A Photographic Memoir of Life in Antarctica
From the book jacket:
It’s cold, harsh, and desolate. And to photojournalist Jim Mastro, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth. Here is Antarctica — the frozen, once-inaccessible continent at the bottom of the world — in all of its photographic splendor, with exciting personal anecdotes that take armchair travelers and future explorers right to the edge of the ice…
Though this book is now out-of-print, I have a few copies. Contact me for prices and availability.
LOST IN THE STORM
Even by Antarctic winter standards, this blizzard had been brutal. For nearly two weeks, almost non-stop hurricane-force winds had driven blinding snow across Hut Point Peninsula, bringing activity at McMurdo Station to a standstill. Though the continuing storm had kept anyone from taking a full accounting of the damage, I knew that at least one building, a quonset-shaped, tent-like structure called a jamesway, had been destroyed. I had passed it this morning while fighting my way from my dorm room to the biology laboratory, where I worked. Half the wooden frame was gone, along with the cloth that had covered it. The rest lay bare, with a few tatters of fabric whipping in the wind. It looked like the rib cage of a large animal from which the flesh had been ripped from the bones.
I had shuddered when I walked by, and not just from the cold that bit through my parka. My sense was that the storm was not through with us yet. A few times the wind had diminished and visibility improved for a few hours, enough for people to start moving around again. But no sooner had we tried to resume normal operations than the storm had kicked up again. The helicopter pilots called these false respites “sucker holes.” Antarctic storms were famous for them. A patch of clear sky would appear and the storm would appear to be breaking. A pilot anxious to get somewhere would be suckered into flying into the clearing, only to have the storm close in around him.
Now, as I stood in the doorway of the laboratory and looked out, I wondered if that wasn’t happening again. The wind had dropped in the last couple of hours to an almost reasonable 25 knots and, except for a few wisps scudding along the ground, the air had cleared of blowing snow. Across the dirt road that ran in front of the lab, a mercury vapor street lamp cast a circle of yellow light on the snow-covered ground. Nearby, the Chalet, a small wooden structure that served as the NSF administration building, sat dark and empty. Like so many other buildings in McMurdo, it had been shuttered for the winter. I glanced up. Telephone and power lines overhead twisted in the wind but, beyond the pale light of the mercury lamp, Antarctica was a black and formless void. The sky was starless and utterly dark.
I didn’t like the looks of it, but Steve had decided to take advantage of the relative calm to drive down to the aquarium. Steve was a marine biologist studying the life cycle of single-celled organisms called foramenifera. His live cultures of the critters had to be kept in salt water at ambient temperature, and the aquarium was the only place to do it. It was a pre-fabricated wooden structure called a T-5, identical to the buildings used to create the biology lab. To get there, he’d drive his tracked vehicle, called a spryte, down the hill in front of the lab, make a sharp left turn to keep from driving out onto the now-frozen sea, and travel along a narrow road between the sea ice on the right and the steep hillside below the helicopter pad on the left.
As with most sprytes, Steve’s didn’t have much of a heater, and the windows tended to fog up quickly. But the trip was short. After telling me he only needed a few minutes, he threw his parka over the T-shirt and sweat pants he always wore in the lab, jumped in the vehicle, and took off. All he had on his feet were tennis shoes.
I shut the lab door and went back to work in my cramped office.
Caught up in what I was doing, I didn’t look up again until some time later. A change in sound had caught my attention. The low background hum of the wind snaking around the rickety laboratory had turned once again into a loud, low rumble, punctuated by heavy thumps as gusts slammed into the back door or tore at the roof. The blizzard had kicked up again.
I went to the front door and cracked it open. The wind caught it and shoved me backwards. Ii was lucky the door opened inward. Otherwise, it would have been ripped from both my hand and its hinges. Outside, a single light bulb over the door illuminated a solid wall of white. Snow was streaking horizontally through the darkness. I shoved the door shut.
The phone rang. It was Steve.
“I’m coming back to the lab,” he said.
I tried to talk him out of it. Visibility was zero. He wouldn’t be able to see beyond the windshield of the spryte.
But he was adamant. “I can’t stay here.”
