The 20/20 Countdown Begins

Here comes the sun…Hut Point Ridge, 1515 hours local time, 01 August 2012. The first sunrise since April won’t be until 19 August, but the amount of light in the sky, and its intensity, has been noticeably increasing for weeks.

In 20 days, weather permitting, I will be getting on a plane to leave Antarctica. When that day comes, I will have spent a total of 20 months of my life here in this great frozen world that I love dearly. A lot of people who work in Antarctica have spent a lot more time here than that, but my personal, small slice of Antarctica has been exceptionally meaningful to me.

I was thinking about ways I could convey what my Antarctic experience has been–the good, the bad, the spectacular, the mundane. And then I realized: I love Antarctica. I love lists.

So, each day for the next 20 days, I’ll be posting a “top 20” of some sort. (Unless, of course, in my T3-addled state, I forget that I’m planning this great endeavor and go back to mindlessly window-shopping for cute shoes online.) I can’t promise all the lists will be of equal value, but I hope that, in sum, they are entertaining and informative, and above all, capture what my 20 months on Ice mean to me.

Let’s start things off with a bang…and a whoosh, and a squeak:

My 20 Favorite Antarctic Sounds

20. The crunch and squeak of snow. I was raised in the greater New York area and have lived in Wisconsin, Russia and Germany. I’ve clambered up some of New Zealand’s less-imposing mountains in winter and had the bright idea to hike Hadrian’s Wall in January. Snow is nothing unusual to me. I love it in all its forms, but Antarctic snow is special. Because the continent is drier even than the Sahara, we don’t get as much snow as one might think. When it does make an appearance, it is babyfine-powdery, and quickly compresses under boot soles and vehicle treads. And then it sounds like you’re walking on great sheets of styrofoam. High, tinny crunches mix with squirmy squeaks. Walking in the darkness of winter, I’ve learned the sound of snow is good for more than amusement value: if you can’t hear the scrunch and squeak and crunch and creak under your feet, it means you’re walking on ice and, in my case, likely to do a face-plant at any moment.

19. The wind through the flattop grill vents. Working as an AM shift cook here, I spend a lot of time on the flattop grill where we do eggs to order for breakfast and a variety of lunch foods, such as tuna melts and quesadillas. And there is something thrilling about standing at the grill, flipping an untold number of sizzling, cheese-stuffed tortillas with the vents overhead turned on and hearing, above all the kitchen noise, what sounds like an angry ghost in the attic. On windy days, the vents funnel the sound of the wind rattling and shaking and slamming around the outlets two stories above me.

18. The peculiar cacophony of the McMurdo Library. Our library is tucked into a back corner of the station’s main building, next to the weight room and beside the industrial-strength laundry where bedding, galley aprons and towels and other big, bulky loads get cleaned. Due to its location, a number of strange sounds regularly filter through the walls: the grunt of manly-men and those who aspire to sound like them, the ba-chunka-chunk of heavy load dryers, the knock and bang and rattle of pipes in the ceiling and, my favorite, the random and inexplicable dead-ringer of a drum roll topped off with a cymbal crash.

17. The giant puffin that is a C17. When I visited the Faroe Islands a few years ago (another of my favorite places on earth), I hiked out to a puffin colony. It was the off-season, so there weren’t many of the birds around. To get a good view of one, I ended up crawling on my belly (to avoid scaring it) up to a cliff lip and looking down. While (silently) oohing and ahhing over the second cutest bird I know (after an Adelie penguin, of course), I heard a strange noise. It was the sound of something flying that, by every law of physics known, should be too heavy to fly. I can only describe the sound as “laden.” I looked up as a puffin flew just overhead, ends of dozens of silver fish hanging out of its mouth. It landed about as gracefully as I crash a bicycle. Whether you’re on the ice runway listening to a monstrous C17 take off or in the plane itself, the sound of its massive engines straining against all odds to get the hell off the ground are, uhm, memorable.

I’d like to mention this C17 is parked on sea ice. Very thin sea ice.

16. Surf. Yes, it happens. On a brisk January or February or even March day, after the icebreaker has come through and carved a path through the sea ice, enough of the ice near shore breaks up that the wind can kick up waves and a chilly spray. There’s no beach, of course, and the chance of hanging ten is zero, but it’s wonderfully bizarre to look out onto a desolate world of ice and rock and hear a pounding surf.

