There are many traditions at the South Pole. One tradition, at least for some, is running naked from a sauna at 200 degrees Fahrenheit into the Antarctic night when temperatures are minus 100, around the Geographic South Pole and back into the Elevated Station. Since the polar ice sheet moves about 30 feet year, depending upon the distance from the station to the pole, this requires more effort in some years than others. This earns one membership in the exclusive 300 club. One can only speculate as to the origins of such a ritual, although it does bear some resemblance to pagan rituals of old. As the sole station physician, the possibility for injury while participating in such an exercise, not to mention the effects of extreme cold on delicate parts of the anatomy, dissuaded me from participation.
Looking for some activity I considered more “useful”, I struck on the idea of camping in a tent at the Geographic South Pole when temperatures were colder than minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The more I contemplated the idea, the more it appealed to me. The tent had already been erected earlier in the season; some had already camped out at much warmer (minus 85) temperatures; if something went wrong it would much easier to justify my actions as a rational adult rather than running around outside stark naked; and the club was much more exclusive since far fewer people have spent the night in a tent at minus 100 than have run naked around the South Pole. Additionally, I have always liked to explore the boundaries of my nature, both physically and psychologically, and this seemed yet another opportunity.
The tent in question is no ordinary backpacking tent, but rather a Scott Polar Tent whose design is more than a century old and essentially unchanged from those used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (Royal Navy) on his ill-fated 1910 – 1912 British Antarctic Expedition. Pyramidal in shape and supported by four long poles, the double-walled canvas tent has a narrow round tube opening that reminded me of crawling down a submarine’s torpedo tube…not for the claustrophobic. Properly anchored with stakes, the tent has a reputation of withstanding polar winds when other tents are blown away. Although designed to accommodate two people comfortably, the tent can hold three snugly or four in a pinch. It was designed to be carried on a sledge and requires several people to erect easily.
At the appointed hour, a final check of the weather showed temperatures of minus 104 Fahrenheit and heading lower, calm winds, and a barometric pressure equivalent to about 11,000 feet above sea level. My two companions and I put our sleeping bags in the sauna with the hope some heat would be retained so that we would not be crawling into frozen bags. The plan was to sleep in our extreme cold weather gear inside one sleeping bag wrapped in another sleeping bag. With many inches of insulation, we postulated a relatively warm night despite the extreme conditions. As has often been observed, the best laid plans only survive until first contact with the enemy.
It was with mild apprehension I exited the elevated station and walked out into the stunningly magnificent polar night. What a sight it was with stars burning brilliantly against the black sky and electric-green auroras shimmering and dancing from horizon to horizon. I didn’t need a thermometer to know it was extremely cold. The burning sensation extending deep into my upper airways with each inhalation and the peculiar muffled sound of water instantly freezing with each exhalation informed me that it was very COLD! By the time I climbed up the snow drift outside the station, I was breathless with a strong feeling of air hunger…this despite running more than 4 miles a day on a treadmill in the warm environs of the station gym during the previous six months. The combination of altitude, some ice formation on my mask, and perhaps my airways reacting to the insult of the extreme cold made me gasp for breath and my heart pound. I had to tear my mask away to scavenge each molecule of available oxygen from the thin air, making the cold burn even more. I had found myself in a no win situation. Bending over to catch my breath, I cupped my mittens over my mouth to try to retain some warmth and relieve the burning. After about 30 seconds, I was able to continue on to the tent determined to complete the task at hand.
I was first into the tent and tried to rapidly arrange my bedding so my companions could quickly follow. The tent soon filled with suspended ice particles from frozen breath and within seconds I was trying to arrange my gear in a thick fog. Still mildly breathless from my previous exertions, I manage to remove my “Bunny Boots”, place them inside my sleeping bag, and wiggle my way into my cocoon. With my coat removed, but draped over me, the two sleeping bags were zipped up. To say this arrangement was somewhat constricting would be an understatement. I have a new appreciation for Egyptian mummies or psychiatric patients of old confined to a straight-jacket. Although able to breathe, any other movement was accomplished only with great difficulty. My companions quickly arranged themselves and headlamps were turned off.
Laying in the darkness I became simultaneously aware of several things. The few sheets of insulated foam put down as a makeshift floor earlier in the season had assumed the temperature and consistency of solid ice. There seemed to be a draft of cold air flowing down the back of my neck which no amount of repositioning could resolve. And my face was cold, especially my nose. I had visions of returning from the South Pole with no nose….as it had frozen during the night while I was sleeping, turned black and mummified, then finally fallen off. I doubt my family would be amused.
After what seemed like an hour, I reached the conclusion I would be better off actually wearing my coat properly, so unzipped my sleeping bags and put on my parka with the hood over my head and zipped back up. Much better! The hard floor was still uncomfortable, but at least the draft down my neck was gone. I stuffed my face into my sleeping bag and no longer feared losing my nose. Every so often I had to “ventilate” the sleeping bag to get rid of the excess carbon dioxide which I noticed was causing me to breathe more deeply and frequently than normal. In this condition I managed to drift in and out of sleep…I think.
My mind crept back to the equally uncomfortable nights of my life and I tried to think which one might have been the worst. Was it the night spent on the hard deck of a patrol boat tossing on the open ocean on my way to Panama’s Darien Jungle…in the rain? The sleepless night spent shivering in the bachelor officer’s quarters at the British submarine base in Scotland with no heat in the room, only a sheet on the bed, and no hot water? The night spent in a snow trench on a training exercise at 14,000 feet with two fellow Sailors suffering from acute mountain sickness, who got up frequently to vomit? Or was it lying sweating in the top bunk in quarters on base in Afghanistan with a noisy, but poorly functioning air-conditioner, lights on in the room and a heroic snorer in the bunk beneath me after I had already been awake for about 30 hours?
Perhaps my biggest fear was an elongation of time where every five minutes seemed like an hour…especially when one is miserable with thoughts of a warm, comparatively comfortable bed just feet (and minutes) away. It was with considerable surprise when my companions announced it was time to head back inside the Elevated Station, for what had only seemed like an hour or two at most actually had been five hours! Mission accomplished! Upon turning on our headlights, we discovered everything inside the tent was covered in a white layer of heavy frost. I hurriedly put on my boots and gathered my belongings. With my goggles hopelessly fog with ice, I stumbled my way back to the station, into my warm bed, and slept the sleep of the saved.