The Saga of the Blue Cooler

November 29th
Dear Deany,

It is amazing to think that we will be back in McMurdo in just a week. Time flies when you are miserable and cold and starving. I'm kidding. It's paradise here. Pass me a banana. Actually, despite living life at zero degrees and not having bathed in over six weeks or seen anything green to eat, the lifestyle is growing on me. I suppose I don't need to tell you, though--what was it? Eighteen years you spent living off the grid in a cabin in Wyoming, eating nothing but venison jerky you shot and smoked yourself? No wonder you're so well-adjusted.

Having no idea what day of the week it and realizing it makes no difference whether I paid my credit card bill or not is very liberating and appealing. Here, all of the static fuzz of everyday modern life has receded off into the inconsequential horizon.

Nonetheless, it is the little comforts that see one through. I remember how happy I was five weeks ago when a tub of miso arrived with our first mail. I cherished it, I rationed it fascistically, and by the time we came to move from Mt. Boreas to our camp here in the Friis Hills I had only allowed myself a few stingy dollops of the precious paste. At the last possible moment I tucked it reverentially into the corner of a blue Coleman cooler, which Anne sealed with duct tape and carried up the hill to await transport with the rest of our towering mountain of gear. I have already written to you of the drudgery of that day; Sylvestre, Adam, Kelly and I flew first. Loads and loads of stuff slung from the bottom of helicopters and packed into every cranny of the flight cabins arrived all day long at our new site. We stacked rock boxes full of food on the lip of the tents, opened boxes of stoves, laid out sleeping bags and cots. It was a chaos of unpacking. I wondered: where is my miso?

"Didn't we have three coolers altogether?"

"Yeah, I dunno; so far only two have turned up."

I went to see the geologists.

"Do you guys have an extra cooler of ours mixed in with your stuff?"

"Haven't seen one."

We double and triple checked. A posse of us went up and marched in circles around the helo landing zone, in case the cooler languished there, forgotten.

Perhaps it had remained on board, slid under the seat of the helicopter. We called helo-ops on the radio.

"Do you mind checking with the helo-techs, just to be sure, please?"

A few hours later, we called again.

"That's a negative, Whisky Two-One-Eight, negative, no blue cooler, copy that?"

"You're going to have to write this up in your end-of-season report," Adam Lewis told Anne. "They have a lot of surface area, those coolers. Did you put a rock on it? Maybe the rotor wash blew it off the mountain. The bad news is we might have to burn up some of our helicopter hours to go and look for it."

My little tub of miso was turning into a global environmental catastrophe on the order of the Exxon Valdez. We called helo-ops again.

"Do we need to do anything about this? Over."

"We'll get back to you on that. Over."

They didn't, and we breathed easier, imagining ourselves to have slipped through the mesh of an extensive administrative dragnet. Over the following weeks we continued to keep a low profile, hoping to avoid a Congressional inquiry.

Meanwhile, known to us to be sharing cooler space with my tub of paste, were a bag of tortilla chips, a sack of frozen bagels, and a box of kitchen matches, wrapped in tin foil. A treasure-trove for future scientists who might stumble upon it. It became a kind of a joke. Whenever anything went missing it was said to be in the cooler.

"Have you seen the hammer?"

"No, maybe it's in the blue cooler."

But I missed my miso. Why hadn't I gobbled it all up when I had the chance? Lived for the moment? Carpe'd the diem?

Last week, the geologists announced that they were going to the top of the Insel Range on an exploratory day trip.

"We'll be flying right over the old Boreas camp," whispered Adam. "We're going to have a quick look and see if we see it down there."

Eager to contribute to the effort, I lent them my binoculars, and then left on a long solo hike, to distract myself from the inevitable agony of uncertainty and anticipation.

That evening, when I returned, battered and trail-weary, we sat and waited. The geological fact-finding party was late returning, inexplicably delayed. At last, at almost ten at night, we heard a whirr of rotor blades far off in the distance, from the direction of the Pearse Valley. Soon the helicopter came into view, landing minutes later in a tidal wave of blowing snow and sand. It was easy to imagine how such a blast might have swept a cooler over and off the back of Boreas. I pictured it rolling, end over end down the valley, pushed by the katabatic winds. In the month that had passed it might have traveled quite far.

Gina, the helo-tech, disembarked under the beating blades. Watching from a safe distance I saw her helping the geologists unstrap themselves and descend from the helo. Then she was unbuckling the webbing of the cargo storage compartment and getting out their backpacks. Then.... Was it? It was! In no time Adam and Andrew, heads bowed to avoid the rotor blades, each holding a handle of the cooler, were running purposefully towards me, like Vietnam triage medics hurrying a stretcher across a battlefield.

It had blown down the hill and rested upside down for a month, but my miso paste was unscathed. Gina had spotted it near my old tent site, they said.

Crackling through their headsets, while they were still at least a mile out, had come: "Is it blue, with a white top?" Eagle-eye Gina, they were calling her.

The wind's picking up again. I think I'll have another warming cup of soup. Mmmmm.


