We climb to 25,000 ft and it gets progressively colder. I put on my gloves, then my hat, then cover my knees with my parka coat. Steve comes over and tries to whisper into my ear what I learn is his most important instruction, ‘KW’. I can’t hear him and he has to shout it out several times to get through the heavy engine noise. ‘What’s that mean?’
‘It’s the one thing above all to remember, he grins. ‘Keep Warm. I haven’t anything more at hand to put on but nod and clap my gloves in response.
Steve is 43 today and later we break open a bar of chocolate to celebrate. Steve, guide extraordinaire, stunt arranger, location scout, lives in St Ives, Cornwall. He is still a bachelor although he says he has come close several times. The call of the wild and his guiding all over the world has always stopped him at the last moments. He’s starting to regret his missed opportunities though and the fact that he hasn’t put down roots and is wondering if it’s now too late. Probably it’s his birthday blues and a once-a-year time when he reflects on what might have been. Tomorrow he’ll be as happy as he always seems.
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The one thing that gets to him when he returns home, as it does to all of us that undertake expeditions of any length, is that perennial question, ‘Where are you off to next? We laugh it off but really want to respond, ‘Wait a moment, we’ve just got back, let’s relax a while before deciding on the next exploit. I suppose it’s something to do with the inability to understand why we go, why we risk injury or worse and why we don’t just settle for the quieter life. As Louis Armstrong has said and I often quote it as my kind of answer, ‘If you have to ask ‘What is jazz? then you’ll never know’. It might be a non sequitur or might directly relate but a number of geologists and explorers over the years have remarked that the Antarctic light invokes ‘the feeling of jazz.’
I look out the window to my left but the light is less vibrant as it’s now becoming misty and there’s little to see. It’s still very noisy but I have more or less got used to it. There are only two more hours to go. We have been flying into the Antarctic interior for about four hours. Off and on I am reading Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses and the subject fits in well with this mystical journey into the unknown. One passage particularly refers to colour, its meanings and effects and perhaps because of seeing so many ‘whiter shades of pale I start to wonder if maybe there are more colours than is generally accepted. Yellow is the most vivid colour to me and yet there are so many different variations that some seem more than just a shade. Is it possible some could be a separate colour in their own right?
Experiments have shown that in an overwhelming number of cases people’s heart rates increased when placed in red surroundings. This has proved invaluable in the treatment of cardiovascular ailments. Shades of green can reduce fatigue and yellow is said to counteract monotony. After factory workers complained about the weight of crates painted black they were repainted green and everyone reported they were now much lighter. A sailor is shipwrecked on a tiny island. As he recovers he notices the beach is purple, as are the trees and the grass. Even the birds flying overhead are purple. Suddenly he notices his skin is changing to a similar colour. ‘Oh no, he cries out, ‘I’ve been marooned!’
Humans, of course, do not have the monopoly on colour. Many of nature’s creatures have colour vision and use it in defence and protection as well as in attracting the opposite sex. No one knows if all the colours they see are the same colours we know. Just because something seems similar it doesn’t mean that’s how it really is. As in Gershwin’s Summertime and Porgy’s poignant comment to Bess, ‘It ain’t necessarily so. On a journey such as this, to the bottom of the world, it feels quite acceptable to pose questions that ordinarily one would not try to answer. We are heading into an unreal world, or at least a world that has different rules to the ones we have accepted without question before. Biologists actually claim that before the earth was green it may have been purple. This hypothesis is based on studies of genetic sequences which reveal that purple bacteria have the most ancient photosynthesis genes.
We have reached Ellsworth Land and are approaching the Ellsworth Mountains. These are named after Lincoln Ellsworth who made the first flight across Antarctica in 1935. Only one hour to go and the excitement for all of us is mounting. I am hungry and make myself a cheese sandwich. I am also feeling tired but don’t want to miss any part of this thrilling journey and unique experience by sleeping through it. After drinking too much water I need to use the toilet and try to hold the curtain across but no one cares anyhow.
It is now 45 minutes to landing and we are warned to tread carefully when disembarking as it’s extremely icy out there at the landing strip. We are now flying along the east face of the Sentinel Range, which has the highest Antarctic mountain, Mount Vinson, and then across the Nimitz Glacier. We will shortly be landing on a natural blue-ice runway at 1,000 metres above sea level, immediately after passing over the Ellsworth Mountain Range. We are told we must leave through the rear of the plane.
Only a final 15 minutes until touchdown. I decide to strap in. I have a window seat and can snap away with my camera at the swirling, energising whiteness stretching in every direction. I can see there are lumps and bumps everywhere. The engine noise is totally deafening, the coldness is absolute. Presumably the runway has been cleared for touchdown. The Hercules has no skis and lowers its wheels. We continue to descend rapidly; the hard ice is approaching fast. Here we come!