Antarctic diary: December 1, 2002

Three glaciers

We took the Polaris ATV across the lake ice to the Bonney Rigel, a peninsula of hills that nearly cuts Lake Bonney into two pieces, one larger, one smaller.

It took about thirty minutes to get to the end of the lake. There we reached the Taylor and Rhone glaciers.

The Taylor glacier is a moving slab of ice the size of Erie, Pennsylvannia. It's deeply crevassed, and about fifty feet tall from base to summit. There are dark tree ring like striations in the ice when viewed from the side. Glaciologists tell me these denote periods of deep snows interspersed with dry windy times where dust was deposited.

The face of Taylor glacier is red with iron oxide. That's rust to you and me. No one knows why rust is leaking from the face of the glacier. But the reddish feature is large enough to warrant its own name. Blood Falls.

One climbs a small dirt mound to reach Blood Falls. There, you can touch the glacier face, or stick your head in an opening that leads to a vast lake within the glacier that's liquid in the summer.

After examining Blood Falls, we proceeded around the glacier. We stopped and munched some gorp at a large rock beside the ice even though we'd hardly been hiking enough to warrant an energy recharge. Liquid water was running off the sides and formed a babbling stream that passed below the surface ice.

I had been to this spot last year. It is such a remote, improbably distant location it had never occurred to me I might visit it again.

It's weird being familar with a place like that. It's one thing remembering where your favorite store is in the shopping mall, quite another to know there's a large rock around on the other side of the moraine.

After a surreal, leisurly stay at the Taylor, we walked across the valley to the Rhone glacier. While the Taylor glacier is a tall structure of magnificent blue ice, in comparison, the Rhone looks like a creature derived from a Dean Koontz novel. Its grayish green and full of dirt It's face is a toothed cathedral of stalagtite-like icicles.

Later that day we visited the Hughes glacier, just above camp. Lots of big blue ice here too.

In camp we harvest the blue ice for water. Drinking. Washing. Cooking. All water comes from the ice. I put Tang or Raro in it. We make tea with it. Coffee.

As the human body is 98% water, living in the field in Antarctica is a process of becoming the ice. Scientists and mountaineers joke about becoming "one" with the ice, but the truth is, after a couple of weeks, 98% of you is what you see in those glaciers.

Right now--the weather is beginning to get worse. Helo ops has just informed us all flights have been suspended. That means the guest we were expecting won't come today, and Bob, the writer who's with us, can't leave.

We ran down all our battery power getting all the computers on the net at once. Now we're running a 5KW generator to recharge everything before conditions deteriorate to the point we can't leave the jamesway.

Are we having an adventure? Or what?

Life in the field, Antarctica

Life in the field is different from life in town in a couple of ways.

First of all there's more work. In town, people are up at 6AM, to work by 7AM, and home by 5PM. They take scheduled breaks and stop working when it's dinner time.

In town, people go to sleep in dorm rooms. They sleep in mil-issue beds in rooms warmed by generator output. There are showers. There's plumbing. There are toilets.

In town, you can't go very far without meeting someone and saying, "Hi."

In town there are washing machines. There are three bars. You can get trashed and stagger back to your room. You can buy things.

You can get hit by a truck.

It's different in the field.

In the field, you sleep in a tent. In the field you can go for days without seeing another human as long as you check in with MacOps and let them know you're still alive and happy.

In the field, there are only helicopters, airplanes, and snowmobiles. None of them will hit you.

In the field, you don't take showers. You don't bathe except to dribble cold glacier water over yourself once a week. You don't wash your clothes.

In the field there is nothing to buy. Nobody to pay.

In the field, there are no bars. If you get trashed and stagger out of the jamesway, you can fall into a crevasse and die. You can fall off the glacier. You can slip on the frozen lake and crack your head open.

In the field, if you get cold, it's your job to get yourself warm. There's nobody to ask to turn up the heat.

Every single day. In the field you have to be smart. Everyone is hoping you'll be smart enough to keep from doing something so stupid it gets people in trouble, or killed. They're counting on it.

In the field you carry a radio whenever you go somewhere you can't be seen by someone else.

In the field, when you meet people you like, you like them a lot. A real lot.

Because in the field everyone knows you're just one storm away from dead. You're one step away from crippled. You're depending on each other for food. The person you smile at will bring you the water that saves your life. And when you depend on people that way, you like them.

I don't know why. Maybe it's genetic.

Today I was sitting at this computer, writing a node, thinking of how lonely I was.

The phone rang. Yes. There is a phone in this tiny frozen tent. And it rang.

And it was a crank phone call. A crank Antarctic phone call. My first. But I didn't know it at the time.

In Antarctica, field people will play naked horseshoes for laughs. Field people will jump into frozen lakes. People will drink until they forget their names and then remember to puke into a registered USAP receptacle so the environment remains unpolluted.

The call had me going for a couple of minutes, until I recognized the voice over the scratchy radio line.

We laughed for a while. Then my friend said:

"We're thinking of you out there. Everything okay?"

I said it was.

Now, anyway.

And so now I have playing naked horseshoes on my agenda.