Sedimentary, my dear Watson!

November 27th
Dear Deany,

Some years ago, before Dr. Adam Lewis was a Dr., when he was "building six hundred thousand dollar goldfish ponds for yuppie jerks," he decided one day that he wanted to get a more fulfilling result from digging holes in the ground. He called a few of his old college geology professors, asking who might be worth approaching about a graduate program, and then headed to Maine. Clutching his transcript, he ambushed a professor named George Denton. Denton had his suitcase in one hand and was proverbially reaching to take his hat off the hook with the other. He was literally walking out the door of his office, departing for his next field season in Antarctica. Nonetheless, Lewis thrust his grade report at the other man who, in order to take it, must at least have had the good grace to put down one of the things he was carrying. Then Lewis stammered out his desire to study glaciology and how it fits in with what he likes to call "the big picture."

"Do you think there might a be place for me around here next semester?" asked Lewis. I imagine Denton, that eminence of glaciology, squinting down his nose and over the tops of his reading glasses at Lewis, and then through them at the transcript.

"We might be able to work something out," said Denton, unless he said something else equally noncommittal. "Nice to meet 'cha; gotta go, I'm off to Antarctica."

"So on the strength of that," Lewis told us on camera, "my wife and I packed up the car, left Idaho, and moved to Maine." Denton, he says, was horrified to hear later that his perfunctory and lukewarm approval had been enough to alter Lewis' destiny. Nevertheless it all worked out in the end, and now Lewis digs trenches in Antarctica in which no goldfish will ever swim. It is his seventh season.

Recently we filmed in a hole he dug. We have come to think of it as the ultimate trench of the 2006 field season, a work of art of glacial stratigraphy. A narrow slot that begins at a slab of exposed, striated bedrock, it slices some fifty feet into the hillside, exposing a roadmap of upteen years of sedimentary history. You would look and you would see compacted dirt and sand and pebbles; Lewis sees a story that unfolds over millions of years of history, and he begins to read it, out loud.

First, at the bottom, gouges in the bedrock indicate the passage of glaciers, first wiping the rock clean and then scoring it with boulders caught up at the edge of a ponderous but inexorably advancing mountain of ice. As you can see for yourself, various glaciers passed over this rock; the deep scratches show various axes of different glacial flows. Call this the prologue.

Next to it, at the bottom of the trench, is the beginning of this book, the oldest till, a layer of churned soil, rounded, scarred and semi-polished rocks and other rubble abandoned by the passing glacier. Above this is a hiatus, a narrow layer of ochre soil that represents a gap in the chronology, a missing chapter. Rusty-orange, oxidized, this layer sat, and weathered, and blew away, and absorbed rain, and dried, and was perhaps replenished from time to time by wind-born dust. It is impossible to say how long this hiatus lasted; thousands of years? Or millions?

Now the excitement starts, for it seems to have gotten awfully warm in the interim, before the next glaciation. Standing where we are in the trench, with fine tan sand underfoot, our feet would once, very long ago, have gotten wet. We might have dabbled our toes in the lapping edges of a lake. "Awfully warm," of course, is a relative and highly technical term; at this latitude, and with only a few months of sun in the year, those toes would have gotten very chilly, but here there was indisputably open water. Lewis reads the lake action in the wall of the trench. Each year or season narrow bands of sediment accumulated at the bottom of the lake, later to be buried again by the next year's layer.

As we walk up the slope of the trench we move through time, striding through the millenia towards the present day. A vertical foot encompasses countless years of lake deposits; there was water here for a very long time. The dried, cracked layers of mud jutting out from the wall of the trench are uniform and narrow, like old-growth tree rings. It is more than likely that at some point life, frozen out by the earlier passage of the glacier, returned to the water and the surrounding shores. Plants similar to those which still grow in Patagonia today might once have flourished here. Leaves, twigs and the fossils of microscopic organisms undoubtedly lie trapped in these layers, waiting for discovery. Imagine the calm shores of an Adirondack lake, a golden birch leaf settling gently into the sand at the edge of the burbling shore; picture this going on year after year, layer after layer. That is what we are looking at here, but it all took place in some unimaginably distant past.

Climbing the trench, Lewis starts to see the influence of another, much later glacier. The lake, he thinks, was at some point trapped between the advancing ice and the bedrock. The layers grow less even and uniform. They are wavy, thick, and then thin. In some places some force has pushed an upper layer down, to slice through the older ones, intermingling the layers. This looks rather like one of those bottles of layered technicolored sand available as a diversion at the state fair. The glacier is approaching; fast, turbulent deposits sluice off the meltwater at its front edge, like a torrent whirling down a Brooklyn sewer in a thunderstorm. Each narrow layer a few feet further back down the trench might represent a year, so that a centimeter, or an inch or so might contain a decade or two of deposits, whereas the thick and wavy layers above were dropped much more quickly; a foot of these spectacular layers of interbedded sand might only represent a few storms one summer, or a handful of especially warm and melty days.

