Snow School

The wind shifted direction during the night. Woke this morning to the sort of white-out one rarely experiences — in the midwestern plains, they’d call it an Alberta Clipper. Since the wind was coming in from the ice-shelf and the sea beyond, maybe I should call it a Ross Sound Ripper? The curtains on our sealed double-pane window were actualy fluttering inside… As I left my dorm, the wind tried to launch me into the air as it blew through the open-metal stairway. No lift-off, but thrilling.

The head NSF Rep stopped by our office this morning, to visit – Dave Bresnahan. We talked about the age of the heroic explorers — he recommended a book on “management styles” called Shackleton’s Way. His daughter is studying poetry so Dave was rather interested in my project — said his wife was a bit concerned that a writing degree wasn’t very practical, but said he feels that if someone knows how to express themselves and communicate, they can only succeed in life. I like Dave’s line of thinking!

About this time, George Steinmetz decided that a white-out would be perfect weather for photographing Scott’s famous Discovery hut, located just out of town, so Lars Abromeit and I went along his him. (Last weekend Lars climbed Observation Hill above McMurdo — his images are posted here on the website of the German magazine GEO.)

A short walk to Discovery: your lips freeze while sweat runs down your spine. George grumbled that the weather had “cleared too much” by the time we got out there, but I thought it was still impressive. The road to the ice runway was still drifted shut – no flights again today. Thin white spin-drifts moved in parallel lines over the open patches of the black (volcanic rock) landscape – a living topographic map, tracing its own contours. Details that drew my eye included the original iron hinges on the hut door, cracked sea ice in the bay just past the hut, volcanic pebbles big as garbanzo beans being wind-blown like so much dust over the ridge, and a seal carcas that still lies stacked beside the hut in sheltered pile of long-frozen supplies left behind by the Scott party. Before leaving, we hiked up to Vince’s cross, a marker on a rough point just past Scott’s hut, from which crewman George Vince slipped to his death in 1902. I made it a point not to slip, especially considering the muscular gusts of wind. “Brisk,” I told George. “It’s a leaner,” he said, referring to the strange angle of our bodies. I joked that Lars and I had made a pact — if George died on the walk back, we’d leave his body and save ourselves. George accepted this news very well. “My camera,” he said. “Just save my camera.”

Last night McMurdo station’s screened Four to the Pole: The American Women’s Expedition (AWE) to Antarctia.” The movie was introduced by a small wiry woman I’d seen earlier in the day, checking out gear at the Berg Field Center — turned out she was none other than Anne Del Vera, one of the 4 women on the 1992 AWE expedition (the others were Sunniva Sorby, Ann Bancroft, and Sue Giller). Since I know Ann Bancroft personally, I really enjoyed seeing this film, which documents their preparation, methods and struggles, intersplicing video footage shot on the trek with interviews and footage shot in Minnesota. I should mention that a big crowd – maybe 150? – assembled for movie night.

Strangely, the film also includes clips of the British explorer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, describing his own Antarctic expedition (same time/route) with Dr. Mike Stroud, during which they intentionally “starved” themselves to document the physiological effects on their bodies. Yikes. Sir Ranulph, you may recall, also led the expedition to locate the lost city of Ubar, and a famous first-polar-circumnaviation expedition. The psychological contrast between Fienne’s expedition and the AWE expedition was striking. Anne Del Vera summed it up as “to conquer versus experience.”

When I try to imagine the rich, raw experiences garnered by members of AWE, my own time in Antarctica feels like a day-spa trip to a ski resort. Nevertheless: I have the 2-day Field Safety Training Program (FSTP) Snow School course tomorrow, starting at 9 am in full extreme weather gear. Happy Camper school, as every calls it. “Part of this course is spending a night outdoors…getting a genuine taste of the Antarctic field. It is intended to better prepare you for working out in the environment…and the potential, unexpected experience of getting caught out in it.” George said it was 25 degrees below zero when he went through Snow School.

Tomorrow night, regardless of conditions, I sleep outside in Antarctica.

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