We're halfway through erecting the wind barrier when a wall of white air engulfs Black Island and erases it from the landscape as if our world was an upside-down Etch A Sketch. The air wall is five miles high by Brendan's estimation. It ate ten miles of barren rock and ice in about two minutes. Islands and mountain ranges twenty miles away are disappearing with alarming regularity. Even though we're sweating on an eternally flat icescape under the sun's full globe, we can see the storm as a coherent entity, as if it had been given a name at birth.
It's so solid it casts a shadow on the Ross Ice shelf in front of it. The shadow is moving toward us at about sixty miles per hour, Brendan tells us. When it eats us, we'll be in condition two, at least. Condition one, at best.
"Condition fun," Brendan says, heading back to the sno cat when the last tent stake is anchored in the Antarctic ice cap. "The wind will be at least fifty, maybe sixty miles per hour. On this slippery ice it will blow you north to New Zealand no matter how big you are. The air will be as solid as you see there, so you'll be in a white out. You will see and hear nothing but howling white wind. Use your common sense. Believe your fear. Do not leave shelter. Keep the radio handy at all times. If you have to take a piss, do it in your pants. If you need to go outside for water--don't. There is no reason to leave your tent. If you go missing, we can't come find you until we can get a vehicle out. That could be days and you'll be dead by then."
A couple of us impale the ice cap with our shovels so they stand on their blades. The wind is picking up. The temperature drops as the off shore breeze does an about face. Bad weather comes from inland, from the frozen nothingness that converts everything animate to stone. They're called katabatics-- heavy winds that fall off the 9000 feet of Antarctic plateau like water from a pitcher. Just plain cold turns to an acidic breeze that seeps through gaps in the clothing and burns where it touches flesh.
Brendan points to the end of the world to our south and says, "You are required to take this course for exactly that reason. This is not your simple winter storm in Minnesota. This is Ant-fucking-artica and that is a herbie. It has killed before and it will kill you. Know where you are. Snow school is about survival so my last command to you is this: do not die. It will be very difficult for you to die, but no matter what I say some of you will try anyway."
And when the sno cat starts and heads for the instructor's hut a mile to our north, my fellow survival class student, Martin, says, "Do you know why people come to Antarctica? They come here for that, 'Oh shit, I'm fucked,' feeling. They can't get enough."
I say, "I sure am getting my fill right now," and turn to see the wall cloud has obliterated the world to our south. Where before were mountain ranges, islands, and peninsulas of brown-black rock, there is now nothing. It's the way things must be the moment before you're born, and the moment after your death. White nothing.
There's a pit in my stomach. This is how a fly must feel seconds before the swatter hits.
I've got the radio. It's on a chest pack under my parka. The speaker mic is clipped to my hood. Brendan calls from the sno cat. "Snow mound city, Instructor hut. Radio check. Over."
I say, "Instructor hut, Snow mound city. Radio works. Nobody dead yet."
"Not funny," he replies. "Get everyone to shelter. Do it fast. Out."
We pair up as tent mates. Some have already gotten into tents, staking claim to valuable floor real estate.
Someone grabs my forearm, then lets go when I turn.
It's Tina, the undergrad. Master's degree student. How she managed to beat out a hoarde of PhD candidates and post docs for one of the most cherry positions in all of volcanology is evident in her face and attitude.
"Guys think I'm cute," she'd said to me a couple of hours earlier, when we were digging out a hollow for our experimental igloo. It was senseless work, but it served its purpose in keeping us warm.
Tina scooped one shovel full for every four of mine.
"Do you think I'm cute?" she asked, and I stopped shoveling for a moment and stared down at the young woman.
"Well, last time I looked I was a guy. Let's see if you're right. Take off your sunglasses," I said. When she obliged I made a big deal of examining her face, realizing she was half my age, wondering what kind of strange world puts middle-aged guys and pretty young students together in an environment that's aching to kill them both. I uttered a bunch of grunts and harumphs that people make when they're thinking hard. Finally I proclaimed with maximum pomposity, "Yeah, you're goddamned cute," and went back to my digging.
"I'm cold. Wanna wrestle?" she said, dropping her shovel and adopting an attack stance. Knees bent, arms out ready to accept an incoming body.
The United States Antarctic Program had suggested to us a good way to keep warm was activity. Activity with another human being was best, but solo exertion like walking or shoveling snow was good, too. I was already sweating in my two pair of long underwear, wind suit, and fleece.
"Not right now, darlin'" I said, and she smirked.
"Your loss," she said. Then she blind-tackled our instructor, Brendan, and they rolled on the ice pack, flailing like puppies.
Now she was next to me smiling, alternately putting a mitten on my forearm and taking it away.
"You're probably going to be here in the Scott tent and it's big and so maybe I can get my stuff and stay with you because I think everything else is taken and you have the radio and did you know I used a radio once and my dad said I should stay in the Scott tent if I ever get to Antarctica..."
The stream of words went on for at least thirty seconds, losing coherence as they went on. I told her to get her field bag and throw it in the Scott tent.
