Monday, January 29, 2007

Back to "Civilization"

The helicopter came for us last Friday afternoon. We were due to leave Cape Crozier on Thursday, but after two days of dazzling blue skies and above freezing temperatures we woke up Thursday morning in a cloud. Two days' worth of warm air had condensed over the cold ocean (the water here is always around -1.8 degrees C) to form a dense layer of fog. The landscape was completely erased. The air was still and silent - quite a contrast to last month's winds. I thought I could hear whales breathing, but the sound was far too regular and repetitive for a living being. The distant whoosh came from waves - a light swell from the north, not visible in the dense fog - washing up on the rocky beaches and under the ice foot at the bottom of the slope. Friday was beautiful again. The helicopter arrived, we checked the hut for forgotten items, secured the door, donned our Extreme Cold Weather gear and helmets, and within minutes the hut - our home for 2 1/2 months - was just a tiny orange speck in the Antarctic vastness of rock, ice, and snow. It's always so disorienting to leave a place that you love so much, a place that is so much a part of your body, with so little time to think and no chance to turn back. We flew past Post Office Hill, Ainley Peak, and the Knoll, along the southern edge of Ross Island where ice shelf meets land, above the rolling fields of gaping crevasses that adorn the base of Mount Erebus, through the Windless Bight, over cracks in the sea ice and turquoise meltwater pools dotted with thousands of sleeping seals, and into McMurdo Station.

Within an hour I had taken my first shower in 2 1/2 months and was standing in the middle of the galley as dozens of people swirled about with trays of food, my gaze tracking each person as they went by, while trucks and oddly shaped heavy machinery beeped outside. This transition is always overwhelming, though my initial callousness is quickly softened by the pleasure of the first hot shower, the sight of green salad, and everyone's unfaltering friendliness.

By Friday evening we (David, Jean, and Lloyd from Cape Royds, and the four of us from Crozier) were standing on the ice pier at McMurdo waiting to board the Polar Sea, a US Coast Guard icebreaker that was to take us to Beaufort Island to do some work. By midnight we were standing on the ship's bridge as minke whales and orcas spy-hopped and dove along the icebreaker channel, and by 7:30 AM the next day, after a claustrophobic sleep (military ship bunks are decidedly not spacious), we were drifting a few km SW of Beaufort Island as scores of Coast Guard deck hands lowered two small steel boats into the water. We got in, motored past ice floes bathed in gorgeous morning light and covered with penguins, and landed on the beach at Beaufort Island. We banded and measured chicks and were back on the ship by 1 PM headed back to McMurdo. It was bizarre to have a 400 foot ship with 150 military personnel aboard at our disposal - a rather decadent and odd way to travel, especially after 2 1/2 months spent with three other people in a tiny, spartan hut at the edge of Antarctica.

Yesterday was mellow. Sleeping late (on a real mattress!), catching up with email after nearly a month with limited access (our link was down most of January, thus the lack of posts), drinking wine at the coffee house, and the like. Lloyd left this morning for Christchurch and then New York. The rest of us have four more days of packing before flying back to New Zealand and then our respective homes.

Me and an Adélie penguin at Cape Crozier (photo by Lloyd Fales)

Grant making funny faces on the helicopter (self portrait by GB)

Crevasses big enough to swallow a city block (or a helicopter, as the case may be)

Seals (tiny black dots) sleeping by their breathing holes

The USCG Polar Sea approaches the ice pier

Beaufort Island and a blue hued floe

A minke whale comes up for air

An orca swims along the icebreaker channel

Beach landing with Mt. Erebus in the background

Self portrait on the icebreaker

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tales Of Wind And Snow

Sastrugi - Ridges of snow formed on a snowfield by the action of the wind. Also, zastruga. [1830–40; <>

Our internet is out, so I am again attempting to post using the satellite phone, which is slower than slow. No photos this time but a story, excerpted from a letter to Camie and Jeremy that I wrote on January 1st:

“The end of 2006 finally brought us a break in the form of a storm, a classic Antarctic storm: heavy, beautiful snow for two days (we stayed in the hut and caught up on various data projects) followed by a couple of clear, decent days (we went out in the field despite the frigid breeze), one windy day (stayed in hut), a lull (went out), and then the real thing (right now).

