Outside magazine, February 1998
SPEND TIME WITH PEOPLE WHO'VE SPENT TIME AT THE SOUTH POLE
During the safer summer months, as many as 185 people — scientists and support staff sponsored by the U.S. government — live at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. But when the light dims and winter descends, the masses depart, leaving behind a skeleton staff of only 28, what's known as the "winter-over" crew. From then on, the crew lives alone in four barrack-like wooden buildings beneath a windproof geodesic dome 164 feet in diameter, made of aluminum and buried almost entirely by drifting snow. The air gets so cold it will literally crack the enamel off your teeth. Ice grows on the inside walls of the cell-sized bedrooms in long, creeping stains. It takes longer to dress — to don three layers of long underwear, insulated Carhartt overalls, boots, and a government-issue parka — than it does to reach the point of hypothermia, to achieve Ice Cubeness. Not to mention that with almost two miles of solid ice beneath it, the Pole sits at an altitude of 9,450 feet, making breathing a chore. Thanks to the dry, frigid air, there are no natural smells at the South Pole. Nor, given the unending blankness of the ice, is there color. Nor, for more than half the year, light. When explorer Robert Swan pulled a sled to the Pole in 1986, he declared visiting the place to be "the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time ever devised."
If being thrown in with a group of relative strangers and cast to the exquisitely terrible edge of nothingness is humankind's deepest escape fantasy (see: Moby Dick, Star Trek, Joseph Conrad, Gilligan's Island), then the South Pole is probably its closest earthly embodiment. Not surprisingly, NASA, with an eye toward colonizing space, has followed life at the South Pole carefully in recent years, funding anthropologists to study the people who winter there, to chart the angels and beasts of Antarctic isolation and determine how, in a stripped-down, cut-off environment, we who belong to this overstuffed green world might manage to survive.
Wintering at the South Pole, those who've done it will tell you, isn't just about surviving physically. It's about opening one's mind to the unbroken darkness and minus-100-degree cold, to the fact that you've got 800 miles of empty ice on all sides and that, from February to October, there's no way out. It's about internalizing the blankness, the quiet. It's about letting the winter inside. This is when a person starts to change, they say. This is when, out on one of the Earth's last frontiers, surrounded by space-age paraphernalia and satellite technology, you meet your most primitive self.
Take, for example, one recent night in that most dreary of Antarctic months, August, when researchers discovered that the South Pole's hydroponic greenhouse, which thus far had produced no more than a few meager heads of lettuce each week, had miraculously mustered two ripe tomatoes. These were not prize tomatoes, not meaty softball-sized beauties, but rather sorry, stunted fruit, their skins a royal pink, their size reminiscent of a pair of slightly swollen cherry tomatoes. Nonetheless, they were freshies, arriving months after the freshy shack had been emptied, when no produce remained save for a few potatoes and some brittle garlic. Imagine it then — two pulpy sweet tomatoes, like twin chambers of the heart, quivering pregnantly on the vine! A meeting was called. People took turns parading into the narrow greenhouse to have a look. Then, finally, somebody suggested a lottery — everyone's name put into a hat, the tomatoes plucked and handed to the lucky winners.
The first guy immediately popped the tomato into his mouth and reflexively began to chew, a tide of horror seeming to wash over him at the precise instant he swallowed, understanding perhaps that like a brazen hedonist he'd squandered the moment, that his tomato, four months in the making, was already gone. The second fellow, who had clearly given the matter more thought, carried his tomato carefully on his palm to the South Pole galley, with a number of his crewmates following behind. He laid the tomato on the counter, located a knife, and began with utter deliberation to whittle the fruit down. He then produced a slice of toast, a strip of leftover bacon, a wilted lettuce leaf, and a jar of mayo, and, after a moment's furious work, triumphantly held aloft a Lilliputian BLT, which he consumed in small, mincing bites. Maybe in that instant he saw himself with his mouth around the most sumptuously oversized Carnegie Deli sandwich, or maybe his appetite was simply for a moment's dark pleasure, a Have lording it over the Have-nots. Whatever the case, the BLT disappeared quickly, and soon he was empty-handed again, a wild flicker in his eye, a touch of bacon grease on his chin.
