Monday, December 6, 2010

South Pole Vignettes

I’ve been at the South Pole for over six weeks. My eyes keep darting out the galley (cafeteria – the navy being the first to station here in 1954 earned the right to name things. The sleeping quarters are called the berthing areas. Etc.) at what I swear is a bird passing but it turns out to be the reflection of a person passing behind me.

I live in a Jamesway tent (one of 13, or so, that make up “summer camp”) – a long, sturdy tent subdivided into ten rooms with a hallway running down the center. The outside walls are insulated canvas. The inside walls are just regular old canvas. I can hear my neighbors snore and I’m sure they can hear me fart. Round the clock work means that bulldozers pass close by my head often throughout the night. Up to four times a day a “Herc” (large 4 engine Air Force plane) lands on the runway just a few hundred feet from my Jamesway. I try my best to fall asleep in between landings so that I can sleep through the roar of the motors.

For the first five weeks I was in the dishpit, washing dishes from 4am to 2pm, six days a week. My alarm was set for 3:37. 3:38, I found, got me to work the slightest bit too late. The quarter mile walk from my Jamesway (J13) to the Elevated Station where most activities, eating, work etc. take place is almost always against the wind but never too unpleasant as breakfast and coffee are always waiting for me.

It has warmed up in the past couple weeks to temperatures ranging from -35f to –25f. Never in my life would I have considered –25f to feel comfortable but it really is quite comfortable after the first few weeks with temps ranging from –67f (when I got off the plane in October) to –40f. I am told that, for a couple of weeks, the temps will rise up in to the teens… the negative teens, that is.

On a windless day, at –50f you can force a breath at the ground and watch it billow out like an inverted mushroom cloud in all directions about your feet.

With humidity of less than one percent, I was warned that my hands would crack beyond repair. They were doing so well -my hands- and then on day 26, without any warning, they cracked in four different spots. There are things here that require constant maintenance - hydration being one of those things. I skipped drinking water on a run a couple weeks back and it took me two days to get rehydrated.

Up until only ten days ago, the station had absolutely no beer… well there was New Zealand Amstel Lite (2.2%)… and there is still New Zealand Amstel Lite hardly anybody would touch it. When going to the stations store then, your options were Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey or Skyy Vodka (duty free, mind you). It was getting to the point where I thought it to be a conspiracy to turn the entire station into alcoholics.

I am beginning to notice the things that one begins to miss down here. Strange things, like the color green or going out for a run without having to spend 15minutes getting dressed before hand (to go running: polar fleece long underwear and thick tights on my legs, four layers of shirts and jackets on my torso, balaclava, hat, goggles, ski gloves, wool socks and IceSpikes in my shoes). As for running, I’ve been going up and down the 2.5mile runway that runs alongside the station. It’s a little maddening seeing as how the entire length of the runway and the flags that mark the turnaround are visible from the moment I step out there. I am required to carry a two-way radio with me incase an unscheduled flight comes in and I’m forced to clear the runway.

The station population is now at 225 – which I have seen rise from 60 when I arrived. Open mic night was on Saturday and it became immediately obvious that the concentration of musical talent here is much different than elsewhere.

Tourists started to arrive last week. Little did I know that for the low, low price of $40,000 I could have skipped the working gig and just flown down here from Chile. The most recent arrival was the team accompanying the Moon Regan – a propeller driven ski thingie that never moved under it’s own power the entire time it was here (still here, I should say – the team is off for another part of the continent before returning to pick it up).

People return to work here at the South Pole year after year. There are ten year people. A few twenty year people and even one guy that has been coming here since 1978. Initially I didn't see the appeal. I'm beging to realize, though, that the reason people return for so many years has little to do with the South Pole itself and a large part to do with the people. This truly is one of the most unique populations of people in the world.