Hygene in the Field

In the field when it comes to the kitchen, Stump’s first rule is, “No Soap!” Remember that every ounce of water has to be made by melting snow on the Coleman stove. By the time that a party settles into a field camp, we already pretty much share our germ pool, and remain healthy in isolation. Soapy water requires rinsing. If you do not rinse completely, soap on the dishes of the next meal can cause gastric distress. The extremely dry air of Antarctica is hard enough on all but the oiliest of skin, but repeatedly putting hands in soapy water is a guarantee of dry, cracked knuckles and cuticles. So the routine after a meal is that we wipe our plates with a paper towel, and then put a few tablespoons of boiling water on the plate. Swish it around with a finger to melt any grease and dissolve the remaining food, pour the bit down the sump hole, and dry with a clean paper towel. Voila! The dishes are ready for the next meal. Cook pots require a little more water generally, but the drill is the same. I tend not to cook much heavily fried food in the field, mainly due to the trouble of cleaning up. Then there is the question of personal hygiene, of washing. Antarctica is a remarkably clean place. To be sure there is dirt down in the rocks on a moraine, and the Dry Valleys across from McMurdo Station are blanketed in soil and dirty glacial drift. But generally one encounters only ice, snow, and rock in the field. One doesn’t get dirty from without. Exceptions might be greasy hands from working on a snowmobile, or blackening of the face over time due to soot from poorly burning white gas. For these, a little soap might be appropriate, followed by a liberal coating of Corn Huskers Lotion or Bag Balm. I find it desirable to go into the field with enough tee-shirts and tightie-whities to change about once a week, and enough socks to change somewhat more frequently than that. For the rest of it, I adopt a laissez-faire attitude, letting Nature take its course. In my experience, you itch for about a week, mainly on the head and back. Depending on how much you have been sweating while out on the slopes, you acquire the acrid odor of a locker room. But pungent sweat along with the itch passes after a week or so, and the body moves to the phase of funk. In the cook tent body odor is shared like the germ pool, unconsciously as the individuals ripen in the communal pew. A dose of athlete’s foot, however, can threaten the balance, especially if the victim is drying his/her socks in the shared space. As weeks go by the scent attains a rich fullness, but is barely noticed somewhere there in the background. The aura of the cook tent gives notice to the odorless interior of Antarctica, emphatically, that humans are there. At the time of pick up our olfactory impact on the Herc crews was visible. We always made our first stop in McMurdo the mess hall, where we would chow down on freshies and someone else’s cooking, and let the rest of the room whiff the aura of the deep field from whence we had come. Finally, we would make it to our long awaited showers, alone and naked, hot and steamy, the pleasure of lathering all the crevices, washing away the grime, becoming odorless. It is hardly a reason not to shower for so long, but after that first shampoo one’s hair has the silkiest, smoothest body, conditioned au naturel in pure funk. My parting shot is this. One slow news day in the late 1970’s I was enjoying a phone interview with a sweet, young reporter from the Mesa Tribune who was asking about my Antarctic research. At some point toward the end I allowed that after nine weeks without a bath one gets pretty. The next morning on the front page of the Tribune was the banner, “ASU PROFESSOR “GETS FUNKY” ON THE ANTARCTIC TUNDRA.” It gave me pause. Although she did get the first part right, I am still looking for tundra in the Transantarctic Mountains.

Gallery: Drifts

One of the most enduring features of the landscape of the Transantarctic Mountains is the drift. Because prevailing winds are so consistent, long, graceful drifts accumulate at many places in the lee of ridges and summits. These features are so persistent in the perpetually frozen climate of Antarctica, that the white snow of the crest of a drift typically gives way to solid, blue ice in its lower portion.