travelers-tales

By Karen Joyce

Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Gold Winner in the Bad Trip category

It was a typical Sunday at McMurdo Station, Antarctica: cement-grey skies and a thirty-knot katabatic heading straight at us from the South Pole. All week long we’d worked our 10-hours days with the mid-summer November skies a clear cerulean blue, with hardly a breath of wind.

And now of course, Sunday: our only day off, always with this misery weather.

Normally it would have been the perfect day to sit around the lounge and watch Apocalypse Now for the tenth time, but today was special: it was the 100th anniversary of Scott’s ill-fated trek to the South Pole. And to celebrate the event, Princess Anne had been sent down here by the tattered remains of the British Commonwealth to dedicate the hut that the Great Explorer had thrown up as a base camp back in 1902, a pre-fab shack that still sits on its bed of lava rock at Hut Point, a finger of land jutting out onto the frozen Ross Sea.

Her arrival was quite the event for our battered little sheet metal town. Weather notwithstanding, about a hundred of us wrapped ourselves in layers of the ill-fitting Emergency Cold Weather gear we’d been issued by the company and made the half mile trek down to Hut Point to watch the Grand Ceremony, presided over by Certified Royalty.

As we stood around outside the hut waiting for the proceedings to begin, I huddled myself against a group of men, all of us with our backs to the wind like a pack of Musk Ox. I like to think of myself as substantive and able to withstand this climate, but the truth is I seem to show up small in photos. So it is within the realm of the possible that I am on the wrong continent, biomass-wise.

In the end, it all turned out to be hardly worth it: Her Royal Security Guards wouldn’t let us get close enough to hear much of anything. But even from fifty feet, I could make out the classic bad looks of the Hapsburgs, the famous nose profiled on every coin in England, the humorless lips of a woman who’d had her regal composure stamped into her so young she’d probably never had the chance to make a mess with a plate of mushy peas. We could only make out the random fragment, her foot-high furry hat plowing forward, punctuating the stiff mumbling about being “verr verr honored to be able to be here upon this verr verr momentous oh-casion.”

We took the requisite photos and hopped from foot to foot in the freezing wind until all I could think about was the sauna back at my dorm. But somehow the whole ersatz ceremony just didn’t sit right with me. I’d been coming down to this place for twelve years, had seen the shaky film footage of Scott’s men straining against their lines and falling thigh-deep in crevasses as they pulled sleds with impossible loads. Somehow this speechifying just didn’t do right by them, even if you took into consideration their own vainglorious hubris. I wanted to make this thing mine. I wanted to feel the pull of the sledlines against my own chest. I wanted to manhaul.

Problem was, I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas but generally lacking in follow-through. The first impediment was my quibble with the term “manhauling,” dripping off its sides as it is with testosterone. But figuring the path of least resistance lay in plagiarizing the dead, I took some liberties with Scott’s original Want-Ad verbiage and put up a sign outside the Galley on Highway 1, where everyone would see it on their way to Sunday brunch:

Wanted: Twelve women (and/or men) (and/or gender-neutral) for non-hazardous journey. Manhaul a sled on same route as Scott’s to the Pole, only not so far. Safe return totally certain. Bring food and water and expedition stuff like that. Anybody interested, meet me down at the Ice Runway transition at 2PM today, Sunday.

“Scott UltraLite” was what I envisioned: 96 calories of manhauling. That’s if anybody actually showed up, which was unlikely.

The only essential equipment I could think of for a trip like this would be a couple of Nansen sleds and some harnesses, both easily borrowed from stocks around town. I didn’t figure we’d need anything else because we weren’t going to get very far. After all, if anyone did show up, they’d want to get back in time for the traditional Sunday Steak Dinner, featuring grizzled meat that had been sitting out on the cargo line behind the Heavy Shop, freezing and thawing since the Navy left Antarctica back in the 90’s.

Two o’clock came around faster than I anticipated. By then I was pretty much regretting the whole idea, as I hadn’t rounded up the Nansen sleds or anything else, but I figured I’d better make an appearance just in case anyone else did. On a McMurdo Sunday, most people consider the mere act of falling out of bed and staggering to Brunch to be a day’s worth of effort. On the plus side, if no one did show, there was a couch with a warm blanket in the dorm lounge waiting for me, with the usual suspects watching Apocalypse Now.

So when I headed out for the transition to the Ice Shelf and saw a mass of at least a hundred red parkas milling about, I wondered what disaster or attraction could have possibly brought out such a crowd.

“Here she comes!” I heard someone yell. All coats turned to face me as if lining up along some invisible line of force.

I looked behind me. No one. Shit.

Someone had apparently gotten proactive and dragged a couple of Nansen sleds down to the ice. They’d even attached ropes and harnesses and set them up, pointing south. Six giants ran up the hill towards me and started yipping like eager puppies: So how are we doing this? Who’s on which team? Who’s pulling and who’s riding?”

