Living Simply in Siple Dome

By Troy Henkels. Originally published in the Telegraph Herald,

After three days of dreadful weather, the plane lifted off the Polar Plateau, headed North, the only way to go from here. It was just another plane ride, yet not one I would soon forget. After nearly a week spent at the South Pole, I was going home, back to the US research station, McMurdo, on the coast of Antarctica. I was in the middle of a 12-month assignment on the southern continent as a Communications Technician. I had been sent to the Pole to work on their communication systems. The three-day weather delay was a welcome one. It allowed me more time to be overwhelmed by the South Pole, the vast, cold, flat wasteland of white, in all its grandeur and splendor. For 800 miles in every direction was a landscape so desolate and cold, it remains largely unexplored. Not only was this a special place because of its remoteness and extreme harsh beauty, but there was also something unquestionably unique about life at the Pole. It was my good fortune to visit a place that so few humans ever experience.

Finally, we were off, to clear skies at the Pole and McMurdo, some 800 miles away. In three hours, our ski equipped C130 military aircraft would touch down in McMurdo. The flight was absolutely spectacular. I remained mesmerized, looking out the window of the cargo hold and cockpit, taking in an endless landscape of different colors of white, the chaotic symmetry, and an endless sea of snow, ice, and mountains that stretched to the horizon.

This day was special as the pilots decided to fly low through the TransAntarctic Mountains. This mountain range spans the continent and even today remains vastly untouched and unexplored. Instead of looking down at mountain peaks, I was looking up at them. I gazed into deep crevasses of the Beardmore Glacier, many times wider than our plane. These were views that I would see only a few times in this life and I absorbed as much of it as I could. From the cockpit I watched as we descended from the mountains into a fog bank that engulfed the Ross Ice Shelf. I took my seat in the cargo hold as the pilot climbed above the fog. The weather had turned in McMurdo and we could not land. This was a problem, as we did not have enough fuel for a return trip to the South Pole. In Antarctica, the weather can become very bad, very quickly. All activities are at nature’s whim. On this day we would be subject to the consequences of changing weather. There were few other places to land for us, so no one knew quite what to expect.

As the plane made a sharp bank east, I watched as we flew past Mt. Erebus, the only active volcano in the Antarctic. I knew we were going somewhere, but I couldn’t imagine where? Shortly, the pilots told us we were heading to a remote, deep field camp on the Ross Ice Shelf, called Downstream Bravo. With this diversion, and after four hours of flying we would be only one hour closer to McMurdo than when we left the pole, expecting the usual three-hour flight. As might be expected, everyone was a bit apprehensive.

We landed at Downstream Bravo, a flat, white frozen plain, for about as far as you can see. On the horizon was a trace of mountains and the sun cast an eerie glow through the overcast skies in a light pinkish orange. Downstream Bravo consisted of only two Jamesways(small Quonset hut tent structures) and several wind break walls, built out of snow blocks. There was an outhouse, very little food, no space for 26 people to sleep, and we were welcome to use the windbreaks to brew up some hot chocolate. This camp was occupied by only 2 people and was used as a fuel stop and minor research on gravity, altitude, glaciology, and magnetics. A pretty remarkable, if not somewhat dismal place to be stranded.

I went inside and remained fixated to the radio as the pilots talked with McMurdo, South Pole, and Siple Dome, another deep field camp. Our options for the night were: 1) go back to the South Pole, which was a 4 hour flight. 2) Stay at Downstream Bravo, which would require camping on the ice shelf. Consequently, some people were already building igloos, just in case. 3) Fly to Siple Dome, a larger field camp that could accommodate us all. It was decided that we would go to Siple Dome. This field camp houses 60 people and would have food and beds for all of us for as long as we were stranded, which could be days, or even weeks.

No one knew what to expect, as Siple Dome had been the talk around McMurdo for weeks. No flights had been able to land for over a month there, due to the severe weather. In total, there had been 40 cancelled flights and the Siple residents had not seen fresh fruit, vegetables, mail or new faces for a very long time. Many were concerned we would land there and not get out anytime soon. Having experienced Antarctic weather, it was evident this could quite easily become a reality. Unlike everyone else, I was ecstatic at the prospect.

