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17 December, 2003

One Small Step in Antarctica Equals One Giant Leap For This Florida Girl

While I always thought I knew how to walk, each new location and Antarctic experience seemed to require a slightly different version of this skill that is normally taken for granted. Coming from a land of flat surfaces and sand, learning how to walk on the icy continent was difficult.

Hiking throughout the valleys was the first of many challenges. Steep inclines and sometimes loose rocky soil resulted in me slipping down the sides of numerous mountains as my foot slid, causing a mini avalanche. This was especially true on my very first hike, which had me walking "sideways" across the incline of the peek, instead of going up or down it. I remember thinking it was going to be a long five weeks if I continued to fall down three steps for every one step I took. Thankfully we did not do a lot of sideways hiking and mainly went straight up or straight down. When hiking up, you have to make sure your foot is planted before moving the next. Keeping my feet stretched out in sort of a V pattern was helpful, as was literally walking sideways.

Going down was even scarier than going up, and unfortunately this was an area in which I improved the least. Walking sideways, crossing one foot over another was helpful, as was having my arms there to help me with my balance. My team affectionately teased me saying I looked like an orangutan with my arms dangling.

Since the only frozen water I'd ever come across had been floating in my coke, Antarctica provided me with my first experience of walking across a frozen lake. This required very small shuffles or a "clutch cargo" step (named after the old cartoon character) in which you place your foot very flatly on the ice.

By the time I got a handle on walking in the Valleys, it was time to learn how to walk up snowy inclines using crampons and take a stab at cross-country skiing. I also learned that an ice axe makes a good walking stick. Crevasses and snow bridges have to be spotted in hopes that you can walk over them, and ice that looks like it is solid doesn't always hold your weight. The sudden surprise when your foot falls through still caught me off guard.

Hiking around McMurdo has its challenges too. Around town I could walk normally as long as there wasn't a lot of ice, deep snow, or mud. Unfortunately this was not always the case. In the beginning there was a lot more snow around town, which continually melted and refroze causing it to become slick and icy. As new snow blew on top of it, you couldn't always see the ice below it. One night on my way home from the lab my foot slipped out from under me and I took a good tumble. Each morning as I walked out of 155 towards Crary I would cautiously take little baby steps as if I were trying to sneak up on someone until I reached the cross bridge, which usually had rockier soil on the other side. Depending on which way I was walking the bridge meant a sigh of relief, or a moment of panic. Later I became more comfortable walking this path, but I can only imagine how silly I looked those first few weeks.

During and just after our condition 1 and condition 2 days McMurdo was covered in deep patches of snow. Depending on the amount of snow and its texture, I found it helpful to dig my heels in to the snow or step right into other people's footsteps. Huge marches are all you can do when you are walking in snow that is nearly knee high.

Now that we are in the height of summer, McMurdo has turned into "Muc-Mudo" as the sun has melted the snow, causing running streams and muddy puddles. I spent my last few weeks dodging more mud puddles than icy patches.

While I never thought I'd be learning how to walk again, I did get the hang of it. A few weeks ago even Laurie was commenting as to how I'd graduated to walking like a polar girl.

Hmmm... Now that I've got a handled on walking in Antarctica, I wonder if I'm finally ready to own a pair of high heels?

1. Dr. Rusty Rodriguez and Dr. Regina Redman demonstrate the lake ice shuffle. --

2. Me learning how to walk down hill in Taylor Valley.

3. Ankle deep in snow just after condition 2

4. The view of the path to the footbridge just after condition 2. My dorm is located on the right (just off the page) and Crary is to the left of the bridge and is hidden by the snow mound. Now the path to the footbridge is free of snow and ice and is mainly a muddy mess. --

5. Learning to ski --

6. Learning to walk up snowy incline using crampons during snow craft II School. Still looking like a monkey... --

7. Our feet constantly broke through snow formations such as these. While sampling at Minna Bluffs and Black Island we had to be alert when walking over this lacy/feathery pattern. --

8. The team using ice axes as a walking sticks --

9. And when all else fails when going down hill, use your bottom! --

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