Last Journey To The Last Place On Earth

Times science writer Robert Lee Hotz's last article for the magazine, about his search for clues to his uncle's death during World War II, received the 2000 magazine writing award from the Society of Professional Journalists

I am standing at the South Pole. Starved for oxygen, giddy with altitude, I walked up from my quarters through a dark tunnel of snow into the light, into this boundless white.

Moving slowly toward me, two Danish skiers approach the end of a 745-mile trek from Antarctica's coast. Unaided, they crossed bleak ice for 55 days to embrace this moment.

With a flourish, Kristan Joos and Gregers Gjersoe together lay hands on the silver ball atop the ceremonial South Pole. They fall against each other for a long moment, too dehydrated to weep, too exultant and exhausted to stand alone.

*

Taking in the activity around them, the two Danes blink painfully, their eyes swollen to slits from weeks of glare.

Rising three stories into the sky is a roar of construction. A growing skeleton of girders and crossbeams for a new research station towers over them. Four cranes swing new steel into place. Men in hard hats and parkas cling to towers of scaffolding. Welders tack down joints in flurries of sparks. Backhoes busy themselves in alabaster drifts. Steam swirls from subterranean conduits, amid thickets of red and black safety flags.

"So," Gjersoe says in a voice hoarse from disuse, "you are building a new house?"

For 45 years, researchers have camped here. Now people are turning this homestead on the ice into a permanent colony, a community struggling at the limit of what the human body can endure and civilization can sustain.

As I watch the skiers, the century circles. This is how people first found this luminous spot at the world's end. They walked the ice like the maze on a cathedral floor, seeking the one true journey concealed in every labyrinth. It brought them here, where nothing can grow or survive except the spirit. In this crystalline light, humankind still finds its measure.

*

ATOP AN ICE SHEET TWO MILES THICK, CONSTRUCTION WORKERS at the world's most remote human outpost are rebuilding the U.S. South Pole Station, the unofficial scientific capital of Antarctica.

In the most ambitious engineering project undertaken here, the National Science Foundation, which oversees all U.S. operations in Antarctica, is dismantling its old polar complex and, in its place, erecting a larger, more energy-efficient, streamlined station.

For a generation, the blue geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott Station was the elegant symbol of America's commanding presence on the world's last open continent. Even as the South Pole grew in scientific importance, however, the aging outpost became an overcrowded, ramshackle warren. At the height of this past research season, 240 people were living at the South Pole in a station designed to support one-tenth that number.

Rising on steel columns above the ice, the new $150-million complex is the product of 40 engineering studies and a thousand computer simulations.

"We were quite concerned about what we would put there," says station architect Joseph Ferraro of the design firm Ferraro Choi and Associates in Honolulu. "The site is so unique. It is so pristine. It is almost a religious experience to go there. It is like designing something for the moon or Mars. It is the South Pole."

It is a building lot like no other, a desert of ice where the constant wind is cold enough to freeze-dry flesh. Each worker wears 35 pounds of cold-weather survival gear. Construction began three years ago and has four years to go.

The annual work plan is a spreadsheet formula matching six ski-equipped aircraft, eight air crews and thousands of construction items against the unpredictable variable of the polar weather. Temperatures can drop to minus 117 degrees, so far below the freezing point of hydraulic fluid that supply planes can only operate safely in the summer months between November and February. The airlift is operated by the 109th Wing of the New York Air National Guard, based in Scotia, N.Y.

In a circumpolar current, provisions and construction materials flow in a great circle from Port Hueneme, north of Los Angeles, to the South Pole and back again. Provisions and construction materials surge in September by sea and air from California. A flush of trash, table scraps, waste and construction debris returns in March by the ton, to be recycled, auctioned off or buried in local landfills.

In Antarctica, nothing stands still.

The snow imperceptibly shifts with each breath of wind. The ice sheet inches toward the sea. As the ice moves, surveyors must reposition the marker for the South Pole every year. The new station slides with the ice sheet closer to the Pole. In time they will merge, then leave each other behind.