As the glacier approaches the layers thicken even more, until suddenly there are no more sandy, silty deposits. Here, at the top of the trench, the glacier has overridden the lake, pushing it away, obliterating it, and burying those final turbulent waves of sediment beneath another glacial till of chopped and rounded rocks. Here, for now is the end of the story, but between us, standing on solid ground at the top of the trench, and the till beneath our feet, lies another, invisible hiatus. Since that last glacier passed, we can speculate, everything froze down, no more layers have been deposited, and this barren hilltop has remained ever since the windblown plain of rocks on which we are camped.

All my best,

A Pestilence of Literary Coincidences

"...he seemed to find a curious private pleasure in doing something he knew to be absurd, with minute efficiency." Evelyn Waugh MEN AT ARMS

"Is there such a thing as chance? I was coming to believe that a lot of what seems to happen 'by chance' is in fact our own doing: once we look at the world through different glasses we see things which previously escaped us, and which we therefore believed to be non-existent. Chance, in short, is ourselves." Tiziano Terzani A FORTUNE-TELLER TOLD ME

November 25th
Dear Deany,

Not much to do around here except read books and split rocks....

Coincidences swirl in the air amongst the big, heavy snowflakes that are falling on the Friis Hills tonight. As sometimes happens when one learns a new word, or encounters the name of some previously unknown locale, only to find it cropping up everywhere in a series of tormenting, persistent dejas vu, I cannot seem to free myself from the literature of Antarctica. Or, at least, the antarctic in literature. "How can you read that stuff?" Adam Lewis asked Alan Ashworth and me, when he heard the two of us recently discussing Douglas Mawson and his diet. "Don't you want something tropical to read when you're down here? Some Conrad or something?" No. Precisely not. Because we are here. Where the greats trudged and froze and died. But now, after putting away Amundsen and Cherry-Garrard, Wilson and Mawson, Wheeler and Huntford, I have finally exhausted the thousands of antarctic words that I schlepped all the way from New York. I thought a chapter closed, as it were, and felt ready to move on.

To give myself just such a break from the "ice-writers," I brought along "Trawler," by Redmond O'Hanlon, one of England's greatest living travel writers, although he has produced only four travelogues. Tropical indeed. Each and every one of his efforts prior to "Trawler" is the chronicle of a maniacal and obsessive jungle trek to the brink of exhaustion; his entire oeuvre is a trio of sweaty, steamy, malarial, chlorophyll-drenched journeys through Borneo, Venezuela, and Congo.

In "Trawler," Luke Bullough, a PhD candidate in marine biology, convinces O'Hanlon that to see wild, amazing and astonishing life forms there is no need to melt in the feverish tropics while being consumed by hideous insects. The deep waters of the North Sea offer all the biodiversity and oddity one could possibly hope for, he argues. Not to mention the timeless pleasures of a sea voyage. I highly recommend the read to my foxy marine biologist friends Gretchen, Anne and Mackenzie and that dude Tim that they work with short-lining fish out of the ice-covered Ross sea.

On the eve of their departure aboard the commercial fishing trawler Norlantean, from the Orkney port of Stromness, into the teeth of a force 12 January gale, Luke and Redmond drink their last Guinesses in a pub. These beers O'Hanlon will very soon offer back up to the sea in one of literature's most lengthy and exhaustive descriptions of sea-sickness. At the bar they sit "beneath a portrait of Sir John Franklin's vessels Erebus and Terror, which, as we were to do, I remembered, had sailed out of Stromness, never to be seen again." Now, those who do not live on Ross Island may not remember, but the two great mountains on it are named for those very same ill-fated vessels. As if that were not enough, where do you think the preternaturally adept trawlerman Luke Bullough turns out to have learned his fisheries skills? As an inspector in Antarctic waters, of course.

No sooner had I turned the last salt-sprayed, fish-gutty page of "Trawler," than I pulled Anne Fadiman's "Ex Libris" out of my plastic Pelican steamer-trunk. A book-lover's lover's book, subtitled "Confessions of a Common Reader," it is a thin, sometimes cute, rather light, but often delicious exploration of bibliomania, which I intend to pass along to my mother in the hope that, despite being almost forty-five years into the proposition, she may still be capable of fresh insights into the workings of the mind of her husband, my father, a man whose home office is a sort of maze of stalagmitic piles of books, a room so crammed with teetering Greco-Roman columns of literature that even when he has made space for himself to sit in there, one is hard pressed to find him amongst the volumes. But I digress. In her third essay, "My Odd Shelf," Fadiman argues that no matter the organizational strategy of the private collection, from the anally retentive to the wildly chaotic (viz. pater big John V., above) there exists somewhere within it "a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner."

Fadiman does not tell us what George Orwell's collection of nineteenth century women's magazines reveals about him, but she admits to the contents of her own odd shelf: "sixty-four books about polar exploration... so charged with sentiment that they might as well be smudged with seal blubber and soaked with spray from the Weddell Sea." All of the explorers she fancies were "unqualified failures," she writes. "Not coincidentally, they were also all British." Elaborating on her theme, she goes on to say that she has "always found the twilight-of-an-empire aspect of the Victorian age inexpressably poignant, and no one could be more Victorian than the brave, earnest, optimistic, self-sacrificing, patriotic, honorable, high-minded and utterly inept men who left their names all over the maps of the Arctic and Antarctic, yet failed to navigate the Northwest Passage and lost the race to both Poles."

