The plateau

December 3rd, 2002

Everything happens for a reason, they say. So it is true that of the most magnificent hike I have ever taken I have no pictures to show you. I left my camera in the jamesway because I thought we were going somewhere I'd already been. Then I thought about it several times as I was walking and decided it must be some divine intervention that requires me to use my own powers of description to bring you to that place. Because it was felt as much as seen. And I realized that I could take hundreds of pictures of it, and you wouldn't understand that standing where I did seemed to connect me to times long before humanity, and times long after.

The ridge above Lake Bonney is roughly 1000ft high. Like most hills in this area, geologists call it a terminal moraine. It's the detritus left over when the glaciers melted.

See, this whole valley was one huge glacier at one point, or so the scientists theorize. When that mammouth city of ice melted, it left behind mountains of boulders and crumbled stone. And so what you have are huge "dunes" of sandy soil impregnated with loose rock the ranging from the size of your hand to the size of a small car..

At the top of the hill the big stones stand out like teeth in the wind. Over tens of thousands of years they have been moulded by wind-borne sands into smooth contours that make them seem like modern art. They're like blobs of clay that have been randomly poked and squeezed by a child, then fired hard. They're called "ventifact" stones.

I'd gone up to a garden of ventifacts with the editor of the Antarctic Sun, the NSF sponsored newspaper in McMurdo. She'd never been here, so wanted to see them. We got up to the ones I knew when our camp manager appeared at the ridge line and motioned for us to follow her.

We followed the mountain top to where it formed a plateau. And on that massive table were rocks so hollowed underneath by the wind they now stood on two or three "legs". One rock, the size of a large truck, was perched on a single thin stalk of rock so that it seems to be a square mushroom with a round trunk.

In the midst of these magnificent stones were two tiny frozen lakes, no larger than the playground in a small park. These were perfectly smooth, and in the middle of one, a giant ventifact rose like a monument to the spirit of that frozen body.

The lake on the plateau is ringed by jagged, ice-torn peaks thousands of meters high. Between two peaks, in the distance, the Taylor glacer plows a path over the land from the polar plateau.

The day was clear and cool. A bitter breeze rushed past us from the east. We stood in the center of the lake listening to the wind and as difficult as it is to describe, I need to tell you it felt ancient. Like standing in stonehenge, or before the pyramids.

Like nothing any of us would last as long. Least of all, us.

From the lakes we moved to an area covered in tiny stones of bright red spongy pumice. The pumice littered the side of a mountain and had spilled from the hillside hundreds of meters above covering the landscape so that it seemed to be carpeted in smooth red. And as if dropped in from above, five home-sized ventifact rocks broke the thin red horizon, huge and solitary. Like God was saying--these are special.

We walked for nearly a mile across this bright red martian plain, and coming to the first ventifact, circled it reverently.

You know, maybe it's way too much anthropomorphizing for one man. Maybe the stark beauty of a place like that does something to you. Maybe when you find yourself in a landscape so outrageously alien, your mind fills the inevitable gaps in cognition with legends and parables.

There are no people indigenous to Antarctica. If there were, they would inevitably come to a place like that and feel part of the great eternity from which all things arise.

I swear, though, on everything and anything I own or will ever imagine

those stones talk.