Memoir

White day dreaming

Visions of the frozen void

ANTARCTICA MAKES NO distinction between the living and the dead. They exist as mute cousins and only in dreams do they converse.

We are a small group of the living in the vast expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf, here to do our survival training. Our group is an odd collection of Antarctic misfits, welded together by the immensity of the ice that surrounds us. We huddle in a pit sawn into the polystyrene-­like snow that we refer to as our lounge. Our conversation hovers around the detail of living somewhere else, while Joe finishes a coffee table and begins on a TV set, all carved from the snow with a dessert spoon.

A light evening breeze springs up. This gives us an excuse to build a wall on the windward side of the lounge. It’s a rebellion against the endless horizontal whiteness but no one is brave enough to say so. We stick to the premise that it will shelter us from the wind.

While we cut blocks of snow with handsaws, photographer Laurence wanders the camp with his 120-­year-­old camera, escaping from time to time under its black hood to compose an image. Wal talks in raspy tones about the intricacies of diesel engines and hydraulics in the cold, while Joe finishes carving the TV set and places it on a ledge in the wall.

This ice shelf is a place only a hermit could love. The further you move away from the edge of it, the more otherworldly the surroundings become. I ask Wal what he thinks lies over the horizon to the south. ‘Bugger all,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing there, mate.’

He is not far from the truth. In 1841, when forty-­year-­old British adventurer James Clark Ross arrived at the southern end of the Ross Sea, he found a colossal floating delta of glacial ice with cliffs he referred to as ‘the great icy barrier’. Far inland, on the ice up to four kilometres thick that coats central Antarctica, there was and is little else. This ice moves downward to the coast in a slow ooze, making it one of the biggest constant movements on the planet. In this singular environment, space and time seem to dissolve. There is no visible life.

When the ice reaches the Ross Sea it flattens out into the endless floating plain of the ice shelf. The plain is a place of absence: there are no forests or rivers, only frozen water masquerading as land under an intensely blue sky. At this time of the year there is also no rising and setting of the sun, so no idea of east or west – no sense of where here even is.

The first night camping out on the ice is usually accompanied by a feeling of absolute freedom and endless possibility. After two or three days the feeling turns malignant. There is nothing to rebel against, nothing to bounce off, no reply to your thoughts. The ice flattens and shrivels language into monosyllables and eventually into silence. Like the freeze-­dried food we have brought with us, our thoughts are eventually consumed. In time the ice will ablate everything. The only way to survive will be to leave.

No one lives out on the ice shelf. Anyone who stays in a field camp for more than a few weeks eventually falls prey to syndromes such as chronic insomnia and the 100-­yard stare – that’s a 100-­yard stare in a fifty-­yard room. Over a summer out here you will slow down and approach a state of hiber­nation. Without contrast with an ‘other’, you will be in danger of slipping into psychic oblivion.

 

ONE OF THE few people to have attempted to live out on the Ross Ice Shelf over winter was the American explorer Richard E Byrd. In 1934, on his second expedition to Antarctica, Byrd set up a hut 200 kilometres from his main base, Little America, which lay on the seaward edge. It was to be a Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond-­like experience: man in the wilderness. It turned into a living hell. Within weeks Byrd began to suffer a psychosis that included vivid hallucinations. His companions at base camp were so alarmed by the garbled radio messages they were receiving and so concerned about his mental state they set out to rescue him in the dead of winter. The US Navy’s spin on the affair was that his condition had been caused by carbon-­monoxide poisoning from a faulty stove. In reality there would have been a significant element of the loss of self in this lethal atmosphere.

Somewhere out on the ice shelf, not far from where we sit in our lounge, life ends. There is oxygen but no water, soil or nutrients; it is more like deep space than an earthly habitat. The odd skua flies in and out. Humans cross it on sledges, taking sustenance with them and returning before it runs out. Without imported resources, life can only decay and slip quietly over the threshold to death.

The sterile environment applies also to culture. There are no Indigenous people to teach us how to live in this place, no received wisdom or code of living other than what we bring with us. There is no going native.

When Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, learnt that because of his advanced years – he was forty-­one – he would not be joining the party trekking to the South Pole across the far reaches of the Ross Ice Shelf, he was not put out. ‘There would be nothing to photograph,’ he concluded. This was a logical response.

