Monday, December 23, 2013

You Know You're In Antarctica When ....

.... you head back to your tent (that's right, tent) at 2am and have to put on your sunglasses to go outside.
.... you wake up and can tell the time not by the light, which never changes, but by the number of people crunching around outside your tent.
.... your morning routine involves brushing your teeth and emptying out your pee bottle.
.... the wind stops, the sun comes through the clouds, and everyone strips down to short sleeves even though it's still -10 C.

I'll leave it to the Aussies to continue this list, which is theirs to begin with!

In one run-on sentence, this is what I expected from my Antarctic experience: sweet ride to the continent on an IL-76, be pretty damn cold but run a marathon anyway, recover from said marathon, cheer for crazier people running an ultramarathon, climb aboard IL-76 and come home again with stories.

In one run-on sentence, this is what I got from my Antarctic experience: sweet ride to the continent on an IL-76, be pretty damn cold but run a marathon anyway, recover from said marathon, cheer for crazier people running an ultramarathon, find out a massive storm has arrived and we aren't going anywhere anytime soon, so instead play Monopoly/Jenga/Scrabble/Spoons, do puzzles, eat heaps of delicious food, drink gallons of tea, build an igloo, play cricket/soccer/golf/volleyball/table tennis, go cross-country skiing and ride bikes, do a scavenger hunt, have a pub quiz night, do some yoga, go off-camp to Elephant Head Rock, sleep as little as possible in order to soak it all in, and eventually climb aboard the IL-76 and come home again with AMAZING stories.

All things Antarctic for the marathon are managed by Adventure Network International (ANI).  For the summer season (approximately November to February), they run a camp at Union Glacier, which is located in the Heritage Range of the Ellsworth Mountains.  Our initial interactions with them were the day before we flew to Antarctica, when many of us marathoners descended upon their office in Punta Arenas to rent snow pants, down jackets, and massive winter boots so we wouldn't become abominable snowpeople when we got to Antarctica.  Unfortunately, we looked like abominable snowpeople the instant we put on all that oversized gear .... at least we were warm abominable snowpeople?

The next day, as scheduled, we flew from Chile to Antarctica on an Ilyushin-76, which is a Russian cargo aircraft.  Cargo means no windows or rows of comfy passenger seats or toilets that flush.  Instead, the aircraft is mostly loaded with supplies like food and fuel.  Seats can be installed as required, which obviously they were to transport 50+ anxious marathoners, but several of us were still lined up on jump seats in the back with the bags.  We were also closest to the sandwiches, so that worked out just fine.  And yes, there is a toilet, but it's basically a bucket with a seat over it stuffed in a closet.  Gets the job done and you don't have to worry about getting sucked out of the plane when you flush!  (Don't lie, you know you were terrified about that at some point in your life...)  Flying on the IL-76 is dark, it is loud, and it is definitely different!  But nothing about this trip was meant to be normal, so it was an appropriate beginning to the adventure.

Map from ANI's website

Four-ish hours and a nap later, we arrived.  On the moon.  On another planet.  In another galaxy.  Emerging from the dark, still belly of the IL-76 into the otherworldly landscape of Antarctica was a complete shock.  There's the icy, gusting wind that immediately freezes any bit of skin that is exposed.  There's the perfect purity of the air, which is especially delicious after hanging out in the hold of a cargo plane for a few hours.  But more than anything, there is light.  Brilliant summer sunlight refracts off dazzling blue ice and glittery white snow and you're inside it, surrounded, blinded, and disoriented.  It's difficult to emphasize exactly how bright Antarctica is when the sun in shining, but you have to remember that there are no trees or any sort of greenery to absorb the light, nor are there buildings or streets or hordes of people.  No matter where you turn, you're seeing sun reflecting off ice and snow.  It is no joke that you should always be armed with sunglasses or ski goggles when you're outside so you don't sunburn your eyes.  Or, to use the proper lingo, give yourself a lovely case of snow blindness.

The Ilyushin lands on a natural runway of blue ice that's a few kilometers away from camp.  The wind at the runway is intense.  The rest of Union Glacier camp is situated about two kilometers from the base of Mount Rossman, where it's a bit more protected.  The camp mostly consists of a sprawl of tents.  There are two-person clam tents for visitors and one-man tents for the staff that live on the glacier throughout the season.  The sleeping tents are not heated, but they get quite warm when the sun in shining and they're still tolerable on the cloudy, windy days.  You're sleeping in a bag rated to -40F and you're wearing fleece pants and long-sleeves and maybe even a hat, so after those first chilly minutes while your body warms up the inside of the bag, it's perfectly comfortable.

