Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange & Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson
What a delightfully bizarre book, a memoir of the author's time working at McMurdo Station, U.S. science research facility. The overall theme is that it isn't the cold or the conditions that are the hardest to weather. The bureaucracy is what will drive you mad. "I have never heard of one returnee who finally quit because it's the world's highest, driest, coldest, or whatever. People leave because of the bullshit."
His awesomely entertaining anecdotes illustrate this over and over in such surreal fashion. Johnson kind of jumps all over the place, flipping back and forth between Antarctic history and contemporary. But it works, really brings into sharp focus the utter absurdity of some of the now-stuff that employees have to deal with.
This book is packed with a ton of morbid factoids, mostly about historical expeditions and physical and psychological symptoms/conditions of prolonged exposure to and/or residence in this climate.
On December 14, 1912, Antarctica explorers Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz stood at the edge of a 200-foot-deep crevasse in the ice.(65)
'We are in dire peril, Xavier.'
'Yes,' said Mertz, 'We shall have to eat the dogs.'
The third member of their expedition had just fallen into the crevasse - with most of their food. Their initial goal of surveying a 500-mile stretch of Adelie Land suddenly became impractical, and they set out for their base camp on the coast.
They fed their dogs with pieces of clothing until the dogs grew too weak, and then butchered one after another to feed the remaining dogs and themselves. They sawed the paws off with a knife and boiled them into soup, then took turns spooning out the brains and gnawing on the skulls, and frying the livers.
Unbeknownst to them, the dog livers contained toxic levels of Vitamin A. As a result, the men's flesh and hair began to litter the bottom of their tent at night. Pus-filled cracks opened on their faces. Their scrotums bled.
It was not long before Mertz went mad. He could no longer help pull the sledges and he would no longer eat. In his journal he wrote, 'I cannot eat of the dogs any longer.'
When Mawson tried to coax him to drink some 'Beef Tea,' Mertz screamed, 'It is of the dogs! They make me ill because I eat their flesh!'
Mawson put Mertz on the sledge, which he pulled on his hands and knees through the twinkling white brutality. In their tent Mertz howled gibberish and filled his pants with dysentery. On morning Mertz screamed at Mawson, 'Am I a man- or a dog? You think I have no courage because I cannot walk - but I show you, I show... ' and bit off part of his little finger and spat it onto the floor of the tent.
Before he died, Mertz screamed, 'Ears, ears! Earache!'
Mawson cleaned up. He was alone now and suffering from fingers black with frostbite, loose teeth, and snowblindness. The soles of his feet were falling off.
... the 'Winter-Over Syndrome,' the name for all staring, grunting, and absentmindedness from April or so, and which the Antarctican simply calls 'getting toasty,' or less frequently, 'T3.' The term, 'T3' comes from the change in T3 thyroid hormone levels triggered by prolonged exposure to cold and darkness, which reduces the body's activity so as to preserve energy. What this means is that in June or July your clothes get heavier and the air around your legs turns to mud.(168)
The study describes 'long-eye' or the 'Antarctic stare' as 'the occurrence of mild hypnotic states,' which have been observed in Antarctic expeditions as early as 1900. This is perhaps the spookiest of winter traits, when we leave off in the middle of our sentences to stare at the wall or ceiling. Thousands of half-sentences disappear into the void during winter, and the winter-over seldom tries to retrieve them. By July or August your story is finished, not when the narrative finds closure, but when you stop talking. Everyone seems to understand, and no one comments on the behavior.
The study also cites another study claiming that '... approximately 5% of winter-over personnel experience symptoms that fulfill DSM criteria for a psychiatric disorder and are severe enough to warrant clinical intervention.'
A great supplement (not a replacement) to the book is the website, Big Dead Place Dot Com. It is packed full of weirdness in the same flavor as the book. The intro section on the Winter Psyche Eval is priceless. Website has pictures too.