Stuck at Siple Dome

by Char Gardner

“We did not come here to study the climate of Antarctica. We are here
because this is where the information is stored.”—Kendrick Taylor, PhD Desert
Research Institute

January 6, 1997
Four a.m. Desperate to pee. Cold darkness all around. Muffled bovine sounds of ten sleeping men snoring in this Jamesway hut (a Quonset for polar conditions) dubbed The Gas Chamber. Feet encased in Smartwool, body clad in Capilene so new it has yet to smell like roadkill in July, ears plugged with orange foam 32dB, I sit up in my narrow cot to prepare: slip from sleeping bag, creep to air lock, step into government-issued insulated boots, pull on regulation red Canada Goose expedition parka, fumble in pocket for glacier glasses, push open heavy wood door, and march out into frigid wind and blinding snow-glare of twenty-four-hour daylight—austral summer on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

If I were a man, I’d shuffle in my socks and long underwear to the rear of the hut and relieve myself into a plastic funnel connected by a hose to a fifty-gallon drum. The funnel is placed at a height not even the most agile woman could manage. Yesterday, before our last-minute flight from McMurdo, I neglected to request a Nalgene pee bottle from central supply. Now I must trudge over a frozen plain to arrive at a black plywood shack—a two-hole latrine, one of three in this remote field camp housing forty-eight “souls” (as we are accounted for in the daily radio report). One hole for pee, one for solid waste. Burnables and recyclables—cardboard, paper, plastic, metal, glass, food scraps, and human waste are sorted and shipped back to the United States for proper disposal.

The mini thermometer clipped to the zipper on my parka reads 14° Fahrenheit. I’d love nothing more than to squat, pee on the ground, and watch the hot stream bore a hole in the ice. But it’s against Antarctic law. My actions could result in exile for our entire film crew. The documentary would crash and burn. Financial disaster would ensue.

Inside the stinky shack, it’s warmer due to the black painted exterior and a small skylight. Scrawled on the wall in Sharpie: Location Not Vacation.

Fact: a toilet seat carved from dense Styrofoam is not cold to sit on, even in single digit temperatures. I imagine a worker whittling dozens of them in a corner of the carpentry shop at McMurdo, some five hundred miles away. The main US Antarctic Research Station, managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is like a mothership to the remote scientific field camps like this one at Siple Dome. It most resembles a mining camp on Mars, where the dining hall food might have been flown in from my high school cafeteria circa 1964, and where a network of above-ground sewer pipes facilitates indoor flush toilets for a population of eight hundred.

Last night when the ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules cargo plane (Herc) landed our crew of five on the ice runway here, the rousing cheers we heard were not to herald our arrival. The first hurrah went up for the resupply of toilet paper and the next for alcohol rations.

But need for the plane was more crucial. An essential part of the thirteen-centimeter ice core drill had failed. With no spare available, the fractured coupling had to be flown back to McMurdo on the Herc that delivered us. There, the machine shop will mill a replacement. The new part is due to arrive back here via the same flight on which we are scheduled to depart.

Filming the first attempts of the new larger drill is our main purpose. The impact of ice core science is vital to our film. To extend our stay for the drill part’s arrival and installation means certain cancellation of another location. Perhaps the South Pole. But we’ll still be betting on weather. Everything in Antarctica depends on the worst weather on the planet. Siple Dome, accessible only by air, is often obscured by fog. Between here and McMurdo storms with winds up to 200 mph can appear out of nowhere. The Herc that brought us was the first able to take off and land for two weeks. We could be stuck here indefinitely and never get the footage we need.

Plan B: Siple Dome is also home base to the SOAR Program, a study of how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet interacts with the bedrock beneath it. Don and Mark, young geophysicists, fly a small ski-equipped plane called a Twin Otter, customized with ground-penetrating radar. We’ll interview them tomorrow, shoot take-off and landing footage of the Twin Otter, make script changes, and hope the new drill part arrives when scheduled. A Band-Aid on the gash for now.

