Illustration of the author skiing in Antarctica
Illustration of the author skiing in Antarctica
(Illustration: Jean-Michel Perchet)

Working in Antarctica Was Mindless Boredom. Until I Found a Pair of Skis.

Right out of college, Leath Tonino traveled to Antarctica to experience the frozen landscape of his childhood exploration heroes. The daily routine was a bit dull—shoveling snow for the U.S. government—until a pair of skinny skis unlocked the potential of the vast snowy expanse.

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My favorite spot on the East Antarctic plateau, the planet’s highest, driest, coldest, windiest, deadest desert, is the Love Shack—an uninsulated plywood box the size of a modest bathroom, painted black to absorb the 24-hour sunlight, furnished with a chair, a desk, a cot, and a pile of coarse cotton blankets. Rumor has it that researchers and laborers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which sits about two miles away, occasionally require a refuge for romance, something I tried not to think about when I was in there. Like a prep school or military base, the station is insular, a cheek-to-jowl compound of laboratories, workshops, dorms, and supply depots, and the 250 inhabitants during the austral summer are hard-pressed to find privacy sufficient for their (ahem) needs.

In my case—that of a 22-year-old Vermonter who in 2008 ditched his wonderful college girlfriend to chase the ineffable at the bottom of the globe—the Love Shack was a strictly celibate hermitage: pencil, notebook, a couple cans of Speight’s Gold Medal Ale, immense quiet interrupted by chattering teeth. I frequently spent Saturday evenings shacked up with only amorphous breath clouds for company, shivering and gazing through the plexiglass window, simultaneously contemplating the sprawling abiotic wasteland and—beneath thermal undies, a fleece sweater, and a fat red fur-ruffed parka—my own navel. The idea was to space way out and space way in. Touch the edge, the border where inner and outer converge. Take some solo time with The Ice.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A ride to the pole on a chartered tourist flight costs $50,000 and is lame. Accordingly, I traveled there under the pretext of a job. General assistant was my title, a euphemism for miserable shovel grunt. My employer, Denver-based Raytheon Polar Services Company, then a subcontractor for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), laid out the terms: November to February, six days a week, nine hours a day. Skimpy paycheck, tons of cookies. Zero at the warmest, 50 or 60 below if it wasn’t blowing. The recruiter assured me that it would be blowing, and that I’d dig to the point of exhaustion, past that point, and then—scoop by scoop and moan by groan—into another infinite snowbank. I was told to imagine a bustling construction site on a white plain that extends, unbroken, for hundreds of miles. The station’s central, 65,000-square-foot building is elevated on hydraulic stilts that allow it to be incrementally jacked above the ever accumulating drifts, yet engineers estimate that the whole deal will nevertheless be unusably buried in half a century beneath powder swept from the coastline to the arid interior. I gathered that general assistants are a sort of flotation device keeping the facility’s infrastructure from sinking, drowning, succumbing. Enthusiastic toilers in Sisyphean absurdity. Bingo.

My mother’s brother, Uncle Neil, a logger from Maine, snort-laughed at the details I reported about my after-graduation gig, saying, “Thought that’s why we had plow trucks.” My father’s brother, Uncle Bob, a history teacher from Connecticut with an encyclopedic knowledge of high-latitude survival stories, clapped and said, “Finally!”

He had drilled a dozen famous surnames into my tiny head before I was potty trained: Amundsen and Scott racing to the pole, Cherry-Garrard studying the breeding behavior of emperor penguins, the Australian academic Mawson, the Norwegian whaler Larsen, the American pilot Byrd. He had also stressed at every chance the grim verity that if you run low on pemmican and hardtack, sorry sonny, the sled dogs must be eaten. When I turned 12, he gave me an 800-page biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the nail-tough Heroic Age explorer, with a mandate to cut the Lord of the Rings bullshit and focus. The paragraphs I read were tedious, but the accompanying photos of pale barren flats and ant specks hauling sledges were stirring. By projecting myself into those bleak scenes, a vision of my rugged, dog-eating future was born.

By my teenage years in Vermont, I was experimenting with how many miles of butter-fueled agony a pair of legs could cover in a single blizzardy weekend. To satisfy my curiosity, I once hiked to the top of a mountain and bivvied without gear, just the clothes on my body and a bundle of rimed spruce boughs for bedding. I invested in crampons and a briar tobacco pipe, did a Wilderness First Responder certification course in January, and ultimately migrated west to the Colorado Rockies for an undergrad education in skiing, avalanches, and increasing severity.

