20 Things Antarctica Has Taught Me

Fifteen days to go and Antarctica has thrilled me yet again. Today after work I saw a few nacreous clouds above the ridge and decided to brave a brisk wind to walk down to Hut Point.

The view from our recycling bins behind the galley loading dock, 1330 local time, 05 August 2012

As I got closer to the point, I started to think I might be about to see something really special.

Nacreous clouds over Hut Ridge, 1400 local time, 05 August 2012

Arriving at Hut Point, I was treated to an astounding display of nacreous clouds on the north-ish horizon…

Okay, hang on. Let me hit you with some science. Nacreous clouds are more properly called polar stratospheric clouds. They occur at extremely high altitudes (50,000-80,000 feet, give or take) in polar areas if the air temperature in the lower stratosphere is cold enough (colder than minus 100F). Clouds typically do not form in the stratosphere because it’s too dry, but I guess there comes a point when the stratosphere gets bored, or envious of the troposphere, and just says “aw, heck, let’s make some pretty clouds.”

And pretty they are. Truly spectacular, quite frankly.

Looking north to nacreouspalooza, Hut Point Ridge, 1415 local time, 05 August 2012

Nacreous clouds are rather naughty, by the way, since their chemical composition exacerbates ozone depletion. I don’t know if every time a nacreous cloud forms a tree dies or an environmentalist cries or something, but they are one of nature’s most amazing flourishes. Because they are so ridiculously high, they catch sunlight from below the horizon thanks to the curvature of the planet and reflect it back, making them look sometimes searingly, blindingly bright and sometimes iridescent.

Close-up of nacreous action from Hut Point

I stood there for a long time in the rather nippy wind marveling at their otherworldly beauty, and feeling so fortunate to be witnessing them. Nacreous clouds are just one of the treasures Antarctica has shared with me for which I will always be grateful.

I’m also grateful for the lessons this harsh continent has taught me (Kapow! How’s that for a segue!), from the small and arguably petty to the big picture perspective. And so the 20/20 Countdown continues…today’s list is short on pretty pictures but long on musing. Tomorrow’s list will be much more photo-friendly. Till then, here’s another friendly photo from today’s walkies:

I love this shot, taken from the top of Hut Ridge with the Vince Memorial Cross in the foreground, not only because it captures the amazing, ever-changing show that is the Antarctic sky, and because it features the best display of nacreous clouds I’ve ever seen, but also because, to me, it epitomizes #1 on today’s list. Keep reading.

Oh, and by the way, while I was alternating cameras (I have two point-and-shoots, and keep one in a pocket with a handwarmer while shooting a couple shots with the other, till its battery freezes, then I switch, repeating till both batteries are dead and need to thaw out), two Weddell seals were napping on the sea ice right below the point. One of them looked up at the sound of me as I walked up the slope as if to say “Oh, another one of the long-flippered land seals. Whatever.” and then went back to sleep.

Seals on ice at Hut Point

20. If you run out of sour cream early in the season, you can appease the pitchfork-wielding mobs demanding it for their quesadillas by blending equal parts long-life mascarpone and plain powdered yogurt and letting it sit (in the refrigerator) for two days. No one will notice it’s not sour cream.

19. Don’t cry in Antarctica, no matter how sad or awe-struck or humble you are feeling. Because your eyes freeze shut instantly and you can lose valuable eyelashes prying them open again.

18. Cardboard is only recyclable as cardboard if it has corrugation in its cross-section. Otherwise it’s mixed paper.

17. If you have no wasabi for a sushi tray, mustard powder and horseradish blended into a thick paste with a bit of green food coloring will do the trick.

16. Fuggs rock. I worried over my decision to purchase a pair of faux-Uggs (Fuggs, for short…also because they’re fuggin’ ugly) last year. I got the ones from FitFlops through Zappos, largely because they allegedly would give me a workout due to the shape of the sole. Yeah, whatever. I am still Weddell seal-shaped, but I gotta say: my Fuggs are the most comfortable, warmest shoes I’ve ever owned. I can wear them outside in temps as low as minus 30F without socks (like I did today) and my feet are toasty warm, while inside, wearing them as my bedroom slippers, my feet never sweat. All hail the mighty Fuggs.

15. The people with the most interesting stories are the ones you have to ask. McMurdo is a microcosm of humanity, for better or worse. In winter especially, the lines between extroverts and introverts are stark. And I’ve found that the loudest mouths have the least to say. No, I’m really not interested in hearing (again) how you got “sh**-faced” (again) at the bar last night. On the other hand, if you can get away from the loudmouths and have an actual conversation with another grown-up, you’ll learn all about people skiing solo to the North Pole, running rapids as a river boat guide, climbing Kilimanjaro, authoring books and owning large personal fiefdoms in Central America.

14. People have some crazy ideas about food and nutrition. We have several people on station who refuse to eat any fruits or vegetables. At all. One person gets a bit verklempt if his french toast has nuts or raisins in it, or if any of his savory food has visible pieces of onion. Another guy told me potatoes are bad for you and he won’t eat them because they’re so unhealthy–as he held a plate full of tater tots. One guy insists his eggs be cooked with no oil on the flattop–but always orders extra cheese and usually bacon or sausage, too (with three eggs, by the way). I agree with Michael Pollard and Gina Kolata: Americans are obsessed with eating but we’ve forgotten how to do it, relying on whatever the miltiary-industrial-health-and-fitness complex pushes as the latest fad, disguised as some kind of scientific breakthrough. Sheesh.

