There’s a moment, that I assume everyone has no matter how long they’ve been coming down here, where your whole being has a startling realization: “I’m in Antarctica.” Kevin touched upon it in our last post; my mom calls it the “Ant-freakin’-arctica” moment. Last year it was when our plane landed in the dark (they were testing out night-vision goggles in flight) and the hatch door was opened. The scratchy suffocation of -65F took hold of my throat, and I had my moment.
This year, it took a couple weeks. We had been scheduled to go on a stargazing trip through the recreation office, but due to bad weather, it was canceled. So one evening after a rather clear day, Kevin and I and a couple other friends decided to go on our own stargazing stroll up the road to Scott Base. Once you pass around a certain bend in the road, the lights from station are blocked and you’re in utter darkness. The weather had turned a little nastier than anticipated, and by the time we set out, the sky was mostly shrouded. We went anyway, and somehow I found myself in the lead. I was completely covered: wool socks, big winter boots, long johns, fleece pants, carhartts, a thermal shirt, a fleece jacket, my “Big Red” coat, glove liners, windproof mittens, a balaclava, goggles, hat, and my hood to top it all off. I was comfortable, but all of that gear on my head blocked my peripheral vision and as I walked out in front, I couldn’t see anyone else I was walking with. It was easy to pretend I was the only person there, on the entire continent. It was such an eery feeling, as the wind shot shimmering ghosts of snow slithering up the road. There was whistling and whining punctuated by sharp shrieks as the wind made its way through machinery. The clouds nuzzled up against Ob Hill which was ever so slightly illuminated by the last reluctant vestiges of the sunset. We eventually stopped, as we could only see glimmers of stars through fuzzy patches of sky, but as we had been walking I had felt it all the way down to my toes: “I’m in Antarctica and she wants to kill me.”
We have been back in Antarctica for three weeks now. The first week and a half the weather was calm, cloudy and seasonally warm. Then came four days of severe weather. Now we have clear, increasingly sunny days with wickedly cold temperatures. The wind chill the last several days has been hovering between -50° and -65° Fahrenheit. It is so cold that when you throw a glass of water into the air, the water instantly freezes as it leaves the cup, appearing as a puff of smoke. Last win-fly we were able to see lots of stars and other features of the Antarctic night sky, but this year the weather hasn’t been completely cooperative. When the temperature is warmer than -20°, the skies are cloudy. When the skies are clear, we have 40-knot winds. When there is a prediction for high solar wind activity, and a greater chance of viewing auroras, it’s Con 2 outside. As we are losing about twenty minutes of day of darkness right now, this is becoming disheartening. But, as the sun begins to stretch its legs, the increasing amounts of uninhibited sunlight make the snow begin to glow, the sky become an even richer blue, and the distant mountains across the sound shimmer and sway. Every day we get a little more sunshine, and are given a preview of what the next five months will bring. Come late December or so, our -65° temperatures will become 35° (a scorcher to the Antarctican), stormy skies and strong winds will be less frequent, and going for a hike will turn from a survival situation into a nice pleasant way to spend a few hours on your day off. For this, I welcome the Sun back to the frozen south.
Along with the sun continuing to steadily rise, there are other signs that indicate the coming season. We continue working on opening up dorms for the hundreds of people that will begin arriving in just two weeks. New furniture is being removed from storage, put together, and placed. Crates of food being moved by loaders in preparation to feed an extra 500 mouths. Snow blowers dragged by heavy equipment dot the roads on the horizon, shooting white arches of snow 40 feet into the air, building the roads that connect us to the outside world. Excitement and anticipation are in the air as McMurdo begins to hum back to life.