A Brief and Awkward Tour of the End of the Earth

Travel Stories: Jason Anthony was working as a U.S. Antarctic Program fuels operator when he was called to remote Vostok Station. It was a trip he would lie to take.

02.27.06 | 9:47 PM ET

imagePhoto by Jason Anthony

A man who’s warm cannot understand a man who’s freezing.
—Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich”

As I boarded a flight to Vostok Station, Antarctica, to deliver a dozen Russian men, some fuel, and two tons of frozen homefries, I found myself in an ethical crisis: Was it right for me to go? I worked at the time as a fuels operator, part of a crew that managed several million gallons of aviation diesel at McMurdo Station, the hub of the United States Antarctic Program, located 2,400 miles south of New Zealand on Ross Island. We fueled McMurdo’s helicopters and planes, we drove fuel trucks, and sometimes ran temporary fueling systems in remote camps. On this trip, I was to help with the transfer of much-needed fuel from the LC-130 Hercules into Vostok’s near-empty tanks.

On board, but still on the ground in McMurdo, I was told by our Air National Guard loadmaster that the mission was for cargo only, and would offload no fuel. Here I suffered my brief ethical quandary: Should I jump off the plane and go back to work in town, and so miss out on a very rare chance to see Vostok?

The loadmaster solved the crisis for me when, over the growing roar of the turboprop engines, he shouted a request: “We won’t deliver any fuel, but there’s a chance we’ll want you to help us take fuel from the Russians!” I looked at him as if he had told me he hoped to squeeze blood from a snowball. This crew was new to the Antarctic, and they were unclear on the situation at Vostok. Though I explained to him that we had neither the hardware nor the desire to suck up the dregs of Vostok’s dirty tanks, and that the Russians couldn’t afford to give it away, he remained unconvinced. He was the confused messenger for a confused message. Sensing my opportunity, I decided my duty lay in preventing the aircrew from damaging their engines with (unavailable) bad fuel. Nodding to the loadmaster, I quickly sat down, put in my earplugs, and buckled up for my little adventure.

So this trip was a lark right from the start, but a lark to a place that few humans have seen. It’s a trip I would lie to take.

A small research base huddled against the flat white icescape of the East Antarctic ice cap, Vostok is the farthest terrestrial outpost of an impoverished Russian empire. Occupied since 1957, Vostok is also the most isolated of Antarctic bases. Its few old buildings sit in the middle of the godforsaken polar plateau, near the South Geomagnetic Pole, at an elevation of 11,220 feet. It is as far away from the familiar you can go without leaving the planet.

Vostok (“East”) is also officially the coldest place on Earth, once reaching a ghastly winter temperature of -129F. Even now, just past midsummer, -20F would be a heat wave. Two dozen men work in the cold here each summer, while only a dozen stay for the brutal winter. Still bridging the gap between the old wood-and-canvas “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration and the digital age of modern occupation, the Russians at bitter Vostok contend with conditions long forgotten by other Antarctic workers.

No one visits Vostok. It doesn’t exist in the world traveler’s currency of guess-where-I-went. The odds that someone will find their way there to see it on their own are infinitesimal. No one will stumble onto this weathered colony or follow a guidebook to its doorstep.

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Jason Anthony's World Hum story, A Brief and Awkward Tour of the End of the Earth, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2007. His Antarctic essays and photographs are available at www.albedoimages.com. He teaches at the Deck House School in Edgecomb, Maine.

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