Tales Of Wind And Snow

Sastrugi – Ridges of snow formed on a snowfield by the action of the wind. Also, zastruga. [1830–40; <>

Our internet is out, so I am again attempting to post using the satellite phone, which is slower than slow. No photos this time but a story, excerpted from a letter to Camie and Jeremy that I wrote on January 1st:

“The end of 2006 finally brought us a break in the form of a storm, a classic Antarctic storm: heavy, beautiful snow for two days (we stayed in the hut and caught up on various data projects) followed by a couple of clear, decent days (we went out in the field despite the frigid breeze), one windy day (stayed in hut), a lull (went out), and then the real thing (right now).

There are two things that the Antarctic wind gods focus on: 1) blowing all the fluffy snow away in an attempt to reshape the snowfields back into wild sastrugi forms (sastrugi is a Russian word for hard, wind-carved snow) and 2) creating a lull in the middle of any storm so as to fool humans into going outside and then sneaking up on them with sudden strong winds and a white-out. The latter is exactly what happened to us today, and despite how many times it has happened before we always fall for it – the wind calms, we are happy to get out, everything looks nice, and then BAM! A heavy curtain of blowing snow moves in, the wind sneaks up from the south, the sea surface gets whipped up into a frenzied foam, and we face a 1km uphill hike back to the hut.

The lull was this morning. We woke up to semi-clear skies and good visibility so we went out, completely ignoring the barometer, which was rapidly dropping. I checked some nests and then headed over to the western end of the colony to help Grant tag some chicks. There was some wind, but it was workable. When we finished I looked up and saw the dried carcass of a South Polar skua (about the size of a gull) partially airborne and tumbling towards the ocean, and noted a few snow devils forming by the shore and swirling into the steely sea. We went our separate ways for a bit and by the time we decided it was time to go home we could barely see each other across the snowfield. I waited for Grant to join me, we donned our goggles and balaclavas, and started uphill.

With only about 10 feet of visibility and 50-60 mph winds we followed the rocks, or, rather, I followed Grant who apparently knew where he was going. I held onto the end of his pack while he led us along the boundary between rock and snow, which we knew would eventually lead us to the hut area. There were no landmarks to be seen – all was white and all looked completely flat. Only rocks, snow, and the occasional patch of blue ice indicating that we were below the rocks, where snow melts and refreezes into the sheer blue stuff. I watched my feet over the sastrugi but often failed to see a sudden drop-off because I had no depth-perception.

It was an incredible hour. I trusted Grant completely but still could not help but imagine all kinds of bad scenarios – losing the rock boundary (our only guide), heading uphill but in the wrong direction, overshooting the hut, the wind rising to 100 mph…the list goes on. Knowing that you have such little room for error definitely gets your adrenaline flowing. We stopped frequently, usually as a result of me, out of breath and needing reassurance, tugging on Grant’s arm. “Grant, do you know where we are?!,” “Absolutely! I know this rock. 20 more minutes and we’ll be at the hut!” he yelled, though still barely audible over the loud wind, while pointing at a dark spot emerging from the wall of blowing snow. The hut, a tiny speck of bliss, was so distant and small that being in it didn’t even enter into my realm of possibilities. At one point we had to leave the line of rocks and head across a snow field to the next patch of rocks, and I was reminded of the first time I went diving and let go of the end of the rope and let my body slip into the deep blue waters beneath.

Needless to say we made it home safe and sound, welcomed by Valère and Amélie with hot tea and the smell of new year’s dinner on the way. My experiences on this continent are so shockingly contradictory at times…one moment I am diving in a hostile sea of wind and blowing snow, and the next I am sipping wine, eating duck-pistachio pate from France, and sending emails from a warm hut.”