Ten years and eighteen days ago, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station closed for the winter, with the last LC-130 ski cargo plane departing the skiway on Valentine’s Day 2003. I watched it disappear from a mostly abandoned experiment in the Dark Sector (AKA the pie wedge extending from pole with all the telescopes in it). With the rapidly vanishing dot in the sky, I don’t know if anyone else felt it but the weight of 8-9 cold dark months finally settled down on me.
If this all was a terrible mistake, it had officially been made. There would be no escape. The last planes leave Antarctica when the temperatures start dipping below -50F and won’t return until the temperatures are reliably above that. Below -50F, we’re no longer entirely confident that we can keep the engines running (possibly freezing solid, ne’er to move again, should they stop), keep the skis from welding themselves to the ice, or that the JP-8 fuel won’t start to gel in the lines thus leading to tragic explosions. I list these things as they’re all incidents that have occurred in Antarctica or near Thule AFB in Greenland. It is also worth noting that the very first LC-130 is buried roughly 30′ under the snow where it crashed at the end of the skiway. Shit happens when things that would normally be a minor error can easily turn fatal at the hairy edge of safe operation. One of my favorite sayings when trying to teach radiation safety to recalcitrant undergrads, grad student, and postdocs is “Every safety regulation is written in someone’s blood. Try not make any new rules, okay?” My other favorite is “Stupidity is a harsh teacher and pain is Her lesson plan; not everyone is lucky enough or survives to get a second lesson.” but that one’s somewhat more insulting.
Antarctica, however, is the most unforgiving classroom. Every year, at least one person dies on the continent for failure to appreciate that Antarctica Does Not Care About You. Humans are only the apex predator at South Pole Station because absolutely nothing else except, maybe, bacteria can live there. On the coasts, you can get your ass handed to you by the goddamn penguins; the little bastards fly through water so don’t think for a moment that they aren’t a hell of a lot stronger than they look. The bruises I got on my shins from a 18″ tall adelie lasted for weeks; I’ve been told of the 4′ tall emperors breaking bones. The lack of fear of humans in all the animals of the Antarctic isn’t necessarily just because they have no experience of us, but rather that the average human isn’t much of a threat down there. We are a frail and feeble ape that is a few hours away from death in the environment that they happily live.
All that and more went running through my head as I watched this through the viewfinder of my camera before the battery froze up.
I invite you to look long and hard at this picture. The VAST white expanse with a bunch of footprints I made. You can see something that looks like buildings in the background beyond the skiway that my last escape to civilization is leaving on. They aren’t buildings, they’re pallets of supplies on raised berms that can survive the average -85F temperatures that are coming in the winter. Almost enough equipment to rebuild the entire station. There’s enough food on those berms to survive three to five winters without rescue, depending on the size of the winter population (fifty eight questionably damned souls when I was there). Mind you, there isn’t enough fuel to keep the lights on, buildings warm, and water liquid for more than about 18 months…maybe.
So, it is vitally necessary to keep in your mind that YES, a plane is coming back for you to maintain sanity. Actually, that’s not true. Most of my compatriots weren’t thinking more than a day or two into the future, focused on the task at hand and whatever hobby they’d chosen. If there was ever a moment of existential crisis where someone started losing it because they were afraid they were going to be stuck at Pole forever, I never saw it. Maybe I did and that was one of the nights as Station Bartender that I served alcohol until someone reached sweet oblivion and killed one more day of winter which they didn’t have to remember on the way to Station Opening. It’s hard to say.
But what helps most people through hard times are customs. The Antarctic traditions run back to the early explorers with a strong naval slant, which means many of them are dumb, most of them involve alcohol, and some corporal punishment. After the last flight leaves, everyone goes back to their rooms to get ready for the Station Closing Dinner, something that’s happened every year since South Pole Station was established in 1957. I want you to all understand that the desire for adventure that brings people to the bottom of the Earth also brings some truly fantastic cooks. The man in charge of the food for the continent as whole while I was there was a Michelin starred chef from New Orleans, Cookie John. Despite the limitations of being at Pole, Closing Dinner may have been one of the finest meals I’ve eaten in my life. People bring tuxedos for this dinner despite the limited weight allowance. It is, in a word, a soiree.
After that, a more modern custom that dates to the early-1980s happened: the full station viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing. This movie is grossly inaccurate about how an Antarctic station looks like and is run, but let me tell you the mindsets are spot on. You want to know how are things are a few months deeper into winter, you need only watch this MacReady’s thousand yard stare as he fumbles with the bottle of whiskey. At the end of the movie, I turned to the station manager and pointed out that we were woefully under armed, particularly with respect to flamethrowers, for an American station. I’ll treasure the look he gave me for life as he realized he was trapped with me for nine more months.
NEXT TIME: Winterizing the station, because you’re still not quite ready for it to get really cold.