On the centenary of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, Jean McNeil chronicles her own voyage to Antarctica.
Névé: Loose granular ice in transition from snow to glacier ice
Each day we see more and more ice. As we sail into a shifting matrix of sea-ice everything is in motion. Icebergs assail each other, they grind and groan. The sea is soupy with ice. The air stings.
Our ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, is now only 240 nautical miles from the top of the Antarctic peninsula. Dark is being retracted from our skies at a rate so fast we barely have time to adjust before we realise there is no night at all. From midnight until early morning we sail through a sombre barren twilight. The light shifts within itself, as if a dull strobe light were broadcasting from deep within it, a darkening and lightening: grey, blue, chalk, silver.
We pass Elephant and Clarence Islands, where Shackleton’s men were stranded for a winter after the disintegration of the Endurance. In the saloon I interview Rob, an old-timer and the base commander at Port Lockroy, where we will arrive in two days and where he will leave the ship. I ask Rob about the old days when there were dogs, not skidoos, and the Antarctic was officially off-limits to women.
‘I don’t approve of it, really, women in the Antarctic.’ Rob keeps a poker face but I sense he is fishing for outrage.
‘Why is that?’
My refusal to be instantly scandalised redoubles his resolve. ‘Because it upsets the balance, the equilibrium we had,’ he goes on. ‘Men start competing for women, and then it’s not so easy to be a community. In my winters we were as one – ‘ he raises his hand, his fingers intertwined, a gesture of solidarity I suppose. ‘We were unbreakable.’
‘From what I hear the mixed communities manage a similar spirit,’ I say. ‘I’ve had several people tell me they think women in the Antarctic are a good thing, they bring a civilising influence, that the communities are more emotionally stable.’
‘We had it good in the gold days; dogs and ourselves. That’s all we had to rely upon. There was a peace in this, a kind of glory.’ He gives me a valedictory though not mean-spirited look which says: you had to be there.
In the end Rob doesn’t play the role of bigot well. He is a mine of information about the Antarctic, and the Arctic too – as it turns out he is a champion dog-musher and lived in Alaska for years. He seems happy to talk about the old days, perhaps because no-one has asked him for so long. Then along comes the writer with her tape recorder.
I have been sent to the Antarctic on a fellowship, in part because in my proposal I made the rash claim that I would write a novel set in the contemporary Antarctic. I had read enough about the Antarctic to know this was a literary Mission Impossible – the Antarctic is the venue for the greatest expeditionary literature ever written, and fiction can rarely compete with the sheer experiential velocity of fact. Plus no-one lives in Antarctica; how can you write a novel about a place which has only the thinnest of human histories?
But I am scared of reneging on my pledge, of failing the grandiose allure of metaphor (what separates fiction from non-fictional forms of writing, ultimately), scared of wasting taxpayer’s money, so I go about my project with an anthropologist’s rigour, conducting ethnographic interviews and taping them on my mini-disc.
‘Why the polar regions?’ I ask. ‘What is it about them?’
‘I just love the life, you know. I wanted to be outside, always – in the snow, on the sea, in the air. And in the Antarctic, we had such an important job to do, with the science, with maintaining Britain’s historic claim on the continent.’ As Rob speaks, his eyes shine, the russet outdoorsman shine in his skin deepens. ‘I just love the life,’ he says, again. ‘Once you’ve known it, it never leaves you.’
People tell me this over and over again, that, once you have been to the Antarctic, the world never looks the same again. That, by venturing into the frozen vortex, the beguiling frozen underworld of the planet, you risk being haunted forever. Nothing is ever quite as real, urgent, as compelling, as it was there. Your dreams become populated by vast lozenges of ice that turn into icebreakers, or which house red planes, like frozen aircraft hangars. Over and over again, you will dream of the Antarctic. But you will not be allowed back, because you’ve had your shot at it, and there are others queueing to go behind you, and access to the continent is so restricted. Apart from secret US military bases, it remains the one place on earth you cannot buy a ticket to. Even before you went there they all said, this is a once in a lifetime chance. ‘You’ll only ever go once’, they warn, the refrain once, once, once taking on an alarming ring, like a medical condition. The Antarctic is home to no-one but for years you will wake, sweaty and disoriented from your dreams of ice thinking, why can’t I go home?