It was true the aquarium was not a comfortable building. The water in the tanks was maintained at 29 degrees F, about the temperature of the sea. If it was allowed to get much warmer, the animals started dying. So the aquarium itself was kept at about 55 degrees, bearable for an hour or two but not much longer. Also, there were no beds, no comfortable chairs, no food, no bathroom, and no potable water. And who knew how long this latest blow would last? Steve could be stuck there for days.
“If you don’t see me in a few minutes,” Steve continued, “call Ratchko.” Lt. Ratchko was the U.S. Navy’s winter-over Officer-in-Charge for McMurdo Station.
I hung up the phone and waited. It was impossible to go back to my work. The wind had increased in intensity and the entire laboratory was creaking and groaning. I heard a muffled thumping and went to investigate. Storm winds in McMurdo come from the south. Since the lab was aligned south-to-north, the south end took the brunt of the wind as it roared off the unobstructed expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf, around Observation Hill, and down over the Station. As if to emphasize that point, the noise level increased as I entered the back room, which contained a small shop and cargo receiving area. The electric wall heaters were buzzing at top capacity, but the room was freezing. The back door was straining at its latch, as though some large animal was trying to force its way in. The thumping I had heard was coming from the plywood roof over my head. It was bucking as if it were about to be ripped off. I remembered the jamesway I’d seen that morning and headed back to a safer part of the lab.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty. It was a five minute drive from the aquarium to the lab in good weather, and only that long because the spryte was not a vehicle meant for dirt roads and had a top speed of about five miles per hour. I knew Steve would have to stop frequently to keep his bearings, perhaps waiting for the snow to clear long enough for him to spot landmarks. I went to the door and cracked it again. Apart from a small patch of blowing snow illuminated by that naked bulb over the door, the outside was utterly black. The blizzard was so thick it was completely masking the light from the street lamp.
I mentally kicked myself – and Steve – for not getting the radio in his spryte fixed. We’d intended to get it done, but as long as he was just using it to go back and forth from the lab to the aquarium it didn’t seem that important. But now there was no way to reach him to find out where he was.
When thirty minutes had passed, I picked up the phone and called Lt. Ratchko.
He took in the news, then paused. “Give him another fifteen minutes. If you haven’t seen him by then, call me back. I’ll start putting together a SAR.”
Initiating a Search-and-Rescue was no minor thing. A SAR meant someone was in serious trouble. More than that, it generally meant that whoever was about to go out and attempt a rescue would also be placed in danger.
But another fifteen minutes went by with no sign of Steve. It was clear to me now that he was lost somewhere in the storm, in a poorly insulated vehicle with an inefficient cabin heater and limited fuel. I called Ratchko back. He said it would be an hour before they were ready to go out. He had to gather the SAR members together, collect their gear, and get their vehicle running. I hung up knowing that they’d never be able to find Steve. Visibility in a vehicle is even worse than it is on foot. Sitting higher up off the road makes it harder to know where the road is. In addition, the spryte’s headlights reflecting off the blowing snow would blind the driver, making it impossible to see navigational landmarks, like the faint, intermittent light from street lamps. Add to these difficulties the problem of windows fogging up from passengers’ breath and I knew it would be a near miracle if they were even able to stay on the road.
The only way to find Steve would be on foot. I shed my tennis shoes, put on a sweatshirt, then climbed into my “bunny suit.” This is a one-piece, insulated, wind-proof, extreme-cold-weather garment. During the winter, I had found it to be my best protection against the cold. I pulled on my insulated “bunny boots,” giant, white rubber boots with an insulating layer of air between two layers of rubber. Then I put on a thick, woolen cap and pulled a woolen gator over the hat and down over my nose and mouth. Next came the ski goggles, after which I flipped the bunny suit’s hood over my head and zipped it shut. Finally, I put on glove inserts and slipped my hands into thick, wind-proof mittens. After grabbing a powerful flashlight from my office, I headed for the door.
The wind nearly knocked me over the moment I stepped outside. I held onto the door handle for support and looked around. I was in the middle of a maelstrom. Snow was streaming horizontally, like an impenetrable wall. Beyond the tiny circle of illumination created by the bulb over the door, there was only amorphous darkness. The snow was so thick it was obscuring every other source of artificial light, and the Antarctic was offering none of its own. On a clear day, I could navigate by starlight. But now, with the sky obscured by clouds and snow, not a single photon of natural light was getting through.
