International Mountain Guides Climbing and Mountaineering Expeditions

Dave Hahn

Dispatches from the Mountains

 

What Did You Expect?
Patience the Antarctic Storm Way

February 2000

by Dave Hahn

The storm outside is unimpressive. Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for it to get serious to the point of lifting my tent and twirling it away while I yell frantically for Auntie Em. Much as I'm ready to leave Patriot Hills, Antarctica, I believe I'll be content to wait for conventional air transport. I just find this to be an ambiguous storm and my love of ambiguity has faded with the late summer sunshine.

My season of guiding on Vinson was a good one... it was sometimes tough physically, sometimes tough mentally; I was cold but not frozen; warm and cozy enough of the time; hypoxic when I was meant to be; thanked and befriended by a good number of my clients and fellow climbers; and, loathed and despised by acceptable numbers as well.

I was scared, worried, anxious, angry, bored, awed and elated for months on end. All that having been accomplished, it must now be time to get the heck out of Dodge. Or not... perhaps it is yet another opportunity to learn patience and restraint. The storm outside is just "mank" or "pants" or eight-eighths overcast consisting of cumulo-strato-cotton-marshmallow-nimbuli with some alto thrown in and a little light snow to boot.

I don't know. You'd have to ask Lucy, over in the meteorological/communications tent, and she's English, so you'd have to listen carefully to her reply, and you'd have to dodge her left hook if you were the tenth person to ask her in the last 10 minutes, and you'd have to run fast if you were stupid enough to ask her what this weather was going to do an hour from now (Lucy observes the present, she doesn't predict the future...a good way to live).

I'd describe this weather as the kind that keeps me two weeks extra in Antarctica and causes me to miss any business commitments and social obligations I might have planned or hoped for back in North America. I'd further call it the type that would have me stumbling were I to get my lazy carcass on its feet and lurch over to the dining tent. Doing that, I'd see a cloud ceiling at about 2000 feet over my hatted head, the Patriot Hills themselves a mile or two to the south, a whole lot of flat snow in every other direction (Kansas-sized chunks of it) and abundant quantities of the flattest light known to man.

I'd trip and stumble a few times in a hundred feet of walking, not being able to pick up the variations to the snow surface. And then I'd walk into the dining tent where 40 other folks are also ready to be done adventuring. They'd be talking, and reading and eating and sipping wine, but at least a couple of them would be saying (not necessarily in English), "I don't see why they couldn't land that Hercules plane in this weather..." Personally, I couldn't land a snowmobile in this weather. But that is beside the point. Folks want to travel. Well-meaning folks can drive us all around the bend by pointing at what passes for sky and saying over and over again; "It looks like it is getting better, don't you think so?"

But the Vinson Guide has it easy in Patriot Hills Camp...Steve and Simon do the heavy lifting when it comes to making the calls on the flying conditions and taking the rap for good, safe, slow and conservative decisions for transcontinental flights. What it really comes down to though, is that this particular storm could really help out if it went away. That is obvious, we all want that. What is less obvious is that this storm could also put minds at ease just by hitting us with a little more oomph.

When storms knock you from your feet and thrash you to within an inch of your life, you don't tend to worry much about the calendar. When it blows 80mph, you don't need a weatherman to tell you which way it blows. When your beard hurts because eight or 10 pounds of ice are hanging from it, you seldom concern yourself with picking an aisle or window seat on some hypothetical airplane. A real storm gives great focus to an otherwise cluttered mind.

Such was the case for my own brain several years back when I encountered a decidedly unambiguous storm out at the Dawson Lambton Glacier on the Caird Coast of Antarctica. That big old glacier breaks off straight into the southernmost reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. But a shelf of sea-ice forms on that ocean and latches on to the glacier terminus. When our Twin Otter and Cessna put down on that shelf, it held their weight nicely. We were concerned because the shelf was a mere shadow of its hundred mile or more winter width. In fact, it was down to about a third of a mile shelf. What would happen if it busted in half while we were visiting? Would we find enough of a straight line remaining for a takeoff run? Yeah, probably. At least it was relatively stable stuff that remained, perhaps five or six feet thick... we figured we'd just have to keep an eye out for storms, which might break the shelf up quicker (due to increased ocean motion.)

