Christmas recalled

After the discovery that we were not suffering from some inner ailment (previous post), several of us “family guys” had logged time for phone calls home to New Zealand. I think I was the first up with my call to Lois and our daughters and I spent my three minutes in the phone booth in tears listening to all they had to tell about Christmas and me being so far away. With such a wet face I had to wait a few minutes before leaving the booth only to find the room full of fellows awaiting their turn. As soon as I emerged Chippy spotted my tear soaked face and boomed to the crowd : “Look at him, look at him look at his eyes….ha, ha, ha! ” Lots of laughter and lots of ribald comments too. In reality my months in Antarctica were the first time I had ever lived solely in the company of men for any extended period. Levity, in such closed quarters, is often found in basic terms! There was not much I could say so I just went and looked out the window hoping for some level of composure. Robin, our expedition leader, came over and ruffled his hand through my hair and said the tears must have something to do having three daughters. He had four sons.

Around 3.30pm we sat down to a most sumptuous of feasts and gorged ourselves on food and wine. But we did remember the 24 people  (18 New Zealanders, four Italians and two Japanese) we had working in the field camps in remote parts of the McMurdo Sound area. Their Christmas Day was brightened simply with a bottle of New Zealand wine and then it was back to work. Field groups working in the Wright Valley converged on the Lake Vanda station and supplemented the usual field rations with a couple of chickens, a Christmas cake and a goody box of nuts, biscuits, potato chips and sweets sent out from Scott Base. The loneliest Christmas was spent by two guys ferrying fuel on the Wilson Piedmont glacier but they also got to enjoy a similar addition to their field rations cooked over a spirit stove. We also had university research groups working at Cape Bird, further north on Ross Island and another group working in the Boomerang Range area way, way west of Scott Base towards the polar plateau. They celebrated Christmas as best they could and kept right on working.

Two Italians, guests of New Zealand, were working well away from any point of Antarctic civilisation up in the far reaches of the Wright Valley. They celebrated Christmas in their way with a bottle of good Italian vino.

For me, this most unusual of Christmas celebrations was part of a spiritual awakening deep inside. Following a life/death experience on the Wilson Piedmont Glacier a few weeks earlier I had come to realize that there was something more to my life that I could not get a hold of. The all-male chorus of a Silent Night, of shepherds, a Virgin birth and a baby in a manger stayed with me for the next seven years when the whole spiritual battle came to a head and I answered the call from God to end my erratic and irresponsible behaviour and find peace and new life in the Jesus Christ of the Christmas story.

(To be continued)

A Christmas Eve

So This is Christmas goes the song. Another year over. And we say in unison where did it go? I know that the older you get the faster the year goes. I am not much good at math but the expression seems to hold true if I compare the now with those halcyon days of youth. In a the lifetime of Christmas’  I’ve enjoyed, the best have always been with our daughters and the grandchildren. Each year somehow seems to get better. But the most unusual Christmas and one of the most memorable I have experienced was the 1968 Christmas at Scott Base, in the shadow of Mt Erebus.

Christmas Eve we were invited to a couple of parties over at the US base at McMurdo. The four mile hike over the hill was easy knowing there was food, beer and conviviality at the end. We enjoyed the evening in several “refreshment spots”, wined and dined like kings and taught our hosts how to talk like a “Kiwi”. Somehow it did not matter that we were in the “middle” of the southern summer with a wind chill of minus 25c deg or more outside. A young Texan in the Sergeants’ Mess introduced me to his BBQ — located outside the escape hatch! Open the hatch, check the steak and close it back up again. No fuss, no smoke. Over at the USARP headquarters (United States Antarctic Research Program) I was introduced to Byrd Station ice with my Scotch. This ice had been brought in especially from the bottom of a drilling hole, thousands of feet deep where the scientists were drilling through the ice cap to the land mass (below sea level). They cored the drill hole and could read the ice like rings on a tree. The ice we were using was figured to be defintely BC, pre-Christ. It was so dense one chunk would last almost all night in the glass. And you could hear the ice popping and crackling around the crowded room.

Getting close to midnight a group of us found our way to a large Quonset building for a special allcomers church service. The fullness of what Christmas is really all about  had not settled with me at that point in my life’s journey. But in view of an experience I’d had in the wilds of Antarctica’s Wright Valley some weeks earlier propelled me to “go to church”. The memory puts me in a dim lit hall adding my Flat D to the bass’, baritones and tenors of hundreds of men singing Silent Night. That was a remarkable experience and the echo is with each Christmas now as I celebrate the wonder of Christ’s birth with family and friends.

Before heading back to our bunks at Scott Base we stopped in at the McMurdo infirmary to share a spot with our medical friends. We enjoyed their home made punch and cooled off on the trip home.

I was up pretty early on Christmas Day and being one of the first to awaken headed to the washroom for a much needed bladder break. I was totally shocked to find my stream was red. “Oh, no,”  I thought, “blood. What do I do now?’

I sat quietly in the main hall with a cigarette and a coffee until Chippy, our carpenter came in. He was very quiet. Got his coffee, asked for a cigarette and sat down. After five minutes of nothing, he blurted out “I’m pissing blood!.”