I walked back down with them and looked around at the crowd: men with black Harley T-shirts stretched over ample bellies under their red parkas, standing next to massively-bundled women with the kind eyes of knitters. And row upon row of fresh-faced youth, as indistinguishable from each other as paisleys. All I knew was that most of them were going to be disappointed if they’d all showed up to manhaul.

I walked over to one of the two sleds, picked up a harness and pulled it over my head. It fit loosely over my shoulders, with a chest strap that fell straight across my breasts.

Well this is suboptimal, I thought.

The tallest of the men turned to me.“So. What are we doing, then?”

I knew this guy. He was reputed to be related to one of the early explorers in some vague way. And from the set of his jawline, I could see he was in deadly earnest about this manhauling.

I pulled forward against the harness to get the slack out.

“Shit, I have no idea,” I said, trying to adjust the strap so that it hit me anywhere but square across the tit-line. I turned to face the crowd. “I mean, I guess anyone who wants to haul should just jump in and….”

It was like I’d fired a gun: pandemonium, men from all sides and angles scrambling and jostling for position. At least twenty of them claimed to have gotten there first. You could feel the fight heating up the frozen air.

“Hey hey hey!” I yelled. “Come on, give some of the women a chance here! Erica! Come on, get in here!”

Erica: our own Antarctic Ten, an Adventure Barbie of a woman, athletic in a way that sells windstop Lycra. As she approached with that thick blond braid and perfect smile/cheekbone combo, two of the men melted away to the sidelines.

A large-ish gang of those who’d lost out went into a huddle and came up declaring  themselves to be Amundsen’s party. Someone pulled out a bunch of homemade Norwegian cocktail flags on toothpicks and passed them out. Brandishing these in one hand and single-serve boxes of Shredded Wheat stolen from the Galley in the other, they set off running toward the South Pole at a speed just short of Olympian.

The rest of the crowd began to mill and turn on itself till I yelled that we needed 1200 pounds of human cargo per sled. Riders. A bunch of them musical-chaired their way into position. Debates about who weighed what finally settled out, and we were ready to go.

I looked over at the other team of manhaulers, led by the tall guy and another big Bruno. They were aligned in neat formation: six well-matched men, a veritable manhauling machine. Testing their pulling prowess, they were already prancing about in unison like the Lipizzaner Stallions, with the heavy gravitas of a corps of  diplomats.

My own sled was a mixed hash. In the harness next to me was my friend Arnie, a leftist radical from NYC, way more brain than brawn. Behind us were a couple of generic youth and behind them, Erica and a woman I suddenly recognized as the Town Ditz, splay-footed in a pair of penny loafers.

Great.

Our team was already having a number of problems, not the least of which was the inconveniently-located breast-strap that bore all of the weight of pulling. Either it had to ride up under my armpits or be lowered onto my ribs, and neither worked. But the crowd was growing restless, and the other sled’s manhaulers were clearly chomping at the bit to get started.

All eyes settled on me again. An air of expectation of something official to get this momentous oh-caision going quietened everyone.

“OK!” I yelled. “Are we ready?”

Arnie spoke up. “So…what exactly are we doing?”

“We are manhauling, Arnie, manhauling in the footsteps of Scott, across the great white plains of snow and ice, beyond the….”

“No, I mean where are going? Like, how far?”

“Oh I don’t know, let’s just get out there and see if we can make it to Scott Base.” The New Zealand station was about three miles away and basically right off Scott’s route to the Pole, a route that was now flagged and sanctioned as safe for travel by the giant missile defense company that had brought us down here to work. Plus, Scott Base had a bar.

“ARE…WE…READY?”

“YES!”

BOOM. The stallions took off at a smooth sprint like the well-oiled machine that they were. Our sled encountered trouble right from the start. The main issue was that we seemed to be totally stuck in place. Glued to the snow.

My first thought was that someone was messing with us. All my life I’ve been a target for practical jokes, and this continent was proving to be no exception. But someone on the sidelines explained that a stuck sled was not uncommon: a fine layer of water forms under the skids from friction, which can freeze the sled in tight. Freed up by a couple of heave-ho’s, we finally pulled away, with the other team already disappearing into the flat light ahead.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: a wave of euphoria washed over me as the chest straps tightened and I felt the sled begin to move.The wild insanity of a sled dog filled me with hip-wagging glee upon feeling the pull of the harness. All of us seemed to have caught the same fever –  the goofballs behind me started barking and howling, running straight into Arnie and me in their enthusiasm. Woof Woof! We’re off!

I looked over at Arnie, who was bounding along like a kindergartener on a hobby-horse.

“Arnie,” I asked, “are you cantering to the Pole?”

“Hey, my father was a famous cantor, it runs in the family!” he yelled back, blinking.

Almost from the moment we left, the wind picked up and hit us square in the face. This must have happened to Scott, too, I mused – the wind has no doubt been blowing out of the south for at least the last 30 million years. And on this day a hundred years ago, most likely the November sky was just as it is today: an opaque whitish-grey, just bright enough to obscure the ground shadows. It cast a flat light across the cracks and sastrugi, obscuring them just enough to trip up a manhauler. Which is what Penny Loafers did before we were five minutes out. We all turned around to see what had stopped us dead.

