On the empty surface of the East Antarctic ice cap, about 680 miles from the South Pole, I kneeled inside a fluttering tent to fiddle with the HF radio dial. It was mid-December of 2000, peak summer in the heart of the Earth’s austral region. Our thermometer stretched toward a balmy 15°F as the sun spun elliptically overhead like a child’s flashlight.
After several days in camp, I was finally starting to relax. I’d been out in the middle of this bright white nowhere before, but I’d never been in charge. This time I’d taken on the responsibility to build and maintain an Antarctic field camp, a line of work that punishes even small mistakes. While we were unlikely to fall into crevasses, develop scurvy, or freeze to death, I had no desire to radio the authorities at McMurdo Station and request a special flight to bring out a forgotten can opener.
As it turned out, I had brought the can opener, had not yet killed myself or my assistant, Ryan, and for a little break after supper had turned to the mysteries of the High Frequency (HF) radio. The radio was our only link with the world. While I used it daily to make comms with McMurdo Station (the hub of American activity in Antarctica), I used only 7.995, one of our preset channels; it was the other 99.9 percent of the spectrum I was prepared to explore. I planned my whole “evening” (remember: the sun does not set in a polar summer) around dialing through the tones, whines, and static.
In less than a minute, however, I disturbed the silence of our 5.1 million square mile jobsite by picking up, at random, James Brown belting out “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”
Even on this lunar ice cap, the air swirls with radio waves. I have no idea from which continent the broadcast came. All around me was the cultural absence of East Antarctica, yet here was American funk on an “African music” show on an English-language version of the German radio program Radio Deutsche Welle, and it was singing my song.
Come here Mama
And dig this crazy scene
I smiled and leaned back into my parka to listen.
I wasn’t supposed to be in charge of anything. I had been hired for my sixth Antarctic summer in the USAP (United States Antarctic Program) as an assistant skiway groomer for the AGO program. My three-person team would visit three of the remote Automated Geophysical Observatories on the ice domes of East Antarctica, update the experiments and groom a skiway (a runway on snow for planes on skis) for a flight that would deliver another year’s supply of fuel to the site.
We were originally a four-person team, but one of the engineers apparently became delusional (Communication during dreams, anyone? How about aliens on the ice cap?) and had his wings clipped before we flew together into the great white Antarctic oblivion.
Two weeks before I was grooving in the cook tent with Ryan to James Brown, before I’d met Ryan, during late afternoon food-packing for my second AGO trip, I was taken aside by Steve, the head of field science support, and asked if I’d like to lead my own small operation onto the ice cap.
“If you’re interested, Jason, I can pull you from your AGO team and let you loose on this. The job is to groom a short skiway — maybe 1500 feet — for a heavy Twin Otter, and recover several dozen airdropped fuel drums. The Otter has several weeks of survey flying to do. It needs a flat place to land next to that fuel. I’ll find you an assistant and give you flight support for a few days. You’ll be back in no time.”
“What about Joe and Bella? We’re already down one person.”
“I’ve talked with Joe. He’s okay with it. I’ll give him someone from Science Support to fill in for their next trip, and you can jump back in for the last one.”
I was torn between feelings of pure excitement and drop-to-my-knees panic. I decided on panic; Steve told me that I had less than 72 hours to put the Seismic Center trip together. I had to assemble a large but very specific heap of equipment, gear, and food. If I hadn’t learned from my friend Bella, as she patiently stitched together our first AGO trip several weeks before, I couldn’t have accepted the position. But with just enough confidence to keep my heart pumping, I abandoned Joe and Bella and the AGO program in mid-stride. I began to make my lists while walking to dinner.
This is what five years of Antarctic dreaming had built to: a small two-person trip up to 8000 feet, a flat white destination in hard cold, and an arcane task on the plane of abstraction. I had traveled thousands of miles, many times, from warmth to wonder, hoping to have a quiet front-row view of this great body of nothing, and suddenly it had arrived.
He’s not too fancy
But his line is pretty clean
The arc of my Antarctic story starts with moving around garbage and ends with pushing around snow. I began in 1994 as a McMurdo garbage man, and over several summers worked my way up to remote field work, making flat places for planes.
No matter what job we have, life in Antarctica is work; that’s why we’re there, and that’s what we do, six or seven days a week, about ten hours per day. Ostensibly, we’re all supporting a large science operation; in reality, most of the 1000+ jobs support the town (McMurdo) that supports a large science operation.