The plan wasn’t Antarctica, not specifically. The plan was spine-tingling, butt-whupping confrontations with winter, harshest of seasons, antithesis of civilization and its flabby abundance. I wanted to immerse myself in the inhuman wilds, to fill and overfill myself, to rasp the marrow of my being against elemental, nonnegotiable reality, until I was scoured to nothing and it alone existed.

Grandiose talk? You bet. An adventurer’s urge. A young philosophy major’s half-cocked eco-spiritual urge. An urge that led me to google “cyanosis” and hunt down a miscellany of quotes as a means of proving that the pull is legit, the siren song audible to ears other than my own. These sentences from author Charles Neider, who made three expeditions to The Ice, were gospel: “But the chief goal of the Antarctic pilgrim is to reach pure nature itself—from ancient, pre-human time, frozen in an incredible ice cap. Such a pilgrim goes to pay his respects to natural conditions; to take a breath of unpolluted air; and to sense how it all felt in the beginning, before the introduction of man.”

Indeed, I was a pilgrim, and I was not unique. In November, during an orientation session at Raytheon Polar Services’ headquarters, I met my cohort of fellow pole-bound rookies, among them Marty Monsma, an ice-climbing carpenter from Michigan who wore black Converse All Stars and possessed the spirit of a Romantic poet. We bonded right away, discerning a shared motivation that he nicknamed the Monk Drive. “Pare off the excess and simplify,” Marty liked to say. “Where better than Antarctica?” He’d debated doing a stint with Halliburton in Iraq, but the ascetic challenges of life at the Amundsen-Scott Station won out.

Chatting with this friendly doppelgänger fired my impatience for the quest to officially start. Then, at last, it did. A hectic connection through LAX, a red-eye to New Zealand, a few days getting outfitted in Christchurch, and a solid two decades of both conscious and unconscious anticipation delivered me to a jump seat on a C-17 crewed by dudes in fatigues, my feet sweating in standard-issue bunny boots, the propellers roaring. We were actually taxiing, our nose cone actually aimed toward the end of the earth. Buckled beside me, a USAP veteran leaned close and asked if I’d sniffed the dirt prior to boarding. “Won’t smell it for months,” he said. “Plants, rain. Sayonara. Kiss it goodbye.”

Sir Shackleton’s famous quip—“We all have our White South”—was on the tip of my tongue. My White South was going to be the White South. Crazy. That afternoon, soaring over the Ross Sea toward McMurdo Sound, I spied an iceberg and gasped.

Amundsen-Scott Station, where the shoveling never stops
Amundsen-Scott Station, where the shoveling never stops (Jean-Michel Perchet)

Antarctica is 40 percent larger than Europe and has no permanent human population. The USAP’s mission is to conduct and support science—geology, marine biology, climatology, astronomy, the gamut—and to do so it deploys approximately 3,200 people to the continent annually, spreading them between three stations. McMurdo, where our C-17 landed on a runway hewed from the plate of the frozen ocean, is the biggest and by many accounts the least desirable: oil drums, shipping containers, crunchy mud-rut streets, a ubiquitous flu affectionately referred to as the Crud. Picture a shabby mining outpost in the Canadian Far North with a capacity for 1,200 residents, subtract the boreal forest, and add volunteer disc jockeys spinning wax on Ice 104.5 FM. I was warned that due to poor weather or logistical snafus, a general assistant might get stranded there for weeks awaiting the three-hour flight to the pole.

Initially, that seemed an exciting prospect. Mount Erebus towered above the station, an active 12,447-foot volcano sheathed in glaciers, and though climbing the gleaming behemoth was forbidden, ogling it was a joy. Plus there were skuas, a gull-like scavenger species absent from my life list; Scott’s antique Discovery Expedition hut beckoned from a nearby bluff; and the southernmost bowling alley in the world promised a chuckle if I tired of the refracted light, the lambent purple shadows, the freaky beauty.

A little later, dropping my duffel in a bunk room where a bunch of night-shifters grumbled in their midday sleep, I downgraded my opinion of Mactown. The quarters I’d been assigned to were named Man Camp, or Fart Camp, or Camp Snoring Man Farts, or something, and were claustrophobically hot as a result, I assumed, of the relentless off-gassing. Wrong. “Thermostat wars,” a tablemate told me at dinner. “Bane of my existence.”

