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Searching for the solar system’s origins at the end of the earth

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

The sixth member of our group, wearing a turquoise windbreaker and yellow wind pants with red knee patches, is working at a fuel cache some ways to the west. He’s rolled a snow machine over on its side and is adjusting one of the bogie-wheel trucks, mechanisms that tension the vehicle’s drive belt. He is gauging the tension by tugging on the belt with his bare hands. When the light breeze that’s blowing falls off a bit, the ratcheting clicks of his socket wrench carry several hundred yards to where I am, but I can barely hear them through the fabric of my balaclava and the hood of my parka.

The three yellow, pyramid-shaped tents in which the six of us are bivouacked form the points of an isosceles triangle with a long base. They all face north, their backs set against a prevailing wind from the south. The generous space between them is insurance that a fire in one is less likely to spread to another, and the arrangement ensures there won’t be a constricted area where the wind might eddy in a blizzard and pile snow against a tent entrance.

These field quarters are a National Science Foundation (NSF) deep-remote cold camp, in the Transantarctic Mountains, 220 miles from the South Pole. We’re encamped near the base of Graves Nunataks, an isolated set of mountain peaks standing proud of a massive ice sheet. (“Nunatak” is an Iñupiaq word, imported from the Northern Hemisphere, describing rock exposed above an ice sheet.) Except for our cookstoves we have no source of heat, and the four men and two women in our party have been here for nearly two weeks. Our camp is at the edge of the Polar Plateau that forms Antarctica’s vast interior, an ice cap four times the size of Greenland, a region of the world I have been chronicling for the past thirty years. On this frigid summer day in mid-January, 1999, the six of us are many hundreds of miles from any other human, except for those at the South Pole.

We are here to look for meteorites. The blazing object we commonly see in the night sky, the “shooting” or “falling” star, is a meteor. A meteorite is what someone picks up on Earth, the metallic or stony remains of a meteoroid, which is any random bit of solar-system debris with the potential to enter Earth’s atmosphere. It’s in Earth’s atmosphere that the meteoroid becomes a meteor, because of its friction with the air. Hundreds of millions of meteoroids, many of them the size of sand grains, enter Earth’s atmosphere every day. Most burn up entirely during their descent.

Meteorites land in a random pattern across the entire surface of Earth, falling day after day, no more in one place than another. Most are lost to view immediately in the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers. Many don’t stand out sufficiently amid Earth’s ordinary rocky debris to draw any notice. And of these, most weather and erode into fragments quickly. In Antarctica, however, the unusual dynamics of the ice environment not only preserve an inordinate number of meteorites, they actually concentrate many of them in clusters on top of the ice, in areas called stranding surfaces, bare shields of glacier burnished by sometimes ferocious winds.

I’m convinced now that what I’ve found buried in the ice in front of me is a meteorite, a small dark rock, an object not of this earth.

Photograph of Graves Nunataks looking northeast with the La Gorce Mountains in the background. Courtesy Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)/John Schutt.

Photograph of Graves Nunataks looking northeast with the La Gorce Mountains in the background. Courtesy Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)/John Schutt.

It’s eleven-thirty at night according to my watch, but this far south the hour of the solar day is of no help in trying to understand the situation we’re in here, or our work rhythms. With twenty-four hours of sunshine available daily during the height of the austral summer, from late November until mid-January, “night” and “day” are irrelevant.

Instead, it is mostly the wind that determines the length and shape of our days. When it quietens, dropping below about ten knots, no longer thickening the atmosphere with loose snowflakes and creating an obscuring ground fog, it’s safe for us to leave camp and navigate with confidence between our tents and the ice fields around the nunataks. We’re not concerned when we leave about suddenly losing sight of our camp behind the contours of the surrounding hillocks of snow and ice; what we’re watchdog alert for is any sustained change in the intensity of the wind.

If it should pick up and hold, our workday is done, and it’s not only the wind that hampers us. It’s the temperature. The colder it gets, generally, the shorter our workday will be.

