by Susan Fox Rogers
In the austral summer of 2005, I made a day trip by helicopter to Robert Falcon Scott’s hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island. This was Scott’s base in 1910 on the journey that ended with his death and the death of four of his crew. The story of this expedition is one of the saddest in Antarctic history and is my favorite. As a young girl, my father filled my head with stories of the South Pole (at one point I imagined Scott was a distant cousin and was angry with him for killing both dogs and ponies), so to visit the hut where they lived was a sort of pilgrimage. The hut was busy with a crew of New Zealand men digging out ice from its south side. I knew how the ice piled up there as I had read about it in Scott’s journals and in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s marvelous account of Scott’s final expedition, The Worst Journey in the World. The men handed me a pickax and for a while I chipped away with them with the great sense that this small gesture connected me to the past, even to heroism. Soon enough, though, this heroic traveler was tired, so I gave up my digging and wandered into the hut.
Once my eyes adjusted to the dim light I stood, overwhelmed by what had been left there: cans of collard greens and bottles of medical supplies above Dr. Wilson’s bed; reindeer sleeping bags and finneskos (the Norwegian-style boots). When I looked closely I could see that the leather soles were peeling away. The daily lives of these explorers I so admired became clear to me as I looked at Cherry-Garrard’s bunk bed, and noted where Ponting processed his photos. When I saw toothbrushes propped in glasses at the head of some of the men’s beds I wanted to weep. For me, their lives were contained in those toothbrushes.
Daily details allow me to imagine a place, and the bigger the place, the more I need those details. Lucky for me, Scott’s narratives are filled with passages like this from his 1901 expedition: “The first task of the day is to fetch the ice for the daily consumption of water for cooking, drinking and washing. In the latter respect we begin to realize that many circumstances are against habits of excessive cleanliness, but although we use water very sparingly, an astonishing amount of washing is done with it, and at present the fashion is for all to have a bath once a week.”
A bath a week in melted ice water—for almost two years. With this sort of detail the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration is brought down to the basics. What they ate, how they slept, and other facts of daily life make up much of the 1,200 pages of Scott’s narrative of his 1901 expedition. Readers are dragged through days of manhauling; along with Scott and his men we suffer great cold and eat a lot of hoosh and biscuits. It is these details that are the foundation of their great feats.
What is remembered, however, is the tragic manner in which Scott and his men died in 1911, eleven miles from a food supply on their return from the Pole. A cross rests at the top of Observation Hill above McMurdo marking the deaths of Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Evans, and Oates. On it is inscribed Tennyson’s great line: To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.When I arrived at the top of Observation Hill, breathless in the thin clear air, tears emerged spontaneously and unexpectedly. I realized that the cross told the same story as that contained in their toothbrushes. I looked at the Ross Sea, made sure no one else was nearby, and kissed the cross.
The stories of Robert Falcon Scott, Earnest Shackleton, and especially Apsley Cherry-Garrard lured first my imagination and then me to the white continent. I am not alone; most people who venture south have these narratives as their framework, imagining that they, too, will experience blizzards and extreme temperatures, see penguins, and stand in awe of Mount Erebus.
I wanted to know what sort of tent I would sleep in at a remote camp, and if I would feel lonely waking in that tent—or if I would even be able to sleep with that endless sun. I wanted to experience an Antarctic wind on my face and understand what deep cold did to my bones. To understand a place I break it down into the simplest of human needs of sleep, warmth, food. But also: How do you keep communication with loved ones back home? How often does mail arrive? Are there showers? How do people travel around? Where do people pee? And what about love?
Through the narratives of early explorers I could gather some answers, but my two final questions remained unanswered. It wasn’t until I visited Cape Evans that I saw that Scott and his men had outhouses, three for officers and one for enlisted men. (Modern visitors to the Antarctic do not use these outhouses.) But love, that remained the great mystery. Cherry-Garrard, in about six hundred pages, once thinks of “girls, or a girl…” That’s a meager fantasy in two and a half years living in an all-male world on the most desolate continent on earth. I can forgive his omission only because these were, after all, British gentleman.
