And give Andrian my record collection

Here are a couple more images from yesterday, one of the local use of bamboo for "flagging" trails, and the other taken out the window of our office at Crary laboratory at dusk.

Tomorrow at 9AM we leave for our "survival training." Long ago in tropical Manhattan we decided to get this class out of the way as soon as possible after our arrival, since once trained we will be cleared to travel to many more localities. The training, also known as happy camper school ("because you are so happy to get back," as one wag put it) is supposed to include building an igloo and then spending the night in it, or in an adjacent tent. Or sleeping in a trench carved into the ice. The forecast calls for evening lows in the -25 F range, with wind chill down to -40. People to whom we have mentioned our upcoming camping trip, referred to as a "shakedown," have had two responses. Some said: "really? I didn't think they did that at this time of year." The others just began to laugh with the uniquely sinister edge of hysteria which identifies the winterover. If I don't make it back, tie me kangaroo down, sport.


An Afternoon Excursion

This afternoon we drove out to Castle Rock to shoot some scenics. As soon as McMurdo Station was lost behind the first hill I felt a sense of relief. The community here, at least at this time of year, is so insular, and the opportunities to leave so infrequent, that after about ten days "on station" I already feel a bit imprisoned. Until today we had only been to Scott's Discovery hut, a few hundred meters away from the dorms. Our hope was that the sky would clear enough for us to actually see the sun; this is a big deal for winterovers, who haven't seen it since April. We hoped to get some pictures of it low in the sky and perhaps be able to illustrate the sense of euphoria that must come when it finally rises again. In the first photo I believe it is lurking somewhere there in the clouds.

We took a Pisten Bully along the Castle Rock loop, one of the flagged, authorized recreational tracks that Raytheon workers and other McMurdo community members can enjoy on their day off. (The typical Raytheon contract is six days times nine hours). Anne drove this absurd and humorous vehicle.

Castle Rock is a legendary landmark, used by Scott and Shackleton and most anyone who has every sailed or steamed deep down into McMurdo sound.

We scrambled up the slope to get some pictures of the frozen sound from the ridge above. Anne humped the tripod up the mountain because I have a "no-schlep" clause in my contract.

The scenery is pretty mind-blowing.

I loaded these photos in a little larger than usual so you should be able to click on them and get an enlargement...


The Doctor Is In

Please give me a call on Extension 4XXX to schedule a convenient time for your mandatory ice probe.

photo: Sylvestre Guidi


Today we got up quite early and filmed a balloon launch. The "science group" we have been spending some time with fly helium balloons to take ozone readings and measure airborne particles. The balloons are made of .3mil plastic and are about thirty feet tall when inflated. A series of Rube Goldbergian devices, painted in multi-colored neon hues to facilitate later recovery, are suspended from the balloons in a chain; a GPS tracking device, an ozone data transmitter, the experiment which actually measures the ozone, a parachute. At the time the wind was only about five knots and the launch, although stressful, went off well. The balloon rose quickly into the black night sky and disappeared from view. As these balloons rise the helium within expands, finally bursting the balloon, at which point the parachute is meant to take over and ease the instrument back to the ground. This particular balloon made it about twenty five kilometers up before popping.In October, once the McMurdo helicopter pilots arrive, we will fly out and try to recover the remains of these experiments based on the last successfully received GPS coordinate transmission.

By mid-afternoon the conditions had turned quite nasty but we did some more filming outside nonetheless because we are men. Well, two of us are. It was minus seventeen degrees F and a fierce blow of about fifteen knots wind brought the windchill factor down to minus 37. We went out to film Phil training a couple of people on driving the Pickle, a relict forklift abandoned here by the Navy. After about forty minutes of wielding the boom in mighty brisk conditions I was certain that both of my thumbs would need to be removed and replaced, despite the chemical heat packs buried in my mittens. My wool balaclava had a chilly wet spot in the middle where I was exhaling, around which had formed an inflexible halo of ice. My beard and moustache were stiff and crackling and a sliver of exposed skin somewhere on my forehead seethed with pain. As soon as the pickle lesson was done we scampered back into the Crary laboratory, which houses our office. Total time outside was about one hour. I plugged in my 1200 watt hair dryer, toasted the balaclava dry and checked my email.

