Let me start off by saying that five days at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is four days too many. You can hit all of its highlights in about four hours, and after that, there’s little to do aside from watching their large Beta collection or tackling a 950 page book (that’s what I did). But it’s a pretty incredible place with spectacular (and recent) history. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to being in a space station on some remote planet because that’s certainly exactly how it felt.
Me and another co-worker were chosen to go clean in preparation for the Norwegian Prime Minister’s visit commemorating the centennial of Amundsen and Scott’s great race to the Pole. While McMurdo has a fleet of janitors who clean bathrooms and workplaces, Pole uses a system called House Mouse where everybody takes turns cleaning things once a week. It’s a great way to hold everyone accountable, but many things don’t get cleaned as well as they could. So we deep cleaned all the bathrooms, dusted down everything in the two main hallways, tidied the sleeping berths, and scrubbed the stairs. Since there is such a small community there, our presence was known, and I even overheard one woman say to another, “There are two kids from McMurdo here, scrubbing everything with a toothbrush.” Fact.
Acclimating to Pole is extremely difficult. You start from McMurdo which is at sea level and take a 3 hour flight to 9,300ft. But the altitude there is exaggerated by the barometric pressure, creating physiological effects as if the altitude was 11,000ft. It takes about six weeks to fully acclimate, but since we were only supposed to have 4 days, we dove right in. Things that aren’t typically that hard, like cleaning baseboards, suddenly became so taxing that we had to lean against the wall gasping for air afterwards. A flight of stairs seemed so daunting that we avoided going up and down as much as possible. We were given a medicine called Diamox that certainly helped with the transition, but sleeping was still hard; as soon as I would get relaxed enough to fall asleep, I’d suddenly gasp for breath.
For fun, we mainly watched a bunch of movies and read a lot. But we did walk around outside a bit, visited the Pole markers, and got to take a tour of the underground tunnels. These tunnels lead to the old station and also house the sewage and water pipes. It was more claustrophobic than usual to walk through very tight tunnels 50ft under the ground in -60F. And that is ambient air temperature, not wind chill. According to our tour guide, it’s the coldest place on earth that people go, since -60F was in the middle of summer. Some people spend up to four hours at a time working down there, which I can’t imagine as my hair looked like that of an old woman within minutes from ice crystals forming. It was hard to see where I was going because every time I breathed, a solid white cloud formed in front of my face and lingered with the still air. And since I was breathing so heavily due to the altitude, every other second was white blindness. At one point (pictured below) I fell behind because I was taking pictures and our guide turned off the lights to lead with his headlamp, and the darkness made my forehead hurt. Gasping for breath, getting swallowed by black, I came closer to having a panic attack than ever before. There’s something incredibly unnatural and rather terrifying about being in the coldest place in pure darkness, fifty feet under the ground.
While this adventure was truly once in a lifetime, and something I’ll remember (and perhaps brag about) forever, it was punctuated by homesickness. There’s nothing like leaving McMurdo to illuminate just how attached you’ve become to it. The entire time I was at Pole, Kevin was on my mind, and I couldn’t help but feel sad that he wasn’t there with me to see Byrd’s flight sweater framed in the conference room, or to look at neutrino-detecting Digital Optical Modules. There isn’t much that matches the pleasure of coming home, particularly when home involves a handsome redhead.
1,000 miles away from McMurdo, on a continental divide in Western Antarctica lies the deep field camp of WAIS Divide. On one side of the camp, ice flows downwards thousands of miles to the Ross Sea. On the other side of the camp, the ice creeps towards the Amundsen Sea. In between them lay a deep ice shelf, undisturbed by features in the rock below them, and buffeted by loads of new snow every year. Here a hole is being dug that is, so far, 3,331 meters deep. The eventual goal is to deepen it to a round 4,000 meters. This hole, and the ice taken out of it, is serving as a timeline for the last 56,000 years, snapshots into Earth’s climate history. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to get out to camp and see what is going on.
Around 40 people work the four month season at WAIS as either camp staff, or grantees. Camp staff is there to make sure that grantees have what they need, and grantees are there to figure out what kind of effect humans are having on Earth’s climate. There is one building with solid walls, but everything else is a tent, ranging from 1-person mountain tents for sleep, all the way to the 100-foot long galley tent with a walled module attached for the galley.
When I arrived at WAIS, I was greeted by a Sun Dog, an effect in which ambient ice crystals in the air refract light, creating amazing and surreal visual effects around the sun. Iridescent halos surround a glowing sun, floating in the sky above and endless white horizon. This effect is best admired from the men’s urinal, a hole is the ground surrounded by an open-roofed igloo, a yellow flag sticking up in the middle. There is something very satisfying about peeing outside, especially in 30-knot winds and -30°F temperatures.
The weather at WAIS is relatively temperate this time of year, but it is certainly unpredictable. Most of the time I was there, the wind howled, and brought with it vicious snow drifting and awful visibility. At night I would lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the roar of the wind rushing over the tent walls, watching the pair of glasses I had hung from a loop on the roof dance back and forth as the tent violently shook. In the morning I would rise to find most of my tent buried in brand new snows blown in by the nights relentless winds. The day began with shoveling and always ended with shoveling, which was convenient as most of the space between was also occupied with shoveling.
I was there to work on several projects, but in between I joined the camp staff to help with all of the work required to operate an outpost in the middle of Antarctica. We helped transfer and consolidate fuels. We shoveled. We processed waste for retro back to McMurdo. We sorted and carried cargo. We shoveled. We helped land Air Force LC-130 Hercules. We shoveled. We took snowmobiles across the skiway and took GPS coordinates so that equipment operators could groom in zero visibility. We shoveled. The great thing about field camps is that the rigid structure of McMurdo falls apart, and what is left is a group of people that work together to get done what has to get done. There isn’t any ‘Well, I do x, and therefore am above doing y.” Everyone chips in on everything. This spirit really exemplifies the outpost mentality I always imagined finding in Antarctica, a place so removed from the rest of humanity.
In a lot of ways, field camp is much closer to what the real Antarctica is. Outside of the infrastructure, comfort and industrialism of McMurdo, you can look out onto the endless white and see something wild and untamable, something that maybe Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen saw. Sleeping in a tent that you have to shovel out three times a day to keep from collapsing brings you more in touch with the fact that any bit of control humanity attempts to display over this place comes at a high price of blood and sweat. During one particularly bad storm, I was walking from my tent to the refuge of the much larger and warmer galley, about a ½ mile away. The route goes from ‘tent city’ where all of the berthing tents are located, towards ‘main street,’ an area of camp where all of the larger RAC Tents are up. Between the two there is a stretch of nothingness, bridged by a flag line strung with a rope. While crossing this gap, the wind gusted up above 40 knots, staggering me sideways. Although layers of cold weather gear covered every patch of skin, the wind still tore its way under my goggles, stealing away moisture and causing my eyes to sting with pain. Everything closed in as ground-level snow drifting encircled me, dropping visibility to less than 10 feet. For a moment, the world became nothing but grey, dark and nondescript. From deep inside of me I felt a very innate and biological panic as my sense of survival went haywire. It was a panic that very clearly illuminated how unsuited for Antarctica the human body really is. My heart rose into my throat. My muscles tightened. I blinked as my pupils dilated. The effects of adrenaline began to take hold as I took another step forward. The gust passed, visibility returned and my body relaxing again, trudging onwards towards shelter. Maybe this is what McMurdo used to be like. Maybe this is what Antarctica really is. Maybe this is what those men saw and felt 100 years ago as they laid first tracks on Earth’s last continent.