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A journey to the bottom of the world in search of the purest thing
Gates makes his way down the Ice Runway on the Antarctic Plateau. Photo by Haley Buffman.
A dozen or so of us were packed into the beluga-shaped DC-3, snorting oxygen through plastic medical tubes to make up for the thin, 20,000-foot air in the unpressurized cabin. The Antarctic plateau slid beneath us 10,000 feet below, though without the visual reference of trees, mountains, buildings or roads, it appeared to be close enough for a sharp tip of the wing to scratch the surface of the snow. Far off in the distance the horizon hinted at the curvature of the earth.
Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan was sitting on my lap. It was opened to a dog-eared page that had caught my attention days earlier when I had just arrived on the continent. “We can offer you an opportunity to think about your native planet,” Vonnegut wrote, “from a fresh and beautifully detached view point.” The offer was for a low-ranking position in the Martian Army rather than a low-ranking position on Earth’s last continent, and no less applicable.
I had an ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend to thank for getting me into that airplane seat. Our mutual ex-girlfriend’s lack of creativity in choosing her mates ensured that we were more similar than different and all the more likely to get along. He talked in sentences made up of soft, shapeless mumbles and punctuated them with an abrupt laugh. Like me, he was svelte and quiet with a socially awkward tendency that was either masked or nourished by entire months of solo wanderings. He was an eight-time finisher of the Boston Marathon, and I accepted his assurance that running at the South Pole was, at the very least, possible. Curtis Moore had introduced me to Chef Brown and led me through the mountain of paperwork and bureaucratic hoop jumping one might expect with a four-month contract at a government station at the furthest of man’s terrestrial reach.
And it was Curtis who had told me about Race Around the World.
I had been stalled out on Ross Island, 2500 miles south of New Zealand, the week prior. Locked into the Antarctic mainland with a permanent shelf of sea ice, the island was home to seals, penguins, a 12,000-foot active volcano, Mount Erebus, and McMurdo—a station five times larger than any other station on the continent. As a stop-over gateway for Antarctica, McMurdo maintained that shifty and volatile feel I would have expected from an old-west town or a Lucas-inspired deep-space station. It was best described to me as a sheriff-less coal-mining town run by a frat house.
Tractors, snowcats and countless other rumbling machines drove about the dusty roads that separated the sterile buildings from one another. Thieving and violent seagull-like skua birds patrolled the skies while the ever-present wind whistled. I idled my time away with Vonnegut, and when I tired of him, I found reprieve running the many trails surrounding the station.
From the Ross Island trails, I watched ash and smoke rise from Mount Erebus above me. In the opposite direction, across the frozen Ross Sea, the Royal Society Mountain Range stood proud and out of reach. The volcanic cinder that crunched beneath my feet would be the last dirt I’d see, hear, smell or touch for several months.
Passengers and snowcat enroute to Antarctica. Photo by Haley Buffman
I sucked at the tube for more oxygen. Beyond the frosted window, the scene was a two-toned blue-and-white painting—the blue stealing wisps of white from the ground and the white reflecting the cerulean sky back into the atmosphere. Rothko, I remember thinking. This is a Rothko painting on the magnitude of a Midwestern state. Beneath us the shadow of the plane floated about the masterpiece like a speck of dust.
Following a smooth ski landing and brief taxi the door opened from the outside. After descending a short ladder I stepped onto the styrofoam snow and watched my breath hit the ground before me, bursting outwardly like an inverted mushroom cloud.
At 67 degrees below zero, breath becomes a sharp thing, with both mass and volume. The first inhale is taken in quickly, haphazardly. Your nose hairs freeze. Then your tongue lurches and your lungs reject the needle-y air. You cough it out like poison and take in the next one measuredly. They’re all measured after that. Once you learn to breathe again, you note the smell of the Antarctic Plateau: the virgin fragrance of nothing at all.
