By E. A. FARRO
The airport lights flicker below, and Sig and I part in silence. I creep towards the women’s cabin. Orange and pink bleed into my view of Juneau; the July sun has been setting since we snuck away from camp two hours ago. Sunset will run into the 3 a.m. sunrise; camp will wake promptly at 7:30. I undress in the semi-dark, climb the damp wood rungs to my bunk and listen for my seven sleeping colleagues. We are all geology majors, Class of ’03, in sight of college graduation.
I know I should focus on the science, but I have a need dug deep by socks that won’t dry, the cold of synthetic sleeping bags, and the awkwardness of being in a group of fifty strangers in this wilderness of ice and snow. Sig is on staff. He is ten years older than me. He has shoulder-length blond hair and a sharp nose that divides his symmetrical face and blue eyes. I come up to his chest; the first time we kissed, he lifted to me to his sun-chapped lips and I wrapped my legs around his waist.
Rain pounds on the metal roof. I pull my sleeping bag over my head and do ten crunches to warm myself. These mountains are the first place air hits resistance after leaving Japan. The air, heavy with water, releases upon impact. In winter, snowflakes fall, never repeating the same pattern, but in summer it just rains or stagnates as fog.
We start in Juneau at dawn, hike up through rain forest, reach timberline by lunch, and hike onto the Lemon Creek Glacier in the early evening. An American flag, limp with rain, leads us through the last hour to Camp 27. We leave behind a staircase kicked into the snow. Each camp juts out above the snow as a cluster of metal shacks anchored with thick cables to raw bedrock. Camp 27 greets us with the promise of shelter and the smells of kerosene and mildew.
The ice field is five thousand square miles. Our path, 150 miles as the crow flies, will take two months of zigzagging. Camps are one or two long days of skiing apart. We students are fulfilling field-course credits, but we wonder which of us will come back: the fifteen staff members were all once students. Some are now professors; others have moved to Alaska and sleep in their cars to chase the Northern Lights. For scientific purposes, glaciers are sensitive instruments for monitoring climate change: we monitor, measure, record, observe. We follow in the footsteps of student researchers who have come every summer since 1946 to create a long-term data set for understanding arctic and mountain regions.
We set out a series of stakes in a straight line that runs from one side of the Lemon Creek Glacier to the other. We locate our geographic position at each stake with a GPS unit. After two weeks, the line of stakes becomes a V. Glaciers move faster at the center, slower on the sides. The new geographic location at each stake gives us the distance the glacier has moved, and we calculate velocity. Glaciers move under their own weight, pushed by gravity.
We spend as much time rebuilding, cleaning, painting, insulating, and cooking as we do conducting research. Or: part of conducting research is also feeding ourselves, staying warm, manning the radios, repairing and maintaining structures.
Our leader, Fred F. Ford (F3)—half scientist, half adventurer, a World War II veteran, and a member of the first American expedition to Everest—tells us, “If it weren’t for the science, we’d be another lame Outward Bound program!”
We travel in groups of eight students and two staff. The first hour of skiing to our second camp, I am awake, alert, singing, acutely aware of the dark peaks sticking out of 360 degrees of white. It’s only when I take my pack off that I feel its weight and find the cuts on my hips from the waist straps. The next twelve hours fade into the timeless, repetitive motion of kick-glide kick-glide. We travel in a line, one behind the other; I am at the back. I can do this; I can keep going. Why won’t my legs stop burning? Not fast enough that I break into a sweat—it’s too cold for that kind of energy—but not too slow, or I’ll lose the rhythm. Kick-glide kick-glide.
My leg gives out. I fall onto the snowy slope. Arms and legs splayed, pinned down by my pack, I yell and yell in my head but can’t get a word out. My knees stretch like elastics.
I get up. Start to ski. I bend my knees, but the weight of my sixty-pound pack and my body rests on my thighs. I keep the screams of hot pain in my head, but my leg still gives out.
We started at dawn; it’s now past dinnertime. I arrange my feet parallel to the slope; I use my ski poles to stand. The rest of the students are down in the valley. I see Jane, the other female in our group. I tried talking to her last night—I asked if she was excited or nervous, but she just shrugged and let the conversation die. She glides with momentum across the flat expanse below, her thick brown braid flapping behind her.
I go ten feet and see where someone fell yesterday. The body imprint active, smeared down the length of the slope. I don’t know if the disrupted ski tracks take the lead, but I fall, slide, my body pressing into the ghost from the day before.
