Stormy Weather

Storm There was a huge storm here a couple of weeks ago. It was literally the first time all season that we had a full-blown storm. Prior to this, we were living under constantly blue, sunny skies and I do mean constant. I think there had been one or two days with clouds and of course, with 24 hours of sunlight, you notice things like that. Suffice it to say, having a storm that gave us all reason to hole up in the station was a nice change. In a way, it was comforting in that I-want-to-curl-up-and-read-a-book way.

The storm itself was long lasting (two and half days) and really intense. According to Katie, who has been here before and thanks to her sweet disposition, seems to know everyone, it was the worst storm that the Area Director has ever seen at the South Pole in the summer.

The storm started on Friday afternoon with the skies clouded over and the wind picked up. When I woke up on Saturday morning, snow was blowing all over the place and there seemed to be a haze around the station building when I looked at it from my Jamesway. When I went to bed that night, wind chill was down to -45 F, wind speeds were up around 25 knots and the air was thick and stinging thanks to blowing ice crystals. Walking outside with any piece of your body uncovered was inadvisable for more than the 10 seconds it takes to run from the door of the Jamesway to the bathroom. Otherwise, the stinging of the ice would be outweighed only by the much-longer-lasting pain of frostbite that would form almost instantly.

Sunday morning (and indeed, most of Sunday) was the capper though. When I walked out to make a phone call, I was almost knocked over by the blowing wind. The storm interrupted phone service enough to make calls close to inaudible and snow was blown and tracked into every entryway on station. Walking to the main building across the 1/4 mile or so of open space was an adventure in and of itself. Head down, body hunched was the only way to do it. Now, from my Jamesway, the building was barely visible and when I made it to the halfway point (the cargo office) it was still clouded in blowing snow and ice so much so that it’s edges seemed to melt into the sky around it. I actually had to wear my wind pants to cut the affects of the gales across my body. It was the first time I had even thought of wearing them since getting to the ice.
Monday morning the sun was shining again, everything was covered in drifts and fresh powder was all over the place. I had to spend an hour cleaning it all off the deck so we could put away the food being delivered. There were also a ton of snowmobile accidents all over the place as inexperienced drivers hit the drifts and went end over end into the snow. Good thing it was soft and fluffy. The interesting thing is that after a storm where sustained wind speeds hit 30 knots per hour and there was 6 inches of fresh snow all over the place, it never actually snowed. Remember, the South Pole is a big, cold desert. It’s one of the driest places on Earth and on average, we get 9 inches a year. All the accumulation was thanks to drift and nothing else.

Here are a couple of videos of the storm. This was taken on Saturday, when I thought it was bad. This on Sunday, when it really was. This one was taken minutes later from the halfway point between the station and the Jamesway. Notice how little the view of the station has changed. Finally is this one, taken the day after. It’s actual melting ice at the South Pole with dripping water outside. The deck where I store food is exposed to sun all day long and protected from the prevailing winds, so it actually warms up. It’s not really a storm video, but to see dripping water is pretty exciting at this point.

Nothing to cry over

We had a great surprise in the galley the other day.

Freshies, as you know by now if you’ve been reading this blog, are a hot commodity at Pole. In a place with temperatures that never (at least this year) rise above 0 F and a massive shortage of water, there is very little opportunity (or space for that matter) to grow fruits and vegetables. There is a small “Growth Chamber” where they have rows of lettuce and some small herb plants, but beyond that, there’s not much growing here (not to say it’s not a great operation. Last winter they had fresh lettuce everyday). So when we get fresh fruits and vegetables in (and other items that need to be refrigerated but can not be frozen such as fresh cream instead of powdered milk, good cheese instead of the crap American and Provolone that they do freeze and most importantly of all, eggs) the station’s population is happy. Bowls of fruit are placed on the food line and everyone grabs one or two pieces. Salads are tasty for a few days and breakfast is what I want it to be again (believe me, there’s a big difference between real eggs and pasteurized egg product in a bag).

Two days ago though, the galley staff was given a special treat though. For some reason that I was never able to get, the load masters on one of the planes brought in 10 bottles of real whole milk for us. Now, I know that at home that’s a lot of milk, but in a place where the kitchen feeds 250+ people four times a day, that’s nothing. That’s not even enough for a recipe let alone to share with the whole station. So when Carol told me that the Load Masters brought us milk, I knew that by us, she meant the galley staff.

