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Essay: New Year's Eve at the Bottom of the World


Published December 23, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 30, 2015 at 9:18 a.m.

  • annelise capossela

New Year's Eve is always a bright and shining celebration, whether we're talking neon in New York's Times Square or a lap on cross-country skis beneath Antarctica's midnight sun. Actually, at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station — a collection of dormitories, laboratories, Quonset hut garages and massive telescopes hunched against drifting snow — the holiday is so relentlessly glittery you'd have to watch a ball drop through a pair of tinted goggles. That is, if there were a ball. As I found out a few winters ago, there's not.

There is instead a two-mile-thick ice cap upon which even extremophile bacteria can't survive and katabatic winds rushing over sastrugi wastelands. There are dozens of revving snowmobiles and more mugs of hot chocolate than a child's thirsty fantasy could absorb. There are 250 scientists and laborers from all across the globe, each in desperate need of a break from the never-ending workload that defines life in Antarctica.

And, on that note, there's one other thing: a crazy party. In the parlance of my high school days at Champlain Valley Union, we would call it "a friggin' rager."

I secured my passage to the Great White South — the bottom of the world — as any self-respecting Vermonter would: I took a job shoveling snow. Boy jeezum, talk about never ending. It was a four-month stint with the U.S. Antarctic Program, and only 10 of us were hired for this minimum-wage honor from more than a thousand applicants. My uncle, a pragmatic Yankee with an achy lumbar spine, laughed when he heard of my post-college career choice, saying, "That's what plows are for, aren't they?"

To which I responded, "Nah, it's what philosophy degrees are for, duh."

The endeavor was Sisyphean and then some: 60-hour weeks, physical exhaustion, a numbness of the toes that threatened to rise into my very brain cells. Nevertheless, I did find the occasional moment — mostly over meals of peas and sirloins in the galley — to pursue the intellectual topics that had drawn me to the Pole. My interest in Antarctica was environmental, sociological, anthropological. What's it like for humans to set up shop in the deadest place on Earth? How do the fierce elemental conditions permeate the community's social life? What stories do the members of this strange experiment share?

Antarctica is one huge exclamation mark, one huge superlative, anomalous in so many ways. According to the 53 signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty, established in 1959, the continent is reserved for the peaceful conduct of scientific research — no standing armies, no resource extraction, no ownership. In light of this wonderfully utopian, small-world-after-all nongovernment, I found myself repeatedly asking tablemates the same question: "Would you please pass the coffee, and, by the way, now that we're living together, I'm curious to know what holidays your culture and mine both observe?"

All agreed on the answer, whether offered by a Japanese dark-matter astrophysicist, a Swedish glaciologist-cum-surrealist poet or a Kiwi forklift operator with a staggeringly long and frosty beard: The world celebrates the countdown, the ticking clock, and big, fat drunken kiss. Gregorian calendar or not, the whole world celebrates New Year's Eve.

Sounds nice, right? But it gets tricky. Let's recall that the geographic South Pole is that spot on the globe where all lines of longitude converge — that pinprick in the frigid vastness that transcends the system of time zones superimposed on the physical reality of our planet.

Further complicating the search for an exact instant we might agree to label "January 1" is the pesky reality of high austral summer: 24-hour sunlight. Without paying close attention to your watch, which you would have last set in New Zealand, you might find the so-called New Year slipping by unnoticed, just another blinding white hour in the middle of a night that looks like day.

Polies are a resourceful and determined bunch, though, and mere metaphysical space-time confusion didn't stand in the way of our much-anticipated party. I drank a beer with Gus, the dogsledding Alaskan carpenter, and a wee dram of Irish whiskey with Terry, the depraved but kindhearted electrician's foreman. Then it was another beer with an Indian engineer whose name I didn't catch, then back to Terry, then to Jonas, then to Tomo and Laura and a woman I nicknamed Ice Panda Princess. After this, I made the decision to nip the binge drinking in the bud and head out for a solo ski.

Negative 30 degrees. A thousand miles of clean emptiness stretching in every direction. What better place to reflect on a year passed and a new one just beginning?

Well, it turned out that I didn't make it quite as far as I intended. Geared up and ready for solitude, for the ultimate blank slate and fresh start — "This year I resolve to up my compassion, boost my generosity and generally kick more ass!" — I skied over to the windowless tent salvaged from the Korean War that serves as the local dive bar and smoking lounge. Hoping to pat a few friends on the back, maybe knock down a quick shot of whatever was handy, I entered the hovel's cloudy, cancerous dimness. By 4 a.m., I was dancing shirtless in my Nordic boots.

When I finally extracted myself from the wreckage of that Antarctic bash, there was the sun, huge and constant as ever. With its unflinching Cyclopean glare, it seemed to accuse me of debauchery. I went for a half-hour ski, pushing hard into the sparkling nothingness, breathing heavily against my balaclava, trying to sweat out my sins. Sure, I fell over more than once, and, yeah, the track I laid was hardly straight. But somehow my personal messiness failed to mar the purity and perfection and beauty of the scene.

For a few vivid minutes, I felt myself a part of the polar clarity, a nameless snowflake, sibling to the infinite, child of the ice. Was it the booze at work? I'd like to think it was the place itself — Terra Antarctica, a far more primal and powerful substance to imbibe.

This year I'll usher in the New Year from the Northern Hemisphere, from good ol' Vermont, and, boy jeezum, there's no place I'd rather be. But that's not to say a part of me won't linger — won't always linger — in the frozen memories of a once-in-a-lifetime bacchanal at the bottom of the world.

So if you don't see me at First Night, shivering my butt alongside the Dancing Dragon Parade and the face-painted children, you'll know why. I'll be skiing laps in the snowy fields of Addison County, a rising moon filling in for my dropping mirror ball and midnight sun.

The idea isn't to re-create a past experience. It's to remember. To get out there in the wind, the same wind that rushes over the Pole and the entire world, the same wind that blows through all our years — past, present, future. To tip back a mini-bottle of something stiff. To salute the season and the cold. To recall that fleeting glimpse of limitless potential, of bright, shining openness, and keep on going forward, always forward into another lap.

And in case you were wondering: No, a hangover in Antarctica is not any different from one in Burlington or Rutland or Montpelier. This, too, is universal. We're in it together, friends.

Leath Tonino is a writer from the Champlain Valley. His journalism has appeared in Outside, his fiction in New England Review, and his poetry in Tricycle.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Party at the Bottom of the World"