Diego, the staff team leader, unhooks my skis, then unclips my waist strap and pulls my arms out of the shoulder straps. I sit up. He stands and calls to the group below, “Set up camp!” It’s an hour short of where we should be, but it is past 10 p.m. The moon is a perfect crescent over the tip of a peak, lined up like it is balanced on the mountain. He pats my shoulder and skis down the last couple hundred yards.
I sit on the slope and try to comfort myself with color; this deep dusk-blue sky will last all night. I watch the tents pop up: yellow, red, green. The domes glow with the flashlights of students setting up sleeping bags. My teeth won’t stop chattering. I wish my friend Kim were in this group; I am relieved Sig is not. Kim and I both have blond hair we braid in pigtails and cover with yellow or orange bandannas. She is from Oklahoma and has never been away from home before. Since the first day in Juneau, she and I were friends, like Sig and I were lovers. I can’t imagine that we will each go back to our homes, separate.
I walk down to camp with my skis over my right shoulder, crashing through snow up to my knees or thighs. I give up for the last bit and slide on my bottom, a ski in each hand.
On a sunny day, we are twenty minutes by helicopter to a hospital, but sometimes it’s not flyable for weeks, they told us in orientation. Dehydration! Hypothermia! Crippling blisters! Foot rot! The threat of wilderness is what makes the science real, what forces me present. Classrooms, textbooks, city grids, job fairs, career counselors—these are sterile. Back on campus, concrete sidewalks and roads suffocate dirt and real life.
There are a thousand ways to die here. A thousand ways to fall into a thousand endless holes and cracks in the ice.
I wear gloves to write in my journal, but my fingers still go numb. What I love about wilderness is the same as what I love about stories. They’re both so much bigger than I am, than any of the characters, than even the end of the story. There’s the other ending to the story too, the one that falls and drops off—the infinity end. There is the feeling that I have always known the story, I just never realized it before—never saw the outline drawn black and clear by a steady hand.
Danny leads our research group of fifteen students, and we are armed with shovels and a GPS unit. We aim for the X on the GPS screen, the exact site studied last year. He is a strange teddy bear of a middle-aged man with overgrown eyebrows and bushy ear hair who carries a kitchen worth of spices in his pack. His leather boots are held together by duct tape. He has come here every other summer since he was a student twenty years ago.
Danny marks off a square of snow four meters by four meters. We dig. Every twenty minutes we switch off to rest, drink water, eat peanuts. Danny tells stories from past years when he dug pits so deep they had to haul the snow out with a bucket-and-pulley system.
I chose my research focus, mass balance, the balance between how much snow accumulates versus how much melts in a year, because I thought it would involve the most time outside. I want to see as much of the ice field as possible.
We dig until we find last year’s snow. When we reach it, a boundary between white and white, we take samples from the pit’s snow wall to measure the volume of snowfall over the whole year. Brittle layers of ice tell of melt events, thick layers of snow tell of storms. All together, the water content in the layers gives us something to compare last year with previous years.
Eight hours into shoveling, countless times switching off, sweat drying, only for us to climb back down into the spiraling staircase of blinding snow, I ask, “Why don’t we just take a core from the snow instead of digging?”
Danny shrugs. We are following in the footsteps of the past.
The numbers we collect on the ice field: the distance from the glaring surface to the bedrock below, the speed of the mile-thick ice, the water equivalent of snowfall in the past year. Incremental progress for science. For me, it’s also an adventure, a collection of people, a story.
One year of low snowpack is an anecdote. But in the context of fifty years of data, we can show a trend, a wiggly line sloping downward to the present. I am humbled to work for one data point, this year, to collect bruises and strained muscles for what accumulates as one spark in the tail of a comet. We will package our summer into theses, add it to the greater collection of data, publish it for the world with the sharp focus of significant digits and uncertainty estimates. All this to demonstrate that the globe is warming; our glaciers are melting.
Fog wraps us tight.
The mass balance team is on a two-day trip. “It’s the most beautiful place on the ice field!” Danny says. But twenty-five miles there, twenty-five miles back, and the fog never lifts: I never see more than ten feet in front of me, never see beyond this whiteness. After we have sung every song we know, a student yells, “Hey, can you ski like this?” He pulls his pants down to his knees. We ski bare-assed, screaming at the top of our lungs.
Back at camp, Kim and I volunteer to paint the outhouse to stay busy until the weather changes.
