Romancing the Ice — A Love Story in Antarctica

by Jana Dietrich

While working at McMurdo Station, a writer is thrilled and love-struck by the desolate landscape of Antarctica. What follows is both a moving personal story and a vivid description of what it’s like to spend many weeks on the earth’s most desolate continent. This story was selected for our Romance on the Road travel writing competition.

We were the fools who could not rest

In the dull earth we left behind

And burned with passion for the South

And drank strange frenzy from its wind.

-St. John Lucas

Light reflected off of the fallen icicle in a chiaroscuro of colors before my boot tread down onto the snow and crushed it. Snow shimmered all around, filling the vast, desolate space in the distance with sparkling light. Volcanic gravel paved the beaten track before me, and a weathered barrel leaned precariously against the side of the building. Piles of wood and nails were scattered around the entrance, and the door slammed against a beer bottle, frozen solid to the porch, as I squeezed my way inside.

Indoors, stacks of furniture were haphazardly thrown into corners, and in the middle of the lounge, a large chest of drawers lay on its side with a three-legged chair on top of it. A thin white plate and a blue plastic cup graced the top of the pool table, and I noticed how the plate glimmered red in the setting light, highlighting the encrusted layer of week-old lasagna sauce. Windows spanned the entire room, and as I looked up from the plate, my gaze caught the setting sun over the Royal Society Range, my heart contracting so painfully with its perfect beauty that it was suddenly hard to breathe.

This was my first impression of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. In hindsight, I would say it was an ideal, or perhaps an ironic beginning to my romance with the place, the imagery reminding me much of a jaded lover fondly recalling the joyful memories of a failed relationship.

I began my stint in Antarctica as a DA (Dining Attendant) during a winter season at McMurdo. It was the best and hardest time of my life. My existence juxtaposed between grueling work, cynical culture, and ruthless management to genuine camaraderie, closeness, and an absolute, boundless joy at every instant spent within the wild Antarctic landscape. The beauty of the ice and the unknown territories it encompassed overwhelmed me, and no matter how many drains I cleaned and dishes I washed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the luckiest person on Earth.

At times, after I had just finished a long shift, I would run out into the winter night from the back galley dock wearing nothing but my bright blue, sleeveless uniform and stare up at the stars. Their multitude brightened up the darkness, spanning the sky in an arc so clear that I imagined I could see the bottom of the world in their shape. Some days, the dirty old town would be covered in snow, and I wouldn’t be able to tell where the white land ended and the stars began. In my mind, even still, I can see the Milky Way rise up like a breaching whale, arching its back and falling like a waterfall down towards the road behind me.

Of course, during the moments I stood there, my thin cotton shirt would freeze solid to my back, converting the sweat from the pot room into sharp, fine crystals of ice. The wind would whip through me, freezing first the digits, then the cheeks and ears until I could no longer feel them. Eyelashes would freeze and then clump together, obscuring my vision of the stars. Then, my focus would turn inward, feeling nothing but the cutting edge of the wind, the deadly chill of the air, the shattering vibration of frozen teeth and how the cold snatched my breath away so that every gasp brought nothing but sharp daggers to my lungs.

There was a story circulating the station at the time about a woman who had come sweaty out from the Gerbil Gym and had had her sports bra freeze solid to her body. The situation had only been rectified with the help of concerned friends and a handy hair dryer. The men would tell this story with relish and then end it with a grimace at the thought of losing even one pair of breasts in a station already so under-populated by women. The few women at the table would simply shake their heads or cringe in imagined sympathy.

Such worries would quickly pass through my brain and then disappear as the cold began to dominate everything. I’d try to stand it as long as I could, a couple minutes at most, and then run, breathless, freezing, and flushed with excitement back into the warm safety of the galley. The ruthless, incapacitating power of the ice never failed to dazzle me, and I always wondered, as my skin tingled with seeping warmth and eyelash water melted down my cheeks, whether my breath was gone by the sheer magnificence of it all or if the wind had simply taken it away.

In that fashion, I continued my secret rendezvous with the ice. Until inevitably, after one such session outside, with my heart wide open and my face glowing at the thrill, I lost my heart to a McMurdo man whose large weathered hand just happened upon my shoulder on my way back in the door. The romance was ethereal and consuming, its ending worn and painful. It died as many Antarctic relationships do. It’s hard to bloom a flower in a frozen desert with no light. In its stead, a bond of ice formed between us, a connection grown in the dark, quiet chill of a wasteland that holds fast and doesn’t melt, despite anything else.

I romanced the ice that year with all that I was worth. From its clean, sharp face, I learned the harsh lessons that land on any mortal who thinks they are strong enough to try and take on the gods. Antarctica is its own deity: majestic, ruthless, and incapacitating in its beauty. The driest, coldest, windiest place on earth, it was not a place humankind was meant to tame, but perhaps catch a fleeting glimpse of radiance with one foot out the door.

Shackleton understood the peril and attraction of seduction: “Men go into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. For some, it is science. For others, it is the siren song of little voices calling them forth to adventure.” More than anyone, Shackleton knew the lyrics to the melody of snow and ice. He fought, bled, and endured the brilliant edges of chasms, blizzards, and hunger and brought his men home. Yet, despite his escape, the memory of his liaison with the south never let him go. After sacrificing everything to survive, he was buried on the doorstep of Antarctica still trying to make his way back. Restless and brooding, his heart never left Antarctic shores.

Photo credit: Chad Carpenter

The allure of the ice swallowed others, as well. Amundson never married, you know. After he dedicated his life to the pole – working to understand and survive and seemingly conquer it – he went back to his disputed glory and empty home and grieved. Without the vast, sparkling openness that held his heart, his comfortable house and city life paled in significance. He kept going back and back to whatever ice he could find before it finally claimed him and he disappeared. Disappeared like Lawrence Oates, who walked for the love of his comrades with his head held high into the arms of the storm, his final words, lips forming a smile reflected in the eyes of his friends who knew better, “I’m just going out and I may be some time.” Lost. Lost to the allure of the horizon, like Evans, Wilson, Mackintosh, and Hayward, cheerful Birdie Bowers, and so many more bruised hearts of spirits I cannot even name. Spencer Smith lies in an unmarked grave on the volcanic slopes of Minna Bluff, Vince’s cross marks the pinnacle of Hut Point, with Scott’s cross, shadowed by the moon, claiming precedence on Observation Hill. All this death, all this strength, all this love, and circling above it all, day and night as I stand staring up at the heavens in unbridled awe, the constellation of the Southern Cross rotates in an endless pattern across the continent.

How do I let go? Standing breathless in the dark, thrilled and love-struck at the pure, silent desolation. This love hurts. The crosses and spirits that surround me spell out the future of our relationship. Antarctica has never lied. Brutal and honest in her independence, she is cold, empty, gorgeous, unforgiving, and strong. She calls and she takes and she eats. She strips her lovers of the trappings of warmth, lays them bare so there is nothing left to face but the truth. It is glorious, though perhaps not wise, to love a storm.

I sighed, locked this last moment into my heart and turned to walk out of the night.

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