I am walking down the hallway of the new station at the south pole. I'm wearing sandals and I'm carrying the book "Snow Falling on Cedars", which I have just finished reading. It's going back to the quiet reading room.
The hallway is empty. My sandals make a slapping noise on the non-skid, industrial strength flooring. In this hallway there is a display case on the wall containing the sweater worn by Admiral Byrd on his historic flight over the south pole. There's a signed edition of Amundsen's book complete with best wishes for Americans exploring the pole. There's an award presented to the residents of the south pole station, signed by the King of Norway, best wishes, the Amundsen award.
There is an array of south pole markers, though many years are missing. The oldest is from 1986, and the newest from 2002. The 2003 and 2004 markers are still outside where they were placed on January first of their year. The pole moves every year, some thirty feet or so. The south pole Amundsen visited is way off the main station, probably somewhere near the MAPO building, past the skiway.
The final words of "Snow Falling on Cedars" I can't remember verbatum even though I just read them ten minutes ago. But I remember the jist.
I started reading "Snow Falling on Cedars" on my last deployment to pole in November. Got through about 50 pages before being extremely depressed wrecked my ability to enjoy it. I promised myself I'd finish it this trip, and I did. Same book. I couldn't find it at first. The books in the "Quiet Reading" room aren't organized very well. I thought I'd put it next to the Dashell Hamett and Mickey Spillane, but it was in the Science Fiction section.
This time I put it on top of a pile of books. It's now resting atop "The Secret Life of Bees".
I walk back to my room in silence. The satellite has come up. Everyone's on the internet.
An LC-130 takes off a few hundred yards from here. Cargo.
Everything is an accident except what we do out of love.
You can't feel the difference between -25F and -44F. I learned this on my last trip, but this trip I've internalized the lesson that cold is cold. You can't tell the difference between 600F and 800F, either. Hot is hot. The human receptors operate in a specific range. Exceed that range and you only perceive the extreme. You can only get so hot or cold.
The difference between the -25F I experienced when I arrived at pole last week, and the -44F I experienced when I was outside nearly all day today is this: -44F seeps into your clothing faster than -25. The more intense cold effectively finds the gap between your gloves and your coat sleeve. It burns your cheeks beneath the goggles.
In the dead of winter they play a game called the 300 club. When the temps go down to -100F outside, they strip naked and stand in the sauna at 200F for as long as they can stand it. Then, wearing only their extreme-cold-weather boots, they bolt down the stairs in the "beer can", up the birm and over to the pole to have their picture taken, thus subjecting their bodies to a 300 degree swing in temperature while naked.
The reason they wear boots is their feet would stick to the metal staircases otherwise.
I understand from veterans that the most important thing for a male to do when running the 300 club gauntlet is to protect the obvious exposed features with the hands. Otherwise severe frostbite results.
After running the 300 club, members cough and hack for a week or so while the lungs repair the frost damage done to them. Also, all fine body hair falls out, as the follicles are killed by the cold.
I am told the sensation of running the 300 club is of panic and dying. The feeling that life is running out of your body is palpable. The last hundred yards or so you are literally running for your life.
I bring this up because today and every day at pole I walk the 300 club pathway. I do it wearing a full compliment of ECW gear. I do it at this unescapable altitude. The coldest it has been when I have walked that path is -60F. Today it was -44F. Each time I do it I imagine running out stark naked. Down all those stairs, up the birm, to the pole, and back.
The interesting thing about life is that when you do something that seems impossible your entire perspective on life changes. Right now, running the 300 club seems entirely impossible to me. Even in ECW gear, with a 25kt wind, the atmosphere burns the skin quickly and we're 56 degrees warmer.
Yet people do it, year after year. I don't think we're on the same planet anymore.
If anything, you can examine your life at the south pole. Sooner or later you're going to wind up alone on the flat white nothing and realize you're the letters on an otherwise blank page.
What did you bring with you? The noise in your head is so loud in comparison to polar nature you swear other people can hear it.
A friend of mine who visited pole for the first time before I did told me: "Pole makes everything extreme. When you're happy -- you're really happy. When you're sad, you're suicidal. When you have to pee, you need a bottle or can immediately. When you're hungry, you will eat dirt if you have to."
I am sure everyone can hear my thoughts. I am certain I am unworthy of my life. I am sadder than I have ever been. Hungrier than I have ever been. More hopeful for a good outcome to my dillemmas than I have ever been. More certain I will die than I have ever been.
What I know for sure is that in several days I will step off an aircraft in Christchurch, New Zealand, and I will read these words. They will seem the work of a madman.
And I will be certain that they have sent an agent up river to my heart of darkness either bring me home or kill me.
(This space left intentionally blank. Zen trials in effect.)
To the people I love, yes I do. I really do.
I don't know what's going to happen. Maybe the temps will fall below -50C and the planes will stop flying and I'll be here for 9 months. Maybe one of the five plane trips I have to take to get north will end in tragedy.
I don't know what's going to happen. I really don't.
We'll figure it out. I'll make something work.
Go to sleep now. Remember when Bormann, Lovell, and Anders read from the Book of Genesis on Apollo 8 when they were the first men to circle the moon? Think of me in that tinny radio voice with a beep after every transmission. Think of those high contrast pictures of craters and rilles. There has to be an adventure before we can rest.
Sleep now, my darlings.
From the bottom of the world I send you peace.