January 12-January 18
Antarctica Journal
©Copyright, 2002, 2003, Joan Myers

"Why does Antarctica matter? Why go there? Why have men and women risked life and limb in such a hostile environment? Why do we still spend money for research there? This photographic project, with its resulting exhibitions and book, will suggest answers to these questions by linking the past years of exploration visible in historic huts with the ongoing research at McMurdo, field stations, and the South Pole, as seen in the structures that cling to the Antarctic ice and in the faces and stances of those who work there."
-Joan Myers

This is my final journal from Antarctica.

Select the Red Inset to See Map Detail
and Facts about the Antarctic

January 12, 2003. McMurdo. 23 deg. F, 20 deg. F. with wind chill. Cloudy.

This will be my final journal from Antarctica. I plan to leave January 22 on the Russian icebreaker, the Khlebnikov and return via Cape Hallett, Terra Nova, Cape Adare, and the Balleny Islands to Christ Church, New Zealand, for a couple weeks vacation before returning home.

Antarctica is the world’s premier meteorite hunting ground. ANSMET (the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program) has retrieved more than 10,000 specimens from locations along the Transantarctic Mountains in the last twenty-five years. Since it is not possible for me to photograph the group hunting meteorites out on the ice sheet, I arranged to photograph three meteorites that were found here in Antarctica, now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, which are kept in a locked case in the Crary lab. To get permission to do this and to arrange the session took several weeks.

To prepare the slab of ice that the meteorites sit on, I found a large white plastic tray and filled it with distilled water. A friend helped me carefully transport it on a cart into the –25 deg. Freezer room. Then, we left it to freeze. Since I got called away for a couple of days, it sat about 4 days and a large crack down the center of the ice split the corners of the plex tray. So, another week passed while Huck sealed the edges and taped it up. I filled it again. This time, as we rolled it up the ramp, I let my end of the cart down too soon, and water spilled into the cart. Susan brought rags and I mopped it up as best as possible. When I was ready to leave the freezer, I realized that she had closed the door when she left and I couldn’t get it open again. At –25, I was getting cold very fast and beginning to panic. I pulled harder but it wouldn’t open. Since nobody was likely to open the door for another day or so, I could just imagine my body being found frozen solid… frozen to death in a freezer in the Antarctic! Then I found a little handle with instructions on turning it counterclockwise in case of a failure to open the door. I turned it until it fell off in my hand and then gave the door a very hard yank… and it opened.

The actual photo session was less traumatic. Susan helped me wheel the tray of frozen ice outside the lab on one of the loading docks. We handled the meteorites with gloves and kept them in plastic containers when they weren’t being photographed. The two smaller meteorites are ordinary chondrites (found in the Elephant Moraine ice field) from the asteroid belt, made up of millimeter-sized spheres called chondrules originally formed in the solar nebula. The third, more unusual, and larger one (from the Darwin Mountains) is iron, part of a planetary core thought to have originated in the asteroid belt. This larger meteorite is only about nine inches long but weighs 22 pounds. Estimates are that they are at least 4.56 billion years old. Can this be? The geologists assure me that it is so. I have to hold the heavy meteorite with both hands because it is so heavy. With its weight and dark color, it quickly begins to melt a hole in the ice so I have to shoot quickly. I am shooting and handling one of the oldest objects on Earth.

Many people here have wacky creative talents. Last night I went to MAAG (McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery). This is another of those events that isn’t Raytheon or NSF sponsored but is a community creation. It’s held in the Mechanical Equipment Center where much of the machinery around station is serviced and has a funky, industrial feel. Anyone who wants to can do a performance piece or make a piece of art to hang on the wall. An electrician’s apprentice did a piece where he sat with his hand on his knee in a single position for an hour and a half without moving. He told me later that he had more women come up and kiss and hug him, trying to get him to move, than he had touched all the time he has been here. A booth was set up giving “Bad Advice.” A shadow puppet show was mounted. The highlight of the evening was an industrial fashion show with a walkway where men and women strutted in bubble wrap and duct tape. The final model was a man with angel wings and a minimal crocheted bikini who descended by a crane from the ceiling, grabbed the previous male model who was dressed in foil overalls, and ascended to audience cheers. That’s when the wine was flowing, the music was gearing up, and the party was just getting going, and I went home to bed.

