What separates this Antarctica experience from other cruises is its billing as an expedition - an expectation that passengers will do a variety of outdoors activities using the ship as a base. An expedition, however, becomes increasingly complicated as the number of passengers rises. Leaving the ship requires a lot of gear, Zodiacs to transport small groups of passengers, and places and weather that encourage exploring. Cancellations and plans change (they regularly advertise a Plan A, B, C…all the way to H) and information is shared as quickly as the weather turns. This morning all landings and Zodiac tours have been cancelled as the winds went from just a few knots to the present 33 knots; visibility dropped to just a few hundred yards from its early morning glory where massive peaks lit by glowing sunlight could be seen from any deck.
Yesterday, a narrow crack in the weather opened the door for our first expedition - mountaineering. The team of mountaineer guides all seemed to hail from the craggy mountains of the UK; sharp accents, thin-as-rail old hands with weathered equipment, men with stories to tell. They initially advertised the mountaineering through an orientation that laid out the range of experiences: glacier walks, ice-wall climbing, steep ascents, and mountain-top, crampon-wearing excursions illustrated in the orientation by a small group of exultant climbers atop some impossible crag. I immediately signed up for the glacier walk, encouraged by their description of it as “basically flat” and easy, any hills to be met with a nice zig-zagging path.
One thing that gearing up and traveling in Antarctica implies is a lack of toilet facilities, sometimes for many hours. The three layers of clothing notwithstanding, nothing can be done to the water or land of Antarctica to maintain its state of preservation. The continent is pristine. Humans can’t eat on shore and definitely can’t go to the bathroom. Managing meals with an eye towards limiting the necessity to go to the bathroom is essential.
It took a long time to get mountaineering underway. Our first attempt to get our life preservers, backpacks, and hiking harnesses on was complicated by the small space and the dozens of hikers, all trying to do the same unfamiliar thing. Then we were sorted and on to the Zodiacs; there is a precise method of boarding and disembarking from a Zodiac of course, with the preeminent note being that all travelers will get wet. Soaked. Once on board, the Zodiac shoots to the landing site, eventually shuttling back to round up the next group of sodden travelers.
It didn’t go smoothly this first time. The Zodiac we were on approached the shore where there appeared to be no way to get up the 15 feet or so to the top of the snow, still piling up at a rate of about an inch every 30 minutes. We dropped off the lead, a no-nonsense Australian, and we rode off to give him some time to work. When we returned after a short sightseeing foray, he had carved out a series of steps in the snow to climb the cliff. After slipping off the Zodiacs, we were roped in and climbed up to the flatter surface of the promontory, hauling huge canvas bags of tools and snowshoes up top. Standing in about six feet of snow, a couple of feet just fluffy and the remainder thicker underneath, it was difficult to assemble. We each had to have snowshoes attached to our feet, position our ice axes, and then get roped up in groups of eight.
By this time the snow had picked up with the wind. The previous evening’s terror-presentation of how to survive falling into a crevasse echoing in my mind, I realized that I could hardly see more than 50 yards in any direction. We were starting on the edge of a point, deeply snowbound, with the terrain a steady slope uphill into a swirling mist. To either side, the surface dropped away in a gentle curve, reminding me of those areas considered to be at most risk for crevasses: areas in which the tension of the snow pulled apart the white surface. With the snow accumulating rapidly, it was easy to imaging crevasses yawning perilously below the thin veneer of cheerful looking snowball snow covering everything.
Roped together, we were instructed to keep the line at a jumping rope level of tension, the better to catch someone if they were to slip into the freezing hell of a crevasse. I was never quite sure why we carried the ice axe, especially since we had to hold it by the head of the tool, but perhaps it gave us an advantage if we encountered a yeti or two. Even more challenging was the desire to take pictures of this journey. It had the feeling of a life-changing event, but if not recorded, who’s to say whether it really happened? The rope line was a great distraction, however. The guide maneuvered it so that three larger men were at front, three people who would just trudge along and not create a challenge to his movement. This allowed him to set a steady pace and not have to accommodate the inevitable falling or slipping hikers behind him. The pace was steady, no complaints were heard, and we trudged upward into the white, our focus on keeping our rope line at the exact proper tension.
After about 30 minutes of straight, steady climbing, our guide stopped for a quick photo of the group. Turning around I could see that our line of hikers stretched into the mist, looking nothing so much as line of grizzled Antarctic explorers battling the swirling snow from some forgotten historic voyage of discovery. This time, rather than heavily bearded Norwegians with ice-encrusted pipes and enormous goggles carrying impossible loads, we were a mix of men and women, large and small, in bright colors and a dizzying array of outfits. We hailed from China, from the United States, Argentina, various European countries, Canada, the world. Snatches of chattering could be heard rising from the group, and many charming photos of the blindered landscape were attempted with handheld devices.
After another few minutes, our guide called a halt. Unlike my expectation, there was no zigzagging nor any flat walk - we had just borne our packs steadily up, up, up. While I began to really get concerned, given the lack of an opportunity to catch my breath, I also had to consider that I had had to go to the bathroom the moment I stepped on the Zodiac, two hours before. I wondered how zealously they protected the environment, and whether I could even disrobe enough somewhere out of sight. I decided to keep my counsel to myself and practice this version of self control.
As the group behind us neared our guide, he informed their leader that he was becoming ill because of the snow-blindness. Well, I thought, this is now becoming really interesting - he is human after all! The other guide took this opportunity to wave goodbye as they pressed on upwards. During this pause, our guide took out a long extendable pole, thin as a pencil, and drove it into the snow where we stood. What seemed to be about two feet of snow with a hard pack (rock?) beneath it turned out to be a snow pack of about 15 feet.
Just then, from further up the hill, the group that had rabbited ahead of us began a slowly, arcing turn back towards us on a parallel track. Like a long conga line, each in turn banked left and then back down towards us. A hurried serious of conversations over walkie-talkies indicated that we had gone as far as we would go, and we would now return to the Zodiacs. I was relieved.
With a sudden slight abating of the snowfall what lay ahead became clearer. Based on our path to this point, it seemed we would continue ahead to plateau after plateau, until we reached the other side of the peninsula. What became clear once we could see, however, was that we had approached dangerously close to a very steep mountain peak that loomed almost straight up from where the further group had turned. Craning my neck backwards, I could see alternating bands of rock and snow extending hundreds of feet above us. These were, I was to learn that afternoon when back safely on the base ship, ideal conditions for avalanches. We were on the middle and highest point of the promontory, however, and reasonably well-positioned. Any snow or rockfall at this time would most likely part to the left and right, rushing down to the lower elevations. Still, we were too close.
It took far less time to descend than to climb, and within 45 minutes we were back on our Zodiac, all the gear stowed and the unexpectedly perilous ascent behind us. We were serenaded on our way back by porpoising penguins - small groups of Gentoos that would leap in and out of the water choreographed to move simultaneously. Or so it seemed. The Zodiacs left the edge of the continent for the ship, picking our way through ever smaller passages between icebergs. In our eagerness to beeline towards the ship, we squeezed through narrow passages and over smaller chunks of ice, our Zodiac pilot carefree and young.