But the early accounts only gave me a sense of life in Antarctica long before permanent bases, heated and with running water, and long before helicopters and LC130 cargo planes. I wanted to know what it was like for modern travelers on the continent. Some modern narratives gave me an idea of life on the Ice, but I wanted more; I needed to track down the stories I wanted to read, which meant I had to go to Antarctica.
No one ends up in Antarctica by accident. Flying there on your own dime is expensive and the other most commonly used route—getting a grant or a job on the Ice—is difficult. You have to be qualified for specialized jobs such as fixing snowmobiles in below zero temperatures or loading helicopters or pushing snow in a D8 Caterpillar bulldozer. Then there are those people who have learned a skill just to go south. In their real lives they are a park ranger or a dentist who wanted an adventure. In addition all workers and grantees have to be physically and mentally qualified for life on the Ice. So all of these healthy workers have landed in a place they want to be, and despite complaints about work (a six day/sixty hour a week schedule), a buoyant optimism reigns. I fell into that atmosphere with great joy when I arrived in McMurdo just before Christmas in 2004.
It had taken me years to get to the Ice. I applied for a Writers & Artists grant from the National Science Foundation in July of 2002. The proposal I sent them—to edit this collection—followed in the footsteps of other anthologies I had edited, especially one on Alaska, but I worried they would think I could put together the collection just as easily sitting in an office in the U.S. But that summer, a tentative “yes” arrived and over the course of the next year I attended meetings, had a rigorous physical, contacted dozens of scientists who might help me to see and experience the continent, and read as much as I could. The preparation was spectacular—lists of clothing I would need, plus all of my daily necessities for six weeks, which could not exceed forty-five pounds. I would like to say that after a six-hour flight from New Zealand, I stumbled out of the cargo plane and onto the Ross Ice Shelf and bent down and kissed the ice, head turned to honor Mount Erebus. But I did not. I was deaf from the plane ride, slightly nauseated, and a migraine was mounting an attack. I staggered to an orientation meeting in the galley, then to my overheated dorm (my roommate had the window propped wide open) and slept.
Since my goal while in Antarctica was to experience daily life and to find people in different fields of work who could describe that life for me, I was open to just about any experience that came my way. I worked with Solar Joe installing solar panels at a camp at New Harbor at the mouth of Taylor Valley, and there learned how to make Antarctic concrete: take sandy soil, hand carry a bucket of water from the Ross Sea, add to the sand, and within twenty-four hours it will be a frozen block. I helped penguinologist David Ainley count Adélie penguins and then inject pit tags in nesting penguins. I got to cup that football-shaped creature under my arm, as its flipper faintly beat me. I assisted Phil Allen as he hand drilled for ice cores in Garwood Valley and I chopped garlic for Rae Spain at Lake Hoare. When in McMurdo I wrote in my office overlooking the Ross Sea and then would take a shuttle out to Williams (Willy) Field and skate-ski the several miles back to town. These were some of the happiest weeks of my life.
From these experiences I wrote dramatic emails filled with tales of forty-five-mile-an-hour winds and the charm of penguins. Still, what fascinated me most was how people lived their lives, how our very human needs of food, work, play, sleep, and love fit in such a big place.
These essays will offer travelers a sense of those human needs—plus some. And yet I know that all of these writers and travelers are trying to describe the indescribable. You just cannot know what it is like to crave Ritz crackers slathered with butter until you’ve lived in a camp for several months in temperatures hovering near and below zero. Still, these essays reveal with great intimacy and detail moments of life in Antarctica, from the late ’70s to the present. We have the voices of GAs (General Assistants) and scientists, of writers and those who have never written for publication. Through these vivid experiences, we are taken onto the Ice, and are offered the richness of daily life: there are essays here about food and loneliness, about riding snowmobiles and finding love. The essays that follow are set in the three U.S. bases—McMurdo, South Pole, and Palmer—and in camps in the Dry Valleys or on Ross Island and at remote camps on the polar plateau. There is one essay describing the thrill of flying in with the only independent company on the continent. The range of experiences here cannot cover life on the Ice, but they do offer some heroism, and much insight and humor from a big and beautiful place.