She reads Edward Wilson to her husband George, at night, in bed. He grunts, and, we presume, rolls over and snores. (In what seems yet another coincidence, just like Redmond O'Hanlon and me, George "is a rainforest man himself. He likes to dream of sitting under a giant tropical tree, his shoulders festooned with decaying lianas and sprouting bromeliads, with five hundred species of multi-colored slugs dropping on his head.") Fadiman reads on, alone in her own polar vortex, reminding us that the search party that found Scott's, Wilson's, and Bower's bodies found also, on their man-hauled sledge, "thirty-five pounds of rocks containing late Paleozoic fossils, leaves and stems of the genus Glossopterus, which the men had dragged 400 miles from the Beardmore Glacier."

This was one coincidence too many. After all, I am at the moment camped with a party of geologists on what is probably the most fertile fossil bed yet discovered on the Antarctic continent. And Professor Alan Ashworth, of North Dakota State University, who lives all of fifty yards away on the way to the "comfort station," has himself spent several previous field seasons collecting fossils on the Beardmore. I was spooked. I put Fadiman's book down and left my tent, stepping outside to take some deep, cold breaths of crisp Antarctic air.

Invigorated, I headed for the box. I know I mentioned in an earlier missive from Mt. Boreas the toilet, or rather the lack thereof. Our facility, if I may call it that, is a gray five-gallon bucket much like an empty drum of spackle, but lined with a plastic bag and housed within a topless plywood box, upon which rests a sculpted styrofoam ring designed for maximum comfort. The entire contraption we refer to as "the box." As in "I'm going up to the box, do I have any competition?" Or, to paraphrase Titus Oates, "I'm off to the box, I may be some time." This is generally taken to be short for "crap box," or, for that matter, any other one of our abundant excremental euphemisms. Only last week as I made my way there I heard Dr. Ashworth refer to it as the "thunder-box," which although on the face of it less obscene, conjured rather too vivid a picture. I remember wondering at the time if this was an archaic construction or his original invention. When one is en route, however, one tends not to pause too long in the contemplation of such etymological curiosities.

Having relieved myself of my anxieties, I returned to my tent, and to Fadiman. Only a few short essays after "My Odd Shelf" I found one entitled "You Are There," dedicated to "the practice of reading books in the places they describe." Here she explained why, some years ago, I had packed "Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon" on a trip to Ilheus, in Bahia, for rereading in the city where Jorge Amado set and wrote it, despite considering a stack of other books which I had not yet read.

Indescribable were the joys of tramping through decrepit cacao plantations between reading chapters denouncing those corrupt colonels who once waged wars over the very same hectares. Delightful to retreat for the evening and drink caipirinhas on the same cobbled plaza where the cacao barons of Amado's pages arrived by horse-and-buggy to gamble away their sticky riches in the saloons of Ilheus.

Fadiman, who professes to have read "Yeats in Sligo, Isak Dinesen in Kenya, and John Muir in the Sierras" makes no mention of bringing the contents of her "odd shelf" to Antarctica. But I'm certain that if she were ever to find herself camped up here in the Friis Hills, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard would be there too, tucked into the marsupial pouches on the walls of her Scott tent. Despite his genius, Conrad, I suspect, would be resting safe on the shelves at home, awaiting a cruise on the Andaman Sea....

I know what you are thinking. How nicely things have come full circle in that last paragraph, Conrad jostling with the Antarctic greats, the philosophy of site-specific reading explained, echoing the lead; Why even continue? Wasn't that just the place to end?

But how then to justify that trip to the rest room, the absurd digression into fifth-grade potty humor of a few paragraphs back?

To explain I must embarrass myself with the admission that although I have my own shelf at home dedicated to Evelyn Waugh, I had never read "Men at Arms." In the last moments of packing I took it down and tucked it into a Pelican case for shipment to Antarctica, thinking it would be perfect if in fact I decided I wanted to read something that would pull me far away from here. Putting away Fadiman, I pulled out Waugh. Surely there, in a novel proposing that the turmoil of World War Two bound the final shroud around the mummified British class system, I would avoid any Antarctic resonance.

"Men at Arms" is the story of Guy Crouchback, the childless and no longer married Catholic last of his line. Moribund since his divorce years ago, too young to have honored his country in the first great war and too old to contribute much in the second, Crouchback nonetheless emerges from a terminal early retirement and contrives to join the antiquated Royal Corps of Halberdiers, where he falls in with Apthorpe, an ambitious sycophant with delusions of warrior grandeur. The only other newly-minted Halberdier in his graying mid-thirties, "Apthorpe alone looked like a soldier. He was burly, tanned, moustached, primed with a rich vocabulary of military terms and abbreviations. Until recently he had served in Africa in some unspecified capacity."

