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Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised.–Apsley Cherry-Garrard Worst Journey in the World
Before I came to Antarctica, I still believed it was the last place on earth left to explore. I grew up with Scott’s journals; I traced routes from Palmer Station to Queen Maude Land on a map, and stared for hours at photographs of calved glaciers in the St. Paul Science Museum. I would spread a map across my bedroom floor and trace my finger along the coast. I memorized the names—the Gamburtzev Mountains, Vostok, the Pole of Inaccessibility, Dry Valleys, the Queen Maude Mountains, the Mertz Glacier, Casey Station, Vinson Massif—and always, before I folded it along worn edges, I traced the longitudes to their intersection. South Pole, it read, labeled in bold.
So when Raytheon Polar Services hired me as a General Construction Assistant, even though I knew I was a glorified snow shoveler, even though I understood that the job would be thankless, I still imagined I had joined ranks with those explorers who came south in search of glory and greatness and some inner sense of worth that continued to elude me. I expected to feel lost in an untried landscape. I expected the wind and cold and the glare of never-ending sun. I expected that the people I worked with would be the sort who fell naturally to the fringes of the map. But I never guessed that the bottom of the world would be quite so—weird.
In the final days of October, I flew to Denver for training—tedious corporate lectures held in warm classrooms imbued with the promise of the earth’s southern terminus. After four days of deployment paperwork and company protocols, Raytheon put me on a plane from Denver to Los Angeles, then Honolulu to Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand. I sat in a hotel room for three days waiting for the weather to clear over the Southern Ocean. At last I reached the Ice: McMurdo Station, the last layover before my flight to the South Pole. Here then, was my first view of Terra Incognita—the Unknown Land, Antarctica.
As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but an icy shroud, white ruins, tabula rasa.
He hadn’t a minute to lose.
He was going to populate this wilderness.–Blaise Cendrars, Dan Yack
Ice began hundreds of miles ahead of the continent, great chunks floating closer and closer together until I peered through the portholes of a C-17 cargo transport plane onto a white so white it made my eyes ache. I fought to discern the contours of landfall and, slowly, the clouds tinged grey on their edges. I noticed striations far below—crevasses and ascents of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains—and when we began our descent to the sea ice off Ross Island’s coast, I glimpsed long fractures, snow-packed ridges, and pockmarked blue ice blown barren by the polar wind.
We landed in late afternoon. Fifty of us, dressed in red parkas, bunny boots, and ski goggles, stepped onto the Ross Ice Shelf at 77.51 degrees south latitude. Snow feathered its way to crystalline horizons; sea and land merged with sky, dancing together in bloodless miasma.
The thermometer read eighteen degrees below zero; cold sunlight circled the southern sky. A mile away, station buildings sprawled—tan and green, stark and industrial—up the smoking side of Mt. Erebus. Along the distant shore, where the Victoria Range jutted out of McMurdo Sound, the only color came from black volcanic rock and the atmosphere’s pallid blue arc.
A century earlier, Sir Robert Falcon Scott set off on his doomed expedition from this same spit of land. His hut, still standing and pristine, [End Page 29] was visible a mile away on Cape Evans. Colored flags checkered the ice, marking the roadways and runways across the pack. The ageless shack, the red of our parkas...