I turned on the flashlight, but turned it off immediately. All it did was brighten the snow in the air before my face, but it probably didn’t penetrate three feet. I let go of the biolab door and took several steps in what I knew was the right direction. After moving fifteen or twenty feet, I turned and looked back.
I saw nothing but blowing snow. No sign of the biolab. I was completely surrounded by impenetrable storm.
This is nuts, I told myself. What good will it do Steve for me to get lost, too? I retraced my steps, leaning into the wind, and with great relief found the biolab door. I pushed it open and stumbled inside.
After removing my cold weather gear, I paced the biolab lounge, trying to think of something I could do. What I needed, I decided, was a lifeline I could tie to the lab and use to guide myself, and presumably Steve, back to safety. After an exhaustive search of the storage room, though, all I could come up with was a roll of string wound around a hollow tube. At first I discarded it as being too thin and flimsy. But when I could find no other suitable, thicker rope, I picked up the string again. It would have to do.
I bundled into my cold weather gear again but left the goggles off. The tint of the lens had obscured what little light there was and made it even harder to see. I’d have to do without them. After putting a screwdriver into the string’s hollow tube so the roll could rotate freely, I stepped outside. Fighting the wind, I tied one end of the string to the lab’s doorknob. Then I headed out again, holding the screwdriver and allowing the string to play out behind me. This time I didn’t look back.
Immediately across from the lab there was a small empty lot with a memorial to Admiral Richard Byrd. A dirt road ran between the lab and the Byrd memorial. About fifty feet from the lab’s door this road intersected the transition road, so-called because it led straight down the hill that McMurdo sits on, across the land-ice transition, and onto the sea ice. On the right side of the road, as you headed toward the ice, were several shuttered buildings. On the left, below the Byrd memorial, was a road that led to the helicopter pad and gymnasium. Further down, the road cut through a gully, with the helicopter hangar at the top of a steep and rocky slope. At the bottom of the hill, the transition road intersected another road that went left, toward the salt-water intake that fed the desalinization plant. This road was bordered on the left by the same steep, rocky slope, and on the right by the ice-covered water of McMurdo Sound. Several hundred yards down this road sat the aquarium, another wooden T-5 structure. There was only one street lamp on the route. It sat on a power pole outside the hangar, at the top of the rocky slope and overlooking the bottom of the transition road.
I had walked this route more times than I could count, and I knew it as well as I knew the layout of my own room. I also knew I’d have to navigate based solely on this internal map. One thing in my favor was that the roads had been kept relatively clear of drifting snow. As long as I could see dirt and rocks beneath my feet, I would know I was on a road.
The wind at my back nearly pushed me over several times before I even reached the transition road. Small rocks, whipped up by the wind, pelted the back of my suit. Even through the insulation, I could feel the cold pressing in. The wind was driving it through every tiny crack in my clothing.
At the corner of the two roads was a green flag on a bamboo pole, placed there to guide the snow removers. I almost ran into it. I stopped and looked in what I knew was the direction of the transition road. Still nothing but darkness and swirling snow. But I could feel the slope of the earth, so I started working my way down the hill, keeping my eyes on the dirt below my feet. I was facing sideways to the wind now, and wind-driven dust and small pebbles were blasting my face and getting in my eyes. I began to wish I had the goggles again, but I wasn’t about to go back. Instead, I worked my way forward by walking sideways, keeping my hooded face away from the wind and only stealing glances now and again in the direction I was headed.
The roar of the wind was deafening, a constant, low frequency roar that seemed to consume the world. It vibrated through my body, even as it pushed at me and kept me off balance.
I kept moving slowly down the hill, hoping I’d run into Steve’s spryte. Perhaps he had made it part of the way back and was waiting for a clear moment before continuing. Then I hesitated, struck by a realization. I looked into the storm. It was impossible to see more than three feet. If he was on this road and if he was moving, he’d run me over before he could stop. He might not see me at all. I didn’t much fancy getting chewed up by the steel tracks of a spryte.
