This journey has beggared our language.
——– Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World
‘It’s Home, It’s Mawson’ – So declares the sign bolted into the rocks of Horseshoe Harbour, facing the empty reaches of the Southern Ocean and announcing the presence of Australia’s oldest Antarctic research station on the edge of the ice continent.
If you’re here, you’re home, no matter how old, new, experienced or ignorant you may be.
Mawson is my home for the three-month Austral summer. I arrive via ship and small plane early November 2018, and I’ll depart by ship early February 2019. In between, there’s no way out.
Myself and screenwriter Jane Allen have been awarded the joint Antarctic Arts Fellowship, immersing ourselves in station life at Mawson. Our job is to return with words and stories: an Antarctic adventure novel for 8–12 year olds, and a TV drama series set on an Antarctic research station. We’re the only Arts Fellows going south this year, and we’re lucky to have been sent to Mawson – smallest but most scenic of Australia’s three Antarctic research stations.
We’re living here along with a couple of seabird biologists, two meteorologists, and 23 operations staff: electricians and plumbers (or, as I’ve heard them called, gods of light and gods of water), carpenters, mechanics, plant operators, store persons, plus a field training officer, communications officer, doctor, chef and station leader. There’s no easy way in or out, and we’re effectively isolated, even from the other Australian stations – Davis is 637 kilometres away, Casey more than 2,000.
It’s a land of nicknames, acronyms and slang. Ferret, Hoot, Choots, Davo, Curly, Kiwi. Destiny’s Diesos. Häggs, quads, jollies, the bouncy truck and the rimmit van. Skeds, Cosray, ARPANSA, FATSO, catch-‘n-kill Sundays.
‘Expeditioner’ is the formal term applied to everyone living on station, regardless of status. To my untutored eye, station roles fall into those that help keep people alive, and the rest. Jane and I, the arts fellows, are in the latter category. Like everyone else, we arise and go to work each day, but our long plotting conversations and the multiplying index cards festooning our walls cause some bemusement among our comrades. The most curious take advantage of our open invitation and wander inside to find out what we do all day. We fall upon them with enthusiasm.
Big. Windy. Cold. Dry. Icy. Seeking a rationale for my existence at Mawson and my right to call it home, I’m thinking about Antarctica and language.
Words don’t stick well here. They slip across the ice and blow away on katabatic winds in a jumble of superlatives. The language of long term habitation is wanting.
How many ways can Antarctica kill you?
Exposure, cold injuries, carbon monoxide poisoning, equipment failure, falling into a crevasse, falling through the sea ice, falling off a mountainside, falling off a quad bike, slipping on icy or rocky ground, industrial accidents, aircraft accidents, being crushed by a falling iceberg, plunging into below-freezing seawater for the midwinter or midsummer swim and suffering a stroke or heart attack as a result.
In our pre-departure briefing, Dr Clive Strauss from the Australian Antarctic Division drills southbound expeditioners in the ‘Umbles’ – the telltale symptoms of someone experiencing the early stages of hypothermia. Hands don’t work (fumbles), speech becomes foggy (mumbles), clumsiness sets in (stumbles), unhappiness follows (grumbles). Once shivering stops and behaviour becomes bizarre, or unconsciousness sets in, the person’s body temperature may have dropped from its normal 37 degree into the danger zone of 35 degrees or under. Below 32 degrees, hypothermia can easily be fatal.
Words are survival here. I need to read the ice, read the weather, read the landscape, read the people.
Repeat them once more, he insists, and we recite: Fumbles, Mumbles, Stumbles, Grumbles, a child’s rhyme to go with warnings about frost-nip and frostbite, small-sounding wounds, like an accidental snap from an exuberant puppy.
I’m not familiar with what cold does to the human body. Dr Strauss projects vivid pictures of frozen flesh that suggest the agony of thawing in warm water, the scabs and dead blackened skin, the sloughing off as the body tries to heal. The person who still, after twenty years, can’t make a fist with his once-frostbitten fingers. The loss of digits.
If it stops hurting, Dr Strauss says, investigate!
