A Thriller At The Bottom Of The World
Ten years ago, I talked my wife into checking the box on one of my long-held travel dreams: a five-week overland tour of Patagonia.
While we were still in the early logistical stages, our travel agent said to us, “You know, the tour ends in Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego. It’s the only port in this hemisphere for ships heading to Antarctica. It would be a shame to travel all the way there and just fly home…”
She knew an easy mark when she saw one.
So, after the Patagonia adventure (which started out auspiciously: on the first night, clad only in a pair of skivvies and armed with nothing but a bath towel, I captured and released two bats who had invaded our hotel room, but that’s another story) and several thousand dollars, hundreds of miles, and days of seasickness later, we found ourselves on the bow of the Russian freighter MV Lyubov Orlova (later lost at sea, becoming a ghost ship filled with a horde of cannibal rats, but that’s another story), peering over gray-green water at the icy tip of Antarctica’s northernmost peninsula.
There’s a mystique and urgency and strangeness to a journey to our least known continent, even one as sedate as ours. Several times we had to reroute our scheduled path as channels and passages were frozen over. Drinks were chilled with chips knocked off of passing “growlers” and “bergy bits” thousands of years old that would’ve melted away had the bartender not fished them from the sea as they floated by. Over dinner—where the tablecloths were wetted down to keep the plates from slipping when the boat pitched—we indulged in “what if” conversations after a nine-foot leopard seal, with dead-dull eyes and a mouth full of teeth, slipped off a floe and almost into our little Zodiac raft, looking to hitch a ride.
Every mile we travelled southward meant a corresponding drop in plant and animal life, not to mention the temperature. The wind picked up and a deep sense of loneliness set in. Back-of-beyond Ushuaia was remembered fondly as a thriving metropolis and, by the time we reached the southernmost point of our trip, it couldn’t be more apparent that we weren’t supposed to be here.
And yet, looking at a map one day on the bridge, I saw we were still thousands of miles from the South Pole. Thousands of miles. Prior to our trip, like most intellectually lazy people, I thought of Antarctica and the South Pole as roughly synonymous, but there was still a continent’s worth of land between me and the bottom of the world. If life is damn near impossible here, I thought, what is it like at the South Pole?
A flood of story ideas came to me after the trip was over, but they stayed amorphous and unrealized until, years later, I read an article about the crew that keeps the South Pole Amundsen-Scott station running during the winter season. What I learned brought the ideas back in force.
For six months, the Pole is wrapped in darkness for twenty-four hours a day. Wind speeds are routinely recorded at one-hundred miles an hour, while the temperature does its best to match it by dropping to a mind-numbing one-hundred below zero…not counting wind-chill. Gasoline turns to jelly and boiling water will sublimate into ice vapor when thrown into the air.
The base in winter is supremely isolated and the working assumption is that it will be physically inaccessible for six or more months. In the many decades there’s been some kind of South Pole station, there have only been three successful flights (all of them life-and-death emergency medivacs) and no overland journeys to the station during the winter season.
Braving this insanity are forty-four souls who compete for the privilege of spending not just six, but nine months on a tour. Crewmembers are famously vetted by a battery of psychological tests before being accepted and—while none of them would be considered completely normal by most standards—so far, the team at the National Science Foundation has caught all the dangerous psychopaths who might want to work at the South Pole.
Naturally, my first thought was: what if they missed one?
And that’s how The Winter Over came to be.