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Only just charted territory

In Antarctica, maps are a little different. Sara Wheeler speaks from experience

Sara Wheeler | September/October 2013

This tatty map, kept safe in its cardboard tube for two decades, takes me back to one of the happiest moments of my life. In 1994 I spent seven months in the Antarctic, camping in the Transantarctic Mountains, close to the Taylor Glacier at about 77 degrees south. You can see a loop of the Taylor close to the foot of the page. I was the guest of an eight-strong American science camp investigating nitrates in the water columns of Lake Bonney. It felt like stepping off the planet.

I spent my time taking notes for a book and helping with the donkey work in the campspooling rubber tubes into a hole in the ice, dragging water samples on a Nansen sledge, cooking bread-and-butter pudding with powdered egg. We each had a pup tent for sleeping, and did everything else in a Jameswayan arched rigid-frame tent heated by a drip-oil Preway burner. The Jamesway was a relic of the Korean war in the 1950s. A sign above the door said, "Good morning scientists! It’s a good day for science!" We ate at a long trestle table which had an inflatable palm tree sprouting from it. A gas-powered fridge was filled with water samples in test tubes, leaving the food to be stored on the floor.

Captain Scott discovered the 34-mile Taylor Glacier on his first expedition, the one that sailed south in 1901. Named after Griffith Taylor, one of Cook’s geologists, the glacier lies at the head of an arid valley created by the advances and retreats of glaciers through the Transantarctic Mountains. These dry valleys, partially free of ice for about 4m years, are dotted with saltwater basinsyou can see some of them on the mapand they form one of the most extreme deserts in the world. NASA tested robotic probes there before dispatching them on interplanetary missions. One of the engineers told me, "This is as close to Mars as we can get."

My crew at Lake Bonney, funded by the National Science Foundation, were melting holes in the 12-foot lid of ice that covered the lake and lowering sediment traps to the bottom. It was complex, fraught and expensive work, and their shifts often extended to 30 hours straight. Down south, it’s hard to keep an ice hole open for three months. The team waged a constant battle against the Big Freeze. Over supper (usually pasta with freeze-dried vegetable sauce), the guysyup, all guystalked about the organic carbon sloshing around at the bottom of the lake and the ribboned crystals trapped in the ice cover, and asked each other questions about the microbial life going about its business in the soupy, nitrate-rich water.

One cool February afternoon when I was not needed at camp, I hiked up the valley, enjoying a temperature of five degrees belowwhat passes for clement weather in Antarctica. There was no wind. I could hear the moat ice cracking on the shore of Lake Bonney and watched the tobacco plumes of Mount Erebus staining the sky. The twin peaks of the Quartermains ahead were the only thing that lay between me, the polar plateau and the South Pole, though that was a long way off. Many of the lower slopes of the mountains poking through the ice sheet were ablated with ice, which is rare in the Antarctic. The light was pale as a young lemon.

Fearful of losing my bearings, I stopped to fish this map from my pack and spread it on the ice. Created by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in the 1980s, it represents part of the Antarctic continent on a 1:250,000 scale. I traced my route by topographical landmarks, including an especially pointy mountain which the glaciologists had called the Doesn’t Matterhorn. My finger came to a zigzag drawn with a ruler marked “Limit of compilation”. Beyond that, the sheet was blank. I had reached the end of the map.

That was where I wanted to be. Uncharted territory.

Later on that hike, I passed a long-dead seal on the moraine, wholly intact, its form coated with mossy green fur. When I told the science team leader about it, he said, "You are in a place which knows no degradation." It was the right way of putting it, capturing the timelessness of Antarctica. John Priscu, now professor of ecology at Montana State University at Bozeman, had already clocked up ten seasons in the Antarctic. Since my visit he has had a valley and a stream officially named after him, like Mr Taylor. Sitting in the Jamesway one bright white night after a punishing day hauling water samples from the lake, he told me he believed the history of the planet was calibrated in the ice.

Since the USGS made this map, satellites have transformed the way we look at the world, and I don’t suppose there is anywhere unmapped today. My map is part of the past. Contemporary scientists hauling samples from the lakes in the dry valleys use more sophisticated maps. But Antarctica still beats run-of-the-mill cartographers. If you search for the Taylor Glacier on Google Maps, you’ll see what I mean.

I like this map for its lack of human spoilageno cities or highways. In London, hunched in my office behind a rain-spattered window, I often unfurl it and trace the glaciers and valleys I once knew so well. But in my dreams, I always stand at the Limit of compilation. ~ Sara Wheeler

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