Wednesday, December 26, 2007

How Google Saved The Day In Antarctica

It's been a busy week! Last week we had a second storm that kept us in for a day, and we've been playing endless catchup whenever we get a day down in the colony. Yesterday we hiked to the stone igloo, the only remaining testament to the aptly titled mid-winter journey from "The Worst Journey in The World," the tale of Robert Falcon Scott's last expedition to Antarctica in 1911. During their first winter three men (Edward Wilson, Birdie Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote the book) set out to Cape Crozier on foot and sledge, a 70 mile journey in the dark. They endured extreme cold, frost-bite, starvation, and near-death so they could be the first to collect emperor penguin eggs from the colony at Cape Crozier. The "igloo" looks more like a ring of rocks filled with the tatters of the nearly failed expedition: penguin parts, shreds of canvas, wind-worn wool clothing, a test tube, rope, and rusted tin cans, all perfectly preserved by the Antarctic cold.

We hiked under a perfect blue sky for 2 hours. As we rose over the last knoll we noticed that a heavy fog lay ahead, concealing the spur of rocks where the three men chose to build their makeshift shelter. We were soon distracted by a multitude of rare green lichens thriving in the lee of rocks and cracks, and by the time we looked up again the fog had erased all landmarks. We walked in circles for a couple of hours but finally decided we had no idea where the igloo was when we ventured onto a snowfield and found ourselves completely suspended in white, no rocks in sight, the sky and snow merged into unified white flatness, our jackets, hats, and hair outlined in hoarfrost. Fortunately we had GPS units and a satellite phone. We needed to call someone with good computer skills and access to Google. Hugh rang up a friend and dictated the Google search terms over the shaky, time-delayed connection: "stone," "igloo," "crozier," "aspa" (for Antarctic Specially Protected Area), and "gps coordinates." Within seconds she found the prized numbers, we plugged them into Grant's GPS unit, and the five of us trudged towards our invisible goal with renewed confidence. It was only 1,000 meters from where we had made the call. Wandering in the all-concealing fog was probably not unlike what Wilson, Bowers, and Cherry-Garrard had to deal with when navigating in the dark, but we were blessed with considerably warmer temperatures and some very handy technological gadgets.

We got home at 11:30 PM. Kirsten cooked a quick, delicious dinner, and then I was so completely exhausted that I forgot to call my family in Italy, who at that same hour were just gathering for their Christmas appetizers of freshly baked focaccia, local cheeses, and salame.

Chris and Hugh are scheduled to leave today. They've been documenting their week at Cape Crozier each day with great stories and photos. Check it out here (see December 19-25).

The fog that lay ahead. Igloo spur is to the right of and below the Knoll, which rises above the fog.

Usnea and Umbilicaria, the lichens that swayed us from our path.

Chris, Hugh and Grant in the fog.

Hugh and Grant at the stone igloo.

Tattered remnants in the igloo: an emperor penguin skin, shreds of green faded canvas, an old box.


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