Surge Time at the Bottom of the Earth

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, March 1995

Surge Time at the Bottom of the Earth

Chasing deep history in Antarctica, Genesis in reverse
By Edward Hoagland

As our stubby, white, 2,000-ton ship, the Professor Molchanov, passed the Gibraltarlike bulk of Cape Horn, the seas flexed in a whimsical, hard-slamming rumpus, like Goliath on a binge. The horizon tilted precipitously, and we experienced double gravity in alternation with weightlessness every ten seconds or so. A piercing sun came up soon after 3 A.M. The purple sea went glinty gray, pitching us about like an unhinged carousel.

"Rock and roll," Chuck Cross, our expedition leader, called it. And Greg Myer, our birding guide, also a Californian, said the rough handling we could get from this Drake Passage across the fabled Southern Ocean was how we'd "earn Antarctica." Sometimes tourists complain that they can't just fly from Tierra del Fuego and skip the nausea of the Screaming Fifties, but another of our lecturers -- as these young chip-on-the-shoulder escorts who accompany trippers to far-flung spots are called -- was a spirited Brazilian, Suzana d'Oliveira, and she said she had watched as 22 of her tourists had died in a crash at Puerto William, the short Chilean airstrip on the Beagle Channel. Their charter plane couldn't stop on the tarmac and slid into the water like a rocking horse. At the front, the food cart blocked one exit and an emergency chute inflated too soon at the other. She had flown in earlier "with the baggage and Germans," and being a vigorous, resourceful woman, she ran, swam, and climbed up onto the wing and pounded on the chute even as her customers were drowning inside.

From the poop deck I watched giant petrels kiting in the wind and a wandering albatross sailing tirelessly on locked wings. An hourglass dolphin porpoised through the water, and two rockhopper penguins were doing the same. I remembered my first intercontinental sea voyage, from Manhattan to Lisbon and Palermo on my honeymoon in 1960.

The ship creaked. The Russian crew, ice-hardened, was from Murmansk, though Sergey, the sallow-skinned radioman, was Belarusian in ethnicity, and Dali, the bartender, was Georgian -- a very angry Georgian because she'd been at home visiting her family during the bitter civil fighting four months before in Sukhumi. Shells had hit her house, her brother had been killed in the battle, and Dali had run through forests and brambles to save her life, collecting bruises she could show me still. I teased Gennadîy Nikitin, the captain, that the Professor Molchanov (named for a meteorologist murdered by the Soviet police during the siege of Leningrad) was togged out like a spy ship because of the electronics with which it did Arctic research when not ferrying rich Americans for convertible currency. His complexity pleased me -- a democrat whose father had spent 23 years in Siberia for political incorrectness but who, when talk turned to rebuilding the new Russia, quoted Genghis Khan.

We travel partly to define ourselves and flesh out who we are, or else perhaps to try to fulfill an authentic passion (icebergs, flamenco, Alfred Sisley, whatever it is), or to heal a central puzzlement, a grief, or a defeat, bursting a chrysalis that has held us back so we can begin anew. This is ambitious, exhausting travel, after a divorce or death, but other people travel to try to shore up their sense of domesticity, seeking a frisson of physical danger to reassure themselves that they're still spry while amassing a secret store of shimmering memories to draw upon when immersed back home. Still others simply want to sound more interesting when asked where they've been.

The waves were like broncos. But then, amidst coruscating sunshine, two finback whales emerged like sudden embolisms, rolling and blowing. The spray thrown up by our bow created falling rainbows. I was glad to sleep in bouts of a couple of hours, so as to miss less, going up on deck in between. My dreams were scary ones, as if to acknowledge that we were on our way to the White Continent, not Lisbon, and yet they weren't about tides or ice or sloshing lifeboats. Instead they went back to my late adolescence and the circus tigers I had cared for in a summer job. Hip-high and pungent, they stalked the floor so close to me their bristling whiskers brushed my arm; the hair in the small of my back was electrified. Next, in the way dreams have, a surreal telescoping of 40 years occurred, to the poignant, corrosive death of my marriage and my wife's later losing struggle with cancer, whose final stages I nevertheless witnessed from beside her bed. Not all of this, of course; but a swift unnerving silhouette of her in anger, ill health, and distress that packed a wallop and sent me up to walk the deck. I'd had a recent siege of semiblindness too, and my surgeon had told me to see whatever of the world I wanted to before my difficulties recurred.

