“I’m glad you didn’t die” Doctor Dave, my on-ice colleague, says to me with a smirk and a bit of snark, as I relay the results of my unplanned science experiment. He appears mostly entertained, but also slightly horrified.
Earlier this week we discussed my plan to ski out the back of the station past the horizon. My goal was to ski out onto Antarctica until I was no longer able to see the elevated station. One of the guys here had done the same a few weeks ago. The day he went turned out to be the ideal day of the season for it. We had a stretch when the temps got tantalizing close to zero and the winds just up and vanished.
He and I have been talking about doing a long-distance ski across Iceland. It seems an appropriate warm up for a bolder project, like skiing across Greenland. We attended a presentation given by the woman who set the solo speed record for skiing from the coast to the South Pole and have been inspired. She runs the tourist camp that is our neighbor and pops in to say hello from time to time.
“That’s the most dangerous environment you’ll ever be in” Dave said to me, in regards to my plan to ski far out. “There’s no way the radios would work that far out.”
“There’s no crevasses. It’s just skiing in a straight line. You can’t get lost. Plus, when we’d go climbing, we always prepared for a three day stretch before we could get one of us to a hospital.” It was true. Climbing trips in Peru required complete self-reliance. In the event of an injury, we always prepared to be self-sufficient for three days.
“Yeah, but the weather.” He was right on that. It certainly is colder in Antarctica than anywhere I’ve been before. The weather here is turning toward winter. We are dropping about a degree a day. I’ve been told to expect ambient temps in the -50s when I leave. I missed the good weather window to go for a long ski. But I still wanted to give it a whirl.
I packed a small back pack, grabbed my skis and set out from the back of the station. The ambient temps were in the -20s, but without any wind, it was a joy. I picked a direction and set off. There was a massive sundog on my left that was my constant companion. I hadn’t seen one in quite a while. When I took my gloves off to snap a photo, they didn’t get that cold, no pain at all.
Once off the station, it’s quiet. There is a distinct sound made by skis or boots on dry, cold snow. It’s one of my most favorite sounds. There are no distractions. I become in tune with my body in a way that only happens in the backcountry. I become aware of each finger, each toe. I can feel my nose. It’s not often that a person is consciously aware of that obnoxious facial protuberance. I know that I should’ve capitalized on the stretch of perfect weather earlier, but this is an entirely acceptable second. My goggles aren’t even icing up.
In addition to the body, I also become entirely aware of the conditions. Years in the mountains have taught me to listen to the snow. To watch the winds. The winds are changing. Lest the sundog get all the glory, a wisp of wind joined us as the third wheel since I left. But, I think she has become jealous. She wishes to make her presence felt more. I notice that the mild breeze that has been following, blowing from my back right to front left, is picking up. The winds increase, the temps drop. I had read, prior to leaving, that the forecast called for a windchill in the -50s. So, despite the perfect weather when I left, my pack was stuffed with a few extras, just in case. Tracks from just a moment ago are filling in with wind driven snow already. I pull my extra, extra-large jacket out. It’s about to get cold.
Turning to head back to the station means turning into the wind. The temperature has definitely dropped into the “unpleasant” realm. But, I’m dressed for it. Time to hustle back. It certainly feels in the -50s.
Man the wind sucks the life out something quick, I think to myself.
This is way colder than the fuel arches. I had spent a rescue training in -60 not long ago, and it wasn’t entirely uncomfortable.
HA! This sucks. Whatever.
My goggles have entirely iced up. But, they stay where they’ve been all day. Home is still far enough away that I’d likely get snow blindness if I took them off. Goal reached. Can’t see the staion. Can’t see shit. The tracks I left on my way out are fading quickly, filling in with snow. I pop my goggles off periodically to verify that I’m headed in the direction of the station. Slowly, slowly, slowly, a grey glob forms in the ice in my goggles. Home is visible. But my eyes don’t want to stay open. I can feel the hypothermia setting in. I understand how easy it for folks to stop, sit, and that’s the end of them. Because of that, I quicken my pace. A faster pace should warm me up a bit. One last hill up and I’m back on the station side of the End of The World. A few more minutes and I’m back where the skis live. Swap cross-country ski boots for regular boots. 500 yards and I’m back to the stairs at the back of station.
Ahhhhhh…..back in my room. Change clothes. It’s dinner time. Calories equal warmth. I’m wearing a jacket at dinner and still shivering.
Definitely hypothermic. But HOW hypothermic? I decide to meander to the clinic and check my temperature.
The probe is under my tongue and the digital readout in my hand starts at 80.0 and is slowing rising. It slows at 93.5. Waiting to see how high it’ll go. It beeps. That’s as far as it’s going.
93.5F. I’ve been in the station for probably an hour by this point. I am my own guinea pig. How long will it take to re-warm? I turn on the sauna and wander off to let it heat up. Alcohol is counter-productive to actually warming up, but it feels warm, and I’m back in the station, so I pour a cocktail. The sauna is 190F when I make it back. It takes a solid fifteen minutes before I start sweating. But those fifteen minutes feel amazing. I stay a while longer. It’s now 200F and so steamy I have to breathe through a towel I’ve soaked with water.
Up to the clinic to reacquaint myself with the thermometer. 98.7F.
I relay my impromptu science project to Dave. We discuss the various symptoms of hypothermia. I was conscious of many of them during my sojourn. My science brain was fascinated by all the manifestations I had been experiencing, while I was experiencing them.
The entire process was… fun.
I’m going to miss my little Antarctic adventures.