So did the rest of the galley staff from the looks of things. At around 3 pm, once word got through the kitchen, everyone who was working gathered for a milk and chocolate brownie break and literally could not talk for a few minutes. I don’t usually drink real milk instead opting for soy milk because the real stuff makes my stomach feel a bit odd if I have too much, but I’m not stupid. Being almost three months into this experience, I am well aware of the value of being offered any real, unprocessed, non-canned, non-frozen foodstuff and wouldn’t even turn down fresh cauliflower at this point (as long as it’s cooked).

Suffice it to say, it was the best dam brownie and glass of milk I ever had. As you can see, when you’ve been at the South Pole for this long, it doesn’t take much to get us feeling good.


The Galley crew didn’t drink all the milk. We know the privlage we get of having first choice of freshies that come in and we try really hard not to abuse it (I do have to take the chance to grab a satsuma or mandarin if they come in) so with the extra milk, we put out a call to all the folks who are wintering to come by the galley and drop the appropriate code word. Those crazy folks need it more than we do. At this point, I’ll be off the ice in about 3 and half weeks and can have any dam thing I want. Those poor fuckers though are going to be stuck here till October at least (in most cases, they can’t leave till November some time) and will have nothing that isn’t already here by that point. If I could, I’d mail them freshies because, let me tell you, just this long without ready access to fresh fruit is hard enough.

(now you know one of the reasons I wouldn’t winter here)

This whole experience is a lesson in just being

The season is really starting to wind down now. The vibe around Pole has changed in a way that’s more than the regular conversation being about when you’re getting off the ice and what you’re doing next, though that is a part of it. There’s a feel here now that is part wistfulness, part anticipation and part fear.

It started slowly with anticipation sometime around Christmas. My friends and I would talk about the things that we would do when we got home amongst ourselves from time to time, usually when we were bitching about work or some slight against one of us from an outsider. But as New Year’s grew closer, people I was less drawn to would have the same kind of conversation with me. Now that the holidays are past and we’re well into January, leaving is the talk of the town. Just like when we all first got here and most every conversation started with, “Where are you from?” and “What brings you here?” now everything is “God I can’t wait to go” and “How long are you spending in Cheech?” Dinnertime is filled with our desires to be picked up at the airport with Taco Bell, Pizzas, or dope in the car waiting for us and those of us with relationships back home now know that sex is again on the horizon.

Then something new started happening today. I had dinner with my friend John. He’s a peaceful kind of guy, more hippie than not, who lives in Eugene, Oregon and has a job lined up when he gets off the ice doing some forest thinning on the Coast Range there. He’s leaving sooner than the rest of us for that job and it shows in his eyes. He knows he’s going to be free soon enough. Our dinner talk started normally while we chatted about our days and our wish to go home and get high after work. But it veered after a bit, to a new place that I hadn’t visited out loud yet. Without knowing how we got there, we were soon lost in a deep conversation about actually missing this place and the life we’ve been leading here.

Friends, of course, topped the list, because we’ve made such good ones. John talked about how he’s been living the Seasonal Lifestyle for years now and how he’s used to meeting good people and then letting them drift off when the contract ends. He never wants to, and he’s tried to stay in touch with a few, but for the most part, the vast majority have floated off as he has, into their own lives. “It’s easy,” John said, “to get so wrapped up in my own life that I forget about this one.”

Of course, that’s a key thought for me through this whole experience. Through all of my ups and downs of missing home and Alexis and wanting to leave here, I have tried so hard just to be present in this experience. I have tried not to be wrapped up in where I want to be, but to let myself just be here. Now that it’s starting to end, John and I agreed that it is going to be hard to leave it all behind. For all our bitching, a lot of this is good. And as he gets closer and closer to going (John has less than 2 weeks to go) he is struggling with the idea that he’ll miss it and us, and is afraid that he’s going to let that anticipation of sadness color his last days here. “Just be present in it now,” I said. But I wonder if I said it more for his benefit or mine?

Fear, finally, is what’s next. This showed up unexpectedly, at least to me, and just reared it’s head a few minutes ago. I ran into Andy and John in the bathroom when I went to brush my teeth. Andy pointed out how weird it would be to have to face Real Life again. “I have to find a job?”

“Shit man,” I replied, “deal with getting yourself your own dinner first.” We laughed.

“Institionalized is what they call it. It’s so easy to live this way. You just have to be.”

“Yeah,” I told them, “some people spend their entire lives trying just to be and this whole experience is about just being.”

John summed it all up for us perfectly though. “Just being leaves something to be desired though.”

