For our crew, the idea that our trip was an expedition rather than a cruise was a set fact. The deeply qualified expedition staff - distinct from the hotel staff or the ship’s actual crew that made the thing run - were the heart and soul of our trip. This voyage was called “basecamp” - hearkening to those assaults on Everest that start from a major campsite. Basecamp meant that we were to do things - activities such as touring by Zodiac, climbing and hiking, kayaking, landing on a variety of environments, and camping. Mixed in would be less challenging activities; photography trips and visits to national bases. But we were on an expedition above all. The idea of the expedition initialy seemed a bit grandiose for what we would be doing. In practice, these activities did feel like classic rough and ready challenges
The most common activity was the Zodiac tour. In a small powered boat, groups of eight or nine would travel close to land, weaving through icebergs and bergy bits (yes, the smaller ones are called this), approaching glaciers and wildlife and interesting things to see. Given that two people died doing a Zodiac tour in the same area in the last few weeks, these were taken very seriously. Boarding a Zodiac required three active participants; falling in the water could kill you in 90 seconds. Once on board, the staff would take an hour or two to maneuver, skittering away from the ever-dangerous icebergs which had a propensity to topple over and keeping a sharp eye for leopard seals (known to attack Zodiacs). The weather was always difficult - winds were cold, the Zodiac became a massive spray zone of near-frozen water, and snow and fog always challenged visibility.
Mountaineering included four activities: glacier walking, more serious hiking, ice wall climbing, and Alpine ascents. None of these felt easy. The glacier walks (of which I did two) were exhausting, slogging through snow and over deep power. The mountaineering crew never flagged in their quest to move upwards. One of my walks went for no more than a half a mile, but I was done for the day when finished. The other one, the last day of activities, was a 3-mile jaunt on the caldera of Deception Island. While beautiful and unforgettably scenic, the only way to go on an island is upwards, and that occupied most of our walking.
Landings were combined with Zodiac tours and usually involved a lot of wildlife. Once ashore, a defined area was laid out to reduce our harmful impact on wildlife and to promote our safety, Within this area, we could walk and take pictures to our hearts content. The snow was very deep and paths had to be opened before the visitors could move about. Penguin colones proliferated at these sites, with from dozens to thousands of the well-clad birds doing what they do best: provide a charming foreground for the impressive backgrounds in all directions. The photographers amongst us, those who lugged many pounds of lenses and other equipment to each landing, would park themselves near a colony and snap away. The rest of us would capture snowy images with cell phones, and wander around the land like first visitors. There were many protocols for moving around: stay on the path, avoid penguin highways, keep 5 meters between wildlife and humans, keep sense of the time, don’t go beyond the markers of danger. Even these events were exhausting, as the combination of wet trudging and intensely engaging environments sapped even the hardiest.
Camping on the continent, which I looked forward to eagerly from the start, turned out to be an activity I passed on. Like swimming in the water during the Polar Plunge, it seemed more of a thing to do rather than something amazing to experience. This is stated, of course, by someone who didn’t do it, so take that for what it is worth. Campers were to go to the shore immediately after dinner, dig a small grave to keep themselves from the wind, and then lay in it until about 4 in the morning. Sunset was at 10:30 and sunrise at 2:30 (and each of these really just a dimming of the light), but these were the highlights. Campers were expected to hold their bodily fluids in until returning to the ship, or use the weird toilet contraption available some distance from the site itself. But what really deterred me were statements to the effect that we wouldn’t sleep, th
at most people usually stayed awake to enjoy the silence and the night. I like my sleep, and realized that if I did stay out overnight, it would take me a couple of days to get back in the swing of things. So, I chickened out. I don’t feel that bad, however.
The most challenging of the activities turned out to be the kayaking. The experience itself was enhanced by the knowledge that in the first group that kayaked, a couple had overturned their kayak and taken a plunge into that cold, cold, cold water. They were fine, of course, but it did show me that one could actually fall out. We set out on a stunning bay, moving noiselessly around ice and floes, hoping to circumnavigate the island we were visiting. All was good. I had purchased neoprene gloves to keep my hands dry (and warm), and felt strong.
After about a quarter of the way around, our guides decided that our way was blocked by ice too dense to weave through. We turned around in what to that point had been a gentle breeze pushing us forward. Quickly the wind picked up in our faces, bringing with it snow and sleet that could only be called “driving.” Waves pushed back against our best efforts, and the ice no longer yielded easily to our paddles. What had seemed a short journey in one direction became extremely hard in the other. When we finally caught up with the group, patiently waiting in the lee of a small iceberg, our guides reluctantly decided to call it a day. My overriding concern at this point was that I wasn’t sure I could feel my hands anymore. The neoprene did keep them dry, but I might as well as have stuck them in a snow bank for an hour all the good it did keeping them warm. In retrospect, I know the experience was beautiful and grand, but the memory of the hour it took to get life back in my digits overshadowed the glory.
Each day of the cruise, weather permitting, participants could do up to two activities. Some of the hardier amongst us were on and off the ship twice a day and hitting the bar at night. I determined that my limit was one good, true effort first thing in the morning, ending before lunch, and then taking the rest of the afternoon to warm up and rest for the next day. I still can’t figure out how the expeditionary crew worked from dawn until the evening, never flagging and always taking care for our safety. But I am glad they did.