It all happens at a glacial pace that mocks the rhythms of life, death and overtime.

Here people are building a home where no one truly belongs. They work three shifts a day, six days a week, in a labor of grace and renewal at the last place on Earth.

*

I AM IN A CHANGING ROOM. IT IS JANUARY IN NEW ZEALAND.

There are 26 of us, jet lagged and wide-eyed at 6 a.m. We put away the clothes we wore here this morning, with all of the other things we will no longer need for a season. Government-issue cold-weather gear is scattered across the concrete floor. In the predawn twilight, we don it, struggling with unfamiliar snaps, ties, zippers and toggles.

We came out of the world into this room in our own ways and for our own reasons. Here we shed our skin. We leave this place in single file, to be funneled south.

Today we fly to Antarctica. I will be traveling in construction class, strapped like a pallet of two-by-fours or a crate of frozen food in the cargo hold of a ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules air transport, the only cargo plane that can land in the snow at the bottom of the globe.

It is my third trip to the South Pole in 14 years. These journeys framed my middle years and lent them wonder. Here I found a compass that set all of my directions true. I am 50 now. The way into the white may not open for me again.

For this passage, I am issued extreme cold-weather gear at the Clothing Distribution Center of the U.S. Antarctic Program in Christchurch, a city that for a century has been the point of departure for expeditions to Antarctica. I travel under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.

Nailed to one wall of the changing room, like the hides of dead animals, are samples of each item of cold-weather gear that we are issued: three kinds of down parkas, three kinds of jackets, four kinds of field trousers, three kinds of hats, seven kinds of gloves, along with shatterproof snow goggles, gaiters, sweatpants, polar fleece warmers, expedition-weight tube socks and two kinds of boots.

We count it all and sign for it.

We are allowed two orange survival bags, no more. We stuff our lives into them and sling them over our shoulders.

As required, we all are wearing cold-weather survival gear for our flight. We are color-coded: red Teflon parkas for scientists, program managers and other NSF visitors; tan insulated overcoats for the construction crews; forest green parkas for those who will be stationed at the South Pole.

Climbing aboard the LC-130 at Christchurch Airport, I wedge myself into the red-webbed sling that passes for seating. The aircraft's four propeller engines cough in sequence to clear their throats, and then roar in chorus. I stuff yellow plugs of foam into my ears to drown out the noise. The heater in the hold is on high. The cramped hold smells of fuel and sweat and anticipation.

This is the eye of the needle.

Every tool, every meal, every article of clothing, every bolt, rivet and cable needed at the South Pole must at some point pass through these cargo bay doors.

The dimensions of this hold, 40 feet by 10 feet by 10 feet, have shaped every element of the design of the new South Pole Station. It is, says station architect Ferraro, like crafting a skyscraper so its parts can fit in a jewel box.

Between the wheel wells, there is just room enough for five standard construction pallets. For the new South Pole Station, 21 million pounds of material must move this way, ferried in 850 flights over five years.

Of 479 LC-130 flights scheduled to and around the continent of Antarctica this research season, 279 were intended to ferry construction materials, food and fuel to the South Pole. But the worst weather in 30 years has thrown everything off, pushing crews and machines up against their limits.

"Nothing goes exactly to plan," says South Pole project engineer John Rand. "This is Antarctica."

*

ON THIS JOURNEY IT TAKES THREE FLIGHTS TO GET SAFELY AIRBORNE.

Our plane taxis to the end of the runway. The rudder cable snaps. The ground crew works until 1 a.m. to make repairs.

We board again at dawn. The number of passengers has doubled. Even a minor delay backs up people and cargo all the way to Los Angeles. By New Year's Day, the Air National Guard had fallen 44 missions behind in its South Pole airlift. Hundreds of tons of materials needed at the Pole are overdue.

We take off. An engine breaks down. Through the porthole overlooking the wing, I watch its propeller feather to a stop. We make an emergency landing. The engine will take three hours to fix. We reclaim our gear and quickly board a second LC-130, leaving its original passengers and cargo to wait for the next day.

