Thursday, February 27, 2014

Antarctica Day 9: Camping on Winter Island, and other stuff

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


One of the things I had most been looking forward to on this trip was the
opportunity to go camping—in bivvy sacks—out on the Antarctic ice. On the
night after kayaking through slush, visiting Vernadski Station and trading
my bra for cinnamon vodka, and biopsying whales, I finally got my chance.

The campers were dropped off by zodiacs on Winter Island, part of the
Argentine Islands within sight of Vernadski Station (but sadly, swimming to
the station for a night in the bar was out of the question). We were all
handed a down sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, bivvy sack, and foam
thermarest, and let loose to find ourselves a spot to nest for the night. I
picked a spot way up on the ridge overlooking (and away from) everyone else,
hoping for some peace and quiet and at least a little bit of a feeling of
solitude. We had been instructed to build "nests" by digging a body-sized
pit into the snow to protect us from wind. Certainly a good idea, but the
snow on the ridge was too thin to dig a pit, and I knew from all of the
Andean camping I had done that I'd be plenty warm without it even if the
wind picked up, so I just built a little protecting wall out of snow on the
uphill, windward side of my spot, set up "camp", and then wandered back down
the hill to take some photos of everyone doing their own "nesting" in the
human penguin colony below.

After people had mostly settled, a few folks gathered next to the old
abandoned historical British hut near the shore below the ridge where Huw
had (of course) set up camp—with his head resting against the hut (I was
surprised he hadn't broken into the hut to sleep where his heroes had
slept). Huw told us bedtime stories about his visit to a traditional polar
bear hunter in Alaska who had a vacation home in Hawaii and spent more time
watching ultimate fighting on his enormous TV and drinking cheap beer than
outside in the snow, shattering Huw's preconceptions about what a
traditional polar bear hunter should be. After storytime I wandered back up
the ridge and tucked in, just as the snow started to fall.

The night started out peacefully enough, but about an hour in, the wind
picked up, and the previously peaceful snowfall turned into howling wind,
and the noise of ice crystals being pelted against the nylon of the bivvy
sack as if flapped wildly. Still, I was used to similar and fell back to

A few hours later, I woke up again when water started dripping onto my face.
The snow had turned to a wet slush, quickly melting when it hit the warm
bivvy bag with me inside, and was pouring into the face flap I had left open
to keep from getting too claustrophobic. I tried a few alternate
orientations, readjusted the head flaps, and finally found that by curling
up on my side and zipping the bivvy almost shut with just an airhole at the
side, I was both comfortable and protected.

But, as I slept, it turned out that I wasn't as protected as I thought. I
had turned my bivvy into a funnel collecting precipitation which was
dripping into a corner of the bag, the corner where I had my dry clothes and
camera. When I woke up again, I was sleeping in a puddle, and my stuff was
swimming. I did what I could to rescue the camera to the relative dry of the
inside of my sleeping bag, then, worried that if this was happening to me it
was certainly happening to the other penguins below me, and thought that
some of them must be pretty wet, cold, and scared, and unzipped my head flap
to peek out and see if I could see anything.

All I saw was white. There was nobody below me. I could see the hut, the
shore, but the zodiac was gone, and the dark bodies and colored bivvy bags
were absent. They had left me!

My mind raced. I'm not an easy person to forget: by now at least half of the
passengers and all of the staff knew me by first name. The staff who were
out camping with us that night knew me well and knew where I had set up
camp. They wouldn't leave me. But, it occurred to me, it had been snowing
pretty hard. Maybe I was buried enough by snow such that, in the dark and
confusion of the storm, if they had come to look for me maybe they just
didn't see me and assumed that I had already loaded up into one of the
zodiacs back to the ship. I looked out for the ship, but the storm was too
thick and I couldn't see that far. Surely when they got back to the ship
they'd notice I was missing when they checked people off of the list when
they came up the gangway, right? But maybe in a panic to get out of the
storm, they had gotten sloppy? But at least my roommate would eventually
notice that I was missing.

I felt reassured. I wasn't going to be stranded forever. I was warm enough
for now, although the bag was pretty wet and the wind was cold. In the worst
case scenario, I was sure I could swim across the channel that separated the
island we were on from the island that Vernadski Station was on, and would
get wet and very cold but would survive the swim and hike to the station.
And at the station they would get me warmed back up and taken care of for
however long I needed. I decided that the best course of action was to go
back to sleep and deal with the situation later.

I woke up again about an hour later, and peeked back outside to see if I
could see the ship.

Instead, I saw the black figure of a person on the snow below the ridge. As
I watched, I saw the black figure walk around and magically more black
figures appeared: the penguin colony was awakening. They hadn't left me.
They were just now getting everybody—who were also covered in snow—up. I
felt half relieved, and half disappointed. A part of me had looked forward
to the adventure of getting stranded on an island in Antarctica and having
to swim to my rescue at a Ukrainian research base.

