Saturday, January 10, 2009

At the Close of the Day

Just as I finished eating my last meal (of cereal and juice—it wasn’t meal time so there was no real food) at the South Pole I heard the announcement that my Pax Out flight was on deck. I cleared my dishes, ran downstairs to drop my 50+ post-cards in the post drop box, ran upstairs and grabbed “big red” and my carry on from my room (my FDX boots, Carhart coveralls, street clothes and long jons were already on, and in my parka I’d stowed my goggles, sunglasses, facemask and–crucially—my camera) and headed to B2 to see if anyone else was there. On the way down the hall I ran into one of the Swedish drillers who said “Leaving already? But you just got here!” I know, but in this business you take what you can get! It turned out that everyone else was coming out to say goodbye to us—I was traveling out with Bob Paulos, our engineering manager and “on-ice lead” (ie the big boss). So we headed outside to take our places amongst the departing. Our names were checked off a list, but we still had about a 20 minute wait while the Pax In passengers were welcomed, the plane was cleared and the cargo was loaded.

During the last moments, looking around, all I could think was that I will be back here. It would be romantic to say it’s just a feeling or an intuition but it’s more than that—the truth of the matter is that I know that I will put some effort into trying to return: I have too many unanswered questions, too many places still unexplored. Three weeks is simply not enough time. Some people say the South Pole is like a disease people catch and can’t shake—I don’t know that it’s like that for me, but I definitely want to come back.

I also remembered, right before I left, that I’d promised my brother to fill a water bottle with snow from the Pole. So I dumped out one of my water bottles (I had two) and in I scooped. The friends I was with thought it was so funny that they took a video of me scooping in the snow—of course I haven’t seen it yet since I was leaving, but I thought it was really funny that they thought it was so funny…apparently it’s not common to bring South Pole snow along with you. (In fact, on reflection it might be illegal because of the Antarctic Treaty—oh well!)

Also at the last minute I was instructed as to the proper way to wave goodbye in order to get an awesome waving goodbye shot. I followed the instructions to the letter so hopefully I’ll have an awesome photo—I won’t find out until I get back to the States, though.

Finally the plane was ready: I hugged my colleague-friends goodbye, walked out the snow-clad runway and boarded my Hercules C130 out. I grabbed some earplugs on the way to my jump seat and as soon as the plane took off—and my eyes were sufficiently dry behind my goggles (blessed goggles)—I went to sleep. There are times in life when you can feel a chapter breaking—maybe even closing altogether—and, although that means an exciting new section is beginning, there is some nostalgia…some ephemeral emotion to which you know you can never exactly return. This was one of those times.

Midway through the flight I woke up freezing—these flights are heated, but unevenly, and it seems I’d chosen a cold spot. So I ate my freeze-dried apples and pears and my granola bar that I’d brought for lunch (noticing in the process that the apples and pears had an amazing smell that hadn’t been at all evident when I ate them in the station), and I stood up and moved around before I became too cold to do so—immediately I was asked if I’d like to head up to the cockpit. The crew gave me a headset so I could hear them talking and they showed me how to talk, too. Then they told me everything I was looking at and asked me all about what I was doing—this whole trip the pilots have been great (I heard that lots of other people weren’t allowed into the cockpits, so I must have gotten really lucky)! The previous time I’d been in this cockpit I was dazzled from flying across so many time zones—the process to get in to the South Pole really is long and confusing and strange the first time. Fortunately (bad sadly), having done it once, there will never be another first time for me.

After a slightly-less-than-three-hour flight we landed in McMurdo. The first thing I noticed was the snow—it’s completely different than at the Pole. At the Pole it’s completely dry and crunches—sometimes in the winter the snow in Madison is similar, but really not the same. It can be blown around and tossed about by the slightest breeze. The snow at McMurdo was…moist! It could be compactified—you could make snowballs out of it! After noting the snow I also noticed that I could breathe again—the moisture in the air is inconceivably helpful. The third thing I realized was that I was walking around with a bag that at the Pole had felt like it weighed 100 lbs. Here at sea level I could lift it like a feather, no problem. I could walk, I could breathe, I could lift: overall I felt super-human. (I discovered later that evening that I could also drink an incredible amount without any effect—if only that had been the case on New Year’s Eve!)

As we looked out the windows of our shuttle between the landing field (on the ice between Ross Island and the mainland) to the station, we became rather wary—the ice is melting now. Really melting. To the point where water was pooled up in some places and large machines were stuck in others. Fortunately we were riding in Ivan the Terrabus again, so of course we were invincible, but that didn’t prevent us from feeling a bit nervous every time we drove by open water. I was rather relieved to make it to dry land. That’s right, dry land…as in dirt. Dirt! It may be volcanic and not have much growth, but it still carries the memory of green things growing, and the grubs attending them. And the land doesn’t just have dirt, it has features—mountains! No flat nothingness for Ross Island, that’s for sure.