Lucky for me and my nose, a manifest showed that I was scheduled to depart the next morning. Conditions proved favorable, and the view of the Transantarctic Mountains rendered Erebus, heretofore the baddest, burliest peak I’d seen in my 22 years, positively dinky by comparison. Screw skuas, I thought, this is what I’ve come to behold, these 850 miles separating McMurdo from the pole: dark craggy nunataks, a quintillion crevasses, three-fifths of the earth’s fresh water locked into a chunk of ice thicker than ten Empire State Buildings stacked end to end. Virgin wilderness, pristine wilderness, holy-crap wilderness. My fate, my destiny.

I ought to have noted a red flag, a sign of impending disgruntledness, when my boss Shaggy, a jovial, exceedingly intelligent party animal, commenced his pep talk to the ten general assistants on our inaugural day of shoveling at the Amundsen-Scott Station by saying, “You’re gonna work your tails off—that’s our style at the pole, from GAs up the ladder to the managers. But trust me, it’s gonna be rad, ’cause this is the best summer camp ever.” We were in the gymnasium, squeaking our bunny boots on the full-size basketball court, pounding cups of melted ice cap to counteract desert dehydration. Shaggy recounted an anecdote about a boozy brouhaha the previous field season that had tarnished the USAP’s reputation: shattered jaw, ugly media coverage, pink slips. “If anybody messes with you, bring it to me,” he said, then segued to a riff on buzzed as distinct from sloppy trashed.

Everybody laughed, but now it doesn’t strike me as funny. A 2021 investigation by the National Science Foundation revealed that USAP stations like McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott have long fostered a toxic culture of sexual harassment and abuse, and while I didn’t witness or hear complaints of such nastiness during my deployment from 2008 to 2009, I believe the disturbing allegations made by numerous women and echoed by a lot of men. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that the pole’s intense isolation, hierarchical organization, and drinking culture are a recipe for disaster—and I fear that I may have been oblivious to the awful experiences of my female colleagues.

The plan wasn’t Antarctica, not specifically. The plan was spine-tingling, butt-whupping confrontations with winter, harshest of seasons, antithesis of civilization and its flabby abundance.

Shaggy concluded his pep talk, and I nodded my assent: yes, summer camp, basketball court, yes. Eating the dogs? Rapturous dissolution of ego identity in the screaming crystalline vacuum? These fantasies were displaced from my mind, and for a month I kept nodding, seduced by the station’s NASA-podunk architecture—telescopes measuring cosmic microwave background radiation, Korean War–era canvas Jamesway tents—and its eclectic community of rogues, geniuses, nerds, and miscreants. I formed a jazz trio with a Japanese astrophysicist from Caltech on bass and a squirrelly carpenter from New Hampshire on guitar. I bummed cigs in the smoker’s lounge, a BYOB hovel equipped with a Nintendo Wii, from Gonzalo and the Plumbers and Panda Lady. I attended science lectures presented in accents ranging from Austrian to Indian to Minnesotan. I observed the streaming cirrus, the blazing brightness, the unsetting sun. And, duh, I wielded my shovel as a knight wields his sword, vanquishing the heaping enemy wherever encountered (everywhere), adamantly refusing wussy Hot-Hands warmers in order to study the way a pinkie finger blossomed with pain, numbed, and spontaneously revived.

In short, the pole was hyperstimulating and I was psyched—until around Thanksgiving. Abruptly, I became a grumpy wage slave chained to a rigid routine: dragging ass to the usual four-egg breakfast burrito and gallon of coffee; to mandatory yoga led by the ponytailed ex-cop Don; to the electrician’s subnivean shop, a grimy basement of fluorescent bulbs, jugs of wire-pull lube, and profoundly foul language. As a reward for my gung-ho attitude, I’d been transferred to the Sparkies. There would still be random shoveling tasks, but primarily I’d assist Monty, a jolly, loudmouthed gentleman—“a bona fide Kansas redneck” (his phrase)—with assorted projects inside a metal hangar linked to the main elevated building via a network of tunnels and stairwells. Farewell, quilted Carhartt bibs. Hello, T-shirt.