On March 14th, 1895 Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen abandoned their ship, the Fram somewhere in the frozen polar seas north of Siberia, and headed for the North Pole, either out of impatience or after some utterly unscientific determination that the icebound vessel would drift no closer. They took three sledges, thirty dogs, two bamboo kayaks, an odometer and a thermometer, some pemmican and some fish-meal. The low that night was minus forty-five degrees F and Nansen has nothing to say about how they experienced the wind chill factor in their thin silk tent. They had with them their wolfskin oversuits but didn't wear them because they were "too warm" and collected perspiration during the day, only to freeze solid at night. Nansen wore primarily numerous layers of woolens.
"I cannot deny that it is a long journey, and scarcely any one has ever more effectually burned his boats behind him," he wrote. "If we wished to turn back we have absolutely nothing to return to, not even a bare coast. It will be impossible to find the ship, and before us lies the great unknown. But there is only one road, and that lies straight ahead, right through, be it land or sea, be it smooth or rough, be it mere ice or and water. And I cannot but believe that we must get through, even if we should meet with the worst--viz. land and pack-ice."

Nansen's projections of how long the journey might take read like the purest conjecture of an extreme optimist. Within days of leaving the Fram the duo were butting up against enormous icey pressure ridges which required long detours. The canvas coverings of the kayaks, useless on the solid, endless ocean of ice, were tattered and holed from various accidents with sharp protruding ice. The temperature was often far colder than that which we experienced today on our brief foray outside. At night they shivered in reindeerskin sleeping bags for hours before these solid sheathes of ice thawed enough for them to get to sleep.

After convincing himself that they were making good progress northwards but this progress was being counteracted by a sudden and persistent southward drift of the ice on which they were traveling, Nansen finally came to his senses on April 8th and determined that for them to have any chance of returning to any kind of land they needed to turn back without reaching the pole, but having achieved "Farthest North." Summer was coming and the two men were in the middle of a frozen ocean that would shortly begin to thaw. They were, essentially, lost, since in the long brutal days of endlessly lugging their sledges over mountainous piles of shattered ice floes their watches had run down unwound and it was therefore impossible to take accurate navigational readings.

"Saturday, June 2nd [note that 8 WEEKS more of horrifying slogging have passed since the two turned back]. I could hardly have imagined that we should still be in the drift-ice without seeing land; but Fate wills otherwise, and she knows no mercy. The lane which stopped us yesterday did not close, but opened wider until there was a big sea to the west of us, and we were living on a floe in the midst of it without a passage across anywhere. So, at last, what we have so often been threatened with has come to pass: we must set to work and make our kayaks seaworthy."

Here at McMurdo I just finished my cafeteria meal of hot chicken "alfredo" along with some fresh lettuce, some of the last remaining from the last supply flight of Winfly. Afterwards I had some soft ice-cream with sprinkles. We bundle up in our three quarter length down coats to march the fifty yards from one heated building to another. I am about to go to bed, where I find my army-issue gray wool blanket a bit too warm. Compared to Fridtjof and Johansen and the rest of the Norwegian lads we will leave for now, still stranded on the ice, it is hard to conclude that we are anything more than a bunch of pussies.


More Arctic Bamboo

I'm not sure where Fridtjof Nansen sourced his bamboo, but he had the foresight to bring enough with him on the Fram journey to build his kayaks out of. This suggests that he might have hatched in advance of even setting sail his insane plan to abandon the ice-bound Fram and forge over the sea ice to the North Pole by dog-sled (here the kayak frames are piled up on a sledge). Did he know all along? The upper kayak frame is a one-man boat, the other is for two people.

photo: The Nansen Photo Archive

A staggeringly cool dude named Craig whose website I have nosed around in for years and who is into bamboo and kayaks and more lays it all out for you in case you want to try building your own. I made a small one once and floated in a tiny pond in Puerto Rico but it was nothing I'd go to the Arctic in. I bequeathed it to Alex "el jibaro de la bachata" but sadly tree-rats moved in to his garage in El Alto de la Bandera and turned it into a nest before he had a chance to launch it.

