Dispatch from Mt. Boreas 02

October 25th:
Dear Deany

They got us pooping in barrels up here, my man. No terlet, nothin'. Happy to do it sitting on top of a plywood box or not, though, after forty-eight hours of total blockage. Runs in the family. Sorry to share that, but I've already realized a camping trip of this magnitude and extremity gets you all kinds of in touch with your bodily functions. Anyway, your cheeks get a bit cold, but the view from the box is spectacular. This is a totally dry camp we're running. We didn't bring any water in, and we aren't taking any out, and none goes on the ground, ever. All pee goes in the pee barrel. Spill your tea up here and it's like a glycol hemorrhage down in MacTown. Fly in the emergency tea-leaf removal squad, pronto.

What makes this little patch at the bottom of Mt. Boreas so geologically spectacular is that just behind a little glacial moraine up back of our camp lie the remnants of an ancient pond. Ancient, dude. Original, very old-school silt and sediment and layers of moss just lying out on the surface, or only inches below it. We're surrounded by undisturbed surfaces thirteen to fifteen million years old. The geologists we are with are scraping up thirteen million year old mosses from the lakebed. So we're trying to leave not so much as a moustache hair behind. I'm sure you agree it would be most embarrassing if in five hundred years or so some future generation of scientists were down here having a peek: "What you got?" "Oh, looks to me like some fourteen million year old single-celled organisms, fossilized, and some idiot's five hundred year old frozen earwax...."

I've had a cold, which is not much fun at twenty below, but the tents start to get liveable once you run a Coleman stove in them for awhile. You can't do that while you sleep, of course. Last night I lay down and wrote a fakesimile of Scott's final chronicles in my diary. "Sleepy, very, very sleepy,...time to... turn off the stove...." Even when awake one starts to feel a little oxygen deprived and loopy and has to remember to vent. Today I'm feeling much better and getting to that level of cold and lumpy cot-induced sleep deprivation where I know I will start to sleep well in my Scott tent.

Defrosted a couple of Speight's by dropping the frozen solid cans in a pot of boiling water. Left one just too long, only a few minutes, and therefore enjoyed hot beer with the feijoada dinner. (There would be a link here to some deep back-country Sao Paulo recipe, but I don't have the technology). I cooked kidney beans with Canadian bacon, Italian sweet sausage, and shredded peppered beef jerky and farofa-ed it off at the end with a box of cornmeal and it was about as good as if we had stopped on a Friday at a roadside cafe in the pantanal. So far it is pretty much iron-chef of the backcountry around here. Anne made pork loin with perfectly crisped rehydrated tomatoes and herbes de provence last night and I stepped up with the feijoada, shredding the chunks of jerky with such dedication that Sylvestre finally said "C'est un travail de moine, ce que tu fais la." (That's monk's work you're doing over there). He has to cook tomorrow and is pretty much running scared at this point. We're inviting one geologist over to dinner each night, from their tent all of twenty yards away, as a kind of getting to know you gesture (their idea, and a good one, they don't want to feel as if they are living amongst strangers). They generally cook stuff like pre-breaded deep fryable chicken patties and "chile con carne," so they are in awe of the culinary excesses going on over here at the writers and artists.

We're going to turn off the generator, get rid of the dieseling and go back to sublime, total, infinite and glorious silence (I am able to record usable dialog for film here from fifty yards, something unheard of almost anywhere else in the world). So that's all for now.



Dispatch From Mount Boreas 01

October 23rd:
Dear Deany,
The anticipation, the worry, the envisioning, the troubleshooting, and the preparation are all behind us as we have finally arrived at the foot of Mt. Boreas to begin our grotesquely long sojourn in the Antarctic wilderness. Fifty-two days. If stuff doesn't work, it's too late now, so why stress. It is spectacular here. Mt. Boreas looks something like a butte or a mesa and looms over us from the south-east. We are camped with four geologists on a narrow saddle between the steepest slopes of the mountain and a more gentle slide down to the valley floor to the north, a dry and frozen canyon that descends out onto the Ross Sea.

