January 29, 2012
It happened really fast. It usually does; but this time we were swept off the ice in record time. We had prepared our usual dinner upon reaching Hercules Inlet. Nothing fancy, except for the extra butter. There were no parades, podium or cash prizes. No cheering crowds or laurel wreaths. But we had laid claim to three new polar records, and in the history of Antarctica firsts, this was reward enough. And it made up for one more meal of curried rice with dehydrated chicken bits. We had our limbs, our wits, and all of our toes (minus a few millimeters for some), and memories for a lifetime. We enjoyed our celebratory dinner, and indulged in the last of Eric’s chocolate powder which added the finishing touch to our champion’s dinner! Hercules Inlet is on the western coast, at the edge of the continent. It is hugged by the mammoth Ronne ice shelf, second in size only to the Ross ice shelf to the south. The Ronne ice shelf had lost a section as large as Rhode Island two years ago, due to warming trends around the peninsula. From where we stood, however, you would never know it. Ice shelves form around coastlines as an extension of ice sheets from glaciers pouring into the ocean; they form a floating barrier of ice that seamlessly extends from the land based ice. Consequently, there is no ocean to be seen anywhere near there.
I wrote my final expedition blog, still high from the rush of finishing, in spite of what was now a very long day. Amazingly, the update connector cable, as well as the update camera, chose to rest their souls on that final day, just as the sledge had! Hard though I tried, I simply could not transmit the message and share the news of our successful finish! I had set up a sked call with the base to coordinate pick up in the morning at 12:00 hours GST. It was now 04:00 hours; the sun was bright; the air was still; I finally collapsed on top of my sleeping bag. Life was good.
Powerful winds at Union Glacier delayed our pick up by a few hours the next day. That, seemed odd—and somewhat anti-climactic—since Union Glacier is barely twenty minutes away by plane, and Hercules was dead calm. Still, around 15:00 hours, the silence of our tent was broken by the faint and distant hum of a plane’s engine. We leaped outside, and sure enough, a dot appeared in the sky from behind a nunatak up the glacier, and descended towards us. In no time, the Twin Otter was pulling up next to the tent. We were breaking down camp, one last time. We loaded our sledges onto the plane. I looked around, taking in the peaceful stillness of the ice and the sloping hills in front of us; the engines started with a roar next to me, and the props kicked a powerful air flow that we could have used on our descent the day before! I stepped inside the cabin and closed the door. The plane started moving, quickly gaining speed and gracefully lifted off the shredded ice. Minutes later, we were high above the Ellesworth range, and I looked over in the distance to our left in the direction that we had traveled to reach the Inlet. On this clear day, I could see thirty, maybe forty kilometers to the south and visualized our final approach from yesterday. Life looked far different then. Eventually, the plane banked a right turn and begun its descent into ALE’s Union Glacier camp. Our reality was about to permanently shift. The trip had officially ended.
We were greeted warmly on the runway. Because UG is on UTC-3 time, we arrived for lunch. The whole camp was in the communal meal tent and gave us a round of applause; expeditions are followed closely with a large map, and ours figured as one of the very last ones off the ice, and the longest in distance and duration. The first meal is always an experience, and this one did not disappoint! Beet salad, stews, fresh vegetables, pudding. It was all there. A smorgasbord of flavors and colors, made all the more remarkable by the location: we are still very much in Antarctica, and the freshness and abundance of food served to well over fifty people stands as a testament to ALE’s logistical organization. What these guys pull off in this context is nothing less than extraordinary. We were served champagne and offered a toast. The assault on the senses was made all the more palatable as I don’t really drink alcohol and what I really craved was a coca-cola! They had that too, and I proceeded to stuff myself until my stomach hurt! I then made a visit to the medic’s tent. They had monitored the condition of my toes over the phone and were anxious to see for themselves. In all, they were impressed by how clean and infection free I had managed. While it looks like I will keep my toes, the jury is still out on the procedure. Of utmost importance will be to keep the wounds clean. One toe is well on the way to recover, especially now in the low elevations, where oxygen is plentiful, and blood is gorged with it and can proceed with its healing job. The other toe may reveal bone when the eschar (the black bit) falls off, which would require extra care to prevent infection and probably a skin graft. We’re not there yet, but merely moments after finishing the expedition, they are now throbbing more than I had realized, and I find it hard to imagine how I could get them squeezed inside a ski boot everyday for weeks of abuse from the sastrugi. Amazing how resilient we can get when necessary.
Given our early finish—two days sooner than expected—we are informed that an Ilujshin will be coming in at 22:30 that evening and that we’re on it. We’re coming off the ice! We have a few hours to organize and gather our stuff. My sledge packs a large amount of stowaway snow; I want to get that out before it melts into a soaked mess on the plane. Time seems to race by, which is a shame as the setting of the ALE camp could certainly warrant some walking around. It is visually nothing short of arresting. Surrounded by rising mountain peaks pushing from below the ice, the planes, tractors and other heavy machinery that pepper the camp showcase the incredible logistical exercise on display here. This is big stuff; in fact, it doesn’t get bigger than that. They should shoot a James Bond sequence down here! The production value is unreal.
Barely ten hours after getting picked up from Hercules, the powerful jet engines of the Ilujshin shoot us down the icy runway, and we take off above the mountains, direction Punta Arenas, Chile, thereby bookending a journey that started eighty three days ago. This plane follows the same Spartan aesthetics guidelines as the one we boarded in Cape Town: worn, discolored tape holding pipes and ducks together; exposed cables and wires; passenger seating and cargo within the same cabin space. With the exception that this one does not have a porta-potty strapped to the back! You’ll just have to hold it in for the duration of the five hour flight! I lean into my seat, put my head down. The questionable earplugs that were handed before takeoff fall out of my ears and, in spite of the high decibels from the engine inside the aircraft, I pass out into a deep slumber.
Upon stepping out of the airplane, the fist thing that strikes me, aside from the utter absence of snow or ice anywhere (it is summer down here) is the darkness of night. We have not seen nighttime for three months; consequently, time has had a different meaning. The darkness of the early morning re-connects us to our internal body clock. In rapid succession, all other senses are assaulted. There are shapes, colors, smells and sounds that feel both familiar and foreign at the same time. A bus shuttles all of us from the plane to the hotel. I am the first to check in. My blinders are on: I can only think of one thing—getting into the elevator; opening my bedroom door; running a hot water bath; removing my boots; peeling off all articles of clothing; and stepping into the warm, inviting, porcelain tub! Before that, however, I take a breath, turn to the mirror and for the first time in three months, take in the shape of my emaciated body. I have an enormous beard, and I would estimate my weight loss to be around thirty pounds! I look like a frail, old man. I remind myself that this shock I have experienced on every long trip. I will get over it. I will eat. I will train. And soon I will regain my health, and re-claim my youth. I sit back into the tub. I close my eyes. Slowly, I slide down into the warm water until my head is submerged. Holding my breath, I feel warmth all over my skin. I could stay under forever. The trip is done. The dream complete. The rest is easy. I just have to climb back up. But I think I will stay down here for a little while longer. It is quiet here, under the surface, and with eyes closed, I can see the vast expanse of ice stretching forever before me, beckoning me to remember.
I will not forget.