The Wind

In the static, lifeless landscape of the deep field, the wind is the only animate force. It is movement and sound, alternately relentless and fickle. When it stops and the sun beams down from a cloudless sky, you can strip to bare skin and immediately feel the warmth. But let one puff of breeze disturb the thin layer of radiant air, and shivers will well up. When the wind picks up, it buffets the parka and bites at fingertips, ear lobes, and nose. In its full fury the wind has flattened tents and thrown men from the decks of ships. At these times it is an awesome, fearsome force.

Hold onto your hood.

During the 1980–1981 field season I was camped between Mount Mooney and the La Gorce Mountains a few miles from our put-in site on Robison Glacier. For the better part of the two weeks we spent at that camp, frigid, katabatic winds poured over us from the polar plateau to the southeast. With wind speeds generally around ten to fifteen knots and temperatures about minus 10° F, our days mapping the outcrops in the surrounding area were seldom comfortable, especially along ridgelines where the wind compressed and accelerated. The La Gorce Mountains at the edge of the polar plateau are a first obstruction to katabatic winds that originate deep in the interior of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. The flat top of these mountains slips smoothly from beneath the ice sheet and rises to the northwest to a dramatic escarpment that drops steeply more than three thousand feet and splays into two major ridge systems. When the katabatic winds meet the southeast or back side of the La Gorce Mountains, they split into three streams: two follow the descending glaciers on either side of the mountains, and a central stream shoots across the flat summit and plunges off the lip of the escarpment. From our camp on the glacier we looked up to the escarpment. On days when the wind was light and there was only a trickle of granular, blowing snow around base camp, we could see a churning plume of wind and snow plummeting from the escarpment lip high above. We would watch it and imagine that somewhere back from the edge beyond where we could see there was a valve that tapped the source of all winds, screaming as it released its jetted fury.

A cloud layer shoots out from the escarpment lip of the La Gorce Mountains. Beneath it, a plume of snow traces the dense, frigid, katabatic wind as it leaves the precipice and plunges into the valley behind the intervening ridgeline.

During one three-day period, the wind speed rose to forty knots around camp, and we were forced to hunker in our tents, enveloped in blowing snow. It is during storms like these that I have learned to love the Scott tents. When planted properly, these four-sided pyramids will bear the fiercest gale, their double walls flapping loudly as they keep out the force of the wind. During this storm, tumultuous clouds ripped through the scene, opening periodically to reveal the escarpment lip beyond the adjacent ridge. A storm such as this can move in quickly, so we always have to be cautious if working far from camp, and watch that the weather doesn’t turn. To be caught out can truly be a matter of life and death. But back at camp with the warmth of the cookstove at hand we can feel secure and even cozy. Then it is good to go out into the blast, not to confront the wind but to feel its pressure, to lean the body into it, to find the angle of balance, to sense the vagaries in the flow, to feel the cold, to listen to the voices wheezing and whistling around every obstacle in camp—tents, boxes, bamboo poles.

Blowing snow drifts over base camp in the La Gorce Mountains, December, 1980. The northern escarpment of the La Gorce Mountains is visible to the left rear. The Scott tent in the middle of the image served as the cook tent for our four-man party, while we each had an individual mountain tents for sleeping (not in view). To the left of the Scott tent are two Nansen sleds with tri-wall cardboard boxes containing food. Two snowmobiles, one covered, the other with its windshield exposed, sit behind a third Nansen sled. On the right, Mugs is taking a shovel out of a wooden box mounted on a Nansen sled, to dig an entrance to his sleeping tent. Behind that is another Nansen sled with a shock of bamboo poles and flags for marking trails.

Out beyond the noise of camp, we hear only the soft shoosh of blowing snow streaming through the sastrugi. We look up to a blue sky and down into the miasma of snow and wind at ground level, opaque beyond one hundred yards. We are walking at the dynamic interface of atmosphere and solid earth; wind pants flap, and we squint with one eye peering down the tunnel of the hood, balancing between the cross gust and the pitch of our strides. Noses drip and fingers begin to ache from the cold. The wind is right there with us: we slip on through its stream. (Adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World.)

Gallery – Disturbed Ice

[nggallery id=19] By early January seasonal ice has begun to breakup in McMurdo Sound. This week's gallery is was shot at the interface between shore and sea at Hut Point, adjacent to McMurdo Station.