When I wrote things nobody tells you about the south pole, I had never been there. I'd read about it and seen pictures of it. Because I'd been a member of the U.S. Antarctic Program for a number of years I knew a lot of people who had been to Pole, worked there, and spent the entire winter there. I also attended the SPUC meeting (South Pole User's Committee) in Denver, so I was very familiar with polar operations and pole science and the stories that the denizens of Pole are wont to tell. I shared that information with you in that write-up.
But you know how it is. People write stories about places they've never been or people they've never met, and it's all a sort of mental fiction. Don't get me wrong. It's perfectly legitimate. You don't have to have been to a New Orleans brothel to write a completely truthful and interesting story about one. But people like reading stories in first person. They like to know the person who's writing has had the experience, and so when they climb into his brain they can do a "Being John Malkovich" on the guy, see through his eyes, and then hitchhike home from the Linden exit of the New Jersey Turnpike*.
I had been all over Antarctica but in my five ice years there was never a reason for me to go to the south pole until November of 2005. I spent a week at Pole in November, and two weeks between January and February of 2006. Now I have a deeper understanding of the south pole and Pole station. My prior article contained nothing but the truth as I either read it or it was told to me by ice people. I claim it is valid and will not retract a word. But as an experienced man I now can offer my accounts in first person.
There is a south pole, and there is a Pole station. They are separate and distinct. The south pole of the earth is a geographic feature noted by cartographers. It is an abstract concept. One can stand at the south pole of the earth, and anywhere for a couple hundred miles around the south pole of the earth, and for all intent and purposes you could be at the same place. It's flat and white and frigid and arid and the air is thin everywhere on the polar plateau. A human cannot locate the south pole using the standard five senses. Unlike identification of the Grand Canyon or the island of Kauai or Mt. St. Helens, instrumentation is necessary to identify it.
The Pole Station is the material artifact we built in place of the abstract. We humans identify Pole station as THE south pole, when in fact the station is an icon. The current Pole station is owned and operated by the National Science Foundation of the U.S of A. One presumes that other countries are perfectly welcome to build a station at the south pole. There are plenty of territorial claims to Antarctica. Each claim is a pie-wedge sort of arrangement with the vertex at the pole. The U.S. recognizes exactly none of these claims, and none of those claimants have either deigned to build a station of their own or complained to the U.S. about the station it has built there. The U.S. makes no claim to Antarctica, but the U.S. occupies Antarctica to an extent that surpasses all the claimants combined.
The old Pole station*** was housed under a geodesic dome erected by the Seabees in the mid 70's. It is scheduled for demo (demolition) in 2007. While there is still some habitation under The Dome, in 2006 it was used mostly as convenient cold storage. Nobody lives there anymore. All the offices have been cleared out and moved to the new building, which is about 100 meters due south.
The Dome is nothing more than a windbreak. The temperature under The Dome is the same as it is outside. There are five flower-petal shaped openings in the top of The Dome to let out heat and moisture and provide ventilation.
Polies routinely drive things into The Dome. Everything from snow machines to Ford Econoline vans to Caterpillar D9s. The air quality under the dome can be about as pleasant as the inside of the Lincoln Tunnel (or the Monte Bianco tunnel) during rush hour. Without the ventilation holes, everything would suffocate.
During the winter, all of the outdoor machinery is retired to storage and the air quality improves, but the temperature under The Dome remains at ambient. The Dome provides protection from the weather. When The Dome was The Station people lived and worked under it within a set of buildings that look like refrigerated shipping containers. In fact, they were a sort of "inside out" refrigerator.
The thing about a refrigerator is that it can keep out the cold about as well as it can lock it in. Going inside one of these bright orange buildings one closed a thick meat locker door behind himself. It was as if closing the door to a giant refrigerated storage facility that just happened to be the entire world.
People routinely moved between buildings under The Dome. The galley was in one building, and the berthing in another. The science labs in still another. So one was always going "outside", where outside could mean temperatures in excess of -90F in the winter. Consequently, people were always prepared for the cold which is a logical state for people who live at the south pole.
Walking around inside the dome facility buildings one has the impression of having gone down into one's brother-in-law's massive "finished" basement. Lighting was entirely artificial. There are no windows anywhere, and the ceiling is low. The floor is decidedly colder than just a few inches above.
For the last 30+ years people working at the pole lived in and loved conditions at The Dome. It was special to be there.
Conditions at the new station are less Spartan. The new station is an elevated multi-level structure with the floor plan of a four-toothed comb. Inside the atmosphere is spacious. There are windows everywhere. The main walkways are all post-modern industrial in design, but the berthing units are quite homey. There is a VoIP phone and an Ethernet drop in every room. As long as the satellites are above the horizon (and they are for 10 hours per day), one has T1 quality connectivity and the ability to dial anywhere in the world. There are carpets. Each room has an individualized heating control, though as far as I can tell these are placebos designed to lull the occupant into a false sense of atmospheric control.
