(This post is the first in a series that I’ll be doing interviewing the people who helped me research and produce my latest novel, The Winter Over, a psychological suspense thriller set at the South Pole)
In the course of my research, no website quite captured the look and feel of the beauty and danger of the South Pole more than Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin’s site, Ulterior Motors (http://ulterior-motors.com). His honest and often amusing accounts of spending both an Antarctic summer and winter at the South Pole’s Amundsen-Scott station as a mechanic and “fuelie” were incredibly helpful, but even that was blown away by his photography.
I had a chance to catch up with Jeremy via email and get his take on some of the more interesting aspects of life at the bottom of the world.
(All photos courtesy and copyright of Jeremy Bloyd-Peshkin. Please don’t use without attribution and, preferably, permission!)
1. A lot has been written about the early explorers of Antarctica. What did you read to prepare before you went? If so, how did it compare with the actual experience?
I didn’t read much in advance about the early explorers. I had a passing familiarity with the drama of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, but that was about it. I learned far more while I was there. Several of my co-workers were Antarctic history junkies who sometimes gave presentations. Fascinating stuff, but so very different from today. Although the landscape hasn’t changed so much, we have. We now have the comforts of the modern world at our disposal – power, electricity, and incredible logistical support. We can work in the most remote places on earth in relative comfort, and that’s astounding to me. I will say that we don’t have much time to dwell on the landscape during the summer months as there’s a lot to be done and never enough people to do it. We’re very busy.
2. Do you remember the moment when life in Antarctica seemed normal? Did life “back home” seem strange when you got back?
For me, life was more normal than not. I’m very much a creature of habit, and because of the structure of my various jobs it was all too easy to fall into a routine and never look back – especially in the winter. But regardless of season, I slept the same hours every day, ate my meals at the same time, and did similar tasks. The major differences were wearing more clothes and not using the internet.
Perhaps I’d set my expectations wrong, but I remember getting off the C-17 at McMurdo and being faintly disappointed. It was very early in the summer season, and it wasn’t so cold. I think perhaps it was just above zero, and although that’s not warm I’m a northern boy and had expected a kind of biting cold of the sort I’d never known. The air was really dry and didn’t smell like anything except jet exhaust (because I was standing next to the plane), but we got on Ivan (the terrabus) and headed into town. Town was a bit foreign at first, but not because anything was especially strange. It’s a pre-fab mining town built by the Navy on a rock in the ocean. It gets cold and windy sometimes, but life goes on. I’d eat, sleep, and wrangle fuel hoses. McMurdo was not my favorite place.
Getting off the plane at Pole was far more memorable. I’d just spent a few hours on a C-130 crammed in with 39 other people and their bags (and those planes are not quiet), and when we got off it was extremely bright, significantly colder (I think somewhere in the neighborhood of -30), and I couldn’t breathe well because we were suddenly at 10,000 feet above sea level. I grabbed my bag and hustled into the station for orientation, but after getting used to the altitude things quickly became normal again. Eat, sleep, fix broken bulldozers and put fuel in planes.
Life at Pole wasn’t defined by moments of seeming normal, but by moments of extreme strangeness. We’ll get there later.
3. What did you miss most after a few months? Food, drink, people, movies, music?
I think I missed my family most. I’ve always been very close with them and not seeing them for over a year was hard. Calling weekly helped though. Vegetables came with some frequency in the summer, which I appreciated. Being vegetarian, frozen food gets old after a while. In the winter, our small hydroponic greenhouse was able to provide enough for roughly one salad every other week for us. That was always something I looked forward to. The thing that was most surprising to me was that I didn’t miss having a phone and regular access to the internet. I actually still resent people calling and texting me now, and I’ve been back for a year.
4. What did you do to keep the walls from closing in? What did you do to blow off steam or to pass the time?
I never really felt trapped at Pole, even during the months of darkness. I think a lot of that was because I got outside every single day and had more work than time and so I was never bored. Others read voraciously, worked out in the gym, or played volleyball.I never really felt trapped at Pole, even during the months of darkness. I think a lot of that was because I got outside every single day and had more work than time and so I was never bored. Others read voraciously, worked out in the gym, or played volleyball.
5. In my novel, I wrote a scene where the crew watches, somewhat unsettled and with a little bit of dread, as the last LC-130 flight of the summer departs. What were your feelings as you watched the plane leave?
The last plane is a mix of emotions. It’s somewhat odd knowing that it’s the last of the normal planes, and that you won’t see another one for eight or nine months. Not really stressful, just odd. But it’s also kind of exciting. In the last few weeks before that plane leaves, all the winterovers have found each other. We all know each other. And we want to start our season, to get these summer folks out and do our own thing. And then the last plane comes and takes them away and it’s done.
Except that it isn’t. More planes still come and go after the “last flight,” as the South Pole is where the small Twin Otters and Baslers refuel on their way to Rothera from McMurdo. A few weeks after last flight the last Twin Otter comes through, and then we pack up and store away the fuel pits for the planes and that’s really it. That plane felt lonely. It was just me and two other people out taking care of fueling and spectating, and it was a calm day so the plane fueled, left, and then it was just the three of us standing out in the sun and the wind. We took a moment to appreciate it and then got back to work.
6. You are one of the lucky few who worked straight through a summer season into a winter-over. How would you describe the biggest difference between the two?
Because the summer at Pole is so short and there’s so much to get done, the station is alive 24/7. Planes come and go, equipment is running around the clock, and the sun goes around in circles overhead forever. It’s also crowded. 180 people doesn’t sound like a lot, but the station is only 5,000 sq ft or so and a large portion of the population doesn’t work outside. You get used to it and then suddenly there are only 45 people, they’re all working the same shift (with very few exceptions), and it feels empty. Winter is less hectic. There’s still tons to do, but so much more time.