I can also promise that the writers here are not proper British gentleman—these essays reveal the ways of love on the Ice. But if you want to know how to pee in Antarctica, you will have to go there.
Sample Chapter: In This Dream
by Joe Mastroianni
The Dry Valleys of Antarctica lie just across McMurdo Sound from Ross Island. It is in these valleys that many scientists conduct their work—search for nematodes, or measure the levels of the many small lakes and ponds that dot the valley. It’s an impressive landscape, and in the Taylor Valley, where Joe Mastroianni is walking, sand and gravel meet the impressive Commonwealth, Canada, then Suess glaciers. They are called the Dry Valleys for a reason—they have almost never seen any precipitation, but there is plenty of wind, which has carved the rocks into ventifacts and shaved the fur off of seals that lie, freeze-dried, almost fifty miles inland.
It is amidst this surreal landscape that Joe finds himself with another contributor to this anthology, William Fox (whose own story “Leaving the Ice” appears on page 264 of this book). Their rambling conversation reveals the way the mind and the emotions move in such a landscape.
Joe has worked in Silicon Valley as a high-level engineering executive for twenty years. He’s also a novelist, screenwriter, poet, musician, entrepreneur, programmer, engineer, technologist, father, and friend. He has tried almost everything once, and always winds up home.
There are places in Antarctica where your footprints will outlive you.
On a long walk in the Taylor Valley, you can hear every grain of scratching dust compressed beneath your boot.
You can stand on a hilltop paved with red stones that extend to the mesa’s edge, and see to one side the Kukri Hills, to the other the Matterhorn and the 7,000-foot-tall crags of Hill 1882, dripping glacier ice. At the center of the red mesa stands a house-sized boulder, wind-carved with swirls and patterns. Nature’s hieroglyphics.
When confronted with something infinite, the mind invents stories to frame everything in well-bounded familiarity. Even a man of science and numbers, trained to ignore the nagging influence of imagination, must remind himself this place is not strewn with the ruins of a temple built by an extinct race. But rather, that non-linear equations and physics of laminar flow explain the spirals and serpentine shapes on the ground and in stone. That the depressions and passageways through the rock do not lead to chambers of worship, but are only regions of erosion where vortices spawned by the katabatics collected sand grains with regularity. That the wonder that has filled his chest has not killed him, but rather, in one blow has destroyed the intricate construction of pedestrian, suburban logic upon which he has based his self-image.
When men returned to this place in the 1950s they saw footprints and campsites they presumed were the remnants of recent explorations. Then in the detritus at the campsites they found the cast-offs from Scott’s party, all appearing as if Scott and his men had left only a short while before. And they knew that time meant something different here.
The mind invents stories.
You walk through the valley as a mouse in a giant’s house. Occasionally one of you mutters something absolutely trite, how gorgeous it is, how there are no words. The way the glaciers fall over the mountains like the head on an overfull glass of beer. The way the frost heave cracks in the ground in straight-sided polygonal structures. You point out the way millions of years of wind-blown sand turns boulders to pentagonal pyramids. You wonder at the age of the mummified seal carcasses. How a creature with no arms or legs could have traveled so many miles inland, crawling on its belly like a giant slug.
In awe of titanic beauty, you know why the ancients told stories. And now you need one, too.
I’m trying to keep my mind on the hike. My job—insinuating technology into this most holy geography. Putting up wireless networks so scientists studying the dry valleys can e-mail their home institutions, send instant messages, and order replacement hats and gloves online from the farthest place on earth. I’m trying to keep my mind on the twelve miles I was elected to traverse with the camp’s professional writer. The perk people back in town would give up body parts for. Guide the writer between camps, on foot. Experience in-your-face Antarctica. Towering blue ice and an ozone-free atmosphere guaranteed to cause cancer and cataracts. Trying to keep my mind on the landscape, and away from a simple human problem people bring with them wherever they go. What would Scott think? What would Nansen do in this situation?
I say—“Annie Haslan is mad at me,” after one long stretch of nothing going by but the scribbles and doodles God left on a mountainside during a particularly boring hour of creation.
