Greetings From the South Pole

Wintering over at the South Pole

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This is part of the series:
Antarctica: Life on the Ice

Transcript: Greetings From the South Pole

[music, ambient noise on airplane to South Pole]

Glenn Zorpette: Moments before our Lockheed LC 130 landed at the South Pole, I was wonderfully agitated and maybe just a little bit spooked. Nervous questions raced through my mind. Will the air be so thin that I pass out? Are my sunglasses dark enough? Does this huge red parka make my butt look fat?

[airplane sounds with intercom noise]

Glenn Zorpette: The plane ski lands onto the ice, we scramble down the gangway, and just like that, we’re standing on the ice of the South Pole.

Unidentified Man: How are you feeling?

Glenn Zorpette: Good.

Unidentified Man: You’re at about 10 000 feet.

Glenn Zorpette: How should I be feeling?

Man: Just great. Keep drinking that water, you will be feeling great. Vladimir, how’s it going?

Glenn Zorpette: Within seconds, euphoria sets in. It’s partly the thin air, and partly being at one of the most legendary places on the planet.

Ann Posegate: This is just the most amazing thing. I mean, directly beneath us is a layer of two miles of ice on top of a continent. And it’s just—I mean, and also the North Pole is also…way beneath that.

Glenn Zorpette: Ann Posegate was on her first trip to the Pole. She’s a weather and environment journalist.

Ann Posegate: So it’s just the most beautiful isolated scenery I’ve seen in my entire life. It’s just a very overwhelming and complete feeling, right now.

Glenn Zorpette: I see that there’s frost on your neck gaiter.

Ann Posegate: Yeah, I’ve noticed it’s on yours, too. I’m feeling the—uh, my breath in my nose kind of freezes up a little bit. I’m a little bit short of breath. I mean, there’s 25 percent of our normal oxygen level here…I’m sure I’ll feel the effects over the day.

Glenn Zorpette: And then it got really weird. I saw a man wearing a stovepipe hat.

Glenn Zorpette: Sir! Are you aware you’re wearing a top hat?

Ethan Good: I am.

Glenn Zorpette: And furthermore that you’re wearing a reggae hat underneath the top hat?

Ethan Good: I—yeah, I’m very aware of that. It’s for the purpose of filming for the South Pole International film festival. We’re redoing a rap video. We rewrote the lyrics to be Pole-appropriate. Oh, what’s something that’s family friendly. I forget my lines. “Never thought I’d see the day, where the South Pole coming my way, believe me when I say…” and I’m gonna edit myself there because it goes off the deep end.

Glenn Zorpette: What’s your name?
Ethan Good: I’m here through November, 13-month contract. Yeah, it’s my second winter. It’s nice and quiet. The sky’s beautiful, it’s a wholly different vibe. They give you head lamps to use; I used it like three times over the whole winter. You get enough starlight, starlight and aurora light. When the moon’s up, it’s really bright. It’s not as pitch black as you might think.

Al Baker: There’s no place else on the planet were we can go and lay on the ice and look up at the stars and it’s 100 degrees below zero.

Glenn Zorpette: Al Baker is the science liaison officer at the South Pole. He spent the winter there in 2001.

Al Baker: I could go outside, and the auroras were so bright, and I could literally read by the light of the aurora.

Glenn Zorpette: What’s the appropriate reading material for reading by the light of the aurora?

Al Baker: [laughs] Well, a lot of us read Harry Potter that year. We wrote to J.K. Rowling and mentioned that 50 people read all 4 volumes of Harry Potter in one night, which is true because our night is six6 months long.” 

Glenn Zorpette: The South Pole is also the site of the most elite club on Earth. It’s called the 300 Club, and it’s way harder to get into than the New York Athletic Club or White’s in London. Here’s why: To get in, you have to winter over at the South Pole, and you have to be willing to run around outside stark naked.

Al Baker: Yes. The 300 Club. I am a member of the 300 Club, and my kids say that I am certifiably one of the stupidest people on the planet for becoming a member. The way it works is, when the temperature at the South Pole drops to 100 degrees below zero, we go to the sauna and crank it up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit above zero, and we sit in there as long as we can, naked. That’s about 15 or 20 minutes, until our core temperature rises probably dangerously high. And then we all en masse run outside to the Pole naked. But we can wear our boots so we don’t get frostbite on our feet, run around the Pole, and run back inside to the station and into the sauna and warm ourselves back up. So yes, that’s the 300 Club.
What happens is—when we actually get away with doing that without killing ourselves—when we run outside, the sweat on our bodies from the sauna freezes. So we have a layer of ice that acts as an insulation. That’s only 32 degrees above zero. So we have a zero-degree Celsius layer of ice insulating us. So when I did it—it’s only a quarter of a mile round trip. So I run out a quarter of a mile, and we’re only outside about 10 minutes or so. By the time we get back inside, we’re starting to get cold. But the layer of ice insulates our body.

Glenn Zorpette: How many members are there of the 300 Club?

Al Baker: About 40 percent or so of the station each year joins. So not everyone is as stupid as I am.


Glenn Zorpette: For Baker, the South Pole is more than just a dot on a globe.

Al Baker: I came to the South Pole in 2000, and mentally I’ve never left. Even when I’m home in Denver, a part of me is at the South Pole.