Cape Armitage Loop
Someone at FSTP said the Cape Armitage Loop wasn't open yet this year. It made me remember this. I never wrote about it.
She says, "The great thing about primary colors is that they're so indivisible."
We're standing at the transition wearing our light ECWs and iPods. From the earbuds hanging around my neck I hear Laura Nyro's tinny voice singing about stealing her daddy's wine. Balancing my skis I step off the land and onto the ice.
The ice is all crunchy here. It's broken into blocks and there are cracks the size of human limbs waiting to swallow our feet. This place is called the transition because it's where the frozen sea meets dirt. Here the ice is a cataclysm of blocks and cracks and snowballs. It happens because even when covered with a thick layer of ice, the sea is in constant motion. It still rises and falls with the tides some 3 feet per day. The ice in the middle of the sound remains intact, but the stuff by the land gets trashed because the dirt doesn't move and the ice grinds away at it and is stuck to it at the edges. It cracks up with the tides and wave action.
About twenty meters out I'm past the cracks and blocks of the transition and onto the smooth sea ice surface. Out here it's like an ungroomed hockey rink. Run a Zamboni over it and you could skate on sea ice. As we're always at least one Zamboni shy, everyone walks or skis. After work, one of the few places we're allowed to go unescorted and without a firehouse checkout is to the the Kiwi's Scott Base along the Cape Armitage trail. You can walk an actual distance alone. Sort of.
Near the ice runway we're passed by a steady stream of USAP logo-emblazoned trucks and heavy equipment.
Looking toward the opposite coast I say, "The great thing about the Royal Society Range is that it's so mountainous."
"I'm not sure I agree," she says, stops. Slides her feet into her skis and slides off toward Mount Discovery. If I was that volcano I'd think about erupting now, just to show some lava. To show her I could. A couple million years being quiet. One last impressive display.
I've never been cross-country skiing before. I'm used to stepping into bindings and sliding off somewhere under the pull of gravity. This is something different. I catch up to her and my feet slip out from under me. This is not going to be a show-off volcano day.
In an attempt of obscene futility I rotate to avoid falling squarely on my ass. Thus, I fall on my hip bone, which reminds me that ice differs from snow in density and firmness.
"That's gonna leave a mark," I mutter. She smirks.
She says, "The great thing about ice is it's so glacial."
I struggle to my feet. I say, "The great thing about a broken hip is it's so geriatric," wishing for a moment I'd continued listening to Laura Nyro.
"I disagree," she says. Waits.
"The great thing about skiing with you is it's so humiliating."
"For you," she says. "I can understand it." She takes off and I realize my error.
"The great thing about skiing with you is the falling," I say, and my right ski gets stuck in a snowmachine track. That leg goes splaying off to the right in while my left leg continues on toward Cape Armitage. I fall again. Same stupid twist. Same hip. Two-hundred pounds crashing onto concrete-hard McMurdo Sound. This is first-year ice. Last year the icebreaker cut a path where we're skiing and this spot had the chance to refreeze. First-year ice is hard and brittle. Ice gets softer and more pliable the older and less saline it becomes. We're not allowed on the older ice because it's full of big cracks and seal holes.
My glutials would probably take the impact better than my bone, but I'm more afraid of not being able to sit in the coffee house than being airlifted to CHCH with a broken pelvis.
Antarctica has a way of rearranging our priorities like that. As I manage to my feet I wonder if my near future will agree skiing to Scott Base was a good idea. There's going to be a great deal of pain.
"The great thing about being out here is seeing Erebus," she says when I catch up again.
I feel my pockets. Empty. This was supposed to be a short 30 minute jaunt. Instead it's a day-long fantasia of self-destruction.
"The great thing about skiing in the Antarctic is the incredible dehydration."
"I agree," she says, handing over her water bottle. I take a swig that's far too small to be meaningful, but too much to be taking from someone 50 pounds lighter and infinitely more prepared. People like me are expected to expire on the ice. Survival is denied.
"The great thing about Antarctic summers is they're so cold," she says.
"Wait. That's too simple," I say. "Can we just stop this game?"
"You giving up? We can stop if you forfeit."
"I think 'cold' is a forfeit. It took all the imagination of like, three brain cells."
"Your turn," she says, and skis off.
Around my neck Laura has gone silent. There's going to be no escape from the falling and endless mockery. It could be worse, I suppose. I could be in the Navy in the 60's. Then they'd subject me to gruesome packings resulting in frostbite and hypothermia. This skiing takes time. Time. Destination is irrelevant. We're here to enjoy being somewhere you can't get to on a city bus. I try to go zen. I try not to think. Press on. Inch by inch. Foot by foot.
My gloves and hat fill with sweat. When I take them off, my fingers promply go numb and my head feels like I'm roasting on a barbecue pit. Put them back and I'm too hot. What'd they say in happy camper? Remove layers. But I don't have so many layers because we were only supposed to be going a short distance, what with me being a first-timer and all.
Through massive exertion I manage to accomplish in a few minutes what a skilled skier would have been able to do in seconds without an elevated heart rate. I pull up behind her.
I say the first thing that comes into my mind. "The great thing about you is your obsequious brutality."
She stops. "My what?"
"You forfeit?" I pull up beside her, my legs filled with fuming lactic acid. As soon as I stop, I begin to freeze.
"That doesn't mean anything. Obsequious brutality."
"Sure it does. It's like passive-aggressive."
She takes a slug of water from her bottle and puts it back, making sure I've seen it. "Then I think I win," she says, and skis off.
I think about heading back to McMurdo. Scott Base is about two miles off to the right on Ross Island. We're heading toward White Island. In about two days our corpses will arrive and promptly mummify. We're probably on the wrong ice road, but I can't be sure. I've never done this before.
And how can there be a wrong ice road? It's the same flat white in all directions.
A truck passes me and pulls up beside her. The driver rolls down his window and when I get close I can hear him explaining the route and pointing back in the direction we came. He drives off. She looks at me, says,
"You lose," I say.
"No, I mean the cutoff was back there, I missed it."
"And I mean, you lose," I say. She narrows her eyes, does a one-eighty, and skis back the way we came.
Once again I manage to catch up and I'm sure my life is shortening with every ski stroke. I'm using energy I'm going to need trying to stay alive on my death bed.
I say, "The great thing about skiing in Antarctica with you is I get to watch your ass."
She turns, smirks. "You going to keep up or are we going to have to send a SAR team after you?"
I shout toward her back, "You lose," and then the pain resumes.
She makes her reply without turning toward me.
I'm not sure what she says, but I'm pretty sure she thinks she's won.