“Beyond the edge of the world there is a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap.” -Haruki Murakami
Arriving in Antarctica felt like coming home. The first time I flew in, I was nervous, anxious, and excited to set foot on the seventh continent. I had no idea what to expect. This time, I was nervous, anxious, and excited, but for very different reasons. When we got out of the plane, I was once again greeted by the endless sky, the white earth with dark blemishes of volcanic rock, flocks of shuffling puffy red coats, and the drone of heavy equipment. Welcome back to McMurdo.
Our convoy of Deltas, which are large tundra vehicles with six-foot tall tires, took about an hour to get back to McMurdo Station from Pegasus Airfield, our primary runway. The route used to be 13 miles long, but they had to increase the length of the road because a section of it was destroyed last year by encroaching open water. McMurdo Station is located on the most southern tip of Ross Island, in the McMurdo Sound. Near our station is the point where the seasonal sea ice connects with the permanent Ross Ice Shelf. Last year, a combination of warm ocean currents, and strong southerly winds pushed more of the seasonal ice north than it had in the last 13 years. Just hours after they had sent out the last flight of the summer season last year, a crack ripped the road in half. This first year ice is now posing challenges that most people here in McMurdo have not faced before, due to this being the first summer season in 13 years to experience it. For instance, we usually have a shortcut road that shortens the journey between McMurdo and Pegasus during the first few months of the summer. This year, it may not happen, due to the transition between the sea ice and the ice shelf being a 30-foot drop.
The period we are in now is called “winfly”. The season lasts about six weeks, and is the period where some of the winter crew leave, and are replaced by a few hundred summer crew that come early to help get station ready for the other 700 people that will start arriving in early October. This year we had seven flights in at the beginning of winfly, but after that there are no more scheduled flights until October 3rd, the beginning of “mainbody” and the start of summer. Winfly is nice because station is pretty quiet. It is a good way to get back into McMurdo life without the overwhelming sense of being in a very small place with 1,200 other people. The weather during this time is very tumultuous. Just recently we had three straight days of Condition 2, which is defined as sustained wind speeds greater than 50 knots, wind chill temperatures below -75° F, and visibility less than 1/4 mile. But, when the skies clear we are greeted by an entire day of dawn. The sun rises around 8am, and the sunrise lasts about four hours. After that, we get about three hours of very soft and low light, similar to early morning light in less extreme latitudes. Then, around 3pm, the sun starts to set again, and we get another four hours of brilliant sunset. On occasion, we get to see nacreous clouds, which are a very surreal beauty. The night sky is lit with more stars that can be seen than anywhere else on the planet. The milky way is so clear and defined that you feel as if you can simply reach up and run your hand through it. The Aurora Australis dances across the sky in light shades of green and gray.
It was startling how almost immediately upon being back it felt as if I had never left. Now we are back into the routine of work, and of life here in McMurdo. Our dorm room is in the southern most dormitory, and we set on the south side of the building. From our window, next to nothing impedes our view of Antarctica. On stormy mornings I lay in bed for a few minutes, gazing out that window, looking at the vast, harsh landscape in front of me, and I feel a very innate panic. This is not a place we are supposed to be. Very little about our physiology prepares us for this place. Some deep down part of my sense of survival screams at me “HOW DID YOU GET HERE!? WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!?” And that is exciting. That is part of the draw that originally brought me to this frontier. It is nice to know that that magic has not left. Things are different this year, some good, and some not so good, but overall, it’s great to be back.
Strapped into a jump seat within the cavernous belly of a C-17, I spent most the plane ride fretting. I felt excited and a little sad to be leaving New Zealand while feeling excited and a little sad to be getting to Antarctica. My mind starting computing numbers before I could reign it in – 6.5 months ahead of me working, minus one day off a week, equals 156 days working, 26 days off. After almost 6 months of doing nothing but roaming around the world, whenever and wherever I wanted, it was a somewhat jarring equation.
But, the second we landed I was affronted with why I’m here. We stumbled off the plane to find ourselves in the middle of the desolate white Ross Sea ice, a mini fleet of red deltas ready to caravan us home. It was pretty socked in, so the mountains weren’t visible, but a deep blue line throbbed at the horizon, and I could feel it pulsing in my chilled fingertips. We were back in the most inhospitable place on earth – the coldest, highest, windiest, driest place – and it felt like coming home.
Even though seeing all of our old friends, shotgunning beers in the transient hallways, and having a celebratory cuddle puddle was all wonderful, the first few days back at work were difficult. Last year the days melted away as everything was so new and so crazy. My first day back I was bent over in a stall, wiping pee drips off the toilet seat, with the full awareness that this is what I’m going to be doing for a long time. Somehow not having to adjust as much this year is taking a lot more time to adjust to. All of the memories of having fun last year seem to have shrouded any recollection of physical adjustment as well, so it’s been a bit of a shock to the body. I’ve been sleeping harder and longer than I have in a very long time and yet still feel exhausted, dehydrated, and achey.
Yet, every day feels more comfortable, more routine. I’m cleaning dorm 208 which is referred to as an uppercase here, where people who have been coming for years, sometimes decades, live. Ice veterans to that degree seem to be far cleaner, quieter, and considerate. We dedicated our entire first day to unpacking and decorating our room, our first real home that is just ours for more than a couple of nights. Our bed is constructed out of two twins pushed together in the middle, then covered with 3 inches of memory foam. It just might be the most wonderful, majestic bed McMurdo Station has ever seen. The dorm we live in is only a few minutes walk to building 155 which is where we meet for work and eat our meals (and where we both lived last year), but it still feels somewhat removed from town which is a nice new facet of work – being able to go home instead of just walking upstairs. It’s always uplifting to find traces of the omnipresent sense of humor down here: a rusty iron troll that lives under a small foot bridge, goofy faces drawn on bleach bottles, a bacon scented air freshener hanging from an unreachable rafter in the Crary science building.
What this all boils down to is, it’s good to be back.