"Sometimes," one of the bystanders that day says now, "you can tell a lot about a person by what he does with a tomato."
"First of all, you can't exactly dial 9-1-1 down there," says Gumby. "And secondly, people tend to wig out on one another when it's dark that long."
It's a Saturday in early September. We're eating pork chops for lunch as sunlight slices through the dining hall windows at Camp La Foret, a facility set deep in the pines northwest of Colorado Springs. Twenty-two members of the 1998 South Pole crew have convened here for a weekend of group hugs and various team-building exercises before shipping off in October for the Pole. After this weekend, the group will move on to suburban Denver to attend five days of firefighting school. Gumby, who is six-foot-three and built like a Mack truck, wears Ben Franklin glasses and has a big brushy beard that smells like peat moss. I am acquainted with the smell of his beard because when, at the start of the meal, I asked the ten or so people at my table just how tight the living conditions are at the South Pole, Gumby immediately dropped his pork chop and hurled himself onto my lap to demonstrate.
The promise of this kind of claustrophobic intimacy — and the interpersonal meltdowns it can cause — is what inspired the La Foret weekend. The next 36 hours will offer a chance for this year's crop of deployees to dip their toes in the waters of emotional togetherness. It's also a last chance to back out. While the wintering-over Pole employees undergo a psychological screening prior to departure, purportedly to weed out anyone not fit, veterans will tell you that almost everyone passes, so the decision to go or not, to detach yourself from the rest of the world and throw your lot in with a bunch of possibly crazy strangers, is yours alone.
While roughly a third of the South Pole crew is made up of scientists — "Beakers," in Antarctic parlance — the rest consists of tradespeople sent to keep the Beakers alive. Together, they form a sort of vocational Noah's Ark — one doctor, one cook, one electrician, and so forth.
Even with the Beakers mixed in, the South Pole crew looks like a cross section of white America — folks you might find in line at the DMV in Traverse City, for example. Of the five women and 17 men who've made it to camp (six crew members were unable to come), nine have wintered at the Pole before. There are three married couples, five scientists from foreign countries, and three guys named Dave who, thanks to an earlier alliterative name game, are now distinguishable as Drinking Dave, Daring Dave, and Dangerous Dave. Ages run from 23 to 53, hairstyles from a military crew on Loud Larry the Navy communications specialist to a down-the-back snarl of early-dreadlock blond on Rabid Rodney, a young Aussie astronomer. Given that the women have named themselves things like Venomous Victoria and Dastardly Diana, I start to suspect that the male-female ratio causes them to feel defensive. This is mitigated, though, by a young woman who happens to be Gumby's bride of exactly one week. She has enthusiastically baptized herself Merry Mary and is the first to speak up when our supercheery team-building facilitator, Leo, asks if we're having fun yet, blurting out, without irony, "Oodles!"
As Leo sees it, the more hugging everybody does this weekend the better. Already he's led us through a bevy of get-to-know-ya games, things like tag and human knots and "favorite worst smell." For this, the group sorted itself into the dueling body-odor people and the garbage-dump people, with several splinter factions, including "outhouse" and "dirty diapers" and, somewhat worryingly, a lone vote for "decomposing flesh" from Loud Larry. We now know who was born in what state (Minnesota prevailing), who's afraid of heights, and who gets squirmy about snakes. We've held hands and inched in opposite directions across a narrow log mounted several feet above the ground. Between activities, Leo has pulled everyone into a circle — what he calls the Circle of Comfort — and debriefed us.
"What did we learn up on that log just then?" Leo asks. "Did we notice anything about the group?"
Each time so far, the circle has fallen silent. Leo smiles expectantly and waits. Usually it's one of his two co-facilitators, Franco, the only guy here with a crystal around his neck, or Pat, a tanned and muscular woman, who then chimes in.
"I thought we did very well up there on the log," Pat says.
"I'm proud of the way everyone cooperated," Franco agrees.
A wind stirs the trees. More silence.
"Yes, cooperation will be important at the South Pole," Leo says finally. "But it's communication, people, that will get you through."