So here I was, gorging my eyes on the slanting, kiting birds, the flux of black geometric waves in endless mad triangles, and the first drifting bergs -- absurdist cubes, sliced with a cake knife and white as snow. When on the open deck, I treated the rail in the rather affectionate, gingerly manner I'd perfected for tigers, staying a bit out of reach, admiring the glistening sea without leaning over the maw of the waves. Ever since I was 15 and went on a voyage with my father, sailing from Bayonne, New Jersey, to Galveston, Texas, on an Esso oil tanker, I've had a kind of "secret sharer" who wants to slide inconspicuously over the side of a ship or the edge of a cliff. Unlike in the Conrad novel, he never does, so I've never been rid of him. An overriding impulse sustained for just a moment might do it, and in Antarctic waters the act would be irreversible; you wouldn't bob up to wave an arm. This handicap now bored me, however, and I'd slip lightly along toward the enclosed bridge like a spectator, not hypnotized like the proverbial bird drawn to a snake. I was on this trip for keeps. If my mind skidded out of kilter in the next fortnight there was no sanatorium to check into, only the vertigo of the bucking wind, the slamming sea, the cryptic sky, the grisly bergs jostling each other in a slot between colliding banks of fog. And my mouth tasted of vomit, not majesty.

The pretty, flickering, brown-and-white birds known as pintado petrels materialized alongside us in numbers by the second day, swooping at the krill that our ship churned up. Also blue and Wilson's petrels and prions, fulmars, and black-browed albatrosses, lofting me with a jiggling gaiety, a certainty that I was in the right place. So often there's a disjunction between the sights one sees and the taste in one's mouth, like a scrumptious meal eaten across the table from dislikable people. In the shaving mirror in my cabin I was startled to discover that I had turned white-haired since my last ocean voyage, on the Bering Sea eight years before. Exhaustion, dysentery, an unshakable cough, or a lady-or-the-tiger sense of possibilities have gone with more than a few of my life's richer experiences, so it seemed natural to tiptoe alongside the shuddering rail while en route to the polar continent.

Wham-bam waves splashed over the bow, sloshing the bridge windows dramatically. We had a 200-degree, glassed-in view and drawers full of Soviet and British Admirality charts to pore over, plus the round radar scope that, when peered into, looked like a planetarium ceiling on which new icebergs began showing up like spatterings of stars or salt crystals. We heard occasional "growlers," chunks of floating pack ice, scraping noisily along our hull, and saw "bergy bits," which might stand a dozen feet out of the water, not heroic statuary like the genuine "tabular" icebergs. Flat-walled, flat-topped, and about a hundred feet high, these had calved off the Larsen Ice Shelf, hundreds of miles away in the Weddell Sea. Monumental constructions, sometimes castellated or jaggedly eroded, each was cut slightly differently, unevenly white, with seams of blue or platinum; a few had flipped over during a storm and had been scrubbed, top and bottom, by the waves. Their surfaces were marred by protuberances, tin-colored, leadcolored, which lent them an aura of mortality. Though hard as concrete, they weren't unearthly, uncompromising frozen cubes; they were now aging and could start to sing to our intuitions.

The Arctic, too, proffers this lavish plethora of white. But there are towns north of the Arctic Circle, and the Arctic has been inhabited for millennia by people, caribou, moose, musk oxen, big bears, white wolves, hares, lemmings, foxes. It's a country of myth and mysticism, anthropomorphic gods and mammalian dangers, whereas Antarctica, which sheared off from Australia as much as 85 million years ago, boasts a tumultuous landscape where moss and lichens are barely present and seabirds and sea creatures make fitful visits. The lore instead is top-heavy with breast-beating European explorers, and lately 26 nations have established about 50 research stations for human occupancy, laying claim to zones of influence, should the continent's mineral resources be opened to exploitation.

We were well within the winter rim of pack ice, which waxes and wanes hundreds of miles each year, and thus sailing on borrowed time. Perhaps because I'm a professor myself, my thoughts kept straying to our namesake professor, shot in the head as he lay in shackles in the snow outside Leningrad. I couldn't reconstruct how weakened by hunger and beatings he may have been, or whether he had been arrested in a general roundup of intellectuals or targeted because he was a scientist of repute who had attended prewar international conferences, amassed a file of correspondence, and participated with colleagues in some of the pioneering weather flights of the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin.