Map of Ross Ice Shelf region © David Lindroth, Inc.

Map of Ross Ice Shelf region © David Lindroth, Inc.

We’ve all set our watches to the same minute, an additional precaution in a situation like this, where coordinating with each other is critical. We keep to New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT), the time at Christchurch, 2,900 miles to the north, the city where most of us rendezvoused more than a month ago, and from which we flew to ­McMurdo Station. ­McMurdo, 719 miles north of our camp, the major American scientific base in Antarctica, also runs on “Kiwi time.” At 08:30 ­NZDT every morning, we establish radio contact with McMurdo, conveying information about our weather and assuring them that all is well. If we’re not up on the radio at that time, someone in McMurdo will be opening a manual of emergency procedures to determine what the next step will be.

Three years before we arrived, four scientists, the first people to visit this part of Antarctica, landed nearby in a Twin Otter plane. They off-loaded snow machines and together searched several square miles of bare ice fields at the foot of the nunataks. They wanted to determine whether there were enough meteorites sitting on these stranding surfaces to warrant putting in a full team to collect them, and to conduct a more thorough reconnaissance. The men flew back to ­McMurdo and later decided the area was rich enough in extraterrestrial material to warrant putting in a camp for a full forty-day field season.

We are that field party.

We spend our days at this moderately high altitude, 7,500 feet, in the coldest and most remote of Earth’s deserts, looking for bits of debris from a great shower of stones that daily peppers the planet. It’s the allure of this simple, empirical task, together with the ur-remoteness of the region that have brought me here.

I get to my feet—at this point in my life the cold saps my strength a little more quickly than I’m comfortable admitting—and return to the westernmost of the three tents, which I’m sharing with John Schutt, a geologist, alpine guide, and the director of our field party. I’m certain I’ve located the expedition’s 156th meteorite just a short ways from my and John’s tent during my evening stroll. I’ll describe it to John. After supper we’ll chip it free of the ice and collect it.

I wait by the tent’s entrance—a collapsible canvas tunnel—until John finally looks my way. I mime putting food in my mouth and point sharply with my mitt to my chest. “I’ll get supper going,” I mean. John signals with a wave and a salute, and goes back to work on the snow machine.

At this same moment in the middle tent—the one at the apex of the triangle—the two women in our group, Nancy Chabot and Diane ­DiMassa, have finished their supper and are preparing for bed. In the easternmost tent, Paul Benoit and Scott Sandford are playing pinochle. A little more than eight hours from now the four of them will drift over to our tent to hear the weather reports from twenty-two scattered American field parties, all but three of them living in semipermanent, heated camps set up across many thousands of square miles of ice.

Using our own limited ability to predict the weather, based on changes in local barometric pressure, together with reports from the other camps and information ­McMurdo relays to us from its weather station, we’ve been reasonably successful in anticipating the sort of storms that will make a day of work impossible for us. In the morning, even if the wind is up and a ground blizzard is blowing, the others will still make their way to our tent for “weather ops” using numerous red and blue cloth flags tied to bamboo poles and anchored in patches of wind-­hardened snow to guide them.

Nancy, Diane, and Paul have never camped in conditions like this and are especially anxious about having to use the latrine in a storm. It’s sheltered on three sides by snow walls and its perimeter is demarcated by flagged poles. During heavy weather, though, the only thing you might be able to see on your way to or from the latrine is the next flag on your route.

Photograph of the ANSMET campsite at Graves Nunataks, 1998–99 season. Courtesy ANSMET/Nancy L. Chabot

Photograph of the ANSMET campsite at Graves Nunataks, 1998–99 season. Courtesy ANSMET/Nancy L. Chabot

Some days I wonder where the rest of us would be without John. He’s been out there for more than a half hour fixing one of the snow machines, going at it bare-knuckled in the tight places that won’t admit a hand wearing a glove. At every turn—four-cycle engines, electronics, crevasse rescue—his knowledge far outstrips my own. Ever since we first met eleven years ago at ­McMurdo Station, we’ve enjoyed our experience together “on the ice.” He’s always been staging gear for one of the meteorite teams whenever I’ve arrived here to accompany scientific field parties.

