I arrived in Antarctica on a clear, sunny day in October, 2015. The Mount Erebus volcano dominated the horizon, sending large clouds of steam and smoke high into the air. Minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-28C) felt cold at the time, and watching my breath glide from my mouth and disappear into the landscape was hypnotizing. Like living through a Dali painting, I was melting into the continent and the continent was melting into me.
NOAA’s Refael Klein walks to work at the South Pole. (Photo by Hunter Davis)
To step off the grey LC130 and stand on the McMurdo ice runway was the culmination of a boyhood dream– a romantic adventure, a challenge I couldn’t refuse– a one year assignment to work as the Station Chief to the Global Monitoring Division’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole. Twelve months stretched in front of me, one 6 month long day and one 6 month long night, filled with ice crystal clouds, brilliant stars and dancing auroras. Most people would live their whole lives without experiencing those sights, but not me!
Now, eight months in, two-thirds of the way through my assignment, I’m experiencing another side of the Polar experience: extreme tedium, the result of an endless routine and an ever-present night, so thick and dark that even one’s imagination feels smothered.
During long deployments as a Deck Officer on board NOAA’s fleet of oceanographic research ships, I learned the best way to make the best of life in a confined space, to keep yourself sane when your existence begins in your head and ends at the horizon. On the ocean – liquid or frozen, it makes no difference – finding a routine and mustering the discipline to stick with it is key—as important as a sense of humor or a warm pair of mittens.
There is no beginning or end to my week. I walk to ARO each morning, and return each afternoon. I haven’t missed a day of work since I arrived on station. If I’m sick, I walk to work. If it is minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-73C), I walk to work. If I broke my foot, I would limp to work. My walk, as heinously cold as it can be, reminds me of where I am, an existential fact that becomes harder and harder to recognize the more time you spend inside the windowless, odorless, 70 degree (21C) world that we call our Station.
After work, I work out. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I go to the gym, and spend an hour on the stationary bike or treadmill. Sometimes, I’ll lift free weights for a few minutes afterwards, but usually it’s just an hour of cardio, enough to get through an NPR podcast about the Flint, Michigan water crisis or watch an episode of this or that on the gym’s flat screen television.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I make the quarter-mile trek to the summer camp gym, and spend an hour and a half climbing on the green, blue and pink plastic holds that make up the South Pole Climbing wall. Sometimes, I’ll do calisthenics afterwards—a few pushups and crunches, but usually it’s just 90 minutes of climbing, enough to get through half an episode of KDVS radio station’s New Day Jazz or Crossing Continents.
Sweaty and tired, I make my way back to my room, take an Amundsen-Scott Station regulation two-minute shower if it is a Cardio Day, change clothes and walk the 101 feet (30 meters) that separate my room from the entrance to the galley. Dinner is served from 1700 to 1830. I always arrive at 1800, and try to finish in a half-hour, so I can get my dirty dishes into the dish pit before it closes.
It’s evening now, and thanks to an exhausting and cold walk back and forth from ARO, and another hour plus spent exercising in a more traditional manner, I’m ready to sit down on the couch in the greenhouse and read for a few hours, or appropriate the television in the station’s lounge to watch a movie–a musical, a B-movie, or a Criterion Collection Classic. Regardless of what I watch, I’m swept away; the sterility of the ice cap makes it exceptionally easy to become engrossed in anything that isn’t frozen, arid and dark.
If it’s a Sunday, I’ll squirrel myself away in my room early and begin to write my weekly blog. I’ll write about what happened that week, about the nuisances of my routine, about the research projects I help operate, about the occasional departures from the ordinary: a good meal, a good laugh, or an exceptionally bright full moon. I’ll write in prose, and in coded messages that only those in the know can decipher. I’ll write in lists and doodle in between the lines, trying to keep my thoughts lucid and find the words that bring my polar adventure – the excitement and the tedium – to life.