Apthorpe, nonetheless, has issues. He carts mountains of strange gear with him to every new barracks inhabited by the Halberdiers, and for fear of syphilis, he confides to Crouchback, he refuses to sit on the dormitory toilets of the commandeered preparatory school in which they are billeted. Instead he has carted with him all the way from Karonga, wherever in Africa that is, a portable, dry-chemical commode, a square box of oak and brass of the sort that even in 1939 they didn't make like that any more. Crouchback wonders what it is that the secretive Apthorpe has hidden beneath the stairs: "Well, if you must know," comes the reply, "it's my Thunder-box."

See you soon,


Honey, do you mind defrosting the fridge while I'm away?

I have this nagging feeling I left the freezer door ajar when I took off in August.

The Friis Hills Battle for Culinary Supremacy

November 26th
Dear Deany,

We all can't thank you enough for the deluge of snacks and treats that arrived on a helo last week. Not a thing came from overseas, which I have now come to think of as "off-continent," but the outpouring of warmth from all our friends in McMurdo made us feel missed, at least locally. Thanks to Holly for abundant chocolate and marshmallows, Katie for all sorts of goodies pirated directly from a care package she herself had just received, and Helen for a stuffed dead cat, to keep us company. I think. Most of all I want to extend to you my personal gratitude for your unswerving dedication to keeping antarcticiana updated and online, and for your gift. Folks back in the so-called civilized world might think one single head of garlic a meagre present, especially compared to the cornucopia of riches it arrived with, but they just don't understand the situation here. With all due respect, thanks and hugs to everyone else, I have to declare your gift the most exciting and welcome of all. For weeks we have been subsisting on a starchy, fatty diet which taxes our culinary inventiveness to the fullest, not to mention our gastrointestinal tracts. The closest we ever get to "green," or "fresh," are some dehydrated slivers of onion that look like toenail clippings, and the odd frozen pea. Nonetheless an intermittent competition to see who can do the most with the least, rages on, at least in my tortured mind. Anne has brought many delightful prepared french delicacies she snuck past the customs agents of several different countries, not to mention she makes a mean braised pork loin, with mushrooms and re-hy potatoes. Sylvestre does a killer shrimp and scallop soup with pineapple cubes and sambal, which he calls Sala Mitsu and claims is the national dish of Cambodia. It is super-delicious despite the utter scarcity hereabouts of an herb known to him and to all Quebecois-vietnamese greengrocers only as "m'hom," but Syvestre would be the first to admit that he is a one-trick pony. To put it in hockey terms, once the front line sits down there is pretty much nobody with a slap-shot left skating on the ice. As for myself, with my well-established arsenal of cornmeal and shredded beef-jerky feijoada, Skippy-peanut-butter-miso-curry-ramen, flour tortilla-au-chocolate bar fondu, and my devastating masterpiece, an Italian sweet sausage and lentil pilaf-biryani hybrid, I have been confident since early on, and I remain sure of my ability to annihilate any and all comers who dare to step in front of the dual burners of the Coleman 425. Nonetheless, your shipment of the super top secret real and authentic special forces garlic, by express helicopter was like giving an RPG launcher to someone who until then has been firing away with a rusty six-shooter. I include some photographs of the feast which followed the hallowed arrival of the garlic, prepared by moi: gambas-al-ajillo, "armenian" turmeric and currant pulao, and congele de petit pois aux onions et beurre.

What's more, I still have a few cloves left!

With continued thanks,


Happy Birthday, Professor

November 21st

Today is the birthday of my brilliant and divine younger sister. Since she has now reached an age when it should be considered exuberantly journalistic, not to say imprudently tabloidesque, to reveal the actual number of years that have passed since her arrival here, let us all simply agree that she is a fox. You don't look a day over twenty-five, dahling! Her professional and personal achievements at such a tender age continue to delight and amaze us all; both her meteoric rise to academic superstardom and her hat-trick delivery of a string of delectable nieces (my nieces, mine, mine, all mine) have so far and away exceeded the conceivable expectations of the preceding generation as to have, in my mind, carried over as a sort of cleansing wash of glory, sympathetically relieving myself of any and all pressures to perform in any arena whatsoever, from the marital to the literary. For this I am eternally grateful. Wishing you, all the way from the edge of the frozen continent, continued happiness and many happy returns of the day!

Thirty Six Square Feet of Bliss

November 19th
Dear Deany,

With less than three weeks to go out here in the Friis Hills, Anne is desperate for a storm. A nasty head-down, snorkle-hooded, duck-and-cover gale would certainly interrupt the monotony of twenty-four hour sunshine and endless uniformly blue skies. It is not that she is a glutton for punishment, but it would be nice to see our merry crew of geologists suffering some real Antarctic weather at some point in our movie. At the moment, as we keep joking, the weather looks, through the camera, ideal for taking a stroll down to the vegetable garden and harvesting a few bunches of bananas.

Finally over the last few days the wind has come up, stripping every last bit of warmth out of every nook and cranny and pushing dense and threatening clouds through the dry valleys. But so far it doesn't look cold, it just is cold.

