Around the World on New Year’s Eve

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa. December 31, 1997.

The turning of the New Year brings back fine memories of how my last New Year’s Eve was spent, and how fortunate and unique an experience it was. I found myself in a cold, desolate, barren, wasteland of infinite beauty called Antarctica. I was two months into a five month stay, working at a US research station in McMurdo Sound, as a Communications technician. . During the first part of December ’96, I was sent to the South Pole Station to do some upgrades and repair some equipment that had failed. I can remember the excitement I felt as I boarded the near 30 year old C130 military aircraft for the 3 hour flight due south. The beat of the engines and smell of exhaust was in stark contrast to the pristine white environment that was framed out the plane window. I was going to the South Pole! A place of recent dreams, but not a place of childhood dreams. Growing up in Iowa provided me many dreams of trees to climb, hills to roam, and wooded areas to explore. I didn’t think much past how far my bike could take me, but I always wondered what was around the next bend. I suspect that is precisely why I ended up on a flight to the South Pole.

As the plane flew south over the Trans-Antarctic mountains I was overwhelmed with spectacular views of endless ice fields, unclimbed peaks, and glaciers that went on for miles and miles. The three hour flight went by quickly, and as we landed on the polar plateau I could feel excitement building as the C130’s skis touched down. My first views of South Pole station were of a flat, white awe inspiring plain. For as far as the eye could see it was flat and the sun was blindingly bright. I strolled into the geometric dome that serves as the station base, and began to work through what turned out to be a month long stay.

Throughout my month at the Pole I kept hearing of activities that took place on New Years Eve, without ever hearing any definites, except that I should be at the geographic pole at midnight on the 31st. You see, there are really three poles in Antarctica. One is the magnetic pole that is many hundred miles away from the South Pole. A second is the ceremonial pole where everyone gets their pictures taken. It is marked by a candy stripped pole with a mirrored ball on top and surrounded by the flags of all the nations that have signed the Antarctic treaty. Thirdly there is the geographic pole. This is marked by a stake with a brass marker on top stating the location to be 90 degrees south and the exact location of the South Pole. A sign with quotes of Amundnsen and Scott, the first explorers to reach the pole earlier in the century stands nearby. This is the real pole.

I was ecstatic with even having the fortunate opportunity to experience Amundnsen-Scott South Pole station, much less be there to ring in the New Year. I would witness the ceremonial moving of the geographic pole marker at precisely midnight on the 31st, so said the rumors I heard. I carried out my communication duties for the next 3 weeks anxiously anticipating the turning of the New Year. My only diversions were a foot race termed “Race around the World”, which took place on Christmas Day and a ham radio patch to my parents in Dubuque, the same day. I took 5th place in my first foot race which entailed three laps around the skiway and thus, three times around the world. It was –65*F with wind-chill, and runners were checked each lap for frostbite. I’d never experienced any competitive event so unique. My parents sent their well wishes while I endured the bottom of the world and a quiet holiday under the dome.

On New Years Eve, I heard very little talk of any festivities at midnight or any moving of the pole marker. I began to wonder if it were all myth or some long lost tradition. Very little was said, and as the day progressed, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I did learn the reason why the pole marker must be moved each year. It seems the South Pole sits atop a very large and deep ice sheet, which is about 2 miles thick. Essentially, the land under the ice sheet is not flat but angled, like a hillside, and the ice is basically flowing off of the topography. The ice moves about 30 feet a year downhill towards the Weddell Sea. At the current rate, the South Pole will be under water in 140,000 years! So, each year, the geographic pole marker must be moved 30 feet closer to the sea. Rumor was it happens at the turn of the year. I was beginning to have my doubts.

I began dressing at 20 minutes to midnight-three layers and my down parka with hats, gloves, gator, and all the other necessary extreme cold weather gear. As a result, I was late. I practically ran to the pole in hopes of not missing the ceremony. It was 10 minutes to midnight and no one was there. It seemed I would just have to carry on my own celebration if no one else was going to partake. At about four minutes to the hour, the party began to arrive. First came a group with champagne, and then came a group singing, followed by the guy with the new pole marker and a tape measure. He quickly measured out 30 feet and precisely at midnight, proceeded to pound in the new geographic South Pole marker. Everyone cheered, drank, hugged, danced, kissed, and each took a turn at pounding in the South Pole marker - a unique way of making history and starting off the New Year. Oddly, the sun shone brighter than ever at this party in the middle of the night at the bottom of the world. By Iowa light standards, it would have been 10 o’clock on a summer morning, only brighter……all night long. As the parties broke off to go their separate ways, there was talk of ringing in the New Year each hour for each time zone as the world rotated. Some people just took it all in and enjoyed the moment a little longer, lingering in the bright light of the night. I on the other hand, took out my boomerang and threw it around the world in celebration. Not once, but several times. I knew that this was one of those opportunities that only comes around once in your life. And my once would be remembered, if nothing else, to have something to tell the grandkids.

So ringing in the year takes on new meaning. I savor ones I spent on cold winter nights in Iowa with family and friends, and especially savor the cold summer night at the South Pole in 1996/97, when I celebrated the New Year around the world, with the toss of the hand.

Copyright 1996 Troy Henkels