The Grind

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Hector tells me that I looked like a triumphant madman when I stomped back into our bunk yesterday. I do remember being a bit bug-eyed and over-caffeinated, but it had been a rough and tumble week. And at the end of it, with just a few hours to spare, I had prevailed over the technical demons and hobgoblins of computer hardware and software to get done what I needed to get done. I’ll spare y’all the details, but it was an ugly bit of systems engineering that took all I had to offer. And at the end of it all, out of time, out of energy and nearly out of ideas, the new system was ready to hand off to the winterover crew. I had reason to feel a little like a madman.

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Wait, you say, didn’t you tell us in your last post that you’d gotten that thing of yours working? Sort of. To use a pathetically-flawed metaphor, let’s pretend that I’d brought an airplane down here in crate. What I managed to do that first day was get the engine running. What I finally managed to get done last night was get all the pieces bolted together, get the damned thing off the ground and start airlifting data trhough storms and mountain passes from where it was in the station to where it needed to be. And yes, I left a few craters and bits of paint and aluminum along the way. But it really truly is working. And I hope they’ll forgive me for saying this, but the winter lab manager and station manager have already started geeking out on the new data. Even now, after the caffeine has worn off, I feel pretty justified for fist pumping the air when I got back to the Gould.

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The hut by day

Not that, amid the grueling hours, there haven’t been some breaks for recreation. Two nights ago I hiked out to camp in what is euphemistically called “the rec hut” down by water’s edge in Arthur’s Harbor. It’s not actually that far, but when you’re stumbling over trackless glacial moraine in the dark – in freaking Antarctica, I remind you – by the narrow beam of light of a headlamp, looking for a well-camouflaged six-by-eight wooden shack tucked into the rocks, while the ever-blowing wind howls by at highway speed… Well, it can make you feel a little “out there.” 

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Finding the hut at night

The hut was lovely, though, and a chance to get away and have some solitude. Even better, at some point in the night the wind let up. And even though I could see nothing, I was able to listen to sections of the glacier across the harbor snap and calve into the water.

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Inside, the hut isn’t quite tall enough to stand up in

And last night (post “triumphant madman return”), a few of us broke away from the farewell party at the station bar to brave the hot tub. The tub was slightly protected from the rain and sleet howling off the glacier, but it would be an understatement to say that the scamper along the elevated walkway from Bio Lab to the tub was “bracing.” Once in (aaaaaaaaaaaaah), the only question was how long we could hide there before thermal equilibrium and our looming curfew required repeating the weather-inflicted lashing, but this time on our backsides, as we retreated back to the lab.

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As brutal as the wind can be, sometimes it does rest, and I suppose you learn to jump when it does. Two days ago – was it two days? They’re all a blur. I suited up, grabbed a radio and went to tromp up the glacier again. The sun wasn’t quite out, but the air was still enough to hear the water running underfoot. Further inland, the glacier is thousands of feet deep, but down here, where it comes to splay itself out on the ever-growing moraine, it’s only a few feet thick. Little specks of dusk catch the heat of the sun and melt into pools, gathering more dust and digging deeper until they break through to the water rushing below. I’d been told it was safe, but I still found myself mentally rehearsing glacier self-rescue, and noticed that somehow my radio had made its way from my belt to the grip of my right hand.

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The sky had gone gray by the time I made it up to the saddle point, but the breeze was still light enough to feel like a suggestion. Across the strait, the skyscrapers on the mainland still stood out like shark’s teeth, and the cloud deck was clearly lowering; it was probably time to head back. Two hours later, the sleet was pelting sideways again.

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I think the wind will be the most enduring memory I will have of Palmer Station. Of repeatedly staggering up and down the swaying gangplank while it howls past at highway speeds. Of how it careens around every corner, bullies you at every step, pushing you back, hurrying you ahead or just slapping you sideways. The numbers belie the experience. Even in the narrows of the harbor, the wind whips the water into unreal forms; it hollows and rises and curls like it’s a living thing trying to break free of the sea. Much of it does, taking to the air in swaths of spray that strike the unwary like stray artillery.

The wind is why we’re still here, actually. We were supposed to have weighed anchor three hours ago and launched northward. But they can’t bring the gangway aboard in this wind – swinging forty feet of steel ladder around on a crane in 50 mph winds without hitting anything seems to be nobody’s idea of a good time. Captain says he wants it to come down to 20 or so before he’ll try anything. May be a while. In the meantime, we’ve got shore leave if we want it – scramble across that same ladder in those same winds and slashing bursts of half-frozen water and ice.

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But station’s got better internet than we do on the ship, and a second chance to say last goodbyes again, so most of us go. Who knows when any of us will be back again?


4 responses to “The Grind

  1. Love the lines: ….wind bullies you and The breeze was still enough to feel like a suggestion.
    Some of the places you mention are familiar, of course, from your wonderful book of short stories.
    M. Marilyn Levy

    Liked by 1 person

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