Lying in the Scott tent the last few nights has made for some quite exciting moments, although I would be surprised to learn that the wind had ever gusted much above twenty-five knots. A real Black Island style blow would be grisly, leaving us wide-eyed and panic-stricken. Even at fifteen to twenty the double-walled canvas teepee I live in hums and flaps and vibrates and one starts to consider in quite an obsessive way whether or not enough hard work was done when setting the thing up. Is that new, strange sound the flapping of a loose guy-wire? The hefty chunks of rock I tied them to on the calm afternoon of my arrival ought probably to have been buried under a pile of more rocks, after all, they weren't so hefty that I wasn't able to pick them up. And it occurs to me that compared to those, the ones I hastily scattered around the apron of the tent are mere pebbles. Do I hear wind whistling under the lip of the tent, lifting it up? I'm deep in my bag, and to go outside and assuage my paranoia would require a major operation of dressing and bundling and booting, not to mention the complete write-off of all my carefully preserved nocturnal pockets of sleeping bag warmth. Unthinkable. Perhaps if I listen to my ipod I won't be plagued by all the flapping. Wait. What's that ripping sound?

I've complicated my life in these trying, windy times by orienting my tent so that the entrance faces the south and the Polar Plateau, source of the katabatic gusts we have been experiencing. Our first day in camp, back at Mt. Boreas almost a month ago, I was excited to put into practice the knowledge gained at "snow school." We had learned that the mouth of a Scott tent should be canted some forty-five degrees off of the downwind axis, to minimize snow drift and wind impact.

"What's the prevailing wind direction here?" I asked, chirpily, as if to prove that I was on the ball, thinking things through, prepared to go the distance.

"Just take a look around yourself here at the way the snow drifts up into narrow piles behind the rocks," replied Professor Ashworth, in an academic podium tone suggesting that I might better in future engage brain prior to requesting clarification of the obvious. So when we arrived here at Friis Hills I drew on this lesson for inspiration, reading the drifted snow like tea leaves and then manhandling my tent, solo, into the proper orientation. But something went wrong somewhere, an insignificant sample size, perhaps, or the failure to include a control group. Now that the winds have started to blow they meet my entranceway full in the face. The opening of a Scott tent is a round canvas tube, a sort of nozzle-like appendage attached to one wall, through which I must crawl to get in and out. In the wind I must now keep this roped closed, cinched tight, but it nonetheless blows inward, taking up valuable real estate and, inflated, looking like nothing so much as a single, enormous yellow breast, protruding into my living space. Frigid air bellows in through the nipple.

Inside the tent is a jaundiced, yellow world. It is a bit like living inside of a sundial; since the sun never sets one approximates the time by peering out of the maw of the sleeping bag to observe which wall or corner of the tent glows most brightly. Despite the thick insulation, the yellow glow of the sun penetrates the sleeping bag, within which all glows red, warm and womblike. It is most difficult to redeliver oneself into the world each morning.

Gray clouds on the horizon, rolling in low over the Taylor Glacier....


November 20
Morning update:

If it wasn't gusting up to forty last night, my name is Ratzinger. Periodic snoozes with the narcotic ipod earbuds buried deep in the canal to combat the roar were interrupted by sudden, stomach-churning blasts of glacially chilled air, which threatened to peel the tent off of the rocky ground like a wet band-aid. Buffeting, Rending, Roaring and Whistling collaborated in an ongoing and persistent assault. Within my insular yellow capsule the external world ceased to exist; outside the tent everything was distilled down to one essential essence, the onslaught of the fearsome, ornery and pernicious wind. The forces of evil gathered, swirling, lewd and leering, poking, prodding, looking for a way in.

At some point this morning I will pour the last dribble from my thermos, or my pee bottles will fill to overflowing, or I will munch the last of my emergency supply of McVitie's biscuits. Any of which events will precipitate a crisis, forcing me to venture out onto the wind-battered plain in search of supplies: perhaps a lone remnant sachet of instant soup awaits me there, trapped by a boulder, or the last shards of an exploded bag of gorp, a few butterscotch bits scattered amongst the rocks. At which point I will be able to tell you if any of my dear companions survived the night, or if they have all, as I now suspect, been blown, tents and all, over the rim of Pearse Valley and down, down, down into the canyon below....

An Afternoon Amongst the Pecten Gravels

November 18th
Dear Deany,

Took yet another helo flight yesterday, to visit Prospect Mesa and the Pecten Gravels. Prospect Mesa is a strange remnant hill in the valley carved by the Onyx River. Geologists seem to like strange remnant hills. And Prospect Mesa, once you start looking at things from a geological perspective, is truly bizarre. Over countless millenia, the river, Antarctica's biggest, although it only has water in it for something less than two months a year, has carved a broad, flat, gravelly channel. But somehow, despite the passage of glaciers and at times, river water, the Prospect Mesa has avoided erosion; in a vast, uniform, bowl-shaped valley it pokes its way up from the valley floor, a lone anomalous hillock surrounded by dry streambeds. That glaciers and streams have left it unmolested accounts for its interest to geology. On one side of it, where the helicopter put down, was an old geologists' trench carved into the side of the hill, and a battered wooden stake on which someone, in a bored moment of extreme camping, had burnt in block capitals the letters "PECTEN."