The McMurdo community, I am convinced, is the finest on the planet. The filter system that gets people down here makes sure that they are healthy, don’t have AIDS, don’t bring drugs with them, and have no weapons. Life here is remarkably free of violence; I am unaware of any fights, rape, or assault. People are kind, and many go far out of their way to offer assistance when they see it is needed. Conversation is on a high level, whether you chat with janitors, administrators, or scientists. You get the sense that most people want to learn, that they are interested in the world around them, and they care about their lives. They are not just doing work to pay the bills. They are not just floating through life.

Early tonight, I went to a reception for John Truesdell (Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force) and Col. Dick Stedding (Air National Guard). McMurdo has a constant stream of Dvs (Distinguished Visitors) passing through. The NSF finds that showing people the program in action is the best way to get support for it. McMurdo has a special building, Hut 10, that is furnished like a home with small living room, dining area and kitchen for small receptions and parties. I worried that my dress might be too casual for the occasion (fleece tights, a tunic, and hiking boots are hardly D.C. attire) but I did put on some lipstick and combed my hair. Nobody else did anything more… down here, a clean shirt is a major concession. I haven’t seen a suit on anyone, visitor or otherwise since I got here. It was a pleasant affair with an enormous tray of shrimp and another of grapes and watermelon. John Truesdell, who is living night and day at the Pentagon when he is back in the States, gave a short speech describing how much energy is going into war preparations at home and how the Antarctic program will be still functioning and producing good science long after those concerns have passed. From my perspective in this peaceful continent without weapons or nuclear materials, the world outside has gone mad.

Today I photographed a wedding ceremony, actually a renewal of vows, held at Hut Point. The couple lives in Alaska, and they were first married on a glacier there so they felt it appropriate to do a vow renewal ceremony at McMurdo in their parkas and gloves. Hut Point is always windy and cold so our small group of well-wishers was dressed in ECW (extreme cold weather) gear, and the ceremony was short, followed by cake and coffee back in the galley.

January 15, 2002. McMurdo. 22 deg. F., 11 deg. F. with wind chill. Mainly cloudy.
Another group of Dvs arrived last night, seven Representatives from Congress on the House Science Committee and Rita Colwell, the director of the NSF. They were supposed to arrive on a C-141 which takes around five hours to get here, but because of weather they were instead put on a Hercules which takes about nine. The plane launched, the weather improved here and the C-141 took off, getting here before they did. Welcome to Antarctica. 

Fortune for the day, compliments of the Housing Department (a slip of paper pulled out of a fish bowl): “And if not now, when?—Talmud”

I chatted again last night with John Truesdale, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Air Force, whom I have met several times while he has been here. He was holing up in the Crary lounge until the C-141 arrived in to transport him back to Washington, D.C. “There’s no way we want to run into those Congressmen,” he whispered. He told me that he had loved seeing the program here but was utterly exhausted. “First, we fly to the South Pole, walk around in the cold for several hours and fly back, then the next day we spend eight hours in a helicopter seeing all the field camps near McMurdo, and then yesterday we went aboard the Polar Sea and climbed up and down all those ladders. Now we have another very long flight home, where I have to immediately go to work at the Pentagon.” It’s a tough life being a Distinguished Visitor.

It’s not always easy being a photographer either. I’m exhausted and stiff today from a great outing yesterday to the IMAX crevasse, so called because it was used a shooting location for an IMAX film several years ago. Eric, a mountaineer, and Dawn, the Field Support Coordinator, and I set off from the transition area near Scott Base about 10:30. Although I have been on snowmobiles a number of times, I hadn’t actually driven one before. I am such a klutz with machinery that I was apprehensive; both of the snowmobiles I rode on when I was on Erebus died and required major repairs…and I wasn’t even driving them! We all dressed for cold with balaclavas, hat, goggles, bear-paw gloves over fleece liners, and our parkas. I put hand warmers in my gloves, knowing it was an hour drive. We set off in single file, following the flat track to Windless Bight on the south side of Ross Island. The temperature was in the mid-twenties, not especially cold, with little wind. Snowmobile driving isn’t difficult, since you have only one gear and a throttle, so I got the hang of it quickly and felt comfortable. The weather slowly closed down as we drove, however, from a light overcast to a milky soup. The route is flagged so we could see a couple of flags ahead of us but the tracks on the ground blended perfectly into the surrounding ice and sky so that we couldn’t see bumps or potholes until after we had driven into them.

