Tag Archives: toast


On January 28th the sun returned at last! We’ve had periods of twilight each day, but the sun has not breached the horizon since November 13th. Unfortunately, it was cloudy on Saturday…but it is getting noticeably brighter each day and we will have plenty more sunrises and sunsets before we leave at the end of February! Today is cloudy again, but technically the sun rose at 10:52am and set at 12:44pm. Unlike the South Pole, where there is only one sunset each year (see my post on that here), Summit Station gets many sunrises until May 6 when it will rise and remain above the horizon until setting again briefly on August 7th. 170127_summit_900
On the 27th the sun was very close to the horizon; a brilliant golden glow and colorful clouds hinting at its presence. On clear days this past week we have been admiring the defined earth shadow (another nice explanation of the phenomenon can be found here from Sky and Telescope) and beautiful pastel skies.

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The Earth’s shadow defined to the North as we walk back to the Green House


The pink layer above the darker earth shadow is called the “belt of Venus”

The new moon on the 27th meant it was a very dark night and we had a stunning view of the stars and Milky Way as well as a few curtains of aurora. Standing beneath this spread of stars with the infinite depth of the universe spread out around us is awe-inspiring.


The Big House under the northern sky – Orion is just to the right of the dome

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Standing beneath the Milky Way!

Inside our buildings we maintain our routine. We have all but finished our fresh food and rely now on frozen, dried, or canned provisions. Everyone is growing tired and looking forward to returning to the ‘real world’ soon. Part of the issue is that we are at 10,550ft above sea level here at Summit and the physiological altitude is often much higher (we’ve seen atmospheric pressure equivalent to 12,500ft this winter). Even after initial acclimatization to the altitude it’s physically exhausting. People generally don’t sleep well up here – whether due to lack of oxygen or too much/too little day light, and after a few months it’s hard to ever feel well-rested. There’s also the mind numbing routine and isolation: We’ve been cooped up in a handful of buildings with no where else to go for months now. We all knew what we were signing up for and everyone is doing quite well, but the last 2 or 3 weeks are the hardest of any season and we’re all showing signs of Toast. There is some debate as to whether this is a “real” phenomenon – whether there is actually a medical cause (lack of T3 or vitamin D or something), but regardless it affects almost everyone in winter-over crews. Some of it is comical: short term memory degrades and you walk into a room forgetting what you were doing, then do it again 2 more times. People start a sentence or a story and forget what they’re talking about half-way through. Words become hard to remember: “Do we have any more of…umm, that thing that water goes through to make coffee?” or “Have you seen my book?…and by that I mean, my hat?” And simple math becomes especially difficult. On the flip side, frustration levels run high, tempers shorten, sleep becomes difficult, and physical energy runs low. It’s a time to remember to think before you speak, and to have extra patience for everyone who is likely feeling just as burnt out as you.

It’s also a time to be aware that we are not running on “all cylinders,” and to add to that folks are excited about post-ice plans and may not be fully present and focused on the tasks at hand. We will talk about staying present and being aware of our surroundings a lot, but we have made it through the darkest times and are down to the last month of our season now!


TAWO looking very small against a clear horizon


Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Summit Station, Winter

The End of Winter

The first Herc - officially ending Winter.

The first Herc – officially ending Winter.

November 1, 2013 – The weather is clear, just warm enough (above -50C), and calm. After two hours of mechanical delays the radio in comms crackles “Skier 51 is offdeck enroute to Pole.” The first LC-130 Herc is on it’s way. Touching down at just after 3:40pm Winter is officially over. They brought in 32 members of the summer crew and over 2000lbs of “freshies.”

It’s with mixed feelings that we transition to summer. There’s  a part of me that thinks “That’s my table! My chair!” frustrated at the line for food in the galley. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge a new sense of camaraderie between my fellow winterovers.  It’s hard to describe. Hard to answer the question “How was winter?” It’s almost sad to know that it’s over now, like finishing an engrossing novel…not necessarily good or bad, just all consuming. Now, the station feels crowded, a bit like my place is gone.