After refueling, we took off and headed another hour across the ice shelf and landed at Siple Dome, a place of more vast flatness and infinite beauty. Siple Dome is the largest summer field camp ever deployed by the U.S. Antarctic Program. There are up to 60 residents here and 12 Jamesways. The ice at Siple is about 3000 feet thick and ideal for studying coastal climate conditions. This area also offers climatology information dating back 100,000 years, so it is an area of some interest.

We headed to the Galley as it was already after 6 pm. We were treated to a fine dinner and were the talk of the town as we were the first flight into Siple in quite some time. Because of this, there seemed to be a celebratory buzz in the air. There was also a birthday to celebrate and it seemed a disco party was scheduled. I thought how peculiar. Here I was in an extremely remote outpost in the Antarctic and there was to be disco party? I was astounded. After dinner we were informed we would be spending the night and hoping for clearing conditions in McMurdo by morning.

This information held little relevance for me. It was too late. I had already headed out into the Antarctic wilderness with a set of skies and a large traction kite. The wind was perfect as I unfurled the kite and a fog rolled across the ice and engulfed the entire area. I ran into a guy from Fairbanks, Alaska, who was a kite flyer too and he went to fetch his gear. We strapped on skis and were soon zipping through three inches of fresh snow at about 25 mph. The feeling was intense to be sailing through the fog with no real ground reference. Everything was white. Sounds traveled very well, yet it was challenging to stay within a close proximity of town without getting hopelessly disoriented. We would get several miles from town and follow the wind and our tracks back from where we started. After several hours I was exhausted and kite skied to where I would stay…..a cozy Jamesway called Valhalla. It was about a mile from the main camp and the only Jamesway not in the main town area. I pulled up and saw two of my South Pole friends soaking in hot tubs of water….OUTSIDE!!!!! I was out of my gear and into the water in less than two minutes. It seems the crew at Siple Dome know how to live AND survive in comfort, despite the harsh Antarctic conditions. They had hooked up a water heater and a circulating pump to three circular tubs, resembling horse troughs. There was music blaring from a jambox somewhere in the background and the water was hot and felt great. We talked, laughed, and made strange shapes out of our freezing hair. Visibility was nil, which added to the overall magical aura of this experience. After an hour or so we retired to a small wooden building nearby….a sauna!! Same routine as the hot tub, and it was bliss.

Finally, we decided we should go see what was happening with the disco party. We jumped on snowmachines and drove back to town. By then, the parties were in full swing with loud music and even louder dancing. I was a little too tired and relaxed from a long day of flying planes, kites, and hot tubing to get into the swing of the party. Just as I was leaving, two more scheduled flights from McMurdo were cancelled. That made 42 total now. Cheers went up from the crowd, as the tally was recorded on a board that was labeled “Joke of the Day”. I retreated to my cot for a few hours of sleep. It was now 2am and I fell asleep in awe of what this day had brought. In another world, in another time and place, flight delays would mean something very different. In the Antarctic it meant the rare opportunity to live simply, out on the edge.

By 6am we were up and back in town awaiting news on if we would get back to McMurdo. The fog had cleared and we were off the ground by 7:30am. The return trip to McMurdo was uneventful as everyone was asleep or trying to sleep. I remained glued to the window as we worked our way across the vast Ross Ice Shelf and home, McMurdo Station. The view of Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror, Ross Island, open ocean, the Royal Society Mountain Range, and McMurdo itself, is something I will never forget. It was with mixed relief to finally touch down at the ice runway in McMurdo.

I reveled in my good fortune of experiences, not only in the previous 24 hours, but the entire week. Never did I dream of such things, yet they had come my way. Sometimes you just don’t know what life will bring next. Sometimes its not just flight diversions and delays, but life’s diversion and delays that turn out to be the unforgettable experiences.

Copyright 1998 Troy Henkels