So pilots and passengers piled out of the planes and were soon met by the local, well dressed, immaculately groomed locals. Penguins. The place was positively infested with them — 15,207 of the big (up to about 90 lbs., four feet tall, teeth as sharp as Kukri Knives) critters known as Emperors. (Alright, no teeth, I get carried away) They weren't all so big, and that was one reason we'd flown 900 miles from Patriot Hills to make their acquaintance. Emperor chicks are small, cute, fluffy, photogenic and hard to find in the well-traveled and warm places on the planet.

Our gang went bravely into the rookery, armed only with cameras and shooting roll after roll of film in an effort to keep the large waddling birds from charging. These penguin communes are not exactly quiet places. But most people find that the constant cacophony of moms, dads, chicks (and some swinging singles) yelling out for one another in bird language is eventually very soothing. Especially if you find Hitchcock movies to be soothing.

The pilots and I got to work building camp in the hot sunshine. There followed a day or two of mild, seaside temperatures and great penguin viewing. I was working like crazy to keep people fed at the weird hours that penguin viewers set aside for their own maintenance. I was, though, getting out for a stroll through the Emps every now and then myself, burning Kodachrome every time a cloud changed the light or whenever some chick caught my eye with some genuine cuteness. But my mind was probably working too hard even as I marveled at the wild beauty around me. Icebergs, glaciers, ocean, clouds, Emperors, Skuas, Weddell seals-beauty everywhere, but I kept trying to guess what the Emps had in mind with this weird existence they'd developed.

Read books about Emperors, they mate for life (far as they know... they all do look the same) they swim as deep as submarines dive, they are one of the only animals to actually live and reproduce on the continent of Antarctica (although they spend most of their time in the ocean.) They come ashore together, get an egg going and hatched in the winter (when the sea ice extends back out for that hundred miles, meaning they are that far from getting a bite to eat.) The mom trudges on out to the ocean for a bite to eat, leaving the guy standing there in the dark with an egg on his feet. Great storms wail away at him, but he keeps that egg warm and the chick pops out eventually to find a cold pop standing there wondering if Emperor wives really are faithful. She is out there somewhere getting a belly full of krill, but if she doesn't bring home the bacon soon, the chick will die.

She does seem to get back to the right colony and amazingly she finds the right penguin man out of a crowd of similarly dressed dudes. She feeds the chick. Dad goes out for some krill himself, comes back, finds the family, feeds the kid, etc. Read a book, it is good stuff, but as I say, it all had me wondering just what these penguins had in mind with such a lifestyle. Max Wenden, who flew the Cessna for ANI back then, would walk up to me on the ice and together we'd marvel at it all. I kept wanting to ask Maxo, with his many years of Antarctic experience, "What are they thinking?" But Maxo fended off such silly questions in his best Kiwi, "They're beautiful birds, Davey," over and over.

And he was right, they were. And the light for photos got better and better as the storm clouds grew with the passage of several days. Those clouds meant we had to get out of there, but we knew that the clouds had engulfed an area we needed clear for refueling at a cache of drums inland. It was a complicated situation, but still pretty. One day, Maxo and I woke up to find our tent flapping in a stiff wind. It was probably blowing about thirty, but it was early. I dozed, woke up and thought it had reached 40.

But I might have been wrong on that, because when I looked out the tent, the one next to us had just snapped a few poles and was flapping furiously around its occupants. Max and I geared up fast and got out in the wind. We moved people from the damaged tent to an intact one and we grabbed shovels. The wind must have been about fifty as we dug furiously to build snow-walls to take the force off the tents. It wasn't a gusty 50. There were no lulls. It was a steady and noisy 50. And as soon as the walls were adequate, the snow started "falling" fast. It was falling straight sideways, and so fast that in the lee of the walls, the tents were getting buried by this wet, heavy, coastal snow.

