NPF: FROZEN IN TIME

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 15th, 2013 by Ed

I've always been fascinated by the idea of traveling to strange places. This is odd given that the most exotic place I've been in 34 years is…England. Travel is the exclusive province of the rich, unless going to Orlando is one's idea of "travel." But I digress.

Since I read a Time-Life book about Robert Falcon Scott and the race for the South Pole as a child, going to Antarctica (which anyone with a spare $15,000 can do!) has been #1 on my list. Despite the fact that it is summer in the Southern hemisphere, the current temperature is -50 F (-46 C) at Amundsen-Scott right now. This is fascinating to me and I want to experience it even though it is likely horrifying because that is so cold my brain can't even comprehend what it would feel like. I've experienced the other extreme (120 F days in Arizona, or, even worse, 110 F days in places where humidity is a thing) and I did not find it to be that shocking. Yes, it was incredibly hot, but I've always lived in places where 100 F days happen annually and, frankly, 110-120 isn't that much more extreme.

In terms of cold, however, I don't think I've experienced anything colder than about -10 F. People have a tendency to wildly exaggerate how cold it is, especially in the Midwest where wind chills (an unreliable measure of…anything, really) are reported alongside temperatures. The fact that Tom Skilling says it "feels like" -35 F does not imply that the temperature actually got that low. When the South Pole says -50, they mean it.

What does that feel like? Is it painful? Does one end up with ice-filled nostrils? The best account I've ever read of the experience is in Going to Extremes by Nick Middleton, a very solid travel writer who decided to go to the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest places on Earth. It turns out that the coldest inhabited place is the godforsaken town of Oymyakon, Siberia, which once recorded a temperature of -90 F (-67 C). Vostok Station, Antarctica once recorded a staggering -129 F, but as it is hardly occupied the author discounts it. His narrative about the conditions in the town (and the habits of its 472 residents) is light reading and thoroughly enjoyable. Turns out they drink a lot of vodka to "keep warm."

It's probably ludicrous to want to travel long distances to suffer, but I still want to experience something like this once before I die…which might be very soon in those temperatures.