I have my brain back.
It was seventy degrees warmer when I landed at McMurdo than when I left pole. I'd stood by the skiway, waiting for the fuelies to finish loading 17,000 gallons of jet-A into the C-130. It was fifty seven degrees below zero, fahrenheit. The wind was about six knots, giving a wind chill in the low seventies.
I wasn't cold. Where the breeze managed to touch the skin on my face, it burned like scalding water and I'd shift my neck gator to cover the bare patch. Standing for nearly half an hour while they fueled and readied the interior for the three of us passengers was no problem. I worried more that my laptop (this one) and my camera would be wrecked by the cold. The water froze in my water bottle, but the electronics survived.
On the flight back, as we were about to land, the loadmaster asked me if I wanted to go into the cockpit. I'd never been "invited" upstairs by any American flight crew. The Kiwis, who also fly C-130's south, are well-known for their incredible hospitality. They always let you into the cockpit to hang with the flight crew while cruising. They hang fuzzy dice from the compass and tape pictures of their families on the cockpit windows.
In contrast, American Air Force crews are all-business, especially now that we're in a time of war. They're reasonably stern. Demand you sit in your seat with your belt buckled for the duration of the flight, and will think nothing of correcting you (with a firm push, if necessary) if you violate their commands.
So I was totally blown away when Glenn, of the New York Air National Guard detachment, came up to me and told me I could hang out in the cockpit for landing. He even told me to keep my seatbelt loose so I could rise up and look over the pilot's shoulder.
It was an outstanding experience. I saw Mt. Erebus, a plume of gasses rising from the caldera, straight out at twelve o'clock. It grew over ten minutes while the pilot got onto the landing vector. I snapped picture after picture, trying in vain to capture the grandeur out the windows and the flight crew making their preparations, but the contrast was too great for my camera.
Somehow the pilot found a scratch on the surface of the sea ice that became a runway. As he descended, electronic warnings beeped, and a computerized voice came from the ceiling that told us we were on the glide path -- then "500 feet", "50 feet". Touchdown.
I'd almost forgotten I had been to and just left the south pole.
I guess at some point in our lives, we all want to be pilots. As John Irving had his protagonist say in The World According to Garp,
Ta run, ta run, ta run.
My first minutes at sea level were some of the best on the ice. I felt full of energy. My mood was positively nuclear in happiness.
I helped unload the plane's cargo without breaking a sweat. Even though it was seventeen (above zero) with a 20MPH wind, I didn't feel the slightest bit cold. I took off my big red parka and loaded the boxes into the back of a van without my heart feeling like it was going to burst from my chest. I had a happy word for everyone I saw. My sense of humor came back. I became ravenously hungry and in horrible danger of propositioning the first woman I saw.
The feeling has not yet worn off. I still feel the effects of oxygen starvation declining, and I wonder how the polie winter-overs survive nine-months at altitude. I was losing my memory. While after five days I could climb the station stairways without feeling like my heart was going to jump out of my chest, the permanent polies assured me they could never reproduce sea-level physical performance. It was always going to be harder to do the same thing no matter how long I stayed.
NASA studies have shown that at such altitudes, people from sea level lose roughly ten percent of their short-term memory per month as measured by standardized testing. As no one has stayed at pole for longer than a year, it's not clear how long the degradation continues, and how far it goes. Clearly, humans are born and live their entire lives in places like Nepal and Peru. So it is possible to thrive at altitude.
But most of us haven't been born in the Andes.
At altitude I noticed my blood pressure medication was less effective. I noticed pain medication like Motrin was less effective. Antihistimines and decongestants seemed to have no effect as the dry thin air contributed to clogged sinuses and bloody noses. Even the sleeping pills I brought to help me get through the constant daylight were barely potent enough to allow me to fall asleep for more than an hour.
I feel my strength returning, having not been aware it left me.
Things end. It's the way of the world. Without endings, we'd never know time. We'd never appreciate beginnings. We'd not endure, perservere, achieve.
Endings are how we know we're alive.
I wake up and find my feet. Swing them over the edge of the bed onto the carpet of room 207, dorm 203C at McMurdo station. I've got one more day here, again. The fifth time.
The first time I came here, I didn't want to leave. I thought I'd be happy living on the ice forever. Now, even though I have ice friends that I only see on the ice and I've known for five years, I feel less that I belong here than ever. There's certainly a lot more of Antarctica I could explore. And it feels like a familiar friend. But I understand it a lot better now. We're not supposed to live here. We visit. We go home and leave space for someone else to set foot here.
Who will be next? Who will write the next diary entry about dreaming of the ice and then watching her own boots touch ice for the first time at the bottom of the world?
Let it be you.
I just finished bag drag. Packed everything I'm taking off the ice. Got weighed. They took everything except my ECW gear & my carry-on. I live out of my light carry on until the plane leaves tomorrow at 4PM.
