Going Swimming In Antarctica By Accident And On Purpose (PHOTOS)

02/04/2012 09:25 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2012
  • Ed Stump Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University

Ed Stump is the author of The Roof At The Bottom Of The World, a history and exploration of the Transantarctic Mountains, the most remote mountain belt on Earth.

In the 1970s and early 1980s having a family member accompany a member of a research party to Antarctica was a fairly common practice. If the question of nepotism ever arose, the National Science Foundation would counter that the lengthy time commitments to work on the ice led to many "Antarctic divorces." Giving a family member an opportunity to be a part of the program could thus be a preventive measure. Policies have changed and now a family member who joins an expedition must have specific qualifications that justify their inclusion, but in 1982 and 1983 I had the good fortune of being able to take my wife, Harriet, along as a field assistant. She was the best field assistant I've ever had.

With a mission of surveying the basement rocks of the Dry Valleys across the sound from McMurdo Station, Harriet and I used helicopter close-support and small camps to visit and sample most of the region. One of our helicopter stops was on Mackay Glacier next to Queer Mountain. Rather than the typical ablation-pitted ice or sastrugi-adorned snow of a glacier, this area was smooth, hard ice of the kind found on a meltwater pond or lake that has frozen. The helicopter had set down about a quarter-mile from the rock, on a patch of rougher ice. Given that there were several inches of water at the edge of the rock, Harriet asked whether the ice was safe. I scoffed, "Sure, I've been on these things a hundred times before, and they are always frozen solid."

After we had collected samples and taken some pictures, we started walking back to the helicopter, single file, Harriet about twenty feet behind me. About one hundred yards out from shore, I heard a muffled swoosh, and a soft, but urgent, "Ed." When I looked around, there was Harriet, up to her armpits in water, leaning out of a large hole in the ice. At first glance it appeared that she was standing on the bottom, but in fact she was kicking frantically to stay afloat, with the bottom nowhere in sight. I lay down prone and reached out to her with my ice axe. She grabbed it and was able carefully to put one leg and then the other out onto solid ice. From there we slowly shuffled back to the helicopter side by side. Harriet was wet to the skin from her waist down, so the helicopter made a quick run directly back to McMurdo.

In the rush of the moment, this rescue was calm and successful. There was no doubt that we would get Harriet out of the drink and that everything would be okay. But in the relaxed security of the warm and pulsing helicopter, my adrenaline flooded in as I thought about what might have happened had the ice been thinner, had we both gone through, had the helicopter not been at hand and had we been some miles from camp. Only then did I get the shakes.

"Harriet, what would I have told your mother?"

Later in the season we flew in over The Labyrinth, an enigmatic landform at the head of Wright Valley, scheduled to pick up a two-man party at the bottom of one of the 300-foot deep valleys. Wind pouring down from Wright Upper Glacier created such turbulence that the helo couldn't descend into the valley, so the pilot radioed to the party to climb up to the top of one of the ridges, and we flew down to Vanda Station on the shore of Lake Vanda to kill a little time.

Vanda Station had been built by New Zealand in 1967-1968 and had been operated continuously during the summer seasons, along with several years in the early 1970s when it had been staffed through the winter. Those who ran the station had started the Vanda Swim Club, which had gained considerable notoriety at the bases on Ross Island. Three rules governed induction into the club: a completely naked plunge into the frigid water that circled Lake Vanda in late December and January; total immersion; and witness by one of the "Vandals," or station personnel. That season the rules had been relaxed to allow some sort of footwear, since too many initiates had come out of the numbing waters with bleeding feet.

Harriet was keen to take a second plunge, so she stripped to her bunny boots and made her way to the shore wrapped in her parka. She was only the second female that season to join the club, and every Vandal on site turned out to witness the induction. Without hesitation, Harriet burst from her parka and charged into the water. When she was about thigh-deep, she threw herself under, with a rebound that gave the impression of a salmon leaping out a rushing waterfall. She intoned a cry somewhere between a scream and a gasp, and charged back up the bank to where I was holding her parka. After we retreated to the warmth of the station for tea and scones, everyone agreed that she had met the criteria splendidly, and I watched proudly as Harriet inscribed her name in the register.

The postscript to this story is that both the Vanda Swim Club and Vanda Station slipped into history as the victims of global warming. Every summer from the early 1970s, the Onyx River had delivered more meltwater to the lake than had ablated during the winter season. By the early 1990s it was clear that the station had only a few more seasons before it would be flooded, and so New Zealand began the sad task of dismantling the buildings and removing about ten tons of contaminated soil. By the end of the 1994-1995 season, not a trace remained of the base, which had for a quarter-century so admirably served the scientists who studied this polar oasis.