Blue ice on another planet

November 27th, 2002

Sitting in the jamesway at Lake Fryxell. The limno team has gone out to try to extricate one of their sensors from the ice. The thing got warm, an Antarctic sin. It melted through the top layers of eighteen feet of ice. Theyve got chippers and steam. All four of them out there hacking and chopping.

I heloed in with Barry and Jennifer, whom I met last year. We first set down at the polar haven on the lake itself. Then Barry brought me over to the beach and let me out. Im to try to get the network up. Then Im hiking back to Lake Hoare. In theory, I was to stay here the night and hike with the limnologists over the glacier tomorrow. But that doesnt seem to be.

Its five miles over ancient beaches, frozen lakes, and fields of ice fallen from glacier faces. Nothing else to do today. I guess.

Despite what they told me at the Puzzle Palace, the network isnt working. My access point is not associating with Mt. Hjorth and Im sitting here listening to tunes, typing into Microsoft Word, trying to figure out how to get the antenna to the top of the jamesway.

Maybe it would work if I had the thing on a tower. A pole.

Temps outside about 10F. No wind. No clouds. Brilliant sun. Im slathered with sunscreen. Writing this with a nearly dead battery, generator humming in the background. Soon it runs out of gas and I start hiking back.

They say the weather will be bad tomorrow. Tomorrow the camp manager has her official Thanksgivingthe actual Thursday of Thanksgiving in the U.S. McMurdo will celebrate on Saturday, which is actually Friday in the States.

This morning I woke up in a bit of a funk. When I crawled into my sleeping bag I was warm, so I didnt put on a hat. When I woke up I had a sore throat and was just on the brink of shivering cold. That triggered an emotion similar to panicsort of what you get when you step into a totally frigid shower. Only this shower was the size of a continent.

I kept myself calm. Got dressed. Hiked over to the hut and had a warm cup of tea. The world looked better immediately.

I thought of myself as a kid, getting out of a swimming pool in the summer after having stayed in too long, lips blue, shivering, a towel wrapped around me, standing on warm pavement.

My surroundings. The jamesway is that Korean War-era Quonset-hut of a building. The walls are made of canvas stuffed with something like kapok, the stuff they used to fill life preservers with. Its draped on wooden arches and spars painted olive drab. The flooring is sanded plywood. Its elevated about 4 above the ground.

There are a number of folding tables in herea bench someone made from plywood and a piece of rubberized foam about 1-inch thick that serves as padding. Metal folding chairs. About 30 bottles of liquor and Margarita mix. Shelving made from plywood holding some food supplies, private items like post cards and personalized coffee mugs. A refrigerator. Aluminum pots. Some fruit. Random cold weather gear. Christmas decorations. Radio equipment.

My handie-talkie is on a table in front of me. Barry flew back to Hoare to retrieve it for me when mine stopped working.

That isBarry dropped me off in the A-star, flew back over the glacier to Hoare, picked up another radio, and then flew back here to give it to me.

This is how helicopter pilots wind up the most popular people in Antarctica. Basically, they save your life when things go wrong. Should I go out and get in trouble on this three-hour walk home, that radio is my lifeline. Barry couldnt leave me here without it, and he wasnt going to insist I go back home.

So now I owe him a big favor.

Im wearing three layers of capilene. A The North Face fleece vest, long underwear, and the famous McMurdo many-pockets pants. My new hiking boots. I have my red parka, fleece hat, thick gloves, and camera. Plus Im carrying all this network gear. Brought two of those really tasty Cadbury bars for the walk back to Lake Hoare.

Getting cold sitting here typing. The radio is still not associating, the generator seems to be dying, and everyone is still out on the lake.

Right now, my biggest concern is that I slip on the ice crossing Lake Hoare and land right on this very laptop.

Got the network stuff running at the last minute. Huzzah! (As they said on the Terra Nova.) Then Tim called from the stream team (the folks who read glacier outflowthere isnt any now, its too damned cold) and said hed meet me at Green Stream, also known as F9. They gave me a GPS point, but as I didnt have a GPS it did no good. I left the jamesway and started walking south west.

The temps was about 0F with a light breeze, thankfully to my back. After about an hour I realized I had to cross Lake Fryxell, so I put on my stabalcers (sic), which are basically beach shoes with screws in them so the heads are exposed. They give you additional grip on the ice.

I velcroed them to my boots and walked across the lake.

Stepping onto ten feet of solid, transparent ice is an interesting experience for a northerner. Im used to having the ice groan and crack under my weight. This did no such thing. It was as clear and as hard as the ice cube in a rocks glass, and I could see all the way to the bottom.

In places, the ice was bright blue.

I crossed the lake and climbed the nearest hill. From there I took out my radio and called my friends. They could see my red parka from a distance, but I couldnt see them.

After about a half an hour I saw them crossing the lake. We met up and found their stream gauge which was in an arroyo, now completely dry because there is no liquid water on the surface.

It took them an hour to service the gauge, during which time I was reminded that standing still in a small breeze at 0 degrees farenheit is freaking cold no matter what you wear. And I was wearing three layers of capaline, my fleece vest, and my big red parka.

I figured it would be better to stay with them than to trek on alone so I crouched down in the lee of the big wooden crate that encloses their gauge, and ate a couple of candy bars.

At about the point I would have started shivering, they announced they were done and we started walking. I warmed up immediately, so much so that I started sweating and actually had to take off my hat and open my parka.

So let this be a lesson to all us who need to warm up in cold weather. Sometimes walking is enough.

There is no hike through the Taylor Valley that isnt dramatic. You simultaneously feel you're on another planet and reminded of the grandeur of our own earth. We checked in with camp (if we didnt return in two hours, they'd send the helos out for us), and hiked the remaining five miles.

We returned to a full house at Lake Hoare. There are 18 people here now, and bound to be more for our official Thanksgiving tomorrow.