Color matters in the Antarctic. Stream of melt water and rain water spill over on some parts of the trail, and you can tramp through them, the water coming up to your ankles. You notice pools of blue water in various spots, and you learn not to walk on them. Blue is the color of young ice that is not yet firm. It will give way under you, and you will sink. Within a day or so, the blue turns to gray. The ice has now firmed up enough so that you can walk on it without sinking.
The worse part of the trail is the mud. You can suddenly find yourself in its clutches, and you’re stuck to the knees. In the muddy stretches, I try to find rocks to step on. The more rocks the better. So my eyes were scanning for the less soupy places to tread on as we headed for the western part of the moraine with our $20,000 LI-COR machine. The Automated Soil Flux System detects carbon. It consists of a small yellow valise with the controls and the microcircuitry, and a large funnel-shaped object that looks something like a lampshade. Ning, Jay and I had the components separated and divided among our backpacks. Our party of six also included Les and Chris, who wanted to take soil samples in the same area of the moraine, and Lindsay, who came along armed with a videocamera. We had permission from the station commander to work along the moraine and were given short-wave radios in case of an emergency.
Swinging west from the Uruguayan base, which is conveniently located at the foot of the glacier, we hiked along the loamy spine of the moraine to a flat, wet area where, Bulat had said, the glacier had receded over the past 20 years. Here, about 90 feet below the moraine and just south of it, we assembled the Automated Soil Flux System and started up the machine. The lampshade part is placed directly over the soil. The apparatus is sensitive enough to pick up the CO2 of our exhalations, so we had to stand back. Only a small amount of carbon was detected in the soil in this spot, and no obvious organic carbon (i.e., vegetation) could be observed.
It was 38 degrees with a 5-mile an hour wind when we left the compound, but we must have been down in a wind pocket below the moraine because it felt much colder. We were all shivering standing around, and Ning wanted to hike up the glacier as far as the moraine to get warm. At least, I thought that was what he wanted. I went with him. We shortly reached the brown jagged line. “I want to see the dome,” he said—the crest of the glacier.
I stood on the moraine so that we could keep sight of one another and watched him make tracks up the snowy slope. It quickly occurred to me that I shouldn’t have let him go. Althought Bulat had said there were no crevasses, what if he was mistaken? It was another overcast day. The weather had warmed yesterday—often a harbinger of a storm in the Antarctic. There were layers of stratus clouds in the east yesterday, and the horizon had darkened today. The barometer was falling. If a storm was moving in, the base commander would never had let us go. Still, a sudden mist could descend, and it could be awfully disorienting in the white environment of the glacier.
The line of Ning’s snow tracks continued to elongate, as he dwindled to a tiny figure in a yellow windbreaker. Down below, I could see four people busying themselves on a hump of rolling ground cut by shallow streams. Up above me, the white slope ascended to a rise—not a ridgeline, not a summit. Just a rise beyond which the endless glacial dome ascended at a flatter angle. The tiny, vague moving sliver that was Ning went over that rise and vanished from view.
I could only see a long line of tracks curving way up over something as vast and intimidating as the Chilkoot Pass. Those vanishing footfalls scared the hell out of me. Any minute I hoped to see him reappear and retrace his steps. I waited, waited, waited. Then I went after him. The snow came up to the instep. It wasn’t tough going, except for the incline.
From time to time, I looked behind me to retain my bearings. The people below were barely visible. What was I doing on the glacier? I asked myself. What if I got into trouble? I didn’t even have any emergency supplies with me. I had left my backpack down below, near the LI-COR machine. Still no Ning, no curious scientist, nothing but whiteness. As I came within 100 meters or so of the rise, I called his name, “Ning! Ning! Ning!”
I heard someone call my name. Away, far to my left, the dimunitive figure of Ning stood by a nunatak, with what I guessed was a camera in one hand. He was waving at me with his free hand. He later told me that on the other side of the rise he realized that the glacier just went on forever, so he angled around to the point where he now stood. But he did this angling out of my line of sight. I made a beeline for him.
Meanwhile, the rest of our group, as we were later to learn, was perturbed because two people were missing. This was all discussed when the group reassembled, and, thankfully, as a result I don’t think anyone is going to venture off by himself in the field anymore.
But as we stood there on that high nunatuk, I glanced to the south and had the most sensational view of the trip. We could see the east and west coasts of the peninsula, and, in between, a majestic series of rocky precipices and broken tabletops, dark and dappled with snow. It was virtually an aerial view. Magnificent, stupendous, awful, terrible… You could string the adjectives by the dozens and not exhaust the wonder of it.
I turned to Ning. “I hope you took some good pictures,” I said. “The battery is my camera is dead.”
* * *
Our lecture series continues in the evenings with graduate students and professors taking turns making presentations on their research. The subjects include peatland research, water cycles and global carbon emissions. Vladmir has accomplished something authentic and noteworthy with this summer field school. I hope word of his achievement circulates through academia.
Wilderness Research Foundation
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