“Mmmm, me too,” I said. and we agreed to not to say much and wait till after breakfast and the next bio break.

Our leader came in a bit later, grinning. “Just been talking to the doc and he wondered if any of you jokers were having trouble having a pee this morning.”

The joke was on us. Our stop with the medics was the cause. They had doctored their punch with a harmless red dye!

(to be continued)

Bless this mountain and all who work beneath

I chose this picture of  3795m  Mt Erebus to adorn the top of this blog. It is something I looked forward to seeing each day during my five months at Scott Base. This picture was shot on my “brand new” Canon FT single lens reflex camera in October 1968. State of the art technology in those days and it featured through the lens metering. The camera sits on top of my desk today. Erebus is a beacon to the explorer. It has been the scene of both triumph and utter tragedy (the Air New Zealand crash in November 1979 with the loss of 257 lives). The mountain is an active volcano and most days you can see a plume of steam rising from the crater. The grandeur of the solitary peak has remained with me through the years. Why, when I first arrived back in New Zealand after my term on the ice I had Lois create an oil painting of Erebus with the Scott Base pressure ridges in the foreground. That picture is still with us. I have it fixed to the wall of my garage so I see it every  time I drive in. It is a treasure.

“I have seen Fuji, the most dainty and graceful of all mountains, “writes Apsley Cherry-Garrard (a member of Scott’s last expoedition) in his book The Worst Journey in the World. “And also Kinchinjunga:only Michael Angelo among men could have conceived such grandeur. But give me Erebus for my friend. Whoever made Erebus knew all the charm of horizontal lines, and the lines of Erebus are for the most part nearer the horizontal than the vertical. And so he is the most restful mountain in the world, and I was glad when I knew that our hut would lie at his feet. And always there floated from his crater the lazy banner of his cloud of steam.”

For me, I grew up in the shadow of a wonderful mountain known today as Mt Taranaki, a solitary, lonely volcano on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The stories of our youth boast about skiing in the morning and yacht racing on the ocean at our doorstep in the afternoon. That mountain determined our weather and like the chilling southerly winds that blew straight off its 2500m summit right into the very bones of young fellows like me delivering the evening newspaper. And it would rain. Cold, icy, in-your-face, dripping, soaking wind-driven rain. But Taranaki reigns unique as one of the world’s first national parks, a protected watershed that keeps the grass green, the cows mooing and dairy products flowimg into world markets.

It was on this “hill”, a perfect cone often mistaken for Japan’s Fuji, that I developed my mountain skills. It was where I learned to ski and it was where I found what developed into a lifetime enjoyment of the white stuff we call snow.

With Taranaki at my back and Erebus now at my front I was in for a very interesting sojourn on the south polar continent.

(to be continued)

Summertime and the weather is freezing

Two years ago I figured I should put into book form the adventures I experienced some 40 years ago as information officer photographer with the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme.

This was something I had swept into the broom cupboard of life experiences a long time back but as my grandchildren grew and my wife and daughters continued with their promptings “to put it on paper” I reached the point where I at least dragged the boxes of stuff out from under the stairs.

I looked through the clippings, found my old notebook, and looked at a few mouldy photo slides, Maybe there was something in all this I could tell the grandchildren about. Around this time a couple of my fellow intrepid explorers from the great adventure of 1968-69 came up with the idea we might have a reunion.

All well and good, I thought. They were all in New Zealand while I was firmly established with a business and family in the prairie province of Alberta, Canada. Still, I thought it was a great idea and almost flippantly suggested we could time this event to the 40th anniversary of our small team taking on the responsibility of a year’s scientific activity with the Antarctic Division of New Zealand’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (now just known simply as Antarctica New Zealand, but still a government entity).  This boiled down to the fact that we had less than 12 months to find all our colleagues and organize an event in Christchurch, New Zealand, in mid-October 2008.

While all this was happening with the aid of modern technology, I set about putting together a booklet just about the voyage aboard HMNZS Endeavour eight of us summer only types had from McMurdo to Lyttelton. That very stormy voyage home via Campbell Island and the Antipodes Islands was an adventure in itself and creating a booklet around that proved to be a great deal of fun. My family and friends loved it. I printed off a bunch “for the reunion”.

We were very fortunate, due to some extraordinary digging, to locate and contact all the members of our party as well as a large number of the university teams and support people who made our time on the ice most memorable. And being together over three days, most of us seeing each other for the first time since 1969, gave me the push I needed to write my book.

It started out as just a summer’s tale of adventure, with a whole bunch of pictures. But as I got into it and shared the story with others, the book took on a life of its own. I now labor on, researching, recalling events, time and places, and bugging the life out of my old colleagues for long forgotten details. I’d targeted this past October as the due date for completion. That has passed and it will not be completed before Christmas. Perhaps I can complete it this winter with an April publication date. I’ll work to that deadline and see what can happen.

Last May I shared a couple of chapters with fellow writers and faculty at a Writing It Real (www.writingitreal.com) conference and received huge amounts of encouragement, advice and direction. We have another conference coming up in April 2010 in Port Townsend, WA.

I wonder what I’ll be able to put on the table this time!

(a continuing story…)