See You in Six Months: White on White

In Antarctica, visitors fall from the sky, discovers Mary Roach,. What they find there comes from both heaven and hell.

Aug 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
Remote File: Polar Regions

Continent Size
5,283,600 square miles (Antarctica)

Population Density
Less than one person per square mile

Claim to Fame
Lowest point on earth (-8,364 feet)

Most Remote Region
The Pole of Inaccessibility, Antarctica

Required Reading
Endurance, Alfred Lansing
Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez

Cold, but windy: gliding above Port Lockroy, Antarctica.

THE INTERIOR OF ANTARCTICA is one of those rare places that look the same on a map as they do in real life: blank, vast, and entirely void of contours. These places attract me—polar ice sheets, Saharan wastes, the tundras of Greenland. Their beauty is somehow more forlorn and compelling for their utter unavailability to all but a persistent few. The fewer who've been there, the thinking goes, the greater the prize.

In the case of 76 degrees south, 156 degrees east, south-central Antarctica, the number couldn't have been more than a dozen: the five members of The Antarctic Search for Meteorites team who spent a summer season there, the pilot who flew them in, and a handful of visitors, including myself. At first sighting, the place was just such a prize. "Meteorite City"—four canvas tents, seven Ski-Doos, and a sled packed with Top Ramen, salami, and prune-size shards of old shooting stars&3151;sat on a luminous pale-blue ice sheet whose surface dipped and rolled like a flash-frozen ocean. The wind had scoured away most of the snow, and carved the rest into sculptured banks of brilliant white, Styrofoam-hard sastrugi. Ribbons of snow-smoke woundpast my ankles. The ice was sequined with sun, and the sky was the kind of clear, deep, lit-up blue that you feel behind your eye sockets. It was the first day of my stay, and it felt like heaven.

Three days later, I wasn't so sure. Heaven has a toilet and something good to eat. The uncomfortable realities of life in a tent at 30 below had begun to present themselves. Prime among them was a plastic bottle, labeled "P" for "pee"; it saved me from suiting up and crawling outside in the middle of the night. To keep its contents from freezing, I had to bring the bottle inside my sleeping bag, where it made friends with my contact-lens solution and the ten or 12 mini hand warmers with whom I also shared my bed. Otherwise I would have had a "P"opsicle, which could not be emptied out in the morning and which no one would want to thaw out over their camping stove for me.

Dinner was chicken patties with Tang sauce. Polarfleece became more familiar to me than my skin. Aside from Ski-Dooing back and forth on the ice searching for galactic rubble in 40-mph gales (constant, screaming wind is a necessary element of meteorite hunting because it exposes the elusive quarry) and reading in the 24-hour daylight, there was nothing to do.

By week's end, it was okay to be leaving this beautiful place that I had dreamed of, staring at the white on the map and thinking, "I'm going to a place where no one ever goes." Because now I knew why.

Filed To: Nature