There is a greenhouse, designed by a guy from University of Arizona, where enough vegetables are growing to feed the entire station a fresh salad at every dinner year round. There is a library. There's a game room and a video room with a 60" Sony DLP monitor. There's an extensive collection of DVDs. There's a two-tiered gymnasium with a half-sized basketball court and a regulation height net and backboard. A running track and weight room. Galley and sauna. Machine shop and science lab. The station can house 200+ people, while the dome only about 50.
Summer sleeping arrangements at Pole Station include buildings called "Hypertats" and "Jamesways". These are older Quonset hut structures, the former with metal/plastic walls and the latter with kapok-filled fabric walls. In the old days, transients who were only at pole for days or a couple weeks were assigned there, while the more permanent workers slept in berthing under the dome. Nowadays, folks who are on the lower-rungs of the polar hierarchy are assigned to sleep in these while the scientists and DVs (distinguished visitors) all get slots in the new station building.
In stark contrast to McMurdo station, the main U.S. facility on the continent, at Pole everyone gets his own room. In McMurdo station, everyone has at least one roommate, and can have up to five. But McMurdo Station is a city in the summer. There can be up to 1,500 people there, while the max at Pole Station is currently about 230 summer, and 80 have wintered over. The greater numbers of people bring with it greater social issues. There's crime at McMurdo. Things get stolen. Broken into. There are occasional fights. There is an oppressive, paranoid oligarchy in power that broadcasts safety as its number one priority, while corporate politics is in unmistakable evidence.
McMurdo is sprawling, on the dry land of Ross Island, and quite warm relative to Pole. One can take walks to interesting things at McMurdo. There are mountains and a big volcano. There are hiking trails and places to ski. There's even another "town" to go visit -- Scott Base, the New Zealand Antarctic facility is just over the hill at Cape Armitage. Claustrophobia is never a problem at McMurdo.
At Pole Station, none of that exists. It's flat and white. The community is small and once you've been there for a few days, people know your name. Things rarely get stolen. The community is self-policing. Everyone takes his own safety as highest priority, the infrastructure only provides support. The air of self-determination is everywhere.
Living at Pole is vastly different and to me, preferable to living at McMurdo station. And I’m told that living in the new station is quite different than life under The Dome.
Unlike The Dome, the new station lacks character and funkiness. The walls have yet to be covered in cartoons and stolen street signs secreted south within science cargo. There are no beer stains. It smells of antiseptic, diesel fumes, and whatever's currently cooking in the galley. It's like staying at a low-end Holiday Inn that happens to be connected to the Student Union at the local university. One can live inside the station for days, if not weeks, without having to go outside. Consequently, people walk around the new station completely unprepared to face polar temperatures. I walked around the station in a t-shirt and jeans wearing Teva sandals. Long time Polies remarked about how unsafe that is. At Pole, all resources are limited and subject to breakdown. While there is triple redundancy on the generators, everything fails in Antarctica. Were the power to go out, or a fire to start, everyone would need to huddle at an assembly point that involves going outside. Even in "summer" it can be -40C/F outside. Even though I've done it hundreds of times, it can still take me up to 15 minutes to get dressed for the polar cold. Not being prepared can kill you, and the new station tends to lull one into a sense of security. It seems so much like home, and the south pole looks like an artificial diorama from the windows in the galley.
Construction of the new station was managed by a man named Jerry Marty. Jerry is a cheesehead (from Wisconsin) but now makes his home at NSF headquarters in Washington D.C. He is a tall blonde man with nearly cliche' "piercing blue" eyes. Everyone knows he is a Vietnam combat veteran. An ex-marine with a lust for living that goes beyond occupational motivation. He helped construct the dome in the 70's. He'll receive a piece of it when it's torn down and shipped to the Seabee museum at Port Huaneme, California.
When you meet Jerry Marty at the south pole he says to you, whether you know him or not: "How's it going for you? Living the dream?"
The station passed occupational certification in December of 2005. People had been living inside it since the first wing was complete in 2003. Jerry shrugs at that. It's the south pole. Look outside. There it is.
Next year the station will be dedicated. Politicians and scientists will all be present when the giant six-foot tall NSF logo is unveiled on the outside of the station. Jerry will receive his presidential award for service to his country and then he says he'll retire. During his retirement he'll run in a couple of marathons he's always wanted to try. NYC and Boston.
That's a polie's retirement.
I felt happy to have met Jerry because he reminded me of what was important. Where I had been and where I was going were irrelevant. Every day I woke at the south pole in my low-end Holiday Inn room, with a heating unit I could not control (but full T1 internet connectivity) I had to remind myself I was living in a dream. The south pole. End of the supply chain. End of the earth. A minimum of twelve hours to anywhere by jet. Break a leg here, you're going to have to wait till you can get to Christchurch to have it set. A rescue mission would have to be launched if you had kidney stones. Develop cancer, they make a movie about you.