Words are survival here. Words to frighten, words to shock. Words to make you take the cold seriously. They work: By the end of the briefing I’m convinced I’ll die in the far south.
I need to read the ice, read the weather, read the landscape, read the people.
To reach Mawson Station, I board the Aurora Australis, an ageing icebreaker running her last few seasons before decommission. We set out from Hobart on a two-week, 5,500-kilometre voyage across the Southern Ocean.
The first week is open sea. Seven days in, a bet starts on the timing of the first iceberg sighting. A sheet goes up in the mess where you can nominate timeslots, and there are rules about how big an iceberg must be to qualify.
The second week is all about ice. The AA encounters icebergs, grease ice, pancake ice and pack ice – the last being the floating, closely packed sea ice surrounding the Antarctic continent. Of particular interest is the fast ice – a solid sheet attached to the continent – that can stop even an icebreaker if it’s too thick.
The words describing sea ice are alluring. They’re visceral, and evocative. You know what grease ice is the moment you see it floating on the water.
Robin’s egg blue
The Antarctic palette is sparse. White. Brown. Blue. Ice in all its forms can be any shade of blue, from slightly off white to turquoise, to deep fall-into-me indigo in the cracks. Sky and ice share colours, surrounding and embracing you.
Mawson Station’s palette is defiantly man-made: Lego-block buildings in fire engine red, bright green, royal blue, egg-yolk yellow. Rosella, the carpentry workshop constructed from leftovers, sports panels of each colour.
There’s a joke down here: You can’t see Antarctica because it’s covered in signs. Signs to warn, signs to remind, signs to instruct, signs to obey. It’s exciting to be at Mawson, but I’m impatient to see the ‘real’ Antarctica – to get off station, away from buildings and pipes and the round-the-clock roar of the station’s power system (four diesel generators dubbed Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart). I want to be in the ice.
My first chance comes a few days in. Two Hägglunds carry eight of us over 50 kilometres of scalloped sea ice to reach Auster rookery. Out the right hand windows, steep ice cliffs mark the edge of the Antarctic ice sheet. On the left, scattered icebergs – small, large, majestic – stand fast in the grip of the frozen sea.
There’s a joke down here: You can’t see Antarctica because it’s covered in signs. Signs to warn, signs to remind, signs to instruct, signs to obey.
We stop several times to drill into the opaque eggshell blue of the sea ice, checking that it’s thick enough to carry our weight. The winterers have been coming once a month since June, and have watched ten thousand emperor penguins arrive, court, lay eggs, and hatch chicks. As the winter sea ice begins to melt, the route closes. This is the last time Mawson expeditioners will visit the colony this season.
We park the Häggs half a kilometre away, turn off the engines and let the Antarctic silence descend.
I strap microspikes onto my boots and crunch along a flat plain of ice between towering blue ice cliffs. As we approach the emperors, the melodic sound of thousands of twittering chicks and the soft trumpeting of the adults bounces off the walls of the canyon and fills my ears.
I lie belly down on the ice (the regulation 50 metres away from a breeding penguin) and settle in. Fluffy half-grown chicks observe me. Their unconcerned parents pass close by with their stumpy gaits, headed to and from the sea. This is David Attenborough’s Antarctica – a blue ice canyon full of adult and young penguins, constant flight surveillance by predatory skuas waiting to snatch careless chicks.
The ‘real’ Antarctica is hard to take in, impossible to describe, and challenging to photograph. Words and images fall short of capturing the experience. Even memory isn’t reliable. I find myself falling back on words like awesome: I struggle to articulate, even to myself, what it feels like.
‘Give me a break, don’t use island numbers,’ Station Leader says to Seabird Biologist One. ‘Name them after expeditioners.’
The biologists are setting up remote cameras on Mawson’s surrounding islands to monitor nesting and populations of sea birds, particularly Adélie penguins. This is done before the start of summer when the fast ice is still thick enough to bear a Hägglunds (a tracked all-terrain vehicle) or a quad (a chunky four-wheeled motorbike).
Station Leader is referring to the safety requirement that travelling parties must check in by radio every time they go on and off the sea ice, in case of mishap. Hundreds of rock islands dot the coast near Mawson, and locating island 4507 on a map is another tedious step in an already tedious safety routine.