So I spent that evening reveling in the recognition of sights, sounds and smells. For me the most amazing of these was the water. On the way to the bag drag that evening we crossed a bridge under which ran a new stream from the melting snow in the mountains above: it made the most wonderful sound in the world. Most of you hear it every day—water dripping, tripping, rushing and gushing everywhere. I had not heard water in this excess in weeks—even our showers were switched to a trickle for the most part—it sounded beautiful to me.

I spent dinner that evening with Bob Paulos and Erik Verhagen (our winter-over). Erik was there for one week of R&R before he goes back to spend the winter at the Pole and couldn’t recommend McMurdo highly enough. Later he bought us tons of drinks, simply because he’s been missing spending money on his friends—it’s funny the things people miss. I also spent some time talking with one of my roommates—who is also a Pole winter-over—the next morning. She turned out to be the person in charge of safety, a job she’s held for a number of oil companies in the past—she had a very interesting back story. The people who decide to winter over are incredibly varied but their stories are never boring—if you meet one never forget to ask them how they decided to do what they’re doing.

That evening I realized that McMurdo really feels like a town out of the old West. As we drove in, we passed “Annie’s Laundry” and there was Annie, leaning against the doorpost in a flannel shirt and coveralls, hair up in messy braids, arms akimbo, just waiting for business. She ought to have been holding a rifle. We went to the bar and there was the bar maid and maybe three other women, perfumed and well-coifed, in a room packed with scruffy men clad in flannel and carharts. I felt like any one of them could be talking about mining for gold or laying tracks for railroads or the 10,000 head of cattle they had to get to Chicago for slaughtering before winter. But this analogy is not so far from the truth: McMurdo is the last outpost of civilization at the edge of the last great frontier—there may not be large predators but there is danger deep in Antarctica, and isolation, both in the wintry darkness and in the 24-hour sunshine of midsummer. There are features that exist which you can’t find on any map simply because ever-moving ice sheets are not so easily surveyed. The mountains and valleys are still being christened: if I stay with this project one could be named for me. That’s when I realized that I have just visited the last of the dark places of the Earth—the ones labeled “heare be dragons” on the hand-drawn maps of old. Those days seem long-gone from the perspective of Middle America, but in Antarctica we are living them yet.

The next day I ate lunch with Bob as we waited to hear about our flight—our departure was eventually posted for 5PM, with a meeting time at 3. So at 3 we grabbed our dinner boxes, were “checked in” (which consists of people telling us we’re not supposed to have sharp objects) and hopped on Ivan again. After much standing and sitting and general waiting around, we finally boarded our plane. And guess what—there was no C130 out of Antarctica for me. This was an AirBus. That’s right: a real, honest-to-goodness passenger flight, chartered by the Australian government, with stewardesses serving drinks and everything. We were allowed to choose our seats, so I definitely took the only first-class seat I’ve ever taken in my life—out of Antarctica. I can’t tell you how much of a kick I got out of this. It was absurd! And the day was perfect, so the fact that we all had windows was just amazing. The pilot even flew around Mt. Erebus for us with an extra wing-dip so we could peek in and see all the steam coming out the top of the volcano! Wow, what a life—this last bit was truly over-the-top and unique. I almost feel like I didn’t get the true Antarctic experience: I got to stay in the new station, where there’s a sauna, a gift shop, an exercize room, a library (no running outside in my pajamas in -30 degree weather to use the toilet for me!)… I got to work in a well-heated building (as opposed to outside, as was done for many years) and DOM-testing is done in a really efficient way, thanks to the experimenting of previous generations of DOM-testers… and now my flight out of Antarctica is first class on an AirBus. How much more posh does it get? Is it possible that anyone could have had a luckier first trip to the South Pole than this? Never. There’s absolutely no way.

Since we all had windows, I managed to catch the sunset—the first sunset I’d seen in weeks. At the time I only realized that this was the end of a very long day. But the next day it would have further implications.

On arrival in Christchurch we disembarked and loaded up onto a bus. On the bus radio was playing Yael Naim’s song “New Soul” (the one from the Mac commercial) and I can’t think of any more appropriate music for that moment. The smells seemed new. The feeling of walking around outside without all my heavy gear seemed new. The ability to breathe right, and lift my bags, and run on solid ground seemed new. Life doesn’t get any better than this.

And how cool is that? Well, at the South Pole it was -15F with windchills of 35 below. In McMurdo it was +30F with unknown wind chills. And in Christchurch? The day before I arrived it was over 100F. But when I got into town, it was evening and the temperature had cooled to 65F. Perfect. Absolutely wonderfully incredibly perfect.


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