We had two more weeks without internet – our wireless repeater is on top of Mt. Terror, and bad weather had been keeping the solar-powered batteries too low. Our last two weeks at Cape Crozier were pretty eventful. Lisa Sheffield, who had been at Cape Royds since November, joined us for the remainder of the season, bringing the total human population to five (in a hut that fits two comfortably and four tightly) – Vijay Patil, Amélie Lescroël, Lisa, Grant, and myself. We all got along splendidly, despite the limited space. We finished the season by banding 1,000 chicks – several hours of dirty work that left our clothes once and for all covered with a solid layer of guano and our thumbs sore and callused. We also had to haul the weighbridge back to the hut, a feat that involves loading a sledge with 300lbs of gear and hauling it for 1km uphill along a big snow field, just like the old Antarctic heroes. We did this in exactly 35 minutes and 35 seconds, and didn’t manage to beat last year’s record of 34 minutes and 34 seconds. The rotten snow we encountered at the beginning of our climb would have slowed even the bravest and strongest of all Antarctic heroes…
On our very last day we had a cetacean treat. Grant heard whales breathing as he was packing our tent, and then spotted a group of minke whales and another group of orcas swimming in the channel that forms between shore and B15, the giant iceberg. We had been seeing both species on a regular basis through the season, but hadn’t seen any in about a week. As we all sat on the hut stoop with our binoculars we spotted yet another group, and quickly sensed that they were neither minkes nor orcas. Their dorsal fins looked similar to minke fins, but, as opposed to minkes, they swam in a tight group, surfaced frequently, and spouted each time they came up for air. We watched them for a long while. After three months of closely watching the few species of birds, seals, and whales that live in this part of the world we became accustomed to picking up even the minutest details in our observations, and these whales looked different, though subtly so. Lisa brought out a cetacean guide and her zoom lens and after a process of elimination and a closer look we settled on Arnoux’s Beaked Whale, a rare species in these parts. They swam due west, and soon vanished between the tabular icebergs that lay scattered in the channel. Our attention then drifted back to the orcas. A group of a few males, several females, and a few tiny calves had made a U-turn and was making a beeline for some unknown goal. They swam very rapidly and left a long wake in the flat, shiny water. Were they pursuing a school of fish? Did they turn around to avoid being closed in by the moving iceberg? We never figured out the cause of this, but were content to watch them as they nearly cleared water each time they surfaced, their white eye patches and smoky mantles clearly visible against the black body. The weather was gloriously clear and warm, just above freezing.
We finished packing, scrubbed the hut, and slept well. The next morning we got up, finished taking all of our gear to the helicopter pad, and waited. We thought we heard a helicopter several times, its rapid ta-ta-ta-ta-ta echoing off distant ice fields and rocky peaks, but it was probably the light wind humming through the hut walls. By late morning the helicopter operator radioed to say we were on a weather delay. By mid-afternoon the sea surface to the east looked troubled – small, foamy wind waves were forming just off the Ross Ice Shelf and plumes of snowdrift disappeared into the water. The sea that had been calm as a mirror just the previous day was showing signs of approaching weather. It was January 25th, and our flight was finally postponed to the following day. The next day we awoke to a near white-out and 40-50mph wind, light by Antarctic standards but strong enough to keep us inside and the helicopters grounded. The storm stayed steady for two days. On day three there was a lull and we had our last chance of going down to the colony. On day four it stormed again. Most of our gear lay half-buried in snowdrift on the helicopter pad, our pantry started looking sparse, and our once plentiful supply of chocolate dwindled to almost nothing. We read, talked, and fantasized about being stuck at Crozier for the winter. We could probably live on seal meat, but lacked any means by which we could obtain such a thing. The blades on our Swiss army knives and Leatherman supertools would barely penetrate the thick layer of seal blubber, and I questioned whether a sleeping Weddell seal would as much as feel such a minute intrusion. We finally settled on our large kitchen knife as the best candidate for this task.
I imagined Cape Crozier shrouded in darkness, the aurora australis dancing in the winter sky, the moonlit snow fields, and the brilliant southern night sky. I also imagined the raging winter storms for Crozier is, after all, one of the windiest places in this part of the world. I have never seen this place in darkness, so I had to draw upon images and descriptions of the Antarctic winter from books, drawings, and photos.
By day five the storm eased, and by mid-afternoon the ta-ta-ta-ta-ta was finally real despite the thick snow clouds still looming in the western sky. The helicopter landed in a mist of snow, which had settled in the lee of rocks during the storm and was now being kicked up by the powerful blades. It was a strange sight after 2 1/2 months surrounded with nothing but ice, ocean, rock, and thousands of penguins. Before we had the time to absorb the reality of it all we were making a wide turn over the snow slope, flying high above the hut, and drifting past the low peaks at the foot of Mt. Terror – Post Office Hill, Ainley Peak, The Knoll, all familiar and beloved landmarks. The rocky ground below was traced by snow-filled cracks that formed an irregular honeycomb pattern. I don’t know how it forms but I have seen the same pattern many times around Cape Crozier and other parts of Ross Island. We flew over the huge crevasses and hummocks that form and gather where glaciers meet, traced the edge of Ross Island, crossed the Windless Bight, and finally landed at McMurdo Station in a daze. It was January 30th, and civilization greeted us with the sound of beeping trucks, overheated buildings, and fluorescent lighting. I am still disoriented. When I catch glimpses of the Royal Society Range (aka Transantarctic Mountains) between the buildings I imagine walking away from town, out on the ice, and towards the snowy peaks.