It’s easy to lose perspective in Antarctica. Well not personal perspective, that’s heightened; no it’s physical perspective that is hard to maintain. Everything is just so massive and white and seems to go on forever. So when I walked out onto the deck of the boat and saw the massive white mountain in front of the boat, I had no idea what lay in store for me that morning.
I was in Antarctica on-board the Ocean Nova and that morning the ship was anchored in Orne Island, a calm bay surrounded by beautiful peaks and calving glaciers. The creak of the ice echoed off the mountains and on top of the icy peaks I could see small little black dots scurrying around; penguins already busy at work.
I was in my uniform of snow pants, parka and aviator hat and waddled a bit like a penguin as I started to ascend the steep slope of the mountain. The expedition staff had already marked a switchback trail with flags so that we could avoid falling into crevasses; always a good idea. The hike honestly didn’t look bad at first and maybe it was due to the massive outerwear I wore but by the second switchback I was winded. The trail was steep and nearly vertical, but after the first grandmother passed me I decided to pick up the pace.
As with all excursions of this kind, the payoff was worth every second of huffing and puffing I endured. I stood at the top and looked around the silent bay. It was overcast and the few rays of light that managed to filter through the dense clouds showed an icy wonderland. Everything in Antarctica is just so alien and different, yet still beautiful. I enjoyed a few moments of solitary peace before I caught the scent. Penguins were nearby, the smell and constant yammering proved that fact so I waddled over to investigate.
Getting to the penguins wasn’t easy though. It was late summer in Antarctica and the ice melt created a thick layer of mud everywhere. At least I hope it was mud because the thousands of penguins also contributed to this layer of yuck in ways I’d prefer not to consider. After a few meters I was practically coasted in this smelly tar-like substance, but I was determined to get as close to the tuxedoed birds as possible.
On one side of the mountain was another vertical drop, but this one was home to the penguin highway. Thousands of them make their way up and down this well trodden path to the sea every day in order to feed. The reasons for this massive effort were all clustered next to me on top of the cliffs, hundreds of cute, furry little penguin chicks cooing and chasing their parents for something to eat.
I found a rock that was cleanish and just sat there, watching the penguins walk by within inches of my boots, observing their daily lives. It was a humbling and extraordinary moment and it felt like living in a Discovery Channel documentary. It wasn’t just me though, my fellow shipmates were equally enthralled, transfixed by the beauty of the moment.
After literally rolling around in the clean snow in order to get some of the mud filth off of me, I scooted down the mountain on my butt and sought out the closest hot shower.
A hike up a snowy mountain in Antarctica to spend the morning sitting in penguin crap may not appeal to everyone, but for me it was heaven on earth.