Silence again. It seems tacitly understood that Leo wouldn't last five minutes at the South Pole, a place where the psychology is hard-edged and of high consequence, where what seems at first like an amusing little idiosyncrasy can quickly become a frost-riven and divisive horror. The Pole, our group already seems to know, just isn't a touchy-feely kind of place.
Or you embrace a kind of grim and swelling black comedy. Shortly after the last summer-season plane takes off in February, leaving the winter-over crew alone for the first time, everybody cracks open a beer and sits down for a ceremonial video presentation of The Thing, a 1982 movie that involves a crash-landed space alien who body-snatches the people living at an Antarctic base one by one, leaving a single survivor. Last winter, not long after the viewing, a prankster smeared ketchup on his shirt and went tearing into one of the Pole's outbuildings, wielding a cleaver and shouting at the station doctor, "You're the only one left! You're the last one!"
Isolation, after all, does strange things to people. Due to a lack of social and physical outlets, day-to-day life with one's fellow castaways can be like tiptoeing through a sociopathic minefield: You never know who might snap, and for what reasons. In a well-publicized case in October 1996, a cook at Antarctica's McMurdo station inexplicably turned on several of his coworkers, attacking one man with the claw end of a hammer. FBI agents had to fly in from New Zealand to arrest him. That same week — and this was during the early summer, when the sun actually shines in Antarctica — a rebellion reportedly broke out among 15 employees at the Australian Casey base, requiring a professional mediator to fly in from Sydney and baby-sit for a few months.
In Moby Dick, Melville describes the color white as "the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind." Antarctic history would seem to prove him right. There are rumors at the Pole, most of them dating back to the 1970s when it was primarily a Naval operation, that crew members who posed a threat to the rest of the group were put in a wire cage for the winter. Similarly, during the 1950s, a resident of Australia's Mawson base supposedly grew so deranged and violent he spent the winter locked in a storage room. In 1983, when the sun began to set on the Argentinean Almirante Brown station, the staff doctor, apparently nursing second thoughts about the season ahead, evacuated himself as well as his peers by burning the station down. And in a legendary act of poor-loserism, a worker at a Soviet base one year ended a chess game by killing his opponent with an ax.
All of this makes it difficult to look around Leo's Circle of Comfort without wondering who might be an eventual candidate for the cage. At lunch, however, several experienced Antarcticans explain that it's difficult to know who to fear down there. "It's not always obvious who's going to make it and who won't," says Drooling Drew, a kindly, longhaired native of Maine and the person in charge of the Pole's extensive computer network. "Sometimes the real weirdos actually flourish down there and the more normal people get driven crazy."
"It's the little things that get to you," says another guy at the table, a young technician with a goatee named Creative Craig. "Like your room's close to the bathroom. I heard about some guy who couldn't stand listening to the tap-tap-tap of toothbrushes against the sink over and over and over again. I hear one day he just went ballistic...."
After lunch, as Leo marches us into the woods to do trust falls, pattering on about how we have a "full-value contract" between us, I start to catch bits of sideline dialogue that suggest that the exploration going on between future Polemates is, perhaps aptly, more practical than emotional. "You're not a country music fella, ah y'mate?" Rabid Rodney, the Aussie, is asking someone. The station physician is casting around for somebody who shares his interest in Buddhism. And quietly working the periphery is Daring Dave, who at 26 is one of the group's youngest members — a rangy, good-looking Colorado kid with shoulder-length blond hair and what's unanimously accepted as the highest-pressure job at the Pole. When darkness falls this winter, it will be Dave who ministers to the crew's deprived senses and otherwise beaconless internal clocks. Dave, you see, is the cook.
I can hear him now as we tromp through La Foret's forest, quietly polling people about the particulars of their appetites, identifying allergies, separating the vegetarians from the carnivores, working to discern who, in the deepest, loneliest part of winter, will crave what. In the next week, Dave will help put together the order for an entire year's worth of food to be shipped to the Pole. "Do you like curry?" he is asking. "How do you feel about beef?" The answers come in hushed, confessional tones until he reaches Loud Larry, who it turns out has named himself well. There is something obdurate and possibly a little frightening about Loud Larry, an ectomorph in black cowboy boots who commandeered most of the morning's group activities, impatiently bossing everyone across the log, pausing at one point to remove three knives from his belt.