Before me stood the Elevated Station. It was propped up on I-beams 15 feet high to prevent the slow buildup of dense snow that had buried the two previous stations. At that moment it looked to me like one of those tall, walking war machines from Star Wars, but elongated, frozen and static. Within the football field of a building rested my raison d’être—dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned. With over 15 years of restaurant service behind me, “Dining Room Attendant” stood alone as the one job I qualified for at a research station that was synonymous with specificity.
As the weeks went by the sun climbed to a height in the sky that would be considered “late-afternoon” to most civilized latitudes. It circled around like the hand of a 24-hour clock. Exactly like a 24-hour clock, actually. The ebb and flow buzz of tractors, airplanes and snowmobiles, however, ensured that the station was a human creation and 4 a.m. felt like 4 a.m., lunchtime felt like lunchtime and Christmas felt like Christmas. The zombie-like winter-overs had vacated the station and taken with them their excess of malaise. They were replaced with fresh firefighters, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Reaganites and anarchists; loose women, prudish men, jocks and queers; Nobel smarts and perfect idiots. Job titles had been politically replaced with the disambiguating titles of “specialist” and “technician.” Still, the modern rolls of society were represented just the same.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse blasted at a deafening volume from the speaker behind me while I traded out the green plastic scrubby for a metal spatula and commenced scraping away the charred remains of what I believed to be pork loin from the bottom of the roasting pan. I was convinced that the pan and the blackened meat had coalesced on a molecular level but I continued scraping since I was enjoying my music and needed to fill the last 40 minutes of my shift.
Chef Brown governed over his kitchen with a modus operandi of accountability, which meant that if one of his cooks burned a dish they were expected to clean it themselves. I could have asked Quenton to clean the roasting pan, as he was surely the culprit but it was mid-December, I had been washing dishes 10 hours a day, six days a week for two months, and was admittedly a little bored. I had learned to seize upon these occasions to break up the monotony of my simple but tedious job. I embraced the burn victims with fervor and invited the challenge of making them new again.
Just past the sinks, a large open window connected the dish pit to a hallway that led to the galley and the rest of the station. A pair of standard-issue heavy leather mittens appeared on the stainless steel ledge of the window before me. Coded letters and numbers were written in marker on the back of the gloves. The hands inside belonged to Jeremy Collins, an Air-Force-trained meteorologist with a pale face that was mostly hidden behind a sunset-red beard. His job at the South Pole included interpreting numbers that predict the weather. Several times a day, from the rooftop, Jeremy would measure line-of-sight visibility to flags around the station that corresponded to distances written on his mittens.
“What did that use to be?”
“It was pork,” I replied, “and will be dinner.”
Jeremy moved as fast as his job required, which provided him with no less than 10 excursions to the galley throughout the course of the day. He took great interest in my job and my music and pretty much anything that would stall him for a few more minutes before going back to work.
“You been running?” he asked.
“I’ve been gettin’ out.”
Scuffed grey steel was beginning to appear beneath the black char. I rinsed the crud from the pan and continued scrapping furiously.
“Why’d you come here, anyway?” he asked with an abruptness that could have only been learned in the armed forces.
I stopped scrubbing for a moment. I pulled my hands out of the heavy rubber gloves. They wafted a gangrene stench and I quickly sheathed them again. In a land where the relative humidity doesn’t even reach a single percent, hand maintenance is a constant struggle. When they weren’t shriveled and rotting, as they were then, they were like dry-cracked mud.
“I guess I’ve always wanted to wash dishes.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Well,” he said without hesitation, “I wanted to see what was beneath the brass plate.”
“The brass plate?”
“In school, you remember? The globe in geography class spun around and around.” He dialed his glove about, first toward the ground and then toward the ceiling. “And hiding the axle and converging lines on the bottom was always that brass plate.” He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “I wanted to know what was under it.” He folded his wrist, glanced at his watch and walked away.
It seemed to be the single common thread among the eclectic gathering at the South Pole—a magnetic draw to slip beneath the brass plate on the bottom of the globe.
A sun halo caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere. Photo by Haley Buffman.
I walked a quarter mile from the station to an insulated, canvas Quonset hut, called a Jamesway, which contained my 35-square-foot address—J13, Room 3.