The USAP is like a collection of outposts on the moon; everything we eat, work with, or sleep on has been brought there by ship or plane from some other distant (warmer) continent. Antarctica supplies nothing but ice, stone and sky.
So with all of McMurdo’s warehouses and cargo yards full of stuff, it’s no surprise that many of us are employed simply to move stuff around. Whether it’s cases of beer for the bar, frozen peas for the kitchen, telescope assemblies for the South Pole, tents and camp stoves for field groups, or dumpsters full of construction debris, there’s a constant need for stuff management.
It doesn’t take long to get tired of trundling things around the gravel streets of McMurdo when you’ve come south to see Antarctica. But that’s the story for USAP employees; most are unable to leave the industrial comfort of the base for the exotic difficulties of the Antarctic emptiness.
From the day I arrived in 1994, I looked longingly from the windows of my forklift and dormitory out to the glacier-choked mountains and flat white horizons. Once I took a job fueling planes and helicopters in my second year, I began to take small trips outward, a day here, a week there. Finally, leaving the smell of diesel fuel behind me, I took on the AGO job to spend most of my summer grooming skiways in the heart of the Antarctic.
He ain’t no drag
Papa’s got a brand new bag
In less than 72 hours, Ryan and I found, packed, weighed and labeled 3700 pounds of stuff and stood ready to go. But McMurdo weather crapped out again, in the middle of an abysmal season for flying. Nearly half of the planned flights into the field during November and December had been cancelled by blizzard, fog or blowing snow.
While dark clouds crept across the coastal sky, Ryan and I had run around collecting equipment and food. I sent him off for bamboo poles and Coleman fuel while I looked over our skiway groomer; he got a crash course in snowmobile repair while I ordered fueling equipment and a drum of gasoline; we checked our tents and tested the HF radio together; he counted out oatmeal packets and freeze-dried meals while I wheedled Cadbury chocolate bars from Deb, my friend in charge of the Food Room.
Deb, who had worked off and on in McMurdo since the ‘80s, would be looking out for me. She was there when Steve offered me the Seismic job, and later laughed about my deer-in-the-headlights expression when I stuttered my Yes.
My lists multiplied, divided, were reduced and finally condensed to a last set of quiet errands that ranged from looking over the snowmobile tool kit to stopping by Deb’s for extra chocolate.
Ryan was quiet and rugged, a heavily-bearded guy from northern California who bore an odd resemblance to Herman Melville. He was one of the few people I met in the USAP with a genuine old-timey Antarctic personality — as if he’d sauntered out of a 1912 expedition photograph — though he was just 24 and new to Antarctica. A man of few words, Ryan liked wilderness and work. He spent his northern summers doing trail work in Wyoming, and was more than happy to be leaving McMurdo for Seismic. McMurdo, an industrial prefab anomaly on the Antarctic coast — populated by up to 1200 American workers and scientists who bustle between cafeteria, job, and dormitory — was far too frantic and cosmopolitan for his taste.
Ryan was a first-year G.A. (General Assistant, the USAP’s underpaid laborers) for the McMurdo carpenters, and this quick trip would be his big boondoggle for the summer. Our vacation was soon extended, however, as Steve told me that the self-serve gas station we would work had recently been upgraded to full-serve. We’d be staying on after the skiway and 76 fuel drums were laid out in order to keep an eye on the skies for the heavily-laden Twin Otter. Satellite images of the ice cap weren’t good enough for McMurdo weather forecasters to determine when the Otter could safely refuel at Seismic, and no other humans would be close enough to help.
Perhaps the key lesson I’d learned over the years, and especially from my AGO 1 journey (a six-day trip that turned into 16), was that Antarctica will always demand more from you than you suspect. Weather looks great? Plan for ground blizzards. Tents supposed to be in perfect shape? Set them up and look for holes. Going into the field for a maximum of a week? Bring food for two weeks, and add three days of emergency freeze-dried meals.
The name, Seismic Center, added an unreal sense of importance to the drop in the frozen ocean that would be our home. A science team had crammed what it called “an airborne geophysical platform” into the Twin Otter, which would be flying long transects near our camp. The plane carried, among other things, an ice-penetrating radar sounder, a laser altimeter, a gravimeter, and a magnetometer — all together about one and a half tons of delicate electronics designed to map the sub-ice surface of the continent. Transect data would be correlated with another researcher’s seismic project; our camp was near the center of the transects.