Not only did I forget to bring a pee bottle—as the producer in charge of the well-being of our crew, I failed to comprehend an unwritten rule. Visitors to remote field camps like this one are expected to bring their own alcohol. At McMurdo, we have been issued ration cards. Once a week, all “souls” are given the opportunity to purchase Steinlager New Zealand beer by the case, bottles of New Zealand wine, or one 750 ml bottle of the harder stuff (not the finest brands). Crown Royal for twelve bucks. That remote field camps have no such arrangement bypassed my radar. Siple Dome’s rations arrive from McMurdo by preorder only when a resupply plane can get through. While drinking is forbidden before and aboard flights, and during work, the amount of alcohol consumed at the bottom of the world is staggering. Three McMurdo bars offer cheap drinks to augment the week’s ration. And then there are the parties on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, where scientists and support staff knock back cocktails and dance wildly into the night attired in summer beachwear. Ignorant of the dress code for the Christmas party, held in an enormous metal garage known as The Heavy Shop, I felt decidedly uncool in jeans and polar fleece.

No board shorts or bikini tops here at Siple Dome. The sleeping men snoring away in the shared space of our hut are long-john-wearing roughneck oil field riggers from Alaska, contracted by NSF to support the ice core operation. They’ve built headboards for their cots from stacked cases of Steinlager.

I don’t blame our crew, Rob, Nick, Rege, and James, for being pissed-off. It’s my fault they have no beer at the end of the day. This is our first travel outside the environs of McMurdo. So far, our filming excursions have been day trips by helicopter to the Meserve Glacier, the Adéle penguin colony at Cape Royds, and Ernest Shackleton’s recently restored 1908 hut. We traveled on the sea ice a couple of hours outside McMurdo to shoot some exotic blue caves. But we never made it that far. With our survival instructor Buck at the wheel, the Swedish-made Häaglunds all-terrain vehicle threw a track, careened out of control, and almost crashed into a volcanic rock the size of a house before coming safely to rest, everyone shaken but unharmed. For twelve hours, we stayed stranded on the sea ice among raucous brown skuas, large predatory seabirds out to snatch our trail mix, and bull Weddell seals brawling on the blood-stained ice. Buck radioed for help immediately. Rescuers arrived before midnight in yet another weird vehicle straight out of The Road Warrior, called a Delta. In all of Antarctica there is no spare for the damaged Häaglunds track.

At Siple Dome, as we unpacked our sleeping bags, one rigger took pity on us and agreed to trade five of his beers, one for each of us, for the pack of razor blades and four D-cell batteries we offered. These guys are serious about their booze. Cash is meaningless here. No more drinks for us until we’re back at McMurdo.

The absurdity of one beer. I’ll never get back to sleep. And I’m agonizing over my errors of omission. I’m an artist and former teacher who entered filmmaking through the side door of nepotism by way of financial necessity, when my husband Rob formed his own production company a decade ago. Like many who embark on a career non-traditionally, I am prone to imposter syndrome. Rob has worked in film for nearly thirty years. Our son, Nick, at twenty-four, is our camera assistant. He began tagging along while still in high school. Our daughter, at college, helps with research. Over the years some crew members have become like family. I’ve trained on the job and progressed gradually. But no matter the complexity of the film or how far-flung the location, stakes run high. I hate it when I screw up, even a little. I know producers, mostly men, who thrive on the stress. They enjoy the chaos before all the details come together. They remain confident that just before deadline, it will happen. I’m becoming better at not freaking out. Our specific tasks impact the work of the others. This new forgetfulness, pee bottle and alcohol rations, is disturbing.

During a mandatory week-long survival course at McMurdo, we learned about Polar T3 Syndrome. It’s an Antarctic condition caused by a decrease in a thyroid hormone which manifests as forgetfulness, cognitive impairment, and mood disturbances exacerbated by the monotonous landscape, constant cold, twenty-four-hour daylight in summer, and total darkness in winter, ultimately inducing a kind of fugue state known as “The Antarctic Stare.” The only cure is to leave Antarctica.

January 7, 1997  
After a horrific night crowded with stress dreams, I dread leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag. Willing myself not to return to sleep, I remember a distant time.

