Hang Time

For decades USAP personnel have not worked Sundays in McMurdo. It gives a chance for recreation or a time to sleep off a Saturday-night booze up. Remote helicopter camps follow the same routine. However, in a remote field camp, beyond those company rules, we work every day that the weather permits. Field time is too precious not to. One must count on days of bad weather, sitting out storms, waiting for the weather to break, hanging. Antarctic camping is no bivouac. We are relatively comfortable with a cook tent where you can sit, be warm, and socialize, and sleeping tents where we can rack out and be alone. How well you hang probably largely comes down to personality, but there are lots of variables that may come into play. When you are a field party of four, crammed together in intimate quarters over a period of weeks and sometimes months, it is critical that personalities do not clash. A good sense of humor, no whining or complaining, an eagerness to pull one’s weight, seeing what needs done and doing it, these are characteristics that I think are important in a field mate. I am happy to say that in all the years, I have made only one mistake in choosing my field teams.

Headed to the sleep tent for some rack time.

I wouldn’t say that being laid back is a necessary trait for hanging in a tent, though it helps. Someone who is animated or boisterous can be very entertaining during long stretches. But I hasten to add that personality ticks can get on your nerves in such close quarters. One of my mates one season had this annoying habit of sticking his tongue out and lightly touching its tip to the left side of his mustache. By the end of the season I was saying to myself, if you do that one more time I’m going to punch you on the chin and have you bite the damn thing off. Another season, there was a particular giggle that still gives me shivers when I think of it. The pastime of choice for most is reading. A good book can burn away hours when you’re sitting on a rock box, munching on munchies. It is hard to read for long in the sleeping tent without getting cold. When the sun is out full and there is no wind, a sleeping tent can be warm enough not to use a sleeping bag, but if it is storming outside you get cold quick, and a small one-burner stove may be necessary if you want to read for any length of time. I read some in the field, but prefer to occupy my time with other sorts of diversions. Everyone likes to eat, and I like to cook, so that can fill hours for me during a storm. Baking is something that we never do on a normal work day. Coleman stoves (good old green, two-burner, white-gas standards) have an accessory for baking, which is essentially a collapsible metal box with an oven door and a thermometer that you set on the stove. Give me an hour and I will serve up a beautifully browned yellow cake, still warm, smothered in frozen strawberries. Cut that into four and it disappears in one long breath. So let’s do it again. Pancakes on the cast iron skillet can go on for hours during a storm. I also usually take some sort of handicraft. Needlework is very absorbing when I’m sitting on a rock box. One season it was embroidering a shirt, other times sewing pouches out of canvas from the tent repair kit or from leather scraps that I’d taken along. I spent one, whole season whittling on a piece of walnut wood with an exacto knife. Mugs liked to play Battleship, so I heard a lot of “Spee-lash!” during the three seasons that we worked together. Of all of the ways that there are to pass time, the best by far is to be unconscious. How long can you hang in sleep? Those who can do it for lengthy periods have a real gift for sustained storms. The longest storm I have experienced was for eight days in December 1977, camped on a broad névé (snowfield) to the north of Leverett Glacier. There was probably some precipitation at the beginning, but most of the time we were in howling, blowing snow. The tents were laid out perpendicular to the wind direction with maybe 30-foot spacing between. For the first several days we couldn’t see the adjacent tents. Very quickly a large drift built itself between each of the tents. They were about six feet high and required crawling over when we went to and from the cook tent. My recollection of that stretch is one of a deepening stupor, stuffing myself with food, throwing some stitches on the embroidery, and lying in the rack for hours either in real sleep, or in a state just this side of it, black beanie pulled over my eyes, prone, thought shut down, TM meeting hibernation. When the storm finally blew itself out, it took us a full day to dig the camp out. The drifts between our tents extended at least 100 yards down wind. One snowmobile carelessly parked was totally buried in a drift. The day after we dug out, another storm came down and in a final “Up yours!” packed everything with snow all over again. And so it goes. (I am sure that there are some of you out there who can top eight days stuck in a tent. Why not weigh in?)

Sweet dreams.

Gallery – Pack Ice

Every winter the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica freezes over with seasonal ice and every summer this ice breaks up, drifts northward, and melts. Pack ice is the name given to the broken pieces of seasonal ice, distinct from the much-thicker ice bergs, which form by the calving of ice from glacier tongues or ice shelves. Depending on storms and currents, the ice pack (sometimes called simple the pack) may be loose or tight, the individual ice floes large or small, sharp-edged or blunted. Sometimes several generations of break-up and refreezing are visible. This week’s Gallery was shot en route to and from McMurdo Station.

One comment


  • Harriet Maccracken

    Very cool!

    September 27, 2011

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