It's very easy to fall into a sense of complacency in the new station. Very easy to drop your guard and act as if you're entirely safe. The south pole becomes just another place. Another tourist destination. The age of exploration has past, as we wolf down our pizza and tiramisu we tell our friends back north of grueling hardship and our feats of derring do. We harken back to the days of manhauling and dog sledding while in stocking feet we pour ourselves another coffee and grab a chocolate-chip cookie from the tray in the galley.
We walk over to the window facing the pole and watch a group of young people outside. General Assistants, fresh out of college, having their polar adventures. One by one they strip off all their clothes and pose by the pole marker, imploring their friend with the camera to shoot quick.
And then in Photoshop they superimpose their bodies upon the black and white image of Scott's doomed party. Send it back to the real world.
Dear God. What an awful place.
"Look, ma. I'm having an adventure."
Unless records are being broken, the temperature at Pole Station is never above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, when one quotes the temps at Pole, it's unnecessary to say the word "minus" before the number. So, if it's -39F, one says it's 39 degrees. Everyone knows higher numbers mean colder.
Temps at pole range from the 20's and 30's Fahrenheit in the midsummer, to the 100's after midwinter. The U.S. Air Force rules prohibit their pilots from landing at Pole when the temperatures are below 50 Celsius. Therefore the summer season at Pole lasts from late October to mid February. There's roughly three months of flying, and the rest of the year the station is inhabited by the winter-over crew who works alone and autonomously.
The wind at Pole is not usually very strong. Unlike McMurdo, they do not have Herbies (hurricane blizzards) at the south pole. And unlike the rest of the world, low barometric pressures signal good weather at pole, and high pressure indicates a coming storm.
The relative humidity at pole is reasonable given the temperature, though we from more temperate climes would all consider there to be no humidity at all.
The pressure altitude at Pole ranges from about 10,000 feet to highs of 12,000. That means that even though the actual geographic altitude of Pole station is about 9500 feet, it feels a couple thousand feet higher due to atmospheric conditions. One can go to sleep at 10,000 feet, and wake up at 11,000. The 10% difference may not seem like much, but if you're a lowlander, it can be the difference in being able to climb a flight of stairs without becoming winded.
When arriving at the south pole by military transport, the cabin in the plane is pressurized to a lower altitude than the pole itself. Therefore, when the door to the plane is opened, air escapes. The traveler suddenly finds himself transported from a cozy 5000 feet to the ambient 10,000 feet. The physiological effect on someone who lives at sea level is somewhat sudden. Take a few steps and the heart begins to race. It feels like you've been running and have to catch your breath even though you're standing in place.
Couple that with a blast of frigid air in the face, and the overall impression is of drowning in a frozen lake.
I became light headed. My ears rang and I saw spots as I trudged with my gear from the skiway to the new station. For several hours it was an effort to carry on a coherent conversation. I felt like I had consumed a six-pack of beer in ten minutes. I had the buzz, the headache, and the nausea to go along with it. I got into bed to sleep it off and had vivid, bizarre dreams. My heart pounded in my chest to the point my bed shook in time with my pulse.
This condition is called hypoxia. The symptoms are caused as a result of oxygen starvation, otherwise known as suffocation.
After about six hours I was able to function like a rational human being. And after two days the effect was minimized. After two weeks at pole I felt "normal", save for the incredible dryness. I awoke every morning with my mouth and nostrils sere as an Arizona highway in mid-summer. I had a blistering sinus headache every morning. My mucous membranes worked overtime and clogged my head and nostrils with material that hardened upon contact to air. I slept fitfully, in 2 hour increments.
One has to be conscious to drink at least "8 glasses" of water per day per medical recommendation. I take this to mean 64 ounces. I generally drank 2-3 liters of water per day, not including what I had at meals. The effect of this was to cause me to have to urinate every 20 minutes or so. And for reasons I do not understand, when one has a bodily function to perform at pole, the mind has to work harder to control the body than one does at home. The body says to the mind: NOW. MACHT SCHNELL. PEE. EAT. SLEEP. WAKE. MOVE, YOU SWINE. MAO. It takes a while to get used to the sense of urgency. Before then, one finds himself bolting to restrooms like a two year old at a birthday party.
Once one is acclimated to the altitude and the cold, the joy of working in polar conditions can be experienced in full. The human body can judge a wide range of temperatures, but once the limits of perception are exceeded, things are simply very hot or very cold. For instance, we know well the difference between +40F and +70F. Nobody has to tell us whether or not we need a coat. But can a person detect the difference between +200F and +230F? Same temperature difference, but much higher steady state offset. Anything in the range of boiling water and above is just plain hot and burns.