Where's my hot chocolate?

photo: Anne Aghion

photo: Sylvestre Guidi

In other news our friend Phil, who I wrote about driving the Delta out to the airport a couple of posts ago, wrote up the experience of being filmed from his perspective and it is quite amusing, particularly as a sound person getting a window into how the violations of physical space I perpetrate might be interpreted by the victim. His post also includes an excellent definition of "Winfly," the season we are currently experiencing at McMurdo.


No termite damage to be found...

Hut Point hut, McMurdo Station in the background across the "lake."

Sunday morning is sleepy time around McMurdo, an already sleepy place. The wind came up overnight and by 10AM it was rather unpleasant outside, with runnels of blowing snow ripping and coursing over the ground outside. While the rest of the station slept in we bundled up in full on sub-sub-zero battle gear, did the daily vehicle fluids checklist and drove down to Hut Point, a few hundred meters below today's McMurdo Station. Hut Point is the location of Scott's Hut from the Discovery expedition, and it hasn't aged a day since it was built. Still piled up outside are some frozen seal carcasses, whether from that expedition or slightly later ones I suspect nobody living knows for sure. We were able to hide from the vicious wind on the lee side of the building, where we filmed some spectacular landscapes. There was not much sound to be had except for the wind ripping at the bamboo flags out on the sea ice and the distant hum of McMurdo's power station. Still, only a few hundred yards from the collection of quonset huts and prefab dorms that is McMurdo we were already far enough to get a feeling of being lost in an immensity of blue and white, ice and sky indecipherably blending together at the horizon.

The hut at Hut Point. What looks like rivulets of milk coursing down the scree in front of the hut is snow blowing up the hill.


The Horror Movie Begins Now...

Hold on to your appendices, we're stranded. We drove out to the Pegasus airstrip today to see off the last plane of the season. The next flight will be in a month at the beginning of "main body," essentially summer. So in the Steven King scenario, any minute now our friends and neighbors will start mysteriously disappearing. My man Phil drove us and 13 would-be travelers out along the same route we came in on last weekend in a Delta, an enormous all terrain vehicle abandoned here by the Navy back at the dawn of time. The back, where I was sitting transmitting audio via wireless to Sylvestre in the cab, is like a jacked up cross between a monster truck and a school bus with all the seats ripped out. A stinky diesel blower/heater pumps tepid air into the compartment. We drove in an almost complete whiteout, completely unlike the conditions when we landed and McMurdo was visible from the runway. The road is lined with bamboo canes (amazingly they use real bamboo--aside from its other incredible properties it is lightweight and temperature neutral to the touch) flying flags. This is the exact technology Scott used to mark his food depots on the South Polar journey (for all of those who thought Marei's bamboo photo I posted earlier was off topic, Fridtjof Nansen also built his kayak frames out of bamboo). Every ten yards or so there is a flag, flapping and torn, as Phil pointed out, like a Tibetan prayer flag, marking the route. We could only see four or five flags in front of the vehicle. There was nothing else to be seen but white, white road, white snow-clad ice, and blowing white snow. I have no idea whether the passengers sitting beside me on long benches thought they had the slimmest chance of actually flying, but all were bundled up as per regulation, and had their orange kit bags for the flight up. Because conditions can change so fast, and because the Air Force C17 has such a huge range, policy is for the flight to take off from Christchurch, fly down to the ice, and only then abort the mission and fly back if the conditions are unsatisfactory. Because they keep the aircraft on the ground for the shortest period of time possible, any passengers out must kit up and drive out no matter how unlikely a landing seems. But to my great surprise, as we approached the airstrip through an endless wall of blowing snow, we saw that the plane was actually on the ground, and moments later the last of the departing winterovers were giving their van drivers good-bye hugs and clambering up into to the big gray beast. It was a most impressive sight to see the C17 sitting out in the middle of white nothingness on the frozen sea with no other land or frame of reference to be had.

Already it gets light, which is to say the entire visible world is suffused with a deep, deep blue, by 9 in the morning, although the sun has not yet made an appearance. Had it been clear today the sun should have been visible at midday, at least down on the ice by the runway. At this latitude the daily change is palpable; we have half an hour more light each day, so that by the end of next week I will be glad of the opaque turquoise curtain that velcros tight around the window beside my bed.

Not quite homesick yet, but thanks

My friend Marei brightened up my inbox this morning with this. Thanks, doll, I hope everything is going great in Berlin!

