After completing all required training at McMurdo, it was time to “head south for the winter.” It was with considerable anticipation I looked forward to the slightly more than 2 hour flight on an Air National Guard LC-130 to my “home” for the next 10 months. Quite a number of things occupied my thoughts: (1) this was the 100th anniversary of the heroic struggle which culminated in man first reaching the South Pole, (2) the combination of low temperatures and high altitudes (more than 10,000 feet above sea level) was going to be physiologically challenging, (3) this is the most isolated spot of the face of the earth in which to provide medical care and forty-nine other people were solely dependent upon me to be able to treat any medical or dental problem that might arise, (4) once the station closed for the winter, there was absolutely no way off the ice regardless of what else was going on in the world, and (5) my 33 plus years of naval service were ending within hours and I would need to adapt to (embrace?) a completely different lifestyle and culture. Considering the number of psychological stressors, I should have been suicidal by the time I disembarked the plane!
When the aircraft skids first touched down on the firmly packed snow of the skiway, I felt a sense of excitement and relief. All the planning and preparation had finally come to fruition. I was actually at the South Pole! I was at the bottom of the world…the very center of the end of the spike that runs through any globe. My perspective of planet Earth would never be the same. In all of human history, few people have ever visited this “awful” place, as Captain Robert Scott referred to it. Even fewer have lived here over the long, dark winter. What sort of person will I be when I emerge from “the ice” in November?
My next flight, in 10 months, will be headed in the other direction. After spending the last 3 decades travelling all over the world, I was not going to travel further than 1 or 2 miles from this very spot for almost a year. As the aircraft slid to a stop, we all donned our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. The cargo bay passenger door opened and we shuffled out in our bulky clothing while trying to stay well away from the still turning turboprop blades. At the South Pole you keep the engines running!
It was a sunny and relatively balmy minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived, but the thin, cold air could be accurately described as “bracing” for a newcomer. I refused any assistance with my bags lest I give some indication I was not physically up to the challenge of life at the South Pole, but I must admit it was a bit of a chore climbing the stairs to the elevated station with my upper airways smarting from the stinging cold and my lungs trying to extract every available molecule of oxygen from the thin air.
Although the station sits at 9300 feet above sea level, because of the Earth’s rotation the atmosphere bulges at the equator and thins at the poles, resulting in an effective altitude of between 10,400 and 11,000 feet…depending on the barometric pressure. The air is also very dry since the extreme cold freezes any moisture present. The absolute humidity in the Sahara desert is 10 percent; at the South Pole it is only 4 percent!
The first order of business after removing my ECW as was nice cup of hot chocolate in the gallery, then a tour of the medical spaces. The clinic is fairly modern, but much of the equipment is dated…some from the 1950’s when South Pole Station was first established. Just the sort of environment for an old dinosaur like me! The Physician’s Assistant and I are going to have an interesting winter season performing a wall-to-wall inventory of equipment and supplies and making recommendations for changes to the new contractor, Lockheed-Martin, and subcontractor, University of Texas Medical Branch.
We had 10 days in which to get up to speed on how things are done at South Pole Station before the summer season doc and his PA departed north. Needless to say, it was a very busy time as I assumed responsibility for all the equipment and supplies and had to ensure they were actually present, as well as functioning properly. For the first week I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose, but things gradually started to fall into place.
My accommodations are modest, but at least I have a room to myself. Quarters aboard submarine are much tighter and certainly less private! I have more than enough space for my clothes, books, and personal items. I can even adjust the room temperature. Getting into bed requires a step stool, but once you get used to it the process of getting into and out of bed is not very difficult. I even have a window, which is not the case for many.
In future blogs I will try to convey what it is like to live at the South Pole. But for now, the temperatures are falling and the sunlight is fading. I think it is going to be a long, cold, dark winter!