My Last Day At Pole

IMPORTANT SKIN OWNERSHIP PROTIP: Flesh that has been frostbitten is thereafter more vulnerable to being frostbitten again. It seems that it is also more vulnerable to sunburn than ever before.  SPF 45 did not help the patch on my left calf, which I know for certain was well slathered.

How did my calf get frostbitten you might ask? Luckily, ish, I remember that one event in October quite well because traumatic pain helps memory jump direct write-to-long term, skipping over the toasted winterover short term memory. As I later learned, this is also how LSD works and making flashbacks forever as it puts the brain in a trauma state because, MAN, did that frostbite hurt like a sumbitch afterwards…

The replacement cryo tech, arrived on First Flight. I don’t quite remember the turnover I did for him, though according to my Green Brain I spent two days doing it. I can only assume he learned valuable and important things that saw him through his year. As a birthday present and probably because I was awfully toasty, my boss decided to get me out on an early flight. Memory starts kicking in again sometime around around 6pm, October 29th, 2003, when I escorted New Cryo to Club 90 South to induct him into the bar when it still had winterovers as had been done for me.

Me: Alright, I leave tomorrow morning…weather permitting.  Do you have any more questions?

New Cryo: Nope, I think I’m good.

Me: Are you sure?  Because after I leave here, I am gone.  There will be no easy getting a hold of me and I will not be thinking of you.

NC: Yup, I got it all.

Me: Positive?

NC: Yup.

Me: Well, I asked three times.  Let’s go to the bar so I can serve you your first scotch on Ice. (even getting toasty didn’t dull my puns)

We went to the bar and I asked him what his poison was and he said it was, indeed, scotch. This was good since Polemart was more or less empty of mixers at this point and scotch is one of the few things delicious straight. He asked for two fingers which, as his faithful bartender, I obeyed by sticking them upright in the cup and pouring until I felt booze splash my palm. He gave me a look that let me know I was his kind of madman. I happily joined him and the other winterovers, who were hiding in the bar from the strange new faces, gave him a hearty welcome. He in turn joined us winterovers in shooing away some uninvited FNGIs (fucking new guys on Ice), for he knew his invitation was special and would not have it debased.

After two more glasses and viewing “Midnight Run” for the who knows how manyeth time, New Cryo was very drunk. Not only was that a goodly amount of whiskey, but he had only been at Pole for two days which is not enough time to acclimate to the altitude. High altitude lowers alcohol tolerances and worsens hangovers (so I’m told). He was from Arkansas, so not much better than sea level. As he listed slightly in his chair, I asked him a question.

Me: Well, what do you want do now?

NC: (slurring): I wanna break something.

Me: (jumping off the stool): Excellent! Go get your coat, let’s go!

NC: Wha?

ME: (as leaving through the back door of the bar) Go get your coat. I’ll see you out front.

Like I had for most of the winter, I was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, shorts and Tevas, and I needed to change to go play outside…especially on a snowmobile at -65F. I learned that lesson during eight months earlier when I rode out to the liquid nitrogen plant for the party while carrying a 10L dewar to get a refill for more cryogenic cocktails. LN2 on bare legs much less the cold is, well, cold.

So I put on expedition socks, boots, gloves, a fleece top, my gaiter, my Scott Base touk and went out to greet New Cryo, but I did not change out of the shorts. He was in full ECW gear and verrrrrrrrry slowly negotiating the three steps from the old galley to the snow surface, holding on to the railing for dear life. I took his hand and escorted him through the tunnels out on to the plateau. He kept asking what we were going to break. I told him that he’d see. We got to the Do Not Freeze (DNF) shack and I opened the doors. Within was Sex Machine, the most reliable of the snowmobiles I’d used all year. He had a look of horror.

NC: We’re going to break a snowmobile!?!?

Me: No no, we have to get there first.  Need a snowmobile for that.

NC: Where are we going?

Me: You’ll see.  Get on and hold tight.

I drove the snowmobile at out of the shack and through town to the skiway, where I ripped it into full throttle, flying down the middle of the skiway. Despite his inebriated state, he pulled off a decent joke.

NC: Umm…this is the way back to McMurdo. I just got here, man.

Me: Very funny, just hold on. It’s going to get exciting in a second.

At the end of the skiway there is another 600 miles or so of snow and ice before you hit the Transantarctics.  In short, not a flat groomed surface. Sastrugi, which are sort of like overturned snow dunes, sort of, and they cover most of the middle plateau. When you hit them at full speed on a snowmobile, you catch a bit of air, and then you hit the next one, and the next…so much fun. I am very proud of him for not falling off. After a mile or so, I brought the snowmobile to a power slide stop next to some bamboo poles sticking out of the snow with black flags on them.  New Cryo rolled off the seat muttering, “Ow, my ass, ow, ow, my ass” on repeat. He wandered over to me as I kicked snow off of a sheet of plywood.

NC: What the hell is that?

[I flipped the sheet over exposing a tunnel leading down into the snow]

NC: [peering down into the hole)] Okay, what the hell is this?

Me: [as I shoved him] This is what we are breaking.  The rules. 

The tunnels lead down into the cockpit and the cargo section of a wrecked LC-130 that did a pinwheel down the skiway decades ago and has been slowly buried in the snow ever since. You aren’t supposed to come here until after last flight but now New Cryo was first the FNGI of this crew who knew where the wrecked plane was.  Someone else would have to show him where Old Pole was. It is also a proud Pole tradition to write your name inside of this plane, which New Cryo gleefully participated in.  We then climbed out, closed it back up and rode back to the station. The wreck is about three miles out and I was feeling a bit cold. I thought a stop at the Cryo Barn to warm up would be a good idea.

We got there, turned on the music, and had a seat in the warm. My back was really cold on the left side (wind had been blowing up my fleece, Frostbite #1). The patches on my cheeks and forehead where the insulation on my goggles weren’t so good tingly as they were after ever snowmobile ride (Frostbite #2). I then looked down at my left calf. It had red and white stripes, like someone had slapped it…HARD. I poked it and the skin was hard, the wind ripples had frozen in it (Frostbite #3).

Me: “Hmm.  That is really going to hurt when it thaws out.”

NC: “Holy crap!  Why did you wear shorts?!?!”

Me: “Going to hurt a whole lot.  I mean, wow.”

I put the snowmobile away and escorted New Cryo back to his room for a well deserved scotch coma. I then went back to my room and resumed packing. As I did so, my calf began throbbing.  I figured that my best bet was to sleep through this bit before it really started hurting and so I did. When I woke up for the flight the next day, the calf was swollen like the worst sunburn ever, almost circling all the way around. The pressure from the swelling was like blood pressure cuff, every step was squeezing pain. Climbing into and out of McMurdo plane was torture. Somehow, I thought a hot shower would be a good idea when I got to there. No, no it wasn’t. The pain was repeated on Halloween walking aboard the flight back to Christchurch.

Once I left Antarctica though, the frostbite and all the small cuts and cracked lips healed rapidly. All the frostbitten patches peeled like the worst sunburn ever but I got off very lucky. The patch on the left calf now has less hair and feels a bit smoother than other places, but that’s about it.  Sun sensitivity was a new discovery. 

Most of this was originally written circa 2006. I have no idea if the old LC-130 is even accessible anymore or if the snow and ice have finally claimed it like so much other gear and Old Pole. The general sensitivity to all kinds of things for those frostbite patches has never really improved in the subsequent 17 years.

Sex Machine was decommissioned and sent home as waste in the 2006-7 season. RIP, you were a mighty steed.