Then I traversed the camp, going to each of the tents and made sure everyone was secure. When everyone had checked in with me I radioed Brendan and told him we were tight. I took one last look at the advancing wall. It was close now. I could see undulations in its face like a storm cloud standing on end. A rivet of something cold blasted down my spine and I allowed myself to think for a moment that all of my excitement about coming to Antarctica was about to explode in an orgasm of death. What the hell had I done, treating my life so carelessly? We are the sum and total of every decision we make, and mine had been to freeze in an Antarctic herbie on the Ross Ice Shelf, twenty miles from where Scott himself had perished.
This whole trip was a death wish in disguise.
I crawled through the Scott tent's entrance tube thinking of my family, knowing I might not see my children again. I heard their voices. Saw their faces in my mind.
And I would have lost control if it hadn't been for Tina. She hadn't unpacked her field kit. She was sitting in the corner of the tent, hugging her knees up to her chest.
"What's the matter, darlin'?" I said, crawling up to her. I touched her shoulder.
"Nothing, I'm just cold," she said. Even though we were inside the tent she hadn't taken off her sunglasses.
I unpacked my field kit. Took off the radio chest pack and hung it on a pocket on the tent wall. I layed out my therma rest pad, my soft foam, and my sleeping bag. I'd just finished when something that sounded like a rocket blast shook the ice underneath us. The side of the tent pressed inward and we had half the space there was before. Something fierce and mountain-sized had come calling. Everything I was or could be became insignificant in that scream. It was the earth itself, crying.
Tina bolted from under the depressed tent wall and grabbed onto me like a drowning swimmer.
"Oh my god. It's not supposed to be this bad. Why is it so bad?" she had to yell for me to hear her.
I tried to be calm even though the sudden blast of wind sent a burst of molten adrenaline into my veins and my heart accelerated to the red line. The halo of light from the sloping tent walls dimmed, plunging us into the twilight that exists in the shadow of giants. And we were swallowed. I put an arm around her shoulders and something snapped like a rifle shot.
Tina lurched under my arm and I jumped, then prayed she didn't feel that spike of fear. Me being afraid was only going to make matters worse.
Then I saw what had happened. The crosswind side of our tent was buckling in the wind. One of the guy ropes had come free.
Tina yelped and kicked at the collapsing wall as if it was an approaching alligator. I hugged her and told her to stop, as calmly as I could. She wanted to radio Brendan.
"Tell the fucking instructors to get their fucking asses out here and fucking pick us the fuck up."
We both knew they wouldn't do it. Nobody was going out until the wind died.
"Calm down," I said to her, "This tent can withstand 90 mile per hour winds, they say. We'll be okay."
She wrapped her arms around me, said, "It's not okay. This is fucked. Totally fucked. I want outta here. Let's go back to town. We gotta go back." Then she buried her face in my shoulder, balled up her fists, shook her arms and screamed into my parka.
I knew the tent would hold--that is I hoped it would. Scott and his men withstood hurricanes for weeks in tents just like these made with weaker materials. We had gone to the moon since then and some of this stuff made it there. As long as it was properly deployed, the tent would keep us alive. Ours wasn't properly deployed anymore.
"I'm going to resecure that guy line," I told her, thinking the unfastened side of the tent would weaken the structure and would promote the wind bringing the whole thing down.
"No. You're not going out," she said to me, grabbing my parka down in her fists. "That's stupid. You heard what Brendan said."
"Well in here is going to be out there if the tent blows away. I'm going to stay along the outside. I won't even go a step away. I'll crawl. I'm just going to grab that line and shove it into a 'T' slot in the ice like Brendan showed us. It'll take half a minute. Then we won't have to worry the tent will fall."
She yelled, "Don't you go," as I pulled out of her grasp and undid the drawstring to the windsock of soft cloth that serves as an entrance to a Scott tent.
"Don't take the radio," she shouted over the wind. She grabbed the chest pack from the flapping tent wall and hugged it like a child clutches a teddy bear in a thunderstorm.
"I'm not taking the radio."
She pawed at my coat. "Don't go out. Don't go. Please." Traces of wet leaked from under her sunglasses.
I picked up an ice adz we'd brought in when we erected the tent, and stuck my head through the door.
The thin tent walls provided no protection from the noise. It was as if we were in the midst of a jet plane takeoff and a gravel truck dumping its load simultaneously. But inside we could only hear it. Outside I could feel it. The wind pressed my parka hood against my face and blinded me. When I was able to move it away shards of crystalline ice tore into my skin like tiny shrapnel.
I pulled myself out of the tent and instinctively tried to stand but couldn't make it past my knees. It was as if someone was standing beside me, pushing me over.
After two attempts I decided to stay on my hands and knees. I peeled my hood from the side of my head and tried to orient myself and realized I couldn't see. The tent was gone, all signs of the camp were obliterated by a river of ice borne in the wind. In a surge of panic I crawled backward, one, two, three, four, expecting to run into the tent but finding nothing but emptiness behind me.
There is a time in everyone's life when the sum and total of his actions brings him to an unsurvivable point. Sometimes it's the trivial things that add up to terminate us. The wrong turn down a one way street when we're fiddling with the car radio, slipping on soap in the shower, touching the vent on the bottom of the swimming pool.