It’s somewhat disconcerting to not recognize everyone’s walk and laugh. Not to know without a doubt who’s hat you glimpsed as they went around a corner. Not to know who it is just by the sound of their footsteps in the hall. But there’s also an almost tangible sense of relief. People laughing and smiling. We won’t be here forever, it’s alright if we’re tired, help has arrived. It’s good to see familiar happy faces, their enthusiasm and opptimism rubbing off just a little on our jaded selves. They’re just starting, all tan and rested and raring to go. Well, I’m happy to turn things over to them. And I know Cheech (Christchurch, NZ) is waiting, with it’s bright green grass and decadent flowers, it’s salty ocean breeze and cool wet sand, it’s fresh food and no reason to get up early except to watch the sun rise.


Filed under Antarctic, South Pole, Winter


After 7 months of being sequestered away – isolated from the rest of the physical world – we welcomed our first planes yesterday. Two Kenn Borek Twin Otters arrived from Rothera on their way to McMurdo! They travel in pairs for SAR purposes. It was strange to hear their voices over the radio, sounding so close, and so…Canadian. Winterovers drifted out to watch – standing on roofs, out on the snow, on the decks, and stairs watching and waving – and then when they had landed we all scuttled to our rooms and at lunch filled one long table in the galley, sitting close and trying not to stare. I wonder what they see in us – with our pale skin, wide eyes, and overgrown facial hair (on the guys at least). It’s beyond strange to see a figure and not be able to immediately identify them by how they are moving alone.

No matter how strange it may be, they have more than made themselves welcome with a bag of freshies! Apples, bananas, and kiwis! Enough for half a piece per person. I stood in line (yes, there was a line in the galley!) and found myself just staring at the kiwis, they were so luminous, so succulent looking, so perfectly real. I have been dreaming of apples though, so I picked one of the halved granny smiths. Perhaps the best apple I have ever tasted. There’s nothing quite like not being able to have something to make it so much more desirable.

They’ll refuel, rest, and wait for the weather in Mac Town to clear then they’ll head onwards. Meanwhile, the atmosphere is crackling with energy reminiscent of a Christmas morning. Still a month to go – but a month filled with changes, flights, and preparations for the summer crew. This is the beginning of the end.

The first Twin Otter touches down on October 5, 2013. -43F and little wind.

The first Twin Otter touches down on October 5, 2013. -43F and little wind.


As for the Government shut down – we’re business as usual for now, we’ve been assured that we won’t be stranded. Some impact might be felt next season however, as per this article: www.nature.com/news/us-antarctic-research-season-is-in-jeopardy

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Filed under Antarctic, Flights, South Pole, Winter

I want…


We are down to the last month here – 30 more days – and then the C-130 Hercs will begin to arrive, laden with mail, freshies, and the eager, excited, exuberant faces of the summer crew ready to go…It will definitely be a transition and I’m sure I will find myself cringing and wanting to be left alone – crowded by the new people and their optimism, just wanting them to stop smiling so much, stop talking so much…the frenetic pace of summer is exhausting even when you haven’t just survived a 9 month winter!
I’m scheduled to head out just a week after the first Herc arrives, shipped back to the real world, to beautiful New Zealand. Lately as I try to fall asleep, or whenever I let my mind drift, I find myself dreaming of everything the rest of the world has to offer – everything I have missed and yearned for these past long months. Here at Pole there is no dirt, no insects, no wildlife, no birdsong nor animals of any kind. There are no people younger than 22 or older than 65. We have no fresh fruit and only the limited vegetables grown in the green house, no real eggs, and only powered milk. We have showers, but are only allowed two (2minutes long) per week. It’s been an extraordinary experience, both challenging and enlightening, but the sun is up now, it’s relatively warm (-65F) and I think we’re all ready to go.