John and I share an appetite for physical engagement with the world of snow, ice, and rock beyond our tent, and we appreciate having an opportunity to work together, almost always in silence. We’re comfortable being confined in the limited space of a Scott tent. We split the cooking chores easily, and we observe the same unwritten rules that ensure each person a bit of privacy. I like the rhythm of our daily problem-solving and the hours of stories and reminiscence we share in the tent on storm-bound days, the physical and technical challenge of the work the six of us do, and the deep sleep that comes with exhaustion. Humans, I think, were built for this. We can do it superbly.

Field portraits of meteorite specimens recovered from the ?Graves Nunataks ice fields. Courtesy ANSMET. Page borders: Transantarctic Mountains (details). Courtesy NASA/Jim Yungel

Field portraits of meteorite specimens recovered from the ?Graves Nunataks ice fields. Courtesy ANSMET. Page borders: Transantarctic Mountains (details). Courtesy NASA/Jim Yungel

We’ve had a rough time with weather. Five of us flew into ­McMurdo from Christchurch on December 4 to meet John. Due to storms, we spent nineteen days there before we were able to fly south, most of it walking around with our hands in our pockets. We didn’t need nineteen days to stage the expedition. Six or seven would have done it. We had to tune up and test drive the snow machines. We had to get three of our party through two days of safety-and-rescue training. And we needed to prepare a dozen pallets for the cargo planes, strapping down our food boxes, personal gear, collection equipment, camping gear, and the snow machines and sleds. Two ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft would get us to our put-in site at Klein Glacier, about thirty-five miles from Graves Nunataks. Once there, we’d off-load the pallets, set up a temporary camp, then start loading supplies onto our Nansen sleds, which we’d tow behind the snow machines to Graves Nunataks.

While those new to Antarctic camping learned how to refuel cookstoves, set up Scott tents, use portable radios, and navigate crevasse fields, John and I requisitioned food and inspected every piece of equipment we were taking into the field with us, looking for excessive wear and other flaws.

It frequently goes like this for scientific parties seeking to deploy from McMurdo. Endless waiting. All flight plans are tenuous. Some field parties, having secured the financial and logistical support of the NSF, and having worked out, painstakingly, a research plan and flown in to ­McMurdo, find their field season finally canceled. In the end, they can’t get out of ­McMurdo—except by the return flight to Christchurch.

I used our long delay as conscientiously as I could. I continued my reading about chondrites and achondrites. I studied inorganic chemistry texts to better understand what my five companions were talking about. Ralph Harvey, the team’s principal investigator and team leader, offered me several blackboard sessions, which took me to the margins of my ability to comprehend the sometimes esoteric chemistry involved. (Because of the long delay in McMurdo, Ralph would not make it to Graves Nunataks with us. Scott, scheduled to replace Ralph midway through the expedition, did make it, but this arrangement limited Ralph to only three days in the field before he had to depart.)

Most every morning during the delay, John and I walked over to “Mac Weather Ops” (McMurdo Station Weather Operations) to learn how we were faring. With the elevated view afforded from the second floor of the operations tower, we could quickly see if our pallets had been loaded that morning or were still sitting in the same spot out there on the ice runway, so we had the beginnings of an answer to our question before we asked. (About a dozen broken anemometers, torn apart by winds in excess of one hundred knots, are mounted around the room on wooden plaques near the ceiling, like a frieze.) Are we still scheduled to go today? we asked. No, canceled. Maybe tomorrow? The answer to that was usually just “We’ll see,” or “Maybe.” (The meteorologists and flight planners don’t commiserate with people in a delayed field party. They don’t offer explanations or encourage hope. There are rumors enough around town, of course, without this.) John and I left, nodding politely to members of other field parties in the room, all hoping for better news than we’d just gotten.