That night we glide through a channel between Anvers Island and the peninsula.
‘Why aren’t we in open water?’ I ask Richard, the first officer, who has finished his watch on the bridge and has come down to the bar to have a drink.
‘Dunno. The Old Man must have an idea.’ The officers called Chris alternately ‘Captain’ or, when he was not present, ‘The Old Man’ – possibly a term of endearment, possibly simply a rank-and-file custom, even if Chris didn’t look particularly old; he had begun his career when a young man, and that year was his twenty-seventh season in ice. It was also his last; after this trip he would retire, and this gave our voyage a sense of finality, as if his retirement was not only a milestone for him, but for the organisation itself. When we reached base – at that point there was no question of if we reached base – there would be a party to bid him goodbye.
Helen the diver and I ascend to the bridge and find Chris alone apart from an Able Seaman keeping lookout to port. The captain wears jeans, a cableknit jumper, and – incongruously, on such a manly Englishman – clogs; with his jeans rolled up on one leg, exposing calves more sinew than flesh, he strides from chart table to table, whipping out the flag-sized pieces of paper on which detailed nautical charts are drawn. He greets us but seems preoccupied. I go to the chart board. Our course is drawn, as usual, in pencil – lines crossed with ‘x’s show the distance we have travelled, and the time of our position. A message flashes on the electronic maps displayed on the ship’s computers: warning – uncharted waters.
Helen and I decide to recite ‘The Ancient Mariner’. To our mutual surprise we can remember entire chunks of it. We park ourselves at front of the bridge and chant:
`And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong :
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.
With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
The southward aye we fled.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold :
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.’
Chris interrupts us. ‘Okay boys and girls, we are doing sixteen knots in uncharted waters. We need some quiet on the bridge. Besides, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is bad luck on ships, didn’t you know that? It’s a bit like saying Macbeth in the theatre.’
Helen and I are both horrifed to be thrown off the bridge by the Master, by the boys and girls, by the curse we may have unwittingly bestowed. We leave, chastened.
Back in my cabin I see that my chaperone has returned. For awhile, while we were stationary at the base at Port Lockroy, he disappeared. Now he is outside my cabin porthole once again, the sooty albatross. He flies stalwart and level with the ship all night.
Shuga: An accumulation of spongy white ice lumps, a few centimetres across, formed from grease ice or slush and sometimes from ice rising to the surface
The next day we leave the ship for the first time in weeks. We will take the radio operator and replacement equipment into the Ukrainian base at Vernadsky to fix a problem with their VHF.
We sail through open water increasingly studded with growlers, bits of brash. The water has darkened to a thick celluloid. The mountains, by contrast, shine with a floodlit phosphorous white. We have entered a silverprint world; what is normally light is dark and vice versa, although throbbing with a substanceless, unstable white.
We speed into Vernadksy in the RIBs. It is snowing when we depart the ship and in the boat we zip through clouds of stinging flurries. In our immersion suits and lifejackets we waddle stiffly in single file up to the base through a corridor of snow, where it has been deposited on either side of the path by a snowblower, like
extraterrestrials visiting earthlings.
The Ukrainian chief biologist wears those sunglasses which adjust with light. Although the day is overcast, his shades are dark. He looks like a racecar driver marooned in the Antarctic. He is dark-skinned and (I imagine) dark-eyed and wears only a fleece and stands outside in minus ten with no gloves and no hat, as if he’s met us on a slightly overcast day in England.
‘Well, he’s acclimatised,’ says Matthew the oceanographer.
We hover, a group of orange overstuffed penguins, in front of stern tin sheds, surveying the base.
