Death and Antarctica…and a Curious Case of Insufficient Insulation

I went for a walkies today, after too long going without. A combination of wind, blowing snow and not feeling great on previous days off had kept me inside for a long while, with the exception of short walks to the library.

Today, though, I knew I had to layer up and head out. It was nearly windless. The skies were cloudy, so no auroras, but there was enough moonlight filtering through to see and follow tracks in the snow.

I headed to my special spot, away from the station’s lights and low hum of generators, just to sit on a volcanic rock and think some deep thoughts.

Quite frankly, I’ve been in a craptacular mood for some time, fretting over a number of personal issues. My weaker side just wanted to cry but, as my tougher side reminded me, Antarctica is no place for tears. For one thing, they freeze your eyes shut instantly.

Much better it was (who am I now, Yoda?!) to hike up to my spot and stare at the vastness before me, the wide pale gray of the Ross Ice Shelf and, beyond it, the deeper gray of an indefinite horizon and low-hanging clouds.

There is no stillness like the stillness in Antarctica on a windless day (or night, as the case may be). Once you get out of town and away from the putter of motors and grinding of heavy machinery, there is a silence that I suspect is equaled only in outer space. There is no click and buzz of insects, no soft rustle of grass or creak of branch, no distant echo of a train clattering along tracks.

Almost immediately, enveloped by this stillness and staring at an empty, enormous icescape that stared back impassively, I felt myself shrinking. No, that was a good thing. I felt myself and all my worries and apprehensions were less than a speck in the massive silence.

Even my own mortality seemed inconsequential. It is an oddly comforting feeling, and one I could never hope to achieve in “the real world” of traffic and cell phones and color and noise and bustle.

I realized a while back that this is what I love most about Antarctica. I hesitated to post about it, worried that my ramblings might be misunderstood, so please know I mean this in a positive way. Antarctica strikes me as a kind of preview of death. The enormity of it, the sense of one’s own utter insignificance, the lack of so many of the features we associate with life: growing cycles, the laughter of children, the smell of flowers or sound of birds chirping. And yes, the stillness.

There are so many references in literature to staring into the void, confronting one’s own mortality, and so on. For years I had a big problem with death–surprising, I’m sure, to those of you who know my morbid nature. But in my teens and 20s I was plagued by panic attacks over it, a terribly embarrassing affliction when one is trying to cultivate a reputation for being a badass. I overcame them, eventually, through meditation, but the shadow of fear was always there.

It wasn’t until I came to Antarctica, and in particular my first winter, that the shadow faded to nothingness. I believe it’s because of those moments when I can get away to my special spot, sink into the stillness and allow myself to acknowledge my own mortality. When I stare into the void here, I see that it is not to be feared, that it has its own kind of beauty.

I sat in my special spot today for a long while, “Thinking Voyager II Type Things” as the Bob Geldof song goes:

Let me marvel in wonder and unfettered gaze
At the bigness and implausibility of being…
And I’m thinking big things
I’m thinking about mortality
I’m thinking it’s a cheap price that we pay for existence

Eventually, when the wind picked up a little and the spell of stillness was broken, I headed back to town, feeling okay about the metaphorical little, niggling stones in my shoe which, hours earlier, had felt like boulders crushing me. Well, except for the actual stone in my boot, a pointy scrap of volcanic rock that found its way right underneath a tender toe. I had to stop, take my boot off and let my naked toes dangle in the -20F breeze as I fished out the rock and threw it aside.

And then I continued on. Thank you, Antarctica.

A curious side note: I was dressed for the temperature in one of my Mountain Hardwear hoodies (I love my MH hoodies), thermal leggings, wind pants, fleece hoodie, Big Red parka, gaiter, glover liners and gloves.

On my feet I was wearing my bedroom slippers, with no socks.

Okay, my bedroom slippers are what I like to call my Fuggs, faux-Uggs, low shearling boots that are ridiculously comfortable and also incredibly warm when worn, counter-intuitively, without socks.

Only one part of me got shivery cold and, when I removed my layers after coming inside, was a splotchy white and red.

My thighs.

Never mind that I was wearing not one, not two but three layers of high-tech protective clothing over that area–I happen to have enough, ahem, natural insulation in that particular part to be mistaken for a Weddell Seal.

I am willing to let the big mysteries of life and death go unexplained. But someone needs to tell me how cold thighs happen in those circumstances.


2 thoughts on “Death and Antarctica…and a Curious Case of Insufficient Insulation

  1. Pingback: Great Moments in T3 | Stories That Are True

  2. Hmmm… Since a reasonable idea occurred to me, I was going to take a shot at proposing an answer to the mystery of cold thighs.
    I went on Wikipedia to double check my understanding of paradoxical undressing in many freezing victims. I learned there that living in a cold climate increases the risk for hypothermia. I do try to learn something every day.
    However, seems paradoxical undressing is a bit of a mystery itself. Among the theories, I didn’t see the explanation that I had been given.
    Without it, the notion that I was about to submit lacks support.
    Still, I will suggest that the pressure from sitting may have affected circulation.
    And in cases where it happens without the sitting… I got nothing.

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