Cross-polarized light photomicrographs of meteorite GRA98098, 50, at 2.5 × magnification Courtesy Roger Harrington, NASA JSC Astromaterials Curation Office

Cross-polarized light photomicrographs of meteorite GRA98098, 50, at 2.5 × magnification Courtesy Roger Harrington, NASA JSC Astromaterials Curation Office

On the morning of December 23 our bad luck ran out and we were airborne. The Hercs landed us and our gear at the upper (southern) end of Klein Glacier. We set up a temporary camp and prepared for the traverse to Graves. The next morning a fresh storm blew in. We were each towing two or three fully loaded sleds behind our snow machines as we climbed moderate slopes in thirty-knot winds, which became more and more disruptive as the day went on. At one point a gusting wind punched through at the edge of my snow goggles. The sudden rush of violent, cold air caused my eyes to water. Tears splashed across the inside of the plastic lenses of my goggles and froze there, completely obscuring my view. I had to stop on a steep incline I was traversing to clear the lenses. While I did, the wind, blowing broadside against my sleds, began pushing the two of them down the slope, swinging them below me. In the swirling snow I could barely make out the others ahead. No one was following behind me, I knew, and the heavily loaded sleds were beginning to pull me down the incline.

Moments of mounting tension like this tend to stand out in retrospect, but, in fact, such moments are little more than predictable interruptions of a plan you can never assume will work smoothly, especially in situations like this. To keep from panicking, you focus on what you have to address first, then move on to the next thing. I cleared my goggles, anchored them firmly against my face, inched ahead on the slope to get out in front of the sleds hanging below me, and followed the tracks of the sled ahead of me. Soon I had everyone in sight again.

They’d pulled up and were waiting.

We traveled sixteen miles that day, southeast from the head of Klein Glacier, gaining sixteen hundred feet in altitude before setting up a second temporary camp, hoping for better weather the following day. We positioned our tents near a small rock outcrop in the ice cap called Inuksuq and remained there all the next day, pinned down by high winds. When they fell to calm, a hard, depthless blue sky replaced the layer of overcast above. From the height of Inuksuq, John picked out a route that would circumvent a crevasse field and take us to Graves Nunataks, which we could now see clearly, about fourteen crow-fly miles away (nineteen miles by snow machine, in order to bypass the crevasse field). We arrived there late that afternoon.

The clear weather and dintless skies held for another day and a half, during which we located and collected several dozen meteorites. Then a new storm confined us to our tents again, this time for six days. Our original plan had been to have our camp set up at Graves by December 12. By this point, we had lost nearly three weeks of time in the field. As it turned out, we would get in only eight more full days of searching for meteorites before our scheduled pull-out date. There was nothing for it but to let the frustration turn to bemusement and to utilize any time we had, whenever the wind dropped, to pursue our search.

Our camp at Graves is isolated geographically but we’re also cut off electronically from the outer world. We have no satellite phone and no means of tuning in to an international news program. Our solar-powered radio communications with McMurdo are rudimentary, and ­McMurdo’s policy with deep-remote camps is to not pass along any personal news except a death in the family.

I enjoy the sort of mental space this kind of isolation affords. There are no intrusions here, no unexpected inquiries or announcements. One can unfurl a thought without fear of interruption, unfurl it until one decides one is finished with it. No phone rings. No doorbell, no automobile horn, no PA announcement intrudes. No one knocks.

The isolation encourages you to think in a different way about what it means to be human, and to consider the long stretch of humanity’s epoch. And the strangeness of this place. Nearly everything on Earth can be referenced by using chemistry, physics, and biology. But that’s not the texture of reality here. The interior of Antarctica is about chemistry and physics, not biology: the rock exposed above the ice has a chemical composition; gravity, in the province of physics, causes the ice to flow downhill to the ocean. And it’s the pressure of accumulating snowfall that turns snow to ice in the firn zone below us. More physics. This is Earth without life. No birds fly across the sky. No plants grow. The spoor and tracks of animals do not appear. The wind scours. There’s no gurgle of flowing water. The polar night, like the polar day, is months long.

