South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues

Posted March 15th, 2016 at 11:25 am (UTC-4)
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Refael Klein moves up the steep central overhang. Colored tape marks particular routes, sequences of climbing movements. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Refael Klein moves up the steep central overhang. Colored tape marks particular routes, sequences of climbing movements. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

Construction on the Amundson-Scott elevated station began in 1998 and was completed in 2008.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

During the height of construction, the summer population at the South Pole ballooned to over 250 people. To accommodate the overflow in personnel, plastic, blue half-moon-shaped berthing units were installed south of the station. And heated plywood workshops were built for storage and shop space.

In addition, two unpainted, unfinished lounges were constructed, as well as a small gym with free weights and treadmills. This small village of about a dozen out-buildings was known as Summer Camp.

The cold dry Antarctic climate has been kind to Summer Camp and, seven years later, the buildings look as new as the day they were built. A few have been buried by drifting snow, but those that are still above ground continue to be used for storage and construction workshops.

From the outside, the Summer Camp gym doesn't look like much.  Inside, the climbing wall and work-out equipment provide a welcome escape from the close quarters of living in the main station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

From the outside, the Summer Camp gym doesn’t look like much. Inside, the climbing wall and work-out equipment provide a welcome escape from the close quarters of living in the main station. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

When it’s too cold or windy to go skiing, I often find myself at the eastern-most side of Summer Camp, in a squat rectangular building with three poly-carbonate windows.

From the outside, the building, the old gym — a mishmash of mis-cut pieces of wood — looks like it was built by a group of elementary school boys to use as a club-house. The first time you see it, you half expect to see a sign that says, “NO GROWN UPS OR GIRLS ALLOWED”.

In a way, the old Summer Camp gym is a bit of a boy’s fort. It’s dimly lit, dirty and filled with broken exercise equipment and a spartan collection of free weights. That being said, any shortcomings of the building are made up by the fact that it is heated, has a good sound system, and is home to the southernmost climbing wall in the world.

As an avid rock climber, I was beside myself with excitement when I discovered the existence of a small climbing facility on station. Apparently, the wall didn’t always exist and wasn’t part of the gym’s original design.

As the story goes, two Italian scientists who were serious alpinists came to the South Pole a few years ago. Unwilling to let their wrists, hands and fingers atrophy, they spent their free time outside the lab stockpiling discarded building supplies and secretively building a small climbing wall at the summer camp gym. When they were done, they broke the news to station management — who, remarkably, were not upset — and convinced them to order two dozen pairs of climbing shoes and a few hundred plastic hand and foot holds.

WATCH VIDEO: Refael Klein blows off steam on the South Pole’s Summer Camp climbing wall

Today, thanks to altruism of the Italians, I, and many others on station, have a fun way to exercise and blow off steam after work. On a typical day, I spend an hour at the gym traversing the wall and setting new “problems”, short sequences of climbing movements, which I mark with colored tape.

The wall isn’t big and it takes a number of laps around its perimeter, or up its central overhang, before I get tired. As I climb, I like to have music playing and I keep the volume turned up loud enough to drown out the sound of the wind and heavy equipment clearing snow drifts.

Sometimes I become so focused on a challenging movement that I forget where I am.  It could be Colorado, California or Corsica.  It’s not until a foot slips, or I miss a hand hold and fall, that I remember I’m living at the bottom of the world and that I am thousands of miles away from any fantasy.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

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