The South Pole and Beyond
SUMMER CAMP, SOUTH POLE, ANTARCTICA– So, perhaps I was a bit ahead of schedule when I referred to Friday as the Eve of Discovery. Since then, AGAP has been playing the waiting game. Waiting to get to Pole, waiting to get acclimated at Pole, waiting to get to AGAP-South and now waiting for the rest of the science party to be medically cleared to fly our science missions.
In the midst of all that, I developed and recovered from the intestinal CRUD that was sweeping McMurdo. CRUD is the official term for whatever sickness is sweeping McMurdo in spite of the flu shots and constant handwashing. Initially, the doctors thought I was sick because I had taken Diamox, the recommended medication for altitude adjustment. When I was still eating tea and toast 3 days later, they decided I had had the CRUD. I slept through most of those uncomfortable days and being at Pole was just what I needed to forget being sick.
Eventually, I beat the CRUD and saw my name on the manifest to fly to Pole. We arrived just before midnight on December 18 for a planned 3 days of acclimatization at more than 10,000ft. When my illness resurfaced at Pole (CRUD part 2), I ended up having to stay 2 extra days. Most of my time was spent at Summer Camp, in the South Pole’s sturdy but temporary buildings called Jamesways. Although Summer Camp is a shantytown compared to South Pole Station, it was much more comfortable than I anticipated. We still have running water and plumbing, something I’ll be sure to miss at AGAP, and across from my little haven, there’s a lounge with 2 TVs and room to dance the night away if the spirit so moves you.
I was impressed with South Pole Station and since it had so many public spaces, I spent much of my time squatting in the quiet reading room or in one of the lounges where the walls are lined with books. The station manager, who also contributed to the design and construction of the building, gave the AGAP group a behind-the-scenes tour. We learned how the building is designed to recycle all the heat it generates and saw the many 4-wall doors that would be closed if ever there was a station meltdown. Unfortunately, being in such an extreme part of the planet, where the weather can kill you, also means you have to plan for the worst. Everything in the building is duplicated. Each heating system could heat the whole building if the other one broke or needed repair. And on top of that, part of the building is a life preserver; a small section where everything needed for survival can be produced and maintained even if the other parts had to be abandoned.
I spent most of my last day at South Pole in the growth chamber, a greenhouse within the station where all the vegetables are grown for those that winter-over. It’s also one of the few places you can track down some humidity in the dry polar air. I knew before I came to Antarctica that it was the highest, driest, windiest and coldest place on Earth. But I now have a new appreciation of the high and dry aspects of its character. It’s common for people to get sore throats at night, not because they are developing colds but because it is so dry, it desiccates the back of the throat. In the course of the night, it dries out until the pain of it wakes me up. For the first time in my life, I have taken to sleeping with my water bottle cradled in my hands. But that’s only one of many strange habits I have these days. My favorite is that I have to wear sunglasses to go to the bathroom. Who thinks “Man, I need to go to the bathroom. I better find my sunglasses!” Acclimatizing to life in this frozen wilderness is not too hard when you’re excited about the science but I know I’ll have a whole new appreciation for life in NYC when I get back.