This time it’s a real one. Storm force winds (64-72 mph), blowing snow, zero visibility. It’s been difficult to count storms this season because they come one right after the other. Front after front we’ve been getting pounded with gales, storms, and snow. We take weather observations twice a day, and the wind speed for the past month has been oscillating up and down like a restless animal. If you’ve been on this side of Antarctica this year chances are you’ve heard it too: it’s one of the worst weather years anyone can remember. Flights to the continent have been delayed. Helicopters have been grounded. And no matter how windy it is elsewhere, Cape Crozier lives up to its reputation by always being a little bit windier. It’s a hard place to get to – it’s always a good idea to include several days of likely weather delays in any Crozier plan. Unless, however, you are Chris Linder and Hugh Powell, you are willing to dare history, and you try to fly from Cape Crozier to Christchurch in one day, skipping the McMurdo rigmarole altogether, which they did on December 27th. They left Crozier at 8:30 AM and by midnight they were on the dark streets of Christchurch, calling us to find out where they could get some food.
We walk constantly at Crozier. The history of our tracks is constantly being written and rewritten on the long snow slope between the hut and the colony. Somtimes we see the eroded human or penguin tracks from a previous year compressed and shaped into raised lumps carved by the wind until they are recognizable as footsteps only by their pattern and regularity: humans have a long gait, penguins have a short, narrow gait. Fresh snow erases everything. It conceals old tracks and then reveals the new ones after a new blanket is laid. Footsteps don’t lie – you can tell where everyone has walked, where they stopped and stood around, where they rubbed guano off their clothes with fresh snow (aka the “Crozier shower”), and where they wiped out over a slab of blue ice lurking beneath the fluffy stuff. You can tell where a wandering band of penguins has come up the hill, inspecting our camp while we are not here (what are those humans up to???). But wind doesn’t like snow, we’ve decided, and after a big snow the wind always comes to scrape everything back down to blue ice.
The hardest part about storms is being hut-bound. No walking. I love walking on uneven terrain – it requires a lot of mindfulness. Here I’m reminded how little I have to think about where to place my feet in the “other world” – on city streets and groomed trails. We humans animals are no longer connected to the ground we walk on, and are now free to gape at shop windows and chat on cell phones instead. But here I must negotiate different kinds of snow, ice, big rocks, little rocks, orange lichens growing in the lee of hummocks (not to be stepped on), sleeping penguins (not to be disturbed). How slippery is that snow surface? Will that rock move? If I become distracted I will fall.
Penguins do fine in the wind. They don’t tumble until the wind speeds go above 130 or 140 mph, we think, though given our own considerable disadvantage in such conditions it’s difficult to evaluate just where that penguin/wind threshold is…