BEING THERE Published in the Bangor Daily News 11/20/08 1
The South Pole briefing occurred in the McMurdo Station galley, where all of us anxiously awaiting news of flights gathered over still more mugs of coffee. The small, cold-weather planes that will open South Pole Station have left Chile and are on their way.
I’m slated for the fifth flight in, though all schedules are subject to change. I could get there as early as four days from now. Then again, I might not get there for several weeks.
We really don’t know.
We plowed through a meeting despite the uncertainty. Above all else, we talk about the importance of flexibility — and our own interdependence on one another. “We have to look out for each other. The South Pole is even more remote and isolated, and we have to take care of ourselves. Be careful and be flexible.”
Another topic addressed was “How to Interact with the South Pole winter-overs.” The 60 people who now keep the South Pole open have been isolated from the outside world since February; they’ve had no fresh food and have weathered six months of darkness alone together. “Be nice to them when we arrive,” they said. “They were ready to get out of there two weeks ago. But despite that, after having been there all winter, they’ve developed a real sense of ownership of the station. Now we’re going to take the reins and the transition will be stressful and challenging for them.
“And don’t even look at fresh food that comes in with us. That’s their fresh food. In fact, put even more fruit in your pockets on the way down there if you want to make friends.”
Partway through the meeting I glance out the window where there is usually a view of the Royal Society Mountains. All I see is white. The weather has taken a turn for the worse; all day there has been less visibility than we need to land planes. And yet the need to fly is urgent. It’s not just that we need to get to South Pole and get the winter-overs out. Several medical evacuations at other bases need our planes as well.
Not long ago, a fire swept through the living quarters of the Russian Antarctic base “Progress,” leaving one man dead and two badly burned. A third person requires surgery. Meanwhile, a man at the Australian base rolled a vehicle, crushing his pelvis and femur. At least four people need to be shipped off the continent as soon as possible, and if we can, we will send a plane to get them out.
On a continent with no national boundaries, we support one another whenever we’re able to. But between the capricious weather and a variety of changing destinations, it’s hard to predict when we will fly, and where.
“Keep your bags packed and be prepared for anything — a midnight knock on the door, or another week or two here in McMurdo,” my supervisor told us. I sleep with a duffel bag of my Extreme Cold Weather gear at my side, ready to go.
The Russian base’s fire is a particularly sobering tale. On the driest and windiest continent on the planet, fire is a huge danger — a building will burn two to four times faster in Antarctica than it would in the more humid North America. Many of our hyperinsulated buildings are built of canvas and wood, making them flammable as well as warm. And in Antarctica, if your building suddenly disappears, there is no hospital or neighbor’s house to go to.
The end of the long winter, when people are restless and eager to leave the continent, is a ripe time for accidents. We are reminded to be careful, despite our haste to complete the season’s turnover. This is no place to get hurt.
I step outside after the briefing and look at the snow falling on the sea ice. It’s hard not to feel guilty for enjoying it, knowing what I do about our backlogged flight schedule, but the swirling flakes are a beautiful sight.
Days later, the weather clears, and finally, planes begin to land at South Pole Station. The medical evacuations are successful. Even as I board the LC-130 aircraft to the pole, though, I try hard not to get my hopes up — weather could always force us to turn around, and I don’t want to be disappointed. It isn’t until I feel our skis hit the snow at 90 degrees south that I let myself celebrate.
I’ve finally reached my destination: South Pole Station, Antarctica. The absolute bottom of the world.