Winter arrived in the Valley, with a splash. While Valley residents hunted up their fleece vests and wool socks, and readied themselves for cloudy skies, rain, and temperatures in the mid-40s to 50s, a Fall City man was enjoying summer at the other end of the world. Only he was wearing the fleece and wool, and looking forward to “shorts weather.”
“Last summer, we saw 34-, 36-degree weather, and at that point, I wasn’t wearing a parka, I was just wearing a fleece zip-up and some Carrharts work pants with longjohns,” Daniel Pells said, describing the six months he spent in Antarctica, ending in March, 2011.
He’s back there this winter/summer, working as a supply manager at McMurdo Station, and feeling incredibly lucky about it.
“I actually love it down here,” he said. “It is a very harsh continent, but also a very beautiful and alien world that very, very few get to see, much less actually set foot upon.”
Antarctica, home of the South Pole, is according to its own press, the highest, coldest, driest and emptiest place on earth. It is also, since the 1959 signing of the Antarctic Treaty, an international hub of scientific research. No country owns the ice-covered continent, but at least 45 have agreed to peaceably co-exist there for research purposes.
McMurdo, where Pells is stationed, is the American base, and the only research station on the continent with a harbor. All of the American crews and supplies, and about half of the scientists and equipment destined for other countries' stations will pass through McMurdo on the way in for the summer, starting about now, and on the way out for the winter, next March.
While there, they will conduct experiments on climate change, study ice core samples -- the ice covering Antarctica is more than 15,000 feet thick in places -- explore how native organisms have adapted to the extreme conditions, and countless other pursuits, in the unique environment that Antarctica offers. For example, Ross Island, where McMurdo is located, also features Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world.
Also, “I’m not positive, but I’ve heard that there’s a radio telescope down at the south pole station,” Pells said.
His own role there is “pure support,” Pells said, managing the parts and supplies for the station’s motor pool.
“We maintain and repair everything from a Ford F-350 4x4 to Caterpillar 966 oaders and 50-tone mobile cranes (the big boys).”
His job, which he applied for last year after reading an article that piqued his curiosity about Antartica, puts him outside about 30 percent of the time and, even in the summer, all staff there are very cautious about the elements.
"I’ve never had frost bite and don’t ever plan on getting it," Pells said.
There’s another hazard out-doors, too, but only if you’re carrying food.
Antarctica is the summer home of the migrating skua gull, a well-known predator of anything in a take-out container, Pells said. Because all wildlife there is protected by the Antartctic Treaty, people can’t do much about it when a gull decides to steal their lunch.
“Pretty much the whole continent is a protected area,” he said. “They’re pretty strict about how scientist and other support staff conduct themselves in those areas. You’re not supposed to interfere with (animals), and if they interfere with you, you’re just supposed to stand there and take it.”
Luckily, the gulls are the only predator that staffers there are likely to face. The continent has neither indigenous people nor indigenous mammals, and the nearest penguin rookery is on the other side of the island, where no one is allowed to go.
“The only thing that’s really dangerous here is the elements, and as long as you pay attention to that … it’s not that bad.”
Pells likes to spend some of his free time outside, too, and says there are "amazing" hiking opportunities at McMurdo. He also photographs, from a distance, some of the local wildlife, which includes Weddel seals, Adelie penguins, and most unusual, a huge jellyfish – about the size of a recycling bin lid, with eight- or nine-foot tendrils, he said.
Spotting the jellyfish was an extremely rare opportunity, Pells knew, but he seemed to have a lot of luck in his first summer there. The aurora australis or Southern Lights appeared several times that season, too.
"It’s a very strange thing to see. The sky just lights up for a few moments like a natural fireworks show then it just goes away as quickly as it started," he said.
Since most of the continent, 98 percent, is covered in ice, Pells said there are plenty of glaciers to see. Their abundance, though, makes them no less spectacular.
"One of the best experiences I’ve had while here was assisting one of the Sunday-duty mechanics out on the Ross permanent ice shelf for generator checks. While driving out the LDB site (Long Duration Balloon Launch Site) across the ice it looked like moving over a sea of white. Just flat, barren, and cold as far as the eye could see. It was very humbling."
The people that come to Antarctica, though, are just as amazing as the local creatures and the landscape, Pells says.
“Almost everybody down here is an expert in their field,” Pells says.
They also have a unique approach to solving problems that Pells finds refreshing and very appealing. Yes, he says, it task "some special personalities," to cope with the extreme environment -- temperatures as low as -65 degrees F and 24-hour darkness in winter, followed by 24 hours of bright, punishing sunlight, which Pells compares to being in a tanning booth, in the summer and the isolation. But he says he gets along with everyone and has made several good friends at McMurdo, especially among the New Zealanders, who have a station nearby, and host a weekly “American night,” for staff at both stations.
Keeping in touch with his daughter, Kailey and granddaughter Maddy is challenging, he says. He's on the Wellington time zone, which is 20 hours ahead of his family is in Washington, but they use Facebook and phone calls to stay connected.
Last March, when Pells finished his stint in Antarctica, he said he came back to Washington and spent a couple of months with his family, then visited friends before being asked to come back earlier this year.
He's been "on-ice" since Aug. 26, he said, and he's volunteered to stay on for the winter this year. Most of the crew gets shipped out in March, but a core group stays on through the winter, physically cut off from the world once the ice sets in, but still able to connect through technology -- they even get seven television channels at his station, he said.
Those who winter over are subjected to a psychological exam, as well as the battery of physical tests that all workers must pass to be there in the summer. People should be healthy when they get to Antarctica, because there is medical and dental care available, but it's limited. They psychological exam is likely intended to make sure people can handle the round-the clock darkness, but Pells doesn't think it will bother him much.
"Even at the darkest night, when the stars are out, it's pretty bright," he said. Also, "I'd like to see what this place is like in the winter -- get a better view of the aurora australis."
He definitely plans to continue coming back to Antarctica for as long as he can meet the physical requirements, but only for work.
"My ideal vacation spot has a lot more sand, warmer water, and palm trees…and it's much closer to the equator."