Before leaving port, the rest of the expedition and I gathered in a mustard-yellow warehouse to receive our ECW, or Extreme Cold Weather Gear.
“The zipper is broken,” a bearded guy said as he handed me an orange duffel bag stuffed with dozens of government-issued outerwear, many of them is a replica. There are no stores where we’re going, no Amazon delivery, and no way to replace things that don’t work. If it breaks, we have to patch it, or wish we had brought a proper backup.
The oldest woman in the group leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Try everything on to make sure it fits.” Then she disappeared into the communal changing room , which is really just a few pieces of plywood held together. I followed her in and pulled out of my bag a pair of worn work pants the color of pond scum. “There’s nothing like Carhartts to remind you that you have a butt, and most men don’t,” I say to the women around me. Media Coordinator Tasha Snow is halfway there. I laughed when she pulled on a pair of rain pants and pulled out the bib. It looked as though two of her could fit in it.
The first man to see Antarctica did so more than 200 years ago; for most of the time between then and today, women were all but banned from the ice. In the locker room, I wondered if the government wanted our bodies to disappear, even if only sideways, under the bright orange “coats” and PVC bibs they handed out. Our unisex “uniforms” are there to keep us safe, but for what?
The next night, I went to the bridge to watch the boats set sail. I hope the captain rings the bell or blows the horn, or someone drops a bottle of champagne on the bow. Instead, the thrusters were fired, a few lines were thrown away, and our connection to South America was over. Palmer slid out of her parking spot and sailed east, across the Strait of Magellan. I stood on the bridge wing for a long time, my hands gripping the metal railings, my cold pulse rushing into my palms. I don’t know what situation I’m in. On the quarterdeck, a dozen people gathered to watch the ship leave port. My stomach sinks at the sight of them: these strangers and I are now sailing to Antarctica together. We are what we have.
Outside The temperature has cooled noticeably, the sea fog has dissipated, and the wind is almost gone. I grabbed the railing and took a few tentative steps on the flyover around the bridge. Sixty feet below, the dusky ocean undulated like a great sheet of silk. My stomach dropped. After a few more steps, I came to a small triangular steel deck and sat down.
exist Amidst the rumble of Palmer twin Caterpillar engines and the Lauryn Hill record we played through the speakers, a piece of what had once been part of the Thwaites scraped across the hull. It dragged the length of the ship with metallic thumps and strange echoes, then disappeared.