I got up quickly, got dressed quickly, packed up everything quickly, and
dragged my bivvy with the sleeping bag and the rest of the gear still inside
down the ridge where the rest of camp was starting to move. The guides
looked concerned, but did an expert job of hiding any serious worry and
putting on a cheerful, positive face to get everybody up and moving without
freaking people out. The wet and cold had been unexpected, and was
dangerous. I helped as best I could, trying to spread laughs and smiles
while handing out and helping people into lifejackets while the staff got
people up, gear sorted, and loaded the zodiacs.

I was deeply impressed by the way the staff handled the situation. Even
though everyone was cold, wet, and severely sleep deprived, with the
exception of one high-strung zodiac driver, they stayed calm and gentle as
they got the cold, wet, sleep deprived, confused, and scared campers back to
the waiting ship. I was also impressed by the attitude of many of my fellow
passengers. Even though they had every cause to be upset about the
situation, nobody freaked out. When I asked people how they were doing, I
got a grab bag of answers ranging from "miserable" to a lot of variations on
"cold and wet, but fine", to an incredibly enthusiastic and smiley "Great!!"
from one of the Chinese students. In fact most of the Chinese students
seemed to have enjoyed the experience, even if it was cold and wet and
miserable. They had gone camping in Antarctica. That's pretty much how I
felt about it.

I went camping in Antarctica!

The zodiac ride back in high swell was rough, and the wet and cold got even
wetter and colder. It was interesting observing the drivers and comparing
notes with other passengers after the fact: the best driver reviews went to
Ian our ship's bartender, who although rattled and worried kept kind and
calm and gently guided passengers out of the boats with a "when you feel
comfortable, I want you to scoot up here, grab my arm, stand up, step on the
step, step on the pontoon, and step to the gangway". On the opposite end of
the spectrum was a driver who barked out instructions and yelled at
passengers when they didn't do things exactly how he wanted it done and
timed, freaking already rattled people out even more, and making people more
worried about getting the dance steps correct than being careful and safe.
It was a lesson to remember in managing people.

Once back onboard, we all changed out of our dripping clothes and hung them
up where we could, mostly on the rails in the hallways. I had to put some
things in our cabin's sink because they were too wet to hang up to dry. Then
it was straight to the showers, a hot shower never felt so good.

We found out at breakfast that, while most of us quickly recovered, a few
passengers had gotten seriously cold. Fortunately our shipboard doctor and
wonderful staff quickly took care of everyone, and we all survived the
experience none the worse off for the experience. But in general the mood at
breakfast was lively, the campers sharing their stories with their
tablemates, many of whom made remarks like, "yeah, I looked out my window
last night and was really glad not to be out in that". The line for hot
oatmeal was about double as long as it usually was.

Many of us immediately left breakfast for our beds in order to squeeze in a
nap before another full day of activity. I grabbed some rice from the
kitchen in order to try to dry out and hopefully save my camera first,
crossed my fingers, and then went to bed.

But our Expedition Leader David was having none of it: we were passing
through the legendarily spectacular Lemaire Channel, a narrow iceberg-choked
channel flanked on both sides by towering cliffs and nearly as towering
glaciers, and we needed to be out to see it. So I dutifully put on some warm
clothes and went out to the bow, watching glaciers and cliffs appear through
the fog, and spotting my first leopard seal sleeping on an iceberg.

But although he tried to coax us to stay out with the promise of good whale
spotting opportunities, I needed sleep, and went back down for another nap
the minute we left the channel for the more open waters of Flanders Bay and
the Gerlache Strait.

Our afternoon excursion was to little Danco Island, a small rocky mountain
sticking out of a horseshoe between the mainland and another island that was
the home to a massive Gentoo penguin colony. The rocky parts of the island
not covered in snow were pink with penguin shit, and I couldn't help
thinking of how gross the human equivalent would be while trailing a penguin
splashing happily through ankle-deep feces as it hiked up the hill. I walked
to the top of the island at about 800 meters and got a stunning 360° view of
water and mountains beyond the water on all sides as penguins waddled and
squawked and brayed and splashed around in their own shit around me. I
celebrated the moment with a snow angel and a fast descent sledding on my
butt. Near the bottom I had picked up a lot of speed and noticed that a
penguin was walking right into my path, so I put down my boots to try to
brake, flipped over, and ended up doing a very un-graceful penguin belly
slide for another 100 or so meters before halting, fortunately still well
more than the legal 5 m from said penguin. The penguin didn't even look up
from his focused march across the snowfield.

Back on the ship, Ian arrived at dinner dressed in a penguin suit to
announce the 50th birthday of Tom, one of the leaders of the Chinese group.
We all sang to Tom while he was put into the penguin suit for the rest of
the evening, including a very important and very serious internet meeting
(They have internet?? How did they get internet??) with the president of
their university back home. During their meeting, the rest of us enjoyed
storytime with Expedition Leader David up in the bar: he was the first
person to motorcycle on all seven continents, and in all 24 time zones, and
told us some of the crazy stories from his adventure.

By bedtime, despite my naps, I was totally exhausted.

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