It works the same way with cold. I have found I can detect decreasing temperatures down to about -10F. Below that, it feels the same. So, when you're inside Pole station and you need to go out, you can go outside through the "beer can", an enclosed stairway that leads both to the surface and if you keep going down, to a subice tunnel that connects the generator arch to the station. Inside the beer can, while I was at pole, temperatures were about 20F. Outside the temperatures ranged from 60F to 25F. Except for the wind, I could never detect a temperature difference between the inside of the beer can and outside, even though that difference could be as much as 40F.
However, you could note other interesting effects. For instance, below 50F, a gob of spit instantly froze in front of one's face. The snow underfoot made strange metallic squeaking sounds at about 60F. At 40F the snow machines would refuse to start. At 25F, I had to remove layers of clothing while doing manual work as I would become overheated. In fact, I dug a trench at 25F in nothing but my fleece, wind pants, and long underwear. No hat and only thin glove liners - and I was sweating anyway. Four days later, at 40F, I did a similar amount of digging and couldn't remove a single layer, did not sweat, and would get cold whenever I stood in one place for a few minutes.
Yet, at all of those temperatures my sense of the cold air against my bare skin was exactly the same.
But those of you who live in Alberta already know that.
Look at pictures of Pole station on the web. The dome is half buried. You once had to climb two flights of stairs to get to the front door of the ARO building in the clean air sector. Now there's only about four steps. The entire first flight of stairs and landing are buried.
You can look out the third floor windows of the Skylab building and see ground level. The two lower floors look out onto the walls of a snow crater. The building is apparently at the bottom of it.
Off the main entrance to The Dome, to the left and right, are two giant steel arches about fifteen feet high at their apex. The arches form a Quonset hut style shelter under which are housed heavy machinery, the station generators, and all the fuel needed to run the generators. In my two visits to pole station, those arches were completely buried.
The entrance to the dome is completely below the surface of the ice. To get into The Dome one has to descend a ramp.
The entrance was not built underground. Skylab was not built at the bottom of a crater. The ARO building stairs were not buried by vandals. The arches were atop the ice when they were delivered.
I've asked engineers at Pole station -- "Why are all the buildings sinking?"
They scratch their heads. Some say the buildings are not sinking, but rather the entire polar plateau is rising around the buildings. The snow drifts and piles up around everything.
But other engineers will claim the buildings are settling into the ice.
This is an oddly controversial question. Is the ice rising around the buildings, or are the buildings are sinking into the ice? It seems to me someone should know, and yet no matter how many people I asked, I couldn't get a straight answer. People who should have known spoke in circular logic. People who didn't know for sure were more certain.
"Well, which is it?"
"Definitely, the snow is rising. That's why everything is on stilts. To minimize the drifting. "
"OK. So, if I was to take a GPS reading today, and then another one in five years, I'd find the entire polar plateau has risen by ten feet or so."
"Hmm. No. Maybe not. If you go inside the dome and look at the ground you see it's bubbled up in the middle. Like the snow is rising up into the dome itself."
"Ahh. I see. The dome has no floor, so if the walls were sinking, the interior space gets smaller."
"Well, but it hasn't sunk that much. The bubble isn't that big."
"So the entire polar plateau has risen by thirty feet?"
"No. Not necessarily."
The new pole station was designed by the architectural company, Ferraro and Choi. It's modular and on jacks. The jacks are on top of stilts. The bottom floor of the building is fifteen or so feet off the snow surface as I write this. Each section of the four-toothed comb can be raised or lowered individually.
In the third year of construction, the sections they'd built had sunk so much they had to be jacked up to mate with the new section they built that year. Engineers said they saw compression ripples around each of the pylons, indicating there was significant pressure. Well, that was probably expected as the building weighs a bit.
But it was unclear to the engineers whether or not the existing sections had gone down into the ice, or the snow had drifted up in the area around the construction, effectively raising the ice level.
Nobody I spoke with could explain the phenomenon. I presume some architect somewhere knows the mechanism and can explain it to all of us. Until then, we'll all speculate.
Ferraro and Choi are headquartered in the Hawaiian Islands.
Soon after the invention of eating, the Italians emerged as the preeminent cookers of eating stuff. History is vague on the reasons. Cooking as a way to provide nourishment had been popular since men started killing things and realized there was only so much mileage one could get out of bloody offal before gastrointestinal distress made berries a better choice. Somewhere along the line people decided to separate the bodily function and stink of consuming animal-based calories from the conviviality of a firelight dinner, and the Italians, being best at putting on a good party, figured how to do it best. However it happened, the Greeks and Gauls learned cooking from the Italians and made some adaptations. By the time the idea of eating arrived in the more northern areas such as the British Isles, the concept had been mutated by the Visigoths and the Germans, which is why fried fish is served in newspaper at Brighton.
As is true in the real world, the Italians make the best food in Antarctica. The best dining on the continent is to be had at Terra Nova bay and all Antarcticans strive for a boondoggle there. Invitations are hard to come by as the base is small. But pasta and wine are served with every meal. Dining is as crucial to Italian science as sex and Fellini.