The outhouses are set off from camp. They house the emergency button, our last-ditch help call. If camp burns, the outhouse should be safe, but it’s a long walk in the middle of the night. Announcements are made at breakfast reprimanding the men for peeing on the rocks in front of their big cabin. There are more than twenty male students. We handful of females, we pee on the rocks in front of our small cabin too, but our rocks don’t smell; we aren’t a critical mass.
“All my friends in Oklahoma are waiting to have sex till they are married. I’m the only one of my girlfriends who’s not engaged. James and I are not waiting!” Kim holds her paintbrush up in the air to make this declaration official.
“I don’t know that I ever want to get married.”
“Really?! Do you want to be a professor?”
“You don’t think you can get married and do research?” I pause; a puddle of paint collects on the floor. My father is a professor. After school and on weekends, I watched him through the glass doors of the dining room. He had a scuffed-up brown leather briefcase open on the table, a pile of overflowing papers, and the extra-long yellow legal pad he scribbled on. I grew up hearing that other professions, things other people’s parents did or our relatives did, were unintellectual or boring. After my parents’ divorce, my dad told me, “I am your father and mother now.” His flexibility to work at home was proof of his special job. I saw my mother on the occasional weekend, but she was busy with boyfriends and a career change.
The fog, like a blanket around the mountains, makes the air warm. It’s hot in the outhouse. Paint drips on my pants and shirt.
“I’m taking my clothes off.” I throw my T-shirt and long underwear onto a rock outside. Kim strips down too, and we paint in our underwear and sports bras.
“I worked in this coffeehouse. One of the girls is bisexual, which is not okay in Stillwater, but I think it’s okay. Do you know? I mean, what do you think? How do two girls have sex?”
At my university on the East Coast, you don’t have to identify as anything to make out with a girl. Sex is a hand squeeze sometimes, a wild scene of flesh, a peaceful moment alone, a construct, a word, a paranoia, a hope, just a moment in time.
I hesitate and then say, “Did you hear about the outhouse that was here before? During a blizzard, right after this guy stepped out, a gust of wind came, and the outhouse blew away in chunks.”
Since no one ever found the debris, its adventure is a mystery. In this bare landscape, the four walls of an outhouse should stick out. Anytime we see strange shapes in the distance, I think, Could it be?
Kim says, “My twin! After we graduate in May, I will either move somewhere with James or to where you are.”
Sig also brought up my moving to be with him next spring.
“Just think what we can do together,” she says.
It’s a helicopter day. Mail day! We have mail only when helicopters drop food, diesel, and equipment. We give the helicopter pilots money for cigarettes. I chew wads of tobacco, try not to gag, and then spit the brown ooze onto the snow.
I grab my small stack of envelopes and walk away from camp, downhill from the cabins; lay on a large boulder warm from the sun. I peel off my clothes, which have never been washed. Lying naked, alone in the sun, I feel clean. I rub a handful of snow over my skin like it is a bar of soap.
I slit open the envelopes and peer at familiar handwriting. I even take a few letters out before I shove them back in. I read six postcards from my dad written over the course of three weeks and out of order. A postcard from a bar in New York with a penguin on it just says, MWAH! Michelle. That’s my favorite. I don’t read the rest; home and friends are too far.
F3 tells us that science is about sacrifice: you follow ideas with no guarantee that they will work out. It is about pushing yourself to the limit physically and mentally. “But you also need shelter and warm food to do good science.” He points proudly at the ceiling of the shack we are in.
I don’t know that I am good enough for the expedition. There were no fitness requirements, and most of us had never skied backcountry before. A month out, and I’m still thrown off by the weight of my pack, and I am the only one who still falls when I ski downhill. I get too cold to think. My fingers can’t hold the pencil. I’m recording measurements, but the numbers begin to take up half and then the entire page. We are here to push ourselves to the limit. I ski in the tracks of the person in front of me, in the tracks set fifty years ago by the first expedition on the ice field. When I feel too tired, I breathe in the eerie blue dusk reflected from all sides by snow and breathe out “WAHOOOOO” at the top of my lungs.
Sig and I make love on a plank of wood over the entrance hall. Numerous makeshift beds in each camp, with makeshift ladders to climb, carry the mark of past students. It is mid-morning; we hear the door into the hall swing open. And close. The door out of the hall and into the kitchen swings open. Then closed. I’m on my belly, hips arched, Sig over me, one hand on my mouth. I smell kerosene from the lamps stored in the hallway. Through the curtain of Sig’s hair, I watch the coils of rope hanging from the rafters sway as the doors below us open. And close. I listen to Sig breathe.