"He was shotten. He got died," Gennadîy, our captain, said, remembering his own father's tale of a forced march from the Ural Mountains, where their family had been rich landowners, to northwestern Siberia -- the boy was 11, accompanied by his grandmother. In his years in arctic Siberia he became a construction supervisor of such acumen that he won permission to move to Murmansk and build shipyards there, where he married. Gennadîy, born after World War II, enrolled in the naval academy at 17 and served off Cape Canaveral in Florida waters, with many stops in Cuba and trips to other client states, such as Angola and Guinea-Bissau, and to Eastern Europe. He was a quick study at learning English, as he must have been at maritime science to become a captain so soon, and later in our voyage he asked if I would help him translate a family memoir he was writing. His mother lived in a three-room cabin on a dab of their old property in the Urals, where, unmarried, he spent his leaves. Unassuming, almost bashful, though the bashfulness was his form of civility with these American guests, he told me that a psychological "sickness" had overwhelmed the Russian people. Even the educated were reading trash to distract themselves from the collapse of their country and "bury their heads in the sand." He himself was happier at the ends of the earth, meeting Americans, seeing the terrain, and reading the Russian classics in his cabin, though he didn't yet know Nabokov and said he thought writers like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were "too angry." His gently gloved, tentative ironies would remind me of a favorite teacher I had had, but then he'd startle me with a quotation from Alexander the Great or a remark about women when I asked if he were married. "Women are like a ship," he said. "They may look different, but they all work the same."

Two mornings south of Cape Horn, and using the rubber, outboard-driven minicraft known as Zodiacs, we landed on a small, shingly ironstone beach on a steep slope of Joinville Island, a tip of the submerged Andes just off the Antarctic Peninsula. Boulder gravel lay on the remnant ice just above us, with cleaner swatches of bright, white snow left by the miniature slides that had occurred in the summer thaw. A colony of gentoo penguins was nesting here, several hundred of them emitting a steady racket. They were jockeying with and encouraging each other, yet the space they had, bare of snow, was so very limited that they seemed terribly vulnerable. Gentoos are the "mellowest" species of penguins, Greg Myer said, and though obviously uneasy, they were not panicked by the arrival of 30 of us on their tiny beach. Penguins' predators are leopard seals and killer whales, which hunt them in the water, as well as ravenlike birds called skuas that cruise overhead to steal their eggs or seize their chicks. Thus they have no instinctive reason to fear an apparition approaching on foot during the relatively brief period of the year when they are beached.

I sat down, nevertheless, to be stationary in the cheek-by-jowl congestion on this sparse scoop of stony land. In fact I disapproved of our being on Joinville at all, now that I was here; it was too small for the penguins to be subjected to a crowd of people -- we had all the rest of the world. Yet I was excited to be thrust among my first penguins in Antarctica, as if thousands of preceding millennia hadn't yet happened. The island rattled with subsurface meltwater, diverse rocky trickles, and a spindly waterfall. Where moisture sheltered minute growths of moss, it was faintly green, but mostly the pitches and slopes were dirty-white, cut by rust-colored outcroppings or scree. By the penguins' roosts you could see lightish red stains in the snow from krill in the birds' guano. Krill are the inchlong crustaceans that during the sun-shot January summer grow in extraordinary masses underwater, weighing as much as 30 pounds per cubic yard.

My pity for the penguins was not based on there being any great shortage of them. The massacre of most of the earth's krill-eating whales has been a boon to penguins because of the new abundance of food. The chicks were getting big by now -- January 17 -- astir and standing up, although still a fuzzy, infantile gray. The parents, besides the gabbly quarreling they did over nest pebbles with neighbor pairs, were also engaged in the long grind of waddling down to the water and uphill again, fetching food in their crops. Penguins can't fly and aren't made for walking, so it's touching to watch them struggle along in their pelagic camouflage. The dynamics are unforgiving because a colony must achieve a critical mass to succeed. It must be densely populated for the chicks to survive the skuas' sneaky, hawklike dives from different angles out of the sky -- the outer ring of nests suffers plenty of losses anyway -- and yet if the colony is large and crowded enough to foil the skuas, the adult penguins must swim farther and farther out from shore to capture their share of food and then climb the slope laboriously when they return. And because leopard seals wait for them out in the waves, some never do come back. The second parent, waiting at the nest for its turn to eat, eventually must leave if it is not to starve, and the skuas swoop and tear at the single chick left behind.