Recall that eloquent quote from Charles Neider about the Antarctic pilgrim whose destination is “pure nature itself.” There’s a second part, a flip side to the coin that in my exuberant underlining binge I ignored: “But he also goes to see how man survives in the world’s most hostile place and does so by means of the very gadgetry which increasingly possesses and assails him.” Because the East Antarctic plateau is ultra-inhospitable, mega-brutal, one necessarily gets trapped within the bubble, the protective clutter. My White South turned out to be possessed and assailed by Speight’s, Keebler E.L. Fudges, forklifts, Speight’s, glycol, marathon conversations, keyboard noodling, Speight’s, SPF 50, a mild electrocution that zapped me to the floor, Speight’s—i.e., less frigid emptiness than strange imprisonment.

The author at 12, with a hefty biography of Ernest Shackleton given to him by his pole-obsessed Uncle Bob
The author at 12, with a hefty biography of Ernest Shackleton given to him by his pole-obsessed Uncle Bob (Jean-Michel Perchet)

Come December I was whimpering and barking, my leashed-dog frustration mounting. Fifty-four-hour workweeks left scant time for idiosyncratic investigation, but I was hell-bent on establishing a line of communication with my environs’ fierce environs, the surrounding austerity. Enter Teemu Lakkasuo, a bald, stocky Finn in a puffy, cornflower-blue onesie, his cheeks scabbed brown from exposure, who had attempted to march to the pole from Hercules Inlet on the coast, 700 miles away. Haggard endurance athletes like Teemu are permitted only a hasty tour of the station before being sent back into the void to twiddle their thumbs and scan for the plane that will transport them home, and I happened to intersect him in the galley at lunch. “I’ll snag a batch of cookies from the dinner buffet,” I said, begging an interview. He gestured out the window to the crimson dot of his tent, pitched on a patch of snow reserved for visitors, and gravely pronounced that a discussion would be nice, and the cookies, too.

When I trudged to Teemu’s tent that evening, a feast of gingersnaps in my pocket, he was snoozing amid a knot of clothes, sleeping bags, and digital gizmos: GPS, sat phone, camera, various cables and adaptors. “For a cushion,” he said groggily, nudging a Pelican case into the cramped vestibule. I crouched with two-thirds of a buttock on it and listened to his story—a story punctuated every fifth sentence by
a hacking, unproductive cough.

This was Teemu’s first trip to The Ice and, moreover, the first solo, unsupported Finnish expedition to the pole. He’d practiced for it with a 51-day crossing of the Scandinavian Arctic, executed in the perpetual night of winter. “I trade dark for light,” he said, describing Antarctica’s whiteout storms as “the Ping-Pong ball” and “the milky porridge.” On the tenth day of his trek from Hercules Inlet, sick with fever, he stumbled and hurt his leg, and on the thirteenth day, notwithstanding a bellyful of painkillers, he accepted defeat: an evac. “And so I ski the last degree of latitude, about 70 miles,” he said. “I heal and am dropped at the 89th parallel, and this is my consolation prize, a last degree.”

I asked Teemu how he decided to throw in the towel, and he sighed, which triggered a hacking fit. Once it passed, he emphasized and reemphasized the tent’s crucial role in Antarctic travel. Sixty-mile-an-hour gusts, a fractured wrist—regardless of the circumstances, you better be able to erect the sacred domicile ASAP. Two minutes is excellent. Four minutes could be lethal. “In the ferocious winds, I lost my confidence.” Cough. “Alone is intimidating.” It made no difference that Teemu hadn’t achieved his original goal of setting a Finnish record and winning glory. He had achieved my goal—contact—and I was jealous.

The USAP administrators, to their credit, understood that the White South of inebriation and open-mic night falls shy of certain expectations, and they offered a guided campout as compensation. I leapt at the opportunity, despite my hunch that the NOLS-type instructor would be a bit of a dweeby amateur. A gang of us crammed into a tracked vehicle, disembarked at a site beyond the station’s hubbub, built quinzees, fluffed mummy bags, and struggled to unwedge our respective wedgies with mittened paw-hands. Though the excursion was remarkable—a privilege—rather than feeding the need, it merely whetted my appetite for solitude and unmediated presence. Magnetized by the sparkling outskirts, lingering at the designated pee zone, I stayed awake until 5 A.M.—a gross vigil, perhaps disconcerting to my peers. So be it.