The torment of pemmican and Robert F. Scott not withstanding, the worst dining on the continent in modern times is to be found at the Russian base at Vostok. That is, if anyone has survived.
For humanitarian purposes the United States set up a sister station a couple hundred yards from the Russian outpost at Vostok. The purpose of this station, apparently, was to provide a pantry for the starving Russians to raid. The Russian Antarctic program supplies their polarnauts with little more than tinned herring, vodka, and a half pound of moldy potatoes. There are so few supplies at the Russian base that the cheapest commodity, vodka, is applied liberally to obliterate the polar scientists' memories. Whoever can't remember being hungry, doesn't need food, is the theory.
It is well documented that a few years ago, the Russian base doctor had to perform an appendectomy on himself using a mirror for lack of sober assistants. It is rumored the doctor was sloshed when he performed the surgery -- who in their right mind would attempt something like that in a state of absolute sobriety?
When the Russians come to a U.S. base they tend to stay and play table soccer until they are requested to leave. Not only is the food remarkably better at the U.S. bases than the Russian bases, but it is actually there, where it tends toward the imaginary side at places like Vostok.
Which brings us to American food. The best food the USAP supplies on the continent of Antarctica is at Pole. It's rumored that occasionally the cooks at Palmer station outdo pole. Palmer has the advantage being at sea level and at the seashore where the Antarctic treaty can be violated in private while the team dines on breast of kestrel wrapped in freshly caught Antarctic cod. At pole, the cooks have to deal with the altitude and the supply chain. There's nothing natural to consume at the south pole except snow, which is used exclusively in alcoholic beverages and is unappetizing otherwise. What the Pole cooks do with their supplies is pure art.
I have eaten many meals at McMurdo station, at field camps, and at Pole station, and I can say without hesitation that were I served in an airplane what I have been served at McMurdo I would send it back. This is not to say the cooks at McMurdo don't do an excellent job under the circumstances. Having to prepare four meals per day for 1,200+ people with limited frozen resources is a massive challenge. And most McMurdoites are happy not to have to eat pemmican. Just as in the major American penitentiaries, you don't complain about the food. Truth is, McMurdo food ranges from airline quality at worst, to big-huge-wedding quality at best. There are times at McMurdo where you scoop a ladle of something marked - "blazing red fish" onto your plate and other than the fact it appears to resemble something that was once red and quite possibly inorganic, the human ability to identify a substance as edible is terribly challenged. And then there are moments of pure heaven, such as on cookie day or taco day.
Food at Pole is restaurant quality. At the very worst one might expect he's eating in a roadside diner. At the very best, one might be in an upscale luncheonette in a major city. I have never been disappointed by a meal at Pole, and I have never failed to go back for seconds.
Now, the upside of life at pole is that those who work outdoors burn upwards of 8000 calories per day. One burns about 5000 calories per day simply resting and staying warm.
Eating is a big deal in Antarctica, and eating big is important at pole. The cheesecakes, carrot cakes, chocolate cakes, pies, and cookies are all top flight. The pizza is decent. Given it's the south pole, it's incredible, but Pole pizza could stand up to California delivered pizza any day. The Pad Thai is as good as I've been served in silicon valley, and the soups are hot and sometimes spicy.
One potential negative of Pole galley ambiance is that during the summer, when the station occupation is at its highest, the galley cannot accomodate the entire population simultaneously. Therefore, people have to eat in "shift" fashion, and signs are posted that no "camping out" is allowed -- meaning, that having cordial conversation after food is consumed is extremely discouraged. The seats are needed for the next customer. And during the season I visited pole ('05/'06) the 90-South bar had been dismantled and no new meeting place had been erected in its stead. Therefore, unless one wanted to hoof it across the compound to "summer camp" and the recreation jamesway there, there was simply no place inside Pole station to sit comfortably with people and have a conversation. I'm absolutely certain this situation will be rectified in the coming seasons, as the rest of of the station construction is completed.
I give the Pole galley four penguins for ambiance and overall dining experience. McMurdo gets two. I give three to the field camp at Lake Hoare. Rae Spain's Indian night and Thanksgiving dinner are culinary events worthy of both National Geographic and Food and Wine.
I have never been to a Russian base. If there are any survivors we can ask if they would accept the quarter penguin I'd grant their galley purely on evidence of their having been kept alive.
Polies are a different species of Antarctican and they will remind you of that fact any time the question arises. Polie winterovers are yet another species, and they too will remind you of the distinction if you have doubts.
What characterizes a polie from any other denizen of the south is the magnification of a couple qualities. Polies are intensely capable people. They tend to have been selected from the best of the best of the best. They're just as likely to be biplane pilots as concert pianists as operatic sopranos as lion tamers. They are exceptionally private. A polie will generally not volunteer any personal information until he or she has known you for a couple years, or lived with you in a jamesway for four or five months straight.