I knew some book biology, but as I sat on a rock trying to ignore the fact that 30 other tourists around me were in search of a vaguely similar epiphany, I was reaching for a concordance with penguin time, ocean time, weather time, which is not digitized like ours, but goes in surges. Subsistence cultures live in surges, too -- sleep, eat, and exert themselves in what we might define as binges -- not pacing themselves by a metronome as we do. In seeking what the biologist Edward O. Wilson has called deep history, we fugue back however far we can from clockwork timing to something a little bit like surge time. Hard to do. I can accomplish it for ten or 20 minutes if I try.

One of my fellow passengers had endeared himself to me on the first day -- on the airport bus in Buenos Aires -- by taking off his tramping hat to show me how his dog drank out of it on their hiking trips in Colorado. He was a retired officer type and track coach who ran marathons, climbed mountains, and ran up Pikes Peak annually; indeed he had won an Olympic bronze medal as a young man, I learned later, and not from him.

There was also a retired political science professor from Michigan: matter of fact, ironic, decent, and a string bean, well up on his reading. And a fiftyish woman in the video business, with what she said were marital problems and a somewhat anxious, haunting face, whose passion for beauty and adventure warred with her vulnerability to seasickness and other frailties. Also a likable young securities lawyer from Toronto, not yet formed or crystallized by marriage, as you had the sense he'd soon be. And a couple of travel agents from San Diego, husband and wife. The husband's tangled head of hair and fiercely bushy, jutting beard looked more like a sea captain's than any real sea captain's I have ever known. And a psychotherapist from the Rockies with an extraordinarily sensitive face who read airport novels on the bridge as we passed much of the best Antarctic scenery; a Clorox chemist; a power company president; a Boston banker; and a German chemical engineer who worked for Bayer in Cologne and told me he had visited 60 countries in 11 years of off-time rambling. Also a sales clerk from Chicago who had just lost her job and consequently had money worries, but talked most often of the great love of her life, who had flown over the Hump in the Himalayas during World War II (it turned out that our retired professor had been a landing officer at an airfield there), and was in frank search of revelation on this journey, such as the organizers of this cruise had already facilitated for her on rafting trips down the Bío-Bío in Chile and the Tatshenshini in southeast Alaska. She was soon my favorite chum, along with the Toronto lawyer, the video woman, the professor, and a youngish Tasmanian environmentalist who was studying our "impact."

Mountain Travel - Sobek regards itself as the granddaddy of adventure companies, though I liked to tease them by saying that they were really just New Age White Hunters because of the spiritual spin that they attempt to instill on their trips. Lynn Cross, director of polar operations and our official escort, whose husband, Chuck, was our expedition leader, wasn't convinced. A professor's daughter from Illinois, she had gone to bartending school after attending college and spent the next seven years in the bar business before getting thoroughly tired of talking with people "who could never remember the next day what they'd said" and gravitating into travel as a livelihood instead. Now 40, she still had a wiry, waiflike look, like so many of the women who labor over the books in the back rooms of bars, emerging now and then into the Antarctica of drunks and misanthropes and ne'er-do-wells with a shyly maternal or authoritative smile, and she had retained that patient, slightly pedantic manner in handling tourists that works so well with saloon buffoons and is also vaguely reminiscent of her college major -- early childhood studies -- staring persuasively at people who don't at first cooperate.

Chuck was 52, his marriage to Lynn recent, and it appeared to be a complementary one. Chuck was chunky, his beard and hair a mix of black and gray, and rather bleak of face except where his thick eyeglasses managed to magnify his eyes enough to show their inner vulnerability. A mountaineer with what he summed up as "20 years of climbing and then 20 years of skiing" behind him, he lurched when he walked, as if the level ground were not his native milieu and he were attempting to push off from it. Chuck's reserve was such that I couldn't inquire whether, like many climbers I have known, he had been markedly singed at some point and climbed to get up, up and away, but he did tell me, rocking on his feet, that lately he was growing more content to gaze at a height of land without immediately beginning to scheme how he could get himself on top of it.

As for the Russians, they seemed to be groping for a national persona from which they could derive some decent pride, while winning a livelihood by transporting Americans -- a people so supremely confident that they must seek an artificial challenge -- in civilized comfort into the utmost wilds. The captain was a subtle man, a thinker on such matters; and the second and third mates, Alexandr Savchenko and Evgeníy Levakov, in nice American sweaters, with European facial features, looked like they were from Minneapolis. Evgeníy said he'd seen duty as a paratrooper in Kazakhstan during his military tour and was a father, routing his pay of $10 per day directly home.