Throughout this vexing period, I continued to read, of course. In the snug, well-appointed library, the title Antarctica: Both Heaven and Hell, a memoir by Reinhold Messner, piqued my interest. Messner, the legendary alpinist who swapped steep Himalayan objectives for “the horizontal” in the late 1980s, traversed the continent on foot over 92 days, and in the book he described both terror and elation, but also staggering into the embrace of the station, mid-expedition, and wanting to flee. “Amongst so many people and so much technology, I had already forgotten where we were,” he wrote. “The South Pole was a complete contrast to the ice desert, instead of being its culmination.”

Pole as anti-Antarctica set bells of recognition chiming in my brain. The following Saturday, the galley was packed for a screening of Banff Mountain Film Fest shorts—bushy-bearded yahoos hooting and hollering, cheersing frothy brews. Was I one of them? I was, ugh. At the precise geographical coordinate that represents the epitome of Untrammeled, Extreme, Wickedly Wondrously Wild, we cardboarded the windows to block that pesky midnight sun and reveled vicariously in the exploits of paddlers, climbers, and cyclists—versions of our former selves—shredding the gnar in the North American backcountry.

Behind the cardboard, alien sterility stretched to all horizons, an encircling mystery. I craved a taste of the oblivion—no, I yearned for it to take a bite out of me. Silly metaphors. Whatever the words for my hunger, it was impossible, suicidal, and against USAP rules, which stated that unauthorized wandering outside the station’s core area would earn me a speedy flight home to Vermont. I was under house arrest, basically, tethered to the enclave of imported, petroleum-generated warmth and safety. Apparently, my memoir would be titled Limbo: So Near and So Far.

Then I found the skis.

Alone in the shack, contemplating Antarctica’s frozen wasteland
Alone in the shack, contemplating Antarctica’s frozen wasteland (Jean-Michel Perchet)

Was there a conspiracy not to inform me? Was I too busy and heedless and drunk? Was it a Christmas miracle?

Bored in the electrician’s shop one afternoon, trying to entertain ourselves without resorting to foul language, Chris the tinsmith—a career polie who alternated seasons on The Ice with seasons in Greenland and, for some inscrutable reason, appeared mellow, healthy, predominantly sober—offhandedly mentioned that a stash of cross-country equipment was available if I fancied myself a nordorker. Skis, boots, poles, the full kit, free and for the taking.


Authorities confirmed the rumor. I was allowed to grab a radio, sign out with the communications office, and escape: crank laps around the station, sprint from the Cargo Berms to the Marisat radar platform, push until the Caterpillar D7 dozer tracks faded and I was breaking my own trail. There’s a black plywood box about two miles away, a kind of warming hut called the Love Shack, they said. Don’t go much farther. You may want to knock. And please be sure to—

I grabbed a radio and signed out before the sentence was finished, beelining it to the hypertats, where the precious equipment was stored.

The hypertats—arched, plastic-coated, modular buildings borrowed from The Jetsons—served as dorms in the early 2000s, but a malfunction in the plumbing system caused the USAP to defund them, which caused the station managers to abandon them. A survey of the surrounding drifts yielded a door, a hallway glowing with azure light from a snow-clogged window, and a jackstraw tangle of outdated yet serviceable skis on an Astroturf carpet. I tiptoed deeper, past empty bed frames and uncapped Gatorade bottles, scattered magazines and orphaned gloves. The azure dimmed to cobalt, ultramarine, indigo, and the hairs on my neck prickled. In the murkiest recess, I reached the laundry facility and a massive, animate slug of slithering ice that had torn through the ceiling to strangle a stacked washer-dryer unit. It was a cryo-apocalyptic image, a spooky preview of the unadulterated, indifferently violent Antarctica I had been seeking and would momentarily engage.

Engage I did. After work. After brunch. With a tailwind. With a headwind. With ragged lungs screeching mercy and lactic acid curdling the quadriceps. In a sweatshirt on the balmiest day of the year (minus two degrees Fahrenheit) and a balaclava on a typically crisp one (minus 35). In a giddy daze, a rhythmic trance, a familiar hypnosis.

I’d adored cross-country skiing since toddlerhood, not as a sport but as a portal to the local landscape, a gateway to Vermont’s stubble cornfields, leafless birch groves, and pillowed beaver bogs. At the pole, the portal opened and opened, the gate swung wider and wider, and I was suddenly, astoundingly alone with sastrugi, Van Gogh brushstrokes, ripples and wrinkles, fragile aeolian sculptures, micro textures flowing eternally beneath a macro sky.

