There are ice caves that grow and disappear within the edges of the tongue that ruptures out from the Erebus Glacier. Every year they are different, and the mountaineers who work with the Field Safety department discover them and decide whether they are safe for entry.
We went out on snowmobiles, cold air and two-stroke motor exhaust trailing behind us, stopped in sudden silence at the base, stark and soft like bones in the desert. Ethereal rooms with smooth sculptors’ ridges on the walls, fuzzy stalactites of ice dripping from the ceiling. Turquoise to violet ice, moving air in the farthest secret recesses like the glacier breathing on your skin.
In November my department had the opportunity to take McMurdo’s sea ice training course, teaching vehicle operators how to profile cracks in the sea ice to determine if the surface could withstand the weight of the vehicle and whether it was safe to cross. We’d identify a crack, shovel a trench across it, drill into the ice until sea water gushed out, and drop a special measuring tape into the water.
There were Weddell seals along the road, not paying us any mind, dappled skin stretched across fatty heft, sighing and breathing across the frost—the holes they came out of a few feet away, littered with expelled bits of ice and blood.
Our teacher was awesome, taking us to see things nearby, profiling cracks along the way. We entered an ice amphitheater, a brilliant curved elbow hollow, pocked shining walls and gargantuan feathered veins running up 80 feet. We placed our hands on icebergs’ solemn, glistening faces, being present with bodies much older than ourselves.
Scott’s Hut on Cape Evans was a few miles away, a hundred year old building where the explorers spent three winters. Penguin carcasses, primitive ice cleat boots made of fur and canvas, crates of tea and potted meats. A darkroom full of tiny bottles, old spooky chemicals. A dog’s skeleton, still chained to the stable. It smelled like dust and hay and seal blubber, and written on one of the bunks in very light pencil, “Losses to date: Haywood, Mack, Smyth, Shak (?)” (I read later that Shackleton was missing at that point, his fate still uncertain).