October 16, 2021

Home is where it’s minus 45

When I climbed out of the skied LC-130 airplane at the South Pole, I felt instantly at home. It seems perhaps a little strange that a place where I have lived for only months should feel so comfortable – especially a place as foreign as the South Pole – yet, when I stepped off the plane and onto the Polar Plateau, that’s exactly how I felt.

I walked out from under the roaring plane engines (they don’t shut off at the South Pole – it’s too cold) toward the station and the stretch of silent horizon beyond it. I’m thrilled by the familiar surroundings: the unbelievable, endless white snow, the rounded, cozy shapes of insulated Jamesway huts, the tracked vehicles motoring around the station.

The dry South Pole air – minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit – searched for an opening between my jacket sleeves and my mittens, the kind of cold, dry air that makes everything look sharper and crisper. The bright whites and blues render the Antarctic unlike any other landscape in the world, and yet now it feels like home.

Halfway to the station, I’m met by a friend who had just wintered over, his boots crunching on the snow toward me. “Adams,” he greeted me, sounding tired but happy. “It’s been half a year and I still recognize you at a distance by your walk.” I laughed, delighted, and continued to clump my way up to the station. Already my eyelashes are starting to freeze, sticking together if I blink for too long.

Inside, the station manager greets me. “Welcome back.”

Now, 800 miles into the interior of Antarctica, I can finally settle in.

Flying to the South Pole can be a bit of a shock to the system, and not just because of the extreme temperature. The South Pole is more than 10,000 feet above sea level and sits on a sheet of ice more than two miles thick. The direct flight from the coast gives you little time to adjust. The altitude medication given to me made my hands and feet tingle like they’d fallen asleep. I gulp water.

Every year a few people are evacuated due to altitude sickness. Though I am easily winded and quickly exhausted during my first few days at elevation, I’m lucky; I’ve never needed oxygen. I move slowly as I adjust, pausing often to catch my breath. Acclimation takes me about a week – not only is it very high here, but the air is so dry that nosebleeds are not uncommon. When I get dehydrated, my boss sends me to medical for a quick checkup. “Just go satisfy the mom in me,” said the woman in charge of all South Pole logistics. “We have to take care of our team.” Soon enough, I’ve got my feet under me again.

My job this season is cargo handler, part of a close-knit team – and we sure have a lot of new freight to check in. The hard work feels good. Pretty soon, we’re unloading shipments of fresh food for Thanksgiving Day. I say silent thanks that I am back in this utterly unique community at the bottom of the world.

A few changes have been made to the station since I left. The winter-overs hung fake palm trees in the main hallway, in an effort to lighten their mid-winter darkness. Wintertime construction inside the tunnels had markedly progressed on a new logistics building. Some faces from last year have not returned, and new ones are here in their stead.

But the heavy shop, the garage where I spent most of my mornings last year, is exactly the same. I walk down to my old workplace as soon as I can, the place where I changed so much oil and shoveled even more snow. In the storeroom, tucked among the bolts and spare fan belts, is a box with my name on it: a collection of possessions I had left behind to use when I returned. I lug the box to my new room – the first of many boxes I will be lugging this season.

The endless horizon, too, is unchanged. The sensation of looking out at a 360-degree horizon reminds me, not for the first time, of the ocean – a huge, frozen body of water. “The South Pole is a ship that never goes into port,” one long-time Antarctic adventurer told me once. “It will always be at sea.”

Home away from home, ship without a port, science research station – the South Pole is all of these things and more. I’m glad to be back.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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