January 27, 2003
Jim Waters says that to have fun in Antarctica you have to be "cold, wet, and
a little scared." I wish I had heard earlier that this was his definition of a good time. When Waters invited to me join his Glacier Search and Rescue team in a training exercise, he said it
would be "fun." I didn't know that meant lowering myself
over the edge of a glacier cliff and dangling by what seems like a thread
above 150 feet of smooth blue ice.
I Have "Fun"
Anvers Island, where Palmer Station is located, is more than 99 percent
ice-covered. The Marr Ice Piedmont, the 1,000-square-mile glacier that caps
the island, is nearly half a mile thick in places. As with many ice caps,
the glacier is thickest near its center and thinnest around the
edges. The ice built up gradually, layer upon layer for more than a million
years, each layer squashing down the next. Over time, when buried under 200
feet of such layers, feathery snowflakes turn into solid, crystal-clear ice.
Buried below the surface, this glacier ice flows ever so slowly (at a
"glacial pace," in fact) from the middle outward. When it reaches the coast,
it calves off, with thunderous cracks, and floats away. Along the way, the
glacier flows over hills and valleys of rock on the island surface. When
this ice passes over a valley, the upper layers compress; when it flows over
a hill, they stretch.
Picture the glacier as a big sheet of sponge cake
draped over your desk. Where it hangs in a "u" between two stacks of books,
the top layers of the cake get scrunched together. Where the cake drapes
over a telephone or a tape dispenser -- forming an inverted "u"-- the upper
layers get pulled apart and the cake could tear, depending on how thick and
supple it is. Similar forces act on glaciers, though on a much larger scale.
When their surfaces tear apart, the cracks are called crevasses. Crevasses also form at the outer edges of glacier caps when the ice has no support
on one side. The 150-foot ice wall along the shore near Palmer Station is an
example. Just behind this sheer edge, the glacier is riddled with crevasses.
Some are as wide as 50 feet across and about 100 hundred feet deep.
Even avid mountaineers usually avoid crevasses at all costs, but it is
these treacherous ice canyons that are our destination today. Call it the
"Ernest Shackleton" syndrome if you like. Shackleton was the English
expedition leader who famously became ice bound in Antarctica's Weddell Sea,
lost his ship, and finally, after 14 months adrift, came ashore on Elephant
Island a few hundred miles from where I'm standing. In 1912, he placed a
help-wanted ad for crew members that read: "Men Wanted for Hazardous
Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness,
constant danger, safe return doubtful." One of the most hazardous jobs at
Palmer -- one which also provides opportunity for cold and danger -- is membership
on the Glacier, Search and Rescue [GSAR, pronounced GEE-saar] team. GSAR is
needed because one of the few opportunities here for outdoor exercise is
hiking up the glacier. There's only one area that's generally considered
safe--a one-and-a-half-mile-long crevasse-free hiking path marked for safety
on either side with flags. It is a bad idea to go beyond the flagged zone.
But every so often, someone wanders beyond the safe zone, usually lost in a
storm or in thought. Once in a while, some unlucky soul will fall
into a crevasse and, if lucky, survive the experience with just a few broken
bones. The nine-member search and rescue team is trained to haul such people
back to the surface.
Under Waters' command, we chose the biggest crevasse we could find for
practice climbing in and out. We don ice crampons--with spikes in the toes
for standing on sheer faces -- harnesses for securing ourselves to the belay
rope, and helmets to deflect falling ice. Now in each hand we hold an ice
axe, which looks a bit like a carpenter's claw hammer. Our rope is anchored
to the glacier itself with ice screws, which look like something you might
twist into a railroad tie. Jim goes first, gamely backing down into the hole
(held up by the rope) and climbing back like a spider.
It's my turn next. Going down is easy. But soon I begin to wonder about
climbing up. I've never done it before. Waters coaches me from above. Kick
my "front points" hard into the ice, he commands. Stand up straight to keep
from tipping back. Reach high with the ice axe and drive it deep into the
wall. It sounds easy, but the ice axe, which is used for pulling up, never
feels solid enough to hold my weight. Every time I swing it, the sharp blade
grazes perilously close to the rope, which is my only safety. Before long,
I've ripped my pants with a crampon swipe. My camera sustains a blow from an
ice axe. And my face just above the eyebrow gets a blow from something that
leaves a bump for several days. Finally I struggle to the lip of the hole
and crawl out. All in all, it was "fun," but I think I'll stay off the ice for
Read the January 22nd entry
Read the January 17th entry
Read the January 14th entry
Read the January 13th entry
Read the January 9th entry
Read the December 29th entry
Read the December 23rd entry