The first mate, Slava Trukhanov, was a different sort, squat and bulky, a phlegmatically forceful Siberian with a lowish brow, a sloppy sweatshirt, and the look of one of Genghis Khan's troop commanders. He was a competent seaman, had served on a minesweeper, and had quickly picked up tourist English in this new posting, but he had little curiosity to use it, preferring to gaze flatly at the quiltwork of the sea or at his panels of instruments. Because of my love for Alaska and my eight visits there, I've sometimes flattered myself that, had I been a Muscovite writer exiled to Siberia, I might have survived better than some Russian intellectuals did. So I took our Slava to be the mayor of the Siberian village whose boundaries I was restricted to for purposes of this fantasy. And by watching him, I found him not too bad: certainly not a bad mate to the sailors, and we had one American he took a liking to. This was an Arizonan who ran rafts professionally down American, Siberian, and African rivers, a kind, burly man, thirtyish, now beginning to worry about what kind of conventional career he might switch to. Slava took him down to watch Russian movies in the mess room and would impulsively walk over to him like an older brother to rub his wiry mop of hair and ask when he was going to get married and start a family like a good guy.

En route to Paulet Island, just east of Joinville, we saw white icebergs that turned shark-blue underneath, and flat little floes that were peppered with resting black penguins -- perhaps in the company of an eight-foot leopard seal, pale as a spotted ghost and sleeping off its last meal of another penguin it had caught in a desperate, spiraling chase underwater.

Paulet is a rookery for about 600,000 Adélie penguins, named for the wife of French explorer Admiral Jules Sebastian César Dumet d'Urville. Spiry yet already snowless, Paulet boasted a broad beach of slippery rocks and was marvelously raucous and smelly, seething with thousands of marching penguins and trickly with melting runoff stained by red and green guano. The waves soughed mildly compared with the noise of this metropolis, once you got 50 yards up from the strand. Also there were the remains of an emergency stone hut constructed in one week in March 1903 by 20 men led by the Norwegian whaler-explorer, Carl Anton Larsen, when their ship was crushed in the ice. They had roofed it with canvas, chinked it with guano, insulated it with sealskins, and killed and stacked 1,100 Adélies to last them as food until spring.

Though a few raffish skuas swooped overhead, this was a place of yeasty prosperity -- the penguins jubilantly stinky, bravely braying, and elegant, svelte blue-eyed shags (a kind of cormorant) nesting in shoals among them. Adélies, chinstrap penguins, and gentoos have staggered nesting schedules and dive to somewhat different depths, so that they dovetail more than compete for food. Rather in the same way that snakes surrendered their ability to walk, the better to crawl, penguins were flying birds that, as the climate changed -- not to jungle, but to ice -- gave up the capacity to fly in order to "fly" as they swim, peeling off in steep underwater tangents and barrel rolls, sideslipping, fishtailing, volplaning, and executing Immelmann turns, whereas under the canopy of the sky they either just rest or nest.

Our odd, alien party of penniless Murmansk seamen and moneyed Americans paying for adventure steamed gently south through the night to Seymour and Snow Hill Islands. The wind was too tough for the Zodiacs, but we saw lots of bachelor or bachelorette penguins, occasional gray-green crabeater seals or sea-gray Weddell seals, and a minke whale afloat on the Weddell Sea. The Weddell Sea is named for James Weddell, the British sealer who penetrated it in 1823, and it has a weighty feel. But penguins porpoised like frisbees out of the water, and we were in the midst of a Royal Navy of icebergs, pods and prides of them, next to which a whale looked the size of a mouse -- ice rather like starlight, in that it contained snow that had reached us long after being launched from the sky: huge telegrams from prehistory.

Reversing course and leaving the Weddell Sea, we passed through Erebus and Terror Gulf, named for warships that James Ross employed on his 1839 - 1843 voyage of exploration to the west side of the peninsula, while I dreamt in swift, jittery succession of crossing the Atlantic on a flimsy barge and then of being captured by Yahgan Indians in the Beagle Channel. The map of Antarctica is tagged clear around with an extravagant foliage of names. Every cape, inlet, plateau, or nunatak memorializes some ship's master or naturalist, whaler, or naval officer lucky enough to first clap his weather eye upon some piece of the continent. Patrons, sweethearts, and home counties are remembered in this cacophony of testosterone, names tasseling the chart of people who wanted to outlive death by flirting with it.