Odds are that no human had ever set foot on our spot, 80.15.90 South and 140.37.62 East, though it’s not far from Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1957 trailblazing tractor route to the South Pole. The original site chosen for the skiway was at the actual center of the planned transects, but when the LC-130 Hercules aircraft reached the coordinates to airdrop our fuel, a nasty swath of crevasses was found. So they shifted the site seven miles away, where Ryan and I wouldn’t have to worry about doing any unexpected investigations of the deep ice on our own.
Don’t play him cheap
Cause you know he ain’t shy
Peering out from small portholes a few days later, Ryan and I found ourselves passing over a fine china plate under a perfect blue bell of sky. We rode in a DC-3 modified for polar work. The DC-3 is a beautiful craft, with sharp lines in a distinct rake from its sharp nose down to its nearly dragging tail. The aircraft has roots here on the ice dating back to Operation Highjump in 1946, its ancestor the first plane to land at the Pole, in 1956. This was the first one used in the USAP in many years, and was, for some reason, painted a stark white. In perfect Antarctic camouflage, perfect for hiding from rescuers, it looked like a skinny, optimistic, terrestrial Moby Dick.
We landed some two miles away from the fuel drums, on a snow surface less carved up by wind. I expected the pilots to traverse the remaining distance with the plane, as Twin Otters regularly do, but no, they shut off the engines and wondered why we hadn’t started unpacking yet. The DC-3 has delicate skis, they said. So Ryan and the pilots dumped our stuff (snowmobile, fueling equipment, groomer, radio, food boxes, tool kits, sled, etc.), while I hastily set up an antenna and made radio contact with McMurdo.
The radio made me nervous. It would make me voice my responsibility for the very first time. Other field camps would hear me; I would be on display. At AGO 1, I avoided the radio completely; I knew from Ryan’s reluctance during our radio test that he would be doing the same at Seismic. I’d be doing this every morning, telling MacOps (McMurdo Operations) that we were alive and well.
Speak clearly and loudly, I remembered.
“MACOPS, MACOPS, THIS IS SEISMIC CENTER ON 7.995, HOW COPY, OVER?”
“Seismic Center, Seismic Center, we have you loud and clear, how us, over?”
“LOUD AND CLEAR, MACOPS.” My voice sunk into the ice cap while my thoughts picked up speed. “All is well here, MacOps. We have two souls in camp, though actually we haven’t set camp up yet. We have some traveling to do before we have shelter, but the weather is fine. I’ll call again when camp is up. Over.”
“Copy that, Jason. Weather is fine and you’ll call when you’re set up. Be careful out there. If nothing else, this is MacOps clear.”
“Seismic Center out.”
Twenty minutes after landing, the DC-3 roared to life and took to the sky. Protocol dictates that the plane should stay until we make shelter, but none of us were worried; the pilots wanted to go home, I had my fingers crossed, Ryan didn’t know better, and winds were calm under a cloudless sky. At AGO 1, however, Bella and I had been hit by a minor ground blizzard (strong winds and blowing snow, but no storm) half an hour after arrival.
A Texas-sized silence tried to settle over us as the blue sky snuffed out the DC-3, but after a few moments of staring around at emptiness, Ryan and I quietly and efficiently started building loads to drag behind the snowmobile. We clipped the groomer to the snowmobile, tied the sled to the groomer, and piled boxes on all of them. Within a few hours, we were settled into our new home.
We were 7000 feet above sea level, and the ice beneath us was a mere 3000 feet deep. Aside from the oppressed continent beneath the ice, the nearest stone was about 150 miles away, in the Transantarctic Mountains.
We set up camp – three tents and a snowblock windbreak for our open-air toilet – in the midst of a mile-long spread of black barrels, made up of 19 four-packs and their green parachutes. They lay at different angles of repose, most upside down or on their sides. The ragged line of half-buried objects resembled blocks from a fallen colossus, and our bright orange cook tent and blue/yellow sleep tents sat among them like nomads’ homes among the ruins of Ozymandias.
Most of Antarctica’s vastness looks like this: an undulating wind-rippled snow surface, stretching out toward every horizon. (Australia would fit snugly onto the uninterrupted snow plain of East Antarctica.) The sinuous waves of hard snow made by wind are called sastrugi. Most travelers across Antarctica’s wilderness of sastrugi have compared it to the ocean, suddenly frozen solid.
Another way of imagining it: Take a magnifying glass in one hand and hold a blank sheet of paper horizontally in the other. Approach the paper from the side; the textures of the paper, on close examination, resemble the ice cap as you drone over it in a plane.