Testimonial: Skiing tempered my alcohol intake, invigorated my sex drive (lie), improved my mood, flooded my soul with Jesus’s divine compassion (lie), and saved my sanity. The Love Shack, in turn, saved my earlobes and nostrils from frostbite. I liked to pop in there, slam Double Stuf Oreos, thaw my skull, then relaunch.

In the Southern Hemisphere, as in the Northern Hemisphere, shanking Nintendo Wii golf balls and smoking Marlboros beats cardiovascular exercise in the popularity rankings. Between January and my departure in February, the only person I saw roaming the dazzling periphery was Chris the tinsmith, and we crossed paths just once. He waved, changed course, grew larger until we were fist-bumping and grinning and agreeing it was awesome, the entire East Antarctic plateau to ourselves, un-frigging-believable. “Fun to tour blindfolded,” he said. “No obstacles from here to Queen Mary Land, the Indian Ocean, Madagascar.” I took his advice—yanked my beanie to my chin, pinned it there with my goggles—and was surprised to see, ten minutes later, that my track veered left, curved 180 degrees. More intriguing than the asymmetry of my gait, however, was The Ice returning in all its stark glory, that squinting, epiphanic, cataract-patient-is-cured revelation. Henceforth, I would regularly ski blind, addicted to the visual aha.

On a rare overcast Sunday morning—sky a saggy gauze, sun a dull burn hole, caffeine fighting a futile battle with bacon grease in my gut—I rested longer than usual in the Love Shack: so spartan and peaceful, so meager and brittle and nippy and appealing. If I’d brought a thermos of soup and my books—H. P. Lovecraft’s creepy Antarctic novella At the Mountains of Madness, Roberto Bargagli’s scholarly Antarctic Ecosystems: Environmental Contamination, Climate Change, and Human Impact—I might have burrowed into the coarse cotton blankets and relaxed for hours. Instead, I routed my lassitude, dug the spurs in, and skied into that vaguely defined off-limits region, a mile farther.

A mile, or was it two, two and a quarter, two and a half? Scale in Antarctica is a mind warp, distances difficult to judge. The gauze got gauzier, the dull burn hole dulled, and a faint breeze picked up. I opted to play the blindfold game—score a quick fix, a shot of the aha—then loop back to my berth for a nap. As I plodded, the breeze stiffened, whipping snowflakes against my chapped lips, scratching cryptic messages on the nylon of my hood. The energy crescendoed and, in the darkness of my beanie, for a time released from clock time, I was carried blissfully forward by the surge.

Eventually, I removed my blindfold, not because I’d tired of the game, but because my forehead itched, and—hmm, quite odd—I was still blind, wrapped in a swirling, smothering cloud, a bland, rushing nothingness. I didn’t know which direction I was facing, didn’t know if I was upside down or right side up, didn’t know anything except the thrilling, horrifying urgency of the situation: the station’s satellite dishes and antennas erased, my tracks filling in fast.

I spun 360.


This was the Ping-Pong ball, the milky porridge, the obliterating White South of my dreams, the desperate White South of nightmares. This was raw Antarctica and this was trouble—no backpack with emergency supplies, no shovel to excavate a cave, no guarantee that my radio’s batteries hadn’t lost their juice to the juice-draining cold. I was dressed to the nines in state-of-the-art outerwear and, paradoxically, buck naked, existentially exposed. And my ski tips were fuzzing, blurring, ghosting away.

And now the ankles, the shins.

And, fuck, the knees, thighs, waist.

On skis, alone with micro textures flowing eternally beneath a macro sky
On skis, alone with micro textures flowing eternally beneath a macro sky (Jean-Michel Perchet)

In the station library, at the nadir of my pole-resentment phase, I pulled out a book by William Fox, an author obsessed with the relationship of spaces (physical environments) to places (cultural constructions), and eagerly searched for something I couldn’t articulate. On page 19 of Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent, to my shock and delight, I found it. “How critical basic contour recognition is to our survival shows up in the Antarctic during whiteout conditions, when we are subjected to a Ganzfeld, or visual field without contours,” he wrote. “Stumbling around in a whiteout, where visible light is dispersed in a perfectly even manner, you start to lose your balance and coordination almost immediately, and within fifteen minutes may suffer a complete, though temporary, loss of vision.”