I live in a place -- New England -- where the volume and diversity of birdcalls declines more each spring. Fewer birds and species, a weaker chorus altogether, and that's part of why people shell out good sawbucks and frogskins to fly to Thailand, Tanzania, the Amazon, or Antarctica to see what is left. At home I hike into terrain so high that no real estate developer has been interested in it yet, so the idea that this icy expanse, half again as large as the United States, doesn't belong to anyone seems quite incredible. Frogskins and sawbucks were terms for money half a century ago, when I was very young and people still ate bullfrogs and sawed firewood. Greenbacks reminded them of frogs' skin and the X on a $10 bill of a sawhorse's legs, there were so many trees and frogs around. People might have a dried rabbit's foot attached to their key ring for good luck, and liked it if a rat snake took up residence under the house or bats invaded the belfry of the church up the street to keep the summer's flying-bug population down. Nature was a natural condition, not a churchless religion for its devotees, often twinned with jogging, meditation, vegetarianism, Prozac, and whatnot. I write on behalf of conservation, yet my early years of struggle were bankrolled by a small inheritance from my mother's mother, whose money had come from logging operations among the primeval Douglas firs of Gray's Harbor in Washington State. What would now seem like museum-piece trees funded my beginnings. And today, with our stomachs full of flounder, sole, and shrimp, our oil-based clothes, oxblood shoes, freeways, and ranch houses, all wrung from the earth, we still wear billions of frogskins on our backs and pay for our accoutrements with sawhorses.

We travelers were all pondering, not this, but the quandaries of grief or job changes, how it felt to get old and retire, our marriages or sexual chevaux-de-frise, our guilt and pain. The power company president from Iowa and I were thinking of our newly dead wives, and I had a friend in the final stages of Lou Gehrig's disease, and others who had died of hemorrhaging or carcinogenic catastrophes before having had their proper say in the world. Life is so precious while you have it and yet comes with a biblical itch, a kind of scabies patch on the back that never quits but keeps us going. Antarctica, on the other hand, is mostly entropic lifelessness, the edge of the void where the sweet rain that elsewhere wets our lips and keeps us alive is cruelly crystalline. That we trippers could so profoundly enjoy the lifeless sight of ice is part of the mysterious double dimension that makes us human. Life, however, had chafed us, and it was a tonic to stray so far.

Deception Island is a volcano's caldera, an aficionado's ultimate destination, if you start from Cape Horn in a steel-hulled ketch, make it across 600 miles of the world's roughest water, and zero in on the correct beachless blip of cinder-colored rock, tall and forbidding till you sail around it and -- presto -- spy an opening in the walls like a hidden slot, ten fathoms deep and wide enough for a cruise ship to slide inside. A splendid anchorage, a lake of seawater five miles long and three miles wide, awaits you there, with reddish-brown ashy beaches rising all the way to the crater's rim, where a few pocket glaciers strewn with recently exploded ash linger year-round. At the far end of this peaceful oval is a handsome bowl where the water is hundreds of fathoms deep, but emerging from a slit in the lip of the shore is a little hot spring where tourists take a dip that qualifies them to say that they swam in the waters of Antarctica.

Nathaniel Palmer, a Connecticut sealer who went on to run guns to Simón Bolívar in what is now the nation of Colombia and later helped invent the clipper ship and grew wealthy trading with China, discovered Deception Island in the spring of 1820. It became a safe harbor for sealers and soon a major whaling station, the rusting detritus of which remains in Whaler's Bay -- barracks, cinder heaps, hulks of machinery. But the austere symmetry of the crater is mesmerizing. It's a sanctuary where you might freeze and starve, but take quite a while to realize it. We walked about and met a couple of Spanish military men and some Argentinean sailors and scientists and the daring crew of a sailboat that had lost its mainsail underway from Buenos Aires. British and Chilean scientists sometimes camp here, too. During the last eruption, a quarter of a century ago, they'd fled with burning shirts, rescuing each other.

We cruised through the night to the Antarctic mainland south of Trinity Island, to a 13-person Argentinean research station called Primavera, perched like a couple of close and painted dots in a hook-shaped bay of purple water surmounted by shelving glaciers. It was stirringly sumptuous, steeply mountainous, with maybe 20 shades of ice or snow -- crystal and diamond and egg-white and custard and smothering surplice. The visible peaks hinted at others that must have lain beyond, while the rustly, inky water at our prow bobbed with dozens of floes that had just cracked off the sheer walls, illuminated by bright effervescent sunshine. On deck, a sort of prolonged quiet ecstasy possessed Gloomy Guses like Chuck and me, who had passed the half-century mark, with many prior adventures and perhaps too many memories to soak in new stuff properly. We were smiling like babies.