Within an hour, we are airborne again.

In January, every flight from Christchurch to Antarctica is a gamble with the weather. Every flight plan lists a point of safe return.

These ski-equipped aircraft can only carry enough fuel to fly one way from Christchurch to McMurdo, the main National Science Foundation station on the coast of Antarctica. At McMurdo, there is only the one snow runway, nowhere else to which a plane can be diverted, and no way to predict safe weather there more than a few hours in advance.

Halfway across the Southern Ocean, when there are four hours or so left in the journey and still fuel enough in the wing tanks to turn back to New Zealand, the LC-130 pilot must guess what the weather will be like when he finally reaches Antarctica. Boomerang flights, as they call them, are as common as second thoughts. Once past the point of safe return, there is no turning back.

Even on a calm day, clouds can turn the sky as white as the ice cap. The diffuse, milky light erases any shadows, removing definition, scale and perspective. The horizon line vanishes. Distance disappears. Three dimensions shrink to one. That is the condition they call a whiteout.

For a flier in a whiteout, the only landing option is what lead weather forecaster Ken Edele in McMurdo calls "a very controlled crash." He explains the procedure: "You descend until you hit the snow." There are other possibilities. During a whiteout in 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 flew straight into the side of a volcano near McMurdo. All 257 people aboard were killed.

Four hours after takeoff, we pass our point of safe return.

We touch down on the snow runway at McMurdo. A chill seeps into the darkened hold. The cargo door opens, the light spills in and we are born again into the white.

*

ANTARCTICA WAS THE PLANET'S LAST EMPTY QUARTER, THE UNKNOWABLE white at the end of Europe's expanding view of the world. Map makers labeled the blank at the bottom of their globes "terra australis incognito," or ignored it altogether.

Sailing off the edge of the map, the first explorers discovered a world in which the natural order of time and temperate climes was suspended, where the sun rises once a year, frost smokes and birds porpoise.

They found a region of ice. Antarctica contains three-quarters of the Earth's fresh water and holds it in 5.4-million square miles of interlocking glaciers and ice sheets. The ice melds sea and land into one seamless white fastness.

It glows with a light so dazzling that it blinds the unprotected eye. It is so heavy that the entire continent sags under its weight. In March, the ice blooms like a living thing, growing at 22 square miles a minute. In the largest seasonal event on the planet, every winter the Antarctic sea ice increases by 7.7 million square miles--an area twice the size of the United States--then draws back into itself in the spring.

The frost is so omnipresent that those who work in Antarctica rarely call the place by its proper name.

They simply call it The Ice.

It is the highest and windiest continent on earth. It is colder in parts than Mars and, for all its frozen water, drier than the Sahara. Until 1819, no human being had seen the continent itself. It was not until 1895 that anyone set foot on its mainland. Not until 1978 was the first child born here.

Darkness lingers for six months at a stretch. Temperatures can drop 65 degrees in 12 minutes and hover below minus 100 degrees for weeks on end. Winds can top 180 mph.

The early explorers walked into the white on boots of caribou hide laced with lamp wick and hauled their supplies on sledges of well-seasoned ash. In their exuberance, they named The Ice for themselves, their friends and patrons. But the place names they marked on their maps also echoed their uneasiness and dismay: Mount Terror. Mount Doom. Deception Glacier. Exposure Hill. Inaccessible Island. Inexpressible Island. Cape Desire became Cape Disappointment.

As the map of Antarctica acquired form and detail, the white lured people farther into the interior.

"It has always been our ambition," said British explorer Robert Falcon Scott when he first crossed the 80th parallel in 1902, "to get inside that white space, and now we are there the space can no longer be a blank; this compensates for a lot of trouble."

Yet the South Pole that they sought so avidly was a cartographer's conceit.

In truth, the geographic South Pole is simply a surveyor's marker. Here, the lines of longitude converge. Time zones intersect.