So here is a list, the idea stolen from a blog of a friend who has wintered here at the Pole twice before:

I want to feel the warmth of sunlight

I want to wake up to bird calls and the rising sun, not the electric screech of an alarm clock

I want to taste the crispness of an apple or an orange on my tongue

I want to let my hair down and feel the wind in it

I want to get my freckles back, even if it means getting sunburned – I want my semi-translucent, pale, dry, skin to draw color and warmth from the sun, to heal

I want to stand barefoot on green grass damp from dew

I want to wiggle my toes in the sand and feel the cold ocean waves wash over my feet grasping at my ankles, begging me to follow them out into the sea

I want to smell the rain – to hear it pattering on rooftops and window sills

I want to wear a skirt and feel warm air against my legs

I want to look at a horizon with puffy clouds and jagged mountains

I want to see the saturated color of dandelions on a stretch of green grass

I want to hear the wind in the trees and the songs of birds

I want to speak with someone whose name I do not know, whose stories I have not heard

I want to take a shower without goose bumps, and to just stand and let the hot water run over me regardless of the time

I want to see fresh fruits and veggies – resplendent in their color, holding in my hands the glossy red strawberries, deep purple eggplants, dusty blueberries, and bright yellow bananas, the orange peppers, brown mushrooms, white garlic, pink apples, and the myriad of greens…

I want to watch the sunrise, not stretched out over the course of weeks, but over mere minutes – and to watch it set that same day

I want to feel the heat of a hot day radiating from the earth after the sun has set

I want to feel dirt between my fingers

I want to blow my nose without getting a nose bleed and to wake up without being congested

I want to have the freedom to leave the mile radius I’m in whenever I please

I want to see color on the horizon, on the earth – something other than snow

I want to run outside – not on a running machine, er, treadmill…

I want to step outside and breathe without burning my lungs from the cold

I want to touch metal with bare hands without freezing to it

I want to go somewhere new – where I don’t know each bump and scratch on the walls, where there is something new about my surroundings

I want to sit near people and not feel obligated to say something or listen (like in a cafe or on a bus)

I want to hear a child’s laughter and a dog’s bark

I want to wear a tank top and feel the sun on my shoulders, to step outside without 25 pounds of clothing weighing me down

I want to wear sandals

I want to sit on a rock, to feel the warmth of the sun from it

I want to hike somewhere surrounded by trees and animals, to be the only human, to be alone

I want to swim naked under the stars

I want to go.


Filed under Antarctic, South Pole, Winter

Sunrise, Sunrise…

HDR of the sun on Sept 26, 2013

HDR of the sun from DZ on September 26, 2013

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here

“Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles

The longest night has finally come to a close. After four months of solid darkness the light returned quickly, growing steadily brighter each day. It’s been six months since we last saw the sun’s golden light. Technically the sun breached the horizon on the equinox, September 22, however due to atmospheric distortions it was visible on Saturday September 21. We’ve had a number of stormy days of late providing us with a few glimpses here and there. It circles us now, skimming the horizon, rising in imperceptible increments – a slow and steady spiral.

On Saturday morning I walked out to the ‘end of the world’ – the edge of activity here at the South Pole. Beyond stretched the polar plateau unbroken, unmarked, hundreds of miles of snow and ice ending abruptly to drop off into the sea.
By the time I reached the edge, with all signs of life and human presence behind me, I was well frosted up. My fleece neck gaiter was thick and stiff with ice, a little area melted by my warm exhalations. My eyelashes were coated with thick globs of ice – freezing together or to my gaiter if I was slow in blinking…I pulled off my thick mitten and melted them clear with my bare finger tips, dropping the chunks of ice onto the snow by my feet. I had learned the hard way not to try with just my glove liner. It froze to my eyelashes and then my hand was stuck to my face and my eye was still frozen shut – starting to panic I yanked my hand away, pulling out half my eyelashes with it…which I guess got the ice off too…but not something I wanted to repeat. It was amusing to be sure, but a little uncomfortable.