Maxo and I began an endless circuit with our shovels, trying to keep the walls up, trying to keep the snow from crushing the tents. Nobody else was able to be out, because before long it was blowing 60 (un-embellished), the visibility was down to about 11-and-a-half feet and we were caked in thick ice and soaked to the skin in our waterproof yet breathable space-age fabrics. We dug and dug. Finish the last tent, start over at the first again, over and over. We had one bigger, heavy-duty tent that we'd made into a kitchen and finally, we ducked in there to brew up a big pot of soup or something. We took the pot out into the storm and went from tent to tent, trying to pass grub in through the wildly flapping door zippers. We had to shout at the top of our lungs to be heard even a few feet away from each other.

After one tent, Max stood up and walked toward the next tent...but there was no tent in that direction. I cupped my hands and yelled until he stopped to look at me. We then made a heading change and found the next tent 25 feet away, nearly invisible in the storm. To this day, I'm sure I saved Max from certain destruction with my yelling, he might have walked right into the South Atlantic... I was well motivated, of course, he had the soup pot with him. After feeding time, we dug some more. This went on for a day and a night, by which time the wind was blowing 70...no lie. We dug. But we didn't always dig fast enough.

We came to one tent, just as the occupant was close to panic with the snow nearly covering his door. Even so, we began to think we'd reached the right combination of wind and walls that meant that the tents were no longer getting so hammered, and to our tired eyes, they even seemed to be resisting further snow accumulation. Max suggested we break for a nap in our own tent. That sounded good, we battled over to our little yellow domicile. Maxo went in first, but backed out hurriedly. The snow, being so high up on the tent walls, produced a claustrophobic feeling that he wasn't enjoying. He said he'd go cook something, but that I should nap if claustrophobia was not a trouble for me. I brought a steel spade in with me, despite our agreement that Max would wake me in ninety minutes and that he'd shovel the door clear. I fell asleep fast, claustrophobia being way down below exhaustion on my list of concerns.

I guess I woke up about two-and-a-half hours later to the pleasant certainty that the storm had ended. It was so nice, lying there in the quiet and still tent to think that once again, everything had worked out just fine...it hadn't been useful fretting about the ice shelf breaking away with us on it. And I'd simply wasted my energy thinking my clients wouldn't deal well with a little Southern storm, nobody had starved or frozen after all, life as a mountain guide was good. Where to next?

And I stretched my arms in my nice quiet tent and opened my sleepy eyes, but just then realized that my sleepy eyes had already been open and that my tent was dark and it wasn't my lids down at all. "Hmmmm," I mused, "darkness isn't normal in mid-summer on Antarctica." And ever the sharp thinker, I sat up quick and banged my head on the hard, cold tent ceiling which was just a little bit lower, harder and colder than it should have been. My eyes adjusted to the gloom and I opened the tent door zipper to find a wall of snow where the world was supposed to be. I pushed my hand up through the snow at the top of the door and was mildly surprised not to break through as I burrowed wrist-deep...forearm-deep...elbow-deep...biceps-deep.

I rearranged my position so that I was as tall as I could be at the door, on my knees, reaching my arm up toward where I remembered the atmosphere being. I was nearing the limit of my wingspan, shoulder pushing into the snow, when my fingers broke through into free air, but free air moving at 60 miles an hour. I sat back down, a touch worried about my present and future. I grabbed that big steel shovel, but didn't do a thing with it as I felt around the tent, reminding myself that we had made our tent the electronic nerve center of our little expedition. There was the HF Radio, our only link with the outside world; there was a few thousand dollars worth of camera gear and assorted high tech stuff that wouldn't react so well to me shoveling messy white snow INTO the tent if I chose to make an unaided escape.

I sat there in the silence, and I thought for a moment about our clients. If Max had dozed off in the cook tent, and the client tents were like mine, wouldn't the folks be panicking soon? Then it occurred to me in a clammy-sweat-soaked-twitching flash, "Perhaps I should be PANICKING!" But I didn't, I sat there pensively, pining for a nice desk job in a neutral colored cubicle in some fine suburban setting... And eventually, I heard muffled footsteps on the snow... they didn't seem to come all that near before they went away completely.

I fidgeted and schemed for about 15 minutes, getting fully dressed and geared up for escape when the crunching steps came back and nearly passed overhead. Now, I could tell somebody was scurrying about up there...looking for something, perhaps. I grabbed that shovel and when the steps came close, I fired the blade up above the door until it broke the snow surface. Which produced some muffled and frantic shouting "Oh, Sorry, Davey, I dozed off, sorry, sorry!!" And then I remember a shovel blade coming down from above, and naturally, right through the tent fabric. Within a few moments, we had a torso-sized hole that I squeezed up into so that I was standing.

