August's Chilly Challenge

August is the most notorious month on The Ice. We've been under winter darkness for about 12 weeks. WinFly, the station opening flight, is close enough to start occupying our thoughts.

The Winfly date was arbitrarily chosen months ago as Oct. 23, but weather is the deciding factor on when the first Air National Guard "skier" plane actually makes it to the South Pole. The temperature must rise above -60 degrees Centigrade for the plane's hydraulics to function.

But first there is August, 31 days that somehow seem twice as long as any other month, that final turn before the home stretch. Few people have a strong kick left to surge toward the end. Rather, we will continue our steady rate of deceleration with just enough forward momentum to cross the finish line. The goal is to finish, not to win and simply see this year to the end.

Few people make it through a Pole winter without feeling the desperate isolation, the darkness, the dryness, the want for oxygen and the terrible unrelenting cold. One of the many sayings on The Ice is that you're doing well if you're one-third as productive now as you were back during the austral summer.

There is a reason that an indigenous population does not exist anywhere on Antarctica. It's not natural. You slowly slide southward to a point where you can't go any further, but then your brain continues to slide the longer you stay here. The fact that Americans have been continually occupying the Pole since 1958 is a testament to their fortitude, ingenuity and a very strange geopolitical stubbornness embraced by our government.

There are funny things I miss: a cold glass of real milk, for example. Milk is probably the most commonly missed food item Poleys mention. The food here is good, but the milk is powdered and often not chilled. When I tried to set it outside to get it cold, it separated into three, unappetizing layers. Blech.

I miss a full breath of air rich in oxygen and not so cold that it feels like you're doing damage by filling your lungs to their fullest. Long after I became acclimated, there are still instances for no apparent reason when I feel like I can't catch by breath, even at rest.

I've noticed that when most people step outside, they seem to invariably cough once or twice with their first breath, not from being sick, but just from the body's natural reflex to reject the driest, coldest air on the planet.

I miss fresh fruits and vegetables, but not to the same extent as many of my compatriots. Being a lifelong bachelor, processed food and takeout had long ago become a staple to my diet.

I miss humidity and am tired of my lips being cracked, my mouth always dry, my skin feeling like rice paper, and my nostrils feeling like the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. When I wake up each morning it feels as though my tongue has been permanently damaged, transformed into some matted piece of beef jerky.

Thank God I have a good humidifier in my room, which helps make a slght dent against the awful dryness. I believe I could have comforted more people with a few dozen, high-quality ultrasound humidifiers than half the pharmaceutical drugs I have on hand.

Although I have gone longer periods in my life without seeing my family and friends, I miss them more than ever before, simply knowing there's no way I can get to them. Many people are "toast" by now – pale, lethargic, irritable, prone to nonsensical statements, and with a blank expression typified by the infamous "10,000 meter stare."

You might think we would get cheerier as the time to Winfly grows nearer, and with sunrise just around the corner, but it's more like everyone practices less repression of their opinions, and the gloves start to come off. "This is what I've really thought of you for the past nine months!"

The sound of falling rain has never been heard at the South Pole. People talk about how much they miss rain, plants and greenery. Technically, we're a desert. A scant few inches of snow falls per year. The only living creatures at the Pole are us transplanted adult human beings. It sounds ordinary enough at first until one thinks about it for a moment. No kids, no animals, no pets, not even a bug. I miss caring for kids and babies as part of my medical practice.

Most of all I miss what it feels like not to be in constant physical pain. A seemingly minor slip and fall I took on The Ice months ago took an unexpected, aberrant course and steadily worsened instead of improving, causing paralysis, numbness and sometimes severe pain in my left leg.

I can't walk without crutches and am spending the majority of my time lying on my right side, in bed. Thank God for modern medicines but it appears I have suffered an injury for which the cure is to cut. I am already classified as an "urgent medevac," to be flown out to Christchurch (Cheech), New Zealand and receive some long overdue medical and probably surgical care.

My condition has gotten serious enough for my mom to fly from the United States and meet me in Cheech, for morale and logistical support once I get surgery on my lower back to relieve the pressure off of the nerve root. This is the most physical painful experience of my life, and I have been banged around a bit before ever coming to this godforsaken chunk of ice.

So far, the support I have gotten from the home office has been great, but in reality there isn't much anyone off The Ice can do. We're stranded, and we knew that before we came here.

I saved my commiserations for the bluest month in Antarctica, but overall I still would have to say that this is definitely the experience of a lifetime, for better or worse. I could do without the injury and pain, but otherwise I would still not trade this experience for anything. Let's just say I found what I was looking for: a place so unlike any other on the planet, that I was continually challenged.

I met highly intelligent people from all over th world. I re-examined every cultural ideal I had learned in my life. The level of cooperation and community spirit here necessary for survival, as well as the ecological management of our resources and waste, are at the highest standards of anywhere in the world. Now if I could just
bump up my departure date a day or two sooner.

Photo ops are far and few between, mainly because of the stark sameness that fills our daily routines, and the 24-hour darkness outside. I have been spending most of my time bedridden, due to my injury, so I have included a few photos of friends that stopped by to make sure I am doing OK.