We took off from McMurdo around 3 pm. From the helicopter we could see open water towards the northern horizon, and I feel sure I can see just a patch of it, at the edge of the sea ice, from just up the hill from our camp here, at the "helo pad"-- a patch of rocks with the largest boulders removed. I haven't gotten out the binoculars to be sure. From the helicopter we had spectacular views of the Royal Society Mountains as we traced the western edge of McMurdo sound. Below us were many apparently enormous icebergs, like flat-topped merengues, entrapped in the ice. I imagine them to be mere sugarcubes compared to the bergs like B-15 that have kept McMurdo iced in for these last few years.

The geologists had flown out a few hours earlier than we, and when we arrived they had already set up their Endurance tent. The four of them, in big red parkas, were gathered and waving to us from the ground. Instead of the "hot-offload" we had been expecting, the pilot shut down the rotors and we piled our gear in a pile on a plain of shattered dark red basalt. Mt. Boreas is supposed to be a terribly windy place to camp, but it was calm and clear and cold, with beautiful blue skies. If it weren't for the patches of snow and tongues of glacial ice licking their way down between distant mountain clefts I would have sworn I was somewhere in the southwestern United States. We got our own Endurance tent up easily enough, fired up a Coleman stove and started melting snow to make tea while waiting for the helicopter to come back with more Scott tents, camera equipment and the bulk of our food, all packed into plywood rock boxes which the geologists will use for transporting samples after we have devoured all the grub in them. Which reminds me I haven't opened the rock box with all my beers in it yet, and I better go do that; I'm sure they are all frozen solid by now. I know this blogging thing is important, but camping is all about priorities. More Later.



We're Outta Here...

Weather perfect for flying helicopters today, crisp, clear, light breeze, sparse distribution of little puffy clouds. Off we go, up into the air, behind Ob Hill, over Scott Base, and wheeling off across the Ross Sea to the Olympus Range. I'm going to be hauling rocks and setting up tents until far into the night.

Ready for Liftoff

Antarctica's largest urban agglomeration, the McMurdo megalopolis, from the air

Flying over Scott Base, capital of the Ross Dependency, sovereign New Zealand territory and home of Ross Island's most comfortable pub

Erebus in the background as we turn to the north...

Au Revoir, not Adieu

We are on the eve of our departure for the next leg of our Antarctic marathon. Tomorrow afternoon, weather permitting, Sylvestre and Anne and I will pack into a helicopter and fly over the frozen Ross Sea to the mainland to set up camp in a high mountain valley with four geologists from Fargo. They run, far too many people have told me, by far the most minimalist, sparse and rugged camp of any of the teams who head out into the field. We are taking with us only two tiny generators to recharge our sound and camera batteries, which we will run as infrequently as possible. The only devices we will have that generate heat are four standard Coleman stoves.

Hasta la vista! (Obligatory Generic view of Frosty Landscape)

Perhaps because of the late-season persistence of the polar vortex, a swirling stratospheric typhoon of negative 80 degree air whirling about somewhere above us, temperatures this October have been fifteen degress colder than average. Subtract another ten to twelve degrees to account for the altitude at which we will camp and things are starting to sound quite chilly.

Most camps, far too many people have seen fit to mention to me, have diesel burning Preway Stoves and Jamesways, which are essentially quonset huts made from ballistic canvas. Some have wireless internet, a full-time cook and, for all I know, free massage therapy and spa treatments in the afternoons. We won't have any of that sort of absurd luxury. But the communications-challenged environment sadly means that there may be few, if any, new posts to antarcticiana over the next fifty-two days. I have been informed by Andrew Podoll that I may be able to get the occasional text-only entry up via satphone email. Failing that my man Deany is on standby to assist with some limited data flow, so don't give up us on altogether....


Diggin' in the Crates

Do you have any Incredible Bongo Band?

According to superdeejay Georg Bakker of the McMurdo airwaves, the Armed Forces Radio Network vinyl archive, locked up in a big closet just down the hall from the radio station, is the last of its kind anywhere in the world. Georg heard some of donflan's latin stylings on the killer ipod at a little going away soiree we threw last night and urged me to come over to the radio station and check out the collection.

Working what may be the only two turntables on the entire continent...