"I like all meats," Larry is telling Dave as a breeze lifts the tree branches around us. "I like squirrel meat. I like horse meat. My friends in the service ate a puppy once...." The sun kaleidoscopes through the woods and the group stays in step behind Leo's cheery gait, every one of us studying the ground. Dave nods his head gently and then, with a diplomat's grace, moves on to the next person. "Do you like coffee or tea?" we can hear him saying as we press forward into the wind. "Would you mind a lot of potatoes?"
But as scientists have immersed themselves in the great mysteries of life and physics, their shelter has slowly fallen apart around them. A senior science foundation official has called the station a "firetrap," while a 1996 study concluded that half the station's systems — namely the water pipes and generator-operated power plant — have outlived their intended lifetimes and can be expected to fail soon. After some political haggling, Congress last year appropriated $70 million to dismantle the existing station and erect an improved one in its place by 2005.
All of this is a way of moving us one step closer to the cosmos. If the new station works as planned, its proponents claim, it can help prepare us for a future out in space, where clusters of people will eventually be living and working, much as they do now at the Pole. "You won't take just astronauts and Ph.D.s to the moon to build a spaceport," says Jeff Johnson, an Eastern Carolina University anthropologist who has spent several years studying the group dynamics of South Pole winter-overs. "You'll need steel workers up there, too."
To make their lives together bearable, Johnson says, these floating pools of humanity should remember the principal lesson of life at the Pole: Conflict is best faced openly and resolutely. "It's the crews that are able to go face to face with issues that are able to resolve them. The more socially engaged they are, the better," he says. Johnson would get along well with Leo.
Robert Hogan, an industrial psychologist at the University of Tulsa who studied Antarctic crews in the early eighties, firmly disagrees. "All this B.S. about teamwork!" he says. "You have to realize the people best suited for the South Pole make crappy team players. The Pole's not an exciting environment. You're basically staring at a cinder-block wall for six months. It's a plain-vanilla, tedious environment, and the last thing we need is people who crave stimulation and excitement down there. It drives them crazy."
"Yes there is," says Leo. "A quiet strength."
"I find it worrisome," Pat continues in a blunter tone. "There's something odd about how quiet it is."
Facilitator Franco is nodding his head vigorously.
The group is, of course, quiet.
"How are you going to communicate with each other if you're all so quiet?" asks Pat.
More silence. Pat will later confess that she's accustomed to team-building with groups of executives and high-schoolers — people whose trust-falling is fraught with office politics and teenage angst, the stuff of high drama.
Suddenly, though, Dangerous Dave, a 33-year-old telescope technician from Chicago, steps forward. "I don't get what you want from us," he says to the facilitators. "What kind of stuff do you think we're going to say to each other here? Do you think I'm gonna tell somebody I don't like the way he looks and then go live with him at the South Pole for a year? You gotta be kidding."
Now it's the facilitators' turn to be silent. It's moving into late afternoon. The woods are overrun with squirrels. The rest of us are studying the ground again. If Dangerous Dave is looking for backup, he's not going to get it. Nor, however, is anyone disagreeing.
Pat draws herself up. "I think that was very brave of David to say," she says, looking around the circle again.
"Yes, brave," says Franco. "Very brave."
They don't bother to ask if anyone else has something to add. Dangerous Dave looks deflated. Leo scores a last victory for the touchy-feelies: "Let's do one more activity today," he says. "We call this the cinnamon-roll hug." Soon we have joined hands in a line, falling in behind Dangerous Dave. Leo directs him to spin slowly in a circle, and so, looking disgruntled but too beat to fight, he begins to turn. Linked in a human chain, the rest of us get pulled along, spiraling slowly and wrapping around Dave until we are bound in a giant, swirled-up hug, body to body, giggling now like disciples of feel-good as we press in toward the middle, where the naysayer stands squashed at our core.
Most of us can hardly conceive of this. We are, on a symbolic level, Fingees, able to understand isolation only from the outside. In our prelapsarian innocence, we might well spend our last days, like the Fingees at La Foret, planning the parties we'll be throwing in our new, tight quarters. Steffen, a 26-year-old German researcher, already has taken inventory of birthdays and various national holidays, adding in the traditional bashes thrown for sunset and again for sunrise, and concluding that the calendar will absolutely hold "one rager per month."