The geologists began to dig and poke about in the trench. I was with them on a sort of personal boondoggle; we had not come to film, and in fact I was the only one of the film crew along for the pleasure ride. There was not enough room in the helo for all seven of us (the four geologists and three documentarians). Sylvestre and I might have overcome this logistical hurdle by going along just the two of us and filming without the presence of our fearless leader, but that would have left Anne all alone in camp, which is forbidden by one regulation or another. So it was a bit like one of those brain-teasers in which a virgin, a wolf, a mailman, and a rabbit arrive together at the edge of a river only to find one lone rowboat big enough for only two. You know the rest. With no geologists in camp there would be little need for my services, so Anne and Sylvestre decided to take some silent Antarctic landscapes, leaving me free to tag along on the helo ride. (I am a sound recordist, not a silence recordist, I explained to Anne). When we arrived the geologists were no doubt disheartened that a big, strapping youth like myself did not pitch in to help them dig out the twenty-year old trench, but I blame Anne for their disappointment; she hadn't told them that I have a "no-digging" clause in my contract.

Instead of digging, I hiked up the riverbed. It is one of the first geological features I have seen here that reminded me of the other, outside, world. Specifically, the dry and sandy bed, reminded me of the parched oued which bisects Tamanrasset in the algerian sahara, except that that river is full of ruined black shopping bags snagged on thornbushes, and dotted with dried clumps of camel dung. Here an obvious channel wound its way through the gravelly bottom through small drifts of blowing snow. There were even, in a few places, icey bits, as if the stream had frozen solid last season before all the "summer" water had trickled away and down to Lake Vanda.

I found no camel dung, but only the cryogenisized carcasses of several generations of seal suicides, dotting the valley floor. And an intact, dead, Adelie penguin. What makes them do it, Deany? What urge forces these marine creatures to abandon their beloved sea-water and trek uphill and inland to their inevitable deaths? Are they searching for new breeding grounds? Are they aged or infirm individuals slinking off to die, like geriatric eskimos? Have they, like the invalided Titus Oates, who walked out of Scott's tent and away into his sacrificial blizzard, saying "I may be gone for some time," determined that they are too great a burden on their communities? Have their internal compasses gone haywire? It is not as if they have taken a simple wrong turn away from the colony. Where we touched down beside the Prospect Mesa must have been some fifteen miles from the Ross Sea, and my GPS recorded 150 meters above sea level. Furthermore, the Onyx River flows west, away from the sea, so these mummified corpses had, in life, crossed over higher ground, a pass, or at least a saddle, in order to get here. On a four-mile walk up the riverbed I found seven bodies in various states of very slow decay, but seals do not kill themselves in this way as frequently as I make it sound; the freezing conditions preserve their bodies for decades, even centuries, and some of the dead might have been lying still where I found them since Titus Oates' valiant last hike.

When I returned I found the geologists happily wallowing in pectens like so many hippopotami in a Rwandan pond. In their joy at being awash in fossils my earlier failure to dig was entirely forgotten. A pecten, for those of you who don't know, is a scallop; why geologists call them pectens and not scallops I cannot tell you. The pectens of the Pecten Gravels are thought to be nine million years old, but even in the context of such a tremendous passage of time it is difficult to understand how these shells come to be here. Like the seals and the Adelie penguin they are strictly marine creatures. Unlike the frozen carcasses I found, the scallops did not upend on their bivalves and walk here. Once, then, the Prospect Mesa was beside the sea-shore. Were its 150 meters of altitude once sandwiched down below such a massive glacier that the very earth's crust compressed enough to bring this spot down to the level of the ocean? Or were the seas so much higher? It is, the geologists told me, geologically confusing. But the pectens don't lie. The sea was here, one way or another. They were amazing to see, classically scallop-shaped, templates for the emblem of the pilgrim, many of the shells perfectly intact and not, as you or I might put it, fossilized. They looked and felt like shells.

All my best to you and all at McMurdo,


Do you see what I see?

A. A Loaf of Bread
B. Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
C. A breaching tarpon, or bonefish
D. Don Quijote and Sancho Panza
E. Elmer Fudd
F. A Pontiac Thunderbird
G. Spiro Agnew
H. Two Tree Frogs, copulating
I. Mt. Rushmore
J. A Spicy Tuna Maki Roll

November 17th
Dear Deany,

Not that I am any more superstitious than your average African shaman, but after having written that last crack about the imminent Erebus eruption engulfing McMurdo I decided it was an inauspicious day for me to be flying around in a helicopter so, big-hearted fellow that I am, I let Anne and Sylvestre go up there alone. I hear them whirring back and forth now, getting those all important shots of the camp as seen from the air. It is actually worth passing up the flight just to have a few minutes of uninterrupted solitude. Anne and Sylvestre and I are getting along fabulously, all things considered, but my oh my do we all live on top of one another. Anne has it the worst because she lives in the tent we cook and eat in. The Scott tents allow for private sleeping and laying on the cot but not much else; inside mine is a pretty claustrophobic environment, what with boot liners, socks, mittens, defrosting sunblock and Gator Balm and the computer and all the rest of it dangling from the tapered roof.