About an hour out, we stopped near a rescue Scott hut, called locally “room with a view,” but this day it was without view in the white world that enveloped us. We spread sandwiches out on the seat of one of the snowmobiles and drank hot cocoa. Eric said we were at the edge of a dangerous area The crevasse was not much further, and we would need to rope up. I wondered to myself whether it made sense to head out across a major crevasse field when you could hardly see your own feet. We drove the snowmobiles a short distance further to a pair of crossed black flags and shut the machines down. We put on harnesses with locking metal karabiners and roped ourselves together. Eric warned us that if anyone fell down a crevasse, the remaining party members were to immediately fall to the ground and dig in their boots and their ice axe. He showed us how to keep the rope taut, warned us to walk only in his footsteps, and we set off in the whiteness.

We picked our way through foot-deep snow for a short distance to the foot of a slight rise. Below us was a blue ice hole, the size of a small car. When we got closer and looked down, we could see that it was the slanted mouth of a crevasse. The passage down was covered with blocks of ice that had fallen from an overhanging snow bridge. We picked our way down slowly since our ice axes revealed areas of little substance. We watched overhead so that we didn’t tarry under the long overhanging icicle-like formations. Eric told us that they were not opening the crevasse up to general visits this year because the opening is unstable and the footing for the descent precarious. We marveled at the delicate hoarfrost crystals on the sides of the snow blocks. When we eventually reached the floor of the crevasse we paused to hear the silence. Down several hundred feet in the ice is like being in a deep cave. If you listen long enough, you can hear your blood moving through your body because there is no other sound. Unlike a cave, however, the crevasse is lit by a neon blue light that filters through the ice.

From the bottom of the crevasse, we could see behind us the bright light of the opening from which we had descended and then a long narrow passage with an oval of blue light at the end. High overhead was a snow bridge that covers the crack so that it would be invisible from the ground surface. We followed this passage several hundred yards through the crevasse. The straight sides were rippled and snow covered. At the far end was another opening that in years past allowed an exit but has now been sealed by falling ice rubble.

After retracing our steps and clambering carefully back to the surface, we found that the overcast had lifted. We could see blue sky and a long view of White Mountain, Black Mountain, and Mt. Erebus puffing away. We roped back together and returned to the snowmobiles. We returned via Castle Rock, a more challenging snowmobile track that required hanging off the snowmobile on the uphill side for some stretches so that it wouldn’t turn over. I found this a strenuous undertaking and went completely off the track at one point down a hillside. The views went forever. It was probably my last outing on to the ice sheet, and I loved it.

"It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value." –Stephen Hawking

Today, after months of pleading and cajoling, I finally managed to get to Cape Crozier. This is the place where Apsley Cherry-Garrard went to collect Emperor penguin eggs in the dead of winter in his classic account, The Worst Journey in the World. Sadly, I was given only about fifteen minutes of ground time. I had no time to walk to the penguin colony or climb the hill above the hut for a good overview. It is a wild and special place and I would loved to have been able to spend several days there with Grant Ballard and the other penguin researchers. They urged me to stay, but I knew that I could not since I didn’t have a sleep kit and had no way of knowing when I could get helo transport back to McMurdo. What I did succeed in photographing, especially in panorama form, was B15, the giant iceberg that is blocking the ocean currents and causing all the sea ice to remain in place to the north of McMurdo. On the way back to McMurdo in the helo, we flew over the ridge of land where Cherry-Garrard built his stone shelter. It was difficult to see the remains from the air but one of my photographs clearly shows piled up stones. It looked like a dreadful place to try to camp in the middle of the winter since the katabatic winds flow down the sides of Mt. Erebus and over the ridge. It was there that the men suffered a terrible storm that nearly cost them their lives.

January 17, 2003. McMurdo. 27 deg. F., 23 deg. F. with wind chill. Light snow.
News: The Polar Sea has been out churning up the ice in the channel, trying to keep it open of solid ice. Yesterday, a blade broke off from one of its three 45-ton propellers and fell to the bottom of the Ross Sea. Not a simple matter to repair even here at McMurdo where they can fix almost anything. The cutter will have to return to dry dock. Meanwhile, they are not sure whether they can still break enough ice with the remaining propellers to be able to keep the channel open. They are not even sure whether they can break through the pressure ridges that have formed to be able to get out of the channel; the boat may be frozen in until the second icebreaker, the Healy, arrives in several more weeks.