White can indeed be luxuriant, a color for weddings and royals and special people, of ermine, satin, and lilies, but also of tusks and hypothermia, the ghastly pallor of death. These little glaciers, with brown nunataks sticking out of them, calving blue and creamy bergs into the bay, had left one pitch of ground that thawed to bare scree every spring. The Argentinean scientists -- two women were in charge -- lived in red board buildings set on stilts above the permafrost amidst a gentoo colony and about 200 pairs of nesting skuas and some petrels and terns. Three months is not an intolerable stretch to be stranded here, said the middle-aged cook, who volunteers every year, and the radioman and the scientists agreed, referring jokingly to a doctor at another base who had made himself famous by setting fire to his camp in order to be airlifted out before his enlistment was up. The cook offered us a gourd of maté, and Chuck gave them their mail and a box of fresh vegetables. Then we passengers went putt-putting in two Zodiacs, scouting the bluish crumbling floes where crabeater seals were snoozing, their green-tea coats marred by two-foot scars that probably dated to when leopard seals had grabbed and tried to devour them as pups. The two leopard seals we drifted upon were more alert, and one chopped his big jaws at our approach, as a bear will when circled. Twice the length of a man, they had mouths three or four times as wide as a crabeater's. Their faces were grimly primitive-looking, not so much like a mammal's as like a python's or an ancient sea-reptile's.

Antarctica is a relic formed three or four hundred million years ago when the upper Paleozoic supercontinent Gondwanaland began breaking up into Africa, the subcontinent of India, South America, and then Australia, as Antarctica drifted south. The climate had been so temperate that marsupials may have walked to Australia from their North American origins by means of the landmass that now constitutes Antarctica. But the land bridges vanished 85 million years ago, and four million years ago the ice sheets started to coalesce -- presently 90 percent of the world's ice. Afterward there were no grasslands or forests for castaways to colonize, no Eskimos or Indians to glower now at tour ships coming to this appendage of the Andes.

From Primavera we sailed south through Gerlache Strait to Charlotte Bay, opposite Brabant Island. Our stalwart helmsman, Vasiliy, sported a T-shirt with BOSS stenciled on it, and the supple-faced boatswain, Vladimir, and the comely, skinny seaman who had been nicknamed Mr. Blue Eyes by some of our livelier passengers, wore other American giveaways. The sea had its disciplines and manifold moods that thankfully overrode the daily shortwave squawk of Moscow news. Glistering and platinum white or navy blue, it heaved and whammed, causing our ornithologist, Greg, to miss his newborn son, and our Boston bank loan officer to plan a trip to Slovenia, where she had ancestors, and Chuck to speak of his college mentor, an English teacher killed on Mount Everest ("a little death on a big mountain"). On this trip we figured more than half of us had snapped more than a thousand pictures apiece. It was like a disease, the bending, limping, gesticulating, viewfinding, lens-twiddling Saint Vitus' dance that people engaged in, as though their cameras were their children and the effort was to give them an emotional experience.

We did marvel at the blowing, fluking whales, trios and quartets, blue-black, bundled in the gray water. The youngest stood practically on their tails, "spy-hopping," as it's called, to get a gander at us. Two minkes escorted our bow around, once we reached Charlotte Bay, a gargantuan perspective of glacier mountains, bulging, buxom, and highly tiered. In this above-freezing weather, numerous fresh bergs had chunked off and clustered about us, church-size, stadium-size, and so innocent of the ocean thus far that they were still sharp-edged, sugar white, vanilla new. Charlotte Bay is one of the most beautiful sights on the face of the earth, equivalent to Lake Como or Mount McKinley, though crunchy with provisionality because you could so easily die here and the very profile of the ice is changing continually. White as virginity, white as a funeral, yet so crisp that I nearly wanted to embrace the snowscape and be set on shore to entrust the ice field with my infinitesimal life. Individually we fugued, in the midst of this starched summer scene so succinct and crystalline, although punctuated by cannon booms from glacier snouts and burst of katabatic wind. Despite the gelid breeze on deck, I grinned till my mouth ached.

