Reflections from the Ice

I am home and sorting through notes, sketches and photographs from my travels south. Paul and I had a great time in New Zealand. We hiked in the Queen Charlottes, Abel Tasman,  and on the west coast; drove through wine country that felt like the Napa Valley; saw many strange birds and entire forests of very cool looking plants. But my head was and continues to be filled with memories of the West Antarctic plateau. It made an indelible mark in my mind.

Walking around Discovery Point at night

The journey to Antarctica was both difficult and oddly familiar. Having read many stories about the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), I vaguely recognized many places and activities. At the same time, is was all strange and a bit overwhelming, though not in ways I predicted. I assumed the cold would be the most challenging aspect of being in Antarctica, but it turned out to be fairly easy to cope with. If it was windy, I tolerated a limited amount of time outside, though more time if I was dressed properly. If it was foggy, I couldn’t see to draw. Changing clothes to be comfortable both outside and inside was a high art form and occupied a measurable portion of the day. For me, the most difficult aspect of the weather was needing to being ready to shift activities at a moments notice. I tend to draw slowly, and because of the ever changing conditions, relied heavily on my camera to capture these places.

It was summer there, so the weather was relatively mild, less severe than my friends in Fairbanks often experience. The coldest conditions I experienced were in the ice core handling arch at -25°C (or -13°F) and during the moderately windy days we had while I was there, creating a windchill of approximately -20°F. Of course this is cold, but nothing like winter temperatures, and I had the Big Red – an amazing warm coat that was like a portable shelter.

My tent at the WAIS field camp – a toasty “Arctic Oven”

I struggled much more with “phantom” weather and fears of a “white out”. Before going into the field, all USAP participants must attend a two day snow survival course.  We went through a “white out” scenario wearing white buckets on our heads while trying to locate our instructor lying outside. The most troubling part of this exercise was watching another group lose their orientation within minutes of being beyond the tent. We were told that white out conditions can occur quickly; but how quick I wondered? Apparently, it is particularly easy to lose track of weather conditions while engaged in your work. So every time I wondered out to draw or look around, the fear of white out followed me around like a bad memory.

This fear dissipated gradually over the two weeks I was at the WAIS field camp. I was surprised and a bit embarrassed by how long it took to acclimatize to the conditions of camp. The actual altitude at the WAIS Divide is 1766 meters (5783ft), but cold air is less dense and the atmosphere is thinner at the pole. These factors mimic higher altitude conditions (i.e. less oxygen, pant, pant!). I was told that the equivalent altitude was about 8000 feet. Walking around the first few days in bulky clothing through drifting snow in flat light was exhausting.

Footsteps left behind after a wind storm

Eventually, I did acclimatize and wandered about the camp taking in all of the images and activities around me. I made several visits to the drill arch to see just how the cores are acquired. While I was there, the drill had to travel approximately a mile down, cut a 3.3 meter section of ice and return to the surface with it. Each run took over 2.5 hours. I stared at the cable as it traveled along, trying to imagine this depth. I wanted to believe that I could perceive the distance, the thickness of the ice that I stood on. But I could only grasp it within a story that I told myself similar to how I am describing it now in words.

It was only slightly easier to perceive the flat white space of the plateau. Seen from 20,000 feet, the camp appeared as tiny marks on a large white sheet of paper that faded into the edge of my vision. Walking around, it looked like a very large field of white. I could gauge distance by using markers that are placed to determine weather conditions. I told myself the story that the third black marker was three miles away, so I could see three miles of space. But again, I had no real physical or sensory understanding of this space.

Instead, the large white space began to alter what I focused on and what I thought about. At first, the white appeared without definition. After being outside walking or skiing I began to see finer grained details in the snow and subtle variations in the white of the overcast ski. The flags were a very important feature in the landscape, taking on much greater meaning than they would have anywhere else.  They are used to mark routes, danger, food, fuel and supply caches and even where to pee.

I brought back all of these impressions, along with 1500 photos,  a small book of writing and sketches and about 18 small drawings to sort through in the studio. I have begun to make some preliminary drawings and etchings and will share progress of this work periodically over the year. I will also continue to post stories and pictures from this amazing trip.  Below is a small collection of photos:

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  1. EJ on February 11, 2010 at 1:03 am

    I really enjoyed reading about your adventures in Antarctica. The white buckets on the head is so funny yet so scary at the sametime. Looking forward to see the art inspired by trip.