He’s doing the Jerk
He’s doing the Fly
Like a smooth scar on old rough skin, our Seismic Center skiway interrupted the irregular snow surface. Shaped somewhat like a double-ended thermometer, with circular turnarounds for a plane at each end, a skiway might be described as a mundane Nazca line. We edged it with a line of flagged bamboo poles to distinguish it from the rest of the ice cap.
Luckily, the sastrugi were small and the snow surface was no more dense than old plaster. At AGO 1, I’d been thrown off the machine a few times while trying to rip up the very dense snow crust.
Ryan and I hooked the groomer to the snowmobile, set the teeth to rip up the top few inches of the crust, mowed it all in four-foot-wide swaths, then removed the teeth to level the whole thing with the groomer’s blade. By taking turns, we had a decent skiway completed at the end of our first full day.
But the electronics crammed into the Otter still had some bugs, and flights would be delayed. So just to seem serious about the job, we groomed the snow for two more days until it was flatter than the frost-warped McMurdo bowling alley.
Then we turned to the fuel drums. All but one of the 19 four-packs of barrels lay bundled on the surface. The other, which we saved for last, had fallen with a failed parachute. It had plunged so deep that we could see only the parachute cords disappearing like tree roots down into the snow.
Bad airdrops have plagued Antarctic operations since the construction of the first South Pole station back in 1956, when failed parachutes caused dozens of “stream-ins.” Housing sections, electronics, and whole 24-barrel pallets of fuel dropped like bombs. Steel beams bent, mail disappeared, and a cocktail of tomato juice and caustic soda sprayed across snow that was meant to be the station’s drinking water.
We shoveled our drinking water out of the ice cap about 100 feet away from the line of barrels, on the far side of camp from the skiway. We kept our snowmobile well away. Our “mine” of snow was as clean as any on the planet, though it’s a 21st-century purity tainted with the chemical detritus of an industry-flavored atmosphere.
The fuel barrel four-packs were cushioned on the bottom with two layers of honeycombed cardboard sandwiched between plywood. Everything fit into a harness attached to the parachute. Ryan and I worked quietly and pleasantly together – “You got that side?” “Yup; you ready? Okay, let’s go.” – as we loosened straps, tied up the broken wood, and squashed cardboard for removal as trash, and then dragged barrels one by one over to the skiway.
All that remained was some patient archaeology of the ruptured drums in the #19 four-pack. We followed the parachute cords down and shoveled out a pit of fuel-contaminated snow, and faced a decision: I could radio McMurdo for some open-top waste barrels to fill with a symbolic amount of smelly snow, or I could just haul the barrels out and refill the pit, shaking my head in regret. Much of the fuel would have worked its way many meters down to the firn layer (where snow becomes ice) or beyond.
Here was a reminder of the dark side of Antarctic camping. Although I might romanticize my place amid the white emptiness, it’s also true that as I sat there after work, sipping whiskey and scribbling into my notebooks, I was turning Seismic Center into just another white Antarctic spot that we darkened with our stuff. I’d become a point man – with Ryan as my apprentice – in the stretching of the human shadow over this immaculate surface. In the wake of our ubiquitous radio waves and atmospheric chemicals, I’d made my first black marks on the white canvas. While I can characterize this journey as the moment in which I fulfilled some dreams and took on some serious responsibility, I might also say that much of that responsibility lay in contaminating the place I loved.
He’s doing the Monkey
The Mashed Potatoes
And suddenly we realized: We were done. My “brand new bag” was in the bag already. Here at Seismic Center, Antarctica, population: 2, we had nothing to do and an undetermined number of days to do it. Our weather consisted of pale blue days and a breeze that lazily puffed the tents. The sun circled like a moth around Antarctica’s white mirror. Ryan and I slept, walked, polluted and played around on a blank slate that asked almost nothing of us. We felt like colored silhouettes.
The Twin Otter would show up, eventually, and fly its straight lines over the rough snowy monotony for a week. We’d offer the pilots brief weather observations while they were flying and help them during their 20-minute fuel stops, and twice tour the leg-cramped science techs around our camp like proud homesteaders. The rest of our time was devoted to keeping ourselves entertained.
Before long, our books were well-thumbed and our shins were brutalized. The can of (frozen) refried beans that served as shot-put was also our soccer ball. Ryan built a chair out of snow blocks and slouched in it while flying his kite. Our games hit a pinnacle with the re-invention of parachute sledding (it was first done at the South Pole in 1957). We took advantage of a 10 knot wind to surf the sastrugi. While one of us took off, standing on a sled, the other followed in the snowmobile to help with tangled shrouds and faceplants.
