We were admirably prepared for the task, Gregg Stanton and I. Of course we could build an igloo. He was from Florida. I was living in California. Igloos were in our blood.
It was a survival training course out on the ice offshore of Ross Island, Antarctica. Stanton was there as a biologist and diver, preparing to study bottom organisms in the icy sea. I was there as a writer. But one of the first things done by almost everyone who goes to work under the guidance of the U.S. National Science Foundation in Antarctica is to take a two-day survival course. This involves sleeping in the snow. At the end of the first day everyone is issued a sleeping bag, a foam pad, a shovel, a saw, no tent, and instructions.
On the afternoon of that first day our group of 15 sat in a little A-frame hut in which teacups hung from the ceiling, and discussed shelter. Instructors went through the options. You could dig a trench in the hard snow, put little sleeping platforms off it and cover it with blocks. Quick, easy, warm. Or you could build an igloo.
"But remember, you have to sleep in it tonight whether you've finished it or not."
You could make a pile of gear -- sleeping bags, packs, anything big -- pile snow high on top of it, pack it down, then tunnel in and remove the gear, leaving a cavity that could be hollowed out. Simple, adequate, warm. Or you could build an igloo.
"An igloo is a little tricky to build. The tendency is to go around and around and then you wind up with a cylinder that goes up and up. And remember, you have to sleep in it."
"Who wants to build an igloo with me?" Stanton said. Silence. "I've always wanted to build an igloo," he said. "Anybody want to work on it?" Silence.
What's this? Stanton was from Florida. To acclimate for diving in Antarctica he had gone diving in Florida's cold springs. The water had been 70 degrees. He was prepared. The sea water in Antarctica was 30 degrees. Sure. He knew about igloos.
At last I could see there was no option. Everyone else here was practical. They were planning trenches. But someone must build an igloo. So I joined him. I, too, was prepared. I lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., where people think about igloos every day.
Stanton was serene. I worried. He was the engineer and construction crew. I worked in the mines, sawing blocks out of the snow. It was firn; F-I-R-N. It was hard and light. If you dig a snow cave in firn you could seal in the door and breathe through several feet of it. It could be cut into blocks with a saw. A piece two feet by two feet, 10 inches thick, was easy to carry and easy to lift into place on the wall.
Stanton measured and ruminated and fitted blocks into walls. I quarried and worried and brought him blocks. The survival school crews built their homes next to the area lived in by last week's school. Their trenches and mounds were already drifted over. Their little village looked like a ruin, already tumbling before the inexorable Antarctic wind. All our brave little shelters were doomed.
Other teams were below ground before we had our walls up to the second row of blocks. Then both my fretting and Stanton's serenity became more pronounced. Trench builders started dropping by, making cheerful observations about the comfort they were soon to experience below the surface. Stanton smiled. I kept sawing. The others went smugly back to their trenches.
At least we were learning fast. We learned first that to prevent an igloo from becoming a cylinder you have to lean the blocks inward, and leaning blocks tended to fall off the wall. Firn was a marvelous building material, but dropped from any elevation it became powder.
The blocks, initially crude cubes, grew more sophisticated. In the cutting they had to be beveled on all sides to tilt and gather toward the middle. We built little towers out of ruined blocks to hold the first blocks of each row up, but found that as soon as three or four blocks were in place, they leaned against each other at angles and held each other up, like drunks on a street corner. We boiled snow over a gasoline stove and made tea. We drank some and used the rest to glue the blocks together. It made them look as if they had been anointed by a dog, but it worked.
The sun rolled around the big blue sky. A gentle plume rose from Mount Erebus, the famous Antarctic volcano, and blew nowhere. Antarctica was benign today. It was tolerant of our endeavor. When Larry Gould and his colleagues, who went south with Admiral Richard E. Byrd, tried to cut snow blocks out of firn near the Rockefeller Mountains to build a wall around their restless airplane (which later flew away by itself in the storm), the wind took the blocks and flung them at the builders' heads. Our igloo was whimsical; put a little sting in the air and we'd be right down there in the pits, grubbing out a trench with the rest of them.
But in the clean and pleasant sunshine we raised our dome. The temperature was warm: 12 degrees. Ever anxious, I became an expert with the saw; the blocks were marvels of precision, eyeballed to fit. Stanton grew insouciant with his competence; he popped the blocks up on the wall at remarkable angles and they stuck. Now, by God, using tea was cheating.
Observers became respectful. One even posed for a photograph beside our house. I had to kneel to cut out each block; my knees became raw and proud. At last, to finish, we completed an arch across the top and filled it in with firm firn wedges.
Inside the light was cut into blue squares, like luminous blue tile. We could sit up in there and stay dry: Ask them in the trenches about that. Down in those close quarters they looked up from prone and got snow in the face. I suffered a small setback in the process of making the igloo comfortable when the gasoline pressure stove caught fire and threatened to explode until we dumped snow on it, but the brief conflagration just sealed the walls. Next door, where David White, the chief scientist for Stanton's project, was building one of those domes made of snow piled on equipment, the residents found themselves jammed in a space just big enough for two rolled-up sleeping bags and a shovel; but we could stretch, breathe and converse.
Late in the evening White, a small, wonderfully good-humored man, came over from his snow heap for a visit. He was thoroughly damp from the excavation he'd been doing, and was not so charmed by the conditions in what we could now refer to, with disdain, as his hovel. During our conversation a brief, plaintive observation escaped him.
"Do you ever wonder," he said, "just why you're here?"
This was a question others shared. "Sometimes," a woman at the biolab in the nearby research town of McMurdo said once, "I get to wondering why the hell I'm here. Then I think: Where else would I rather be?"
That was not White's meaning. He was delighted to be on the continent. But he could think of a number of places he would rather be right now without leaving Antarctica. His room at the California Hotel in McMurdo, for instance. He didn't object to being in Antarctica; he just didn't see much need to learn how to live on the ice. It was an understandable sentiment: The farthest he would get in his work from the safety of McMurdo was a diving hut about 300 yards out on the sea ice along the Willie Field road.
I should have shared his good-natured frustration; my skills in cutting blocks of firn would come in mighty handy out in the dust of the Dry Valleys, where I was scheduled to go. But I didn't. I was drier than he was, first of all. I knew, as he did also, that good-natured complaints didn't obscure the fact that these two days were intended primarily to make us respect the cold. And tonight Stanton and I had achieved a simple thing, and we felt a simple pleasure. We had made our shelter; it was sound, comfortable and bright; and it was the best house in town. It was eight feet in diameter. It was five feet high. It felt like a cathedral.
Outside, the world became utterly quiet, as our fellow survival students went to bed, so the occasional sound of footsteps was loud, and the eventual absence of them was an enormous soothing peace. My anxiety disappeared, and Stanton was proud. We felt so damned resourceful that we brought the stove back inside, opened a can of freeze-dried pork with a crampon point and feasted on hash and chops for dinner. We could handle this place, Antarctica. The sun shone upon us, our igloo glowed a gentle blue, the wind did not blow, and Antarctica smiled.
Adapted from the book "South Light: A Journey to the Last Continent," by Michael Parfit.
1985, Michael Parfit. Reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co.