Polies are honest. There are no locks on any doors at Pole station. Polies leave their personal gear in random alcoves or on the main hallway floor in the new station. I have seen valuable leatherman tools left on window sills. iPods, items of clothing, laptop computers, and briefcases left on chairs in the galley, on bathroom sinks, on staircases, on the floor. It's almost as if each is daring the other to abscond with a personal item.
Because there's nowhere to run at pole. Polies are all selected specifically to work at Pole and there is nobody there who wants to go home. So things don't get stolen, and nobody steals.
This is in stark contrast to McMurdo station, where there are locks on every door and interesting things that aren't nailed down tend to walk. McMurdoites make a big deal when a theft happens. It isn't all that frequent, but when it does it disturbs the community.
But the McMurdo community is vast and diverse in terms of people's motivation. Not everyone wants to be at McMurdo. Some people want to go home and can't get out because of contract commitments. Some people don't care to be part of the community. Some people are unhappy with their management. Whatever the reasons, theft is becoming more common at McMurdo station, while it remains non-existent at Pole.
Polies have much more attitude than McMurdoites. There's a certain "status". The USAP issues Polies different parkas. Polies get green and black parkas, whereas the rest of the program is issued either the standard Carhartts or the infamous "big red" parka. Only Polies can wear the green and black.
I have found Polies to be much more friendly than other Antarcticans, but also much more confrontational. Where a McMurdoite would simply turn and leave a conversation that didn't interest him, a Polie would blatantly change the subject or challenge the entire premise of the discussion.
Polies are less likely to fear political reprisals. They tend to be less fearful, in general. They do not worry.
One day this past February I went out with my colleague to dig a snow trench. One of the science techs was sent out to work with us. The location was about a 1/4 mile from the station. The temp was about -45F. I went out and started digging. I was in full ECW regalia. Everything from hyper-insulated bunny boots to two pairs of gloves and four layers of poly pro.
When the Polie science tech arrived, he observed what I was doing and pitched in to help. Between the two of us, the job was done in a flash. As I finished he sauntered away and I noticed he was wearing street shoes. Worn-in, black loafers. Leather. Flat heels. Sides and heel of the shoe broken-in to the point the leather had the consistency of a limp towel.
The man wore loafers to dig a 500' long snow trench on the polar plateau.
I said, "Neil. You're wearing loafers. You're going to get frostbite."
He smiled and said, "Yeah."
He's still down there.
Gifts to the Unwashed Masses
At the end of the lower hallway in the new station, toward the skiway, there's a display case, mostly empty. Inside this case are several pole markers. As I mentioned in Things nobody tells you about the south pole, they make a new one every year. There's only about nine of them in there, the oldest dating from the early 80's.
I want to say the other ones are in the Smithsonian, or the Museum of Natural History in New York, or the Field Museum in Chicago, or even the Museum of Round Metal Things in that new suburb of Shanghai, China. But I have the feeling nobody knows where the other ones are, or rather, they know where they are but they don't want to have to give them back.
There's also a framed sweater. The sweater is olive drab, military issue. Size medium, I believe.
The plaque in the frame indicates the sweater was worn by Admiral Byrd during his famed first flight over the south pole.
It's on the bottom shelf of the cabinet. It sort of looks like skua, and if the heat ever goes out, you can bet it's going to become skua.
Right above the sweater are two more framed objects. One is a signed copy of Roald Amundsen's book about his capturing the south pole. It bears Roald's hand-inscribed good wishes to the inhabitants of the south pole station.
The other is a letter from the King of Norway presenting the "Amundsen Award**" for polar exploration to the inhabitants of the U.S. South Pole station, and wishing the best to all explorers who pass through. The official name of the South Pole station is: "The Amundsen Scott South Pole Station" even though the station is owned and operated by the U.S.
There are no good wishes from the British in the forelorn display case at the far end of the hallway where nobody goes. Maybe they don't want to remember Scott, or perhaps the fact it's not the "Scott Amundsen South Pole Station" bugs them, or maybe they're just sick and tired of American patronization.
While reviewing these nearly lost items I took my first sip from a thermos cup of Stash brand liquorice spice herb tea. It had to be the most vile taste I'd ever experienced within the confines of my own mouth.
I exited the viewing area to dispose of the vile chemical brew within my cup, and only on my plane trip home did I realize that when they dismantled several buildings under the dome the polar powers-that-be had taken these artifacts out of the 90-South Bar and tossed them in the display case where they wouldn't get in the way during construction.
Surely, at some point, someone is going to remember that Admiral Byrd's sweater and Roald Amundsen's signed tome are both sitting there unobserved and unmolested in the farthest, lowest corner of the station.
Take any group of people. Isolate them. Put them under stress.
Sooner or later, as sure as eggs is eggs, some of them will have sex.