There are two long tents, Fram and Terra Nova, which are the main gathering places-- they're heated, they have tables and chairs, all meals are served there, there are books and games and occasionally a TV gets plugged in for a movie.  There is a block of bathrooms, a block with showers (new addition to Union Glacier for 2013!!  And SO AWESOME to be able to take a warm shower after the run!!), a medical tent, and a communications building.  We did not spend much time in the other parts of camp, but there is also a building with all sorts of gear in it (skis, climbing stuff, sleds, etc.) and a maintenance tent and a natural freezer for storing food and some other miscellaneous containers and structures.  Also, camp sits right next to a snow skiway for smaller aircraft like the Twin Otters and DC-3 that we saw during our stay.  Camp covers a decent area, but it's not large, and it was the little bubble where we spent almost all of our time during our accidentally-extended 9-day stay.


The day we landed was the only day of blue skies for a week.  The next day was the marathon, and the weather just got worse from there.  Without blue skies, it is impossible to distinguish between snow and sky, and it's not unlike being in a bank of fog.  It was very strange, though, how the features of the ground right beneath your feet completely disappeared.  You could stare down at your own feet and not be able to discern footprints in the snow.  This was especially noticeable one day when we were working on the igloo (keep reading) and we couldn't even see the blocks of snow we had cut, even though they were more than a foot long and wide!!  They simply vanished.  Until someone tripped.  (Aha, found it!)

It did actually snow a little bit while we were in Antarctica, but I doubt it was even a measurable amount.  During a storm, most of the snow blasting through the air is just being swept right off the ground.  There were a couple days when winds of 40 mph were gusting through camp, and we couldn't do much outside because visibility was awful and it would be really easy to accidentally miss the last of the tents and keep wandering into the nothing.  Of course, some of us found all of this to be fun and exciting and were still out there every chance we got.  Staff had to apologetically squash our fun and come round us up a couple times!

So what do you for five days when you've run your races and you're still in Antarctica?  If you don't fancy spending much time out in the bracing cold, you play loads of board games and card games and do every puzzle in the camp.  Much of one day found most of the camp crammed into Terra Nova watching a highly competitive table tennis tournament.  Oh yes, and don't forget about doing yoga in your long-johns.  If you've got the right people in your group, you can even have a highly entertaining pub quiz trivia night that might end up with a tie-breaking 100 meter dash outside ... in boots and boxers.

If you want to embrace the fact that you're in the Great White South, you go outside!  I have no idea where all the sporting equipment came from, but we had a ball which was alternately used for soccer (football) and volleyball, and a cricket bat that was put to good use on more than one occasion, as well as a golf club and conveniently neon orange golf balls.  There was a group amongst the marathoners who did an Antarctic Triathlon at the same time as the ultramarathon.  The tri involved cross-country skiing, running, and biking.  The snow bikes these chaps brought with them were fantastic.  The best was a bike not used for the race, but which was being tested because the owner hopes to ride it from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole.  He used the trip as an opportunity to put in some mileage in the snow and figure out what he might need to tweak on the bike.  We used his trip as an opportunity to borrow his bike and go "cycling" in Antarctica.  It was really fun on the hard-packed snow in camp; I imagine it will be an extraordinarily difficult process to ride through the regular drifts away from prepared paths!

After about four days of being snowed-in, we did start to go a bit stir-crazy, so the staff put together a couple options to get us out of camp.  The first was a cross-country skiing adventure to an area known to the staff as "The Beach."  It's an expanse of ice around the southern edge of Mount Rossman where the wind can't reach, so it's remarkably warm.  To get there, we had to ski across a crevassed area of the glacier, which meant we wore climbing harnesses and tied ourselves together for safety.  If someone suddenly fell into a crevasse, the rest of us were instructed to immediately topple over into the snow so our weight would stabilize the missing skier until the guide could help get them out of the crevasse.  (Un)fortunately we had no such excitement during our trip to The Beach.  But it was a great chance to stretch the legs and see some new sights around Union Glacier!

Map from ANI's website.  Red markings from me!