“Wooh!” she cried, struggling to her feet. “Ha! I’m…oh! My knee!”

That was it for her career as a Great Antarctic Explorer, and thank God for the crowd on the sled acting as ballast. A volunteer instantly jumped into her harness as she slid into his spot, rubbing her knee and no doubt hoping for sympathy. But this was an expedition, by God, so we pressed on.

By this time my own giddiness had begun to wane as the chest strap started chafing my armpits. Chafing – now that’s something you don’t read about in the heroic literature. Scurvy is noteworthy, but chafing? Pip pip, man! Chin up, carry on!

When we got going again, Arnie resumed his diatribe about the latest outrage the company had visited upon us, the latest violation of our constitutional right to free speech or assembly or whatever. I wasn’t really paying attention because my armpits were being sawed off, but the guys behind us were. It was then that I realized that a group dynamic was building: we’d only gone about half a mile, but the pack was turning against Arnie.

“Hey shut up and pull, man!” the sled dog behind him shouted, shaking Arnie’s harness lines to get his attention. But Arnie continued ranting, oblivious. I looked over and realized the accusation was true: his straps were entirely slack.

“Arnie,” I said, “they’re talking to you. Pull.”
He apologized and fell forward into his harness for a few steps before starting up again, citing Penn Station vs. The State of New York to bolster his case. I did the math: 1200 pounds of cargo divided by five people instead of six. My armpits were bleeding, and we’d gone no more than a mile. Arnie was outlining his strategy for resistance when the guys behind us started threatening him with bodily harm if he didn’t get with the program.

“Arnie, listen,” I said. “You aren’t pulling, all right? How about letting somebody from the sled have a chance? It’s only fair that everybody gets a chance to manhaul, right?”

He stopped dead in his tracks and turned around. The two people behind him piled into each other, and that was it. Arnie was relegated to the coxswain spot on the back of the sled, and another young buckaroo stepped into his harness.

We were now two men short of being the equivalent of the Stallions. That group was apparently having some equipment problems of their own – we could see them up ahead, gesticulating wildly at each other or else taking off a layer of clothing. It was hard to tell what was going on from this distance, but it put the fire in our afterburners to think we might be able to catch them. Or I should say it fired up those around me – my armpits were my only inflammatory bits, so much so that I gave up my choice lead dog spot to Erica. Quid pro quo, sex-wise.

Now it was our turn to fly, and my turn to be the weak link. How long could my co-manhaulers keep sprinting like this, I wondered? We would never make it to the Pole at this pace; slow and steady wins the race.It was Shackleton, after all, that had to be carried back to McMurdo by Scott’s 1902 party when he succumbed to scurvy. It definitely seemed to be the case that, with a few peasant-y exceptions, the large were the first of the great explorers to go. Maybe after a couple of days of sled-pulling and some freshly-healed calluses, who knows? My peanut ilk might prevail. The best sled dogs are smallish, I’m told.

Nevertheless it hurt me to realize that now Arnie and Penny Loafers were off the team, I was the weak link in the operation. But despite my being the brake-pedals, we were gaining on the other sled fast, rocketing along like a six-person Concorde with our matched pair of thoroughbreds in front. We were gaining on them big time, till the other team spotted us and peeled off like a floored Maserati.

Even I felt disappointment as we watched them turn back into a shrinking dot subsumed by the whiteness. Still, it was strange: all of us were at least theoretically out here just for fun, taking a stab at re-enacting Scott’s great journey, but we hadn’t even gotten a mile out of the gates before we started hating the other team because they were not us. Even more than those unencumbered cheaters, those Amundsens with their pathetic Shredded Wheats, we hated the other sled team. What mattered here, what held primacy for reasons only our brainstems could parse, was that we were not first in this manhauling business. It didn’t take much to imagine what Scott must have felt when he found all those cocktail-flag toothpicks already staked out around the South Pole.

That was the situation the New York Times photographer captured when she hit the shutter just as we turned off the route to the Pole for the more reasonable goal of the Scott Base bar. Later we found out the other team had paused at the same spot, hoping for an audience wider than McMurdo: the Footsteps of Scott, personified in all their strident and leonine glory. But when they realized the competition was hurtling down upon them, they figured the better part of valor was victory. And thus it was that history once again magnified the losers of the race to the Pole. The graven image of us, the runners-up, graced the Wednesday Science Section in a color photo that caught me at a bad angle, looking very much like the tiny curled-over peapod that I am not.

Except, for some reason, in pictures.

~ ~ ~

Karen Joyce spent 22 years working in Antarctica. The first 10 were magic; the next 10 were a grind with a bad commute. This story represents one of her many attempts to give everyone a chance to Manhaul Across the Continent, ala Scott and Shackleton.