Location: Joinville Island | – 63 22.948S – 55 38.274W | Temperature: -1.5°C / 29°F
It's a classic question: if you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you bring with you?
For five people spending 12 days on a rocky, icy strip of land at the bottom of the world, the answer is this: over 2,000 pounds of stuff — food, water, tents, clothing, scientific equipment, tools, and other supplies.
Alex Simms is a sedimentologist interested in studying the sea level change that has occurred over the past few thousand years. To study ancient coastlines in Antarctica, Simms has brought a small team — five people including himself — to camp on Joinville Island, an uninhabited, windy outcropping located on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Over the past week, as we’ve traveled from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station to Joinville Island, we’ve enjoyed getting to know Alex and the rest of the geology team, and there is no question that we will help them set up their field camp. That's one of the golden rules of working in Antarctica — be kind, courteous, and help out whenever you can.
But also we can’t start doing our science until the geo team, and all their stuff, is off the ship.
This is the challenge: all 2,000 pounds of gear and supplies has to be moved from the ship to a zodiac boat, then dropped off on the beach, then trekked, over rocky terrain, a mile inland. It will require dozens of trips, for both the zodiac and the people walking back and forth from the beach to the site.
We unload from the zodiac and survey the stuff that has already been piled on the beach — dry bags full of tents, pelican cases full of sensitive equipment, and buckets full of tools. Stoked on the physicality of the task at hand, I pick up two buckets full of steel tent stakes. I carry them about 200 yards, then pause to rest where some other supplies have been dropped.
“How are you carrying both of those?” asks a flabbergasted marine technician.
Looking down at the buckets, I think this is why I go to the gym. Each of these things is at least 30 or 40 pounds — I’m carrying the equivalent of three quarters of my body weight. And if I wasn't doing this on an island in Antarctica, I'd probably be doing something similar with my friends at the climbing gym back in North Carolina. We often organize group workouts that include (but are not limited to) endless sets of burpies, weighted pull-ups, dead hangs, and push-up pyramids.
After the buckets, I pick up a 20 pound pelican case and carry it to camp. Easy. But the next challenge is another doozy. In an attempt to haul as much stuff as possible at one time, KC, Jeremy, and the Daves have created an interesting rig. Three plastic sleds, stacked with bags of supplies and six wooden platform bases. While three of the guys pull, Jeremy pushes. I throw the case I’m carrying on top of the load and bend down to help Jeremy push.
Altogether, it must be a couple hundred pounds. Even with three people pulling, and two of us pushing, we only make it about 20 yards before everyone is winded. We all cope with the strain differently. Dave Johnston maintains a hilarious tongue-in-cheek commentary, while KC is smiling and Jeremy is laughing. Dave Cade sighs and says, "it's going to take four days to move all this stuff!" I tell the guys about my friends at the climbing gym.
"I wish they were here right now actually," I say. "They'd be a huge help."
"Yeah," KC says. "We need your climbing friends and about 10 NFL players and then this would only take an hour."
Eight hours later, with more than 20 people on the job, we've moved just over half the gear.
At the end of the day, we eat dinner on the ship. As we cram food into our mouths, Cara walks in and asks for volunteers to make another trip. KC and I immediately raise our hands. Thirty minutes later, nine of us pile back into the zodiac to make one more haul before it gets dark.
The wind is much stronger now, and as we pull our sleds across the jagged rocks directly into it, every step requires enormous effort. I think of the early Antarctic explorers (and even the extreme adventurers of today) who pull sleds across hundreds of miles of Antarctic tundra and marvel at their strength and endurance.
The weather continues to deteriorate overnight and the next morning we wake up to 60 knot winds, which means no one is going to the island. We watch the whitecaps whip across the surface of the water, stretching our sore shoulders and working on our laptops. Perhaps it’s a good thing the weather isn't cooperating right now. Yet each minute we have to wait on the weather means less time for field work.
When the winds finally die down that evening, we step onto the bow of the ship to photograph a beautiful sunset while the marine techs head to the island to survey the damage. Two hours later, we get news that the tents are still standing, but half of the kitchen tent has collapsed.
Fortunately, we have an abundance of resources aboard the LMG, including our experienced Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) team members.
Being strong and tough is only one part of the equation for doing this type of work well, and I admire the breadth of skills and readiness to take on any task demonstrated by the marine technicians. Reading wind patterns, tying knots – even sewing – are all crucial skill sets for setting up a field camp at the bottom of the world.
By lunchtime on Sunday, the field camp is finally ready, and we bid farewell to the geology team. For the next 12 days, as they hunt for rocks, and we search for whales, we'll maintain radio contact with them.
As we sail south that evening, Eric, the Marine Project Coordinator from ASC, sends out an email that sums up exactly how much man-power it took to get the camp set up.
Just wanted to send a quick thanks to everyone for all the hard work on the field camp. Big thanks to all the cargo haulers on the beach, the tent stake diggers and tent setter-uppers, the zodiac operators and fixers of tent poles, the ABs with cargo shuffling and knuckle crane ops, the engine room for welding the broken tent “spider”, the LMG bridge for great support during all the ops and the galley for sending out lunches today (and providing excellent food throughout).
The best part? We get to do it all over again (in reverse) when we pick up the geo team seven days from now.
Curious about the blog title? A pagophile is any living organism that thrives in ice. Pago is a word of Greek origin, meaning cold, frost, freezing; fixed or hardened.