Antarctic Diary: November 29, 2002

The ring around the sun

There was something cold against my face.

I woke to a world full of yellow and blue. Blind except for primary color blotches, something roaring outside.

The wind had distorted my faulty tent so the walls were against my head.

I pushed myself away. Today I was supposed to hike twelve miles from Lake Hoare to Lake Bonney. In this wind. Over hills and past glaciers. It should have been a great photo op. It should have been a cool hike. I did it last year. It was great.

When it's calm and sunny, Antarctica is like Disneyland. But it turns in a second to something fierce. Then burns. Then when you stand still for a couple of minutes the cold seems to come from the inside out and there's no getting warm. That's happened to me a couple of times now. It's frightening in a very personal way. You don't believe how much you are only heat until you're threatened with losing it.

But then you move. Just a little. All it takes is to walk. All it takes is to face away from the wind and climb a few steps. Then it's like you draw life itself from the rocks.

I put on a couple of layers, packed my clothes into my orange bag, and went down to the hut. There the camp manager was on the radio talking to the folks at helo ops. They expected the weather to get bad, then to "slam shut". They were inches from grounding the helos. Nobody was going to go anywhere.

No way I was going to walk 12 miles into a 30-knot wind. Not that I'd be killed, but it would be uncomfortable and there was no reason for the risk other than one of the artists down here on the artist and writer's program wanted to go and they needed someone to go with him who'd done it before.

The camp manager got us a slot on a helo so that if one DID fly, we'd helo out to Lake Bonney instead of walking. But she wasn't at all comfortable that was going to happen.

All the same, she made me strike my tent. If the helo came I had to be on it. If it didn't, I'd have to put my tent up in a storm.

So I struck and bagged my sleep kit and my tent.

The helo came. It was one of the Bell 212s, a big lummox of a vehicle that chops at the ground stirring up a spray of rocks and dust (unlike the A-Stars, which are much more delicate creatures).

The 212 was loaded to the gills, and we put on an extra 1000 pounds of gear, and then four of us got in for the 10 minute ride from Lake Hoare to Lake Bonney.

Inside smelled of jet fuel and the thing thumped with each rotation of the overhead rotor.

We got off at Bonney, unloaded all the gear, and waved to the pilots as they took off and left us another 15 miles away from where we'd just been.

Once here we set to work. We unlocked our box, pulled out all the camera and network equipment, and hauled it into the jamesway. As there was no one in camp, the place was freezing cold. Leslie, the camp manager, had arrived with us. She set to starting the preway heater and collecting water while Tony, Bob (the artist), and I deployed the network gear.

We decided to let the cameras thaw before we started them. So we sat down to some cold salsa and chips. It took a while for the jamesway to warm up, but after an hour and a half things were toasty enough we couldn't see our breaths anymore and we removed our heavy coats.

Tony went outside, climed up the side of the jamesway and connected the high-gain antenna and attached the camera sphere to our power module. In a couple of minutes it was on line and we were zooming in on the frozen lake. The McMurdo IT guys opened the firewall, and we got limited external access for our U.S. bound team to start their observations.

And so now I'm here, sort of where this story started a year ago.

I'm sitting in a steel folding chair, the type the old women use at church bake sales. I'm looking out the window at thick blue glaciers that pour from the mountains like icing from cupcake tops. There's a bright halo around the sun, something between a rainbow and the glow around the heads' of the saints.

I remember last year talking to the limno team. I remember the look on Bill Fox's face when he saw Sabine stop, put on her sunglasses, and stare at the hills before heading to the Scott tent for the night.

She'd seen these mountains every day for weeks and still they warranted taking in. Over and over and I feel the same way.

I kneel on this earth to get into my tent and I can't move.

I can't help feeling this way.

What the hell am I doing here, so far away? Every time I look up it feels like someone just handed me a million dollars. Every time I take a step on the loamy prehistoric earth I feel like I'm holding my child for the first time.

I don't know what I'm doing here.

I don't know why it feels this way.

Sometimes it's so strong, I can't breathe.