Who do I ask if I want to put up a poster in my dorm?

It already seems a long time ago that we landed ten miles out on the sea ice in that enormous C17, stomping down the stairs in our zipped up snorkle parkas into the white world. Like many remote outposts McMurdo station has a rigid culture and an established routine that imposes itself upon you, rather than presenting surroundings that adapt to your presence. Everyone is incredibly helpful, and in every one of the many briefings we have had we are told not to hesitate to ask for help and assistance of any kind, but all these offers are made within the rigorous constraints of the power point demonstration you have just seen and the bullet points you have just been shot with and I can't help having the feeling that to request doing anything remotely out of the ordinary would be most unsettling. It is a bizarre corporate structure. I have of course filmed within corporate structures before, but I've never really been on the inside of one as someone whose health, safety and well-being is presumed to be part of the raison d'etre of the entity. This is an environment with real potential for danger, but the obsession with personal safety rivals or perhaps even exceeds the kinds of measures I saw at Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan in May, and those folks have to worry about suicide bombers, AK-47s and Rocket attacks.

I've already made enough bad jokes about briefings but I did promise to update you on the "push-pin" briefing, which was both hilarious and gives an idea of the long corporate fingers that reach down here and poke their way into every corner of the base. All the way back in Christchurch we were briefed at the CDC (the clothing distribution center) by a jovial Kiwi who explained to us what kit we were to be issued, how to go about changing out bits of it if it was unsatisfactory, which bits we were required to wear on the flight down and so forth (in case you crash on the ice somewhere it is advisable to have a pretty hard-core complement of ECW gear with you so you don't freeze to death during the search and rescue). Gels and Liquids would be allowed on board, but any sharp objects would need to be checked. At last he said, barely containing his quite obvious mirth, "this year we have something new for you. You are each being issued with a box of one hundred push-pins." Take good care of them, he suggested, because when you get back they "will probably make us take them off you." Someone, somewhere had decided that unnecessary damage was being done to the dormitory walls at McMurdo, by residents attaching their posters and artwork to the walls with nails presumably pilfered from the construction department. Thus the prophylactic solution of a push-pin ration to go with the Canada Goose three quarter length parkas and Thinsulate lined deerskin mittens. "If both roommates have some," he continued with a chuckle, "one of you will probably have to turn yours in." When the official assigned to brief and carry out such a new and exciting proposal can't avoid making fun of it I feel confident in labeling it a deeply flawed policy.

My point is not to trash the good intentions of those whose mandate is to protect facilities and human lives (although obviously I'll do that in a heartbeat if it is good for half a laugh) but rather to try and capture the strange culture here, rooted in the conflict between living on the edge of wildness at the gateway to the coldest and most remote continent on earth, on the exact site that was the base for some of the most daring and rugged polar exploration in history, and the sense that, if not big brother, big grandma is looming constantly over you making sure you wear your long johns and don't forget to brush your teeth.

What it says on the paper that came taped around the box is:

"In an effort to maintain the integrity of the dorm rooms, you are being issued with a packet of push-pins. These push-pins should be used instead of nails, screws, lug bolts, etc. They will be considered the only acceptable means of hanging items in your room. If you need more push-pins, please stop by the Housing Office."

Fridtjof Nansen laughs at bad luck

Sick in bed today I nonetheless enjoyed the inauspicious date of this Nansen diary entry:

"Friday, October 13th. Now we are in the very midst of what the prophets would have had us dread so much. The ice is pressing and packing round us with a noise like thunder. It is piling itself up into long walls, and heaps high enough to reach a good way up the Fram's rigging; in fact, it is trying its very utmost to grind the Fram into powder. But here we sit quite tranquil, not even going up to look at all the hurly-burly, but just chatting and laughing as usual." page 116

Nonetheless, at this point the Fram, although successfully frozen solid in the ice, was drifting north-east, then south, then west, and the mood of the crew followed. They were making little if any progress towards the pole and Nansen began to be filled with doubt:

"Wednesday, November 8...Far off I see the threads of life twisting themselves into the intricate web which stretches unbroken from life's sweet morning dawn to the eternal death-stillness of the ice. Thought follows thought--you pick the whole to pieces, and it seems so small--but high above all towers one form.... Why did you take this voyage?...Could I do otherwise? Can the river arrest its course and run up hill? My plan has come to nothing. That palace of theory which I reared, in pride and self-confidence, high above all silly objections has fallen like a house of cards at the first breath of wind.... But no, there is no getting over the evidence of that Siberian drift-wood."