There are other South Poles, to be sure: the magnetic pole, the geomagnetic pole and the pole of relative inaccessibility. As much as anything, it was Scott's passion for this abstraction that elevated this place above them all. A navigator's grid cast like a net over the world became a benchmark for the measure of man.

The first person to reach the geographic South Pole, however, was Roald Amundsen, whose Norwegian team arrived on Dec. 14, 1911. Scott and his four companions got there a month later, on Jan. 17, 1912, to discover not the reward of priority they had endured so much to claim, but a letter from Amundsen.

The disheartened British team died on the homeward trek, overcome by some unknowable combination of dehydration, malnutrition, bad weather and disappointment.

After Scott's death, no one attempted to reach the Pole again until 1929. American explorer Richard E. Byrd Jr. flew over it and threw an American flag out the window as he circled.

It was 25 years before anyone visited the South Pole again.

On Oct. 31, 1956, a ski-equipped U.S. Navy R-4D aircraft landed. Construction of the first U.S. South Pole Station began a month later, and by February 1957 it was complete. An 18-man Navy crew spent the winter, and the South Pole has been continuously occupied by Americans ever since.

Every year, scientists come in greater numbers, drawn by the cleanest air and clearest skies in the world. With the proper instruments, the view reaches to the beginning of time and the sky glows with the residue of creation.

Since 1987, the annual migration of NSF scientists and contract workers flying to Antarctica has grown sixfold, to 3,500 people. The program's annual budget has doubled to $250 million. A list of this year's research projects fills a 271-page book.

Even as their numbers grow, members of the South Pole Station crew cherish the enforced isolation of the six-month winter and the bonds of community forged through the shared demands of survival.

In April, when the South Pole Station normally is marooned by cold, the National Science Foundation launched a risky air rescue mission to evacuate the station's ailing doctor. No one had ever reached the Pole safely so deep into winter.

The station crew listened with a mixture of relief and loss as they heard the aircraft engine draw near in the darkness. A life was saved. A sanctuary was breached.

"The plane landed, and the South Pole was changed forever," said station crew chief Jerry Macala.

*

STANDING AT HUT POINT, I WATCH A RUSSIAN ICEBREAKER CARRYING 90 tourists part a curtain of snow and bull through the thickest pack ice in a decade to reach the harbor at McMurdo, the farthest south that a ship can dock. Ships anchored in this inlet a century ago for the first English expedition into the white.

The men, women and children paying $900 a day for berths aboard the Academician Khlebnikov are among some 15,000 tourists expected to visit The Ice this year.

Earth's empty spaces are filling in.

Forest rangers in Yellowstone complain of migraines from the snowmobile fumes along wilderness trails. On any clear day in climbing season, 40 people reach the summit of Mt. Everest. The orbiting International Space Station hosted its first tourist--a California businessman who paid $20 million for the privilege--even before astronauts could finish building it.

Antarctica remains a place without national borders, passports or police. As a scientific preserve administered under an international treaty, it is a land that belongs to no one and to everyone. Anyone able to find their way here can journey to the South Pole.

This year, a half dozen tourist flights are expected to touch down here. A dozen expeditions are expected to attempt the journey overland.

When at last they arrive, some skateboard in the nude around the ceremonial pole. One group rode a hot-air balloon. Others pose for pictures in Halloween masks. They bag their trash and depart, leaving nothing behind but footprints in the snow.

Others haul causes heavier than any weight of food or shelter. They trek across the polar plateau for gender equality, for gay rights, for the handicapped, for the blind, for the ecology and clean air, for vainglory. They carry digital cameras, laptop computers and satellite phones, updating their Web sites as they move across The Ice.

Drawn like moths, they fling themselves into the light, and some of them die for it.

In 1997, six parachutists leaped from an aircraft over the South Pole. Three of them died when their chutes never opened. As best as investigators could tell, the jumpers had made little or no attempt to open their chutes. They were swallowed by the white.

"I felt like I was on an ocean that had been flash-frozen," Sue Giller told me one Sunday evening in McMurdo several years ago. She had skied across much of Antarctica in 1993 as part of the first team of women to reach the South Pole.