Seabird Biologist Two spends an evening assigning names to islands and islets they’re planning to visit. He marks them on an A3 map: Helen Island, Jane Island, Trent Island, Hoot Island, Nick Island, Amy Island.
The next morning he’s confronted by expeditioners inadvertently left off the map. Everyone wants their name on an island.
Buildings get names here, too – formal and colloquial. Warren incinerates our waste, Wombat RSL houses the seabird researchers. Cosray measures cosmic rays, ARPANSA monitors air for traces of radiation as part of an international compliance program. Biscoe Hut – location of choice for station parties – reminds us of the cramped, basic conditions early expeditioners lived in. In Weddell Hut, another paint-flaking relic of the past, hobbyists practice woodwork, leatherwork, metalwork. Sesame Street and Heroin Alley refer to corridors of expeditioner bedrooms. The Dog Room houses husky memorabilia, including the taxidermied body of one of the last Antarctic huskies in a glass case.
More recent station buildings – massive steel structures, concreted into the ground, in primary colours – have resisted nicknames. They remain simply the Red Shed, the Green Store, Ops.
Names have deeper implications. Mawson Station is located on Mac.Robertson Land. Sir Macpherson Robertson was the Australian chocolate manufacturer who sponsored Douglas Mawson’s 1932 expedition, which mapped and claimed this territory. The land is now part of the 42 per cent of Antarctica that’s designated Australian Antarctic Territory. As far as Australia is concerned, sovereignty over it was established in Australian law in 1936. Assigning a name to a piece of Antarctica in the 1930s was territorial.
By the middle of last century, a number of other nations had also made territorial claims to Antarctica. The International Geophysical Year in 1957–58 led to twelve nations agreeing that Antarctica should be a place for peaceful scientific cooperation. The resulting Antarctic Treaty now has 52 signatories, and its parties agreed to set aside any territorial disputes.
However, territorial considerations remain powerful. Mawson Station’s science program is small. Its physical location is more important, helping maintain Australia’s presence and influence in Antarctic geopolitics.
The word for Antarctica was bestowed before human eyes ever saw it. The Greek geographer Marinus of Tyre hypothesised its existence and named it in the second century AD. It was also, along with the Australian continent, known as Terra Incognita – the unknown land of the south.
The words for dangerous ice are harder for me to comprehend. An ice cliff is something to photograph. I can’t picture a tide crack, don’t understand the difference between a glacier and an ice sheet, and I imagine a crevasse as a yawning chasm.
Mawson’s Field Training Officer (FTO) takes three of us on a jolly (a word used since the 1950s for any off-station excursion) to visit the remains of an old Russian aircraft. The plane was damaged while trying to take off from the ice plateau back in 1965 and then later flipped over during a blizzard, marking the end of its flying days. In 1968, following the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, a Czech bulldozer driver working at Mawson took a machine up the hill and wreaked vengeance on the plane, leaving the crushed and twisted remnants visible today, sliding in slow motion in the ice sheet’s grip towards the sea.
The ‘real’ Antarctica is hard to take in, impossible to describe, and challenging to photograph…I struggle to articulate, even to myself, what it feels like.
We roar up the plateau in Blue Hägg. As with all off-station travel, we use GPS to follow a precise way-pointed route that’s safe for vehicles and humans. FTO parks up Blue Hägg and we jump out. It takes half an hour to gear up for glacier travel – a requirement because we must cross a crevasse field to reach the plane. I’m helmeted, harnessed, cramponed, and roped to the other three. I clutch an ice axe; ice screws, karabiners and prusik loops dangle from my waist.
In 2016 a Canadian pilot landed a chopper on an ice shelf near Australia’s Davis Station. He stepped down from the chopper straight into a narrow, almost invisible crevasse, falling 20 metres into its depths. His co-pilot described the crevasse as a ‘crack that looked like it went into infinity’. The rescue took hours – long enough for hypothermia to be fatal.