My travel companion, Bill Fox, stops in his tracks and stares at me as if I’ve just burst into flames.
“The singer. She was online answering e-mails on a fan site and I posted a note about how I thought Renaissance had shown up drunk for a performance in Miami in 1977. Her producer assured me no such thing had happened. She sent me an email and chewed me out. They never drank before a performance.”
It comes out and I have no idea why, or how I can control it.
Bill furrows his brow, considers what I’ve said, and looks back at the glaciers. “I see.”
“You don’t know who she is,” I say. “I’m getting punchy.”
We’re walking between Lake Bonney camp and Lake Hoare camp. It’s a trip of roughly eight miles across reasonably level ground. On the way we’ll pass three glaciers and two frozen lakes. Lots of seal carcasses, freeze-dried and mummified by the atmosphere. Though they’re hard as rock, some look like they died a few weeks ago. One of the biologists told us they’re only between nine hundred and a couple thousand years old. Eternity to us is a mere eye-blink to the ice.
“How do you think these seals got here?” Bill asks. He’s writing a book about the way humans interact with infinitely remote landscapes. Will my answer wind up on his pages? I need to set the record straight, then. Something else is in my mind besides the sundogs and rocks that seem to have been carved by the very mythical beings UFO-aficionados believe built the temples at Machu Picchu.
“I didn’t sleep with her last night.”
“Annie Haslan?” Bill says.
“No. The biology lady. I didn’t. I swear, when I didn’t expect it, she kissed me and threw me into severe, life-threatening cognitive dissonance.”
“Life-threatening cognitive dissonance,” Bill says, seeming as convinced as if I was trying to sell him a purple sky. “An unexpected kiss. I’ve heard that can happen.”
“Totally, I mean, I’m married, O.K.?”
“So are a lot of other people down here. What do they say? ‘What happens on the Ice stays on the Ice?’”
“Puts Antarctica on the same plane as Mardi Gras. There’s something fundamentally sick about that. Like on a religious level.”
Bill starts walking and I follow, but my mind keeps rolling back to the night before at the Bonney camp. In the Jamesway.
Last night there was a circle around the sun. A half-dreamed halo. The air turned translucent with ice fog. The clouds muffled the thumps to nothing when the final helicopter crossed the Commonwealth glacier. The radio chirped in the background one last time, then squelched dead for the weekend. She and I maneuvered in the Korean-war era tent like submariners. Always touching and bumping. Smiling.
On the Ice the territory is nearly infinite. In this landscape humans are nearly as rare as unicorns. But where there is one of us, there is almost certainly another. For safety. The buddy system. Or because habitation is sparse and so we must huddle for warmth. So there is no privacy on the Ice.
Until it finds you, unexpectedly.
The mind needs a story.
She and I in Bonney camp, alone. Bone and blood, imbued with the infinite mystery of biological chemistry that causes inanimate molecules to animate flesh. She did not know how to define the force that became locked within carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen at the Big Bang, and demands certain molecules reproduce and give rise to sentience.
“Nobody knows that,” she said, handing me a mason jar filled with a greenish liquid.
She turned her back, resuming to her preparation at the counter. Outside a mild wind began. It rattled the sides of the Jamesway, raising in me questions about the fragility of the half cylinder upon the ground. A bubble of warmth that seemed it would collapse in the next big gust.
We could have been astronauts on an alien planet. We were surrounded by 10,000-foot-high peaks and blue-ice glaciers. Standing on land that hadn’t changed since DNA emerged from the primordial soup, and would remember every step we took. The only sound for miles was the wind and our breath.
Then she started bashing blue lake ice with a hammer. And I wondered if somewhere, the great cosmic whomever who had decided to grant me consciousness was laughing and heading to the fridge for another beer.
The mind tells a story.
She decanted the last lime juice that existed for thousands of miles, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the boulder we walked to, sides inscribed with the wind’s handwriting, the plane of red and the Paleolithic swirls in the mountain’s flesh.
“What’s written on those rocks?” I asked her.
“What rocks?” She capped the Nalgene bottle and shook it.
“The ones up there, the red mesa.”