15. The soft gurgle of Smaug. When I decided to winter last year, one of the first things I bought was a humidifier. I went for the dragon one on Amazon and named him Smaug. My summer roommate had a humidifier but it was smaller and not as, uhm, enthusiastic as Smaug. Smaug serves multiple purposes, including as an excellent eyeglass holder and maker of white noise that helps to drown out the sound of my neighbor learning to play the ukulele (both years I’ve been down here, different neighbors…to paraphrase Indiana Jones, “ukuleles. Why is it always ukuleles?”). But most importantly, since getting Smaug I’ve been spared some of the uglier Antarctic afflictions: nosebleeds and skin so dry it peels off in sheets. Eew. Smaug, by the way, is staying at McMurdo when I leave. Long may he hydrate those in need.

Smaug multitasking as humidifier and eyeglass holder.

14. The subtle magic of auroras. I haven’t seen any auroras this winter, despite it being an exceptionally active season (I keep “just missing” them, grrr), but last year I witnessed a few amazing displays, and during the most spectacular, I could have sworn I heard what sounded like a very distant lightsaber duel. A lot of people say it’s just a myth, but earlier this month, science (Science!) proved it was not my imagination.

13.The distinctive thump-thump of a helicopter. When I hear one in the States, I think “overblown media event,” “cop chase” or “Flight for Life.” But when you hear a helicopter around McMurdo, it means either the SAR team has been activated (Search and Rescue, an infrequent happening in these parts) or that some lucky grantee is getting whisked off to a remote location to perform science (Science!). It, to me, is the sound of something exciting happening in the world of knowledge. Unless it’s a chopper waking me up when I’m trying to sleep. Then I have other words for it.

12. Dispatch. Any time you leave the greater McMurdo Station area in a vehicle (and, let’s face it…if you’re leaving the greater McMurdo Station area you’ll be in a vehicle, since no one’s going to walk too far around here), you have to radio the dispatcher. You have to give information on where you’re going, when you plan to be back, and so on. And you say, based on how many people are in your party, “three souls on board” or whatever the number is. No, I am not inviting quibbly comments from the smartypantsed among you who want to debate whether we have souls. I’m just saying I love both that bit of antiquated terminology that makes me think of shipwrecks as well as the fact that peril abounds in Antarctica, and can reach out and smack you at any moment, so you need to tell someone where to look for the bodies.

11. The grunt of a Piston Bully. Piston Bullies are probably the cutest vehicle we have around here, but what I love about them most is that every time I get in one, I have an adventure. The first time, I assisted science by helping harvest sea urchins. The second time I got to drill holes in the Ross Ice Shelf. The third time I rode shotgun while grooming the Castle Rock trail. I suppose if I were one of the folks who spends all day in a wee PB I’d feel different, but I look at them the way a Viking looks at his longboat.

Piston Bully on the Ross Ice Shelf, April 2011

10. My very own frother. Okay, this one may induce some eye-rolling, but…I have a milk frother. Actually, I had one that I brought down in February and it broke, but my buddy Jeff loaned me one of his. He has, like, six. Seriously. Anyway, with my French press and my halfway decent coffee and frother, on my day off I can enjoy a flat white or two (kind of like a New Zealand latte). The milk is still powdered and the ambience is not quite boho-chic coffeehouse, but when I hear the sweet whir of my frother, like Pavlov’s bell, I know that I’m about to get a little bit of “normal,” which down here can mean a lot.

9. The nasty crunch of volcanic rock. I don’t get to hear it in winter, since most of the hiking trails are closed and snow covers the rest, but I love hearing the crunch of unyielding volcanic rock beneath my feet when I traipse around Ob Hill or Hut Ridge. It makes me feel like I’m in Mordor, and reminds me of just how special this big heap of volcanic rock I live on is.