Each woman had hauled twice her own weight across the glassy ripples of ice. They had carried only 32 days' worth of food for a journey that stretched to 67 days. They wasted into themselves.

"It is a very desolate feeling to find yourself out there, thinking, 'Oh my God, I got what I wanted,' " Giller recalled. In the unending daylight and the silence of the snow, they lost their sense of time and distance traveled.

One day an aircraft passed overhead on its way to the Pole. It flew low and dropped a single rose. The scent of the bloom, she recalled, overpowered her.

"You enter a meditative state. I reached a place where there was no time. There was a motion of color and a connection to the land. I never felt that anywhere else."

*

IN MCMURDO, I SEE PIECES OF THE SOUTH POLE EVERYWHERE I LOOK.

Under a dusting of new snow, there are acres of crates, cartons and pallets sheathed in bubble wrap, all of it in temporary storage until it can be shuttled the 838 miles from McMurdo to the Pole.

In September and October, the blizzards were so fierce that even the weather forecasters risked losing their way. To get them safely to dinner, a search-and-rescue team had to guide them the 50 yards from their radar room to the galley. The snowfall in November broke a record set in 1971. For nine days straight not one plane could make it through.

"If you want to see the new South Pole Station, just walk around," says Brian Stone, the senior NSF representative in McMurdo. "It is here in pieces. Some assembly required."

Of the three U.S. bases in Antarctica, McMurdo is the largest, built on the black talus of an active volcano on an island in the ice. It is the mudroom and motor pool for a continent, an oily thumbprint on the cleanest place on earth. It is the way station for everything coming on and off The Ice.

McMurdo is the closest thing in Antarctica to an actual town.

With 90 weather-stained buildings clustered around a natural harbor, it is a community of purpose, like a deep-sea drilling rig or a mining camp. It is an airstrip, a helicopter base, a supply dump, a computer center and a repair shop. Fuel lines and water mains crisscross walkways of black ash almost at random. The dormitories are insulated like meat lockers, with refrigerator doors to keep the cold out.

It is home for seasonal workers who have no home address, only a storage unit in Denver or Los Angeles or Seattle. They return year after year for six months at a stretch, finding jobs with Raytheon Polar Services, which provides support staff to NSF, through what they call the "Ice connection." In McMurdo, they are prized for skills the world no longer holds so dear. Those who can keep a 30-year-old tractor in working trim or properly rope a crevasse are Antarctica's performance artists.

"I keep coming back because it has a special place in my heart: the space, the quiet, the special knowing of how far you are from home," says Kathy Ann Young as she repairs a Nansen sled. This woman from Bozeman, Mont., is in her fifth season and her fourth different assignment on The Ice.

"I like the remoteness," she says. "There is a special warm blue light."

On the polar plateau, the light is all-consuming. It flames in the sky and redoubles its radiance as it reflects from the mirror of the ice. Early explorers rubbed slivers of cocaine in their eyes to kill the pain of it. I have read of the light that people witness near death. I wonder if, when I am dying, the light I see will be as bright as the sun glowing through the ice of Antarctica.

*

THE SCIENTISTS COME WITH THEIR PURPOSE HONED TO AN EDGE IN fine print on a grant proposal. But many support staff are at odds with their official job assignments. There is the anthropologist who washes dishes, the lawyer who scrubs floors, the sculptor who handles electrical inventory, and the state social services director who cleans toilets. They take whatever work they can get in exchange for a season in Antarctica.

What they find in McMurdo is a telephone in every dorm room that can direct dial to the United States. There are 13 channels of cable television 24 hours a day, two radio stations and a base newsletter. There are banks of computer terminals for e-mail and Web surfing. There are second helpings, freshly baked cookies, six kinds of fruit juice and free ice cream.

"This is what a station on another planet would look like," says glaciologist Paul Mayewski. "You'd make it look as much inside like home as you could. You'd be wired electronically into everything. Then you'd step out the door and there would be no oxygen. It's like that here."

