|Antarctica is Burning
Lake Bonney - November 13 (or 14th, it doesn't matter when there's no time) 2003
This didn't happen this way, not even close. If you were there, you're happy I'm writing it like this. If you weren't there, you don't know the difference, because all the feelings are the same. And that's what counts.
We're not ice.
It takes a couple of minutes to drop the thousand feet or so from the top of the Bonney Riegel to lake level. Climbing up or down is a relative "breeze". Time is suspended in Antarctica and in the field losing track of it is easier than a clock-adjusted northerner would think. Something you think will take you ten minutes takes an hour, and only feels like ten minutes. You walk from camp to the Bonney Riegel, which you can see plain as the nose on your face, and you get there in what you think is fifteen minutes. But your watch wants you to believe it took an hour.
So it takes us, what, ten minutes to get down? Or is it closer to an hour?
Who are you going to believe? Your brain, or a piece of machinery on your wrist?
I was supposed to helo in alone, but even though I could point out the cam location to Francis from camp, rules were he was never to let anyone off alone. And it was all I could do to convince him not to drop off the survival kits, because I didn't want to sit up there with them for four hours, and they were too heavy to drag the three miles back to camp. Couldn't he just drop the cam, and me, and fly away?
The answer was that Brad and the one of the limno students were coming with me. So they did. We deployed. I made the appropriate radio checks and Francis left us on the Riegel. We got the cam deployed and started down. Brad went on ahead, wanting to veer off to check out some of the ventifacts up by the Hughes glacier.
He took one of the radios and headed off. The student and I radioed camp for help. Scott was there checking out the cam signals, and after he gave us a 5 by 5 report, he ran out and tied a banana sled to a snow machine and struck out over the frozen lake to pick us up. Unfortunately, he was not as proficient as the boy scout at tying knots, and so the rope tied to the sled got tangled around the snowmobile tread, disabling the machine and ending our prospects for a ride back to camp. So we put on our stabilicers and trudged up the frozen lake, toward camp.
As the student and I walked, we got to know each other better. He was a biologist from Iowa specializing in certain single-celled animals, some of which had been known to grow in the frozen lakes in Antarctica. He was a master's candidate, and so the junior member of the team of post docs.
First season on the ice. Twenty four years old.
He was finding it difficult. The landscape was breathtaking and the opportunity too good to pass up, but the pace of the work was non-stop. There was little time to think, and when he had time to think, he was having trouble thinking.
"You hear about T3?" I asked him, and he said he had. "Eventually you just get down to a routine. Do simple things. Get comfortable with slowing down. It's okay you don't get the entire plan finished. You're with pros. They're going to do their best to keep you busy to keep your mind occupied. Being bored out here is--well--if you CAN be bored out here it's pretty miserable."
"It's impossible to be bored out here. It's so goddamned intense all the time. And when it's not intense cold or wind or work, it's the people. It's like, nobody down here's satisfied letting things get calm. They have to make it crazy."
"Like the parties, you mean?" I asked him. And he said "yes," unconvincingly.
"How much do you--well--how many times you been down here?" he asked.
"This is my third season. But I'm only down for a month each time. You guys are here for three. You see more than me, probably."
"But you know what I'm talking about."
"I know what you're talking about, sort of. It's different for everybody."
"We all see things differently, I mean."
"But the same things happen. There's not a whole lot that can go on. It's all the same, if you think about it."
"Ok. Well, sure. What are we talking about now, exactly?" And I asked him that question in as true an ice man fashion I could muster. Because I knew exactly what he meant, but I wanted to leave him an out, if he wanted to change the subject without seeming awkward.
The air was still in the valleys that day. The sky cloudless blue. Sunshine streaming radioactively through an ozone free sky so that it felt warm to hike the lakeside. The sound of our footsteps was the only thing louder than our breathing so that if we had stopped we'd hear the blood coursing through our ears.
In all this serenity, in all that immensity, we humans choose to place paramount importance on each other, rather than the sky and the ice. That's what it means to be an ice person. To live in a deadly, rarified environment and know the spark of life in another human is more valuable than the mountains themselves.
"I met this woman at the Halloween party. Were you there?"
