The sound and feel of the Herc’s skis hitting the snow prepares you for the Pole in a subtle but important way: you’ve been through thousands of landings in hundreds of different types of aircraft, but the thump, rumble and roar of compacted snow getting hit by 150,000 un-shock-absorbed pounds of military transport is filled with sensations you weren’t expecting. Getting thrown around the cargo webbing when the pilots popped into beta thrust was just icing on the cake.
Icing – yes, a strangely appropriate word. We came with plenty of margin on the temperature front – the Hercs can only land if it’s warmer than -49C (that’s -56F in imperial-land), so at -47C we had a comfortable two degrees to play with. Minus 47C – what does that even feel like? The notion of being at the actual Freaking South Freaking Pole, and climbing out across the ice sheet up to Moonbase Alpha, er, “The Station”? None of that crosses your mind – all you can think of right now is “What does -47C feel like?”
On the way down, you’ve seen unearthly, beautiful mountains rising more than two miles up, bursting through 9000 feet of Antarctic ice cap (70% of the world’s fresh water, by the way) to reach menacingly toward the sky. You’ve seen rippled sheets of ice fog below, sliding across an endless, uninhabitable flat plane like a living thing as it shifted and probed. You will need, as Nancy Newhall wrote, the words of angels to describe what you have seen, but right now, as the last person ahead of you disappears through the front hatch of the Herc, all you can is “-47C? What does that feel like?”
You’re about as prepared as you can be, equipment-wise: USAP-issued thermal underwear and top, with a t-shirt, jeans and fleece top under the insulated Carhartt bib. Honking thick socks that feel like wool tunnels, stuffed into thermal bunny boots. Balaclava and insulated goggles snugged against any exposed skin, and on top of it all, Big Red, zipped up as far as it would go. Was it Chouinard who saids “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear”? Well, you’re about to test your gear.
You look back over your shoulder and say something like “Well, here goes” to Russ, then *whump* – you’re out on the snow. The light and noise are everywhere, distracting you: full sunshine off white snow, great whirling prop blades (they don’t ever want to shut the Herc engines down at the Pole), people yelling, pointing, hugging. It’s all muffled behind your headgear, but you get the idea you’re supposed to go that way, up over the berm and along what looks like a receiving line.
Three steps in, against the sound of the crunching snow, you reflect for the first time on the cold – you realize that you don’t feel it. Somewhere between your skin and the four layers you’ve got on, the Antarctic cold loses its menace. You turn to Michelle to say something about it, gather a breath and double over coughing. Holy cow – your lungs have never felt like this. You want to breathe, but your body’s in revolt – some reflex is preventing the air from going into your lungs. Some sort of cultural memory takes over, and you duck your face down into the parka, into the warm air against your chest, and draw a deep breath. But the coughing has left you dizzy; the air here is not only cold, it’s thin – the 9000 feet of physical altitude is exacerbated by orographic factors: the air slides downhill off the pole, giving an effective altitude of well over 10k. So you need to breathe a lot, and your body doesn’t want the air you’re able to give it.
But with the parka-breathing thing, you’re okay. You make it up and over the berm. Bill finds you and welcomes you to the station. Or rather, a stuffed green science parka topped with USAP-issue balaclava and goggles welcomes you. He tells you he’s Bill, and – aside from lingering visions of John Carpenter – you don’t have any reason to doubt him.
Across the berm, it’s another 100 yards to Destination Alpha, the “front steps” of the station. Bouncing your knapsack and orange USAP gear bag as you waddle along, you do another mental inventory. Torso, legs and feet are fine. Breathing is okay, but you notice a stinging sensation in your fingers. somehow, with only two layers there, the cold’s gotten through before you noticed. You drop your bags to adjust, tucking your fingers into a ball in each hand, and notice that Michelle, 20 feet to your right, is staggering. She’s got *two* USAP gear bags to haul, and it looks like the parka-breathing thing isn’t working out so well for her.
You find that you can balance well with one of her bags slung across your shoulder. You need to walk much more slowly to get enough air, but that’s okay – you’ve decided that she shouldn’t be walking alone. You remember doing this before, one step at a time. A deep slow breath, a pause, and an encouraging, distractingly cheerful remark. Then another step. Just like Pikes Peak all those years ago. And Quandary, and Fuji. This is just what you do.
You’re at the stairs, then at the landing. Your clenched fists are cold now, but the breath is coming easy. After the next flight, a giant freezer door swings open, and arms reach out to pull you, beckoning, into darkness. Through the second door you spill into the tumbled mass of orange bags, parkas, long-lost friends and strangers meeting for the first time. You tear your goggles and balaclava off, trip over a few bags and find a place to set your own bags down. You check that Michelle’s right behind you, then look up and have a moment, for the first time since touchdown, to stop and think What Now?
What now? You’re at the Freaking South Freaking Pole. Of the world.
[pics from the flight down are up at http://picasaweb.google.com/david.cohn/20101103Pole]