The day before we left, we had an even further-afield excursion to Elephant Head Rock.  It's a peculiar rock face out beyond the ice runway, so the staff shuttled us in groups with the snow vans.  They
dropped us on the glacier near the stone rubble at the base of the mountain.  It took us about ten minutes to slide our way across the ice to the rocks, and then we climbed towards Elephant Head for about an hour and didn't get anywhere close to the actual base of the formation or the crest of the hill at its base.  As I've said before, perspective is just whacky in Antarctica.  The crumbled rocks that we were scrambling over were remarkably colorful.  There were huge slabs of green marble, and neat rocks that were striped purple and green.  Even more interesting were several amazing pools of turquoise ice that had frozen and melted and refrozen, so the ice had bucked and broken into deep, jagged cracks across the surface.  If you looked closely, you could even see bubbles of air frozen beneath the surface.

A small, dedicated group of us spent hours every single day of the weather extension working on that most stereotypically fundamental component of the polar landscape -- an IGLOO.  Some of the boys had built an impromptu igloo the first day of the storm, but we set out to make the type of igloo that you could live in for a season.  Contrary to common expectation, igloos are NOT emergency shelters.  They take a while to make, if you do it properly.  We dug through the loose crust of surface snow until we reached depths where the snow was firmly packed together.  Then we sawed out huge blocks which we arranged in a circle.  Our instructor, Mick, very meticulously shaped each block so they fit together as closely as possible.  For three days, we continued working in this way.  Every time we'd ask Mick how much longer, he'd say "A few hours."  How many more blocks do we need, Mick?  "Oh, about 40."  We needed about 40 more blocks at least five times.  On the last day, another staff member came out to help us while Mick was momentarily away and suddenly two of us were inside the igloo getting showers of snow down our collars while we held up the blocks of the roof until they were firmly wedged together and could hold themselves up.  The new guy was a lot less particular than Mick, and there was a noticeable decrease in quality between the bottom and top halves of the igloo.  But who cares, IT WAS FINALLY FINISHED!!  A legitimate domed igloo with a tunnel door!  It was very quiet and quite warm inside.  The light filtering through the chinks in the snow was an otherworldly, peaceful blue.  It was amazing just to sit in there and be silent.  I should have slept in it one night.  Alas.

I have been asked several times whether there was any thought that we might run out of food.  The answer is: definitely not.  Although fresh things like fruit disappears, as did the beer, there is a massive stockpile of frozen and canned foods in camp.  Enough for 100 days, I was told.  So you might get sick of eating pasta and canned veggies, but you will absolutely not go hungry.

Although there are generators in camp, most power is solar.  All water comes from melted snow.  There are giant containers outside the main tents and the showers, and periodically someone shovels snow into them, which is then melted and used for drinking water, shower water, cooking water, and anything else that requires water.  The shower systems are pretty ingenious too-- you fill a bucket about 3/4 with hot water, add some snow for temperature control, and then set it under a plastic tube in the shower stall.  With the flick of a switch, a pump brings the water through the tube and out of the shower head.  If you make sure to stop the pump while you lathered up and only have the water running while you are rinsing off, that 3/4 of a bucket is more than enough for an excellent shower!  ANI is brilliant and creative with the things they do to provide a comfortable experience to visitors, but to also minimize the overall imprint they leave on the glacier.  At the end of the season, they pack everything up and ship it out in the Ilyushin after bulldozing the camp flat, and if you were to send scanners over the area, the only indication of a camp would be the natural freezer deep in the ice.  That's impressive.  And respectable.

When the weather finally cleared up and we found out our Ilyushin would be arriving very early on Thursday morning (Happy Thanksgiving!), there were a lot of people who were ecstatic to finally be leaving Antarctica.  I didn't sleep at all that night.  Partially that was because I had a really spectacular cough that kicked in as soon as I tried to lay down, and I felt bad for keeping my clam-buddy awake.  But mostly I wanted to spend my remaining time absorbing as much icy, harsh, beautiful, vast Antarctica as I could fit into my memory.  I walked around camp, sat in the igloo for a while, helped load up all the bags for transport to the runway (that was actually really fun ... I promise we weren't chucking actual bags around like we chucked the sleeping bags!), and made sure I was outside when the Ilyushin came in over the mountains.  And suddenly that was it!  We shuttled out to the runway, waited until cargo was unloaded so we could get on, and bid farewell to Antarctica.  For now.  I have a feeling I'll be back.  I didn't get to see any penguins!

All photos taken by moi, thanks for not stealing them or using them or borrowing them .... you get the idea.

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