Down the Rabbit Hole

Marco Flagg

Marco Flagg was born in Germany. He is a self-taught engineer who found himself in Antarctica testing an under-ice navigation system he had designed and built. As a kid, he had biked his way across Europe and hitch-hiked the oceans aboard freighters. He has been in two small plane crashes, a malfunctioning deep-water submarine, attacked by a great white shark, and has survived them all with the same look in his eyes that only geniuses and lunatics possess.

So, when Marco suggested we boondoggle over to Castle Rock that afternoon, it was without question or hesitation that the five of us FiNGy’s checked-out from the firehouse before our Sunday brunch had even begun to settle.

“FiNGy” (pronounced “FiNGee”) is proper pronunciation for the Antarctic acronym “FNG” – Fucking New Guy. Being a FiNGy is a privilege, especially for those who spent years of their lives earning the opportunity to wash dishes, drive shuttles, or shovel the snow of Antarctica. It is an identity which cannot be defined by age or education, but only by the willingness to do whatever it takes to experience the world’s southernmost continent.

This treasure does not come without trial, however, and FiNGy’s must learn to filter the truthful tales from the bogus claims about life on the ice. Their FiNGal identity can be subtly shaped by their acceptance of offers such as a tour of a visiting nuclear submarine, camping in Scott’s historical hut, or even by believing the tale of a Kiwi winter-over living in an ice cave. These were some of the allegations I heard my FiNGy year, and they were filed in the back of my mind as the few Antarctic experiences I was not planning to pursue.

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Hiking out to Castle Rock

It was our first hike of the season. Our quick-pace was fueled by the good weather we had on that cloudless, windless day whose tranquility had overloaded our senses that were still in shock from lack of Antarctic stimuli. This serenity was short lived however, as the teeth in our heads began to clatter from the -30⁰F temperatures that surrounded, and this quickly became cause to duck inside a Red Apple near the base of Castle Rock.

Red Apple shelter provided en route to Castle Rock

Our Nalgene bottles had thinly frozen, but the hydration helped to warm our core nonetheless. Even still, two of our team decided to turn back towards town, as their non-insulated boots would not withstand the remainder of the trek. Our group of 5 FiNGy’s dwindled to three, but not before we all signed the log-book, and claimed our space in this rare piece of Antarctic produce.

About to enter the ice shelf

It was then that Marco, Dustin, and I scrambled down the peninsula, and entered onto the flat frozen ice sheet that would comprise the rest of our journey. What little sunlight we were afforded that time of year had slipped behind the rock, and as we hiked in its shadow, these cooling temperatures were met with the wind and snow from a storm that had tactlessly timed itself with our position. As we slid deep into our parkas, we lost sight of both our periphery and our partners, and the three of us became separated on the stretch of trail leading back to civilization.

Scott Base - A welcomed site for sore, frozen eyes

Footprints were the only things visible amongst the powder, and I did my best to follow them for the next three miles until the snow-road finally turned to dirt as we approached Scott Base. The lime-green glow of the Kiwi’s Antarctic home was warming on our eyes but did little for our hearts, and only after regrouping did we invite ourselves into their station in both the name of comfort and safety.

As the snow in our hair began to melt, we walked with red-nose and in stocking feet towards the bar, but were met with an absent silence unlike any we had ever experienced on “American Night.” Unsure of where to turn, we looked in the adjoining kitchen, and saw a man who was staring at us more blindly than a deer into headlights, and after explaining our situation, he invited us to sit and warm over some coffee and biscuits.

The jitter of our hands that had been from the cold was now from caffeine, and this helped to fuel both our spirits and our conversation as we sat with Paul – the electrician from Christchurch.  But after an hour of exchanging pleasantries, there was little depth in our dialogue, so I took the opportunity to ask him about the Kiwi ice cave, and debunk what was surely just a hoax meant for FiNGy reflection.

