I had not intended to go to the end of nowhere. Even by Antarctic standards, Dome C was the back of beyond. But one afternoon, while fumbling with gear in a McMurdo warehouse, I overheard an allusion to ‘the source regions’. The technicians used the term casually, discussing what goods would be shipped to a remote camp well over the Transantarctic Mountains. But in my mind the phrase sparked an epiphany of symbolism. The source regions. Here was the geographic place at which the East Antarctic ice sheets gathered and then flowed outward. Here was a place that took nothing from elsewhere save fugitive water vapour and turned it into Ice. I had come here to understand Antarctica, by whatever means I could. Surely that quest demanded a journey to the source, for it must certainly contain the essence of the Ice. So after a trip to the National Science Foundation chalet where I pleaded my case, and then a layover at the Pole, adapting to high elevation, I stepped off an LC-130 (‘The Antarctic Queen’) on a dazzling 1981 New Year’s Eve at Dome C and found myself at the end of the world.
Antarctica is a place only an intellectual could love. The further one moves into the interior, away from the coast and storms and marine life that tenuously valence with the Earth, the more dominant the ice and the more extraterrestrial the surroundings. The commonsense perspective of ordinary people is that there is ‘nothing there’, and they are almost right. Even scientists in keen pursuit of data, precious by being rare — our age’s equivalent to the spice and bullion that inflamed early explorers — find Dome C extreme. The rumour soon spread on site, originating from a knot of geophysics graduate students from Wisconsin, that we were not in Antarctica at all but had been secretly drugged on the plane and taken to a prison camp in Minnesota.
Consider the geographic facts: Dome C is an infinitesimal rise in the East Antarctic plateau, atop 14,500 foot of ice that extends outward hundreds of miles. There is little else. This is the most singular environment on Earth, a synthesis of the huge with the simple. Space and time dissolve. The cycle of days and those of seasons collapse into a single spiral. The energy budget is always negative; none during the dark season, reflected away during the light. There is no life. There is nothing to live on. Here is Dante’s imagined innermost circle of hell as an inferno of ice. Here is the Earth’s underworld.
It is a scene of absences and abstractions. There are no mountains, valleys, rivers, shores; no forests, prairies, tide pools, corn and cotton fields, sun-baked deserts; no hurricanes, no floods, no earthquakes, no fires. The only contrast is between an ice-massed land and an ice-saturated sky. The descending ice that links them — the ultimate source of the dome — has the purity of triple-distilled water. Yet it too, as with everything else, simplifies into its most primordial elements, as snowflakes crumble and fall as an icy dust. There is no centre and no edge. There is no near or far; no east or west; no real here or there. Words, too, shrink and freeze, as language and ideas shrivel into monosyllables: ice, snow, dark, sky, blue, star, cloud, white, wind, moon, light, flake, cold.
Consider what that does to experience, to mind, to self. Like the flakes disintegrated into slivers of crystal, a mounding of ice dust, the self disaggregates. Your self is not an essence, but the compounding sum of your connections, like snowflakes elaborating uniquely. At Dome C every particle of ice is identical.
The camp was temporary — how could it be otherwise? Here, where the ice thickened on a continental scale, is an ideal setting for deep-core drilling. Exploratory flights three years earlier had resulted in a crippled LC-130, when a taxiing plane had cracked a wing. Another ski-equipped Hercules was dispatched to remove the crew, only to add to the crisis when a jet-assist take-off bottle that was needed to add thrust in the thin air broke loose on take-off and ripped through a wing. A third flight rescued the stranded crewmen. The next year a temporary camp of Jamesway huts arose while crews repaired and flew out the planes. The huts became the core of an ice-prospecting camp. A small cadre of French glaciologists sat in their self-proclaimed cage aux folles and sank their coring shafts. Smaller cliques of Americans hand-drilled for shallow cores and blasted for seismic profiles that revealed an ice sheet roughly 14,500ft (4.23 kilometres) deep. A nose-cone from one of the former LC-130s, like a cannon on a village green, greeted newcomers.
In all, there were a dozen of us that year; the French, the American teams, a cook, a couple of Navy mechanics. But there was little that one might consider a society, any more than there was anything one might consider a built village or even a shanty town. We lived in a tiny boulevard of the Jamesways — canvas-walled, wooden-floored Quonset huts dropped like lumps of glacial erratic on an ice dome taller than Mount Whitney and wider than Australia. Apart from them, and what we brought to stuff in them, there was little from the unblinking outside world by which to order the inside world at Dome C. Nothing in nature, nothing in culture, only the fortnightly visit by a Navy Hercules. While the sun slowly spun above the horizon, teams came and went as their work called, or they felt an urge. There was no common dining, no collective experience, nothing that anyone had to do at any one time. The sole exception was the arrival of new movies with each resupply flight. These were watched obsessively until the cache was exhausted, at which point Dome C’s social order again dissolved.
A naive observer might rejoice in the near-absolute freedom allowed by a near-absolute abolition of mandatory order. But that nominal freedom is only another name for anomie. Freedom is relative: it requires coercion of various sorts in order to have meaning. At Dome C there was nothing to rebel against. You could do whatever you wished. The catch was, there was almost nothing to do. Those with complex projects, originating from the outside, survived better than those without. But like food brought in, the project exhausted itself with use, and as the ice inevitably ablated these away, their practitioners survived by departing. No one lived at Dome C. Those who stayed longest sank into various pathologies. The Big Eye, or insomnia: I went on a 24-hour cycle of wakening followed by 12 hours of sleep. The Long Eye: aptly defined as a 12-foot stare in a 10-foot room. You slowed down. With little to stimulate you, there was no reason to busy yourself. Stay for long, and a state of semi-hibernation set in. Stay too long, and you found yourself dissolved in a psychic white-out with the Ice.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/antarctica-a-place-of-wide-horizons-and-fragile-selves