South Pole Diaries 2000/01



Thursday 14th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

These days I am still working on the instrument (the SUMMIT), waiting for adjustments in the observing strategies (see previous diary entries), and attending to minimal improvements in the instrument setup. A twice daily contact by email with the team in Sydney requires some calibrations in advance, data analysis, that keep my days quite busy. But, since John has left to go back home, I have plenty of time to spend alone in the lab, and so plenty of time to think instead of just talking, which is my natural tendency...

So, today I wrote something that doesn't look exactly like a diary, but is just a series of thoughts, some taken from earlier notes, about my past experiences in the cold continent, that could also interest some of you. I hope you enjoy them.

For the others, there is still the choice to move to more interesting sites as suggested in the past.

What I want to write about is the curious nature of some things, that is that as you get closer to some actual situations, you understand there is a mess of less relevant details, small hints, unexpected aspects, that at the end constitute the main part of the real understanding you have of them, but that can hardly be reported in books, reports and documentaries.

As an example, as I wrote in a previous diary entry, Antarctica is the realm of light, despite the common point of view, built by hours of Discovery Channel programs and BBC documentaries. Now take into consideration the permanent comparison with the cold people experience here, sometimes for the first time in their life. No one is able to even imagine the small adjustments and solutions mind and body are able to find during one of these contemporary journeys to Antarctica.

From my humble point of view, with the relative knowledge of this environment that I have, I am not even able to imagine how, in the past century, people not very well trained, with inadequate clothing, pulling loads up to 500 kilos on a wooden and leader slit, with food not even sufficient to sustain a coach potato on a rainy Saturday watching sports on TV, was able to cover this continent on foot. Crossing the monstrous crevasses that can now be seen, with horror from the aircraft, as considerable stretches of the whole planet. And then to continue throughout the Transantarctic Mountains, and the immense plateau that drives to the Pole.

One of the passages that makes it impossible to me to understand that natural drive to suicide that seems be shared by an unneglectable portion of mankind, are the celebrated last pages of Scott's diary of his journey to the South Pole (I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in Antarctica). I found a sense of horror and death even more gripping than the most severe pages of the tales of Primo Levi (an Italian author that spent years in a nazi lager), or the Anna Frank's diary, or of any other pages I have read by somebody writing as a "dead man walking". I feel a bit guilty about that, as I can easily understand the difference between a personal choice and an unfair conviction, but this is how I feel and I can't do anything about it.

Tarra Nova Bay from the Twin OtterNevertheless, I am thinking about the real heritage of Scott's trip to Antarctica. It's just, it's hard to write, an endless lines of faeces, nearly equally spaced every ten miles, probably spaced further apart toward the end of the journey. Starting from the permanent and tormented ices of the Ross's sea, raising up to the continent platform to overtake the hill and the dry valley of the transantarctic Mountains, reaching the South Pole. Getting back approximately the same way up to 15 miles of the famous "One Ton Depot", where the three perished after a couple of weeks of starving agony, in a way slightly different for each member of the team, in weather and environmental conditions absolutely incomprehensible for almost the whole of mankind. Any time I read those few lines, on one of the several plates posted up everywhere, there is a link to Antarctica in the world, as a sort of self-celebration of the Victorian edicts, I have the feeling that the tale can't actually finish there, and that, somewhere, there must be a solution to move the story to a different, happy end.

Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the three frozen bodies found about one year later by the rescue team, demonstrated it in the most incontrovertible way.

So, if an extraterrestrial civilization, evolved on some far, cold planet, should land on the Antarctic Plateau looking for traces of life, bringing with them a probe to see through the ices and the eternal snow, they would find this long theory of shameful remains, probably changing along the way from the effects of the ipovitaminosis and of the various inconveniences suffered by the team. They start from the coast, reach a place just in the middle of nothing, get back and stop with no apparent reason, as if a hand had suddenly withdrawn their will. What could they think about? A religious ritual? A sort of madness?

Years ago, during one of my first trips to this continent, I visited an Adelie's Penguin Community of about 5,000 individuals, on the coast of the Ross sea, quite close to the Italian Station at Terra Nova Bay. The day was outstandingly clear as it happens, in summer, quite often in this part of the world. It was an absolute pleasure to walk over the "martian-like" landscape running alongside the iced, cyan sea, reflecting the sky and some far ice tongue. No trace of a path, no flowers, no plants. Only a few lichens yellow and bright, ones which grow with infinite patience only a millimetre an year, in an almost deadly laziness.

Suddenly I look over from a saddle onto the large penguin colony, quite confident of what I was about to see, as BBC, National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentaries make it quite impossible today to find something really unexpected, at least on Planet Earth.

Maybe some of you know something about penguins. How long they live, we probably couldn't say the same about the common annoying houseflies. We know something about how they live, how they raise their chicks, and we imagine them as a funny tribe of mums and dads with their kids, grazing in the sea of this sterile earth.

