Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Crevassing Day

Here at Palmer Station today was Crevassing Day. This is a special holiday in which artists are lowered inside an Antarctic crevasse in celebration of the internal sounds of glaciers and the deeper hues of blue. It is also traditional to mix in a little ice climbing and icicle banging to help cultivate a festive mood. Here’s how we observed Crevassing Day in our part of the world…

Oona and I had both wanted to descend into a crevasse as part of our projects here in Antarctica. I wanted to try recording literally inside the glacier and Oona was interested in seeing the shapes, layers and colors within the ice. A few days ago members of Palmer’s GSAR (Glacier Search and Rescue) team scouted out a likely crevasse for us to visit. When they returned from their foray wearing huge smiles, even though they had completely missed dinner, I knew we were in for something special.

This morning began like all others here: with a look out our bedroom window at current weather conditions, breakfast, and then the ritual reading of the day’s official forecast. The sun was shining, I could see the peaks on the horizon (always a good sign), and it wasn't supposed to rain until late afternoon. After monitoring the wind speed for a bit we got the go ahead from Paul, the head of GSAR. Crevassing Day was on.

Four of us hiked up the glacier to the edge of the flagged safe zone, and then donned our climbing harnesses and tied in as a rope team for the short trip out to the crevasse (you must travel roped together across any section of glacier that might contain hidden crevasses so that if someone falls in their teammates can catch them and help extricate them). Once in the safe zone, that had been probed and marked in advance by GSAR, we were free to unrope and prepare for the day's adventure. Andy set up anchors in the ice and cleared the lip of the crevasse of extra snow and ice that might fall on us, while Paul helped Oona get ready to be lowered inside her first crevasse.

Once she was a few feet down Oona kept mentioning how wet it was in there, and sure enough, as I peered over the lip, I could see hundreds of dripping icicles. This was not like any crevasse I had visited previously on mountaineering trips up frozen peaks. This was an ornate blue cavern with more than a passing resemblance to a limestone cave full of stalactites. Wow. And accompanying this elaborate visual display were the sounds of a multitude of water drops falling into the depths of the glacier. This crevasse didn't look like much from the outside, just a gap in the snow, but it contained a whole other world.

Oona shot photographs in the "rain" and attempted a drawing on waterproof paper. Then she was prussiking up the rope and it was my turn to descend.

First I thought I'd try recording the drips while hanging in my harness just over the lip of the crevasse, but above most of the deluge, so as to keep my equipment dry as long as possible. Then I asked Andy to try kicking some snow and ice over the edge. It was great to hear the echos and spatial movements of the falling matter and pieces of ice sounded like a xylophone as they bounced off giant icicles on the way down.

Emboldened by these experiments I decided to try recording deeper, even though the water was really coming down in there. I knew I'd be taking a risk pulling out several thousand dollars worth of recording equipment while hanging on a rope in the "rain", but I couldn't resist. At about 25 feet down I came to rest on a sloping ledge and put an ice screw into the wall on which to hang my backpack full of gear. I pulled out my condenser microphones (somewhat shielded from the water inside a windscreen), recorded more dripping, and then started tapping some of the giant icicles that surrounded me with my ice ax. Just as I was starting to get a feeling for how I might improvise something interesting on the icicles the melodic feed coming from my mics was overtaken by a horrible static. It turns out water had gotten inside my cable and shorted out the phantom power coming from my recorder. I quickly turned everything off and put my soggy mics back in the pack.

Word came down from above that the weather was worsening on the surface and it would soon be time to go. I was now really soaked, and pretty concerned about my equipment, but I thought I'd just try one more quick experiment before calling it quits. I wanted to embed my hydrophones in the ice walls and then try playing the ice. I made a few attempts to mount the hydrophones, but they just kept sliding out. Hmm, ice is really slippery. Meanwhile more and more water was coming down. Small streams of it were draining off my helmet and a few drops had made their way inside the bag holding my field recorder. It was clearly time to stop for the day, leave this azure wonderland, and return to the station where dry clothes, fresh cookies and hot drinks awaited us. Perhaps there will be a chance to visit the crevasse one more time before we leave and I can try recording again on a colder, drier day...
Thanks to Paul and Andy for facilitating Crevassing Day, and to Oona for the last three photos in this post.


  1. Hi Cheryl!! Sending you lightbeams and warmth from California-land. Been sharing your URL with many of my friends who have been "ooooing" and "ahhhhing" as they've read your adventures.


    Miss ya, and you are amazing!

  2. Anything I might say would be a variety of "Wow!!!"

    You are LUCKY!

  3. Wow, that is so amazing! Please go back!!!