The Ganzfeld was my ideal of fundamental communion, the ineffable ur-experience that had drawn me to the pole—prima materia, Magna Mater, “pure nature itself” exploding all discrete things and instantly mending the pieces into a flawless, seamless whole. How fortunate the ant on a pale barren flat! How blessed the speck merging, evanescing! The Ganzfeld was the grail, nirvana, the literal and symbolic immersion I’d always desired, absolutely.

Everything was not fine. Everything was fine. The Sunday morning mini-Ganzfeld that annihilated me was brief, a fleeting perceptual magic: my body reassembled, the dizzying panic abated, the ruler-straight horizon slowly emerged. As the spell wore off, a charcoal smudge—a contour, a shape; gorgeous tangible plywood—resolved into focus, and I skied for it like an Olympian, dove into its outstretched arms. It hugged me and I hugged it, splinters be damned.

This was the Ping-Pong ball, the milky porridge, the obliterating White South of my dreams, the desperate White South of nightmares.

My last weeks on The Ice were spent infatuated, smitten, falling deeper and deeper in love with the Love Shack, that thinnest of shells, that skimpiest of shelters. Whereas prior to the whiteout scare it had been a means to the end of the mythic wild, a pilgrim’s pit stop en route to civilization’s antithesis, afterward it became my hobby and habit, a raison d’être. Stage the notebook and pencil on the desk. Arrange the blankets on the chair in lieu of proper upholstery. Crack a Speight’s. Scrape a window in the frosty plexiglass window. Sip, shiver, ponder. Repeat.

Meditating there, gazing way out and way in, I came to appreciate the structure as a tightrope strung between the pole and the East Antarctic plateau, a delicate line to walk: human versus inhuman, life versus death. Even a hardcore nature boy slavering for nonnegotiable elemental reality requires a buffer, I realized, and the interaction of physical space and cultural place (to use William Fox’s terms) could and should be lauded as a terrain ripe for exploration and contemplation. In essence, what I learned from the Love Shack was that imposing my eco-spiritual fantasies on the blank snowy slate of The Ice was a classic mistake; that haggard, hacking Teemu was correct (the domicile is sacred); and that the worthiest, weirdest goal isn’t a mystical Ganzfeld-Houdini vanishing trick, but a journey to the utmost edge, the border where inner and outer converge. Pause at that interface. Pay attention. Steal a glimpse.

February. My final evening in Antarctica, in the galley gorging on steak and olive bread and soft-serve ice cream. Good old Marty Monsma the Monk Driver and two other USAP comrades invited me to stroll over to the candy-striped Ceremonial Pole—the corny, Disneyish icon of postcards and long-held aspirations and $50,000 tourist flights—for a group photo. These were dear people I’d befriended months ago at orientation in Denver, and I was genuinely bummed that I’d likely never goof and chat and drink with them again. “Can’t, guys, got a date elsewhere,” I said, thinking to myself: A date at my Ceremonial Pole, the black plywood box about two miles off the mathematical-cartographical mark that celebrates my White South. I indulged in a third helping of ice cream, then laced the cross-country boots tight enough to hurt and dropped the hammer, relishing the ache, welcoming blisters as souvenirs.

Alas, the parting was melancholy, the beer a lump in my throat. Having discovered the Love Shack’s power to take me right up to the vivid, vivifying brink of the abyss, to suspend me there with a foot in both worlds, I hated to leave. Our romance was only beginning and already it was done. I’d barely settled in Antarctica, barely arrived, yet the end of the earth was ending.

Yes, it was ending. A toast. A crushed can. A bow and a hushed thanks and a valedictory ski toward the station, through it, onward to the next adventure: duffel bulging, feet sweating in bunny boots, propellers roaring. The superlative East Antarctic plateau—the planet’s highest, driest, coldest, windiest, deadest desert—sank and shrank and rapidly transformed into a cherished memory. Forty-eight hours later, after landing in Christchurch, I raised a thumb and hailed a rusty pickup. The driver, a farmhand who had been shearing sheep, asked my destination. I answered anywhere with dirt and plants and rain.

His forearms were fleecy, clumps of white wool stuck to the hairs. “That’s everywhere in New Zealand, lad.”

I inhaled. Exactly.