By January, they all have the Big Eye, the manic insomnia that comes when the constant sunlight overwinds the biological clock and disrupts the body's daily hormone cycles. Circadian rhythms flat line. Frustration and boredom build.

On the threshold of the world's last open continent, people get claustrophobic. They are trapped in McMurdo by jobs that were their only ticket south, while a few fly deeper into the white.

"McMurdo is not remote enough for some people," says Stone. "They want the real freeze-your-ass-off Antarctic experience."

They watch the helicopters circle overhead and then disappear across the sound. Seals bask by cracks in the ice. Penguins waddle along a snow road.

Near midnight on the sea ice, about 10 miles from McMurdo, a group in survival training unpacks an emergency shortwave radio. They gather around the microphone and, as the sun flirts with the horizon, sing the theme song from "The Brady Bunch."

A continent is listening.

*

ON THE FLIGHT DECK, I TRY TO KEEP MY BALANCE AS THE CARGO plane wheels in the air for its final approach to the South Pole.

The clouds above and snow below intertwine like curls of new wool. Pilot David Panzera, a captain in the 109th Air National Guard who has been flying in Antarctica since 1994, orders his crew to don oxygen masks for the landing, as regulations require, so they don't black out as we descend.

The polar plateau is so flat and featureless that it is easy to forget that the South Pole is higher than many mountain peaks. As the barometric pressure fluctuates, the altitude is the equivalent of 11,600 feet. Each breath holds only 60% of the oxygen in the air at sea level.

For people working here, altitude sickness is an occupational hazard. Eight people already were evacuated this season, when conditions became more than they could medically bear.

Through the cockpit window, the landing strip and tractor ways below look like the furrows left by fingers dragging in the snow.

In an effort that is as much reclamation as renovation, the National Science Foundation is attempting to restore the symmetry lost in recent years to polar urban sprawl.

By the time the project is completed in 2005, the entire site will be scoured of generations of junk. Already 750 tons of scrap and unneeded machinery have been cleared out and shipped to California. In years to come, all supplies will be kept in warehouses under the snow.

In its final form, the new station will be black and as sleek as an airplane wing. It will be longer than a football field and will contain 65,000 square feet of interior space. There will be 110 bedrooms, each one 64 square feet--about the size of the average prison cell.

For the first time, it will have picture windows. One wing will be dedicated to science. It will also house a gym, a greenhouse for fresh vegetables and a soundproof practice room for the rock bands that are a staple of after-hours entertainment at the Pole.

By elevating and streamlining the building, the designers hope to harness the nearly constant wind for snow removal, eliminating as much as possible the crushing drifts that have destroyed two previous polar stations here.

Even so, the drifts eventually will build up under the station. Then, the NSF plans to lift the entire station up on 100-ton hydraulic jacks, one full story at a time, as needed. It would take 18 people with 36 jacks working for a month to complete this process.

The engineers have taken other measures to control the cost of living at the South Pole.

To save on heating fuel that costs $15 a gallon by the time it gets here, the new station is being insulated to a value nearly five times that of the average U.S. residence.

Every available erg of waste heat from operating machinery will be used to warm living quarters. In all, it may save 150,000 gallons of fuel every year.

At the same time, the crews have installed 45 new fuel tanks, which will double the amount of storage capacity to 450,000 gallons while also reducing the risk of fire.

Earlier this year they finished a new underground garage and machine shop. In the last of $25-million safety upgrades, they installed a new power plant that can generate a megawatt of electricity.

Wastewater, which has been pumped directly into the icecap for 40 years, will now be recycled to flush toilets and fertilize indoor gardens.

The landmark blue dome of the Amundsen-Scott Station will be demolished in two years, cut up with chain saws and shipped to California.

"We were trying in our new design to put something there that stands proud off the surface," says architect Ferraro. "Something that is mankind standing on top of this site."

*

THE FIRST TIME CARLTON WALKER SAW THE NEW SOUTH POLE STATION it was a drawing on a cocktail napkin in a motel bar outside Denver.