There are two things that the Antarctic wind gods focus on: 1) blowing all the fluffy snow away in an attempt to reshape the snowfields back into wild sastrugi forms (sastrugi is a Russian word for hard, wind-carved snow) and 2) creating a lull in the middle of any storm so as to fool humans into going outside and then sneaking up on them with sudden strong winds and a white-out. The latter is exactly what happened to us today, and despite how many times it has happened before we always fall for it - the wind calms, we are happy to get out, everything looks nice, and then BAM! A heavy curtain of blowing snow moves in, the wind sneaks up from the south, the sea surface gets whipped up into a frenzied foam, and we face a 1km uphill hike back to the hut.

The lull was this morning. We woke up to semi-clear skies and good visibility so we went out, completely ignoring the barometer, which was rapidly dropping. I checked some nests and then headed over to the western end of the colony to help Grant tag some chicks. There was some wind, but it was workable. When we finished I looked up and saw the dried carcass of a South Polar skua (about the size of a gull) partially airborne and tumbling towards the ocean, and noted a few snow devils forming by the shore and swirling into the steely sea. We went our separate ways for a bit and by the time we decided it was time to go home we could barely see each other across the snowfield. I waited for Grant to join me, we donned our goggles and balaclavas, and started uphill.

With only about 10 feet of visibility and 50-60 mph winds we followed the rocks, or, rather, I followed Grant who apparently knew where he was going. I held onto the end of his pack while he led us along the boundary between rock and snow, which we knew would eventually lead us to the hut area. There were no landmarks to be seen - all was white and all looked completely flat. Only rocks, snow, and the occasional patch of blue ice indicating that we were below the rocks, where snow melts and refreezes into the sheer blue stuff. I watched my feet over the sastrugi but often failed to see a sudden drop-off because I had no depth-perception.

It was an incredible hour. I trusted Grant completely but still could not help but imagine all kinds of bad scenarios - losing the rock boundary (our only guide), heading uphill but in the wrong direction, overshooting the hut, the wind rising to 100 mph...the list goes on. Knowing that you have such little room for error definitely gets your adrenaline flowing. We stopped frequently, usually as a result of me, out of breath and needing reassurance, tugging on Grant's arm. "Grant, do you know where we are?!," "Absolutely! I know this rock. 20 more minutes and we'll be at the hut!" he yelled, though still barely audible over the loud wind, while pointing at a dark spot emerging from the wall of blowing snow. The hut, a tiny speck of bliss, was so distant and small that being in it didn’t even enter into my realm of possibilities. At one point we had to leave the line of rocks and head across a snow field to the next patch of rocks, and I was reminded of the first time I went diving and let go of the end of the rope and let my body slip into the deep blue waters beneath.

Needless to say we made it home safe and sound, welcomed by Valère and Amélie with hot tea and the smell of new year's dinner on the way. My experiences on this continent are so shockingly contradictory at moment I am diving in a hostile sea of wind and blowing snow, and the next I am sipping wine, eating duck-pistachio pate from France, and sending emails from a warm hut.”

Monday, January 01, 2007

It's 2007!

The new year slipped in almost unnoticed. Midnight caught us by surprise, and shortly afterwards, before most of the rest of the world has even begun the new year's festivities (we're at GMT +13, just west of the International Date Line), Valere mixed us delicious rum-lemon-sugar drinks while the wind howled outside. We shared our resolutions for the coming year and now we're getting ready for sleep, which will require getting into our extreme weather clothing, diving into the wall of wind and blowing snow surrounding the hut, and laboring our way to our respective Scott tents for the night.

Happy new year from this frozen world!

Creched chicks

Valere hiking home from the colony in the storm (photo by Amelie Lescroel)