Then five hours of travel on a C-17, and back to darkness & springtime in New Zealand. An overnight in Christchurch, and I'm on my way back home.
"Why don't you spend some time in New Zealand on your way north? Why don't you stay on the ice a little longer?"
They ask me why I don't take advantage of being in Antarctica to travel home the long way -- start in Fiji, go through Singapore and Thailand. India and Nepal. Egypt and Italy. France and the UK. New York, Chicago, Denver, and then finally, back home to Los Gatos. Why don't I?
Truth be told, I don't have the kind of life that allows me the freedom other ice people have. I have responsibilities back north. A job. A wife who's going into surgery in a week. I'm already pushing the limits of civility. I can't stay.
I sit in the van as it rolls down the ice runway. I watch the McMurdoites walking back and forth on their way between work, mealtime at the galley, playtime in the bars and the recreation areas, sleep in the dorms.
I've pretended to live their life, but I'm not the same. I'm older than most of them. I'm pulled back north while they swim freely, bound only by gravity and the demand to reflect light.
Where will they go next? we wonder over beers. They never know.
I always know what's next.
I have to have a home. I have to go home.
I'm going home.
There is a picture hanging in my living room. It's 101 years old. It's a watercolor but most of the colors are faded. Only the yellows and the underlying pencil drawing remain.
It is a landscape. There's a wide ice plane and a mountain range in the distance. One hundred one years ago, it was painted about a hundred yards from where I now sit. It's a picture of the mountains I now see by simply turning my head to the right.
Edward A. "Uncle Bill" Wilson painted the picture of the Royal Society Range on his first expedition to Antarctica. He died eight years later, about forty miles to the south of McMurdo, his body alongside that of R.F. Scott and Bowers, now interred in the ice shelf, and due to its flow, probably several miles closer to the station. Somewhere in the sound are the bodies of Vince and Macintosh. Gallager and others lost.
We think about them occasionally, probably a lot less now than they did in the old days. Now we're worried about network connectivity and helo hours. Permits to visit restricted areas. Water samples and starfish.
Every now and then we stop and raise a glass to those who went before us. Every now and then most of us take the time to remember the heritage and to be proud to be part of the human exploration of Antarctica. I say "most" because there are people who are not here to be the next in the lineage of polar explorers, but rather to escape something back in the real world. Spouses. Girlfriends. Boyfriends. Fiancee's and the law. To them, Antarctica provides the measure of unreachability they need to proceed with their lives unmolested.
It makes us very similar. We enjoy each other's company, perhaps in that we see ourselves through other people's eyes and are attracted to the variation.
Things I've done on the ice.
- Slept on the Ross Ice Shelf
- Learned what limnology means and drank margaritas with limnologists
- Got drunk and played frisbee in a remote dry valley on beach sand with twelve glaciologists
- Made hand-puppets and carved Thanksgiving turkey
- Rode in helicopters flown by a good friend through desolate mountain passes
- Touched a fragile million-year old ventifact that crumbled at my fingertip
- Made pizza on a white gas stove at the base of a glacier
- Won at Scrabble for the first time anywhere.
- Traced a finger through carved patterns on a mountainside that seemed they were made by intelligent life
- Became a chapter in a well-known writer's book
- Learned how to survive in sub-zero cold
- Won the continental poetry contest, and placed in fiction and non-fiction
- Had a photograph recognized by the National Science Foundation by having it chosen for the cover of their 2004 Holiday Card.
- Stood on the south pole and took my own picture
- Climbed ObHill
- Hefted an axe used by Thomas Crean at Hut Point
- Saw a penguin
- Installed the first Antarctic wireless outdoor network, ever
- Rode in a C-130 cockpit for landing
- Watched a volcano emit clouds of gas
- Cross-country skied
- Guided a newspaper reporter down the Taylor Valley on a 12-mile hike
- Skied to the Kiwi base at Cape Armitage over the frozen McMurdo Sound
- Drank in the bar at Scott Base
- Got a story included in an anthology of Antarctic prose
- Went in the south pole dome and operated ham radio
- Met the third man to summit Mt. Everest (after Norgay and Hillary)
- Sat crammed in a van with a man likely to win the Nobel Prize for Physics
- Ate dinner with a woman who walked/skied/rode a bike from the north pole to the south pole at the age of 17
- Slept in the shadow of a glacier and listened to it rumble and calve all evening
- Lived for months under the unsetting sun and felt true grace
- Fell in love
Don't know if I'll be back, but the ice has been and will always be of my heart and mind. I am not the man I used to be, dearest. I have a broken heart that is rebuilt snowflake by snowflake.
Let this thing I've done bring peace and honor to us all -- that's my prayer.
McMurdo Station -- November 10th, 2005