Hey Red, Git the Dawgs!

Syl on our first day with "weather." We're on our way to our Comms brief. Yesterday we had our "In-brief," which is a sort of a brief where they brief you on who to turn to to schedule your more specific briefings. At the Comms brief we were assigned our call sign, which is Whiskey two-one-eight, so if any of you are down here with a Motorola walkie give us a holler.

Reading: Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen

This is not an original observation, but I am able to confirm that even amongst those with a strong sense of geography any differentiation between the two polar regions can be elusive. Before I came to Antarctica I was asked if I was likely to see polar bears. They live only in the Arctic. "Will you see any penguins, or do they only have those at the north pole?" (I told Anne our friendship will be over if I fail to see some penguins on this trip--there are colonies some distance away on Ross Island, where the McMurdo station is, but seeing them right here is apparently unlikely. There are no penguins at the north pole, although one species, the Galapagos Penguin, lives as far north as the equator, on the Galapagos Islands. Antarctica proper has two species, the Emperor and the Adelie; many others live on various Islands in the deep southern oceans but don't quite reach as far south as the continent). Why then complicate the issue with a mention of Farthest North, a memoir of north polar exploration?

Despite the confusion there are obvious similarities between the north Arctic and the southern Antarctic. They are both, as my pappy used to say, and his pappy before him, colder than a witches tit. (Although today was our first day with any "weather" to speak of. We were filming backhoes and strange airportesque all terrain transport vehicles beeping along the snow-swept boulevards of McMurdo, which looks, as the guy sitting next to me on the airplane down put it, "pretty much like any grubby Alaskan mining town." It is supposed to be about -17 F outside and wind chill down to -44F. The combination of snot and moist exhaled vapor turned the nasal zone of my balaclava into icy chain mail in a matter of moments. The scary part is in that chill of a wind the clump of ice clinging around your beard acts as a reassuring insulating barrier). The first man to reach the south pole, R Amundsen, and Robert Scott, who made it a month later and then died trying to get back to McMurdo, both learned a tremendous amount from Fridtjof Nansen, a lunatic Norwegian who, with Colin Archer, built a special and unique ship, the Fram, designing it to be capable of sustaining a complete freeze into pack ice without being crushed to splinters. Amundsen sailed the same almost flat bottomed Fram on his successful southward journey; Nansen apocryphally or actually watched their departure and waved a wistful goodbye from some fjord overlook outside of Christiania.

Farthest North is the travelogue of a journey which must stand in the annals of world adventure as one of the most extreme of all time. Based on some shards of driftwood brought back from Greenland, Nansen hypothesized that the north polar ice cap flows like an immense ice river, arcing over the pole from Siberian Asia towards Greenland and the north Atlantic. He and Archer designed the Fram to withstand the pressures of being frozen into the ice in order that he might then sail and steam his way north-east from northernmost Norway along the virtually uncharted northern coast of Siberia before becoming intentionally frozen into the ice. He then planned to wait it out, a frozen Noah with three dozen Huskies in an ark, resting on the gigantic ice-floe, drifting steadily towards the as-yet undiscovered Pole. Steadily and very slowly; the plans for the trip included provisions for a three-year journey. Nansen expected the Fram to eventually melt free somewhere in the north Atlantic. What makes Farthest North so compelling is that Nansen actually planned on being ice-bound. His very goal was to lodge himself in the sort of predicament that any sensible sailors would at all costs avoid.