What the films can't report, and that is what immediately struck me, is that these surreal southern communities are permanently embedded in the smell of death, putrefaction, and dung. A colony of 5,000 penguins in the breeding period live with a constant percentage of individuals sick or close to death, which are viewed with indifference and apparent cynicism by the others - "mors tua, vita mea" - in a community unable to gather piety.

My feelings were oscillating from imagining a mad crowd of decadent nobles, condemned for their abuses by a crazy witch to an eternity as clumsy birds permanently dressing in tailcoats, or what we would see if we could just look through the walls of one of our towns. Meanwhile, a crowd of Skua were flying over the penguins community, ready to prey on any inattentive individuals. This is also, to tell the truth, quite a rare event (skuas, also heavy and aggressive, can't easily prey on a healthy, adult penguin, as penguins are larger and quite aggressive too, when threatened).

When walking along the coast, I accidentally got closer to the nest of a couple of these tough predators - the skuas - and became the target of a sort of "ritual" attack, with noisy flying overhead, and then shit thrown. It kind of suggested to me that I should immediately change my course.

Was really nice, anyway, to watch the small Adelie chicks, loosing their plume tufts to acquire the adult dressing. To observe how one or two sage adults, protecting a small group of them while the other parents was fishing, avoided any casual contact with me just carefully driving the group away while I was crossing the colony. So, I quickly recovered from that sensation of death, even forgetting that bad feeling in my later visits.

Penguins are really interesting birds, unable, for historical reasons, to understand the possible danger represented by our species. A night, years ago, I was working around a small radiometer, about hundreds meters from the coast and the pack, at the Italian station at Terra Nova Bay. Suddenly I saw a medium height Adelie Penguin walking awkwardly toward me and the instrument, probably attracted by some shiny reflections on the mounting or by the periodical hisses emitted from a tilting mirror. When he was a few meters away, he stopped and watched me, apparently a bit embarrassed. To feed or perturb animal life is strictly forbidden in Antarctica, so he was probably not expecting something from me, like animals are used to in more civilized places. I think it was just curiosity driving him to me. Continuing to work around the instrument, I watched his yellow and black eyes slowly going off, the nice, small head tilted on his bent shoulder, and he fell asleep standing up as I busily worked with oscilloscopes and screwdrivers to catch the deep and weak wheezes of the Big Bang (actually, it was just atmospheric noise...).

Another time, walking on the pack, I saw a group of five Adelies point toward me from about half a kilometre, walking excitedly with that hesitant movement that alternates between sliding on the belly along the short descending slopes of the sastrugi, helped by the back paws, to short runs standing up. On this occasion they stopped just a few meters away. In an individual, heading the funny group, you could guess a leader role. It was evidently in charge of deciding which was the safest distance to avoid any threat, satisfying, at the same time, the irresistible curiosity of the others, a bit more timorous and embarrassed.

We stayed there, watching the others, for several minutes. Me crouched, smiling - actually I can't tell you why - and perfectly silent, with them undecided. Then, the small group, after grunting a little bit more, diverted toward Nord, to reach the sea again, apparently their curiosity was satisfied and they began looking for activities more profitable like fishing.

These contacts with the wild animal life in the coastal region of Antarctica represent probably the most peculiar aspect to people like us - Italians - realizing that the apparently more stupid animal knows that is better not to trust this arrogant and stinking biped, and stay away from the pile of trash and smell they spread out everywhere in the world.

These, just a taste, were the details I wanted you to listen to about this singular, cold and far world, apparently easy but complex at the same time, so complex that it is very difficult to get a final feeling.

Moreover, we can maybe begin to imagine what coldness was for Scott, Shackelton, Amundsen or Mawson, or any of the other Antarctic pioneers, not only a daily comparison with a fuzzy and not very detailed experience, but a series of small gestures, some of them perhaps disgusting in their roughness - like to free the nose of a continuous itchiness created by burnt capillaries, a series of continuous adjustment to your behaviour that everybody experiences after a few days on the ice. You learn quite quickly that the underneck must stay in a certain position, otherwise a layer of ice will fog your sunglasses (common at pioneer times, as quite often they got a disease called "snow blindness"). Remove a glove for more than a few minutes in windy conditions can mean you do not recover for long time, even if you get back in a warm room. The nose's capillaries can break if you breath the cold air for too long. Who, living at temperate latitude, could imagine that one of the most dangerous and advised disease in contemporary Antarctica is dehydration?

Who knows how many thousands of little things that bunch of stainless seamen and explorers waiting to be rescued for a long winter at Elephant Island learnt, after Shakleton's ship Endeavour was shrunk and sunk by the ices pressure. People not washing themselves for 18 months, eating just seals fried in seals fat, and diluted in "pennicam" for the long winter in one of the most frightening and inaccessible corners of the planet. This island really looks like the entrance to hell, with black and steep walls diving on an ocean permanently furious and upset. They were dreaming about, as the chronicle reports, eating "kydney's porridge", after the anticipated trip back to England. Actually, most of them died during the WWII which began just a day after they left their starting harbour in South Georgia, at the beginning of their journey to Antarctica. They were never even aware of the war during their trip.

To be continued tomorrow....