We rehearse the procedure in case anyone falls into a crevasse. I practice tying and using a prusik knot, and mentally run through the instruction to throw myself flat on the ground, dig in my axe and kick my crampons into the ice to act as a human brake.
We’re just past the peak of summer and the cycle of thawing and refreezing has changed the winter surface of polished blue ice, replacing it with a frosty white layer that crunches and tinkles underfoot.
Stepping carefully, keeping the ropes between us at the correct tension, I glimpse what appear to be small cracks in the ice and realise I’m walking over a honeycomb of slots and cavities. They’re narrow and deep rather than gaping and wide. Inside the cracks, white changes quickly to blue, deepening to indigo as it plunges deep below my feet.
Low pressure system
The rattle of blizz lines wakes me in the mornings. Heavy duty ropes strung between every building on the station, they’re used for getting about during high winds, and they start clinking on their poles at around 30 knots. On a windy day, I walk from the Red Shed (living quarters) to Aeronomy (my workspace in the science quarters) with a hand on the blizz lines, staggering in the gusts. In a true blizzard with low visibility, they’re essential. People have died getting lost between buildings.
Talking about the weather is a station pastime. In the mess, a digital message board reports observations around the clock. Everyone checks temperature, wind speed and wind chill (a calculation of how cold wind actually feels on the human body).
Stepping carefully, I glimpse what appear to be small cracks in the ice and realise I’m walking over a honeycomb of slots and cavities.
The cold, dense air of the polar icecap falling downslope due to gravity causes katabatic winds. Most mornings, the katabatics blow at around 25 knots – just under 50 kilometres an hour. It makes for a cool and breezy start to the day: at a temperature of zero degrees, the wind chill is minus eight.
Wind at Mawson can easily sit at ‘gale strength’ (24 knots) as part of a normal day. Travel condition red kicks in when the wind rises above 60 knots (111 kilometres per hour). Then you have to radio every time you leave a building, and radio again to advise that you’ve reached another one. Sustained winds over 100 knots (185 kilometres per hour) mean condition black – no going outside.
There’s a simple calculation taught to Antarctic newcomers: when wind speed in knots matches your weight in kilograms, the wind becomes a forceful adversary.
Everyone talks about the weather, not so many talk about the climate – at least not at Mawson, where no climate scientists are based. As summer reaches its height, meltwater gushes down the plateau in turquoise rivers. The sea ice begins to crack and break up, ice disappears from the bedrock under the station, revealing its drab dustiness.
Melting ice means climate change, doesn’t it? But there’s no way to discern if this is the seasonal cycle of melting and freezing, or something more sinister. The landscape is so unfamiliar, it’s rhythms so strange, observation alone is not enough, not here in remote East Antarctica where conditions seem, to the naked eye, to be stable.
In January, a news item reports that the East Antarctic region is following the path of West Antarctic – ice sheets are thinning, melting and retreating, according to NASA. I don’t see the story while I’m at Mawson, and if anyone else sees it, they don’t talk about it.
To travel off station, you must be accompanied by the Field Training Officer, or have gone through Survival Training, which involves three days in the field. It takes several weeks for FTO to run newcomers through the training; the arts fellows are in the final group.
We’re bivvying outside Rumdoodle Hut, at the foot of a small range of mountains sticking up out of the plateau ice about 30 kilometres from Mawson. Rum Hut was blown off its anchors in a big blizzard a year or two ago, and now sits, boarded up, at a rakish angle. Until it can be fixed, it’s been replaced by the RMIT van, a snug orange container like a gypsy caravan with three bunk beds, a kitchen bench, a cold porch and a tiny toilet room. But tonight we’re sleeping out on the ground, and sometime in the morning’s small hours, the katabatic winds will start blowing.
I’m a little scared about my night in a bivvy – a large yellow plastic bag, also known as a chip packet. We’re instructed to unroll our bag, shove our field pack inside, crawl in, and arrange our sleeping bag and mat. The chip packet has a drawstring and no means of support other than your own body and the pack.
I find a small flattish area among the rocks. The yellow material crinkles loudly with every move, and getting myself and my masses of equipment sorted out in its interior involves blind fumbling. At last I’m inside the chip packet, in the sleeping bag, wearing most of my clothes, beanie on my head, adjusting the drawstring so as not to suffocate. The blazing Antarctic sunlight illuminates the bag’s interior to a brilliant yellow.