We, the six of us, and the scientists and workers at the South Pole, are all there is of biology here, for tens of thousands of square miles.

We’re camped in an abiotic ocean of seemingly stayed time and nearly undifferentiated space, beneath a fall of Archean light. Our presence seems as inconsequential as the death of a fruit fly. Yet I am as comfortable in this place as one hand would be resting in the cradle of the other.

It feels so oddly safe here.

The majority of the meteorites that reach Antarctica make a soft landing on a cover of snow. Over time, as more snow falls on them and the bottom of the moving ice sheet below them slowly melts—due to friction with Antarctica’s bedrock and encounters with geothermal hot spots—these meteorites move down deeper into the glacier, within the layer of snow they landed on, until that layer reaches a transition zone. Pressure from the burden of snow above becomes sufficient at this point to reconfigure the snow crystals, turning them into crystals of ice. The meteorites thereafter lie embedded in a mass of moving ice, like raisins in a cake.

As the mammoth ice sheets move downhill toward the sea, they encounter bedrock obstructions, the most formidable and prominent of which is the continent’s spine, the Transantarctic Mountains. To get around these obstructions and continue onward to the sea, the ice sheets flow slowly toward areas of least resistance—mountain passes. Where Antarctic bedrock crowns out of the flowing ice sheet—the case at numerous places in the Transantarctic Mountains, such as Graves Nunataks—the deep, horizontal layers of the ice sheet are forced to bend upwards and to flow vertically. Eventually these layers reach the surface of the ice cap with their loads of meteorites and the wind bares them to the sky.

The dominant winds of the Antarctic interior are katabatic—driven by gravity—not cyclonic. (Cyclonic winds are generated by changes in air pressure.) One way to think of katabatic winds is to picture them as gargantuan cataracts of air moving over the ice sheets. Because the pull of gravity is a constant, the direction of the flow of air hardly varies for a katabatic wind—it flows downhill as a river would on a slope. The force behind this river of air, however, does change, with the volume of falling, compressed air and the changing contours of the ice surface.

Wherever the deep layers of an ice sheet are forced to flow vertically, they encounter the scouring effects of a katabatic wind as they reach the surface. These winds do two things that make Antarctica a mecca for meteoriticists. They shatter the crystals of any snowflakes that fall on the bare surface of emerging ice, scattering the debris and keeping the ice surface clean; and, in a process called sublimation, the winds vaporize the ice as it emerges, turning it from a solid to a gas. There is no intermediate liquid stage. Over time, as the ice sheet continues to flow vertically, and as the wind continues to erode the ice, embedded meteorites are left exposed and discrete on the surface. Over millennia, the concentration of meteorites on these stranding surfaces can become very large, with some concentrations running into the thousands.

Once scientists came to understand how this concentrating mechanism worked, they began systematically searching old aerial photographs of the Transantarctic Mountains for blue-ice fields, as stranding surfaces are sometimes called. Additional ground reconnaissance determined which blue-ice fields had the highest concentrations of meteorites. The available funding from the NSF, and the logistical complexities associated with putting a small scientific party in the field for five or six weeks, determined which sites might be most readily exploited. In keeping with Antarctic Treaty protocols, each meteorite found by members of a field party belongs collectively to every country that is a signatory to the treaty. The meteorites, including the ones we were finding, are shipped to ­NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they are made available to any qualified scientist. The name of the individual who finds a particular meteorite is not entered into the collection record, out of respect for the spirit of equality and common cause that the treaty embodies.

Once taken in hand and placed under a microscope each meteorite is revelatory. The overwhelming majority of them come from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, and are so distinctive, one from the other, that scientists have been able to create a kind of geography of the asteroid belt, a geologic map that allows them to push deeper into our still hazy understanding of how the solar system evolved. In short, every meteorite represents an important contribution to the unraveling of the mystery of Earth’s origin. Therefore, though the six of us will find only 186 meteorites, our weather-compromised effort will still be viewed as successful.

