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Recent Events That Have Helped Me To Remember Why It’s Exciting To Live In Freaking Antarctica

#1 – Driving in Condition 2 weather!
*Condition 2: “weather conditions when any one or all of these conditions exist – wind speed is greater than 48 knots (55mph), temperature is below -75 F (-59C), visibility is less than 1/4 mile” (condition 3 is the designation for normal weather; condition 1 is the most extreme).

My first night working as a shuttle driver, transporting drunken souls the mile or so between McMurdo and the Scott Base for the weekly “American Night” over on the Kiwi side of the island.  I’m from NH.  I know how to drive in snow, wind, sleet, hail, rain, fog, ice, deer, moose…but an Antarctic condition two storm proved to be a whole new game.  Gusting winds buffeted the van as I attempted to navigate the narrow pass over the hill.  Snow flew past horizontally, steadily lowering the visibility from perhaps 100 feet, 50 feet, 20 feet… Forward movement was measured in inches as I first tried to follow the reflective road markers, my high beams picking them up at odd moments through the curtain of snow.  When those vanished I dropped my headlights and followed the tire treads on the road directly ahead of my front left tire.  And in the moments when the wind blocked even my view of the hood of the van, I sat on the brake and marveled along with my passengers.  THIS is Antarctica.

It’s gone condition two twice more since then.  The wind has woken me, shaking my corner, ocean-view room, screaming through the plumbing, hiding and revealing buildings less than 50 feet away from me as I walk to work, my legs blown sideways each time I lift one to take another step forward.  If my face wasn’t shielded by goggles, balaclava, and the hood of big red, you’d be able to see the maniacal grin.  Roll on Condition 1!!

#2 – Flagging Field Trip!

Spent an entire day away from work, away from town, and miles away from reality.  Fifteen miles north of my current reality, to be exact.  In a Hagglund, a Pisten Bully, and two snowmobiles, ten eager souls and I drove and rode out onto the sea ice, along the edge of Ross Island to Cape Evans.  THIS is what I came here for: an impossible to duplicate experience in an extreme, beautiful and unique environment.  If I hadn’t been absolutely stupid with excitement, I could have wept with wonder.  Memories of the day have the delicate sense of a dream about them: more feeling than fact.  Our mission was to plant tall, bamboo flags into the sea ice, marking the safe route for vehicles traveling to the cape.  The lead vehicle laid down the line, and the rest of us took turns following behind, drilling into the bright blue ice with electrical and hand-driven augers, then setting the flags against the wind.  I drove the Hagglund (a giant orange bisected Swedish military vehicle)!  I drove the snowmobiles!  I stood on Antarctic ice and walked across a pressure ridge; I worked next to the Erebus Ice Tongue and within sight of the Barnes Glacier.  I gazed up at the sun, low in the sky, watching as it illuminated the snow blowing off of the islands and cast pink shadows on the Royal Discovery Range on the other side of the Sound.  I felt the -20something air chew through my gloves, and experienced the once in a lifetime opportunity to feel the (significantly colder) wind on my bare skin as I dropped my drawers and peed faster than I’ve ever peed before.  At the end of the day, the sun didn’t set: it melted.  It softened, losing its spherical form and oozing across and into the seam where the ice meets the sky.  The sun’s blood is red and yellow; I watched it spread from the snowmobile, sitting backwards, leaning against my friend Andre’s back as he drove, speeding over the frozen water on our way back home.

#3 – The aurora australis

The Southern Lights!  As the nights get shorter, the opportunities to witness these natural phenomena become fewer.  One night last week, however, they were visible from town, bright enough to overcome the building lights.  I stood with a friend, Brennan, on the back staircase of his dorm, and stared at the pale green wisps of…light? cloud? energy? fairy dust?  They resemble all of those, but are in fact something quite different.  They dance.  The music is far beyond our sense of rhythm; they seem to drift, disappear and reform in irregular patterns and intervals, but nothing this smooth, this beautiful, can be the product of an entirely random, senseless universe.

Forgive the laundry list…time is a precious and rare commodity here.  I rush through the last two weeks in order to focus on the coming days in more detail…wait for it.

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