I revel in the sensation of my body lying on rock and ice – on the land, on this continent, this terra incognita.
I’m expecting a cold, bright, claustrophobic and sleepless night.
But something else happens.
It turns out that I revel in the sensation of my body lying on rock and ice – on the land, on this continent, this terra incognita. I’m not in a building, I’m not in a vehicle. Just a few layers of fabric surround me. Above, deep blue sky, brown towering cliffs, white birds. Around me, brown rocks. Beside me and far below me, blue polar ice.
This place lives to a different rhythm. Plateau ice flows in extreme slow motion, down from the heights of the polar ice cap towards and into the sea. Katabatic wind follows the same routes, air flowing down the pathways of least resistance. Orange and yellow lichens bloom on the rocks of this mountain range. Snow petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels nest in these hollows.
Sleeping joyfully in the land’s embrace is my own quiet victory.
Everyone knows about Antarctica’s 24-hour daylight during summer, but the speed at which the daylight cycle changes is a surprise. In the weeks after my arrival we gallop through the last ‘nights’ of summer, with sunset time changing by more than 20 minutes each day. When the sun does dip below the horizon it isn’t dark, just less bright. By early December there’s no sunset at all. It won’t return for six weeks.
Evening is the best time to get out and walk at Mawson, when the katabatic winds have dropped. It’s brilliantly, blazingly light and the glare bounces up into my face from the sea ice. ‘UV never sleeps’ is the motto of the station’s boilermaker, who never steps outside without a thick coating of zinc plastered on his face.
Night-time, darkness and sleep are all relative concepts. That sunlight walk signals daytime to my body. It’s easy, of course, to block out my bedroom window and cover my eyes when going to bed. But my circadian rhythm struggles to make sense of the information it’s receiving. I’m not the only expeditioner sleeping in snatches and waking tired.
Without the markers of day and night, time feels at once endlessly stretched out, and in short supply. It’s hard to recall if something happened this morning, or three days ago.
Night is a word I miss.
Blah blah blah
This land is huge, and spare, and its colours few. The brilliant, relentless sun beats down from above, and up from below. The wind blows and blows, but nothing moves to show you its motion. The ice stretches away forever.
To fill up the space, my mind begins naming things. I remember small, possibly imagined slights, and inflate them to extreme proportions. I allocate blame. My emotions rage, wild and unchecked. I’m interacting with other people almost every waking moment, pinned under the gaze of 24 hour daylight, in a stark and stripped down landscape. There’s nowhere to hide.
Another day out on the plateau. The immensity of the ice sheet and the horizon stretching forever make the inside of my head balloon. I become fixated on tiny things. Being the last rider of the quad party, my emotional temperature fluctuates with my distance behind the other riders. When they pull too far ahead, I’m flooded with rage and grief at being abandoned.
The immensity of the ice sheet and the horizon stretching forever make the inside of my head balloon…I’m flooded with rage and grief.
Back on station, the melting sea ice in Horseshoe Bay cracks and rots in a reflection of my internal landscape. There’s no safety, and the risk of falling an apparently safe surface into dangerous sub-freezing water is real.
I am floundering. I no longer see the towering ice cliff rising up behind Cosray and splitting to show its blue heart, nor the melting sea ice losing its grip on the rocks of West Arm, nor the slanting light on the ice plateau changing each day. My turmoil is continent-sized. In this blurring of ice and sky, I no longer know what’s real and what’s my imagination. Unnamed and ancient griefs have me in their grip.
I can’t find my way back to safety.
Search and rescue
The things that help:
My partner, whose love is a safety line soughing out across the Southern Ocean and down to the ice, holding me fast until help arrives.
The Antarctic Division’s psychologist, who is familiar with the extreme psycho-social pressure expeditioners face – tells me this kind of emotional reaction isn’t unusual, gently helping me back to meaning and sense.
The station doctor, who does the same. Emails and calls from loved ones.