I saw a picture of lions making love once, the male over the female like this. She was reaching up, mouth open to roar, poised as if about to bite his neck. I feel the thick mess of my curls. Sig’s hair is a knotted web that I can’t run my fingers through anymore. The chaos of wilderness is in us: in our hair, our fingernails, our dirt-stained skin, our hearts. We strive to live up to the landscape.
My pinky won’t bend; I have cuts on my hips; I wear duct tape on my heels to prevent blisters. I’m confused about the balance between self-destruction and growth. It’s only one missed step jumping across a crevasse that opens 150 feet. Holes that stare like blue eyes out of the mountain. I peer in, and infinity stares back. In this vast expanse of white contours, our expedition is just a scattering of ants, dots on the landscape.
F3 tell us, “We won’t even try to retrieve your body if you fall into a moulin!”
Ice is a solid that can never make up its mind. It is always melting and refreezing. Water flows over and then pours through itself. Trickles build to streams. Waterfalls smash through the moulins—deep holes two or three feet in diameter. We take turns going up close. One by one, we lie on our bellies and shimmy to the edge, feel the ice shake with the sound of thunder.
I tell myself that I don’t care what happens to my body after I’m dead.
We ski down from a small rest stop on our way to Camp 18. We had to sweep mouse shit off the floor before putting our sleeping bags down last night. We leave early morning, the surface of the snow slick with ice and carved into “sun cups,” bowl-shaped inclines, one to three feet in diameter. I ski and fall. Ski and fall with nothing to dig my skis into, topsy-turvy, falling in and out of the sun cups. Everything looks the same right side up as upside down: white clouds and snow separated by a thin sliver of gray peaks. It’s kick-glide then slide, knees bent, back straight, the weight of the world on my thighs.
I can’t tell if the chatter in my teeth comes from the snow up or from the thoughts in my head down.
I think about my friend Michelle who sent me the penguin. She told me a story once about John Lennon and Yoko Ono falling in love. Before they knew each other, John went to one of her art shows. There was a ladder, and he could see a piece of paper at the top. As he was climbing, he thought, Gee, I hope this is something good. He got to the top and read, YES.
I think about saying yes to the mountain, relaxing my body, giving it up. I might fall; I might break my leg; I might crash through a crevasse. But I give myself over to the mountain, skiing, falling, Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Our most scientific actions become myth as we perform the same procedures used in the late 1940s. The handle of my shovel is coarse with rust; I speak with the past in the repetition of bend, dig, lift, throw. I try to please the faceless voices I know by name and hometown from reading the ceilings of cook shacks. Jeff Scottie, Denver, Colorado 1990 1991 1992 2002 . . . Every camp is full of stories and song lyrics that chaotically fill the walls of buildings and the dark outhouses. Beware the Center of the Llewellyn . . . What a long long time to be gone and a short time to be here . . . We try to catch up to the ghosts, to work as hard, to go back to the exact spots they went. The shovels stay the same, but the shovelers change. Every twenty minutes. Every summer.
When we find last year’s surface of snow near Camp 18 and it is only three meters deep, I shudder: last year it was eight. I’m glad to finish the snow pit, disappointed to not know the feel of shoveling more than twice as much snow, but my fingers and toes burn from cold. All the past students who carved their names or song lyrics or jokes on a wall, they all made it. I’m one of them now; I try to convince myself: One of them.
I hear the gurgles of an old-fashioned plane. “That guy went on the program years ago. He sometimes flies up here and drops treats, like ice cream or soda.” Sig winks and skies off. We try not to talk in public; we see each other at night. I dream of mint chocolate chip ice cream. When I’m sick of the rain, I dream of snow.
I don’t really know how far we are from civilization, but we joke that it is a six-day ski to the closest bar. When we finally step/slide off the last bit of ice, onto soft sand that doesn’t come up to meet my foot but lets me sink in, I stare at the trees surrounding the glacially fed lake. I can feel their smell on my skin, I can feel the presence of life knotted underground and reaching up and out above ground. It’s the freshness of oxygen in constant exchange between photosynthesis and respiration. Did they smell this too? All the others? The past students, as they crossed from ice to land?
Sig and I hike to a lookout spot of rock, the panorama of ice bright below. Sig pulls out a joint. I laugh. We make love on our knees in the open air.
Yellow circles of lichen on the rocks, the grays and browns of dirty ice stretched to infinity below, and the metal roofs of camp visible by the glint of sun. We sit in silence for a long time.