Asked if they feel the year ahead might chasten or otherwise change them, the Pole first-timers are dismissive. "Naaah," Rabid Rodney says nonchalantly. Steffen giggles. But Daring Dave is more thoughtful. "I'm sure it will," he says. "I'm a little afraid, like maybe I'll be messed up after this, but I don't think so. I think we'll all be fine. We'll just be good and toasty by the end."
It's hard to know, of course, how this enforced isolation will affect anyone. For those who've never experienced it, who know it only from a distance, it can seem so titillating, a potential party, or perhaps, most desirably, an escape — a big blind date with yourself and a bunch of new friends. But spend time with the people who've actually spent time at the Pole and you'll hear tales that are much deeper than this, tales not only of deprivation and madness but of euphoria and fulfillment, the glory of having one's senses restored after a long period of impoverishment. For the Old Antarctic Explorers, especially the ones who choose to return for a second, a third, or even a fourth winter at the Pole, isolation becomes a kind of religion. The Chinese Taoists believe that social withdrawal can lead to enlightenment. In Hindu thought, every human ideally matures into a hermit. Nearly every form of faith has its monks and ascetics — those who cast off material goods and retreat, those who believe it's good, even glorious, to be alone. For the people who fall in love with the Antarctic winter, it's much the same. "Sure we get depressed sometimes," says Drooling Drew, "but mostly we just get quieter, more thoughtful for a while."
The hungers and deprivations of this long winter make the return north almost overwhelmingly beautiful, as one's senses are inundated. Many South Pole veterans claim to have a permanently heightened sense of smell. Creative Craig has described to me in prolonged, sensual detail the first thing he rushed for once the plane deposited him in Christchurch, New Zealand: a cold tall glass of fresh milk. "Since then, I've never tasted milk the same way," he says. Others, however, claim to feel alienated and discombobulated back in the green world. "I never went back to the real world, really," says Lester, a Pole veteran who's now taking some time off. "What is the real world, anyway?"
Sitting at a bar with the other toasties on one of the last nights of camp, Paul, who tends the station's power plant, grows momentarily wistful. "Last time I came off the ice," he says, "I got to Christchurch and immediately went to sleep. The next morning I walked over to the botanical gardens. I found a bench and just sat there, getting acquainted with the trees. And then I heard this noise, which I didn't recognize for a second. It was the sound of schoolchildren playing somewhere close by. It was the most beautiful sound I think I'll ever hear."
Most have begun to feel trepidation, to have second thoughts. Merry Mary, whose first year of marriage to Gumby will be consumed by their service at the station, admits to me at one point that the prospect of the long bleak winter is unnerving, her only previous Antarctic experience having been at the relatively luxe Palmer base, accessible by ship all year. "The Pole is so different," she says with a frayed smile. "It's the real thing."
There's so much still that the group cannot know or control. When they finally do leave en masse in mid-October, they'll go, for instance, without Loud Larry, he of the authoritarian temperament and multiple knives, who was asked at the last minute to withdraw. Bad weather later will strand the entire group first in New Zealand and then at McMurdo station, 840 miles from their final destination. Flu will fell others for days at a time. But finally, in early November, for better or worse, the 1998 South Pole winter-over crew will reach the darkest, farthest place on earth.
And then, for the next several months, the group will watch the sunlight at the Pole weaken, diminish, and finally disappear. By now, in early February, the first winds of winter will have begun to howl. Within the next two weeks, the last plane will arrive, carrying in 27,000 pounds of perishables to supplement the kilo of sun-dried tomatoes and 800 pounds of French Roast Daring Dave has laid in. Then the plane will take off in the lengthening dusk, its cargo hold filled with the last of the summer people. The winter-over group, swaddled in parkas and face masks, will march onto the icy tarmac and watch the plane go, waving. After that, they will be irrevocably alone, left with only one another and memories of trust-falls as the long, dark season stretches on.
Sara Corbett, who last chronicled the hapless U.S. ski-jumping team for Outside (February, 1996), is the author of Venus to the Hoop: A Gold Medal Year in Women's Basketball (Doubleday).