I was seven. Having moved from the city of Baltimore to an isolated western Maryland railroad town, I developed inexplicable behavior that confounded my parents and teachers at Wayside Elementary. Unpredictably, rather than boarding my regular school bus at 3:15, I invited myself home with a random classmate, arriving in neighborhoods I had never seen before.

Back then, in the 1950s, kids of all ages roamed their own neighborhoods, and beyond, on foot or on bikes, alone or in gangs. Some obediently kept within boundaries set by their parents. Mother had no idea where I wandered. I remember no boundaries.

Perhaps I was just defiant. I was. Defiant. Her depression, agoraphobia, and migraines kept her oblivious to the needs of her children. Days when I went straight home from school, she was often asleep on the living room couch, covered with an old coat pulled up to her chin like a blanket. Not four feet away, Kevin and Bridget sat cross-legged on the floor watching TV while the baby in his playpen sucked on the nipple of an empty bottle.

Mothers of my classmates, confronted with me as an unexpected guest, asked for my phone number and called, only to be told by Mother that she did not drive, and with three younger children at home, well…

Some of those other mothers drove me home after cookies and milk in the kitchen and a game of Cootie on the living room rug. More often, I waited for my father to pick me up after his work, driving the backroads of Maryland and West Virginia selling aluminum siding. He’d be late and I’d stay for supper, perhaps the outcome I intended.

Such thrilling dread as the bus pulled away from the old brick school, headed into the unknown. With Cheryl, a shy freckled redhead who lived on a farm, I encountered my first outhouse, and discovered a box turtle hidden in the weeds. Roxy’s family lived underground, in the cinder block basement of an unfinished house. A handmade sign in her front yard spelled FORTUNES. Marjorie was a latchkey child, who went home to a brick rancher on Route 11. Her parents worked at Fairchild, known for building the WWII Flying Boxcar. The plant employed half the town. At 4:30, when the shift let out, the two-lane highway carried endless traffic. I knew my way home, but to cross the road I’d have needed wings. Her parents arrived, quietly furious with their daughter who had broken a rule not to allow anyone inside the house, a rule I had convinced her to ignore, and for which I felt shame when her father stepped into the roadway, stopped traffic, and led me across to a fallow cornfield where I began the trek home.

No punishment or threat had any effect on my peripatetic behavior. I remember no curiosity on the part of my parents, nor concern for my safety, no coaxing inquiry about what I had been thinking. The seven-year-old me, oblivious to my motivation, unable to speak up, howled mightily as my father’s leather belt raised welts.

It’s 13° F and snowing lightly when, finally dressed in all my layers, I head out to the galley in a Jamesway called Café de Bubba. The place is alive with the aroma of hot coffee and bacon, the windows beaded with condensation, the light soft, Bonnie Raitt on the boombox, “I can’t make you love me.”

Two bright young cooks, Sonja and Ellie, run this outback kitchen like a funky dive bar with no alcohol and better food. Both are dressed in jeans, aprons, and Chucks. Blond, pony-tailed Ellie, in a moth-eaten cardigan with the sleeves rolled up, has cooked in science camps long enough to know all the best stories. Sonja, with her close-cropped hair and several floral tattoos, is known for her easy laugh and chocolate chip cookies to beat all others.

Ellie calls to me over her shoulder while frying eggs and hashbrowns. You’re wanted in the radio room ASAP. I abandon a coffee cup not yet filled, grab my parka, and dash out past scientific packing cases stacked between huts, skirt two protruding Nansen sleds and a row of parked Ski-doos to a hootch kitted out for high-frequency radio transmission, the only communication link between here and McMurdo. Shoe-horned into the cramped quarters are the camp’s single primitive shower (no curtain, just a partial wooden door), a small bathroom sink, sagging couches and chairs, TV and VCR, tapes, a shelf of puzzles, board games, outdated magazines, and books left behind. I won’t part with the thin paperback I carry in a pocket of my parka— Seamus Heaney’s Door into the Dark, poems that speak to me of the onerous physical labor required for survival by my father’s parents in rural Ireland. Their toil as immigrants in Massachusetts textile mills proved hardly less harsh.

