You ride a truck into what is the equivalent of a 19th century mining town with 21st century tech, and you’re there to mine science. The more “Ice time” you have, the better your billet. You meet your roomate(s). When the station clears of summer people, winter-overs claim their own rooms. Couples and husbands and wives get adjoining rooms and sometimes use one as a living space and one as a sleeping space. The nice accommodation is like a college dorm. Two rooms share an adjoining shower and toilet, and there’s a sink in your room. The days are long and the bright white sun makes a circle overhead even while you sleep. Bright white light. Always bright white blinding light. There are seals, and penguins, and minky whales and orcas. One day the sun dips below the horizon. Everyone goes up on a hill overlooking the town and the runway. The last plane takes off, then swings around toward you. It files over your head waving its wings goodbye, and you wave back. The station is now closed. The ice is creeping north quickly and the seals and penguins are following it. A camera is set up and the winter-over crew photograph is taken. Tonight many will gather to watch “The Thing”, and “The Shining”.
At McMurdo’s lattitude the sun is in the sky for about 4 and a half months, it’s dark for the same, and you have a six week sunrise, and a six week sunset. At pole, it’s six months of sun, and six of no sun. The plane has flown and you go back to work. You spend whatever amount of time you need to to do what you came to do. Usually that’s ten hours a day, six days a week. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. You all work together, live together, and play together. In a couple of months you have all shared each others germs to the extent that nobody gets sick anymore.
Even the one or two you may come to hate. You watch people spend their personal time doing remarkable things. One person builds a guitar, and another, a violin. Many are painters and photographers, and they have an art sale before the end of winter. Many are musicians and many bands form and perform. A man is a Ham radio expert. He uses his radio expertise and personal equipment to give live talks to classes of school children back home. There are theatrical performances. For credit courses are sometimes taught by staff members. The staff member in question might be a dishwasher with a Ph.D. who was, like all of us, driven to explore the harshest continent by any avenue.
We do our work. Much of it is fighting back the ice. Every day it gets deeper and you become intimate with a shovel. You learn to strap everything down. The hurricane blizzards sweep through and tear at the human structures. The winds are so strong that they can move an empty 40′ shipping container. The air is so cold that it can freeze exposed skin in seconds. You take off your glove to watch your hand turn white. You throw hot water into the air to watch and listen to it creak into a cloud of ice crystals that blows away, not a drop hitting the ground. The southern cross is directly overhead, and the whole night sky is different to someone from the northern hemisphere. Like you’re on a different planet. The stars are bright and clear and multitudinous. Some look strange, changing colors from white to blue to red. I’ve seen this elsewhere, but never so pronounced as there. A FNG apprentice once dragged me outside to look at one believing he was seeing a UFO. It’s easy to see meteors. Sometimes you see the Aurorae. In the spring there are the Nacreous, or Polar Stratospheric Clouds that look like an abstract artist has painted the sky. In the summer you can see mirages like the fata morgana, and the smoking volcano is especially majestic.
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