My feet were on the floor of the tent, my goggled head was just sticking above the snow, enjoying 70 miles per hour (I mean it!) of face-stinging, driving snow. We enlarged the hole a little, which is about when the rest of the heavy snowpack collapsed on the tent, crushing it as if in a trash compactor. I then remember spending what may have been the worst three hours in Antarctica since Scott ate his last dog and pony in 1911 or so.

I kept digging like crazy to get that tent out of the snow, but it was in a six-foot deep crater, which was filling as fast as I could dig it out. I could seldom see the blade of my shovel. The other tents were doing as we'd hoped, shedding new snow and protecting themselves from the wind with the snow they'd built up. It was just the one Maxo and I had been in that was a problem. And as my boots crunched on top of electronic boxes and diodes and transistors within the tent, I fought harder and harder to free it. I saw it as a little bit of a fight for survival, since our sleeping bags were in there and we were unlikely to be able to purchase new ones.

Finally, I'd busted the darn thing loose of its buried anchors and I dragged it kicking and screaming in the wind over to the Twin Otter and shoved the whole limp mess in the door. I fought my way back toward the remaining tents in an 80 mile an hour wind (I swear!) at one point, once again worried about the ice breaking away into the Atlantic, concerned about the clients starving to death and/or freezing, and fretting about a few dozen other details as well.

I got knocked down by the wind and lay sprawled out on the snow while ice literally screamed over and around me. It was as if I was being sandblasted in an effort to remove rust and corrosion. Before struggling up, I momentarily just let go of it all and lay there trying to breathe as the wind powered past my face. All of the worrisome raging thoughts and concerns in my head condensed down to one simple quiet certainty..."We could all die in this storm."

I remember knowing for sure just what the weather and the world were up to, no illusions, no delusions. And I admired the forthrightness of it all. Like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, I muttered "The Horror, the horror..." And that is when I noticed that I was not alone... standing there, about 10 feet away, calmly gazing at me through the sheets of blowing snow and ice was an Emperor Penguin. Must have been the bull penguin. The Chief Emp. The Alpha Male. Whatever, we locked on each other's eyes and I could read his little Penguin mind perfectly as he gazed down at me. He was thinking "WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?"

Energized by this little challenge to my manhood, and now focused and determined, I struggled to my feet, grabbed my shovel and went to work on the next big problem, the Cessna was getting buried. That night, it got so the snow was within six inches of the main wing. I dug and I dug. Maxo dug and he dug. Eventually, the new snow stopped falling and the wind kept blowing. Max and I spread our wet sleeping bags on the cold steel floor of the Twin Otter and tried to sleep as the "parked" airplane basically flew along on the ground (the wind speed was up over normal takeoff velocity...honest!) It was like trying to nap in the bed of a pickup truck as it rambled down a dirt road.

But, eventually, it was a new day and we were wakened by our team, now out of doors in the bright warm sunshine and anxious to go home. Maxo and I stumbled out, squinting in the glare of a beautiful day... and began digging. It took 14 hours with three spades to get the plane and what remained of the tents free. All of it was accomplished under the watchful eyes of our clients and 15,000 laughing penguins. Our customers were justifiably concerned a new storm would brew up before we could get in the air and get gone. They urged us on... dig, dig, dig.

One nice man stopped me from my digging long enough to ask me how much it would cost if we just left the Cessna and the tents and piled into the Twin Otter to fly away. As I chewed on my answer, I began to realize that we might be filing our taxes in totally different brackets at year's end. I tried to make him understand that it wasn't really about the money so much as the fact that we were off on the far edge of a weird place where we might just need all our airplanes and salvageable tents before we were through. He nodded....dig, dig, dig.

I dug. We got the Sam Hill out of there, leaving the large flightless birds to their business. Now THAT was an impressive storm... It taught me to always sleep with a shovel. Yep, I think that was all I learned. Wake me when the Herc comes in.

 

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Emperor penguins in Antarctica
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