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Antarctic Journal

January 27, 2003

I Have "Fun"

Giant petrel
The deep blue ice inside a crevasse.
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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.

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 a while.

In the Teacher Guide section, look for these related projects:

  •  Journal Jeopardy
  •  Glacier Comic Strip
  •  Glacier Expedition

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