Stranded During Winter, South Polers Forced to Make What They Need

Posted May 24th, 2016 at 7:52 pm (UTC-5)
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Hard at work, the author gingerly drills pilot holes into a piece of plywood that will serve as the stool's cross member. His toes are crossed--hopefully the wood wont split.

Hard at work, the author gingerly drills pilot holes into a piece of plywood that will serve as the stool’s cross member. His toes are crossed–hopefully the wood won’t split.

The moon has set and the South Pole is awash in darkness. It has been cloudy and windy for the past few days, and the blowing snow has formed new drifts across what was once a well-worn footpath paralleling the bamboo flag line between the main station and the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO). Even with my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I can only see an arms-length in front of me. My boots, covered in snow, are invisible—completely swallowed by the landscape.

Every now and then, I hit a soft patch of snow or some sort of wind-carved snow structure that protrudes from the otherwise flat ice cap at ankle height. I am a zombie walking to work, tripping and falling over myself, sometimes hitting the ground, and lurching forward with an outstretched hand, trying my best to protect my face from a cold, hard impact.

A face full of snow is no way to begin a morning. Neither is hopping out of bed, blurry eyed and un-caffeinated, and twisting your ankle—which unfortunately has been happening to me more regularly then I’d like.

My bed at the South Pole is much like your average bed—a twin mattress resting on a bedframe with an integrated headboard. It is pushed against the far wall of my room, under my window, which is currently blocked out by a piece of cardboard painted with an underwater motif. Unlike your average bed, however, my standard issue South Pole bunk sits at just over belly-button height. Getting into it is like climbing out of the deep end of the pool without a ladder, and getting out of it, when your eyes are crusted with sleep and your bladder is controlling your actions more than your brain, is about as difficult as doing a pike off a 30 meter diving board after a week-long, tequila-fueled bender in Tijuana.

This week, after several pitifully ungraceful dismounts from my rack, I decided to take matters into my own hands and build a step stool.

The carpenter shop at the South Pole is popular among hobbyist wood workers. While the shop doesn't have every fine wood working tool you need--it has enough to get the job done.

The carpenter shop at the South Pole is popular among hobbyist wood workers. While the shop doesn’t have every fine wood working tool you need–it has enough to get the job done.

I’m by no means a gifted carpenter—about as apt with a hammer as a blind pig is at finding acorns—so I decided it was in my best interest to enlist the help of one of our more skilled tradesmen. Darren Lukkari is a professional contractor from the upper peninsula of Michigan and my spirit guide into the world of fine furniture design and construction.

It was two in the afternoon when we met in the carpenter’s shop, a well-lit, 25-foot-by-25-foot room which smells of sawdust and stain. Darren had taken the liberty of going through the wood scrap pile before I arrived, and had found some choice pieces of plywood to use for our project.

Working with Darren was like working alongside the high school shop teacher you always wanted. He was patient and focused, and good at explaining how to not cut your fingers off on the table saw: “Just don’t touch the blade.” He has a rather dry sense of humor.

For three hours, we chopped, routed, skill-sawed and sanded. I learned how to make wood putty by mixing sawdust and glue, and how to drill plywood without splitting it. By the time the stain was done drying on our hand-built step stool, I was comfortable using a half-dozen new tools that I had never handled before.

A new foot stool in use--the author enjoys the smooth, sanded, stained finish with his bare feet

A new foot stool in use–the author enjoys the smooth, sanded, stained finish with his bare feet

My stepstool sits at the base of my bed. A day after its construction, it still smells strongly of stain—not an unpleasant smell in the otherwise odorless world of Antarctica. It is the new most useful object in my world, and like all great things, you don’t know how you could have lived life so long without it.

More South Pole Diaries
Watching Climate Change in Action at South Pole
In South Pole Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like Sun
Shimmering Auroras Offset South Pole Boredom
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’

Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

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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