It is this void that Laurence is busy trying to capture with his camera, with shots of forlorn marker flags and the blank horizon. The light that might give some depth of contrast is rapidly fading. He reluctantly emerges from under his black veil and rejoins us.

What the ice has done to the landscape it has done to art, paring it to the barest minimum. The literature of the Ross Ice Shelf consists only of personal diaries and records. Down here 2,000 years of civilisation did not happen.

We linger together well past bedtime, talking of our children. The sun plays its part by refusing to set, doing an orbit around the horizon and waltzing shadows across the lounge. Below us are about eighty metres of ice floating on the waters of the Ross Sea. Further towards the mainland and buried some sixteen metres down in the ice are Scott, Bowers and Wilson, frozen into their sleeping bags and wrapped in their tent. Somewhere beyond them lies Oates. Further to the south, near the base of the Beardmore Glacier, Evans lies slumped forward as if in prayer. The battle with self would have been the hardest part of all their treks. Trying to keep your marbles in an emptiness that provides no emotional sustenance, while your body is slowly reduced to a corpse, would have been diabolical.

Ever since they died these men have been on a journey to the sea. Around 460 years from now Scott, Bowers and Wilson will be committed to the deep somewhere near Cape Crozier. Around the lounge, the conversation turns to this place that makes glaciers out of men.

 

BY 1 AM I have that woozy, overtired feeling starting to fill the long pauses in our conversation. I slip into my tent and pull layers of thick sleeping bags over my head to block out the sun that beats through the thin walls.

On the blackness I have created, white visions of the day are projected. Somewhere deep in this vivid slideshow, I find myself shuffling down the steps of a large tunnel carved under the ice shelf. The light from the surface is a glaring halo twinkling with ice dust. There is a murmur of men’s voices as though we are in a vast cathedral. A pale blue light is emanating from the walls, which have been intricately carved with a spoon.

At intervals along the tunnel, carved into the walls, short shelves serve as sleeping quarters. In the first I find Wilson lying prone in his man-­hauling gear, complete with harness. I fetch an emperor penguin’s egg from my pack and Wilson cradles it in his hands. He tells me about his dreams and a painting he is working on. He is shivering and has a layer of frost over him. I find a sleeping bag in my pack and cover him, tucking him in like a child. Finally, I close his eyes with my gloved hand and move on down the passage where I can hear more murmuring voices. I come across Bowers lying on the next shelf. He is checking his supply lists and I listen to his mutterings about the lack of paraffin left in the depots. I place a handful of rubber washers into his hands and close his frostbitten fingers tight.

Evans is squeezed into the next shelf. He is a large man. I hand him a bottle of beer. His hands shake as he puts it to his mouth and takes a long draught. We talk about the pub he will own when he gets back home. He draws his sleeve over his mouth, wiping the dregs of beer from his beard. His teeth chatter as he rolls over. Further on, Oates is mumbling something about ponies and a lack of feed. I place a fresh lime in his hand. He clutches it to his breast, whispering, ‘Thank you, thank you.’

On the last shelf, I reach Scott. He is writing furiously in his journal. The men with him are silent, a soft snoring having replaced their murmurs. I offer him my last sleeping bag but he bats me away, hissing, ‘For God’s sake man, leave me alone.’ We stare at each other for a moment in disbelief. He breaks the gaze with a grunt and goes back to his journal.

I turn and make my way back up the tunnel. Through the blinding light at the surface, I see two men and a dog team. I wave my arms mutely. They swish by, close enough for me to hear the driver swearing to the dogs in Russian while the other searches the horizon through thick frosted spectacles. They coalesce and disappear over the horizon. A wave of hopelessness engulfs me. I drop to the snow.

When I wake, the visions of the dream still hover in the tent. Perhaps I, too, am going mad. While my companion softly snores I check outside for footprints or any sign of a tunnel entrance. I am tired, groggy: the dream has exhausted me. I brew a cup of tea and stare to the south through Joe’s TV screen.

 

BY THE TIME we return to Scott Base, it is early afternoon. We are back in a world of noise and time. A warm flood of home comes down the phone line from a place that is summer. I can hear the leaves rustling and the birdsong in the background as my daughters wake from their afternoon nap and tell me of their dreams.

 

Some sections of this memoir have been adapted from earlier work in Ocean Notorious: Journeys to Lost and Lonely Places of the Deep South (Awa Press, 2015).

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