Antarctica conjures up images of rugged explorers in tattered clothes battling the elements in an attempt to save their lives after conquering a feat of epic proportion. Or, the continent evokes the thrill-seeking imagery of the “Man vs. Contrived-Scenario” television show. My lifestyle is about as far from that as you could imagine.
I live incredibly comfortably for the most part. I eat. I’m generally warm. I sleep (occasionally). In truth, other than wanting to share my sleeping bag with someone I have everything I’d ever need. And logically, we don’t unnecessarily brave the elements. When the strong katabatic winds come ripping down the valley our flights are cancelled, I unlace my hiking boots, and we stay sheltered in our field camp. Living remotely is about mitigating as many potential dangers as you can predict. Despite these efforts there are always inherent risks of being out here: I could break my leg hiking and bad weather could prevent search and rescue from reaching me, I could fall head deep in the frozen lake and get hypothermia, I could crash our ATV and have it crush me. While that list isn’t exhaustive and all are very much possible, I don’t wake up in fear every day – we’re as safe as possible and worrying consistently about ‘what-ifs’ isn’t productive. So in our relative comfort, I start my mornings generally confident that I won’t die. I feel safe, aside from the one encounter that unnerves me.
Lake ice. In Taylor Valley we have to commute to our stream sites by traveling along Lake Fryxell – a rather large lake that is adjacent to Canada Glacier. Fryxell is covered by two types of ice: permanent ice and moat ice. Permanent ice is a layer in the middle of the lake that never fully melts and over the years takes on strange grooves and crevasses as some parts melt and some parts remain frozen. Moat ice is the stuff that connects the permanent ice to the shore. As the ‘summer’ heats up this moat ice will disappear completely and leave a gap of water between the shore and the permanent ice.
Now that the weather is warming and things are starting to thaw we’re forced to travel by foot across large sections of permanent ice. And it is terrifying. Every step I take across it is a gamble as sections of the ice will collapse and nearly break my ankle, or worse yet: I fall through the ice into the frigid water below me. The funny thing about permanent ice is that it’s not just one layer. Several layers of the ice can exist on top of the lake so that when I break through the first layer I fall into water that may be just a foot deep on top of thicker ice, or water several feet deep, or through to the actual lake. I can’t predict how deep I’m going to go when I break through. My heart stops with every step that causes the ice to crack.
Last month I had a bit of an experience. I had driven our ATV over the permanent ice to Canada Glacier to collect our weekly supply of ‘glacier berries’ (chunks of ice that have fallen off the glacier that we melt to make drinking water). I slowed to a crawl as I approached the edge of where the glacier meets the lake as it had been an unusually warm few days. I parked 30 feet away and with ice axe in hand I walked across the very frozen looking ice. I went to an area where the glacier had previously calved (broken and fallen) and started gathering my harvest of clear blue berries. As I walked back across the lake holding my 60 pound prize in my arms the ice underneath me bent uncomfortably and collapsed. I sank waist deep in the freezing water until my feet reached a thicker layer of ice. Instantly cold, I walked/swam over to the ATV and threw down my catch. Figuring I was already wet and couldn’t leave equipment behind I went back to retrieve my ice axe and one last piece of ice. As I picked up my axe I heard another cracking sound, this time from above. I looked up in time to see a piece of ice the size of an oven come crashing down 20 feet away. I was done. I sprinted over the water and jumped on my vehicle to get the hell out of there. Wet and headed into the wind for the next 30 minutes, I was the coldest I’ve experienced yet on the continent.
I made it back shivering but safe. It was the last time we collected our water from Canada Glacier. While the falling ice was a near miss, it still doesn’t make me jump like the cracking of the lake ice does. I’ve had to swim fully clothed in boots before and it’s a terrible experience. With the weight of the gear on my back, the sheer coldness of the water, and the unpredictable behavior of the ice I absolutely hate the thought of breaking through completely.
Fryxell is 60 feet deep.
That terrifies me.