Last night I went to a reception for the seven congressmen on the House Science Committee and Rita Colwell, the director of the National Science Foundation. With everyone in jeans and clean shirts, it was difficult to tell the congressmen from the scientists and electricians. I babbled away about my day’s outing to Cape Crozier to one youngish man, thinking he was a Raytheon administrator, and then found out he was Rep. Anthony Weiner from New York.

The food for this event was specially made by the head of Food Services, Jan Jasperson, whom I had photographed in the kitchen during the afternoon. Nothing is too good for this group of DVs who oversee the budget for the NSF. One of the congressmen had specially requested Antarctic cod as part of the menu, so the Crary lab staff were given the unwelcome job of butchering one of the research fish in the aquarium. The fish was steamed and beautifully displayed whole on a large platter. I tried a small bite but kept thinking of how the fish looked mournfully up at me in the aquarium tank with its large eyes and couldn’t eat any more.

January 18, 2003. McMurdo. 20 deg. F, -21 deg. F. with wind chill. Blowing snow.
A helicopter crashed about 3:30 yesterday afternoon at Lake Fryxell in the Dry Valleys. Details are still not clear, but evidently the men were removing camp equipment, probably with a sling load, and had mechanical problems. They fell from about 100 feet on to the ice of the frozen lake. The helo was destroyed, and the pilot, Greg, and helo tech, Steve, are badly injured. A Search and Rescue team was able to reach the helo, extricate the men with considerable difficulty, and fly them by helo to the airfield at McMurdo around 10 P.M. Fortunately, the snowy weather lifted briefly and permitted them to be flown by Hercules LC-130 to the hospital in Christ Church, where they arrived in stable condition this morning about 6 A.M. In this small community, you get to know most everybody; I have flown with both men and got to know Steve. Antarctica is an unforgiving place. The work being done here is planned carefully to minimize risk but sometimes I think that it is pure luck that keeps accidents from happening. Yesterday, that luck ran out.

I love to fly by helo because you fly low to the ground and can photograph out an open window. It’s more dangerous business than flying in a fixed-wing aircraft, however, and I try not to think about that too much until something like this happens. The pilots here are careful and very experienced, but your margin of safety when you have mechanical problems or errors in judgment in a helicopter is not large. I thought about it on my trip to Cape Crozier a few days ago, because the weather was poor, and we were never sure if the clouds might not suddenly descend and put us in a complete white-out on the slopes of Mt. Erebus. What’s more the katabatic winds would suddenly pour down off the sides and tossed us around. We were lucky.

Everyone is talking about what they are doing when they leave here. For most people who work for Raytheon that is sometime in February. I sat during dinner with a group of janitors, all in their twenties and thirties, who were talking about where they were going to travel when they left. One of the best perks for working here is that you save up all the money you make and you can go almost anywhere in the world on your way home. Laura told me that she has decided to go to Alaska with a friend she met here. She owns her own business in California and had originally planned to go straight home and take it up again. Now she says, she has found she doesn’t want that much stress in her life anymore. She is going to travel a little and then decide what to do next. “I’ve changed,” she told me, “I want to savor life.”

For me, it’s time to return to all the ordinary pleasures and responsibilities of marriage, family, and business. I find myself pausing more to enjoy the daily activities—looking out across the white expanse of sea ice toward Mt. Discovery from my Crary office window, listening to the volcanic stones crunch beneath my shoes as I walk around station, chatting with friends at meals and smiling at the greetings that I give and receive as I see people. For most people here, leaving is part of a cycle; they know they will return and see friends again. I am not returning.

This time has changed me. I have seen part of the planet that few have seen and I have had the time to walk and photograph and feel our world without its veneer of human activity. Antarctica cannot be tamed. It has never been inhabited by native people and can only be the site of a station like McMurdo because of the enormous support of fuel and supplies. Here at McMurdo, you can pick up rocks that are chunks from the Earth’s mantle. You can see meteorites that are as old as our planet. Your connection to the prehistoric planet is ever-present and often frightening. You are always aware that you are at the mercy of forces you don’t understand and certainly can’t control. I have done many things that I was afraid to do. I have done much that I didn’t really want to do because it was uncomfortable, dangerous, and uncertain. For me, that has given me a core strength that previously I had counted on from others.

It is too soon to judge the images I have taken here. I have thousands of photographs from the last three months. Not one is as powerful as the experience itself. It’s always like that. Hopefully, some will be strong enough to convey a sense of this extraordinary place to those who cannot get here or who have been here and hold a piece of it in their heart forever.