Frozen Landscapes of the Mind

by Slawomir Rapala

Part 2 and Part 3
appear in this issue.
part 1 of 3

“If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in.” — John O’Keefe, astronomer at NASA1

The Antarctic Research Institute (ARI)
Bentley Subglacial Trench, Antarctica
11:05 p.m. March 3rd, A.D. 2046

The temperature had dropped to -45 Centigrade by the time we had jumpstarted the main generator and finally ducked back inside the shelter. Here we huddled in the corner of the lab, where it was warmest, and waited for several hours for the precious heat to spread throughout the Institute.

Clyde was shivering beneath the double blanket. I finally took pity on him and ventured into the kitchen to make a pot of hot tea. By the time I was back, the room was warm enough to cast away the blankets and peel off the extra layers of clothing.

“Christ!” Clyde reached for the steaming mug with trembling hands.

“You didn’t know it could get cold out here?” I sneered as I settled myself in a chair, legs crossed. “The Russians reported a drop to minus eighty-nine once, over at Vostok. I think it was back in ’83. The record still holds.”

“Yeah, but their backup generator never crashed.” His voice betrayed great fatigue.

I checked the time. We had been busy with the repairs for almost twenty hours. “We needn’t worry about such temperatures here. Other stations are exposed because of the elevation.”

“Good tea,” Clyde sipped on the hot drink with obvious pleasure.

“Why don’t you get some sleep?” I suggested. “I can get the drill running by myself.”

“I should stay,” he protested unconvincingly.

“You should rest. I don’t like that nasty cough you’ve got going. You’ve been losing weight for the past two weeks, too. Pop an aspirin and climb into a sleeping bag. I’ll wake you up in a few hours.”

“You can’t free the bit by yourself, chief,” Clyde’s protests were waning. “It’s forty degrees outside and the temperature is still dropping.”

“I’ll manage,” I said firmly as I pushed him toward the door. “We’ve got power now, so the bit will practically free itself. Go get some shut-eye.

“The nearest doctor is in Amundsen-Scott and we can’t even be sure of that since most of their staff takes off for the winter. I don’t feel like trekking out to the South Pole only to find out that their resident medic is away on a holiday. So do me a favor and don’t get sick now, alright?”

“We need to write up a report of the accident, explain the stall to NSF...” I could see Clyde’s resolve failing.

“We’ll do it tomorrow. The radio’s fried anyway, it’ll take me some time to tease out the wires and hook into the satellite again. You can type away at the report while I do that in the morning.”

“They’ll pull my funding if we don’t come up with something,” Clyde cast a gloomy stare as he headed toward the exit. “You know that, no?”

“Look,” I glanced at my wristwatch, “if I get the drill going soon, at forty meters per hour we can dig through another 240-250 meters by eight in the morning. That’ll give us 2.7 kilometers, a pretty impressive depth. We’ll take out another core then and who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky?”

“You believe in that?”

“Faith is a luxury,” I grinned and dismissed the question with a slight shrug. “All I’m saying is that no one has ever dug deeper. The North Greenland Ice Core Project reached bedrock, but that was nowhere near us. ARI is in the lowest point in Antarctica.

“Hell, at twenty-five hundred meters the Bentley Trench is the lowest dry point on Earth. If we get the hole down to 2.7, we’ll break the 5-kilometer mark. I reckon if we don’t find anything there, then there is nothing there to find. In that case, the NSF will be justified in pulling your funding.”

“You’re such a bloody optimist,” Clyde sneered.

“I’m a realist, I can’t help it,” I smiled in return. “Anyway, if the Americans refuse further sponsorship, you can always ask the Australians. Their Antarctic Division has been nosing around for months, just looking for an excuse to put their hands on the data.”

“Montgomery’s been checking in from Mawson almost every day now,” Clyde nodded his head. “Bloody Aussie, he’s just dumb enough to fly in here one day.”

“Not in this weather.” I shook my head. “No one’s coming in winter. Not the NSF nor the AAD. And we don’t need any of them. We’re completely self-sufficient. So cheer up, we have a few months to produce results.”

“And the reports?” Clyde’s voice was hopeful. He finished the last of the tea standing in the doorway and added, “Bement wants them in every week.”

“You can tell him whatever you want. How’s he going to know?” I shrugged. “Buy yourself some time and hope that you can come up with the evidence to support your claims before winter breaks.”

I finally managed to convince Clyde to go to his quarters and to climb into bed. As soon as he closed his eyes, he fell asleep. I watched him for a moment, his sunken chest heaving up and down with great difficulty. The wheezing I heard at the back of his throat worried me. I should have his lungs x-rayed to rule out pulmonary TB. In the morning, I decided as I turned out the lights. Getting the drill working again was my first priority.

Our ice drill used a high pressure pump and coiled tubing to shoot fluid down to a computer-operated motor that drove the drill bit into the hole. It was quite simple to use, but a bitch to move around, weighing in at twenty-six tons all by itself, not to mention fuel and drilling fluid, which topped its weight at over forty tons.

Technically, it should employ three people, but the NSF had already cut Clyde’s funding considerably last year and he was forced to send the technician packing just after New Year’s. That left the two of us to operate the drill, and even though it was seated on five sleds, we were always reluctant to move it. And if we found a good spot, we left it there for weeks on end. For the last few days we had it drilling deep ice in what we figured was the lowest point in Bentley.

When I stumbled out of the Institute, I was immediately overwhelmed by the vicious wind, strong enough to topple a man. I shielded my eyes with goggles and put up the collar of my coat. I started toward the spot where I vaguely recalled the drill was located, though in this weather it was easy enough to wander off.

