On Earth As It Is In Heaven

Peter I Island - Antarctica, view offshoreSaturday January 29, 1994.
Off the coast of Peter I island, Antarctica

For days now, we have been sailing in between icebergs. Each of them has its own micro-weather system. It looks as if each of them is a little island on its own, each with its own private cloud. The white from the ice, and the white from the clouds above them contrasting very little from the grey sea and the grey overcast clouds much further above it all. Everything is a shade of grey and white. No colours, just shades.
We are getting anxious. Today, after two years of preparation, after two years of logistical challenges, fierce discussions with the Russian Antarctic Division on the chartering of their boats and helicopters, we will arrive at our destination: Peter I Island in the Antarctic, appropriately called ‘the most isolated place on Earth’. There have been more people on the moon than on this island. We were to be the first crew ever to remain on the island without a support ship staying off shore. We almost cancelled the trip several times. Problems with funding, cargo shipments, and above all the endless problems with our transport. It looked hopeless just 14 days before we left, as the Russians wanted to cancel the pick up ship. I had to fly over to St.Petersburg and renegotiate the contract with them.
But now, this is all past. Now, we are standing on the bridge of the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker converted to a tourist cruise ship touring the Antarctic, looking at the scenery at the edge of the world. Our expedition crew of nine, is almost like one of the many attractions for the sixty tourist passengers on the boat. Over the past two weeks since we left Port Stanley in the Falklands, they have been asking us endless questions about our expedition. The Japanese took pictures of us like we were the 8th wonder of the world..

The weather closes in, a slight fog comes in. The sea closes in too, no more water, the surface is completely covered with ice. Slowly, the Kapitan Khlebnikov pulls itself onto the ice and breaks it apart. The cracking of the ice sounds like fierce artillery shelling as the shelves give in to the mere weight of the ship. Sounds echo bounce off the fog.

Very slowly, as we get out of the grey foggy sky, the grey ice covered sea, out of the grey void, specks of black appear. It takes endless minutes before we realize this is not a mirage in the ice desert, we are not imagining this.. We can clearly see pieces of black rock appearing. We have arrived. As by magic, all of sudden, the fog lifts. In one minute, the bright sun pops through and shows us the island in all its glory, 1,700m high. To the north of the island, a long and wide glacier, hundreds of meters high, spreads out and then breaks off with a straight vertical drop, into the sea. This glacier will be our home for the next weeks.

We are spread all over the ship, sweating in our Arctic weather gear, as we pull crates, drag bags of personal stuff and roll barrels of fuel into the helicopter hanger at the aft of the ship. With walkie-talkies, we coordinate the lifting of our cargo from the ship’s hold. There is nothing on the island, so we had to bring shelters, generators, fuel, cooking gear, food, emergency kits with us, in total about ten tons of supplies.

The two small Mil-2 helicopters are being prepared on the helicopter deck. For months now, we have been telling the ship’s crew they had to ensure the helicopters had a cargo hook system, as some of our crates are just too big to be put inside. The Russian pilots always said ‘No problaam’. They just took off the two side doors, put a huge rope through both and put a big knot in the middle. ‘No problaam’.. I hope not. As they hook on half a ton of cargo below, there is no way to release the cargo in case something goes wrong.

One Mil-2 starts its engine, idling the propellers. Bob and Terry, who have the most experience with glaciers, get in, and are ferried to the island. The lack of perspective, of references, in the panorama, has us underestimate the distance to the island and its height. We are alone in this icy world. Only us, and the island. And one helicopter with our two crew on board disappearing in the void. It takes thirty long minutes before we hear the crackling voice from Terry on the walkie-talkie ‘Khlebnikov, this is Peter I, we have landed’.. Ralph, our expedition leader, answers ‘Ok, we will get the second helicopter in the air. Let’s start to get this show on the road. Mark the landing area for the choppers as we agreed last night’.

For the next hours, the two choppers ferry our cargo and crew. I remain as the last one on board to ensure all the crates are lifted in the right sequence. Emergency survival kits first, in case the landing has to be aborted due to a change in the weather. Then a tent kit, a generator, food and cooking gear, followed by the personal stuff. I tag the crates on my list as they lift off.

