The Road to Byrd – What are all these flags?

WAIS Divide Camp at 79.47°S latitude, 112.06°W longitude – high on the West
Antarctic Ice Sheet Plateau.

Yesterday morning I took off on a snow machine driven by the fabulous GA
(general assistant) Sucha, to get beyond view of camp. We planned to follow
the route to Byrd Field Camp, marked by flags every 1/4 miles. The weather
has been overcast with flat light, but it was forecast to get worse, so the
camp manager (another amazing woman) suggested I go while the weather was
mild.

It took about 45 minutes to get ready; many layers for the ride – long
johns, thermal pants, wind bibs, wool shirt, vest, primaloft jacket and of
course, the beloved Big Red. We also packed cameras, tripod, warm tea, food,
a radio and GPS.

We first zipped down the skiway (an ice runway, for planes equipped with
skis) heading west and caught sight of the green flags that marked our way.
We traveled over the wind swept snow, a bit bumpy, but it was a good
reminder of our space and helped confirm that we were actually moving. It
was a bit unpleasant to have two stroke engine exhaust blowing in my face,
but lovely to gain so much distance from camp.

I looked out to the horizon. In some directions it was indicated by a faint
change in tone from snow to sky. It other directions the white became a
wall. If I looked away from the flag line in front and behind us, it was
impossible to gauge distance.

About half way, we stopped for a radio check, looked around and snapped a
few photos. It was no time at all before we got to 7 miles – our arbitrary
destination. Then Sucha was able to turn off the skidoo engine and there
was just the wind and white.

I reflected on William Fox’s writing in his beautiful book, Terra Antarctica
about our impulse to seek empty spaces. I have desired this experience for
so long and spent two years actively working to get here. This desire was
motivated by a few impulses that I understand and several that remain a
mystery. First there is the simple curiosity of space. What is undefined
space like experientially? Will it alter my perception, and if so, how? Will
this give me insight into mortality, the ultimate lack of sensation? And how
does this differ from other meditative states?

What I did experience first hand is a clarity of vision that comes with
limited input. For instance, the flags became supremely important and jumped
out at me. Without them we would have driven in circles and without a GPS
device would have likely lost our way. Also, I was more aware of wind
direction, aided by the strength and consistency of the blow on the plateau.
Even with the wind, there was a stillness and quiet that I can’t really
reconcile.

I am aware of the holidays, because there are decorations in the galley and
a big feast celebration is planned, but solstice went by without the power
that I feel towards it in lower latitudes. The sun revolves around lower and
higher in the sky above the white, giving me little indication of the
turning of seasons.