Monday, February 9, 2009


I hadn't planned on writing any further updates to this blog, but three months after escaping to New Zealand, I find myself back at pole. This time my visit's only for two weeks - I'm here to train next year's SPT winterovers - but I think I've got enough pole-related material to write about to justify one final post.

Stepping off the plane and back onto the well-known ice field was a surreal moment. Walking toward the station, up the oh-so-familiar stairs, down the halls I once wandered aimlessly through the night: the ice-bound world, without moisture or smells, was eerily familiar, and strangely comforting.

Everything was exactly as I remembered it, only completely different. There was a tremendous feeling of deja-vu, as if I had just walked into a world I'd only seen in a dream. It was a homecoming, only I found my house redecorated and my family and friends replaced by strangers.

It's hard to believe that it was only 3 months ago that my winter drew to a close. So much has happened in the interim, so many lives lived in miniature, so much seen and so much changed. It feels as if I'm returning to pole not mere months after leaving, but years.

The expanded sense of time is probably the result of the year of slow-motion winterover life: returning to the real world, events fly at you so frequently, with such rapidity, that the days seem impossibly full, too eventful for 24 short hours. Somehow it just seems more likely that, as at pole, there is a full year between sunrises.

I do have to admit to a certain awkwardness in the first weeks of my off-ice life. I've spoken with many of last year's winterovers, and everyone seems to agree: something in the lives we left behind just didn't seem quite right when we returned. The best description I've heard is that you feel like a visitor to your own life. With old friends, co-workers, even family, we just don't quite fit anymore.

Even now, several long months later, I find myself more comfortable in the company of winterovers than with my oldest and best friends. Many of the others have been traveling to and fro across the US, seeking each other out, just to enjoy a meal or a drink together. Those who visited family over the holidays tell tales of retreating to their bedrooms, sitting happily and wanting nothing more than to stare at the wall in peace for a couple of hours. Pole didn't break me down quite that much, but I'll admit that I see the appeal of the idea.

Now that I've been back on the ice for a solid week, I've settled into a new way of doing things. My mind has accepted that this isn't winter pole, and I'm living comfortably as a summer-winter hybrid, still spending more time in my room than anywhere else, but friendly and outgoing with the summer folks. I'm not fooling anyone - a blind man can spot a winterover from across the room down here - but I am happy, neither reliving my old life, nor fretting about the future; life at pole really is wonderfully simple.

Coming back down here has somehow allowed me to finally box up the winter and put it behind me, as an incredible experience, one that I wouldn't trade for anything. All the memories that faded so quickly when I got to New Zealand have been gently reasserting themselves, prompted by the familiar surroundings, and my winter at pole is beginning to settle in as just another year in my life. A unique one, granted, but neither seminal, nor one that I need to pretend never happened.

It's good to be back at pole, but this isn't really home anymore. It's time to move on, maybe settle down for a bit back in the real world.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Post Mortem

It's been nearly a month since I left the ice, and my memories of the past year are fading with shocking rapidity. All the long walks through the dark, the frustratingly short 2 minute showers, the excitement and the boredom, all the good times and the all bad seem so distant now, as though imagined in a dream.

Life in the real world is spectacular. Everything is so vibrant, practically humming with life. The birds, the trees, the rivers - they seem almost too real. My mind is buzzing with activity every time I leave my hotel room; there's just so much to see and do. It's all so new, a sort of rebirth after the confinement at pole.

I'd forgotten how much I like water. From ridiculously long and frequent showers to going scuba diving to simply dangling my feet in a stream, I've been spending a lot of time in and around water. Rain has probably been my favorite experience since leaving the ice - the smell, the feel, the sudden change that passes over the world.

Apparently all polies experience something like this on leaving the ice: complete wonderment at every little thing that seemed so routine before our polar incarceration. Flowers, animals, daily sunrises - everything holds a new importance to us. It's funny looking at the world through fresh eyes, and it's a wonder to experience it all again for the first time.

All these new experiences and sensations seem to be completely overwhelming the memories of life at pole. To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced that it actually happened, that I did live at the South Pole for the past year. Those memories are so slippery now, fleeting and ephemeral. I'm sure they'll reassert themselves as I settle back in to regular life, but for now, the pole feels very, very far away.

