Friday, January 30, 2009

Another Crevassing Day

“Let’s go crevassing again” (sung to the tune of “Let’s do the time warp again” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) repeated merrily in my head as I hiked up the glacier one more time, excited to have a second opportunity to record inside an Antarctic crevasse. Having had some technical difficulties on our first expedition (see Crevassing Day January 27th below) due to an abundance of dripping icicles that made hanging inside the crevasse strongly resemble taking a shower, this time I was hoping to find a crack in the ice that might be a bit drier.

Theoretically such a crevasse would be wider and/or have walls that were less overhanging. Given that it was the middle of the Antarctic summer and we were headed up a melting glacier in a part of the world where the climate is getting markedly warmer and wetter, I knew it was a bit silly to hope for a dry crevasse. However, maybe we could find one in which the weather was more like intermittent sprinkles than a heavy downpour. On our previous trip I had heard some amazing sounds down inside the ice, but had been unable to record them properly. Now I had another chance, and I was thrilled.
Paul and Alden from Palmer’s Glacier Search and Rescue team accompanied Oona and myself, as we left the safe area of the glacier. Our path led out into a maze of giant cracks which terminate in a chaotic ice cliff where house-sized blocks of ice periodically fall off into the sea. Fortunately we were not going that far. The plan was to stay safely near the periphery of the maze and search for a nice wide crack into which Oona and I could descend.
As our route intersected with each new crevasse we cautiously probed it's edges. Often the real extent of a crevasse is concealed by snow on the glacier's surface and you cannot tell where the solid ice ends and a gaping maw begins without literally feeling the edge, by poking down into the snow with your ice ax. Once we ascertained where it was safe to step, we peered over the lip to see if it might be an inviting place in which to lower a composer and an artist. If it wasn't, then we carefully stepped or leaped across and continued on. After about half an hour we found a new crevasse that was big enough to explore.
This crack was about the same width as the one we had entered previously, but the walls were more parallel and it looked deeper, much deeper. Paul lowered me in first and as my descent sent snow and ice into the abyss I heard it bouncing and echoing for a surprisingly long time. Looking past my boots I could see down at least 50 feet, but I could hear that things were falling significantly further. Though there were some drops of water coming down inside this blue portal, it was much less drippy than our first crevasse. I maneuvered into a position that shielded my equipment from most of the wetness and settled in to listen and play.
First I just recorded the sound of the water drips. Then I started playing around with some nearby icicles. I had brought a pair of superball mallets down with me and as I cautiously tapped them against the icicles lovely clear pitches emerged. I was reminded of stories I had heard of people playing music on stalactites in limestone caves. Apparently in the past this has been quite a tourist attraction in some caves. However, sometimes the vibrations from the music caused the stalactites to break off. This was terrible because these mineral deposits take hundreds of years to form, and thus are virtually irreplaceable. Unfortunately I discovered that the same thing tended to happen with icicles (although they are a much more renewable resource). Just as I would start to get a nice resonant tone from one it tended to fracture and then fall, shattering in the icy depths beneath me (listen to an example here). This made me quite sad as, though I knew they would grow back in a few days, I hated the fact that I was destroying the icicles by playing them. Thus I soon gave up striking the icicles and tried a few experiments with hydrophones in the ice walls instead. The results, however, were not interesting, and then it was time for Oona to join me in the crevasse.

Oona was lowered down about 20 feet away from me. As she decended I recorded the falling snow and ice that accompanied her. I enjoyed the sounds so much that I then asked Paul to knock down some more for me to record (here is what it sounds like). Although this was also a destructive sound, it was fascinating, and chaotically musical. I soothed my slightly guilty conscience with thoughts of how quickly the hanging ice would be replaced, and the knowledge that this whole section of the glacier was melting away anyway.

It was great to look across within this beautiful, secret, cold, blue world and see my friend Oona. Most people will never experience the inside of a crevasse, or if they do it is alone and under much more dire circumstances. I felt very lucky to be there in pursuit of music and to be able to share the experience with another artist.

All of a sudden, after more than an hour inside the ice, I realized how cold and wet I had become. Despite my best efforts, my field recorder and camera had water pooling on them. Frankly I was amazed they were both still working and had not shorted out long ago. Also, an inconveniently placed drip had been slowly soaking my underwear for some time and now I really was quite chilled. It was time to ascend. With only a couple of days left at Palmer I knew this would be my last Antarctic crevassing foray, but I had managed to record some good sounds this time so I was content to go. I said a silent farewell to the icicles and mysterious depths and climbed to the surface.


  1. amazing, beautiful sounds in the crevasse. moments later I heard a homeless person rattling and clanking bottles in the alley...strangely compatible with your crashing icicles.

  2. I found your website by accident and find it very interesting! I'm sitting here listening to the interesting sounds with my 80 yr. old Dad who is an old gold miner. He wants me to tell you that instead of calling it "drips", might want to know that the old miners of the past used to call the sound made in mining caves, from water dripping off of ceilings into puddles, was called a "swallet". :-) Also, the sound made in caves when the earth would move would often be called "tommy-knockers". It was often said "The tommy-knockers are calling.", meaning something like, ghosts of the earth.