“Where did you get weed?”
“I wanted to tell you, but I could get in a lot of trouble. I think you can handle being in on it now.” Sig giggles, “I brought it from Juneau. I have been stoned ALL summer.”
I look at his big smile, a mouth so large it could swallow me whole.
We reach the névé line where the snow stops and the blue ice starts. At the next camp, we will study streams that run over the ice. We take off our skis, attach them to the sides of our packs. I have a sense of what it is like to be eight feet tall. The next camp is only three miles of walking or jumping across crevasses. The ice is dirty, brown and gritty; the August sun melts millions of tiny holes, so each footstep is a crunch-crunch, and I think of walking on the surface of a tooth riddled with cavities. I cannot stop turning to look back at the sublime white of snow and the outline of peaks I can navigate like a sailor looking at the stars. I feel empty despair, like I am walking away from a lover who is the whole world to me. I keep singing, and I don’t have to cry because it’s raining and I’ve been wet all day, but I feel the distance of leaving the snow with each crunch-crunch, brittle ice breaking into jagged edges under my feet.
Jane skies in circles around us. “I just want to stay warm. I wish we didn’t have to stop.” The rest of us drink water and eat two-day-old mashed sandwiches. The occasional cloud makes shadows on the glacier. I am exhausted, and it is a beautiful day. I want to lie back for ten minutes, feel the sun and blue skies above.
The next hour, Diego calls to stop, but Jane, still restless, skies ahead. She comes in and out of our view as the snow slopes uphill, then downhill. We take a short break; no one talks. We start again, pace ourselves. Diego wants to reach Jane, to not let her go beyond the horizon. We space ourselves out. No one jokes or shouts. I sing Bob Marley under my breath: Rub it on my belly like guava jelly. It takes five hours before we come upon her.
I ski to her. A knot twists inside. My vision is funny, like I have red-colored glasses on. Jane is between Diego’s legs, limp and strange-looking.
I empty my pack onto the snow: sweater, batteries, sleeping bag, dry socks, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I undress and dress parts of her. Jane and I are not friends. But I am the other female in our group. I swap her damp turtleneck for my sweater, her stiff socks for a dry brittle pair of mine. Jane shivers, drenched in cool sweat.
The body can create its own natural disasters, small earthquakes that rupture. Rippling goosebumps and hair sticking on end. We lay her on a tarp, wrap her in three sleeping bags.
“I’m so sorry. I was just so cold.” Snot pours out her nose, her red face scrunched with the effort of tears. She repeats the same hysterical sentence: “I’m so sorry, guys. Guys, I’m so sorry.”
Diego radios camp, “We need help!”
I hold her head in my lap, pet her face like it’s a small animal. “Think of home.”
“My parents are away on vacation. No one is there,” she sobs.
“Think of your favorite food.”
“I can’t take another day of macaroni and cheese with Spam.” Spit flies from her mouth.
Out of topics that feel organic, like mud, like honey, I turn to her faith.
It’s something she told me about a few weeks ago. Samantha, an out lesbian, and I were talking about gay communities on our campuses. When Sam left for breakfast, I stayed behind to put away some things.
“Excuse me.” I jumped. Jane was behind me. “I just want you to know that I am a Christian.” I looked at her, green bandanna over brown hair, her face like stone.
And now, we are two small dots blinded by the reflection of sun on ice a thousand years old. Her head in my lap, and I drop the words God and your faith into her open mouth. She quiets.
The snowmobile arrives; she can’t hold onto the driver. We stuff her into
a basket on the back, her arms and legs stick up out of the mesh.
I feel dirty, like we shared something empty, a quickie in an anonymous bathroom, a fuck in a parked car. I am ashamed at my easy out, using God.
What I want to tell her is that we are making it, that we have to keep going, to see what the scientists who came before saw, to measure how it is different, to record this moment, add it to a collection of moments, like these, the last fifty years on the ice field, fifty other groups of explorers.
We made it. We are here.
Say yes, I want to tell her. Just say yes.
So many small moments are what make a story, are what add up to infinity.
Give yourself over.
I only hope that what I feel, what I know in this moment, this truth, that I can remember it. That it won’t fade like the patterns on a rock from the ocean when it dries. That when I’m down from the mountain, I will still know what I knew up high.
E.A. Farro is working in tandem on a collection of fiction stories and non-fiction essays about women straddling traditional roles and professional aspirations.