One of the oldest bases in the Antarctic, Vernadsky was first built on the Argentine Islands as a British base, during the British Graham Land Expedition (1934-37). Perched on a rocky tip of Galindez Island, the base was once called Faraday, and in the 1980s the British, unable to either maintain or dismantle the base, as the Antarctic Treaty requires signatory nations to do, sold it for £1 to the Ukrainians, who began research there in 1995, naming it after the great geochemist Vladimir Vernadksy.
We are shepherded from lab to lab. I’m not sure the Ukrainians got a good deal. Matthew elbows me discreetly when the chief scientists’ back is turned. ‘Look at that microscope!’ I spot my high school chemistry class microscope on the bench. In the labs we see some of the original British notices stating emergency procedures and HF radio frequencies are still tacked on the wall – tobacco-hued pieces of A4 paper, edges chewed.
There is a meteorology room staffed with creaking PCs, a serviceable though dusty VHF radio, and a makeshift gym, one room with rusting antiquarian weights and a broken rowing machine. Of all the rooms on base only the gym strikes me as particularly Ukrainian, thanks to the posters of big-boned blond women in 1980s workout leotards on the wall.
We are ushered upstairs to the bar for shots of vodka – it is ten o’clock in the morning – and slices of smoked salmon. Behind the bar we find the diesel mechanic, dressed in a pristine white shirt and grey trousers. He is greying, with a bushy moustache and mournful blue eyes.
‘How many of you are here?’ I ask
‘We are thirteen,’ the diesel mechanic says. ‘Lucky number!’ They are all men, he tells me; I don’t need to ask a man with such a crushed expression what he thinks of single-sex Antarctica – something tells me his opinion is distinct from Rob the dog musher’s.
The Vernadsky bar has the reputation of being the best-stocked bar in the Antarctic, and for 67.15 degrees south/west it isn’t bad: Johnnie Walker, Talisker, three types of vodka, beaten only by four types of gin – another triumph of the British legacy. A massive brassiere is slung between the bottles of vodka and whisky.
Suddenly a group of people burst into the bar shouting in Russian. A woman wearing a fur coat and hat plunks a bottle wrapped in Christmas paper on the bar and embraces the diesel mechanic over the counter. Our party turns, astonished, as more and more people pour through the door, laughing, singing, a parka-ed jolly herd. We have peeled off our boiler suits, but we still look a gang of droogs in comparison to these fur-coated oligarchs, with our grease-stained jackets and moleskin trousers.
‘It’s a Russian cruise ship,’ Richard answers my questioning look.
‘I don’t remember seeing a ship.’
‘They’re anchored around the other side of the island, I saw it on the radar. The cruise ships like to hide, to give their passengers the impression of pristine wilderness. I’ve heard them on the HF, arranging to sneak past each other so that the passengers don’t realise there’s another thousand people hot on their heels.’
We exchange Michelin-man hugs with the Russians, all of us fattened by our layers. There is a reckless fraternity to the Antarctic which decrees that any other humanoid we meet here is instantly wonderful and our staunchest friend – it might be the Utopia effect, named to a degree after the Antarctic, which belongs to no-one. Here, in nobody’s country, when British and Argentine personnel meet the whisky comes out and it’s slaps on the back all round. Geopolitical squabbles seem churlish in favour of the basic human delight of having encountered each other in this preposterous place.
The Russians have installed themselves in the corner and started on the vodka. I’ve had one shot but don’t think I can take any more.
The diesel mechanic takes me by the arm. ‘I need assistant.’ He manoeuvres me to the pool table in the middle of the bar.
‘No, no,’ I protest. ‘I’m a terrible pool player.’
‘No. Assistant. You stay here!’
He returns with a handful of coins, which he places on the pool table, and two coils of rope.
He says something in Russian and the cruise ship passengers gather round. ‘Magic show!’ then more in Russian. The crowd claps and roars.
The diesel mechanic puts me through my paces with the coins and the ropes. I am a poor magician’s assistant, not to mention unglamorous, in my oversized moleskins and lumpy fleece. I get the rope tangled, I fail to tie the magic slipknot, or untie it. The Russians don’t seem to care, they shout and holler, our ship’s crew are a chorus of laughs and guffaws. Everyone downs more vodka.