Greg, the camp manager, middle-aged and unruffled as a windless lake, is on the radio checking progress of the replacement part.

I had looked forward to Siple Dome after our first weeks at McMurdo, where the constant grinding of heavy machinery, beeping of backing trucks, thwacking of helicopter blades, growling idle of the huge Terra-bus, and chatter of its gathering passengers at 5 a.m. outside the Hotel California, our spartan wood-frame pink-painted dorm, quashed any notion I may have harbored about pristine Antarctica.

At Siple Dome, as in all locations, for safety, we are forbidden to venture outside the camp perimeter. Next year, it will double in size for the extraction of the longest ice core from a thousand-meter borehole drilled down to bedrock, yielding a climate record going back eighty to one hundred thousand years. The chemical data recovered and deciphered will inform scientists about past climate changes to help predict the progression of current global warming and sea level rise growing more critical every year.

The past is preserved in ice. Previous samples have revealed the nature of the earth’s atmospheric changes at the dawn of the industrial revolution, following the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and after the bombing of Hiroshima.

SDM, over and out, says Greg. Then to me, Sorry. The Twin Otter took off early this morning on an emergency medical mission. No telling when to expect them back.

So much for my Band-Aid on the gash. What now?

January 8, 1997 
Fog and snow. 8° F. Still no word on the return of the Twin Otter. Too soon to expect the Herc with the new part.

This morning, we met up with laid-back bushy-bearded, Ken, director of the ice core project. Unlike the rest of us in red Canada Goose, he wears a weathered light blue North Face jacket. We enter a deep snow pit dug to examine seasonal snow layers built up over time. Because the thick snow filters out red light, the snow appears blue—the same shade as Ken’s jacket. I did not ask, but I want to know how he gets away with flaunting the dress code. While being interviewed outdoors astride a Ski-doo parked near the idle drill site, he’d pause now and again to remove a chunk of ice frozen to his mustache.

Rob is rightly concerned that we won’t have enough footage to make the show. Out of the forty-five days NSF granted us, we’ve only been able to work thirteen—all due to weather. We have two weeks left and much to accomplish. At noon, he and I walk back and forth on the air strip, trying to keep ourselves from becoming dragged down by unpredictable events. Every film generates its own struggles.

The sun shows itself briefly. We walk and walk, wearing full Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear required outdoors. It’s as if we’ve been cooped up forever and our legs can never stretch enough. Hair escapes my hat on one side of my face and freezes to my cheekbone, while on the opposite cheek I become sunburned. Icicles clot Rob’s nostrils and beard. We windmill our arms to increase circulation in our hands, freezing inside two layers of mittens.

Suddenly, beyond a low rose-colored fog bank, a rainbow hued halo surrounds the sun. A sundog, fleeting gift of rare polar beauty on the otherwise bleak horizon.

With nothing scheduled, I suggest staging an impromptu convivial group scene in the galley to show a bit of what life is like here. Folks are more than willing to hang out, warm up, drink coffee, eat freshly baked cookies, listen to tunes, and tell stories about the times when the Herc crashed, or someone got lost in a white-out, or a bulldozer tumbled into a crevasse, yet the driver survived.

Ellie and Sonja are the stars of the show. We thank them for the superb meals they consistently provide. Good morale is dependent on tasty food. The afternoon is like a snow day off from school. I hope the scene will find a place in the film.

January 9, 1997 
We’re all becoming stir-crazy. People are reading everything they brought and trading their books around or watching VCR tapes of old Superbowl games. Today in the radio room, when I went to check on planes, Wayne and Jake—a couple of riggers who had clearly been up all night— were playing Risk. The board had been altered with Sharpie to show the American Southwest as Koresh-Land, Canada as Crown Royal, Greenland GISP2 (the NSF ice core site there), India: Rag Heads, Middle East: Towel Heads, Africa: AIDS, Antarctica: Siple Dome. Crushed beer cans littered the floor. Ellie had warned me about the Antarctic code of live and let live—don’t get up in anyone’s face down here. I pretended to notice nothing.