The ship’s cook has put up a barbeque on the bow. The tourists took deck chairs to sit and watch all the activity as if it was a spectacle set up for them. A circus of helicopters and cranes, balancing crates and barrels . I guess we are an interesting sight.. After all, this is only the third time ever someone will land on this island… But the tourists are an interesting sight also. Almost surreal. A group of tourists from all over the world, sitting in deck chairs, eating barbequed sausages and lamb, in the middle of the absolutely ‘nowhere’.

After three hours, all of a sudden, there is no more cargo, and it is time for me to go. I wave at the tourists, shake hands with the ship’s captain and first mate, thanking them for a job well done, and get into the helicopter, in between bags of clothes and crates of food. We lift off and join the other chopper which has been circling the ship, waiting for us. It has a big cargo load swinging slowly in a net below. Together, we circle the ship for the last time as a sign of goodbye, and parallel to eachother, slowly fly towards the island.It is at this moment, the music which has been in my imagination for two years now, really comes blasting out. While watching the Khlebnikov shrinking and the island growing, towering almost above us, both helicopters are only two specs in the eternal emptiness of the Antarctic, the soundtrack of ‘The Mission’ plays in my head. ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’, the title track. You should try it… And close your eyes imagining what I see at that very moment, and feel what I feel. For this expedition, I quit my job and worked for a year. But despite all the preparation, the real work was only to start now. Here and now. We are here to set world records, to set examples on radio operations, to experiment with new technology. From this remote place in the world, we will talk to tens of thousands of people all over the world.

We touch down on Peter I, and I jump out. My boots sink in knee deep snow. The second chopper drops the net, just above the ground. While lifting off, the pilot blinks his landing lights, and rocks the chopper in a short left-right, as to say good bye.

And suddenly, suddenly, after all the hectic activity, the shouting trying to raise our voices above the screaming sounds of the helicopter engines, the frantic to and fro of shifting crates on the boat, suddenly… as the last chopper disappears, there is no sound anymore. Everyone realizes it at the same time. We stop doing whatever we are doing. Bob and Tony with hammers in their hands as they put the plywood for the tent together, Ralph with the craw bar opening the crates. Martin and Tony on their knees, setting up a generator. Suddenly everyone stands up, as if in a prayer. A prayer for the silence which surrounds us. For a moment, only the muffled sounds ‘zwomkrr, zwomkrr’, of our boots in the snow, but then it all stops. There is nothing. nothing. nothing… This is the void… We are standing with a big white mountain behind us, looking over a 250 degrees panorama of the white ice sea, with the Khlebnikov just a tiny speck deep and far away, and the helicopter disappearing towards it. The “voidness” of the panorama, even if it is dotted with huge icebergs, which are only small dots or snow flakes from where we are standing. The grey-white of it all. And the lack of sound as it is absorbed by the huge glacier, and disappears into the thin freezing cold air. This is truly the most isolated deserted place on Earth. There is nothing here. Just us, nine people and some thirty crates. Just us, alone in the world. Alone in the void, in the white grey. This moment, I know, will last in my memory for ever. Of this moment I will tell my grandchildren while holding them on my knee, forty or fifty years from now. This moment, I realize: if there is a heaven, this is how it must feel. This moment, we are in paradise. We all look at eachother. Tears roll over our cheeks. We know we are sharing a moment where it is ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’.

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Anonymous,  28 January, 2007 16:58  

How very true Peter. I remember us all standing there watching the Ship sail out of sight. it was a sight that will live in my mind forever. When the ship left Thule island in the South Sandwich Group in 92 I thought that was a lonly feeling but with 4 million birds screaming in my ears it was nothing compaired to that day on Peter 1. take care and God Bless my old friend. 73 Tony WA4JQS/ vp8bzl

Peter 29 January, 2007 17:07  

Hey Tony,
Good to hear from you again!! Yeah, memories,... :-)
Keep well!!!!
Peter - ON6TT

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