They call this the “flat white.” It’s flat as far as the eye can see. It’s white as far as the eye can see. The sun is glaring. Painfully so. Sun reflects off ice so it invades from every angle. Even looking out from the galley through a curtain causes spots in my vision when I look back inside. When people think of Antarctica, this is what they picture. Barren hostility. Outside, the temps have dipped back from “man, it’s warm!” to proper South Pole weather. It’s -40 ambient and -60 with winds. Once a certain degree of cold is reached, Celsius versus Fahrenheit is entirely irrelevant. The winds are going. It feels like -60. Ice crystals bounce the sunlight in peculiar ways. They reflect the sun from above, below and everything between. The air outside sparkles as the winds blow the crystals from one side to the other. In front of us is the ceremonial South Pole- a barber shop pole with a shiny silver sphere on top surrounded by flags of the original treaty nations.* Behind us are small buildings to facilitate science and maintenance of the main building. The outgoing doctor informed me that there is a medical cache staged in one of those buildings. He seemed a bit dejected when he told me that it was now warm enough to use snow machines to access it.
“The human body is quite resilient. Machines aren’t. But -90 is still quite cold.” Despite all the advances civilization has made, down here, at the end of the world, the temperatures drop below the operating threshold of machine. If someone is injured outside, survival hinges on brute human force. It hinges on willpower overcoming wind speed. Men, yoked to a sled, hauling their colleague to shelter. I have dragged a body in a sled through the snow many times, in far more humane conditions. It is a difficult task. I simply cannot comprehend doing it at 9,301ft in -90 or colder. But, to a certain personality type, there is beauty and value in the cold and misery and the pitting of oneself against them.
Behind those back buildings is “the end of the world.” The end of the world is a line of bamboo poles with flags attached. It marks the boundary of the station. Beyond which is nothing. Nothing but more white and more flat. For an eternity. Eventually, depending on the direction, there is New Zealand or South America or another far flung, nebulous concept of a land mass. But for us, there is nothing beyond the boundaries of our little bamboo flags. Ice and cold. I turn my back to the end of the world and walk the short distance to the ceremonial South Pole.
*At least, I think that’s what those flags represent, but I’m still fairly hypoxic because of the altitude and wasn’t paying particularly close attention to the welcome briefing, so it could be that those are just the countries that like sno-cones.