If you're lucky you can choose the time and manner of your demise. Most would prefer a warm dry bed at a very old age. The subconscious mind has a way of playing tricks with the psyche, telling it what it really wants when it hides behind timidity.
Apparently, I had always wanted to die in a white out during an Antarctic hurricane blizzard. Had I recognized the death wish in me, I might have stayed in the tent and cuddled Tina until the winds abated. The worst that would have happened is the tent may have collapsed and we'd lay under the plasticized canvas in the sleeping bags waiting for the storm to end, but we'd survive.
What surprised me most about imminent death was that after the initial surge of panic subsided, I was more concerned with how much dying would hurt rather than the cessation of my existence. My mind was clear and focused. And the thought occurred to me I should try moving. Moving would make me warm and warmth would save me if I could find another tent or the igloo we'd built.
I shoved the ice adz into the ice in front of me then on my hands and knees, crawled two steps, three steps left. And I checked that I went as far as I could and still see the head of the adz and reached with my hands and feet to see if I could touch the tent. Nothing.
Then I did the same thing to the right of the adz, then the front and the back.
I pulled the adz out of the ground moved four "steps" to the left, stuck the adz into the ice with the head facing the direction I'd come, and repeated the process.
Eight steps right. Repeat. The shivering became uncontrollable so that I couldn't move with any degree of fluidity anymore. With the shivering came shocks that traveled up my spine and became panic, then faded back to calm.
My hands and feet went numb. The numbness flowed up my limbs like a ribbon of thick liquidcovering everything in an impenetrable blanket as if it were hiding my body from me. After a while I couldn't feel my arms and legs except for tiny bolts of pins and needles at my shoulders and hips. So now I knew freezing to death would not be Jack London's peaceful sleep, but rather, conscious and horrific piecemeal destruction of my body. I would feel myself die in pieces until the flowing numbness brought my core body temperature below 95 degrees. Then my heart would stop, and the world would go back to the way it was before I was born.
Something cold and sad wore away the edges of the spark of heat inside me. I remembered being a child counting the candles on my birthday cake. We'd always leave one burning for good luck and allowed that one to burn to a nub. At the very last moment I'd make a wish and blow, turning what was once warm and bright to a rising gray thread that evaporated into the clear nothingness all around.
It was going to be sad to leave. It was going to be a stupid way to die. All the worrying, all the schoolwork, all the career mongering I'd done would come to an end right here. I'd always hoped I'd die doing something valiant. When the storm passed they'd find my inert body in the middle of camp and wonder how I could have gotten lost so close to everything, and how stupid I must have been to disobey the simple admonition to stay put.
And then I crawled forward a step and my head ran into something. Even through my sunglasses I could see the yellow tent material. I followed around the tent, keeping my head pressed against the fabric until I came to the entrance tube. Then I forced my head through. Then an arm.
Tina started screaming. At first she just shuttled from side to side in the tent. Then she put her arms under my shoulders and sitting, pulled me inside. I could hear her close the entrance tube behind me.
"Oh my god. What happened?" she yelled at me, the most beautiful creature, my guardian angel and mother in one.
"I got cold," was all I could say in my stupified haze.
She opened my parka and slid her arms around me, hugging me close.
"Oh my god. You're freezing." She pulled off my boots, parka, and wind pants. Then she slid out of hers and helped me into my sleeping bag. She slithered in next to me, keeping herself in contact. I drank in her warmth and worried I could take too much and would freeze her.
"You won't, silly," she said, now calm and even keeled. It was as if the storm ceased to exist for her. "This is what they told us to do."
If I'd been warm, it would have been too tight for both of us. Unable to manage much movement other than shivering, it was perfect.
She fed me a chocolate bar. Gave me a drink from her water bottle.
"You're saving my life, you know," I told her.
"I know. It's no problem, really," she said, "But where did you go? Why were you gone so long? I thought you were going to fix the tent."
"I got lost. I couldn't see anything. I don't think I was very far. No more than a couple of feet away. I can't believe how bad it is."
"Well, why didn't you just yell? I probably could have heard you."
And I didn't know. How ridiculous. Not only was I going to lose my life five feet away from the tent, but simply yelling for help never occurred to me. I had never felt so incompetent to be human. Who imagines they will lose their life in absolutely beefheaded stupidity because they're so wrapped up in the sublime poetry of their own death they simply forget to yell for help? What an idiot. Truely, I was a specimen to remove from the gene pool.
"I'm sorry," I said to her, needing to apologize to some representative of the human race for disgracing it so blatantly.
"For what?" she said. Then her eyes narrowed. "Ohhh. I get it. Don't worry, I won't tell Brendan."
"Thank you," I said, shivering out the words. "When I warm up a little bit we can wrestle, like you wanted."
"This is as good as it's going to get, tough guy," she said, and she hugged me tighter, rubbing her hands up and down my spine.
When I could feel my arms and legs again I went to sleep, safe from worry I would wake without them, knowing Tina would be beside me to keep me warm if the tent fell.