As one final note on this blog, I'd like to say thanks to everyone who read it through the year, and particularly to those who posted comments. It was one of my few lines to the outside world, and the occasional word of support went a long way in helping to maintain my mental health. I hope you all enjoyed reading it, and that I could somehow share some of the experience of being down there.

- Keith

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Leaving Pole

My time at pole has finally drawn to a close, and after two more-or-less frantic days of turnover with the incoming SPT people, I'm now safely off the ice and back in New Zealand. Civilization at last. I'll try to write one final post after a couple of weeks back in reality, but for now, just a few words about my departure from pole.

I have to admit, it was much harder than I expected to tear myself away from the station. After living there so long, it was home, even with our winter community shattered amid the influx of summer folks. I tried in vain to convince myself that there was in fact a whole new world out there, oh so much bigger and more exciting that my little existence on the ice, but it was still tremendously difficult to pack and leave everything behind.

Eventually the moment came, and with hugs and well wishes from the new SPT folks and the last few winterovers, I boarded the C130 to Mactown. That afternoon & evening, the polies gathered in our berths to share a bottle of whisky and some cheap wine. Mactown is no place to celebrate your freedom, but that doesn't mean you can't get pleasantly drunk there.

The skin on my hands, which had been a sort of scaly parchment, tearing at every opportunity and never quite healing up, was smooth and supple within 6 hours of landing at sea level, wounds healed, knuckles finally no longer cracked and bleeding. The humidity & warmth in Mactown seemed obscene, and while the locals were dashing through the -12C air and 30 knot winds, giant red parkas pulled tight against the wind, polies wandered happily about in shorts and flip-flops. We smiled at the sun, sniffed the dirt underfoot, and generally looked like a bunch of madmen strolling through town.

Leaving the next day for Christchurch came as a too-long delayed release from captivity. We cheered as the C17 lifted off the ice shelf, though everyone was too hungover to celebrate for long. Most of us spent the flight napping, until we began to descend into NZ. Suddenly a rich, thick, fragrant air filled the cabin. It wasn't the smell of flowers and pollen everyone had suggested we'd smell. It was dirt, plain and simple. The smell of earth has never been quite so beautiful, such a welcome relief.

We landed in Christchurch around 9:30 at night, and after clearing customs, walked over to the CDC to turn in our well-worn ECW. The walk was punctuated by people rolling around on the grass, stopping to smell the bushes (not the flowers, the plants themselves), and generally marvelling at everything that teased our senses.

It's good to be off the ice. I'm sure I'll miss pole eventually, but for now life is very full. Tomorrow I'm off for the botanic gardens, to see trees and watch ducklings paddle about on the river. Hurrah!

Monday, November 10, 2008


The last couple of days at pole, the population as been roughly a dozen winterovers to 190 new people. Bumping into someone you know in the hall is inevitably a moment for celebation as a look of immense relief at a familiar face floods over both people's faces. With so few of us winterovers left, these encounters are becoming fewer and farther in between, but flashes of recognition still cross our faces every few minutes.

Every time we turn a corner, every time a someone walks through a door, every time we catch a glimpse of anyone from any distance or angle, there's a moment where they become a fellow winterover. Someone's hair, stance, shirt - anything can set it off - will look like someone we know, an ally from the winter, and our minds will seize on that before they suddenly revert to a stranger, summer person once again.

It's an odd experience walking the halls we know so well with so many strange new faces flooding through them. Our minds haven't quite adjusted to the new reality, and continually imprint faces we know over those we don't. Things are getting progressively less comfortable for the remaining winter crew, and we're all looking to get out as soon as possible.

I think once we get back to the real world, this shouldn't be such a problem. It's just that in these surroundings, there are only 59 other people we expect to meet. Anyone else - to a winterover's eyes - simply doesn't belong.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Photo Recon

The day after station opening, I got to take part in one of the more interesting start-of-summer tasks. Thanks to the many pictures I took throughout the winter, I was recruited to go up in a little Twin Otter plane for aerial reconnaissance photos. These shots are taken and archived twice a year, to watch the development of snow drifts, better understand the status of construction, and generally record the condition in and around station.