Hard at Work Yesterday and This Morning

photo: Sylvestre Guidi

Any sound people out there questioning my technique? I'm getting some MS of the scene to go with a nice wireless track that, as they say, doesn't show up in the picture. Back in the "Super Fat Sound" days me and my man Alex used to chuckle that we specialized in "wide perspective." (That's for all those that have been eagerly waiting for a geek sound joke).

photo: Anne Aghion


The Hospitality of New Zealanders

We were in Christchurch for a bit more than 36 hours and managed to fit in four epic meals and a final walk on the beach. All three of us thought this would be a grand way to spend our last unfrozen afternoon and indeed the walk boded extremely well for the working dynamic of our film crew. We were content and comfortable to walk together, alone, forge off ahead, stop to watch a bird or paddle in the surf, wait for the others, or not wait, and all with no apparent or invented pressure to converse but rather each speaking up with a relaxed ease only when there was something work remarking on. Rushing off to film far corners of the globe has it rewards and its pitfalls, and one of the deepest of the latter is to end up in some god-forsaken hellhole with unpleasant or uptight company. Although Anne and I have now worked together many times in Rwanda I had only met Sylvestre a few times, but our blissful afternoon of tramping on the beach made me very confident that we won't all drive one another mad in four snowbound months together. It was a perfect blend of independence, tolerance, and unity.

After several miles on the beach itself we approached the tip of a peninsula, but despite our hopes that some enterprising New Zealander might have erected a wine bar overlooking the channel we found nothing there but scrub and sand and a few oceanic pines. To a couple out walking two miniscule dogs we expressed our desire to have a glass of wine. She had recently moved back to New Zealand from London and He was from Wales. "I came with her to visit for a bit while she settled in, then I went back, sold the lot and joined her three months later," he told us. They walked with us for quite a while and escorted us to the bus-stop, told the driver where to drop us and apologized profusely for being unable to invite us to their friends' home, the owner of one of the dogs, who they said was probably already going at the wine while they were out doing the hard work. By the time we parted ways they virtually demanded that on our way out of the Antarctic we get in touch and "come 'round for drinks."
Descending from the bus we found the local pub a bit too local and the ashtrays a bit to full and concluded it wasn't really quite on, so we walked on along a boardwalk path through a marshy nature reserve bordering the bay, photographing sunsets and pine trees, until darkness overtook us as we emerged onto a road. Anne's attempt to explain to a taxi company, by cell phone, that we were standing in the dark beside Bridge St., near a causeway and a forest, but that we had no physical address, was met with a rather tepid response from the dispatcher.

"Should we try to hitch?" she asked us, and then turned towards the roadway to gesture at the oncoming traffic in a most ambivalent way, with upturned hands and a sort of side-to-side swaying motion. Immediately a station wagon pulled to halt some 50 meters up. The reverse lights went on. Then the car made a U-turn. "Is everything alright?" asked the driver. "We're just looking for a ride," I said. "Oh, well. Get in then. In this country, you know, one puts one's thumb in the air. I wasn't sure really what you were trying to say there." Anne, of course, has spent much of her time lately in Rwanda, where the approved method of soliciting transport is to appeal to the passing driver with palms facing upwards, either to show the lack of a weapon or the non-presence of funds, in supplication, or something else altogether.
Lara Koodiaroff, our savior, then insisted on driving us wherever it was we wanted to go. She is an aromatherapy consultant from Canberra who came to New Zealand a few years ago on holiday and then "went back to Australia, sold the lot and moved here; it's a complete lifestyle change." We said all we really wanted was a nice glass of wine and although she was late to dinner she took us miles out of her way to Littleton, called her dinner companion and said she was running late, and had a glass with us. She has since emailed offering to put together a care package of dark chocolate and fine aromas to send down to us.


Yes, that plane is parked on the surface of the sea

The Last Supper... or at least the last fresh vegetables

Fine dining in Littleton, Christchurch. I'm the pilose guy in the right foreground...

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

The idea is to find the bags with your name on them and try on all the ECW gear you are obliged to wear on the flight down to the ice. (That's Extreme Cold Weather to you, you tropical troglodyte). Within moments of this photograph being taken the room was full of hirsute men stripping down to their skivvies and struggling into insulated bib coveralls and "bunny boots."

What are these people looking at?

We listen to the first of umpteen briefings, this one before we have even arrived at the Christchurch baggage claim. Why do they call them "briefings," anyway? They are so rarely brief. I have no photographs of the already notorious "push-pin" briefing, but more on that later. Note the abundance of facial hair, indicating ice-people.