Our schedule goes down the toilet by the day. With the South Pole flight cancelled, I’m working to secure some helicopter hours to shoot calving icebergs over open water. The sea ice, which functions early in the season as a road for tracked vehicles, is breaking up now. A Navy ice breaker, the only supply ship for the year, will soon arrive. We’d love to get an aerial shot of it.

Greg, perhaps weary of my constant requests to contact the various officials, hands me the headphones, suggesting—not unkindly—that I make the calls myself. Some people freak out at the sound of their own voice played back on tape. I’m claustrophobic and fear heights. But also, I fear walkie-talkies. There is a name for this phobia. It’s unpronounceable. I can’t say that to Greg! I can barely utter a sound. Conscious of others in the room, I grip the handset. Mac Ops, Mac Ops, come in Mac Ops, SDM calling Mac Ops, over, I manage in a voice I do not recognize.

To be so intimidated by this process of communication is baffling. Is it because I dislike jargon and fear getting it wrong? Antarctica is all jargon, but so is the film business. And yet, during survival training, I avidly took on all sorts of difficult and frightening tasks: auger the depth of sea ice, identify pressure cracks in sea ice melt, build a snow shelter capable of saving my life, learn to turn off the engine after the helicopter crashes and the pilot is dead, assuming I am still alive.

As a child I was fascinated by stories of danger and survival. My Norwegian grandfather often repeated the story of the Clipper ship wreck that left him and his brothers orphaned. The first book I read all by myself was Little House in the Big Woods—a girl and her family trying to survive winter in the wilds of 1880s Wisconsin.

In the early days of our own production company, we completed two films about Holocaust survivors and another about Palestinians and Israelis. Each one an attempt to shed light on how ordinary people survive extraordinary circumstances. Now, all life on earth is facing danger from global warming, and a changing climate. Will the planet survive what we humans have wrought?

Sonja and Ellie remain the warm heart of this frigid camp in the back of beyond. Like good mothers, they hold us all together. I’m killing time helping them in the kitchen: washing dishes, scrubbing pots, sweeping, wiping tables, and having fun chatting with other women. Yes, there are a few female scientists around too, incredibly busy. One woman told me that during her three weeks of annual field time here, she works sixteen-hour days so she can complete everything and get back to her kids in Ohio. Like some hardier “souls,” she prefers to sleep in the privacy and quiet of a hand-built igloo. A cluster of them out beyond the radio hut, coated with rime from the frequent fog, look like sugar icing extruded from a pastry bag.

January 10, 1997 
More fog, blowing snow, and intermittent sun, yet neither the Herc nor Twin Otter can risk taking off from McMurdo. I wash my hair in the little bathroom sink across from Greg’s desk. People are lined up behind me, waiting to brush their teeth or shave. I don’t care how long I go without a shower. I’m too modest to exhibit naked arms and legs to guys across the room watching sports. I think of a scene from the old TV series M*A*S*H—Nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the makeshift outdoor shower, the only woman in that male-dominated medical outpost.

Another day of waiting is ahead. 

Third cup of coffee in the galley, listening to John Prine. I’m drawing in a graph-ruled scientific notebook previously commandeered from the computer lab at McMurdo. With a black Pilot extra-fine, I draw two galvanized metal trash cans, clear plastic bin liners folded over their rims, neatly twisted, and tied. I draw the hand-lettered signs posted above them. Burnables. Food Waste. Lists of items for each. Beyond those, I draw stacks of sheet pans, muffin tins, soup pots; shelves of mason jars, measuring cups, and crocks full of utensils next to a pair of stoves—regular electric four burners like you’d have at home. I draw the big Amana fridge. Most frozen food is stored outdoors, covered in snow. Rob comes in for breakfast. I draw him seated across from me looking cranky, hair wild, coffee mug in hand, reading a worn paperback he found somewhere, a biography of Hemingway.

