Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve last posted. What can I say… weather and my work schedule conspired to keep me not only inside but in the same building for more than a week, with the exception of my morning jaunts to “the gerbil gym,” a walk of about 50 feet outside.
I also took a free shuttle to Scott Base, the Kiwi’s outpost, a few miles away, on “American Night.” Nice place, about a tenth the size of McMurdo, and the Kiwis we met were friendly, though most seemed to be making themselves scarce… “too many Americans,” mumbled one as he headed out the door upon our arrival.
The only other time I ventured outside was to go to the medical clinic for help with the ugly red rash on my hands and forearms. I know it is from constantly washing my hands at work and living in super-dry air, but I wasn’t expecting the prescription.
“Eat peanut butter,” the doctor told me. “You’re not getting enough fat in your diet.”
Uh…… have you seen the size of my butt, doc? Plenty of stored fat there.
It reminded me of the time, shortly after arriving in Moscow, that I had a nasty case of bronchitis. The doctor I saw – the American doctor, mind you, at the American embassy – told me he was out of the antibiotics and expectorants that might help, so I should drink vodka. “Just keep a bottle in the freezer and have a shot or two whenever you start coughing,” he’d said.
Fat in my diet aside, I am living in 4% humidity here. For comparison, the Sahara is 10% humidity. Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest land mass in the world, and I know this because I saw it on a t-shirt. And a poster. But seriously… the lack of humidity is the culprit for my rash. Which is why I now sleep with a thick layer of goo, either Vaseline or The Body Shop’s Shea Butter, depending on my mood, smeared on my hands, wearing cotton gloves as if I might break into sleep-miming at any moment.
We work six-day weeks here, and on my last day off the weather was again Condition Two (non-essential travel prohibited). The two days that have been Condition Two since my arrival have both been on my days off. Duly noted, Antarctica. And not forgiven.
Needless to say, the lack of outdoorsiness was making me cranky. The only time I was outside, aside from walking to the gerbil gym (the cardio gym, as opposed to the weight room, which is 50 feet in the opposite direction and, as far as I know, does not have a cute nickname), was to take out the trash. Last week, one of the guys I work with came in from taking out the trash all excited.
“I saw the sun!” he said, almost giggling. “The sun sun! The actual sun!”
An hour or so later, when it was my turn to take out the refuse, so did I.
Wow. The sun sun. The actual sun. The first time I’ve seen it since leaving Christchurch a month ago.
It burns our eyeses, precioussss! It burns! It burns!
No, but seriously… even more amazing than seeing the sun sun, the actual sun, has been the way the light overall has been changing. In the four weeks I’ve been here, we have gained nearly ten hours of sunlight. Every day we gain about 20 minutes more. Every day. Every day day, actual day. Twenty minutes more.
I can remember my first week here, when it was dark for breakfast and bleakly light for lunch, then dark again for dinner (mealtimes were my main source of light, as the galley has windows but my room, on an inner corridor, does not. Nor does my workplace.). Now it is light-ish for breakfast (think dawn), bright sun for lunch and bright sun for dinner, followed by a leisurely twilight that lasts about four hours. In a month or so, night will be a thing of memory.
On Monday, feeling a bit out of sorts because I hadn’t been outside much in the past week, I decided at dinner that I was going to go not only out but up. I was going to go up Observation Hill, locally known as Ob Hill. Oh yes. Minus 48 degree Fahrenheit wind chill factor or no, I was going.
I filed my eFoot plan and picked up my radio at the firehouse (on all but the easiest, closest to town trails, one must file an itinerary and get a radio… the former to let Search and Rescue know where to look for you if you don’t check back in at the appointed hour and the latter to be able to call the firehouse to say “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”). The firehouse dispatcher had to call the weather guys for clearance… the wind chill was a bit “perky” and the wind was picking up as the day waned. But I got the go. I was off!
It’s not a long walk up to Ob Hill. It’s probably less than two miles from my bed, but it is all uphill. And while the up-ness of it was not as difficult as some people had warned, it was a challenge to find my way along a path that was often covered in snow. The cold and, in places, the wind, made things more interesting. But what a view… I finally got to see Mt. Erebus, an active volcano a few miles away… McMurdo Station is actually built on volcanic rock, the remnants of a previous eruption. Erebus always has a fumerole or two smoking at the summit, and I could just see the plumed cloud from where I stood.
In every direction I looked, vast emptiness stretched. Sure, here and there I could see a building or a vehicle trudging across the ice shelf, but these piddly manmade things looked as insignificant as ants on a picnic blanket. (I know I’ve used the ant metaphor before, but it just fits… perhaps that is why they call it “Ant”arctica, hahahaha).
It was so open, so unknown, so beautiful… so cold. So very, very cold. As I stood at the top of Ob Hill, my toes began to suggest, in no uncertain terms, that they were not enjoying this particular field trip. My bunny boots lacked the traction needed for a relentless uphill climb on snow and rock, so I’d worn my hiking boots with two pairs of socks. At first I felt comfortable but, after an hour or so, my toes set themselves on fire in protest. At least that’s how it felt.
So I began the descent. Easier said than done. Those of you who know my ankles are held together by scar tissue can imagine the scene. The rest of you: imagine descending a steep, slippery non-trail with overcooked pasta for ankles. It was not fun. It was not enjoyable. It was beautiful still, yes, but not at all pleasant. I did some impromptu butt-sledding down the steeper, snowier parts and walked like a crab in other places. But mostly I limp-stepped like an old man, leaning heavily on my trekking poles.
I made it down, and back to the firehouse, just as light was fading and the wind was picking up in earnest.
When I checked back in and returned my radio at about 7:30 pm, the dispatcher said she was relieved to see me. “We were about to send out Search and Rescue.”
I looked at the clock. I was checking back in well before the 8:00 pm time I’d given for my return. When you file an eFoot plan to go hiking, if you’re not back at your return time, they launch Search and Rescue, with all the bells and whistles and hoo-ha that you can imagine.
I pointed out I was returning before the scheduled time on my plan.
“Yeah, but we figured you’d be back in ten or twenty minutes. We didn’t think you’d actually go the whole way up the hill in this wind. When you didn’t show up after half an hour, we started to worry. We thought, ‘she’s not actually going up there, is she?'”
Oh yes, yes she is. Yes she did.
The next day after work I resolved to take another walk, albeit a slightly less ambitious one. I went back to Hut Point, where I was rewarded with atmospheric fog and another view of the sun sun, the actual sun, setting over the Royal Societies mountains.
On my walk up Ob Hill, I had my MP3 player and headphones on, cued to Sigur Ros and The Lord of the Rings soundtracks… the latter was oddly appropriate as I struggled up a steep volcanic slope to the same tune that played when Sam and Frodo crawled up the side of Mt. Doom… at least they didn’t have to deal with subzero wind chill. But I don’t think I’ll hike with my MP3 player again. Because it was too much, surrounded by such an expanse of untouched natural beauty, to hear the somber, poetic strains of Sigur Ros’ “Festival” and “Flotjavik.” It made me tear up to be in such a wondrous place.
And that made my eyes freeze shut. Dammit.
I cannot express how beautiful it is here. There is something about the emptiness, the silence, the very inhospitableness of the place that stirs the soul. Alas that it does not warm the feet, but that is another matter.