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Wintering in the South Pole Can Be Trying, Exciting

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

As we move deeper into spring, you can almost see everybody's mood lighten. Tulips, baseball, dinner before dark. So imagine how you'd cope if you suddenly traveled to a dark, distant planet where winter had just begun, temperatures hover at 65 below zero or colder. You won't see the sun for months. You can't leave even if something terrible goes wrong.

We're going to take you there now, but it's not outer space, it's the South Pole. Every year, a tiny band of Americans hunkers down there for Antarctica's long winter. They tend the U.S. station and keep the science projects from getting buried by ice, and they discover some interesting things about themselves in the process.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The last plane took off from the South Pole on February 14th, 1:35 p.m. Since that moment, nobody can get to the pole and nobody can get out until winter ends six months from now. It's so cold at the pole that jet fuel would freeze.

But when that military jet took off, 60 people stayed behind. The plane did a flyover twice and tipped its wings. The polies back on the ice waved goodbye and tried to snap pictures, but their cameras froze, and then they followed the ritual polies do every year when they shut the door on the outside world.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: They strung up a sheet in the U.S. station, and they watched "The Thing from Another World." It's about an alien who crashes near the pole. It's the North Pole in the movie, but who cares. And the alien wreaks havoc on the earthlings.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Thing from Another World")

ZWERDLING: Unfortunately, I couldn't join the celebration. I left the South Pole just before the last flight, or I would've been stuck until October. But before I left, I met with three polies who wintered there in the past, although none of them is spending this winter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: They have an easy camaraderie, almost intimate like brothers and sisters. And they say the experience of spending winter at the pole transformed them.

Joseph Gibbons is tall and lanky. He doesn't like his name, so he calls himself Jake Speed, and he looks like he hasn't cut his hair and beard in years. He says imagine moving to a world where the cosmic framework that usually shapes our lives disappears. On March 22nd, the sun slips below the horizon, and it doesn't come back for six months.

Mr. JOSEPH GIBBONS: You think about that for a second. Put yourself in a place, all right, that everything you know is not true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBBONS: Everything that you know that we, all of us in this room, grew up with is the fact that the sun comes up every day, and the sun goes down every day. Here, it comes up once, and it goes down once in the entire year. And when you actually accept that after a while and say this is normal, you can actually then at that point in time relax into this and accept the beauty of the place, the magic of the place.

ZWERDLING: We are talking in a small room in the new U.S. station. The government dedicated this building only three months ago. It looks like an office building on giant stilts.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning, South Pole. We have package mail to deliver to the station…

ZWERDLING: The polies say they stumbled across the jobs here through an ad or word of mouth, and they jumped at the chance.

Mr. GIBBONS: It really blows my mind for the fact that if you are in - a type of person that likes to travel the world and see as much as you can, Antarctica is by far the most difficult place to get to. And suddenly I find out that not only can I go there, but someone will pay me to do that.

ZWERDLING: Elizabeth Watson is short, dark, intense. She majored in theater. She came to the pole on a kind of spiritual quest.

Ms. ELIZABETH WATSON: When I first even head about, like if I'm going to do this and figure out my inner self, that's the place that I'm going to do it.

ZWERDLING: But the U.S. government sends these people to the pole to work. So they winterized the U.S. station, sort of like you board up a summer resort. They drain the pipes and turn off the heat in the summer dormitories. They check the lab every day that's monitoring global warming to make sure nothing's freezing up. Watson says they're doing mundane work in the most astonishing setting you can imagine.

Ms. WATSON: You see more stars than I've ever seen in my life because it's just 180 degrees of sky. What you get is sort of uninterrupted beauty, beauty without distraction because you don't have anything else to think about or see.

There's also a sense that the only thing down here that's alive are us, so you get sort of that cosmic quiet. There's - you don't have bird energy. You don't have little bugs crawling around. No grass is living. It's just us alive. I've never felt so, like, understanding the hand of God, and I don't even believe in God, just how big and beautiful and magnificent everything is.

ZWERDLING: As they're going about their work, here's what the polies see: flat, white nothingness in every direction. It's so flat you can see the earth curve at the horizon. It gets so dark you sometimes need a flashlight to see beyond your hands, and the temperature drops to 150 degrees below zero with a wind chill.

Still, Watson says she'd take a stroll outside almost every night after dinner. Her special clothing covered her face except her eyes, and when she'd exhale, the moisture in her breath would freeze her eyelashes shut. She said she just learned to keep prying them apart.

But Betty Catherine Grant(ph) says this is a dangerous time at the South Pole. She remembers one night, she was getting ready for bed, and…

Ms. BETTY CATHERINE GRANT: The power plant stops, and the lights go out, and they can't get it to run, and you're sitting in your building, you're in your extreme cold-weather gear. You've got your Bunny boots on and your parka on, and you can see your breath, and you're inside the building. You're going, oh, man. I wonder if they really wouldn't come get us. You know, this is going to be a big, big problem.

ZWERDLING: Polies say the new building has better power systems and insulation than the old one did, so it's safer. But they say even a new building can't prevent another problem at the pole. People's spirits get dark in the heart of winter.

Ms. GRANT: It sort of became like this spiritual black mask right here, and I could look at people be like ooh, yeah, he's spooky. You've got the spook on.

ZWERDLING: Medical researchers actually have a name for this. They call it T3 Syndrome, or as the polies put it, you're toast. Studies at the pole show when you isolate a small group of people in a dark and freezing place, their body chemistry changes. They feel worn down, weepy, crabby. They sleep too much, or they don't sleep at all. They turn on each other.

Ms. GRANT: When the "Lord of the Flies" started to happen, it just kept going. We had a construction team, we were building the new garage building, and they severed in half and started fighting with each other. So you know, we had carpenters and sheet metal over here that were friends, and plumber and electricians were friends, and never the twain should meet.

Our two cooks couldn't be in the same building together. You know, when the power plant goes down, you're supposed to run towards it and help; some didn't. So when that starts going down, then you start seeing the true inside of humans.

I really thought that grown-up humans would rise to the challenge. That's what I thought I would see when I signed up, and they don't.

ZWERDLING: But then, the sun finally comes back. It jumps above the horizon in late September, and the polies realize they've made it. In fact, they formed tight bonds, and they say they see the world differently than they did before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: Elizabeth Watson says she doesn't watch TV anymore or read the paper. After the pole, they feel like clutter. Grant says she's learned to be more tolerant. She doesn't get as irritated with people as she used to. If the polies who are spending this winter follow tradition, they'll celebrate that sunrise six months from now with a fancy dinner and dancing, and then everybody will pour outside, and they'll watch the heavens change color.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.