After lunch, I sit alone on a weathered wooden Nansen sled outside Café de Bubba. Why am I here? I could be drawing in my studio back home right now. I’m tired of being cold. Tired of waiting and wondering if this film will ever see the light of a broadcast day. But from the beginning, the film was my idea—the first time I had come up with a concept and pushed for it. I went ahead and did the research, pre-interviewed scientists, approached NSF and finally, when our pitch was accepted by PBS NOVA, I was thrilled. By then I had read everything I could, from the accounts of early explorers to the most up-to-date climate science, and I couldn’t wait to arrive on “The Ice.”

Months later, just before the required physical exams for the whole crew, the Office of Polar Programs called a meeting. They said they had never supported a crew of five. With that many people, transportation on helicopters would be a problem. And, because I did not have the expertise to double up and perform the job of another crew member, I would have to drop out, and one of the crew would take on my job in addition to their own. I looked over at Rob. He lifted his eyebrows ever so slightly as if to say, be careful.

Looking around the table at the women in charge, I said that as professionals, each crew member has an exacting job. They depend on the producer to arrange optimum conditions for their work and welfare. Setbacks are common, decisions are often made on the fly but with intimate knowledge of the larger picture. If one of the crew is to be further burdened in the extreme conditions on the continent formerly known as Terra Incognita, it will be the film that suffers. They were unconvinced. That night I thought, well, okay, then. Getting the film made is more important than my presence. I’ll stay home and make art or start on an idea for a new film.

I will never know which government bureaucrat convinced the others to make an exception for me.

The sound of propellers overhead. The Otter is back! Everyone races to meet the plane. They’ve brought the drill part. We’ll shoot take-off and landing before dinner, drill footage tonight. Ski-doos blast off toward the drill site, riggers make ready. Optimism reigns.

January 11, 1997 
We slept late after working well past midnight. The drill part broke as soon as it was installed, but the machine shop had sent a spare. We were able to capture both the failure and the triumphant success when on the second try it finally kicked in, and they were able to bring up an ice core. 

There may be a Herc tonight that could pick us up on its way back from South Pole. We’ll have a stop off at the now defunct Byrd Station to load demolition debris. We’re already packing gear to be ready. If we make it back in time, we could have a flight tomorrow to the Dry Valleys, a field camp far more remote than this—only one scientist and three grad students in a polar desert that could double for Mordor—massive black ash-clad mountains and rocky moraines poked by the snouts of melting glaciers. Along with a full load of film equipment, we’ll need to bring our own food, water, alcoholic drinks, cookstove, utensils, mountaineering tents, sleep gear, and pee bottles for all. Both the Bell 212 and the A-Star helicopters will be necessary to get us in and out. Knowing how many flight hours are allotted to science, and the tight schedule this late in the season, NSF is going all out for us. I’m grateful.

Six days is not that long to be stuck. It could have been worse. I’m enjoying envisioning my bunk at the Hotel California, and a four-minute (regulation) shower. Despite earplugs, engine noise inside the Herc is deafening. I’m cold, bundled in full ECW gear required on all flights, buckled into a mesh and metal seat squeezed between Rob and Nick. All of us pressed against the frigid aluminum skin of the windowless aircraft, facing the vast central cargo hold now fully occupied by a rachet-strapped jumble of jagged steel and scrapped wood that was once Byrd Station—a name that conjures, from My Weekly Reader back in elementary school, my earliest awareness of Antarctica.

I do not yet know that to arrive in the Dry Valleys without our own portable latrine will be seen by the resident geologist as very bad manners indeed—nor that no one at the BFC supply will say, Hey, NOVA crew, you’re off to the Dry Valleys, eh? Here’s your frozen steak, salmon, lobster, and all the other good stuff you’ll get to eat out there in the boonies, and by the way, don’t forget your shitbox.

Talk is impossible for the duration of the flight. I reach inside my parka for Door into the Dark to re-read poems I know by heart. But the memory of my childhood wandering seeps in, linked to the notion of escape and recognition of abuse. Yet, like my Irish and Norwegian ancestors, who endured hardship, I found a path forward. Survival requires hope—for generations beyond our own. The stalwart “souls” who labor in the extreme conditions of Antarctica push forward with hope for all life on Earth.