Late the next day, we reached Lemaire Channel, at 65 degrees south. (The Antarctic Circle is at 66 degrees.) This was farther south than we'd got in the Weddell Sea and gorgelike enough to take your breath away. Toothy nunataks stuck up out of the cascading ice on Booth Island, which rose more than 6,500 feet above the water on our starboard side, while just to port the mainland mountains went higher, above vertiginous chutes and carpets of snow. I was at the bow a lot, submerging my fear of jumping over -- being too happy for that, and besides, such incongruous, gratuitous self-absorption struck me as absurd. People do kill themselves in beautiful settings, like the Golden Gate Bridge, but they probably have more compelling reasons, and the place lends itself as a sort of still life or stage set for gruesome self-dramatization. This was not San Francisco Bay, arty and softly lit for amateur theatricals. This was a primeval grindstone, epic as Genesis, or Genesis in reverse.

Death loses part of its sting (and therefore interest) when I am outdoors. But my wife, raised in the city, had been quite frightened in the out-of-doors. She was an indoor person -- it was of course part of our problem -- and even on her brief visits to the country place that we had, she seldom stepped outside. Talk was her life's blood, scintillating and warm of heart, so that our lack of a phone, which was a plus to me, was a hardship from her standpoint. And, indeed, when I think of other friends whom I miss and mourn, it wasn't nature they drew their faith from. It was great music and classic literature, or an Irish effusion of schmoozing, lovemaking, eating, a webwork of arcane loyalties. Curiosity and a bracing cynicism sustained some of them, or love of work, love of family, or an illicit angling for sex, or hoping for fame or money. I haven't seen the peace that passeth understanding prevail in many people after they've been told that they should prepare to die. Instead they naturally feel tearful, gnawing frustration -- their youngest child not yet out of college, their best book perhaps not yet written. And both to the precious child and in the projected book, so much left unsaid! My former wife, a writer, had been one of these.

Nature doesn't speak for you afterward, if you haven't had your say in the world, but nature, if you put your faith in it, dilutes that compulsion and other vanities. The wiggling gleam of flowing water, the romantic disk of the moon, the soothing enigma of starlight, the sight of wind-blown grass, whirling leaves, and large-crowned trees, the smell of woodsy soil, the extraordinary comfort -- emotional as well as physical -- delivered by sunshine are not dependent on other circumstances. They're free, they're blind to class and lucre. We may have different enthusiasms: I like to look at animals without attempting to shoot them, look up at mountains more than down from their summits. I love the densest cities, believing nature also encompasses human nature in Cairo, New York, or Bombay, whereas you may think great cities have become an eczema. But these distinctions are as immaterial to nature as whether or not you carry a swagger stick.

Lemaire Channel was our destination, a fitting turnaround. Winding through such savage scenery, I was mesmerized, my eyes glissading down extravagant piled-up drifts, ivory ice, jagged ebony rock in giddy outcrops, and a silence whose match I might never know again. A hardy band of us stood a long while at the bow despite the cold: the Boston banker with the wonderfully muscular arms and legs and a tough-love mouth, who had compared our trip to a space voyage; my friend Norma, the sales clerk from Chicago with a taste for swashbuckling men and desperate romance; the video packager with the haunting, thwarted beauty; plus the slight and grizzled chemical engineer from Cologne who had been to 60 countries and taken 15,000 color slides.

The channel narrowed, plushly implacable, till you'd think a little fishing boat might be a safer vehicle. Many of us had logged as much mathematical mileage as Captain Cook, and we knew this was an isolation we would not see equaled. At a pocket in the water between cliffs of ice, the Professor Molchanov most carefully turned around. I had thought daily of the professor, painfully hungry and shackled, shot by a countryman in the cruel snow within sight of his beloved St. Petersburg -- and of the contrasting fact that the danger I had feared in signing up for Antarctica was not of sinking or freezing, but the silly self-hexing squirrel trap of suicide, which seemed to exemplify the diminishment of our self-involved age.

Allowing more time, we could have continued toward the Shangri-la of ultimate coldness. Yet you can visit Antarctica and never allow it to register. I can't say how much I succeeded. But I stayed on deck, in the frigid fjords and inlets, both for the joy I felt and to give my mind a chance, until we'd left Lemaire again.

Edward Hoagland is the author of such books as Heart's Desire, The Courage of Turtles, African Calliope: A Journey to the Sudan,and most recently Balancing Acts.

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