Sunrise at Auckland Airport

A First Meeting with the "Ice People"

All my stress and fears about the new and ever-evolving airport security situation turn out to be unfounded; toothpaste and hair gel may no longer be brought onto airplanes, but my five ultra-high frequency wireless microphone systems slide right through the metal detector at JFK.

We're ecstatic to finally be on our way: my companions for the next four months... director Anne Aghion and cameraman Sylvestre Guidi at JFK

Los Angeles is the first port where we feel the Antarctic influence. The gate for the onward flight to Auckland is thick with burly, white men in facial hair giving one another bear hugs. Cutesy cartoon penguin baggage tags provided by the National Science Foundation hang from almost every carry-on bag. Some bags proudly display many different colored tags, badges of honor indicating the owner has made multiple trips to the ice. Luckily, even though I only have the bright red 2006 / 2007 bag tags, I am a bearded, burly white man. I conclude I will fit in well. But despite all the happy reunions unfolding around us we postpone any serious meeting and greeting with the ice people, using frequent flier miles earned on other documentary films to upgrade to business class. Only in Auckland, after a glorious night's sleep in fully reclining bed-seats and a fine sampling of Australian wines and cheeses do we apologize to our fellow travellers for having disappeared to the front of the plane, by way of rubbing it in.


Prime McMurdo Waterfront Real Estate

Many flights later we touched down today at noon on the ice runway out on the frozen sea, about ten miles from McMurdo station. I have some great photos and, one hopes, humorous remarks to post about some parts of the long trip here from New York and I will get to those soon, but for now I just wanted to let everybody know that our happy film crew is here and safe. The bad news is we are also warm. Today it is only Zero F, about forty degrees warmer than one would normally expect. Sell your beachfront property.


Fun with Carry-On Luggage

I've reached the stage where I can't tell any more people that I am "about to leave for Antarctica." Even in the very unlikely event that I have never said this to the same person twice it has become such a mantra that every time it comes out of my mouth I expect the response to be "just shut up and go, already." We are, finally, expected to depart on Wednesday, but a few days ago a couple of dozen demented young fanatics, members of a "faith based initiative," as someone wittily pointed out, were busted with their shampoo bottles full of nitroglycerine or peroxide bomb-making supplies or some other recipe for destruction and suddenly Evian, visine and ipods are contraband items. I don't imagine our flights to Christchurch, New Zealand are at risk of cancellation, but as a sound recordist these latest terrorist attemps at murder-by-mouthwash are going to alter my travelling life.

As a documentarian it used to be a point of pride to carry on to the plane everything necessary for successful filming. In case the dozens of other cases of production gear were misplaced in transit the team would still be able to function, at least for a short time. The cameraperson always had a camera, a battery, and a couple of tapes (or in the distant, lamented, days of film a mag or two of 16MM) "on board," and I always carried the heart and soul of the sound package with me: microphones, wireless, a mixer, a boom pole. Most of these devices are very interesting to the charming, cautious, courteous professionals working behind the x-ray machines to keep you safe in the air. The wireless systems are exciting; sprouting antennae, with tiny green LED screens, and flashing red lights, they appear to be identical in most respects to the cliche detonators seen in every film from James Bond on--the only thing they lack is a brightly lit numerical clock counting down the hundredths of a second the world, or the building, or the beautiful actress has left before the blast. The microphones, bits of brushed gray metal tubing nestled in blue velvet boxes, screw together like Hollywood gun silencers. I'm thinking all this stuff is going to have to go as checked luggage, but thanks to the Warsaw convention my fifteen thousand dollars worth of gear is only priced at about ten bucks a pound when some airline inevitably loses it.


The Super Glue Skin Care Treatment

In a bit less than two weeks I fly off to the Antarctic. I had looked at it as yet another job, albeit a cold and unique one, but the more I read the more I get the sense that Antarctica is truly a place out of time. One thing that crops up in account after account is that no matter how brutalized and psychologically traumatized the solitude and darkness of the Antarctic winter leaves them, no matter how vehemently they proclaim that they will never come back to the ice, something draws them back. I am looking forward to seeing if this unique attraction also infects me. The whole thing still feels preposterous; that I would leave my little house in Brooklyn in the hands of my quintessential bachelor friend Alex and fly hemispheres away to freeze and film. Yesterday and today it was over 100 degrees F here in Red Hook, with massive humidity that made it feel much hotter and closer than similar and greater temperatures felt in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May (see photo of me in bulletproof vest on the airfield there a few postings ago). It is almost impossible to get anything done. My most Luddite and environmentalist friends admit to purchasing air conditioners. So far I haven't, but productivity has suffered as I lie on my bed under the ceiling fan barely able to move. I can't even dial the phone, it seems such a sweaty chore.

