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The Storm

December 21, 2009

The LARISSA IPR Team is now flying north over the Southern Ocean, towards the Straits of Magellan, and home. This is the second part of Ted’s update:

Ted writes:

It began with a haziness, an odd light, at midnight on the fourth day. There’s an old saying about the color of the sky at sunrise and sunset. But what if sunset happens at midnight, and it’s also sunrise, at the same time? An ice fog blew across the camp, flocking everything with feathery or bristly crystals. Rothera told us by radiophone to prepare for the worst.

To our surprise, the next morning was still fair enough to try to finish the last of the survey. Rob and I suited up, and managed to drive about 20 km of data before our batteries ran out. We turned back just in time. By 2 p.m. the wind had risen to 30 knots, and we were shouting over it to tie things down, close things tight, get supplies and gear where we needed it for a long wait. We dove into the tents at 3 p.m., and then the weather really broke. By 4 p.m. the wind was howling at 45 knots, snow was screaming past the plastic windows of the tents, and huge plumes of drift streamed away from each tent, as if each were the head of a comet streaking across the sky.

That night was one of the most thrilling of our lives: the sounds, the power of the storm, feeling the might of it through the thin fabric wall of the tent. There was an entire spectrum of sounds. The lower level of blowing snow was a hissing, sandy undertone against the tent; then the tympany of the tent fabric, like a crescendo in a symphony that would not end. But there was more: there were times when the wind seemed to thunder into the very ground beneath us, as though God was hammering away at the camp with stupendous boxing gloves. There were times when the hissing would be interrupted by a clattering, as nearby dunes of snow blew to pieces and scattered agains the tent walls. At one point, there was a sound like rainfall against the tent: a truly terrifying thought for an Antarctic field party. We surrounded ourselves with books, snacks, and a death-defying humor, radioing each other the tents to ‘check in’: ‘Hey, you ok? We were thinking of tunneling over for dinner.’

If you’re wondering, we peed in bottles. As for anything else, well, we waited.

Rob arrives for breakfast

On the following morning, Rob and I decided to go over to Erin’s tent, despite the storm, and have a ‘proper breakfast, dammit’. We suited up, tightly, tied the boots on, and pushed on the fabric tunnel door of the tent. It was buried. To get out, we had to kick our way out, or shove against it like a football player.  The wind (we were later told) had reached a maximum of about 60 knots.

Having kicked a path clear in the door, I crawled out through the short tunnel doorway and looked up. Instantly I was gagged by snow, blinded as well, and staggered by the force of the wind. Erin’s tent was a hazy outline flickering between gusts, barely visible but just 30 feet away. The camp flags were flapping at an impossible staccato pace no rock star drummer could ever match.

I stood (I was not going to crawl), took a step, and immediately stumbled.  Crawling might not be such a bad idea. There were new ridges and ditches everywhere, the camp landscaping was completely redone by the blowing snow. Each tent had its own crater forming around it, and the snow ridges on either side were 2 feet tall. Boxes had disappeared. The main sled had disappeared. There were flagpoles that had snapped in the wind.  There was no horizon, no contrast, just vague shapes, like a tent or a box, emerging from a grey-white shrieking haziness.

Rob and I staggered over to Erin’s door. It too was buried, but the shovels were still there by the door where we had staged them prior to hunkering down. For the next 12 hours we sat in the tent, cheery, not exactly warm but at least with food and a stove, and computers to look at. Slowly, in the storm, the data was processed, and a report was written on the region.  We found the site we needed. And in a gap in the wind of 8 hours the following day, we were pulled out (at the last possible hour to make our flight north).

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