The big scary crevasse field was out there somewhere – we forgot to ask the pilots where – but Ryan and I took turns walking out to visit the horizons anyway. We did find microcrevasses, which indicated some movement in the mile and a half of ice beneath us. These were only an inch or two wide, but they did catch our attention: Were they linked to something larger? Visions of plunging 200 feet through a snowbridge into a deep dark blue death are hard to shake when you’re trudging alone across the ice.
And then there was the radio. After daily conversations with MacOps – and my welcome from James Brown – the HF lost its scariness. Turn it on, check for other conversations before you speak, and then leap into the airwaves: I came to enjoy it once I had the confidence to define myself as a field camp leader. Just several days of success at our piddly little gas station did that for me.
Of course I never tuned in anything as good as James Brown again. I found Chinese news, atmosphere-warbled Vietnamese music, inscrutable Morse codes and the stalwart intonations of the BBC, relating dire news and cricket scores from the home planet.
Nothing moved around us but a few small clouds traipsing through our blue bell of sky. It was a recurring surprise to see them curving over me; the roundness of the Earth reveals itself through a puff that hugs the ice cap at breakfast and is 4000 feet overhead by lunch. We were lucky enough to be there to witness the quiet arc from one empty horizon to another, before each cloud rolled around to another place even emptier than this.
And that’s what struck me about this journey: my good luck. I took the leap from McMurdo-based work and ended up running my own little show in East Antarctica. I took Steve up on his offer, despite my misgivings, and found an easy job within my means. I was handed Ryan, a novice, who turned out to be a great companion and a natural deep field worker. And then he and I had the fortune to play simply amid the existential beauty of the empty ice cap.
“MacOps, MacOps, Seismic Center on 7.995, over.”
“Seismic Center, MacOps. Good morning, Jason, over.”
“Good morning to you, MacOps. We have two souls here and all is well. Any messages for us? Over.”
“Copy that all is well, all is well. Only one message, Jason, from Deb at the Food Room; she says, quote, Don’t work too hard out there, end quote. Also, sorry to say, it looks like you guys still aren’t on the flight schedule, over.”
We were caught in the boondocks of USAP flight logistics. There was more demand for flights than supply, and we just didn’t matter enough to anyone. My AGO team was still hunkered down deeper into East Antarctica, and McMurdo’s carpenters could sweep up their own sawdust. It was more important to deploy us out to Seismic than it was to bring us back. We happily slept late, played hard, and cooked up the “extra” food.
Out of sight
Departure day finally, and sadly. A minor two-day ground blizzard cleared away, and a sky like a pale blue eye came racing back to see us off. It took a few hours to pack most of the camp and stack the gear next to the skiway. We’d been camping for 12 days.
The tricky part about closing a camp is to hold onto adequate shelter, food, and communication until you know absolutely that the plane is coming. The season’s weather in McMurdo made madness out of schedules, and breaking camp too soon would have been foolish. But there’s no honor in keeping a plane waiting once it’s landed for you, either. So as soon as the weather was confirmed reasonable and the plane was confirmed airborne, we wildly packed the cook tent and all of its contents but the radio. Our sleep tents were already down, personal gear stuffed into our orange bags.
Ryan ferried the last loads while I made final contact with the plane regarding wind speed and direction for their landing. Suddenly our ride was overhead; I stashed the antenna and kicked snowdrifts for lost objects. Ryan zipped over to pick me up, and we pulled up to the skiway just as the plane cut its engines.
All that remained of our campsite was the snowblock windbreak next to the toilet hole. Later flights would pick up empty fuel drums, parachutes, and other airdrop detritus, then use up the last fuel and unflag the skiway. Our small speck in the whiteness was set for erasure.
In the air, we drifted over the blankness of our adopted home. Space passed by. As we neared the Transantarctics, the floor of that space became an enormous crevasse field. Ryan and I looked down upon it as if readers of a myth; Oh look, I thought, imagine if we really had to fight our way through that white madness. Imagine if we had to make that odyssey. We sailed on, souls and imagination intact. From our vantage, the “white warfare,” as some early exploratory fool called it, looked winnable. And it is, nearly always. Ryan and I, two amateurs, were proof of that. Though we were at the end of the Earth, in a strange “land” under a strange sun, we were comfortable.
We smiled, and leaned back into our seats. The crevasses beneath us were large enough to contain McMurdo, thrown in one building at a time, as a child fills up his toy box. • 13 December 2007