My eyes open and free of ice I snuggled down into my warm layers, pulling my hood up against the wind, narrowing the gap between hat and gaiter. I stood blinking at the horizon. Thermal layers within the atmosphere distorted the sun shifting it like a mirage – a wavering, shifting orb of incredible sunrise_HDRbrightness and beauty. My eyes watered and I remembered you’re not supposed to stare at it…blinking, I looked down at the snow by my feet, a negative image of the sun burned into my retinas. I felt both over and underwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the light, by the emotions from the past six months, by the thoughts of the season ending and having to face the beautiful and terrible world again, of having to deal with cars and advertising and money and strangers…so many people! Overwhelmed by joy in the sun’s return, in awe of its utter magnificence and yet at the same time by a sadness at the knowledge that unless I return for another winter I will never again see the southern stars pirouetting overhead at noon, or the aurora australis dancing across the sky, illuminating the frozen plateau in a wash of green.
Simultaneously, I felt underwhelmed – a sentiment of “Well, that’s it then.” Resignation. The sun came back and life goes on. These next six weeks will fly by and then I’ll be off and away. I struggled with a deep, welling sense of regret and ache at the troubles and drama of the season, at the fact that a small number of angry people had decided they didn’t want to be here and had tried their very best to bring us all down. That’s been the hardest part of all – the people, but it always is.

“The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become.”
― Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play

Sunrise here is not as quick and dramatic as at lower latitudes. I took an entire month to transition from the first hint of dawn to the sun itself rising above the horizon. There’s no point in standing and watching it, all you’ll see is the sun sliding sideways 15 degrees per hour. So after a few minutes my fingers were numb and my toes began to complain of cold. I shook myself, glanced up at the sun one last time and turned to walk back to the station. The wind was in my face and my skin ached with the windchill below -100F. The area between my eyes was uncovered and I felt the budding of an ice cream headache. I held my mitten over the gap of my eyes, careful not to let it freeze to my eyebrows or eyelashes, and listened to the crunch of snow beneath my feet as I trudged back towards the station. I thought about returning to the real world, to a world where the sun rises and sets every day! 364 times more than here.

The sun reflecting off the station

The sun reflecting off the station

HDR Sunrise on 19 Sept 2013

Axillary fuel tanks at the end of the world

Auxiliary fuel tanks at the end of the world

Sunrise on 21 September 2013 at the end of the world

Sunrise on 21 September 2013 at the end of the world

Back inside I got a cup of tea and noticed I was wearing my ‘inside clothes.’ I had absolutely no recollection of changing. I decided I was hungry and went to get a bowl, but by the time I got to the bowls I forgot what I was there for and so got a spoon to stir my tea and returned to my room…I woke one morning recently severely confused as to whether it was 6am or 6pm – had I laid down to close my eyes before dinner? Or was this a new day? TOAST.

Sunrise Dinner

Sunrise Dinner

A friend of mine passed away last month in a climbing accident. We worked together on the Juneau Icefield in 2008. The sunrises and sunsets on the icefield are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever witnessed. Breaks in the clouds during this long sunrise reveal an awe inspiring display, reminding me of Kevin’s description of the sky on the icefield: The snow gave way to sky and an explosion of contrast between white earth and ferocious sky drew the air from my lungs and left me feeling entirely insignificant.
Rest in peace Kevin Volkening

The satellite domes near the end of the world

The satellite domes near the end of the world

Venus passed the moon early in September over the course of a few hours.

Venus passed the moon early in September over the course of a few hours.


Filed under Antarctic, South Pole, Winter


toasterandtoastToast, also known as “Polar T3 Syndrome” or “winter-over syndrome”, is a phenomenon that often presents itself in polar winter-overs. While it’s a popular joke and a common excuse it can ultimately become a serious issue. Someone who’s toast is burnt out – simply done.

In a paper published in 2003 Dr. Palinkas examined winter-overs and the winter-over syndrome: “This syndrome is characterized by varying degrees of depression; irritability and hostility; insomnia; and cognitive impairment, including difficulty in concentration and memory, absentmindedness, and the occurrence of mild hypnotic states known as “long-eye” or the “Antarctic stare.” These symptoms have been observed to increase over time, peaking at mid-winter, and then declining during the third quarter of winter-over duty, only to increase again at the end of the winter-over period. These symptoms were first reported by Frederick Cook (1900), the polar explorer and anthropologist who served as physician aboard the Belgica. Since that time, they have been evident in almost every expedition. Most winter-over personnel at both stations experience these symptoms to various degrees.”

