“Auto-lockers suck. They get all kinds of crap stuck in them, freeze shut. Just suck. But OSHA says we have to use them. And we do everything OSHA says…” Old Salty is imparting his years of wisdom on my mountain rescue candidate class. The sarcasm is dripping thicker than the glacial snow we’re standing on.
“Auto-lockers” are carabiners that have three separate mechanisms for staying closed. They were designed to require extra, very deliberate actions to open them. Pull up, twist, squeeze and then it’s open. Or push a small button, twist upward, squeeze and open. In warm climates, without a lot of dirt, muck or blood, they are quite easy to open. Once a little snow gets jammed in the locking mechanism, they become finicky. Typically this is complicated by the user wearing gloves. Because people don’t like to call mountain rescue when the weather is nice and they are in a relatively clean environment. We were supposed to use a tri-locking carabiner at any point where there was a person attached to a rescue system. In the Pacific Northwest, we regularly had freezing temps and plenty of snow to gum up the works. It was often a hassle, but never a life or limb threat. And it was never cold enough that taking off one’s gloves to un-fuck the equipment was more than an annoyance. Whoever designed these things had good intentions, and they certainly are useful in the right settings, but clearly the engineers didn’t spend a lot of time in really lousy conditions.
I know how to use them. I’ve been avoiding using them for a decade. My resistance is proving well founded. We are training on how to retrieve an injured comrade from the fuel arches. The arches are metal behemoths that store the stations fuel. Two layers of white, cylindrical gas tanks, maybe five or six rows deep reach a height of 20, maybe 25 feet. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel are buried in the snow and ice, accessed by tunnels and sitting close enough to food storage that occasionally it contributes to the flavor of the ice cream. Mint chocolate chip and jet fuel. I doubt the boys from Vermont are going to be hustling for the recipe anytime soon. The fumes in the arches can be overpowering. They seep into clothing and linger for days.
“Ahhh….the smells of Antartica. Fuel, poop and the bro-lounge- dudes and dirty carpet. These are the smells I’ll remember” our teammate remarks through a visibly frozen beard, icicles growing from his mustache and small clusters of snow developing on his eyelashes. The bro-lounge is the on-station lounge that is home to the pool table and beer fridge. It maintains a musk unlike any other room on station. He had recently been involved in the repair of the sewage system. Not exactly the Antarctica of Amundsen or post-cards.
Yet he we are, spending the afternoon extracting Chester, the injury prone dummy, from the fuel arches. It’s still fairly dark. The overhead light is taking its sweet time to warm up enough to turn on. For the bulk of the training we get the occasional flicker. The lights adjacent to the one directly overhead work fine, so we work in the dim. Only one of the team had the foresight to bring along a headlamp. Perpetual daylight is still in full swing outside. A headlamp seems an entirely foreign concept.
The temperature remains fairly consistent around -60F. On account of the temps, I have very large mittens on. When warmth is the chief priority, mittens outperform gloves by leaps and bounds. Sadly, large mittens and frozen auto-locking carabiners are a beast of a combination. Dexterity in mittens is minimal. At those temps, bare flesh exposed to metal runs the risk of contact frostbite. I brought along a very thin pair of gloves for just this. The thin gloves will increase my dexterity enough to un-fuck the equipment. They will also provide enough of a barrier to prevent contact freezing.
Chester has been saved. We have removed him from where he was “injured,” packaged him, lowered him off the tanks and are ready to move the whole operation to somewhere warmer. At that point I realized that my fingers weren’t actually that cold. It’s -60F, but there’s no wind. Early on in my adventure down on the barren wasteland, I learned that, in the absence of wind, regardless of the actual temperature, there is no complaining about the cold allowed. Perhaps, when the ambient temperature reaches -100F, one would be forgiven for remarking that is more than “a little chilly,” although I doubt it. I leave the little gloves on, just to see how long it will take before they get cold. I’ve pulled off my hood as well.
One of my teammates is wearing jeans. He denies wearing long underwear. “When I kneel on the metal, that gets cold. But otherwise, it’s fine. My fingers get a little chilly.” There’s no bravado or anything to indicate he’s trying to be a tough guy. He is legitimately perfectly comfortable.
“A little chilly.” No one is allowed to complain that “it’s cold,” so “a little chilly” is the accepted vernacular. But he’s right. Without the wind, it’s just a little chilly. I had thick over-pants on and was sweating.
It’s -60F. But -60F without any wind.
Before I came down, I wondered about how I would adapt to the cold. After a winter at McMurdo and with my summer at South Pole rapidly coming to an end, I’m worried about leaving the ice.
I’m going to melt.