Visibility was down to two or three meters, but I trusted my instinct and sure enough, I soon spotted the familiar shape emerging before me. Cursing under my breath I wiped my goggles and checked the level of antifreeze in the tank. A moment later I watched a transparent tube carry ethylene glycol down to the hole. I retreated a few steps as if to observe the effect, though I knew I would see nothing, since the bit was locked in ice over two kilometers below me.

I leaned against the pump and waited patiently.

Patience was my virtue, something built into me, something I was blessed with because out here, on this loneliest of all lands, one often has to endure solitude and yet not succumb to madness. The cold wind beat against my exposed face, but it hardly bothered me. I had spent my entire life in Antarctica and was by now used to her temperamental weather. Having seen and experienced many of her natural hazards, I paid little heed to them. Anyway, here in the Bentley Trench we were safe from most of them.

Gravity-driven winds blew coastward from the high interior, but one had to climb the plateau to experience their full strength. Cyclonic storms formed over the ocean, but they moved clockwise along the coast and lost much of their strength once turning toward the interior. Volcanic activity had not been detected for a long time anywhere, not even on highly volatile Deception Island.

And as for the danger of large icebergs calving from ice shelves, well, that was something one had to be aware of on the coast, where water worked hard to wash away the base of the thick ice sheet. The floor of the Bentley Trench was probably the safest spot in all of Antarctica.

Antarctica is a demanding mistress, and devoting my life to her was not easy. Life here was harsh. I think that this was perhaps why God chose Antarctica to be the site of many of His miracles. So that not everyone could witness them, but only the strongest and the most stubborn, the most resilient and worthy.

Many times I have watched mesmerized as diamond dust formed before my very eyes and how, after gathering the sun’s light, it spread it forth in all directions. It formed slowly from ice crystals shaped as hexagonal columns and worked like a prism, refracting sunlight in all directions.

It was an ice fog comprised of delicate crystals which I think must have been chiseled by the divine hand of the Creator Himself. Though common in Antarctica and occurring often under a clear sky, it never failed to amaze me.

When he first saw it, Clyde halted and pointed with his mouth open. He uttered not a word, and I said nothing either at that time. We watched astonished as the tiny crystals toyed with God’s light and then dispersed slowly and disappeared.

Long after it was gone, the image of the complicated but somehow perfect geometry of the light remained embedded in our minds. We spent the evening in silence, each contemplating not only the nature of this marvelous phenomenon, but also the hand that had designed it. And although we could both recall its textbook explanation, we could not shake off the feeling that there was something else behind it, a guiding power or a grand design of which this was only one tiny feature.

Later, Clyde, thus far an unshaken empiricist and atheist, had told me that for the first time in thirty-odd years, his thoughts turned to God. He said he had prayed that night. Why, I asked him? He could not reply.

It’s this place, he said. God works in mysterious ways, I rejoined.

Another time we witnessed the aurora australis, the southern counterpart to the northern lights that had often astounded researchers and explorers of the Arctic. At first, Clyde thought it to be a sunrise and I had to remind him that we were in the middle of the Antarctic winter and that there was no sunlight to be seen for another three months. He looked at the reddish glow on the southern horizon for a long time.

The glow appeared misty, as if a thin veil had been drawn over it, and I thought at that time that perhaps God had indeed drawn an invisible curtain over the colors so that their true beauty would not cause us to drop to our knees and hide our faces from such perfection.

We would later see the aurora many more times, and it sometimes appeared as a reddish glow while at other times it was green or pink. Sometimes it lingered for a long time and its colors changed, the red fading sluggishly and giving way to the pink, the green, then the orange, before finally disappearing beneath the southern horizon. We stopped working then and climbed the plateau if the weather permitted, to watch it in all of its glory.

We said little, quietly contemplating another of the Creator’s magnificent works, but the evening afterwards was usually filled with thoughtful exchanges and sometimes heated debates regarding the nature of our world and the origins of life. Because you cannot talk solely of the Architect; you must mention some of His works.

And after all, this was what we sought in the deep ice of Antarctica. The origins of life.

I checked my watch, shook off the snow that had covered me and took a few long strides to reach sled number four, where the two generators were bolted down next to the slurry tank and the tank that held the drilling fluid.

Christ, I thought as I turned them back on. When it rains, it pours. Twenty four hours ago ARI’s main generator crashed, followed four hours later by the backup generator, which couldn’t handle the voltage because Clyde had the lab running twenty-four-seven even though I told him that it was a dumb idea.

Just then the bit got stuck, too, and we had to turn the drill off so the coil wouldn’t rip even though the manufacturer had assured Clyde that it could take a beating. The entire Institute was shut down.

We first had to get to work on the generators because the temperature kept dropping, and if we didn’t get them back up quick enough, no Moonstone sleeping bags or membrane-protected clothing would save us from reaching the freezing point.

That was more Clyde’s problem than mine, but his panic was contagious, and after all, I was responsible for the proper functioning of the Institute. We got down to work on repairing the blasted generators, leaving the drill to be fixed later on.

For a moment I stood beside the pump, listening to its quiet mechanical whirr, which reached my sensitive ears even over the howling wind. I glanced at the reel and watched the coils budge and slowly start their snail-like descent. Forty meters per hour.

I checked my watch again. It was close to midnight. We should break the five-kilometer mark by eight o’clock, as scheduled, I thought and smirked. It hardly mattered how deep we went; Clyde would never find what he was looking for. Origins of life, I sneered, as I headed back to the Institute. How did he ever convince Bement to fund this preposterous research?


Proceed to part 2...


1 Heeren, F. 1995. Show Me God. Wheeling, Illinois: Searchlight Publications, p. 200

Copyright © 2007 by Slawomir Rapala

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