The end of the season at South Pole went by so fast, it felt like it barely happened. From New Years Eve onward, everyone started talking about their upcoming off-ice plans and job applications for next year—that is, if they planned to come back. It was pretty difficult to focus on work and still plan for travel, and coupled with the cumulative exhaustion from altitude, lack of fresh food, dryness of the air, dropping temperatures with the onset of winter, and simply having a physically demanding job, I started to slow down a lot.
In one of my last weeks at Pole, I got to be a stand-in full time Fuelie, something I had been doing on and off throughout the season. I walked the full fuel line that runs from the flight deck where all of the fuel is offloaded from aircraft, all along the front of the station by the geographic and ceremonial poles, down through the fuel arch that extends out under the station, and the lines that run up to the Power Plant and vehicle fueling module. I performed fuel testing and helped fuel Baslers and Twin Otters. I landed LC-130s and helped defuel them, walking the heavy hose up under the wing of the aircraft in the fine line between the exhaust and the powerful propeller, so loud you can barely hear the communications on the soundproof headsets.
I’m not generally excited about airplanes, but at Pole for some reason I felt this little-boy awe and excitement at each first visual, landing, and during takeoff. But my favorite thing about working with Fuels was checking the skiway every morning to ensure it was safe for the day’s aircraft to land—riding the snowmobile a few miles out and looking for debris and downed runway flags. On a clear day I could see the endless horizon, the sun reflecting brightly off the windpolished snow, the station far, far away. And on a windy day I couldn’t see the station and my radio wouldn’t work because of the distance, and despite the reassuring rumble of the snowmobile, handles warm and vibrating under my frozen thumbs, I got a little glimpse of the frozen, barren wasteland I’ve heard so much about, stepped foot on, lived in, but so rarely saw.
Some of my favorite things from the end of the season:
-Discovering the sauna, relishing the hot, moist air and diffusion of prickly eucalyptus oil. Seeing skin (a fairly rare sight, bundled as people normally are), red-light illuminated legs and sweat and frizzy hair. We overheated and went out on the deck outside, steaming and looking at the ice.
-On a late-season manager cook day I did dishes with my friends Rachel and Joselyn (work order scheduler and greenhouse tech, respectively), playing music from the world cup and dancing in elbow-high rubber gloves to the lights of a whirly double dicso ball, pata-pata-ing and proving my theory that you can polka to anything.
-The satisfaction of taking that damn pump apart and finally, for once, finding some really obvious blockages, taking them out, and fixing the pump (I’d say once and for all, but that would be a lie).
-Seeing snow, also rare, and feeling a brief, overwhelming, visceral homesickness.
On the way home from South Pole, after some very teary goodbyes, during which all the tears froze to our faces, we crossed back over the trans-Antarctic mountains, the first dirt I’d seen in months. Looking out under the plane’s wing, soft dinosaur mountains arching their spines up from oceans of snow, the ice’s surface like elephant skin with eddies and ripples and wrinkles snagging the bottoms of blue and white clouds, without an apparent hurry to get anywhere.
We landed that night in Christchurch, people stripping down to shorts and sandals while still on the plane, groaning with pleasure at the moist air, at the night sky, at the smell of rain and the simple joy of standing up after a long flight.