Heart of Ice: Part One
My name is Yukisami. I am a female skunk Zafara, about six years old. I live in Brightvale with my owner, Rodent; my younger brother, Maki-Kai, a starry Zafara; and recently, my youngest sister, Aarhya, a cloud Lupe. My family also tends to have circulating foster siblings, as Rodent (only Aarhya refers to her as her mother) adopts pets from the pound and trains them with the lab ray before getting them permanent homes.
Since I was about a month old, I have been exploring Neopia – going beyond the maps, as it were. Starting a few months later, I began keeping logs and sketches of my explorations, partially to archive what strides I have made into the unmapped areas and partially because I hope that one day I can collect my journals into something comprehensive, to offer a deeper look into our beautiful, astonishing world.
One of the most interesting places I have ever explored was the Ice Caves beneath Terror Mountain. These are passageways left in an enormous glacier, some thousands of cubic miles, by a freezing river formed from its melted ice that flowed beneath the surface too rapidly to freeze despite the frigid temperatures. At some point in the prehistoric past, this underground river eroded away the supports of the tons of ice above it, and the ceiling of the caverns collapsed, blocking the river’s course and diverting it to another one. Its dry bed now forms caverns and caves of ice, in an environment so cold as to preserve them in effective permanence. These caves, formed by running water, are created in many geological formations similar to conventional rock caves, which too were hollowed by water; but the ecosystem is far different.
About a year ago I made the decision to map the labyrinthine corridors of the Ice Caves, which extend many miles beyond the several caverns open to the public as tourist areas (which you can access from the world map by going via Happy Valley). Exploring within a glacier is utterly different from doing so in any other environment: the ambient temperature hovers around negative twenty degrees Fahrenheit, for one thing, and then your entire terrain is ice, mostly sloping downward. I had to prepare all of my equipment in advance, because once I entered the remoter caverns I would not be returning until I was ready to go home. In addition, I could only rely on myself and my equipment, because the kilometers-thick ceiling of ice pressing on the caverns below would block any attempt at communication by Virtupets radio or magic.
I entered the caverns through a crevice about a kilometer south of the tourist area. (You may have noticed an inconsistency in my usage of measurements. Let me just say that in Neopia we use both the standard and metric systems. For distance and weight we use kilometers, meters, and kilos, but for volume and cooking we use the standard system with gallons, cups, and quarts. Really the only exception to using metric lengths is the foot; it’s a lot easier to say something’s a foot or six or nine or eighteen inches long rather than two-thirds of a meter. It’s a bit like memorizing the standard conversions, anyway – okay, four quarts to a gallon and twelve inches to a foot and thirty-nine inches to a meter. See? It’s easy enough. But don’t ask me to describe anything in miles, because I don’t know.) The crevice had been formed when the melting of ice supporting a ceiling about a kilometer thick had let it fall several meters, cracking open the surface of the glacier to leave an opening several meters wide and connecting to the course of the prehistoric river.
Because of the icy terrain and the downhill slope, it would be very dangerous going without support. For the cold and the ice I was wearing heavy lined boots cleated with inch-long steel spikes to dig into the ice and offer safe traction. I was also planning to wire a safety line all the way from the entrance and go down through the caves as if I were rappelling near-vertically. I had a bag full of pitons, steel spikes with loops on the ends generally used in rock climbing, which I pounded into the floor about every thirty meters before stringing a line through the loop at the top. The line was fishing line, because of its strength and light weight and because of the distance I would be going. I clipped myself to this by a bungee cord, about four meters long, which was attached to my belt.
It was very slow going, as I had expected it would be. Not only did I have to stop every thirty meters to hammer a piton into ice that was like rock, but I also wanted to play it safe and hacked handholds into the sloping floor with an ice pick. My petpet, Skye, an Airax, flew ahead of me to call back information about slope, distance, and possible hazards. (He can’t talk, but he and I have worked together a long time and have worked out lots of signals, and he can pace his flight to tell distance.) My coat, gloves, and boot and helmet linings were of a very high-tech synthetic fiber for warmth and suppleness, but even with these the extreme cold ate through to my flesh.
How can I describe it if you haven’t been there yourself? There is no other natural formation on this world like the ice caves. Maybe the only parallel I can give you is making your way through the deep stone cave complexes, and even then that’s only the barest approximation. The caverns are water-hollowed, like in stone caves, and there is the constant faint drip of flowing water echoing off of the walls. There are formations like stalagmites and stalactites, too, where the summer days raise the temperature to just above freezing and then the nights drop it again to form huge tiered icicles.
But the ice caves are not fully dark, although they are dim, the majority of the daylight filtered out by the thick glacial ice; during the day the caves are twilit by a bluish glow that comes from the walls as light is refracted through them. When the headlight on my mining helmet passes over the icy formations in the caverns, they cast translucent shadows rimmed by rainbows. The ice is perfectly clear for the most part, having formed in constant cold so that no cloudiness or irregularities could occur. Occasionally, I would pass the ruins of an uprooted tree, a half-chewed and frozen animal, or a pattern of rocks and gravel suspended in the ice like in amber.
I was not totally accurate in describing the icy floor as uniformly smooth and slippery. Like the bed of a river or stream, the floor was sometimes smooth, sometimes rippled or deeply ridged by fast-flowing water. The small ripples provided welcome traction, but the wavelike ridges were hazardous. In the dimness, when my headlamp was directed ahead instead of downward, I would sometimes stumble over the changing texture of the floor and slide until jerked to a stop by the end of my safety line. By the time I was an hour into the caverns, I had fallen into the habit of feeling ahead of me with my feet before taking a step. As I said, it was slow going.
My exploration of the caves was even slower because I was mapping as I went. I used my pitons, placed regularly every thirty meters, as a reference of distance. I used a compass to determine the average direction of each thirty-meter interval, rather than relying on an approximation of changing angles, which could cause my mapping to become increasingly inaccurate. (Interestingly, I had to reverse the directional readings from the compass because the cave complex was northward of the magnetic pole.) I measured slope using a level of the type used by construction workers, where a small tube is mostly filled with fluid, leaving a bubble that will center itself between a pair of reference lines when the level is held perfectly horizontal. My brother and I had modified mine to hold mercury rather than colored water, as water would freeze in the cold or expand impractically in hot environments. The level was a meter long, which meant that I could notate the slope in terms of centimeters up or down per meter.
Finally, I was slowed because, as a river course, the caves had more than their share of forks and switchbacks. Whenever I came to what looked like a tributary branch, I would follow it to its end at a cave-in or a dry lakebed before I could return to the main complex.
There was one more thing of interest to report about that first day of exploration. I had traveled a couple of kilometers into the glacier when I encountered a huge frozen whirlpool, maybe a hundred and fifty meters across. Standing freely at the exact center of the whirlpool was a spiral-grooved spire of ice that reached to the ceiling at its narrowest point, only a few inches in diameter. Partially blocking the path to the whirlpool was a slab of granite about forty meters high at the right-hand wall that rose slantwise from the floor. The granite, more durable than the ice that the river had eroded away, had blocked the river from its original course and had caused eddies that were magnified into a descending clockwise spiral that wrapped itself around the icy spire. The gently sloping linear caverns that had traced the course of the prehistoric river ended at the wall beyond the whirlpool, indicating that rather than resuming its original course the river had plunged deeper into the glacier.
I rappelled down into the spiral pit for an initial scope, but at a hundred meters down it was clear that the whirlpool continued much farther. Sending Skye down to inspect the pit only confirmed what I could already tell. The glow from the walls had dimmed to a nightlight incandescence; the descent would have to wait until the next day’s exploration.
To be continued...
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