“Oh, you mean up at the Rock Garden. They’re ventifacts. The wind wears them down like that.”
“I know. I’ve seen the ventifacts up by the Hughes Glacier. They’re just smooth rocks with holes. Those ones up there are different though. It’s like—what the hell is that plane of red rock? It’s like being on Mars.”
“Wild, isn’t it?” she said. Poured herself a margarita. Set it down on a folding table that could have been borrowed from the thrift shop of the nearest Catholic Church, 6,000 miles to the north somewhere. She turned backward a beat up folding chair and sat, knees wide and almost touching mine. She rested her elbows on the chair back, chin on her forearms.
“So, what do you think?” she asked, and I sipped my margarita.
“Not bad,” I said, tipping my jar toward her. “Good job.”
“Not the drink. About the rocks.”
There was a lot going on in my head. Stories rumbling through the gyri of my cortex. She’d think I was crazy if I told them. Maybe I was.
I said, “Did you know that half the people on the Ice are left-handed or blue-eyed? Statistically that’s…”
“Cut the bullshit.”
“O.K., then. You really want to know?”
“You worried someone’s going to hear? You can trust me. I won’t tell.” She kicked my boot. Smiled. Sipped without breaking eye contact. “It stays on the Ice.”
I knew that back home this would be something. Was it the same out here in Antarctica? What would Shackleton do in this situation?
Then I noticed. Couldn’t help. Her eyes were blue-gray. Her hair was blonde with streaks of strawberry. She held her jar in her left hand. She took a gulp. Wiped at her mouth with the back of a hand then rested her chin in the palm, elbow on the chair back and I could hear the words in my mind that one of us would have to say.
What are we going to do now?
She took another sip of her drink.
I said, “Thomas says the ice in these margaritas is as old as Jesus,” figuring I could obscure the facts with more facts.
Outside the wind kicked up. Outside, the same sun that burned the Sahara flared impotently above the fruitless land. All that existed was the motion of the inanimate and prehistoric germs she’d come to study in the frozen lakes.
And us. All the other scientists were out at the west lobe drilling holes in the ice to take samples. They wouldn’t be back for hours. Infinite solitude flooded two souls. Mine was drowning.
Find anything. Yesterday the camp manager took me to the Rock Garden.
“What’s the deal with pictures up there?” I asked, fumbling, sorry I left my camera in my tent when the others in the camp requested I record nothing of the hike up the mountainside. Looking for any subject to take the place of the one she was pushing toward.
“Because it’s our place. It’s special. It’s private. It belongs to the people who come here. There’s no reason for anyone else to see it.”
She took the jar out of my hand and put it on the table behind her.
“It’s so beautiful,” I said, something warm stirring in my chest, thinking if I said enough quickly enough we could just think about something else. Let’s just think about something else. Tell her the story. I said, “It’s like a fairy tale. If you told me it was a movie set, I’d believe you. It looked like—it made me feel things. Like…”
Her chair squeaked against the plywood floor as she skootched closer.
I said, “Like it was—like it was built by somebody for a reason. Like you could turn around and see the spirit of the ice, the Lady of the Frozen Lakes, rise from the ice and hand you Excalibur. Like we’re blessed. Right on top of that hill is Shangri La and only we have ever seen it.”
I remember her lips were cold from the blue ice; her tongue tasted of tequila and lime that used to be, and I never perceived her crossing the distance between us, but only saw her drifting from me, back into her chair, eyes closed, like someone who drowned and was carried away by the current.
“What happens now?” she said without opening her eyes.
I was trying to understand. Why. Couple things to consider. Workload. Lack of sleep. Incoherence. How to erase a memory that lived beside a geographic miracle.
Seconds, maybe a minute later I found my voice and said, “The rest of our lives, I suppose.”
By the time I finish the story Bill and I reach Mummy Pond. We strap our stabilicers onto our boots. They’re modified beach sandals with machine screws protruding from the soles that bite into the ice. We venture out onto the deep blue ice and despite everything the experts have said to me about the ice thickness, the insecure child in my mind assures me I’m going to fall through.