Conversations with Jane, my fellow writer, which move from crevasse to mountain, from melt stream to scree slope, from tide crack to plateau, roaming across the spectrum of blue and all the varieties of ice.
I arrest the fall, stabilise, remember how to use safety rope, crampons, ice axe. With help, I climb out of the crevasse.
One of my final field trips is a climb up Mt Henderson. Led by FTO, this involves a Hägg ride out to Hendo Hut, then scrambling up the steep scree mountainside to a rocky shoulder and roping up for two pitches to reach the summit.
I’ve never climbed with ropes before. I don’t know what a pitch is. FTO assures me no prior experience is needed.
The scree slope crumbles underfoot and I cause a few minor rockfalls as I progress. The view opens out to reveal a turquoise melt lake sitting in the ice below, and the surrounding mountain ranges. The Hägg is a coloured dot at the mountain’s foot.
We reach the saddle, and FTO instructs us on securing harness, fitting helmet, tying a double-threaded figure of eight. He swings nimbly up a steep crack in the rock, and tosses the rope back. It’s my turn.
I take two steps up, and a round boulder confronts me. I have no idea what limb to move or how to shift my body to ascend further. I forget logic and dignity and project myself skywards. To my surprise, I’m climbing. I find myself with my back pressed to one side of the crack and my feet on the other, and my body somehow figures out how to use opposing pressures to chimney upwards. A final scramble gets me to the top.
Mt Henderson is high enough to reveal the ice plateau stretching to southern white horizon, the four surrounding mountain ranges and nunataks, the frozen sea scattered with icebergs.
On the way home, my chest hurts like something wants to break out.
The pure turquoise of the melt streams snaking down the ice, the creamy scalloped blue of the plateau ice glittering in the sun, the frosty white of the melted and refrozen surface. I want to name this feeling, this land, what it’s been to live here.
One word comes over the roar of the Hägg. A word whose meanings include rapture, ecstasy and violent removal.
The Aurora Australis arrives, carrying its cargo of a year’s supplies and the incoming team. It’s time for the 29 of us living here to leave. A new group of 15 will take over the station for winter. They’ll live here for a year, a full cycle of seasons. Next November, they’ll absorb another group of summer expeditioners for three months.
A sheet of their photographs, with names and jobs, appears on the notice board a few days before they turn up on station. I find I’m reluctant to memorise these people, for whom Mawson will be home.
This period of transition and uncertainty is known as resupply, a small word for a major multi-day operation. The old generation of expeditioners hands over to the new. Their cargo and supplies come off the ship by crane and barge, our cargo and waste is loaded, and thousands of litres of diesel are pumped into Mawson’s fuel farm to power the station. Resupply is complex and delicate, affected by ice, wind, and mishaps. The operations plan is updated multiple times a day.
The writers race to finish our work – two drafts of the adventure novel and one of the TV series bible. Thousands of words trying to describe this place and its profound impacts. Something tangible to take back into the world; something to hold on to.
I’m packed and ready to board the ship at an hour’s notice. My bedroom is needed for the incoming team, and my presence on station is not essential. When the first day of resupply is postponed due to gale force winds and blowing snow, I relish the reprieve of another night here.
The writers race to finish our work…Thousands of words trying to describe this place and its profound impacts.
I have collected new words, absorbed and used new phrases. I have begun a lexicon of living here. I have begun to write stories. The place is part of me, now.
An Antarctic friend emails: ‘And now comes the gut-wrenching farewell’.
Sometime today, or tomorrow, I’ll transfer to the ship, parked up in the channel just near the sign declaring It’s Home. Sometime in the coming week, the rest of the expeditioners will finish their jobs and handovers, and follow me.
When it’s all done, we’ll gather on the ship’s deck, those of who’ve lived here for a season or a year. The AA’s brave old engines will churn and thrust, and she’ll begin the long voyage north.
Over on the station, the new expeditioners will shoot up flares to send us on our way.
We’re leaving home.
I’m going home.
I have no words for that, yet.
All images courtesy Jesse Blackadder and Jane Allen.
More images and details of Jesse’s time in Antarctica can be found at her blog.