Emails about the upcoming trip keep arriving. Anne, my good friend and the director of the film we will make, today forwarded on an email from one of the subjects of the film, hinting at the strange dynamics that we will be dealing with. He sends along the advice that we should bring Super Glue. It is useful for cementing together deep cracks in the skin of the fingertips and thumbs, caused by extreme dry and cold conditions. He is kind enough to specify in his email that we men must be careful to let the Super Glue dry before going for a piss: "The cracks are deep enough to become infected so they can be painful. If you shoot super glue into the cracks it takes care of the problem. Please warn Rich and Sylvestre [I'm Richard, Sylvestre is the cameraman I will be working with] that they need to avoid the super glue treatment immediately before using the can." Meanwhile here in Brooklyn, because I am constantly sweating in the heat, my fingers are wrinkled and moist, as if I had spent much too long in the Sauna.

More and more gear that I have ordered keeps arriving in the mail. Tonite my friend Joseph brought over some ballistic overmittens that I ordered and had sent to his business address. We tried them on and agreed they were absurdly toasty and drank wine and discussed one of our favorite topics, the inability of women to recognize their own irrational behaviour in the moment (we agreed that apologies for prior madness are generally forthcoming after the fact but that in the midst of an unexplained and inexplicable tantrum women never concede that anything untoward is happening...) I rather wish, now that I have understood that Antarctica is completely out of this world, as far away as the moon, or Mars, that I was there already. At the moment I could benefit from that kind of distance.


Reading: Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

Delving into the literature of Antarctica, it takes little time to conclude that each and every one of the visitors to this least visited of continents found somewhere within themselves a book about their trip. Anyone who has been there invariably seems to feel that the experience, their experience, is worth recording. (This is why today there is no scarcity of Antarctic blogs, like this one). The literature ranges from the initial voyages of discovery, from Amundsen’s triumphant The South Pole and Scott’s last words, written in his tent as he froze to death, to contemporary attempts to characterize the emerging McMurdo ice culture of booze-soaked fraternity boy high jinks and bureaucratic excess like Nicholas Johnson’s Big Dead Place. One of the very best of the books I’ve read so far is Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita.

Wheeler has read not only every one of the famous accounts of Antarctic exploration, but also the most obscure, including the unpublished diaries of minor figures on the early voyages. She cites memoirs by Russians playing catch-up at the dawn of the Cold War, discusses her near-obsession with Apsley Cherry-Garrard, survivor and principal chronicler of the doomed Scott expedition, and mentions countless other sources. Her account is already serving as a most useful bibliography of all sorts of Antarctic memoirs.

Beyond this, she has seamlessly integrated these literary excursions into the history of Antarctic discovery with her own personal narrative of the seven months she spent bouncing from one Antarctic camp to another. In the course of hitch-hiking on helicopters, skiing and snowmobiling to the historic ruined huts of great explorers, and flying southward to the scientific frontiers of geologic or meteorological discovery, she confronts some grand ideas and comes, it seems, to be permanently altered by the experience. Antarctica emerges as a spiritual utopia so far out of the world that on a visit there the petty concerns of life on planet earth fade into nothingness. “The sublime grandeur of nature can strip away layers of the ego,” she writes, and describes New Year’s on the ice as special because she “was spared the sickening realization that once again, despite the passing of another year, nothing had changed except the things that had got worse.” At times she tries to come to terms with the differences between us, with our Sno-Cat all terrain vehicles, frozen peas, helicopter landing pads and fully equipped laboratories, and the likes of Amundsen, Mawson, Scott, and Shackleton, who were abandoned on the ice with no infrastructure and had support only when and if the ice obliged, permitting the return of a ship. Ultimately she concludes that ours is a different, demented era, compared with that inhabited by those men: “We are living in an age that doesn’t give a fig about the spirit, an age fatally compromised by ambition and worldly success.”