White dreams

Mary Roach explains why she was wandering around Antarctica with a white plastic garbage pail over her head.

Published December 1, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

People who live in Antarctica develop an eye for whites. One day last year, while skidooing the two miles from McMurdo Base to his classroom out on the Ross Ice Shelf, U.S. Antarctic Program survival instructor Bill McCormick spotted a piece of white styrofoam on the snow. You have to admit it's impressive, an ocular achievement akin to spotting a Wheatie in your All-Bran.

McCormick's two-day cold weather survival course is a requirement for new Antarctica arrivals who plan to spend any time in the field. That includes both researchers and support staff, plus the occasional visiting journalist. Students learn how to build emergency snow shelters (igloos, trenches) and operate shortwave radios, and how not to get frostbite or hypothermia doing it.

McCormick, a 48-year-old mountaineering guide from Colorado, is at this moment lecturing on an extremely white weather condition called whiteout. Every fourth or fifth sentence he breaks stride for a swallow of coffee, which he takes black. Whiteouts are snowstorms so trumped-up and incorrigible that ground and air, horizon and sky, are indistinguishable, a colorless, directionless chowder of fog and snow. McCormick has seen people get lost on the 50-foot walk from his classroom to the outhouse. (Another reason to be wary of ice-sheet outhouses: Seals occasionally use the opening in the ice as a blowhole. While there's nothing inherently dangerous about a suppositorial blast of hot seal breath, it is, in the words of one shaken veteran, "a disquieting way to start your day.")

McCormick tried for years to come up with an accurate description of what it's like to be in a whiteout. What he finally settled on was being outdoors with a white plastic garbage pail over your head. This gave him an idea. To make his search-and-rescue exercises more challenging for his students (and more entertaining for himself), McCormick requisitioned a stack of white plastic garbage pails.

In this afternoon's search-and-rescue exercise, McCormick is taking the role of the lost victim. A small group of students is given a coil of rope, a sheaf of trail marker flags, garbage pails and instructions to go out and find their instructor without getting lost themselves. That done, McCormick disappears into the almost painful brightness of an Antarctic afternoon.

Steve, a carpenter from Colorado, suggests looping the rope around
everyone's waist
and sweeping back and forth in a line, windshield wiper-style. "What if he's
gone beyond
the edge of the windshield?" wonders Kevin, a plumber with a Marlboro more or
permanently attached to his face. The class thinks about this for a while.
Every now and
again, a plaintive "help" issues from somewhere beyond the back door.

Steve is plotting strategy like a high school football coach, filling the
chalkboard with
arrows and semicircles. "We'll cover from here to here, plant a marker, come
back, untie
the rope, retrace our steps to here ..."

A man who studies nematodes for a living wants to know what the other end
of the rope
is tied to. Kevin wants to know who died and made Steve king. Someone else is
a "sort of backwards, lying-down human pyramid."

"Help ..."

"I'll go boil some hot water," says Kevin, as though perhaps McCormick had
gone into

Ten minutes pass. McCormick's face appears in the window. It's a face that
long ago
signed a pact with the sun. "Remember me?" he yells through the glass. "I'm
very cold."

Abandoning all hope of an organized rescue effort, the rescuers don garbage
pails, loop
the rope around themselves and make their way out the door, lurching and
Eventually someone trips over McCormick, who is then rolled onto Kevin's parka
dragged across the snow. At some point, probably the point where Kevin trips
over the
rope and the nematode guy falls over, McCormick has flopped onto his face.
"Hey, look,"
says Kevin. "We suffocated him."

Steve wants to do CPR. Kevin is going through McCormick's pockets. Mount
lounges on the horizon, puffing peaceably.

Back in the classroom, McCormick delivers his critique. The words "might
have been
wiser" figure prominently. Had this been a real emergency, McCormick would have
suffered severe frostbite. "Severe," in this case, is not merely an adjective
but an official
frostbite category, the other three being Superficial, Deep and Profound. In
the Antarctic
winter, when windchill bullies the mercury into negative triple digits, a man
can get
frostbite in the time it takes to find his fly. "Know your layers," says
McCormick, who has
a way of being superficial and profound at the same time.

In keeping with the experiential nature of the course, dinner takes the
form of survival
bag rations. All Antarctic flights and field expeditions carry survival bags:
canvas duffels
with shovels for building snow shelters, camp stoves that can run on plane
fuel and a few
vacuum-packed backpacking meals to keep your stomach quiet while you freeze.
tackling dehydrated Turkey Teriyaki, describes the food as "a little preview of

It's 9 p.m., time to turn in. The nematode people take the igloo,
leaving the rest of the
group to share a Scott tent, a bulky teepee-like affair made of bright yellow
canvas that
blocks most of the wind and some of the sun. (Antarctica in summer presents the
uncommon and inadvisable option of tanning while you sleep.) The inside of the
tent has
an amber glow, like going to sleep with a yellow plastic garbage pail over
your head.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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