There was no other choice, though. If I left the road, I’d be hopelessly lost. I started moving again, hoping that he was not. I tried to keep my bearings by glancing up every few minutes. Occasionally, through a break in the snow, I’d get a brief glimpse of a slightly lighter spot in the sky to my left, which I knew must be the street lamp near the helicopter hangar. In addition, as long as I could feel the downward slope of the road, I knew I was on the right path. I tried not to think of the power lines snaking overhead. If the wind broke one free, it would become a vicious whip in the wind, deadly even apart from the live electricity it carried.
Loose objects, in fact, represented the greatest single danger in a blinding snowstorm like this. A sheet of plywood or a sheet of plate metal driven by hurricane-force winds would be like a scythe. Either one could take off my head. There was no shortage of loose construction material lying around McMurdo Station, including sheets of steel, rolls of wire, wooden pallets, and innumerable boxes and crates. But I took courage from the fact that this storm had been blowing for two weeks; most of the easily dislodged material must have already blown away. I hoped.
I concentrated on keeping my eyes on the dirt below my feet. At times, even that would disappear in the driving snow and the darkness, and I would have to bend down to make sure it was still there. It seemed to be taking me forever to get to the bottom of the hill. I looked back the way I had come, but it was as dark and uninviting as the direction I was headed. I looked down again – and suddenly the ground disappeared.
I was hanging, suspended in space, surrounded by swirling snow. I became dizzy and disoriented, unable to maintain my balance. My stomach lurched and nausea welled up. Realizing I had walked into a snowdrift, I forced myself to stumble quickly backward before I fell. The vertigo disappeared as soon as I could see dark earth below my feet again.
I stood for a moment, unsure what to do. I had heard of vertigo resulting from a total whiteout condition, but had never believed it could actually happen. If this snowdrift was too big, I might not be able to get through it. How absurd, I thought! To go out into this wind and cold and near zero visibility and be stopped by a stupid snowdrift! If nothing else, I thought, maybe I could crawl over it. But before I was forced to do that, I decided to try a faster approach. I took a deep breath and ran toward the drift. In several steps I was over it and onto hard road again.
I had no idea how far I had gone or how far I had left to go before I came to the bottom of the hill. I knew if I wasn’t careful, I might end up out on the sea ice where there were no landmarks. I would be completely lost, except for my string. Moments later, though, I ran into a pair of flags side by side, one orange and one green. I knew from memory that this marked the bottom of the transition road. The aquarium was to my left, directly into the wind. I headed that way, leaning into the gale.
The wind was relentless. It pushed at me like a living thing, trying to keep me from moving forward. Snow, driven at hurricane force, stung my face. Pebbles and sand flew at me and ricocheted off my suit. I kept my face down to keep from being struck in the eye. Still feeding string out behind me, I pushed into the storm.
There were large rocks in this road, and twice I nearly tripped and fell. Time seemed to stand still, with me stumbling forward but not seeming to make any progress. My heart sank with each step I took without running into Steve’s spryte.
Finally, I could make out a dim glow ahead. It had to be the light over the aquarium door. If I hadn’t encountered Steve on the road, he surely wouldn’t be at the aquarium. Moments later I confirmed that fear. The spryte was nowhere to be seen. I stood outside the aquarium for several minutes, buffeted by the wind, trying to come up with another plan. But there was nothing left to do. I turned around and began heading back, spooling the string back onto the roll as I walked. The going was slightly easier, now that I had the wind at my back. It pushed me along, still pelting me with small rocks.
About halfway down the aquarium road, my string angled right, up the steep hill of loose rocks and dirt that led to the helicopter hanger. The wind must have whipped it up the hill and wrapped it around a rock. I pulled, trying to dislodge it — and the string broke.
I was gripped by a fleeting twinge of panic. Flimsy as it was, the string had been a psychological comfort. Now I was absolutely on my own.
Then I mentally kicked myself. I had found my way down to the aquarium without a string, after all! Of course I could find my way back to the lab. Besides, the wind had probably wrapped my string around all nature of obstructions. It was a silly idea to start with. I stuck the remaining roll of string and the screwdriver into a pocket and continued forward. Glancing upward, I caught brief glimpses of light from the street lamp next to the helicopter hangar. I was getting close. A few minutes later I came to the orange and green flags.