There are several nunataks at Graves, all peaks of the same mountain. Each one is slowly shedding its weather-exposed face, which falls to the stranding surfaces below as rocky debris. To search efficiently for meteorites also stranded on the ice, each of us must learn to visually separate this terrestrial debris from extraterrestrial material. On our first day here, then, we climb up to the exposed ridge of one of the nunataks to examine and memorize the color and grain patterns of the rock. Later, when we’re lined up on the stranding surfaces and walking six abreast, we’ll be able to visually sort the hundreds of rocks resting on the ice, mentally discarding everything but a meteorite. A shout from one of us will bring the others to a stop. We’ll each mark the place we’re standing at that moment and then gather around the find.

We fix the location of the meteorite using a GPS device and record its general characteristics in a field notebook—the species of meteorite, its size, color, shape, and whatever else about it seems noteworthy. One of us then picks the meteorite up with a pair of sterile tongs and deposits it in a sterile, transparent collection bag which is then sealed. Back in camp, certain meteorites might be examined once more before being packed in reinforced cases for shipment, first back to ­McMurdo aboard an LC-130, then to the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office at the Johnson Space Center, and eventually to the Smithsonian in Washington.

John has been doing this for so long he’s able to make an informed guess about the pedigree of nearly every meteorite we find. And he’ll often notice that three or four meteorites we’ve just collected are all part of a single meteoroid that shattered on impact. It’s as if the images of meteorites he’s seen over all those years drift through his memory like the faces of people he has known.

Photograph of a meteorite foot-search showing flags that mark the locations of collected specimens. Courtesy ANSMET/Nancy L. Chabot

Photograph of a meteorite foot-search showing flags that mark the locations of collected specimens. Courtesy ANSMET/Nancy L. Chabot

John crawls in through the snow tunnel and begins stripping off his weather gear. With both cookstoves going the tent is relatively warm, about forty degrees Fahrenheit just above floor level and over fifty degrees Fahrenheit where the walls meet at the tent’s apex. (We hang damp socks, boot and glove liners, handkerchiefs, and scarves up there to dry.) It’ll stay that way until we shut the stoves off to sleep.

Now that John’s fixed the track assembly on the snow machine, he is fiddling with our radio, which has been acting up. At this point, in the middle of his nineteenth season, John is the best-known scientist associated with the NSF-sponsored Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) project, after Bill Cassidy, the visionary who started these searches in 1976. (It was during his second field season that John and an English scientist named Ian Whillans found a golf-ball-size meteorite fifty miles from McMurdo, in the Allan Hills in Victoria Land, that turned out to be a lunar breccia, the first piece of the moon identified on Earth.)

I tell John about the meteorite I found on my walk around the perimeter of the camp that evening. While I cook and he rewires the antenna lead to the radio, we talk through a plan for the days remaining to us. He tells me we have had so many delays to start with, and so many tent-bound days since we arrived, that ANSMET will have to come back the following year, or maybe the year after that, to finish searching the stranding surfaces here. With just a few days left, John’s leaning toward more reconnoitering, with less time spent actually collecting. Tomorrow, he says, we should search around the southern flank of the nunataks and probe bays in the steep east face of the mountain for any concentrations of meteorites. We might collect some of the larger ones but should concentrate on flagging as many as we can and sketching them on a map we’ll draw for each bay.

While I finish up the dishes, John visits with the others in their tents. He tells them that if the wind doesn’t pick up tonight and we still have sufficient contrast under these cloudy skies to read the surface of the snow for crevasses, we’ll leave again in a few hours. He wants us to climb a steep ice slope on the west flank of the nunataks and then search to the east, along the nunataks’ south flank, for any meteorite concentrations. He wants at least this one quick look at the only side of the nunataks we’ve not visited yet. Three of our group are uneasy about climbing the slope with snow machines, but John exudes a kind of understated confidence in them, which they trust.