It happens irrespective of race, creed, or gender. Men have sex with men. Women have sex with women. Men and women have sex with each other. We all know this. Ask anyone who's done submarine duty. Ask anyone who's done a military tour of any kind. Ask anyone who's been on an expedition. People are people and always have been.
At McMurdo the situation is amplified somewhat by the demilitarization of authority. McMurdoites are, by and large, civilians and governed by civilian law. While the military has strict rules of conduct, sex by consenting adults is not a crime for civilians. There are a lot of people at McMurdo, so at any time there are folks of all varieties of disposition and temperament. So people will consent and sex will be had.
They used to put out big buckets of condoms in the rest rooms on Highway 1 at McMurdo. Hundreds. These would tend to disappear slowly during the course of the week, and then vanish entirely on Saturday night. Over time the powers that be decided too much money was going into simply handing out vast quantities. They were unsure the condoms were being used for the appropriate purposes. For instance, fearing shortages, people stockpiled. And guests would arrive and snarf up handfuls. Once, the entire bucket disappeared after a cruise ship full of tourists arrived on station one January.
Now one has to go to the clinic and ask the doc in person to receive his or her condoms. Large quantities are still doled out. There are big public parties and small private parties after which folks stagger home together. There are long term romances and short term ones, one-night flings and quickies in tents in the field. While the station is very public there are hiding places. Roommates can be sent away. The horny and industrious always find a way.
For instance, it's well known that a couple was found in progress inside Ivan the Terrabus. Ivan is the giant VanHool bus used to ferry passengers between the airstrip and McMurdo station. The fact Ivan has been "soiled" surprises no one, and inspires jealousy in most. The offending couple were Raytheon employees, and so subject to dismissal. They were retro'ed north. The fact that Ivan is now guarded against such activity means another hiding place has to be taken off the list.
At Pole there are less people. There are big parties and little parties. People pair up. Everyone has a private room so privacy is not as hard to come by. Though, all the private rooms are in public places. It's easy for an observer to know who's doing whom by simply running into couples emerging from each other's rooms at various times of the weekend day.
But judging by the condom consumption, I must make the presumption that less is going on in the population than at McMurdo.
The condom dispenser at Pole station in the men's restroom is a small plastic basket -- the kind they put club sandwiches on at the diner. It's in a cubby slot in the wall labeled with a dymo strip.
The first day I noticed it was there I saw six condoms in it. There were six condoms in it all week. On Sunday morning I noticed there were only four and I bumped into one of the cargo ladies coming out of the room next to mine.
I said good morning to her and then the scientist who followed her out of his room.
There you have the extent of it.
The Jerri Nielsen Affair
The book is called Ice Bound. It's written by Dr.Jerri Nielsen and it's the first-person account of her developing breast cancer during a winterover at Pole in the 90's. It really happened. She was the winterover doctor and she noticed a lump. The lump grew. Through the miracle of telescience, doctors in the Midwest were able to diagnose her cancer and prescribe treatment. Chemotherapy meds were airlifted into pole near midwinter. The drugs were administered. The Air Force guys flew when they weren't "supposed to" and landed at pole long before it was warm enough to be safe and got her out and back to the real world where she underwent a mastectomy, radiation, and further chemo, and now survives to tell the tale.
People at Pole are still fuming.
This is a big polar deal. Ask anyone on the ice who was around during the adventure and they'll tell you the same story -- Jerri didn't get it right. Jerri showboated. Grandstanded. Took advantage of people who trusted her. Violated trust. Invaded privacy. Broke promises and codes, unwritten and personal and otherwise.
As far as the ice goes, Jerri is forevermore unwelcome. If the population has its way, and it almost always does, you won't see Jerri Nielsen in Antarctica unless she buys a ticket on a Russian icebreaker.
Sounds kind of harsh. Didn't this woman develop breast cancer? Wasn't she the base doc during a winterover and so had to self-medicate without the aid of anesthesia? Didn't the whole winterover team band together to save her life? Didn't U.S. Air Force personnel risk theirs to get her off station before it was safe to land a plane?
Woah. What's with this? Everybody sour grapes? Everybody jealous of her $25,000-a-pop speaking engagements? Her $25,000-a-hit motivational seminars?
"This" is an element of Antarctic society that's a bit difficult to understand unless explained. And I will explain it in a sentence, and you'll get it immediately.
Everybody in Antarctica is on the same adventure.
That's pretty much it.
We all go to the ice to have our adventure. For some of us, the adventure is sitting in an uncomfortable military plane and disembarking on a vast open field of ice in a landscape so different from home it freezes the heart for a beat or two. Then we settle into a comfortable existence of custom made omelets, bottled beer, and dances with unfamiliar partners.