The recon flights consist of three passes over the station, repeated at 500 and 1000 feet, for each of the two photographers taken up. When it's your turn to shoot, you swap places with the co-pilot, roll down the window, lean out a little (not too much - the wind will catch anything that actually crosses out of the window and yank it violently away), and start snapping.
We took up a couple of winterovers to fill out the empty seats, and everyone had the same reaction: the station is sooo tiny! It was a shock to see our little world in context, a tiny oasis in a frozen ocean extending seemingly forever in every direction.
On each pass, there are specific things they want photographed, and the plane circles and tips to ensure the best possible angles. While this works pretty well, it's a little disorienting when you're shooting - the horizon keeps moving around, and because of all the centrifugal force, it rarely matches with what you think is level - and positively sickening when you're in the back. After the 10th or 11th pass, all the passengers were looking a little green around the gills.

I'd never done anything like that before, and am really glad I got to go up and see our world in context. It was also awfully fun to sit in the cockpit and shoot out an open window with the plane diving this way and that. I guess there are some upsides to station opening & new people.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Station Opening

The weather at pole this past week has been windy - too windy for planes to land - and station opening had to be delayed a day. On Wednesday, winterovers still outnumbered summer folks 57 to 34. By the end of Thursday, we were down to 30, and the new people up to 110. Saturday it was roughly 10 to 190. Very quickly the station was overrun with new people, and most of our family of winterovers had disappeared.

Station opening is defined by the arrival of the first Hercules C-130, the workhorse planes that transport everything - people, fuel, and equipment - to and from pole. The last one left pole February 14th, beginning our winter season. Thursday, the first one we'd seen in 8 months landed and taxied over to the station, where it disgorged a mass of 40 new people. An hour later, another arrived with another 40, snatched up half the winter crew, and flew off to warmer climes.

That evening and the next day, it was tremendously clear that life had changed. All throughout our home, strange people were running about, acting like they owned the place. Winterovers were marginalized, newly ousted from places they used to tread freely. In the galley, we began to cluster at one end, suspiciously watching the masses of new folks. In the hallways and at work, the arrival of a fellow winterover - even someone who you rarely spoke to in the winter - is now greeted with a smile of pure delight.

Nobody quite realized through winter how much we had become a family. Only when a horde of strangers moved into our home and dragged away half of the members of that family, did we begin to understand. We sixty people living through the six month night on the bottom of the world formed a strong bond. We are now and always will be close; polies to the bitter end.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

South Pole Diet

Writing about the arrival of freshies the other day reminded me that I've been meaning for a while to write a short note on the diet down here. The meals we live off are not exactly health food. Far from it, we eat mostly comfort food. Heavy, rich, and constantly available.

Due to both the elevation and the cold here, we seem to burn calories at a ridiculous rate. To provide maximum calories with minimum complication (see my post on South Pole Cooking for details on trying to cook even moderately complex dishes), most meals end up very meaty, and very fried. Cholesterol levels inevitably skyrocket through the year, and most of the oldtimers end up on medication to keep theirs under control.

I certainly don't mean to denigrate the efforts or skills of the galley staff - they work wonders within the limitations of the place. The problem is that very little is available, meals need to be as caloric as possible, and food is one of the few tools available to keep morale up through the long dark winter. Keeping everyone well stuffed with fried chicken helps to pacify the mob.

I made no effort early on to restrict my meals, and after 6 months of eating nothing but fries, ice cream, steak and corn dogs, I'd dropped nearly 20 lbs. I feel like I should write some sort of diet book - "Eat whatever you want and watch the pounds melt away! Just spend 3 hours outside every day in -100F and at 11,000 feet, and you'll be amazed by the results!" (Since sunrise, I haven't burned quite so much energy stumbling over sastrugi, and my weight's recovered somewhat.)

I'm certainly getting a bit tired of the same greasy food day in, day out, and the arrival of freshies only served to sharpen that feeling. I'm not much of a fruit eater, but the thought of a fresh apple, some berries, or a pineapple (oh, my kingdom for a pineapple!), readily available, any time of day or night, seems like paradise. New Zealand is our first stop on leaving the ice, and it's starting to look more and more like some sort of tropical Eden.