Also, it gets dark. That’s quite a difference.
7. I’ve heard that crews from the previous season would leave “gifts” (whether for their own return or for the next crew) hidden in the rooms. Did you ever find anything?
I frequently found boxes of things people had left for their return in a future season. For the most part, I never opened any of them because they weren’t mine. I did open a few that belonged to people that never came back within the time they had written on the box though. They contained small personal items – maybe a favorite hat, some patches, or a book. Nothing terribly exciting. I had a personal supply of cookies and hot chocolate I hid for myself so I could save them until midwinter, but I forgot all about them until I found them a few days before I left Pole! Oops.
8. People know the South Pole is cold, but they don’t really know how cold. What’s the lowest temperature you can remember recording…and what did it feel like?
It does get quite cold, but it’s a different kind of cold than I’m used to experiencing at home. The air is just so dry and still that temperatures I’d think ludicrous at home are actually quite tolerable. That being said, having the right clothing helps a lot. In mid-summer, the highest temperature I remember was -9F. In the winter we did get down to -109F once, though we had many periods of time where we would be below -100 for several days at a time.
When it’s that cold, there’s no movement in the air outside, and so if you can get away from the power plant it’s just dead silent. Exposed skin feels… crisp. And your eyes stick a little when you blink. It’s strange.
9. Speaking of freezing cold, are you a member of the 300 club?
I plead the 5th.
10. Since The Winter Over is about psychological suspense, I tried to make good use of polar T3 syndrome—also known as the “Antarctic stare”—and its effects on the crews’ morale and anxiety. Did you ever feel the effects of T3? What about the people around you? Did you ever think your colleagues were going crazy, or did you have any contentious run-ins with them?
T3 Syndrome doesn’t affect everyone the same way, and in fact doesn’t affect everyone at all. Towards the end of my winter I started to get a bit forgetful (well, more than usual) on occasion, but that was about the extent of it for me. I think it was worst for those who aren’t used to a lack of constant social stimulation or who weren’t staying busy. Even then, it wasn’t so dramatic (though it may have been a particularly good winter). Some people were a bit more irritable, some more forgetful, but nothing worthy of a good story. I hear it’s worse in McMurdo.
11. What was the single strangest place at the South Pole? The tunnels underneath the station, the warehouses, the outbuildings that you had to refuel? Somewhere else?
There are a lot of strange places within the station. We’ve built a colony in one of the most isolated places on earth. And though the station has its quirks (tunnels with shrines carved into the walls, abandoned sheds lined up downwind, underground arches full of pipes and tanks and so many places no one goes) the strangest place is still outside.
We keep about 60,000 gallons of fuel stored far downwind of the station in case of emergency. It’s about a half a mile away, in a place we call “the end of the world” because it’s the extent of the space we maintain. Beyond that it’s just plain ice as far as you can see. Once a month in the winter I had to go measure how much fuel was in each of the tanks to make sure they weren’t leaking, and so I’d drive out there alone (or walk, if it was too cold to drive) and take my numbers down.
It was somewhat strange when it was stormy, as visibility would be quite bad. I couldn’t see any of the lights on the station and my little red headlamp was only good for a few feet in front of me so I’d just go from one tank to another not being able to see or hear anything but knowing and trusting that the next one was there. That feeling of isolation was strange and somewhat chilling. But what was far stranger was when it was clear and calm. If I walked down past the end of the world I could sit in the snow and hear absolutely nothing. No wind, no generators, no equipment. When it’s that quiet your ears just strain to hear something, anything. You can hear your own heart beat. It’s really very beautiful, but especially having spent most of my life in cities, very strange.
12. Your photography of Antarctica is stunning. In fact, the picture of the aurora from your post “The Farewell Aurora” (pictured below/right) helped me construct the final scene of my novel. Do the photos do it justice?
The auroras are very special. I spent a lot of time learning how to photograph them (http://adobe.ly/1BuShzT), but the real thing is just so different from the photos. Perhaps less majestic, since the camera is so much more sensitive than the human eye, but what the camera doesn’t reveal is the slow movement and intricate detail that comes from radiation shooting through our atmosphere.
13. The “shrines” underneath the station are one of the weirder and funnier items I stumbled across when researching The Winter Over. Can you tell us about them?
In the utility tunnels below the station, carpenters have dug out little shrines over the years. Some of them are dedicated to contractors who have died, while some are dedicated to things of more transient value, like the last tub of vanilla ice cream. Each one has a story, and there’s too much to cover. It’s something you just have to see for yourself.
14. Kim Stanley Robinson was one of the few writers to describe the “old” tunnels (from the original dome station) in his novel Antarctica (1997) and I make use of them in my book. Can you say if you ever got to explore those? If you did, what were they like?
The current station is actually the third. The first station (Old Pole) ended up becoming buried and was operated underground for a long time before the Dome was built. It’s since been imploded to mitigate the danger of collapse.
15. What would you want people to know about Antarctica who have never been?
It’s a very strange and very beautiful place, but you just have to know going in that it’s not easy. Dealing with federal sub-contractors never is, but you have the environment to contend with too. That being said, if you go you’ll encounter some of the best people you’ll ever meet and if you click with the place it’ll never leave you.
16. Do you plan on applying to go back to Antarctica? (If not), what’s your next adventure?
I hope so. I would love to do another year at Pole, especially the winter. It’s a very special place and I’ll never be able to put my finger on exactly why, but I miss it every single day.