We’re pale with bags under our eyes. It’s not uncommon to see someone just staring at the juice machine for 10-50 minutes…long-eye. Words fail us, simple processes that we’ve done over and over suddenly make no sense. The personality quirks we normally keep hidden from public make their way to the surface – the months of isolation and confinement stealthily eroding our defenses, our social normalcy.

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
– Mark Twain

We’ve been living together, just the 44 of us, for over 7 months. Sure, we have a few hours of internet each day and phone calls are relatively easy, but it’s still isolating. Topics for dinner conversations have run their course. Punctuated by long moments of silence our dialogue flows seamlessly from news of a bill in congress to the state of the bathrooms someone House Moused on Monday to the wind speed forecast for next week to the details of designing space suits for “biological functions”…

Some silk flowers and a Verilux HappyLight 6000 - a previous winterover left for me.

Some silk flowers and a Verilux HappyLight 6000 that a previous winter-over left for me.

In 2008, Daniel Zwerdling of NPR interviewed several Polies who had wintered-over in previous seasons. It’s interesting and the last bit is dead on…it’s August, “Angry August” as it’s often known, or “Apathetic August” as some people have started calling it this year. As Zwerdling notes more than once in the interview a sense of camaraderie has developed, however I’m beginning to feel a bit toast myself. Some days the idiosyncrasies of my fellow winter-overs get under my skin and I’m grateful that I’m the sole Wastie here – that I work alone. When it gets too much I can always go outside to deal with my triwalls and snow drifts in solitude, the immensity of the sky around me putting into perspective all the trials and tribulations that seem the world to us inside the station.

NPR Zwerdling:
Medical researchers actually have a name for this. They call it T3 Syndrome, or as the polies put it, you’re toast. Studies at the pole show when you isolate a small group of people in a dark and freezing place, their body chemistry changes. They feel worn down, weepy, crabby. They sleep too much, or they don’t sleep at all. They turn on each other…People’s spirits get dark in the hear of winter

BK Grant:
When the “Lord of the Flies” started to happen, it just kept going. Our two cooks couldn’t be in the same building together. You know, when the power plant goes down, you’re supposed to run towards it and help; some didn’t. So when that starts going down, then you start seeing the true inside of humans. I really thought that grown-up humans would rise to the challenge. That’s what I thought I would see when I signed up, and they don’t.

NPR Zwerdling:
But then, the sun finally comes back. It jumps above the horizon in late September, and the polies realize they’ve made it. In fact, they formed tight bonds, and they say they see the world differently than they did before.

The recorded interview and full transcript can be found at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89967120

Another link worth checking out is the blog by the Doc at Dome C from 2012 – the whole blog is worth reading through, but this post in particular is about winter, darkness, and some of the physiological and psychological changes he noticed: http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/lost-in-time-in-the-antarctic-ice-age/?_r=0

More information on Polar T3 Syndrome and a study that was done on the ice a few years back: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=15478
Details of the official Palinkas study: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/1999/nsf98106/98106htm/nsf98106h2.html

It’s late August already, and most of us here are showing at least a few signs of being toast…Ultimately though, we’ve made it through the darkest hours, days, weeks, and months – there is a glow on the horizon.
It’s incredibly powerful – this undeniable evidence that the sun will return. It sounds absolutely crazy, but for a while it seemed like we would be stuck here forever, windows covered, with only the cold black outside and the same 44 people driving each other nuts inside. But there’s a glow, a pre-dawn hint of light and I know the sun will rise, the temps will warm, the planes will come eventually, and before we know it winter will be over.

A hint of brightness on the horizon.

A hint of light on the horizon.


Filed under Antarctic, South Pole, Winter