His candor was the cause for our surprise, and we sat in awe through the explanation of how it was he who had built, and lived, in the notorious ice cave all winter. The whites of our eyes had accepted his invitation long before it was extended, and we soon stood outside watching the blue extension cord disappear in the snow, trying to imagine what it could possibly empower.

It was a small opening, not even tall enough to crawl, but one-by-one we dove after Paul, down the rabbit hole, pulling ourselves along on our elbows. What little light remained outside had soon disappeared, and the new-found darkness in the narrow tunnel helped form a feeling of claustrophobia.

Paul asked that we not take pictures, as the ice cave was frowned upon the by NZ Antarctic Program. But, Alice's experience in Wonderland is a pretty close parallel

The tunnel’s gentle down-slope soon turned skyward, and we arrived to a small room with two bunks carved out of snow, one on either side. Between these slabs of frozen slumber stood a small table, atop of which was tall, slender tube.

This hookah-like object was, unfortunately, just a lamp, and as rays of light passed through the patterns of its punctured exterior, so too did any thought of heightening this experience in the company of a caterpillar. The room seemed to shrink as the four of us attempted to stand, and we soon found ourselves back in the tunnels, crawling our way towards the second of this three-roomed frozen manor.

It was a large, circular space with bench seats carved into the perimeter, and a pillar of snow standing in the center. A light bulb was embedded in the snow-column’s core whose hazy yellow glow made our appearance seem shrunken in the room’s ample interior – one that afforded seating for nine. But rather than test our fortunes with a bite from this metaphysical mushroom, we crawled through the wall and entered the final chamber of Paul’s winter-ous haven.

The space was suitably sized for our foursome, and two in a line we sat on the floor, with our backs against its square, frozen sides whose wall-ends were left open to accommodate a movie projector and a small pull-down screen. Its bulb would not burn during our time in the theater however, so it was only with our imaginations that we could picture the inevitable end to this underworld journey.

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Unlike any time before had a thunderous ride in the back of a Land Cruiser been silenced by the minds pride, and only as we sat at dinner did the full extent of “what-the-hell-just-happened” start to be realized.  After many a quick-stare and smirky-grin did the three of us succumb to tell the other FiNGy’s about their lost opportunity, and even though they much preferred to feel the flow blood in their toes over that temporary rush of adrenaline in their veins, they would curse their foolish footwear for weeks to come.

Marco, Dustin, and I in Carmel, California. March 2010

As the summer sun continued to rise, so too did the temperatures that led to the eventual demise of this unique piece of Antarctic accommodation. By the request of its maker, no physical reminders remain of its existence, so only as our minds reminisce do the chamber-ous hallows of that frozen home become restored, that will forever hold its place in Antarctic lore, as one whose occupation led us one step closer to finally losing our sacred FiNG-inity.

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6 Responses to Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. teacher says:

    Can you compare the bars on Scott base versus McMurdo? I hear there is a big difference.

    • frozentoe says:

      Good question. There’s only one bar at Scott Base, and it’s connected to the kitchen/dining room. It’s pretty small, as only about 6 people can be seated at the bar. It does have a pool table, darts, TV, and a good stereo system. It’s basically a combination lounge/bar.

      McMurdo has three bars. Gallaghers is the largest, and has air hockey, Golden Tee, and a kitchen that serves burgers a few times a week. It’s double sided, so is the best place to have band/dance parties. Southern Exposure is about half the size, w/ pool table, shuffle board, and fooze (sp?) ball. It get packed pretty quickly. And the coffee house is very cozy, serves only wine, a few liquors, and of course coffee. A good place for a small group of people to meet

  2. Karen Brown says:

    Hope you come to visit us!!!!! Can’t wait to hear all the stories you have to tell about your experiences!

  3. Marco Flagg says:

    Haha, great story, Mark! Brings back memories… =) Enjoy your time off-the-ice!

  4. paul.kirkland@hancockbank.com says:

    Great work Mark! FiNGinity.. Nice.

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