I’m staring at my feet waiting for the ice to break when Bill says, “It’s thirty feet thick, you know.” Strolling casually, turning occasionally to observe me. “They land airplanes on ice thinner than this.”
I heard myself say, “I really mean it, I didn’t sleep with her,” as if that was as important as the fact the ground we were traversing had been crossed by a hand-counted number of people. Everyone who had ever been in this spot had their name in a ledger somewhere, either logged in the NSF’s helo records, or Robert F. Scott’s diary. It’s a historic, isolated area, one of the most unattainable and gorgeous on earth.
But I feel as if Antarctica has taken a sandblaster to my mind and abraded years of learning and expectation. Nothing was the way I thought it would be. It was all bigger, colder, more beautiful, and more intense than I expected. And it was changing me. I could feel it. It was as if I’d sold my soul for a glimpse of Atlantis, and when I returned to the real world everyone would see me as a madman, babbling about imaginary cities of blue ice, about having touched the hand of a newly discovered god, about being damned forever for the arrogance of the deal.
I say, “She told me she slept in the Scott tent. I knew that was an invitation, but I just ignored it. I came back to the polar haven. Didn’t you hear me come in?”
“O.K.,” Bill says. “Enough.” I follow him to the shore of the frozen lake. He pulls off his pack and I do the same. Snap a few photos. He takes out some food I didn’t see him pack in the Jamesway at Bonney. We sit next to a large ventifact and he hands me a piece of cheese and a Cadbury bar.
We munch our snacks in silence. And after a good long time, when the cold has had the chance to still my mind, Bill says, “This is pretty wonderful, isn’t it?”
At last, words don’t come to me.
“You O.K.?” he asks, and I nod automatically. Bill says, “You gotta take it slowly. Integrate. Get some perspective. You’re not the first person to be blown away by the ice.”
“This isn’t hell, then?”
Bill laughs. Sighs. Stares out toward the Suess Glacier. He says, “When you get home, read some of the stuff you’ve written in your blog. You don’t realize how important it is to you. You can’t until you get back and you come back to yourself.”
“Come back to myself?”
“You started to tell me but you never finished—how did it feel, the moment you stepped on the ice?”
How do I feel? I’d just spent a lifetime worrying about where I had been and where I would go. Was I positioned well for the next career move? Had all the bills been paid? Did I have enough insurance so I could die responsibly? Could I be forgiven for tossing away so many precious heartbeats that way? And from whom would I ask forgiveness?
The sun streams upon us from an ozone-free sky that’s almost black. Ice clouds high above divide the light into rainbows of yellow, magenta, and cyan. The glacier creaks. A chunk of blue-green ice calves from its face. It sounds like a case of drinking glasses falling from a warehouse shelf.
I say, “There’s the one thing that defines you to yourself in your own head. You can tell other people, ‘Well, I’m an engineer, or a plumber, or a mechanic.’ But this is it for me. No matter what I ever told anyone else, I have always been in my mind someone who lives on the Ice. I can remember being a kid in the grammar school library reading about Scott and Shackleton and wishing as hard as I could to go. I have had no greater wish in my life.”
Bill crumples his candy bar wrapper, careful not to get the slightest crumb on the ground.
I say, “It feels like being in love.”
He smiles and I see myself reflected small and abstract in his dark glacier glasses. Bill says, “Rae Spain, the camp manager for the Taylor Valley told me she thought our life here was as close to a utopian society as you could get on earth. We’re clothed, fed, kept healthy, surrounded by nature; we work on interesting things and are continuously accompanied by interesting people. We just have to realize how lucky we are, and be appropriately thankful.”
When he stops speaking, and there is no voice to fill my ears, my heart is as loud as the wind.
“Strange things happen to people in your state of mind,” he says, gathering his backpack, reseating his stabilicers. “But I think—well what I think is that if it feels like love, it probably is.”
We get back onto the ice and make our way toward the Suess Glacier defile, and Lake Hoare camp beyond.
And as we walk I wonder how I will explain it to my family at home. What story I can invent to make them accept that I have betrayed the normal, everyday life of which they have been a part these many years, and fallen in love with a dream.