Stamuhka: A single fragment of ice stranded on a shoal
The light is scrawny and intense at once. Even under cloud it is impossible to look at the icefield with the naked eye; they are forced shut by the silver glare. Now that we are below 69 degrees south, the light has changed again to tungsten, a blue-white phosphorous. The monumental brooding stillness of the ice field means that when the sun does come out it has a rapier quality. Unlike the light of the temperate latitudes, it offers no balm, only a cauterising.
Where sea once surrounded us there is now white. We have come to a stop amid the broken geometry of ice floes; trapezoids, rectangles, rhomboids. Icebergs, frozen in the packice, puncture the horizon. In the far distance are the regal mountains of Adelaide and Alexander islands.
Once, the whole world might have looked like this. ‘Snowball Earth’ is the term for the hypothesis which suggests that, during a period 790 to 630 million years ago, the entire planet was covered in ice and snow. This so-called Cryogenian period remains a hypothesis because the geological record is unclear, and because some scientists dispute the physical possibility of the earth supporting a completely frozen ocean. But certain sediments and geological findings point to an all-encompassing ice age, such as evidence that glaciers were once present in the tropics, to within 30 degrees of the equator.
Snowball Earth would have begun with some initial cooling phase, perhaps provoked by multiple volcanic eruptions and large-scale ash spew into the atmosphere, or changes in the earth’s orbit which shielded it from the influence of the sun. Later, a runaway cooling phase would be generated by the rapidly accumulating ice sheets. The albedo of the ice sheets would ensure that most solar energy was reflected back to the sun, which could explain why melt would fail to happen, even at the equator. Stuck in a feedback loop, the torrid equatorial regions would have been as cold as the Antarctic – how much colder the actual Antarctic has been, turned away from the sun’s glare, is unguessable. In many ways, the Snowball Earth hypothesis is the global warming scenario in reverse.
Snowball Earth was given form in what Romantic literature scholar Eric Wilson calls the ‘frozen apocalypse’ of Coleridge’s Romantic vision of the Poles. The word apocalypse comes from the Greekapokalupsis, a derivative of the verb to uncover, to reveal. So the apocalypse is not only God’s judgement, the sudden annihilation of everything, but also an uncovering. Likewise, for Coleridge’s Mariner, the Antarctic destroys his maps, his instruments – the ways of understanding and moving through space and time – but it also revealed the true spiritual value of life.
Other Greek words have followed me here to the South Pole: krisis, which means decision. The Master has a decision to make: to run, to make a break for it before the ice definitively packs us in, or to stay.
I go outside onto one of the outdoor decks. Crabeater seals loll on the ice field below us. Their fur glints in the sun, making them look like bars of solid gold scattered across the ice field. I imagine a game among hallucinating, deranged Antarctic explorers in which they would rush onto the ice to collect the bars of gold, risking their lives for this great prize, only to find one of the moist-nosed crabeaters. The seals thump and sigh contentedly on the ice, totally nonplussed by the red and white spaceship which has materialised in their midst.
The sky is cold and grey, a commonplace Antarctic sky, the kind of light which ice rebuffs effortlessly. The ice fields of the Arctic and the Antarctic are a giant mirror; the amount of light they fling back is called albedo; the Antarctic’s is about thirty percent. Now the sun’s mirror is disappearing, shrinking from the edges inward. The mirror has cracked.
Breccia: Ice of different stages of development frozen together
We wake to a vacant silence. The engine noise which has been like our heartbeat for weeks now is gone.
I look out my porthole to see ice everywhere. We’ve arrived, I think – but no, there is no land, there is no wharf. I manage to figure it out before I am fully dressed and race up to the bridge. We are icebound, meaning beset by ice. The JCR is an ice-strengthened vessel, but it is not an ice breaker.
I open the door to the bridge to see a red plane hovering above the ice field, heading straight for us, and nearly duck. But at the last moment the plane tilts up; its propellers slice at the sky just above the ship’s Sat dome.
