Antarctica is like to no place else on earth with its unique natural beauty and perilous harshness. It can be a surreal experience when I look outside some days and I come to the realization of where I am and how special of a place this truly is. As the suns begins to set beyond the horizon and we stride into the unescapably darkness that is upon us, a sense of anticipation of the grandeur of the night sky that awaits is settling in.
It is in this anticipation and understanding of the spectacular experience that awaits that I realize how fortunate I am to be here. However, the long, cold, and harsh winter that comes with it is the reason that I’m only the 1,536th person in history to ever spend a winter here at the bottom of the world. With the beauty comes living in a place where the environment is not meant for life. Human beings let alone of any living organism for that matter are just not meant to survive in these extremes. Modern technological advancements have made life considerably comfortable inside the station however it’s a constant battle with Mother Nature daily.
I have heard the phrase from many people whom have had spent considerable amounts of time here at The South Pole about how this place is constantly trying to kill you. It can be difficult to describe the level of cold that we experience here in the winter. It’s a bone chilling bitter cold that will humble even the most audacious and heroic of men. The Sun is just now setting and we have already reached temperatures as low as -80 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills in the range -120 degrees. Most winters the temperature will at some point drop near or around -110 with the record being -117. In reality, however, the wind are what are dangerous, -80 with 15-20 knot winds are far more dangerous and difficult to deal with than -100 with little to no wind.
In conjunction with the virulent cold we are also faced with the challenge of living at a considerable altitude of 9,300 feet which is in fact closer to 11,000 feet of physiological altitude due to the thinner air at the bottom of the world. Living at altitude affects everyone differently but everyone is affected in some way or the other. It can take up to just a day or two to a few weeks or more to acclimate while some are never able to safely acclimate. This is all due to the lack of oxygen in higher altitudes which can cause serious illness and difficulties in many. Most people are able to adapt but it does have its noticeable effects on most whether it’s periods of difficulty breathing, headaches, and fatigue or considerable weight loss.
The South Pole and Antarctica as a whole is also extremely dry. One of the driest places on earth in fact. The majority of the continent particularly the interior is considered a desert, a cold ice covered desert, but a desert none the less. Here at the South Pole we receive less than 4 inches of precipitation a year in the form of snow or ice crystals. Due to the consistent winds and the small, light, and granulated snow and ice crystals that cover the region we see considerable amounts of blowing snow and drifting that make it seem as if it is snowing when in fact it’s not. The dryness can have its effects on you particularly for a person like myself who has spent the majority of my life in the balmy humidity of Southeast Texas. It’s a constant battle with keeping enough lotion on your skin to keep it healthy particular your hands. There is also the chronic crusty blood nose that pretty much everyone down here suffers with and enviably comes to terms with.
As we head into the darkness of winter we will be faced with the lack of sunlight for the next 6 months which can have its psychological effects due to lack of Vitamin D that you naturally receive from sunlight. There is also the consideration that as human beings we naturally crave sunlight. The lack there of can affect your mood which is compounded with the fact that we are surrounded by the same 39 other people in the most isolated place on earth. Despite the lack of sunlight and that some of us will inevitably start getting on each other’s nerves at some point I’m confident with the amazing group of 40 that we have that any form of winter craziness will be mild and harmless at that. It’s in the imminent moments of absolute solitude while looking up into the cosmos that will bring upon healthy self-reflection and extensive realization of our place in the universe.
Despite all the challenges that comes with living at The South Pole they are miniscule to extraordinary experiences and fulfillment this place can bring to a person’s life. I’m forever grateful for this opportunity as it has not only opened up to the wonderful frozen world of Antarctica but has lead me to a life of travel that I once only dreamed and imagined.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
21 March 2018 NZD