The Blue Ice

December 14th, 2001

"We spend all of our lives, going out of our minds.
Looking back to our births, forward to our demise.
Even scientists say, everything is just light.
Not created or destroyed,
But eternally bright."
- Live

Someone told me the ice got into your boots. Metaphors being what they are I have my own. Ice in my boots would become just plain uncomfortable. The glacier ice courses through me and becomes me. Now I know why you're an ice person after Antarctica. It's infectious but the disease can only be contracted from the source: the blue ice itself. Drink the ice. Eat the ice. Sleep on the ice. The wind carries it in great clouds. It forms on the coyote fur that lines your parka hood. When you breathe, it condenses out of the air expelled from lungs.

Antarctica is about intensity. Intense cold. Intense activity. Intense people. Upon return you're thrust into a world that doesn't know that continuous intensity and so everything seems smaller somehow, more irrelevant, less important. The people who care for you give you 15 minutes to listen to your stories, then they need to get back into line or someone else will get their Whopper with cheese first. The people who love you want you to stop. They want you to come back to reading newspapers and watching the news.

But you can't, and when no one will listen anymore all you can do is to seek out other ice people and rehash.I wonder if that's why John Carpenter's "The Thing" is one of the most popular movies on the ice--not because it's set there, but because in an extreme way it represents what happens to all of us.

Someone who looks like us goes home.

"Ice schmice. It's time to come back now," said one of my family. "Home is where the heart is," said another. They were all afraid I would never come back. I'd go AWOL before the Herc flight home. I'd fall off Ob Hill, or slip through the sea ice off Hut Point. Reading my journal entries had brought them to the brink. Sooner or later I'd forget them or be killed.

At snow school, after our night on the ice, the instructors came back and took a poll. We sat on sawn blocks, now perfectly comfortable to spend the rest of our lives outdoors in the white, and he asked us how our night went. Scale from one to ten. Ten = weekend in Tahiti in a hammock, One = An Evening with Dante.

Most in my group gave it a 6 or a 7. Nothing overly fantastic, but better than staying at home and watching reruns of "Three's Company".

The instructor said our answers were par for the course. We'd had reasonable weather. Light winds, high temps. They tended to get nines and tens when the weather deteriorated to Condition 2 or Condition 1 (which Brennan called "Condition Fun"). People wanted the stress. They wanted to be challenged by the environment--not just endure it. Martin from the McMurdo writer's group told me he thought Antarcticans sought that: "Uh oh, I'm hosed," feeling. When they didn't get it, they were disappointed.

I'd had that feeling several times during my trip. The first was when I climbed Ob Hill alone and couldn't find the obvious way down. I had to jump off a rock and pray that memory served correctly and I wouldn't fall to my death--or worse--become crippled and unable to do anything other than a Titus Oates to save the NSF the trouble of redeploying the lifeless body. The second was when I learned what happens when you don't keep yourself hydrated. Both times only one factor overrode my fear or pain: If "they" find out about this, I might not get to stay. That's what it meant to be in the ice's grip.

And I still am. And did I consider going AWOL right before my Herc flight off the ice? You bet. What made me head for the bus instead of the hill? That feeling that I wouldn't ever be allowed back. That feeling that the most hosed I'd ever get is when I picked up a trash can with my back instead of my legs.

One evening at Lake Bonney the limno team had excused themselves for the night. They had to get up by 4:30 to get to their sampling location by 5AM, and so it had been an early evening. I was at my laptop composing a web page for all of you, and Bill was standing at the window. After a few moments I heard Bill say, "Look at this..." and his voice trailed off.

The expression on his face was interesting enough for me to stop my typing and take a look. Sabine, the volunteer, was standing motionless, staring at the glaciers falling from the mountains, her face aglow in sunlight, smiling. She had been at Lake Bonney for weeks, and on the ice for months. The mountains she saw had been there all along. The weather was no better than it ever had been. The visibility: standard Antarctic non-storm infinity. She must have seen those glaciers hundreds if not thousands of times before, many times each day.

Something made her stop just then and stare. Maybe it was the way the sun glanced from the rock or the thousands of fragments of shattered light flung from the glacier ice to the camp. It was as if she'd never seen the glacier before.

"It never gets old, does it?" Bill said.

When Bill asked me the question I'd just finished spending 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?

There were only my hands on the keyboard, my feet on the Jamesway floorboards. At the end the only person I could either blame or praise was the one who owned the lungs I happened to be using. When I realized that everything changed.

If I let it get old I didn't deserve to be there, or anywhere. Some people are lucky and they figure it out without drama. I needed to lose myself on the ice. Maybe I wasn't so lucky. Or maybe I was the luckiest person alive. Did it really matter?

All that mattered was that I was thankful enough.

"I looked up at the tallest building.
Felt it falling down.
I could feel my balance shifting.
Everything was moving around.
These streets so fixed and solid,
How they shimmered in the haze.
Then everything I relied on, disappeared.

Downside up, upside down.
Take my weight off the ground.
Falling deep in the sky.
Slipping into the unknown."

- Peter Gabriel, OVO