While he’s out, John chips a bucketful of ice from the glacier our tent sits on to replenish our water supply. (When we’re weathered in we still must leave the tents to get ice to melt for water. We also always refuel our cookstoves out there, to be absolutely certain we’re not close to anything flammable in case of an accident.)

When he returns, John has Scott in tow. He asks if the two of us would mind collecting the meteorite I’ve just found while he concentrates on transferring some of the GPS coordinates he’s been writing down onto sketch maps of the bays we’ve been working in.

Whenever I’m the one tasked with taking notes while we collect a meteorite, I’m aware of the precision and finitude of the numbers I’m writing down, of how infinitesimal these particular data points are in the overall effort scientists make to understand what happened 4.5 billion years ago, during the early stages of the geological development of a planet on which the conditions to support biological life would develop, 93 million miles from a nuclear furnace that circles us each day along the horizon, the track of a halo tilted slightly to the south.

The following evening, after we return from our reconnaissance on the south side of the nunataks, John and I fall into conversation about the ultimate significance of our work. We’re at a point in the expedition where a question like this often arises, during the closing days, when what still needs to be done comes under scrutiny. Like most good scientists, John is not entirely convinced of the ultimate authority of the rational mind, and he recognizes the potential for peril in strict cause-and-effect reasoning. He doesn’t like the way much of science, particularly laboratory science, discounts awe and mystery, as though the capacity to respond to reality in this way is something to outgrow. I tell John that in the years I’ve been coming to Antarctica and working with different field parties, I’ve watched the scientific respect for data sets supplant scientific respect for firsthand field experience, and have wondered where this trend will lead. I’ve worried about the impatience with which the inevitable loose ends and inconclusiveness of field work is often met, and the modern preference for theory.

Back in ­McMurdo we’ve both witnessed changes as the hallways of the old science building, perennially crowded with camping gear, have given way to the antiseptically tidy and brightly lit hallways of the Crary Science and Engineering Center. The corridors of the building buzz with the ceaseless clicking of keyboards, a kind of white noise, accompanied by the electronic beeps that signal a task has been completed or information is now awaiting retrieval. The numerical results of a theoretical approach, of someone’s plumbing the nimbus of numbers surrounding a little-understood event, are both esoteric and arcane; and the speed with which they’re produced, and the sheer volume of them, is intimidating. The process suggests that knowledge has been obtained, but in fact there is not much more here than staggering specificity and a quantity of numbers significant enough to support statistical probability. Massive data sets, for some, represent irrefutable truth, or insights that transcend previously established boundaries, but the data might be no more than intensely self-referential. Impressive but unconvincing.

The belief that one can reach a state of certainty, about anything, acts as a goad for those who regard the anomalies that inevitably turn up in their data not as a caution but as an inconvenience.

“I had a theology professor once,” I say to John, “who told us that religion was not about being certain but about living with uncertainty. It was about being comfortable with doubt, and maintaining the continuity of one’s reverence for a profound mystery.”

I’m not sure John hears me. He is reclined on his sleeping bag with only his lower legs visible to me past a pile of gear. Perhaps he’s fallen asleep. It’s been a long day.

“We gain deeper knowledge,” he finally responds. “But no guarantee that we’re any closer to wisdom.”

A multiple-exposure photograph taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures

A multiple-exposure photograph taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures

A few hours after we fall asleep that night the wind wakes me, punching the tent wall behind my head, a creature moved to a state of rage. Its caterwauling, its screaming wail, the pitch of it rising and falling, the decibels of it, suddenly collapse nearly to silence, then mount again. The sound of it shimmers in my ear, like light striking the eye from a sheet of shaken foil. The tent shudders on its stout poles and the tent fabric strains at its triple-sewn seams, seething and popping. The inconstant, tympanic thrumming of the fabric is an intonation underlying one shrieking run after another of banshee notes, some of them single tones within the squalling wind that sustain themselves for several seconds before dropping an octave. It might be hours of this before stillness returns. Or days. Or it might all cease in a few minutes.