I was picturing a dusty vault full of pristine superrare James Brown productions and trying not to slobber on myself in anticipation, so after brunch today I hurried over to find Georg behind the wheels of steel, transmitting a powerful mix of classic era Fania to the MacTown massive. It looked a lot like the room I first deejayed in at WPRB, when I was at college. "Like a kind of a time capsule," Georg said.

I bet none of the rest of you dusty-fingered beat freaks have gone crate-digging in Antarctica!

He showed me the vinyl, which used to arrive via subscription from the armed forces, and was arranged by genre. They have several hundred latin records in paper sleeves, each with a collection of mexican hits on one side and primo New York salsa on the other, all compiled and furnished by someone who had a great job working for the Pentagon in the 1970s.

Every record is a sort of 'greatest hits' for a particular month...

Imagine joining the marines or the army or whatever and your job turns out to be choosing what hot music to ship off to military bases across the globe. Apparently everywhere else in the world but McMurdo these vinyl collections have long since been jettisoned. I pulled some Harlow, Orchestra Broadway, Jonny Ventura, Ismael Rivera, and if you don't know, now you know. Georg and I took turns deejaying. I have no idea if anyone was listening, but it was, shall we say, fat.

(Update: About an hour after I left, Georg gave me a call to say that the phones at the radio station were ringing off the hook and folks were even checking in with requests. Too bad I'm moving to a freezing cold slab of rock at the foot of Mt. Boreas tomorrow or we could really get something going.)


Keeping up with the Winterovers

Phil Jacobsen, somewhere in New Zealand

Ask ice people why they come back to McMurdo year after year and about half of them will at some point sarcastically reply that they do it for the free ticket to New Zealand. In fact it is the rare winterover who flies back to Christchurch and then promptly jumps on another plane up to the States; you would be hard pressed to find a group of travellers with more collective knowledge of New Zealand's south island. Spending half of your frozen ducats before even getting out of Australasia seems to be a time-honored tradition amongst Antarcticans. My friend Zoe left McMurdo last week and is currently spending hers. She writes:

...going into a tiny hole-in-the-wall cyber shop in
Dunedin so my friend
could get prints
who should I see...
look closely at the photo. what do you see?

Antarcticiana doesn't have to look closely to know that Phil has excellent taste when it comes to literature, but just in case you aren't as intimately familiar with the material as we are....

Why, that looks just like Laura Ebel!
Photo: Zoe Vida


When is the '90s theme party?

One of the reasons I'm enjoying myself here at McMurdo is that the Antarctic lifestyle attracts a lot of people who, like me, seem to refuse to grow up. With its hot cafeteria meals, dorm rooms and shuttle busses, McMurdo's social ambiance might best be summed up as permanent college. It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that theme parties abound. After all, why go out and get drunk and dance all night when you can go out and get drunk and dance all night in silly costumes?

Many of those who attended Saturday evening's "70s" party at Gallagher's pub were too young to have memories of that glorious decade, when Steve McQueen drove cars in movies, a Republican president resigned and funk reached its apogee. It was also the decade in which, as my mother likes to remind me, I told my eighth-grade math teacher that "I just can't get into doing my homework." Rather a number of men inexplicably associated the 1970s with transvestitism and dressed in women's clothing, thereby helping improve the rather dire male-female gender ratio that is the cause of much McMurdo tension. I didn't have a costume, having left the gold-plated razor blade I usually wear around my neck back in Brooklyn, so I made do with pointing out to everyone that all my hair is real, and my own.

All Photographs courtesy of Sylvestre Guidi

Number One Soul Sister

Marsha gets Funky

Barry rocks the electric blue Rod Stewart mullet

Is that an armpit stain? That is soooo '70s

Stand back while I channel Elton John

Put your camera down and dance, cowboy

I'm pretty sure this is almost exactly what Deany looked like in 1979

Mardi Gras Escapee

Will gets wiggy

Laura's upset because she thought the dresscode read "1950s sorority girl" on the invitation

"Guys, where's my Harley? ...Guys. No, seriously. C'mon guys, it's not funny..."

Going home is just like 1988 when you walked out of "Save the Robots" on Avenue B and found to your horror that it was broad daylight outside

How about steamed, with a little butter and lemongrass...?

