February 14, 2013 The air is almost painfully cold as I inhale – even through my thick fleece neck gaiter pulled up high over my nose. I squint out at the bright white, blinking heavily, my eyelashes weighed down with clumpy mascara-like beads of ice. The edge of my vision between gaiter and hat is framed in thick white ice too. I close my eyes and my lashes freeze in place, I slip off my glove and pinch them between my warm fingers to melt them free. The bundled bodies around me let out regular gushes of breath, opaque clouds in the cold. People stomp, the dry snow crunching loudly. We stand there in our poufy Big Reds or thick carhartt jackets, defiant of the cold. We’re the Winterovers, we can’t get cold yet. It’s going to get a whole lot colder than the -50F it is today before we’re done!
The Herc has loaded the last of the passengers and is preparing to taxi. They drag the fuel line back and close the door. People are snapping pictures, moving around, keeping the blood flowing. Everyone has come out to send off the last Herc. The last plane to McMurdo. Two Twin Otters are still here; they’ll leave in a few days heading to Rothera station.
Once the cargo is loaded, the transfer of fuel is done, and the pax are on board the plane revs it’s engines and inches away on it’s big hydraulic skis. It feels like we’ve been out here for hours…this last day of summer simultaneously stretching on forever and going by so quickly I feel like I can’t keep up – Not ready to close, not ready to take over all the waste management, not ready to commit to 9 months at the bottom of the world, not ready for the deepness of a Pole winter. Yet I’m vibrating with energy – we all are. The winterover crew of 44 is fairly young. There are a lot of newbies (myself included, having not wintered before). The excitement is tangible. Nervous laugher, shutter clicks, the creak and crunch of snow, exhalations. The Herc is lost in it’s own ground level contrails, but then it appears, off the deck rising into the sky. They swing out past IceCube and loop back towards us. The plane gets bigger and bigger, until they’re directly above us and so fast I nearly miss it they’re off, carrying away the last of the summer folk – some of whom will return in November to open the station for another year. I stand for a while, watching the plane shrink to a speck in the wide blue. I don’t know what I feel exactly: scared, excited, happy, nervous, grateful…I feel like I’ve had one too many cups of coffee, I can hear my heart beating in my ears. It’s like the beginning of any big adventure – an enormous build-up, an emotional send off, and then everything slowing down and the future opening up wider than you could have imagined with possibilities perhaps good and bad. Like being dropped off at school, or arriving in a foreign country with a one-way ticket, or moving out for the first time – in the final moment of separation it’s somehow both exhilarating and slightly anticlimactic. Well, time for dinner…
After a while I feel the cold seeping through the soles of my boots, realize my hands are cold even though they’re balled into fists inside my thick insulated leather gloves. I look around and see Big Reds shuffling towards the station. All covered up, frosted up glasses and goggles pulled off, the only part visible are the eyes. Thick creases betray a wide grin, though some are wide, a little afraid, uncertain. Someone gives me a high five. “Happy Winter! Now Get To Work!” Laughter. This is it.
The next day is my birthday. There’s no big party, no fancy gifts, but the first day of my first winter is a milestone in and of itself. That night, as per tradition, we set up the gym and have a showing of all 3 versions of the classic polar horror film “The THING.” Crazy as it is there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
February 18, 2013 The last Twin Otter left today. We all went out to see them off, but it feels less significant than the last Herc. We left the dock on the 14th and this is just the pilot boat returning to shore.
44 Winterovers. 8 and a half months more or less. One sunset, one sunrise. About 4 months of darkness and some of the coldest temps on earth. Winter at the South Pole. They’ve done mid-winter airdrops before, and even a few medevacs by Twin Otter, but this is pretty much it. It would take 3-4 weeks for any sort of rescue plane to make it down here once we’d determined it was needed. We’re here for better or worse, until they open again in late October/early November…About as isolated as one can get without going into space.
February 24, 2013 “Is it dark yet?” I’ve been asked this a few times already by people back home. Even though I knew better, I half expected it to get cold and dark all of a sudden, as soon as station closed. It’s not. It got down to -60F one day last week, but the sun is still shining and it’s a balmy -49F today. -50F is the limit for Hercs – the oil and hydraulics begin to congeal and the contrails get so bad it’s dangerous. Those temps don’t slow down the station much though. We have time to clean up the station, learn our roles, and get everything staged for the darkness.
How does one prepare for this? I know a number of people who have wintered at the South Pole, some more than once, and they all say how special it is, how transformative, how challenging and rewarding, how simply beautiful it is. I have also been told how potentially awful (or fascinating) it can be from a sociological/psychological point of view. We’ve all undergone, and passed, a fairly intensive psychological exam, but that doesn’t stop people from loosing it in “Angry August” when someone sits in “their” chair or takes the last of the ice cream…
The station is great and sure, we’re stuck here with the same people for 9 months, our rooms are tiny, there’s not much fresh food, we only get two 2-min showers and one load of laundry a week…but compared to Byrd it’s luxurious: A population of 44 rather than 4; my own warm, quiet, dark room rather than a flapping, bright yellow, unheated tent; professional cooks; hot showers and washing machines rather than tin pails of snow melted and warmed on little diesel burning stoves…I’m grateful for my time at Byrd, it was a solid experience, but it feels like a step up coming to Pole.
As the one and only “Wastie” I work with everyone and no one – coordinating with all the work centers and yet working alone for the most of the day. I’ll be one of the few who gets to (has to?) go outside almost every day, whether it’s -60F or -100F in the darkest of months. Dressed properly and with plenty of snacks and warm up breaks it’s fine working outside. I enjoy it.
Some people will never leave the station. They’ll sleep, eat, work, and socialize inside all winter. Maybe they want that. Everything is harder in the cold, but leaving the station is refreshing, cleansing. It dissolves away the claustrophobic stuffiness of being inside all day. It helps to keep things in perspective.
We’ll work 6 days a week, 9 hours a day. Cleaning and dish duty (“housemouse”) assigned at regular intervals. The schedule is fairly regimented, like those on ships, submarines, or in space…it’s important to maintain a routine on such a long haul. It’s day 10 (of ~250) and we’re all pretty excited to be here, optimistic about the season ahead. Laughing hard at jokes, setting ambitious goals to learn languages, new skills, fitness goals, thinking up pranks and games and already teasing each other mercilessly.
The sun won’t set until the Equinox on March 21, and then it will be twilight for a while before it gets full on dark. But the sun is definitely lower than it was mid-summer! It looks like late afternoon all the time…our shadows growing longer, the snow picking up subtle hues of pink, blue, yellow, purple, the relief of the sastrugi growing more defined. We had a few cloudy days this past week and I realized my sunglasses were nearly too dark. Winter is coming…