Before heading up the transition road and back to the lab, I paused. There were only two places Steve could be: either he had made a wrong turn and ended up out on the ice, or he had missed the transition road and had continued straight along the shore. If he was out on the ice, he wouldn’t survive the night, and there was no way to reach him. With visibility at three feet, he could be absolutely lost less than a stone’s throw away.
There was a better chance, I thought, that he had gone straight and simply missed the turn. In that case, he was somewhere in the darkness ahead of me. Snow swirled past my head in an endless stream, disappearing into that darkness. I considered working my way in that direction, but I didn’t know the terrain on that side of the road, and there were no markers. The only thing I could do to keep my bearings would be to hug the side of the hill, making sure I was always on a slope. Otherwise, I could easily wander off onto the sea ice and be irrevocably lost myself.
Twice I started to move forward, and twice I stopped. Something told me this would be a mistake. Reluctantly, I turned right and followed the dirt road up toward the biolab. Once again, I had to keep my face averted and walk sideways to keep the bitter wind out of my face and the blowing pebbles out of my eyes. When I reached the snowdrift, I ran across it as before to avoid vertigo. At the top of the hill, I found the green flag and turned right again. A minute later, the door of the biolab loomed out of the roaring darkness.
Inside, I pulled off my bunny suit and found that the wind had driven snow through every tiny hole, even through the zipper. The inside of the suit was packed. I shook the snow off and went to the phone. I knew Ratchko would be upset at what I’d done, but I could at least save him the trouble of retracing my route on the SAR. I was too late. Ratchko and his SAR team had already left. I found out later they had taken over an hour to get their spryte to the bottom of the transition road, where it had stalled. After spending several minutes getting it re-started, they had turned around and headed back. Trying to search for anyone in that visibility, they had decided, was hopeless, and their undependable vehicle made it too dangerous.
By this time, several hours had passed. Depending on how much fuel he had and whether his own spryte had continued to run, Steve could be getting hypothermic. I was considering pulling on my gear and giving it another try when the phone rang.
It was Steve.
His voice sounded shaken. He was in the power plant, which was down at the other end of the station. He had missed the transition road turn, as I suspected, and had run up against an obstacle. Unable to go forward and afraid of going back for fear of ending up out on the ice, he had sat there with the engine running, hoping either that the storm would abate or that someone would find him. The spryte’s inefficient heater had only barely kept him from freezing. When the spryte ran out of fuel, though, he knew he had to find a way to safety or freeze to death where he was. The storm had not diminished, and it was clear no one would be coming to find him.
He had crawled out of the spryte and discovered that the barrier that had stopped him was a set of pipes that ran down from the power plant to the sea. He followed the pipes up the hill until he could make out the outline of a building. It turned out to be the power plant. The engineers on watch had been stunned to see him stumble through the door, wearing only sweat pants under his parka and sneakers on his feet.
The next day, the storm was completely gone. After two weeks of nonstop, brutal wind and blowing snow, the air was clear and dead calm. I walked down the hill, retracing my route of the previous night. A yellow light was flashing, illuminating the snow and the sides of the buildings. I couldn’t figure out what it was, until I turned the corner at the bottom of the hill and saw Steve’s spryte rammed up against the pipes below the power plant. He had turned on the vehicle’s flashing emergency light and had forgotten to turn it off when he left. The battery had kept it flashing all night. From the bottom of the transition road, where I had stood stared into the swirling blackness, the spryte was about 200 feet away. The strobe was bright enough to be seen for miles, and I had not had even a glimpse of it the night before.
Then I saw something that brought the hairs up on my neck.
A few feet from where I stood, the wind had scoured out a deep hollow in a snowdrift. There was a ten foot vertical drop from the lip of the hollow to the frozen ground below. Steve was lucky enough to have missed it, but it was directly in the path I would have taken if I had gone forward. I never would have seen it. I simply would have stepped into air and tumbled head first to the hard ground below. I probably would have broken my neck.
(Postscript: The wind had blown my string all over the station, wrapping it around buildings, telephone lines, and power poles. In the months that followed, I overheard several people wondering where it had come from. Three years later, when I returned to McMurdo Station, the string was still there, still wrapped around poles and dangling from power lines. And people were still looking up at it and asking “Where the hell did all that string come from?”
I never said a word.)