Now, as its construction manager, he sits in a canvas hut on the icecap, trying to figure out how to finish the season's work before the sun sets in March.

Already, Walker worries that the season's weather delays will force them to revamp next year's work plan. The building supplies needed for the next phase of construction are still sitting in McMurdo. Another summer may come and go before the materials reach the South Pole.

"The key phrase this year is refuse to lose. And I refuse. I absolutely refuse," Walker says.

Since the weather cleared, the NSF has been launching flights to the Pole whenever air crews have been available. To handle the extra traffic, the fuel crews and cargo handlers at the station are working split shifts. Seventy people eat lunch at midnight.

"I think it is more intense," says Katy Jensen, who manages the South Pole complex in its busiest season. "Every year we demand more, and if we pull it off, the next year we add more. I don't want to push us to the point of failure.

"The main thing is to keep people from burning out. It is human nature to crank through it," says Jensen. "Well, maybe it is not human nature. It is the nature of people here."

Jerry Marty, the senior NSF official at the Pole, sits across the desk from her. Marty has worked in Antarctica since 1969. He helped build the South Pole dome in 1975 and now is overseeing its successor. He is a marathon runner who works 20-hour days. He is gathering his energy for a finishing kick.

The real demands are still ahead, he says. The NSF and Air National Guard are ending the season 29 missions short of their original schedule, leaving 377 tons of critical parts yet to be delivered. "The impact of all the missed flights isn't really going to catch up with us until next summer," Marty says. "Then it will be show time. We will be in a need-and-feed situation. Construction people will be standing around waiting for aircraft to deliver the parts they need."

Outside it is a breezy 49 degrees below zero.

Gathered around a heater are a dozen construction workers on a 15-minute break. They have been welding steel for a new satellite ground station. Its 27-foot receiving dish will allow researchers to relay their findings. In a place where the only true export is information, the demand for bandwidth is growing.

Their faces are burned red by the constant sun. Their eyes are weary from the glare. The grime has worn so deeply into their work clothes it seems part of the weave of the fabric.

The cold instantly ages the men and women. It wizens their skin like a dried apple and frosts the men's beards and mustaches with rime. It leaves them with cheeks that are unnaturally flushed from overexposure to ultraviolet radiation and eyelashes thick with icicles.

Muffled in heavy cold-weather gear, everyone is as clumsy as a newborn. Their fingers, thick with gloves, lose their sense of touch. In the cold, their thoughts congeal. Everything they handle has an unexpected fragility. Hammers shatter. Electrical cords freeze and fragment. Bolts snap. Even the simplest jobs take twice as long as in more temperate conditions, says construction worker Doug Forsythe.

"The pace is important," says welder Dave Carlson. "Not too fast, or you are sweating; not too slow, or you are freezing."

Through their fatigue and insomnia, they radiate pride in their work like the glow of a hot stove. All but overmatched by the weather, they have made their mark at the end of the world, in defiance of time and the elements that inevitably will engulf it.

They will be anxious to leave at the end of the season, then wistful to return.

"The thing is to build it here," Walker says. "Anywhere else, it is just a building. The challenge is to build it here."

*

I AM IN THE BACKWASH now, flying out of the South Pole with the waste barrels bound for California.

Wood, glass, lard, cardboard and construction debris gathered from dozens of recycling bins in McMurdo and the South Pole are shipped home to six companies around the state. Dishwater and urine are filtered at the Oxnard Waste Water Treatment Plant. Some 400,000 pounds of Antarctica's half-eaten whitefish, creamed peas and other leftovers will become California compost.

In the lexicon of Antarctica, all cargo moving off the continent is called "retrograde."

It is a word I rarely hear elsewhere. Astronomers use the term to describe a celestial body that starts moving backward along its orbit. My dictionary notes that it also means to fall into an inferior state, from grace of a kind.

I went so far into the daylight and stayed as long as I could in the white. If we can, we repeat certain journeys, each a voyage to something true in us, to all who will listen.

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