"Sure," I said. "Show you pictures when we get back. I have some great ones."
"So you know what I'm talking about. You've been here before. You're like, we'll I mean you've done this stuff."
"What stuff are we talking about?" I had to ask again.
Oh, that kind of stuff. "Yeah. That's what I hear."
"Women aren't exactly shy back in town," he said.
"It can be a shock," I said. "Are you married?"
"Oh." And I said it in as understanding voice as I could muster without becoming Fred MacMurray or Hugh Beaumont. There is no place in Antarctica for Ozzie Nelson. I had learned to un-judge everything two years ago.
"How bout you? Married?"
"Yep. Had to remind a couple of people at the party. Myself, too. It can get weird."
"Weird. Tell me about it," he said.
We walked around a boulder that had been deposited by the glacier that formed the lake fifty thousand years before.
Finally, he asked, "You hook up with anyone?" And it was infinitely clear what cliff we were going to fall from, the trajectory of flight, where the broken bodies would be found next season.
I told him the truth, because he'd just told me his. I owed him, but I knew I couldn't save him unless he wanted to be saved.
Without hesitation: "But you know what I mean--right?"
"Well, I know what you mean, but--"
"But you've been here three times."
"It's not that I haven't thought about it, because believe me, you know the way it is. It gets really--"
"Exactly," I said.
"Goddamn," he said. Now walking a few feet further from me.
"But It's okay, man," I said. "I'm not going to say anything."
"I don't know what you think, but--"
"Who was it?" I asked him.
After another long silence he said, "I don't want to go into it."
We got close to the jamesway and he stopped. I hung with him for a while. Any closer and whoever was still inside would hear us in the great polar quiet.
"This is all I'm going to say about it, because I have to tell someone and they said I could trust you."
I shrugged, thankful someone thought I was a good companion.
"This place is so intense, I feel like it's burning me up. Like there's going to be nothing left when I get home. Nobody will recognize me."
"You love your fiancée?"
"I just want to go home," he said. "It's turning me into something here. You know what I mean, right?"
I couldn't give him what he wanted. The ice is absolute. It washes us away. In the bare de-ozonized sunlight the notion of right or wrong and what matters in the world is a feeble candle glow. All we have left is the self we brought encased in our bodies, our professions, the reflection of ourselves cast by our acquaintances in the world. The ice breaks our hearts, and in doing so, shows us that what we really are has little resemblance to the self image we harbor in our minds.
In the end, there is nobody to give an ice person absolution for the sins they feel they commit. The only true ice sins are those that endanger the lives of another ice person. Everything else is left as an exercise to the explorer. We have each to find a way to live with we've done when nothing mattered but the choice we made in the next second.
"Your teammates need you. You can't leave."
"They'll retro me if I make a big enough stink."
"What about the woman in town? How do you feel about her?"
He kicked a rock out over the lake ice. "I don't know how I feel anymore. You know what one of the RPSC people told me? She said, 'Everything that happens on the ice, stays on the ice--means nothing matters on the ice. Everything we do here is bullshit.' When did everything become bullshit?"
I said, "I don't know what's bullshit or what's not bullshit. I don't know what's what between you and your fiancée, because I just met you. But I know this--nothing's going to get from here to back home so it's all inside you. Ice people aren't going to talk to anybody. For better or worse, that's the code and people who break it don't get to come down anymore. So what happens next is entirely up to you. When the work is over you are going back home and when you get there, you're going to have your whole life ahead of you. You can decide that you're Satan incarnate and live the rest of your life in some version of self-loathing that would make the most puritanical of us proud. Or you can figure out how this bizarre, extreme, fucked-up environment is twisting your mind and cut it the hell out. You can't undo what you did but you don't have to do anything else now. Ok? Don't do anything else. Just stop and breathe. Just stop."
"Just like that?"
"You have a better idea?"
My little speech did nothing to improve his mood. He made a point of pushing past me even though there was an entire continent to move in.
As he opened the door to the jamesway he said, "This whole fucking place is screwed up. How come they don't tell us about this?"
"What would they say?" I said to the slamming door. "Welcome to hell?"
Then, "Enjoy your stay?"