Hut Ridge Loop in summer, not a blade of grass to be seen for a thousand miles in any direction. Note sk

8. Laughter. Yes, there are bad days in Antarctica. There are very, very black days, and I’m not talking about the lack of light. In the real world, when I’m having a very bad, no good, awful, horrible day, I like to go for a long walk, or administer butt rubs/skull massages to the nearest obliging dog/cat, or swim a mile, or roast some grape tomatoes with fresh basil, or kick back with a close peep over a bottle of Three Buck Chuck or Target Sangria (yes. I enjoy the boxed sangria from Target, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it). None of these coping mechanisms are available here–even walking any real distance isn’t possible, especially in winter. I’m fortunate to work with a couple people who share my sense of humor, and there are days when, yes, our chortles and guffaws and T3-induced giggle fits are the only things that stop me withering from the full horror of my situation: I’m on a volcanic rock on the edge of the deadest, most remote continent on the planet with 152 other people and I CAN’T LEAVE! Thanks, Rachel and Tyler.

7. The otherworldly splash of the coldest water on earth. Both of my polar plunge experiences (this year and last winter) were amazing, moments I will treasure for the rest of my life. I’ve posted quite a bit about the lightless water and the incredible sensation of emerging from 28F water to colder air, but I haven’t mentioned much about the sound. Keeping in mind that the entire plunge is an intense experience, where all one’s senses are heightened (and screaming “What the hell are you doing?!”), my imagination may be augmenting things, but–arguably due to the water’s super-high salinity–the splash and slap and gurgle as your body hits the water and hurtles beneath sound as if they’re slowed down. It’s the difference between jumping into skim milk or a milkshake. Only colder. So very much colder.

The Splash of a Thousand Shivers, Polar Plunge, June 2011

6. The distinctive “gimme yer lunch money!” bullying cry of a skua. McMurdo’s part-year resident thugs, Stercorarius antarcticus are probably saying something more like “gimme your lunch!” The large brown sea birds have been known to steal sandwiches and other fare right out of people’s hands, and generally walk around in summer like they own the place. They are the Lords of Flatbush of Antarctica. And while I love the similarly badass kea of New Zealand more, I have a fondness for skua and their “you talkin’ to me?” squawk.

Drive-by, or rather fly-by, skua, February 2012

5. The ominous shift and shudder of sea ice. I’ve heard this sitting out at Hut Point as the ice refreezes, and most memorably while I was 30 feet down under the ice in an observation tube. The sea ice around McMurdo is a constantly changing creature, shifting, groaning, creaking. Did I mention they land planes on it? Yeah. They do.

What Lies Beneath…sea ice viewed from underneath via the observation tube, November 2010

4. The squee-worthy squawk of an Adelie penguin. First of all, I don’t care how many movies Morgan Freeman narrates about them, Emperor penguins are useless. All they do is stand around. Adelies, however, are adorable. They walk, they slide on the snow, they wobble about and, occasionally, they make indignant little, guttural squawking sounds that remind me of a puppy or kitten trying to sound tough. This, of course, only makes them more adorable.

3. The wind. We haven’t had any good storms this winter (yet), but last winter I was enthralled by a few top-notch hissyfits thrown by the wind: roaring, howling, screeching, even thundering. McMurdo is one of the windier stations on the continent, and more than once I’ve opened the door to the outside only to hear what sounded like an advancing orc army.

2. Seals at breathing holes. Weddell seals are year-round residents of McMurdo Sound, but in winter they don’t seem to hang out around Hut Point like they do at other times of the year. They’ve evolved with forward-facing front teeth that allow them to bite through the sea ice and create breathing holes, where they hang out between dives without needing to haul their hefty bodies entirely out of the water. I’ve spent more than one magical afternoon sitting out at the Point, able to hear their slow, heavy breaths. There is something soul-stirring about being able to be that close to a wild animal doing its thing, not the least bothered by you, particularly an animal as different to me as a Weddell Seal is (though, ahem, I suspect we’d wear the same size jeans).

Weddell seal at pressure ridge, November 2010

1. The sound of silence. I have been to a lot of very quiet places in the world, including the middle of nowhere in the Westfjords of Iceland, the middle of nowhere on the South Island of New Zealand, the middle of nowhere on the subantarctic Chilean island of Isla Navarino…you get the idea. But even in the most remote places I’ve been, the gurgle of a mountain stream, the chirp of a bellbird or the rustle of a faint breeze in the trees has made noise. On a windless day here, however, especially in winter when the surrounding darkness seems to heighten all my other senses, there is nothing like the profound and utter silence of Antarctica.

It is one of the things I will miss most about the place, for another 20 days, anyway, that I call home.

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One thought on “The 20/20 Countdown Begins

  1. Pingback: The Countdown Continues: 19 Days to Go | Stories That Are True

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