Today I took a long hike to Cape Bernacchi. According to the “waypoint” in Sam Bowser’s GPS unit (waypoints = saved GPS coordinates), the old Cape Bernacchi diving hole, drilled earlier in the season with dynamite, is only 5 miles away — but that’s 5 miles as a Skua flies. It’s a bit further in reality, given the undulations of a rawboned coastline and the exceedingly mixed trail conditions of the sea ice. To make matters worse, I was “hiking” in my Bunny Boots.
ANTARCTIC FOOTWEAR POLICY: OPEN-TOED SANDALS NOT ALLOWED
In Antarctica, one’s official (“ECW-approved”) foot fashion options are limited. If you work in a support/labor job, you may be issued blue boots with your Carhartt overalls. The blue boots look like industrial snow-boots, and are made of a mystery material which is nearly indestructible. Blue boots have metal toes, reinforced for heavy workplace hazards. Mountaineers in the Field Safety group wear special mountaineering boots – totally rigid-walled boots much like walking in downhill ski-boots, except (they tell me) the tongues and ankles are well cushioned. The bottoms are covered in super-grip soft rubber, for traction on rocky surfaces.
For the rest of us, it’s white bunny boots. See example: Bunny Boots. For those who’ve never experienced the joy of bunny boots, let me describe their splendors. They are white, so as to blend in with the snow and look less ridiculous. They are rubber giants, with thick (maybe 2 inches?) insulated footwalls and soles, to keep feet from getting cold on the ice/snow/frozen ground below. Construction: white rubber (latex?), probably injection-molded somehow (no real seams – not even the tongues). Picture ivory Wellingtons, white rubber garden galoshes successfully cross-bred with boots built for astronauts. Moonwalk, Antarctica-style.
Based on my tests, their rubber is impervious to jagged clinkers and volcanic gravel (aka: walking surfaces of McMurdo), and also the ravages of salt-water. Avoid greasy/oily surfaces though, or you’ll be starring in your very own Ice-Capades Poetry Slam. They are difficult to maneuver in situations that require finesse – say, walking up a flight of dorm stairs (whoops!), getting into a tent (whoops!), climbing ladder rungs (whoops!), or pulling oneself into planes, helicopters and giant bulldozer-sized vehicles ((whoops! — all activities I’ve had to do while wearing bunny boots). They have rubber treads underneath, which provide more traction than first expected. Not form-fitting – not much arch or ankle support. The interiors are extra large to accommodate your feet, a friend’s feet, several packets of toe-warmers, a couple pairs of heavy socks, and even a pair of wicking liners.
Dry, one pair of bunny boots would weigh 6 lbs (we just weighed a pair to check, as I was typing this report). I say “dry” but bunny boots are never dry. They are designed to hold all the sweat your feet can produce — the underlying idea being that feet “get cold” due to evaporation and conduction, not just because your socks are damp. It’s like sealing your feet into super-thick ziplock baggies, or sticking your hands into latex gloves before putting on your mittens . Properly laced up, a pair of bunny boots will turn into a steam-sauna for the feet after about a half hour. My new pal Claire (poet/artist and dive tender for Sam Bowser’s team) says her New Zealand friends refer to bunny boots as her “platform shoes” (Disco Fever?).
Ben, an Eagle Scout who is the Boy Scout’s 2005 delegate to experience science in Antarctica, just informed me that bunny-boots were designed by Paul Siple. He knows this because Paul Siple (a now-famous Antarctican) was the Eagle Scout who accompanied the first Byrd expedition to the Antarctic in 1928-30. Ben is carrying on the tradition that was first begun by Siple. Ben is also on a semester-leave, from his engineering studies at M.I.T. – carrying on the Siple tradition in more ways than one, as I understand Siple was a talented researcher. Paul Siple is remembered as having co-developed the idea of WIND-CHILL measurement. His boots were apparently nicknamed bunny boots because of the layer of wool insulation in the boot sole/wall — the earlier models used fur.
White bunny boots worked adequately for my hike to Cape Bernacchi in the sense that I did not get frostbitten, wet or muddy along the way. My walk ranged from mud to briny slush to glacial sand/gravel shoreline (in which bunny boots are just about as good as bedroom slippers). The ice ranged from skins that were a half-inch thick (collapsing as I walked) — to sea-ice that was cerulean blue and 20 feet thick. The bunny-boots kept my feet quite toasty throughout. Progress was slow, however, especially when I hiked out into a wildly-frozen sea of waves and troughs and boils and uplifted sheets, heading into the harbor to view a grounded iceberg. Sometimes there are voids (airpockets, where the brine has leached away) between the sheets, and the boot breaks through and drops a foot or so. Small adrenaline rush, a few contusions on the shins. Often I had to crawl onto the next level on my hands and knees. I had no traction on the blue-ice, where it boils and bulges as if the surface was flash-frozen in the midst of a swell. The bunny boots would have worked much better if I’d had a pair of supplemental icy-grips, (wire/mesh grips worn over the soles). Alas, I was not assigned this lovely bit of gear.
Speaking of limping home, we hadn’t seen our little penguin visitor in 24 hours, and were afraid the skuas had claimed their prize. Several of the divers masked their concern with jokes about the approach of Thanksgiving and suggestions for stuffed penguin with oysters. (Insert harrumph here.) Turns out the little trooper made it quite a distance from our camp, half-limping and half-sliding, heading northerly along the coast. I discovered the strange track it left over 4 miles from camp, and I was filled with a strange joy. Like me, il penguino had decided a walk to Cape Bernacchi would be good. The shape of the trail showed it was still infirm, pushing with one leg, sliding sideways, righting itself with difficulty, foundering at cracks and hollows. Far away, Mount Erebus steamed into a perfectly blue sky. Glaciers hung like frozen teardrops from distant Cathedral Rocks, drops of milk spilling from the rim of the Royal Society bucket. South, the Bowers Piedmont and Blue Glaciers into McMurdo Sound, flowing away from their hills for at least 5 miles. I just hope our penguin found an open water hole somewhere, a lead that led down to a meal, underwater. I lost the trail, somewhere out on the wind-blown strand of the cape itself. Before I turned back, I passed two mated pairs of skuas, loudly guarding territory along the barrens of Bernacchi. If a limping penguin passed their way, I’m certain they noticed, too.