In this age of vast telecommunication viewers at home can follow us. The voyeurism of it is enchanting. A lot of us write blogs so our friends can follow along as we plod through the cold and the pain. We're microstars, existing for days and months in our diluted 15 minutes of fame. We're discovering the Buddha in each of us, the God in every man, and that the fundamental nothingness that comprises most of the universe is punctuated only by the warmth of human kindness.
This is our adventure. Our individualized, collective adventure. We could write a book about any one of us, or each of us. We gather up our stories. We tell them over and over.
Some of us have better connections in the media than others. Some of us make the news.
Lots of books have been written about people's adventures on the ice, but none infuriates Antarcticans as much as Jerri's. And the reason is Hollywood. The true story of Jerri's survival on the ice contains two important points omitted from both the book and the made-for-TV movie starring Susan Sarandon. Point one is that Jerri was not the center of activity during the crisis. She was the center of attention, but her disability required more of the rest of the polies. Everyone had to work harder because one of their own was down. They had to fill in. They had to learn enough medicine to treat each other. They had to signal the planes. They used their ingenuity to develop a system for transmitting medical procedures and microscope images over satellite in real time. While Jerri succumbed to her pains and treatment, the rest of the team went into overtime keeping her well and keeping itself intact.
In the name of pacing, people were left out of the story. People who performed heroically and participated in Jerri's assistance were completely omitted from the text. Other, "composite" characters were introduced merging the activities and characteristics of several people into one character to make the story move more smoothly. This happened in movie, where it is practically understandable, but also in the book where it seems inexcusable.
Point number two - and this point was given to me by a professional trained in medicine who was not only there during the situation, but obtained valid analysis by Jerri's doctors and others - is that Jerri's condition was not life threatening. Let's be clear about this. The point made by the polies is that had Jerri gone entirely untreated and the planes flew on schedule, she would not have perished from her cancer. There were months remaining before her condition became untreatable. She would still have made it back to the north in time for all the procedures she underwent to work. The feats of heroism that got chemo drugs to her and got her off station ahead of schedule were unnecessary.
In fact, people have had more life threatening injuries at pole, and there the heroism was necessary to save human life. In Jerri's case, the big deal that was made gave her a safety margin at the risk of others.
Jerri got sick, and everyone around her risked their lives to save her.
After informally interviewing about ten of the fifty people who were on station at that time, including the station manager, science techs, scientists, and the doctor who came to replace her, I have been able to distill their position to those issues, which to date remain wholly unacknowledged.
Was it her book editor or the screenwriter who excised some of the winterover team members from the story? It was probably one of them, and probably not Jerri who did it. Do the Polies have a right to feel slighted? Absolutely. Offended, insulted? Yah. It was their adventure, too.
If I remember anything about my trips to the ice it's that Antarctica is a continent of pain. Antarctica hurts people. It freezes us. Starves us. Suffocates us. Every step is a climb uphill. The muscles are always burning. The weather never cooperates. The lungs and chest are always working hard. Dust is always in the eyes. The glare is always too bright, the shadows always too dark. Equipment always fails and the right tools are never at hand. And it's no easier on any one of us than another.
We all experience the same continent and we each survive because we work for each other. For one of us to profit without acknowledgment of the others is a breach in code of conduct that forms the chain between us and the great men who first set foot here. To become part of the legacy of the ice means to accept you are one of many. When Jerri went down with cancer, the whole station went down. Each of their lives were that much more at risk because the doc was not functioning. Each of them sweated the diagnoses, and each of them followed her until she got home and recovered.
We can write all the books we want. Make all the movies we want. No one person conquered Antarctica. It has always been done in teams. Whether it be sponsors supporting an adventurer, or teammates helping each other on the vast flat white, humanity survives the ice in groups. When we forget this we lose the essence of what makes this kind of adventure rich and compelling. Then we have surrendered living for fashion. Then we have given up life for glitz. In unbelievable egotism we attempt to betray the unbetrayable and in the process we extinguish the very heart of living within ourselves. There is only life. We have only each other. We are all that's warm and alive in this place.
Scott and Shackelton knew it. Amundsen faced mutiny because of it. Mawson knew it. Evans and Wild and Bowers. Wilson.
We all face the same hardships. We all risk the same death gleefully, as if it couldn't happen.
The ice is forever. The adventure belongs to all of us.
In this case, you'll exit my brain at the intersection of Moorpark and Bascom Avenue in San Jose, California, in the lot where the Quement Electronics store used to be. Do a mapquest to find your way home from there.
**In addition to being granted the Amundsen Award by association, having spent more than 30 days on the ice in service to the National Science Foundation, I'm eligible for a congressional award by my own country for Antarctic Service. The U.S. government is about eight years behind on making the plaques and medals for this award, though, so most people I know have never received one.
***There is an even OLDER "Old Pole" station that was abandoned when the dome was built in the 70's. Old Pole is completely buried but still accessable to the adventurous. It is entirely off limits and going to it earns the curious a one-way ticket north. Therefore people only go into Old Pole station on holidays and during the winter.