13. Hair and fingernails (and toenails, for that matter) grow much slower here, and no one knows why.

12. Eggs can stay good longer than you think if properly stored. Once they’re four or five months old, though, it’s best to check them by submerging them in room temperature water. Bad eggs will float to the top. Good ones will sink.

11. Tilting your head back is not what you do when you have a nosebleed. I never got nosebleeds till I came to the Ice (the lone exception being the time I was startled me and kicked myself in the nose, but that is another story for another time). My first year on the Ice, they were a monthly occurrence. And tilting your head back just makes the blood run down your throat, which is kind of gross. Shove a wad of tissue up there and just wait it out.

10. The high road is a lonely place, but the views are great. The gossips at McMurdo, especially in winter, are notorious. Every season I think that by not joining in, by keeping my head down and just doing my work, I can avoid it. Nope. But I’ve found great satisfaction in soldiering on anyway, living my life and letting bitter people be bitter. Can’t fix ugly.

9. Hand warmers and self-adhesive toe warmers are kind of useless at keeping your hands and feet warm. However…hand warmers slipped into your camera case will keep the battery from freezing while you’re out on a hike and, if you’ve got cramps or a back- or shoulderache, toe warmers are a discreet and long-lasting way to alleviate the pain.

8. Antarctica’s special mix of cold and dry air cause the average human to lose 30% of his flexibility (it returns once you leave the Ice).

7. The Body Shop Hemp Body Butter is the best way to soothe dry skin. I’ve tried them all when it comes to reputed dry skin cures. Only this stuff stops the peeling and the itching.

6. A packet of sugar and a pat of room temperature butter mixed in the palm of your hand and applied in small, vigorous circles makes a great lip exfoliator.

5. If you suffer from Raynaud’s phenomenon like I do, your best bet to stop the pain is not to squeeze and release your hands as some doctors have told me, but to bend over so your arms and hands are lower than your heart and then vigorously swing your arms from the shoulder. (Raynaud’s is a painful condition caused by blood vessel spasms in reaction to cold temperatures.) This has been a revelation for me, one I learned during Snowcraft survival training.

4. Humidity and wind are far more important factors for (dis)comfort than actual temperature. On a still day here in the world’s largest desert (yes, Antarctica is a desert), I can walk between buildings in my Fuggs, pajamas and a hoodie despite temps as low as minus 40F. When my friend Jeff and I got off the Ice last October and went sea kayaking in New Zealand, we were bundled up and shivering despite everyone else being in swimsuits. The difference? Humidity.

3. Dogs matter. I went through a rough time in my life when my dog Wiley died in 2008. Those of you who knew me then know that “rough” might be a bit of an understatement. I was sad when my other dog Kosmo died a few years earlier, but Wiley was different. He was an amazing dog (and I think dogs are pretty amazing to begin with), and I felt like I never wanted to deal with that kind of hole in my heart again. The very absence of dogs here on the Ice, however, has reminded me of how much I need them in my life. When I get back to the “real world,” it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get a dog for some time, but I am planning on getting involved in some pro-dog volunteer work. Because they deserve it.

Last winter, Wiley was immortalized on Antarctic tv by our physical therapist, who used community members’ pet photos in the messages she prepared for our information channel. Wiley loved his Darth Vader cape, by the way. The helmet and suit, ah, not so much, but he would get so excited when I got the cape out. Sometimes I let him wear it around the neighborhood on our walkies.

2. Never say “no” to an opportunity because you’re not sure of it. Here on the Ice, working in a busy kitchen six days a week especially, handling large volumes of food, it is very easy to get worn out. It’s easy to say “nah” when someone offers you an opportunity that sounds suspiciously like more work: “do you want to groom the Castle Rock trail?” “Do you want to help flag the road out on the Ice Shelf?” Don’t say “no” because you don’t know what “grooming” or “flagging” entails, or because you’re tired or sore or want to watch Colbert. Say yes, because you’re really saying yes to adventure.

1. We puny humans are not Masters of the Universe, or even our own planet. This may seem obvious, but I’m always amazed at how so many people seem to think we as a species know what we’re doing, that we’re in control of things, that the planet is ours to use and use up. I wish every human could come to Antarctica, even for just a day, stand here and come face to face with the cold (literally and figuratively) truth: our entire species is just one teeny tiny and, quite frankly, insignificant piece of a universe that can get along quite fine without us, that our only imprint on the planet has been generally negative in the grand scheme of things and that even what we consider our greatest achievements aren’t really that impressive when compared with what the natural world manages to pull off on a daily basis. We as a species, as well as individuals, should be more humble, more mindful of the consequences of our actions and far more in awe of nature.



2 thoughts on “20 Things Antarctica Has Taught Me

  1. that’s why it tastes buttery!

    oddly, my hair and nails grow amazingly faster down here, i wonder what the difference between us is. could be that antarctica is the only place i eat jello.

    • Yes, the secret is out regarding my “special sour cream.” I dunno about your hair and nails, though…I’d eat jello to see if it worked for me, too…but then I’d have to eat jello. Yeeeick.

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