I want to thank you and Katie for your words of encouragement on the blog. We hadn't seen a helo since just after arriving here in the Friis Hills so that in part accounts for the delay in getting some more news out, but also just blasting stuff off into the void without any feedback was starting to get wearisome. So thank you both for your notes. I'll try to keep it coming even though I feel I may have already exhausted the local subject matter. (Rocks, Going for walks, Going for walks amongst the rocks, etc.). On the flight in today we also for the first time got a printout of everything you have posted since I headed out to Mt. Boreas; antarcticiana looks fabulous, thanks to you and your efforts.

On the subject of rocks and going for walks I know that I mentioned some time ago that we are camped on an expansive plain of boulders, mainly chunks of basaltic dolorite, the reddish-black rock that is the primary rock in the surrounding Friis Hills. There are also many granite boulders, abandoned here many millions of years ago by glacial activity, and these have weathered in a most extraordinary way. They are rounded, curvaceous, even. Some have holes punched through them. These are known as "erratics" to geologists because they are not made up of local rock and have been carried here and deposited by glaciers. I call them "eccentrics." I think I suggested that the whole area looks like a sort of modernist sculpture garden run wild, but leaving aside the history of twentieth century art what is most remarkable is how many of these spectacular rocks look just like common household objects, or famous people from history.

I admit we have been out here for quite a long time, but before you go accusing me of being one of those wackos who sees the Virgin Mary in a crumpled up paper bag or something take a look at these amazing specimens for yourself (I will here later insert the obligatory link to philjacobsen.com, Phil in a winterover moment having seen the Virgin Mary in an old oily cardboard box, I think it was).

In any case I thought it would be fun to make this post into a kind of a brain teaser, so here it is: match one of the numbered photographs with the lettered description that fits. I know a lot of them are really easy and obvious, but I've tried to throw in a few stumpers. Post your solution in the "comments" and I'll buy a round next time I'm in the same place as the winner.


Is Anybody out There?

Somewhere around the middle of November
Dear Deany,

We've been just over a week here at Friis Hills and are rapidly approaching the halfway mark of the camping in the wilderness portion of our Antarctic experience. We're going on another helicopter flight today to get aerial footage of our setup here on this little mesa, but I won't be able to get those photographs out yet since I hope this missive will be reaching you on that very same helo.

I've been managing some sort of breath-taking hike almost every day here; since the sun no longer goes down at all we film for a full day and there is still time and light left over to walk out to the edge of the polar ice sheet or climb one of the low dolorite hills that surround the rocky plain we are camped on. Two days ago all seven of us, the four geologists and three filmmakers, hiked out together to the easternmost lobe of our "island." It was quite an ordeal carrying video camera, tripod and sound gear for what must have been a good five miles over rocks and snow. The photo of us grinning like monkeys with all our gear weighing us down is, trust me, from a very early stage of the excursion. From time to time we went ahead of the geologists, set up, and then filmed them in the distance, approaching us, passing us, forgetting to wait for us while we madly packed the stuff back up and ran to catch them, and so on. They ate lunch overlooking Stocking Glacier, at the foot of which two other geologists are camped investigating some muddy lobes that droop down towards the sea ice. Adam Lewis spoke to these two at length on the radio and we spent a good half an hour trying to locate them visually, for no particular good reason. Nobody had brought binoculars along and so we set up the camera with the telephoto lens and tried to spy their Endurance tent against the brown hillside below, but without success. Alan Ashworth and Adam had camped together with one of the two the year before, but there was nothing to be gained from seeing their camp at such a distance, so the whole episode was rather bizarre. It demonstrated, I thought, humanity's desperate and primal urge to be social, the seven of us peering far off into the distant valley below from atop a granite boulder, offering one another hints and suggestions and interpretations of the directions we were receiving via radio, all in the futile attempt to see a tent exactly like our own, a faraway colored smudge that would offer proof that we are not, in fact, the last seven remaining souls on earth, that there are still others out there. In one of the photos I've included here you can see Sylvestre and I double-teaming Adam Lewis and attempting to paparazzi him to death as he talks to the mythical other camp on the radio. He resisted our attempts to terrorize him into falling over the edge onto the glacier and invited the invisible geologist duo down in the valley to hike up and join us for Thanksgiving, which should be coming up fairly soon. I don't have much more of a sense of time and day and date at this point than to be able to tell you that it is somewhere around the middle of November....

From our granite outcropping we had a phenomenal view of Erebus, which says something about how clear the air is, since the summit must be close to one hundred miles away. I regret to inform you that Alan and Adam pondered the questions "what would happen if Erebus erupted and wiped out everyone in McMurdo?" And: "how long would it take someone to come and get us off of here if that happened?"

Hoping you pull through the eruption,