We depart from McMurdo early on Monday morning, and drive out in blowing snow to the 'Williams Field' airstrip. There are about a dozen passengers today, no freight, but the overcast skies may nullify the value of being able to get up and walk around, if there's nothing to look at anyway. When we arrive at 'Willy' there's a half-hour wait while they prepare the plane, so everyone gets to cool off a bit.
Now I'm back on a 'Herc', the C-130 Hercules cargo plane that had constituted my entire Antarctic flying experience until this year. It has windows, lots of room to move around, and a bag lunch with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. They fly us at a cabin pressure equivalent to sea level: I ask the flight engineer why they pressurize the plane so much, wouldn't they save fuel if they pressurized us to, say, 5000 feet as is usual on a commercial flight. The answer is logical but surprises me because I'd never thought about it. She says: "The aircraft structure is designed to be optimal when stressed by a specific pressure differential, equivalent to about 25,000 feet. Since we're flying at a low level over the icecap, we have to pressurize the cabin to sea level. If we were flying at a more usual higher altitude, the operating pressure difference would result in a cabin pressure more like 5 to 7,000 feet." In other words, the aircraft's fuselage derives some of its strength from being inflated by the pressure, like a car tire. But as we approach Pole, our ears pop. As the plane descends to land, the cabin pressure is reduced in order to be equivalent to the surface pressure when to doors open. This is the exact opposite of what used to make your ears pop in jetliners years ago. I chew gum, my ears pop, the pocket barometric altimeter that I carry with me gradually winds itself from an apparent elevation of zero, towards 10,000 feet.
As the plane taxis on its skis towards a gradual halt, the loadmaster has already opened the rear cargo hatch in order to save time. A blast of really cold air swirls in with blowing snow, and the view out of the open rear of the plane is of low buildings, piles of freight on pallets, a gray sky with a weak sun behind a gauze veil of snow. This is truly Solzhenitsyn's gulag, in stark contrast to the Walt Disney Frontierland of Mactown. For some of the passengers this is their first visit to Pole: chatting to them while waiting at Willy had revealed that they didn't really know what to expect. They look horrified, as wondering Why On Earth Would Anyone Want To Be Here ??
We clump out of the plane's front door, lugging our orange bags which have suddenly become much heavier thanks to the effects of the thin air. There, waiting just in front of the plane, two bundles of red parkas walk forwards to greet me .. Jerry Marty and Dave Fischer, managers both, many seasons at Pole, people with whom I had worked and socialized on my previous two visits. I gasp for breath, they clap me on the shoulders, down into the Dome, down that familiar squeaky snow slope into a little world at the end of the world.
I can barely breathe, I walk as if swimming. I am assigned to live in a Jamesway in the Summer Camp area. The 'Jamesway' is a tent, yes indeed, a tent at the South Pole. I believe that the military used lots of them 40 or 50 years ago, and mine looks the part. There are low plywood side walls, wooden arches, and olive-drab quilted canvas covering. Being modular, a Jamesway can be extended to any length, but the cross-section is always the same. Since there are no windows in the curved covering, the inside is as dark as a rabbit burrow. My berth is at one end, so I do have a window, a luxury.
It's a space about eight feet long and six feet wide, bounded by the curving outer canvas on one side and a hanging blanket on the inner corridor side. I have a bed, a plywood desk, and a Navy steel wardrobe for my stuff. I unpack in a trance-like state induced by lack of oxygen, but this is the thing to do on Zombie Day. It had seemed warm inside, but it then got cooler and cooler until ....... RRRRRRRSHSHSHSHSHSH the heat comes on and blasts really hot air throughout. Abruptly, the temperature rises 20 or 30 degrees until it clicks off. For me, I'll be here a week, with the privilege of a window: for the construction crews and support workers, these tiny and unprivate spaces are their entire home for 3 months.
I sleep 12 hours and awake breathing much better. I start my work (another story), but the buzz on station is .....
A video tape of the superbowl game came in and a great party is planned. On pain of death or ostracism, no one has been allowed to reveal the score from the Internet. It's Tuesday, the game is history: but here it's an event.
The party will be in the 'Summer Camp Lounge', a larger Jamesway right
next to mine. The pre-game party starts at 6: the galley has cooked up
a mess of chicken wings and chili, and there is what appears to be a cargo
transit container full of beer. Two big-screen TV's are connected
to the VCR and the place is packed.
I suppose the scene had already been repeated a hundred thousand times in bars and clubs all across the US, a ritual familiar to much of the population, but one that my particular life's path had managed to avoid. Thus, I avoided asking questions, gradually figured out which team was wearing which color uniform, and drank every can of beer that was handed to me. I didn't get the part about the chain and the stick, but I recognized one commentator from placards in the Berkeley hardware store. For me, the phenomenon was the incongruity. Behind those cheering fans was a canvas wall: behind the canvas wall was the Antarctic Plateau, a place visited only twice until 40 years ago. Yet on this side, we could have been in a bar almost anywhere 'back home', the cheering a temporary escape from the harsh drudgery of life at 10,000 feet and 40 below.
After getting used to the darkness and hilarity for several hours, it was a jarring shock to walk outside into glaringly bright sun, a biting cold wind, and the flat horizon of Scott's demise.