One of Maggie’s and my favorite recreational activities at Palmer is cross country skiing on the glacier that rises behind the station. During much of the summer precipitation falls as rain more often than snow and there is little or no snow over the rough glacial ice. So skiing is not possible. Now that we are headed into the austral autumn, snow is falling more often. But here in the "banana belt of Antarctica" it still doesn’t stick around all that long this time of year because of winds blowing it away and because we still are getting rain sometimes that melts it.
Last year it was late April before there was enough snow on the glacier to ski. That is a little later than normal and we have been hoping to get out sooner this year. I’ve been hoping that particularly since I have to leave on a the ship that brings Jim and Bill next week (I have only a week and a half left on station!). I was originally supposed to go out in late April but because of a change in the ship schedules, I have to leave sooner than I’d like. So I’ve been wondering if I’d get to ski at all.
This past Saturday was a day of winds just a bit too high for us to go out in the boats alternating with calmer periods but with snow falling heavily enough to make visibility very low (and too low to stray far from station in a boat). So we stayed in and didn’t try to get out diving. We’d had a bit of snow over the preceding couple days too and so Maggie and I thought that there might just be enough snow to ski on the glacier.
Although Maggie and I probably have one of if not the most extensive collections of cross country skis in the entire Birmingham metropolitan area back in our garage in Pelham, none of them are designed for backcountry or glacier skiing. Most are for skiing with one of two different techniques on machine-groomed ski trails and a few are for skiing "off trail" but in the relatively flat woods of the midwest where we lived for a few years before moving to Birmingham.
Both the basic ski techniques I mentioned are used on groomed ski area trails and Maggie and I both enjoy each when we have the chance to. One is called skating and is usually confined to those groomed trails. It is kind of like rollerblading on skis and lots of fun. However, when I’ve been a McMurdo Station, Antarctica, I’ve taken skate skis with me and had a great time skating on the flattened, snowy area next to a "road" that goes out over 10 feet of ice covering the ocean to a seasonal "airport" used for the transport planes that get folks in and out of that station. A huge snow blower clears snow off the ice so that wheeled vehicles can drive out (with the sea ice as their "pavement") and the strip along the road where the snow is blown to is fine for ski skating. But skiing at Palmer is more like what someone at home would call "backcountry skiing."
The only ski technique one uses in backcountry style skiing is known as "classic" or "diagonal stride" and involves shifting all weight onto one ski so that it bites into the snow all the way across the width of the ski, which allows you to push (called "kicking") yourself forward. There is either snow-gripping wax or a fish-scale-like pattern in the middle of the skis (in the area under your foot). The wax or pattern grips the snow when all your weight presses it onto the snow but the ski flexes up so that the wax or pattern sets up off the snow when not completely weighted, allowing the ski to glide over the snow. That is how one moves forward: shifting weight while kicking and gliding.
Maggie and I both have heavy, backcountry ski boots that we bring down but otherwise we use the station’s skis and poles. The skis have metal edges which make turning easier in the more icy sections than with the lighter weight gear we have at home. They are much heavier than skis we are used to (we have yet to ski in Birmingham but we do take a cross country ski vacation every December) although as backcountry skis go, they are on the lighter side. Nonetheless, they are just fine for skiing on a glacier in Antarctica.
Normally Saturday afternoons are when everyone pitches in and helps clean up the station (called "house mouse"). But we did that on Friday instead because the staff had a two day weekend (having both Saturday and Sunday off is a real treat for the station staff). So about 2 PM, Maggie and I took a break from work and headed out skiing.
We signed out of station (so that they’d know we were away if a fire or other emergency had happened) and headed over to the GWR (Garage, Warehouse, Recreation) building to get skis. Then we walked out into the "backyard" on our way to the glacier.
The backyard is a rock and small bolder field that is between the station and glacier. It is a nice area just to walk around in as well as the place where Maggie sleeps out in her bivy sack and sleeping bag many nights. Later in the year, folks will be able to ski out through it but we knew that there wasn’t going to be enough snow to do that (all the exposed rocks would have wrecked the ski bottoms). So we put our skis over our shoulders and walked.
Unfortunately, the glacier hadn’t held as much snow as we’d expected. There wasn’t enough snow to ski most of the way up. The glacier is rougher near the bottom and smooths out somewhat towards the top. The top (which we call the "piedmont") really isn’t flat but is only a slight up or down hill depending on which way you are going. We were mostly, but not quite to the piedmont when we decided that there was enough snow to ski on. So we put those boards on our feet and continued up. Skiing at last!
But, skiing within limits. There wasn’t enough snow to even cover the flatter area on top. As I mentioned, the ice is less rough on the piedmont than below but still has several inches of relief. There was snow in the depressions, which run at angles this way and that, so we kept our skis in those areas as much as possible, crossing the mini, snowless "ridges" as little as possible.
Even within those confines, and even though the conditions within them were far from ideal, it was still wonderful to be on skis! For me, regardless of the technique the joy of cross country skiing is gliding over the snow and the feeling of self-powered glide is particularly special. That is not to say that I don’t mind having gravity’s assistance with gliding down. But, that assistance comes from the potential energy that I stored on the way up. Self-powered heaven on snow (and ice): kicking and gliding, kicking and gliding... A real joy!
If we’d known that there was so little snow, we probably would not have taken off from the lab to ski. But truth be told, we still had a good time. As we normally do when we get to the top of the glacier, we ski back and forth, across and down, taking advantage of the slight down hills in one direction and powering up the slight uphills in the other. When we felt like we really should be getting back, we very cautiously headed back down into the rougher and steeper areas. We skied a little further down than we had up but still took our skis off and walked the lower part of the glacier and the back yard.
Odds are that will be my only antarctic ski on this trip. But even though it wasn’t ideal, it was a great break from the lab and office. And another great antarctic memory...