your fist--and then realize the entire thing has been hollowed out by tens of thousands of years of sandblasting.

We climb 1000ft. Run out a couple of miles.

You wouldn't want to be here in winter. Anything that carves chevy-sized holes in solid rock would be less kind to flesh and blood.

What a monster the weather must be when it's dark.


When I woke up this morning my water bottle was slush. I'd made Raro--a powder like tang that turns water into fruit-like juice. I had no idea it would get cold enough inside my tent to freeze Raro.

My sleeping bag was toasty. I was actually warm. Slept in two layers of capilene, my fleece vest, long underwear, woolen socks, and a fleece hat. I have a fleece sleeping bag liner and the bag itself is from REI. It's supposed to be good for temps down to -30F. It says so right on it.

It's big and fluffy and bigger than me.

The sleeping bag is on an inch of foam rubber padding and a thermarest inflatable mattress.

This is why I was warm and my tent was so cold. None of my body heat escaped that assemblage of outdoor sleeping gear.

Something I don't like to think about is that I'm trapped here. The helos don't fly again till day after tomorrow. I can only get out by walking, or by emergency medavac.

It gets a little freaky, being this cold, this far away. And then I look over to the corner of our main tent and I see my laptop humming. It's running on solar power. I'm playing iTunes, Bruce Hornsby. There's a network connection through the radio I set up. And suddenly--the whole world is right here.

In one way, it trivializes the whole thing. I can imagine reading this journal months from now and I'll turn off the machine and go to bed. An actual bed, next to my actual wife, in the same house as my actual kids. And it will all seem like a dream.

But now--right now when I walk away from this computer I'm in a tiny island of heat in a continent that's much colder this year than last year. Global warming be damned, it's 30 degrees colder than it was this time last year. There's no liquid water on the ground.

When I walk away from this computer I will have to trudge outside for 1/4 a mile to get to my tent. Inside my sleeping bag will be cold, and it will take a couple of shivery minutes to warm it up.

I'll be thinking of my home when I go there. I'll be thinking of my family. I'll be thinking of a life I had a few weeks ago that seems it was lived by a character in a TV show I just shut off.

Maybe I'm Jack, roaming in the giant's home while he's away at work.

None of us want to be here when it gets dark in the long Antarctic night, and he comes home to carve the earth in his image.