Over a dozen Jamesways subdivided into rooms not much bigger than utility closets made up Summer Camp, where half the station’s population of 250 lived during the crowded summer months. Think M*A*S*H on ice. The two plywood walls and two canvas walls that separated me from my nine hut-mates served as a barrier for little more than the hallway light. Snores, farts and squeaking beds permeated past the canvas barrier on a nightly basis.
I settled into my room, shedding layers of clothes that had gotten me to my Jamesway without frostbite and prepared for some miles out on the plateau.
Getting dressed to run in that temperature was, at minimum, a 15-minute process. There were tights on top of tights, three layers of shirts, followed by a thick Gore-Tex shell. There was the neck gaiter, balaclava, hat, goggles and earmuffs. Ski gloves stuffed with hand warmers, wool socks and running shoes with screws inserted into the bottom for traction. And, finally, a mouthful of Jameson slugged straight from the bottle, which warmed me from the inside in a way that no layer of clothing could. The method kept me warm for an hour of running.
I stepped out of J13 and set off at an easy clip through Summer Camp while several “red parkas” hurried about their tasks. The standard-issue jackets that had initially provided a level of anonymity faded as the season carried on, and the subtleties of one’s posture, form and gait became their identifying features. The head-down, slow shuffle was Rachel. The Manhattan business march was Jason. The pep-step, swagger was Ron. Like a marshlands birdwatcher, by my second month at the South Pole, I could properly identify the forward motion of nearly 80 Big Reds.
I ran out past the half-mile-long berms that stored everything from 10-year-old lobster (as frozen as the day it arrived) to spare tractor parts and after 10 minutes of running I arrived at the Edge of the World, where several decades of plowed and packed snow stepped down to the ever-changing surface of the Antarctic Plateau. Two giant golf balls containing within them the satellites that were our four-hour-a-day thread to the real world stood there like sentries, as though to protect us from the vast expanse of nothingness just beyond.
I paused there with the station at my back. A wave of anxiety—claustrophobia’s opposite—passed through me. I let it pass and stepped out into the Rothko painting where things didn’t get bigger or smaller, where one step didn’t seem to bring me any closer to the horizon than did a thousand.
When English explorer Robert F. Scott arrived at the South Pole 99 years earlier, after having already traversed several hundred miles upon the same scene, he paused and scribbled only a single sentence in his meticulously kept journal, “Great God, this in an awful place!” Within a month Scott and his four companions would be dead from a combination of starvation, hypothermia and scurvy.
I ran until I could no longer hear the hum of the station. I ran until the individual Big Reds recessed back into anonymity. I ran past tracks of the two others on station that also sought solace in the vastness that surrounded me. I ran to the point where three dimensions dissolved into two and the pure and brutal immensity of the Antarctic Plateau consumed me. Then I stopped.
Traditional Christmas Day attire for RATW spectators. Photo by Haley Buffman.
On Christmas morning the thermometer had climbed to minus 12, allowing me to shed my balaclava and wear three layers on my torso rather than four.
Forty of us gathered at the South Pole marker in front of the Elevated Station waiting for 10 o’clock to arrive. Rudimentary race numbers were printed on office paper and pinned to our jackets. Behind us, several generations of diesel engines of snowmobiles, PistonBullys and tractors rumbled in anticipation.
I chatted with Curtis who, thanks to the various jobs that had brought him down there, was toeing the starting line for a fifth time in as many years. Behind the wind shield that came down over his nose and chin, a thick, brown beard covered the left side of his face, while the right side was cleanly shaven. Beneath his hat a gathering of curly hair started from his forehead as a mohawk and finished in the back with a mullet. Nobody thought twice about Curtis’ outlandish appearance or quiet mumblings as though the oddity of living and working at the South Pole trumped all others. Back home, when asked the question of why somebody would return to such a harsh continent year after year the catchphrase response fit him most appropriately: “I came down the first year for the experience, the next year for the money and a third year because I didn’t fit in anywhere else.” Curtis was at home at the South Pole.