The officers tell me it’s a reconnaisance flight from Base R., sent to try to help us find a way out. Apart from our visit to the Ukranian base Vernadsky, the plane is the first thing that is not us we have seen in nearly three weeks. It is like a beacon from a distant civilisation.
‘Base is only 40 kilometers as the crow flies,’ Richard tells me. ‘It takes them about five minutes to fly out to us, but we might not be able to get to them before January.’
The year before the same thing happened: the ship made it even closer to base, managing to round the southern tip of Adelaide Island before being repelled by pack. ‘We could practically see the wharf,’ Richard recalls. But the ice was entrenched. In the end they had to sail all the way back to the Falklands and fly essential cargo and personnel down in relay flights. For the ship to be beset by ice was a once in a decade event; for it to happen two years running was unheard of.
The red plane climbs and buzzes over us, the fizz of its propellers roaring in our ears. It is not more than a hundred feet above us.
‘Daredevils.’ Richard says. ‘Watch out when you’re on base, they’ll have you flying the plane in no time.’ I think he is joking, and laugh.
On the bridge I eavesdrop on the pilots’ radio reports. They say the pack looks solid to the south for nearly twenty miles. This is the most disheartening news possible. Even if the wind changes and the ice starts to move on the gyre, twenty miles of pack isn’t going to shift as quickly as we need it to.
The red plane flies away from us. I watch it get smaller and smaller until it is a black dot in the sky. The HF radio is turned up loud on the bridge, so that we can all hear. The pilots have capable, dashing, militarised voices. In between blurs of static the Ice Master says, ‘Ok Kyle, thanks for that. Over.’
A hiss, then, ‘Good Luck. Over.’
Only a few days ago we were running out of night, now we are running out of time.
Sea fog rolls in and envelops us. Now there are no mountains to puncture the skyline. There is no visual field, only mist, veils, languid sheets of white muslin. They hang in the air until dispersed by wind, because the light and energy mass balance do not change throughout the day, at this time of year. The snow is different from the snow we saw further up the peninsula, at Lockroy. Here it is hard white meringue, sliced by sastrugi.
The ship, eerie when not in motion, becomes stranger still, enveloped in this frozen mist. The officers and seamen talk amongst themselves; their conversation is all about the ice – whether we will get out of it, whether we will make it to base, or have to turn around and head north, try later in the season.
Gone are the thin blue veins of water between the floes called leads. Now only a solid shield of white, dull grey in the gloom, streaks in front of us for all time and space. From time to time the brown darting shadow of a skua or a petrel flashes across the ice.
‘Where has all this ice come from?’ I ask the captain.
‘From Pine Island Bay. There’s an ice stream there, it’s pushing out a lot of ice, glaciers are calving fast.’
If we go out to sea, he tells me, heading to the west, a body of water stretching all the way to Australia, we will very likely encounter the pack again, and further to the south, where it may be thicker. If we head east, toward the coast of Adelaide Island, there may be a lead through the ice, but there are also reefs, rocky undersea islets, and the charts are unreliable. Unlike the HMS Endurance, the Naval polar survey ship and sister vessel to the JCR, we don’t have a depth sounder to guide us away from undersea ridges.
‘I think we might have to back out.’ Chris says this under his breath to Richard, but I hear him. To turn the ship around while we still have an open lead of cut ice behind us may well be the only option.
There is another strategy, Chris says. We wait, see what the wind will do. Even if the ice which holds us in its grip looks solid, it travels on the wind and the tide. With the right shift in either or both, it will break up like a puzzle nudged into disintegration, and we will emerge from this icy maze.
In 2005-6 Jean McNeil spent four months in Antarctica as writer-in-residence with the British Antarctic Survey/Arts Council England on an international fellowship; subsequently she has undertaken residencies in Svalbard, Greenland and the Falkland Islands. Her books about the polar regions are ‘The Ice Lovers’ (2009) a novel; a polar notebook/collection of poetry, ‘Night Orders’ (2011) and ‘Ice Diaries’, a polar travel narrative/memoir, in progress. A different extract from ‘Ice Diaries’ won the 2012 Prism International competition for creative non-fiction.