The other day my left sock turned up in my zodiac, stuck to the Velcro of my waterproof bag. This particular sock had been missing in action for a good few days, so I was glad that – unlike its fellows of the past that have slunk away during washing machine cycles – it had deemed me worthy of a return visit. A small rubber boat off the Antarctic Peninsula might be last place you’d think to look for such a lost item of clothing, but as my left foot rejoiced, the rest of me started thinking about all of the things that have been lost in Antarctica: Lost pencils, lost minds, lost gloves, lost face, lost ships, lost hope, lost submersibles, lost lives.
It could be said that this is true wherever in the world you happen to be. What makes Antarctica different, though, is the way such losses have been so meticulously recorded. Antarctica has such a young human history, and each expedition south has carefully created inventories of what was taken south.
As for what remained, Vince’s Cross on Ross Island, dedicated to a seaman who perished in the sea in 1902, and the cairn at Petermann Island for the three British Antarctic Survey expeditioners who were lost on the sea ice in 1982 tell but two of the tales of the lives swallowed up by the south. Then there are the years away, cumulative longings for and from home, that weave through the tapestry of life for so many scientists and explorers. How many Christmases in the white continent, away from a child’s laugh? How many relationships bleached sterile with time and distance?
I’ve been thinking about lost things recently because of my notebook that went missing en route to the ship. Closing my eyes, I can still picture the smooth black cover, and the blank white pages with rounded edges, augmented with the weight of future words not yet written. It now joins a single HB pencil – last seen in the vicinity of Castle Rock, Ross Island – in the room of remembered objects now elsewhere.
That pencil, which was tasked with helping us on a geological survey of the volcanic formation, quietly slipped off into the snow to become ensconced in the “wide white page” of the south. Little did it know how much havoc such a disappearance would cause, with incident reports broadcast over the ice shelf to those back at Scott Base, surrounded by their ample supply of lead and forms. Protection is paramount, but purity is a relative concept.
Before I headed south the first time, I headed next door to talk to our neighbour about a time before such forms and formalities; a time when lantern slides and geological exploration reigned supreme. Camped on the ice, at the foot of a great mountain range, he had gone about collecting specimens with fervour. As the collection grew, his tent mate’s sanity ebbed, until the polar madness overcame him.
What the ice gets, the ice keeps.
Unless, of course, it doesn’t.
Halley station, spat out the mouth of a glacier.
Data, tracing earth’s climate back 800,000 years.
Whisky, nestled in the underfloor cavity of Shackelton’s Nimrod hut.
Access to sub-glacial lakes, that network of other-worlds far beneath the surface of the ice.
A lost left sock.