The Thrill is Gone — for most

It’s funny. I had planned to come back to my room and write tonight, for the first time in a while (I know) and one of the things I wanted to talk about was the lack of anything really new, at this point in the season, worth noting. Instead tonight, I ended up in Summer Camp Lounge with a friend I met way back during orientation in Denver who happens to be working here at POle for a couple of weeks drinking a couple of beers. I never just sit down with a friend in a quiet room and have a couple of beers here.

Wild. Just when this place really is getting to the point where it holds very few, if any, surprises anymore, something new to do comes along. And ain’t it just like the pole for it to be something so common and normal as to drink a beer or two with friend.

Though it is an unavoidable fact that the season’s end is coming close now and nothing here is really new anymore. Almost as automatically as 2006 became 2007, the holiday weekend last week ushered in constant conversations about what everyone’s doing after the Ice and how much we all can’t wait to go. Winter overs are talking about R&R, which they all get for a week in January, and how silly it is that all they get to do is go to McMurdo or stay here and if they stay here, they only get three days. People are grumpier than normal now at the food when it’s something they just don’t feel like eating, and work these last two days has seemed to frustrate a lot more people a lot more than it usually does. Couples are breaking up, broken up couples are less tolerant of each other’s presence, and pretenses are getting dropped left and right.

It’s all because we know now about how long we have left and it is much less than how long we’ve been here already. Some of us even have dates which we will not be here past and travel plans are starting to get made. The end is in sight and that means freedom from work, food that we don’t choose and daylight (a big topic of conversation is how cool it will be to see nighttime again, and believe me, it will be). At the same time though, work is ramping up for everyone. Things have got to get done now and we’re all getting bit more touchy than usual. The Design Team is due back in two weeks to sign off on Cryo so all the trades people are working like dogs to get it all finished in time (except one who is the laziest person ever and is in turn making all my friends even crankier). Cargo is also under the gun. They have to take all the items stored on the berms (long walls of snow about 2 feet high where cargo is stored) so that equipemnt operators can come along and push all the accumulated snow off each berm and then Cargo puts all the stuff back on again.

I’ve been worked to the bone the last two weeks too, emptying out the old Bio-Med Arch of all the food that was stored in there and moving it into the dome. The distance between the entrances of the two is maybe 50 feet and the Arch is probably another 50 and it was filled with pallets of food. It took three of us three full days to move all the food into the dome and get it all put away (remember that the dome is not heated and has no windows so the temperature is constantly about -40). It was a good time. I had to get all this done so that giant fuel bladders can be put in the arch for the winter so there’s heat and such this year. Not really something that can’t get finished. And everyone has a project or two like that.

It’s all leaving very little time or energy for fun anymore. Movies are still watched and of course New Year’s was a blast (pictures and short description soon), but this weekend is back to the one day off thing and something tells me the partying will be muted. So far this week, lunch has been a short affair with folks running off to squeeze in a nap and dinner has been the end of the day. Before we know it, people will be leaving (I heard about the first person who is leaving in two weeks today) and this will all be over.

In short, although I like thinking about being home again soon, I still have a month and a half or so until I leave and I’m glad there are still people around reminding me that there is something amazing and unique about this place. Tracy — the woman with whom I had a beer with tonight — is a really fun, good person, who I had wanted to get to know more. Thankfully, she is still full of excitement about being at Pole and interested in getting to know new people since she hasn’t been around us since October. We all need to remember that even with the end so close, this is still where we are now, and now is what counts so make the best of it. At least, I need to remember it.

The New Year is here

Howdy and happy new year to you all! I hope 2007 is finding you warm, healthy, not too hung over and ready for lots of good things to come.

New Year’s at the South Pole was an excellent time and will definitely get it’s own entry, hopefully tomorrow, just in time for all of you to come back to work and not want to do anything but look at pictures from our party. I really just wanted to take the few minutes I have here before I go into work to say Happy New Year and all that. I know my posting has slowed down these past couple of weeks, but it’s been unavoiadable. Even here at the pole, the holidays mean things get nuts and time runs short. Between short weeks (only 5 days long!), extra work, and ever-less convenient satellite times (currently it’s up from 11:30 p.m. till 11 a.m.) finding time to post is hard. But this week, although a short one, should be a bit less hectic (I hope. I’ve been working too hard lately on a massive food move and my body can’t take much more, I need more time in front of the computer) and will give me some time to catch you up on the holiday excitement.

For now, happy new year.