On the day that we’d climbed to the summit of one of the nunataks at Graves, to orient ourselves and to examine shattered slabs of sedimentary and metamorphic rock on the ridge, our footsteps generated the sounds of broken crockery. I turned one rock after another over in my gloved hands, to get its measure, to take it in more completely. In the absence of any other kind of life, these rocks seemed alive to me, living at a pace of unimaginable slowness, but revealing by their striations and cleavage, by their color, inclusions, and crystalline gleam, evidence of the path each had followed from primordial birth to this moment of human acquaintance. Each rock I examined, all ostensibly remnants of the same dark slabs, was nevertheless distinguished from the others by some rosette of color, some angularity that made it stand apart. As I sat there, reluctant to put down a single one of these rocks, contemplating the history of each one in the gigantic sweep of time that was, for them, a lifetime, they suddenly seemed wilder than any form of life I’d ever known. Like the wind, they opened up the landscape.

Since there is no telling when a storm might make travel back to Klein Glacier difficult, or indeed impossible, and with the cargo planes scheduled to land there on January 20, John decides to take advantage of a period of clear weather on the eighteenth to break camp. We’re so conscious of how many days we’ve been tent bound, feeling so aggrieved about the attenuated search for meteorites, it’s hard for us to capitulate, but John’s right. We’re done. We pack the sleds and leave for the landing zone under cloudless azure skies, sailing through great intermontane basins of calm air. A trip that had taken us more than fourteen hours, stopping and going, several weeks before, we now make in just four and a half hours. We erect a temporary camp on Klein Glacier. John gets the radio going and tells McMurdo we’re safely there. ­McMurdo says only one Herc will be coming for us on the twentieth. The second will come in on the twenty-first, so we’ll go out in two groups.

It takes most of the afternoon to unload the sleds and restage our gear on the pallets we left here, to prepare everything for the planes. Once we’ve finished we depart on our snow machines, heading for a valley at the foot of the nearby La Gorce Mountains, several hundred square miles of unexplored, pitched heights and deep valleys, first sketched out on a map of Antarctica in 1934, during aerial reconnaissance.

To enter what is actually a cirque on the southwestern side of one of the range’s most prominent ridges, we must descend a slope of glacial ice. Moving laterally from one patch of snow to another—the snow machines have better traction here than on bare ice—keeps us from losing control on the descent; climbing out, we’ll use the same snow patches, like stepping stones, skittering from one to another. The mouth of the cirque is about four miles across, an amphitheater about as deep as it is wide. The floor of the valley is a felsenmeer, a sea of broken rock that has fallen over many millennia from heights a thousand feet above us.

The dark field of granite rubble, warmed by the sun, radiates an impressive amount of heat. John and I each find narrow slots between boulders in which to lie supine. We’re protected from a light breeze that’s blowing and bathed in sunlight. The air temperature is about five degrees Fahrenheit, but it feels twenty degrees warmer in these “solar ovens.” They offer us a kind of threshold, a road to another country.

All around us is the silence of deep space.

Nancy calls out, “John, what do you call this place?”


“No, no. That’s what you call it. What do people call it?”

He doesn’t answer.

The cirque has no name, nor do the peaks above, or the spurs radiating from the main ridge, the arêtes. Descriptive, eponymous, fanciful, memorializing, and valorizing nomenclature has not made it this far. The place seems so indifferent to our presence that I find myself gazing into an enormous space with no sense of the time in which it exists. Most of the interior of Antarctica seems like this to me, not just uninspected or unnamed but unknown. It has not yet been snared in a catalog of designations and coordinates, of metes and bounds. The state of relief I feel, resting on my back in a slot in this boulder field, out of the wind and staring up at the surrounding ramparts of the cirque, causes me to hear John’s response—heaven—not as a synonym for conventional feelings of ecstasy but as a word characterizing the absence of disintegration.

We rest there for an hour before climbing up out of the cirque, making for the camp and the snow runway, beginning our reentry into the other world.

is the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including Horizon,
 which Knopf will publish this spring.

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October 1996

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