With a ready, set, go, the fire captain turned race marshall set us in motion. I wasted little time and moved quickly to the front of the pack.
I was perhaps the only competitor on that squeaky starting line whose pre-Antarctica occupation had been “semi-professional mountain runner.” For several years prior I had piecemealed together a humble income with prize money, sponsorship earnings, restaurant work and the occasional yard sale of running gear given to me from one source or another. With my airfare usually paid for and without the burden of health insurance and cell-phone bills on my budget, I was able to embrace the simple, nomadic lifestyle of a Herman Hesse character, calling my home in the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Sierra Nevadas, the Julian Alps, the Bavarian Alps, the Dolomites and beyond.
Out of the same boredom that propels a child to put dissimilar insects in a jar together, Chef Brown had tried to pit Curtis and me against each other over the weeks leading up to the race. The effort was in vain as there was little doubt in my mind that I was going to win the race and Curtis simply didn’t care. But the Race Around the World, I learned, wasn’t so much about competition as it was a celebration of a truly unique community and place.
In December of 1979, a baker, a cosmic-ray scientist and a few others set out from the South Pole marker covering a distance of just over two miles. The race quickly became a Christmas Day celebration and 31 years later, the tradition continued. Given its remote location and the fact that it is open strictly to people working at the South Pole, the Race Around the World is arguably one of the most selective races on the planet.
Circling an area no larger than Vatican City the course embraced most of the station. The clockwise loop took us past the towers of large empty spools stacked in a long row with a child-like hand 20 feet high called Spoolhenge.
After passing through a collection of excess-tin arches left over from the station’s construction, we made our way along the runway where a couple airplanes sat idle. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Curtis in a distant second place. A snowmobile zoomed up next to me for the final quarter mile pulling behind it a couch on a sled with several excited spectators. The energy, exertion, rumble of the machines and costumes all lent themselves a Mad Max quality to the event and I half expected a spectator to run over and tackle me.
After having passed through the time zones of Botswana, the Persian Gulf and India, past the storage berms of food, plywood, toilet paper, past Papua New Guinea, Siberia and Polynesia I crossed the finish line and won the race in 13 minutes 32 seconds. After Curtis had crossed the finish line and the coughing brought on by the sharp, cold air had stopped he and I looked out into the distance.
“There’s a little more to it once you’re here for a little while. Huh.”
Gates at the Geographic South Pole after winning the Race Around the World. Photo by Haley Buffman.
Looking out the galley window onto the vast and barren expanse of snow before me I wondered, as one must wonder on the deck of a ship far out at sea, just how far I was peering into the distance.
Nowhere on earth, I thought, do three dimensions so closely resemble two. I sipped my coffee and paused to dislodge a sinewy piece of bacon from my teeth. Or maybe, I thought, if dimensions had intentions this landscape was two dimensions trying to be three …
In recent weeks my mind had started taking on the characteristics of an amorphous cloud. Thoughts would come and go like a dream. I’d stop mid-sentence, forgetting what I was saying. Mid-thought, forgetting what I had been thinking. This one, I held onto.
Or three dimensions trying to be two.
I had been warned of the slow deterioration of the mind and body. I had been warned that my joints would begin to ache, which they did, and that I would be consumed by a fatigue that couldn’t singularly be explained by the frigid temperatures, high altitude or long working hours. In a place where even the needle of a compass gets confused I had to consider that thing called “energy” by some, “juju” by others.
“You came here to run that race.”
Jeremy startled me. Everything startled me. Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen the sun set in 121 days. Maybe my compass was off.
He tried again: “You did, didn’t you?”
“I hadn’t considered that,” I said.
Why I didn’t want to admit that the race was the reason I came down here was perhaps because it was an admission that I was no different than the landscape outside the window. My life, up until that point had been a quest for simplicity. I found that I loved washing dishes. The work was as basic and simple as running, which was as basic and simple as the landscape before me. I had happened upon a Mecca where the year is a day and I was only there for six hours and it scared me to admit that I didn’t want to leave.
Rickey Gates is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. This article originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.