It's much steeper than it looks, that's why they call it Inaccessible Island

Yesterday, feeling we hadn't been out of McMurdo in an age, and then only in the middle of the night to groggily shoot landscapes, we decided to go fishing at the foot of Inaccessible Island. With a posse of three lady marine biologists and one dude, on skidoos and by Pisten Bully convoy, we headed out for the fishing holes. A Minnesotan friend of mine in college, a veteran ice-fisherman from the land of ten billion lakes, once spent an evening recounting to me the joys of winter fishing in Minnesota. The sport has all the rich cultural complexities and unassailable traditions that characterize all subcultures; in Minnesota the winter fish huts are dragged out into the middle of huge frozen lakes with Ford Pickups, and sit there for the entire season, complete with generators, television for the football games, wood stoves, Hudson Bay blankets and all the other conceivable comforts that make for endless pleasant afternoons of fishing. Namely beer.

What time is kickoff?

There is no structural difference between Minnesotan ice fishing and Gretchen, Mackenzie, and Anne's approach to their scientific work; the only big contrast is in what they do with their catch. My college friend Tim swore that when the fish were biting on the Minnesotan ice he and his buddies would pull them out and slap them to the sides and roof of the truck, where the fish would promptly freeze solid to the cold metal. Once the vehicle had been converted into a sort of frozen fish sculpture they would then drive to McDonald's and go through the drive-through to try and freak out the burger jockeys. Instead our friends the marine biologists do everything possible to keep their catch alive, rushing them into a cooler of sea water the moment they pull them up, to avoid the fish freezing. The water underneath the sea ice maintains an almost constant temperature year-round of negative 2 degrees C, and the fish they catch are extremely intolerant of variations in temperature. They are interesting in part because a sort of natural anti-freeze flows through their veins.

It's never too early to schedule your mandatory ice probe...

At one point a passing seal exhaled below and a rush of bubbles set the surface of the hole aboil

It was delightful to watch these scientists, as competitive in their fishing as any beer-swilling Minnesotans could be, dropping their neon glow-worm lures down freshly-drilled holes off the ends of absurdly short fishing poles--ordered, of course, from a speciality fishing rod outfit in Minnesota. In a couple of hours they pulled out some 35 fish, which are now to be found swimming in tanks on the lowest level of the Crary lab. The moment Anne pulled up a fish Mackenzie would seize her own rod and announce "I'm going in," taking over the hole for her turn.

That's a cute little pole you got there, darlin'

Mmmm, another day done. Time to pop 'em in the skillet!


Next time wake me up before you take the tent down, please.

In just over a week we will head out into the field with a group of geologists, leaving behind the comforts and stresses of McMurdo life to embark on what I suspect will be much more of an Antarctic adventure than our experience to date. Yes, we occasionally venture out onto the sea ice and drive around in bizarre little tracked vehicles and get frost in our balaclavas, huddling in the wind with thermoses of tea and munching chocolate bars, but at the end of the day we always return to a hot starchy meal in the corporate-retreat style dining hall and sack out in dorm rooms overheated by the glycol endlessly coursing through the radiators. In the Olympus range we won't have any heat and will only run an electric generator when it is absolutely necessary to recharge the batteries for the camera and sound equipment. We are hoping that will only be once a week or so. Some passive solar gain is to be expected in the tents, but the idea that we will never be going into a building to properly warm ourselves up makes for a radical shift.

"Now you just scoop it out." Bija demonstrates how to perform a lobotomy on a Winfly veteran traumatized by the massive influx of giggling summer visitors to McMurdo. Photo: Anne Aghion

We have therefore been spending some time lately at the Berg Field Center, where a crew of earnest, cheerful outdoorspersons of the sort one often meets on the sales floor at EMS or Paragon have been helping us check out our gear. A couple days ago we set up our "Endurance" tent inside their facility. It is a large ribbed structure, sixteen by eight feet. It wasn't particularly difficult to set up in the windless comfort of the seventy degrees warm BFC, and will doubtless be an endless nightmare in mittens and thirty knot winds. I was exhausted to begin with and tried to catch a nap once we had the thing up. Everyone else got out of the tent and I just lay there until the others took it down again and discovered me.

The operation was a success! The patient, in recovery. Photo: Anne Aghion