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Science: Life in the Deep Freeze

4 minute read

The winter sun still sulked below the northern horizon, but a few rays of light filtered across the Antarctic wastes. The sculptured sea of snow swept on forever. The date: Sept. 18, 1957. The temperature : —102.1 °F., the lowest official reading ever made on the face of the earth.

Out of a building smothered in snow climbed a husky figure in heavy arctic gear. Dr. Paul Siple. 49. leader of the U.S. encampment at the South Pole, made his way to a spot his group had picked as the exact locus of the earth’s bottom, the South Pole. There, he squinted into the wind and looked around. But he took no readings, noted no data. Siple was out for the sheer fun of standing on the pole in the record-breaking cold.

Survival Plus Success. Buoyed by such enthusiasm for his job, Polarman Siple pulled off one of the major U.S. contributions to the International Geophysical Year: he led 17 Navy and civilian specialists through one full year at the pole. Last week, back in Washington, Siple was picking up a trayful of scientific medals for his work. The data his team accumulated were still being processed, but the very fact that it brought back any data at all made the expedition a success. Said Siple: “We had been told privately that it would have been sufficient for that first winter if we had just managed to survive.”

No man knows more about surviving at the South Pole than Siple (TIME, Dec. 31, 1956), the obvious man to establish the first year-round colony in the world’s deep freeze. As a Sea Scout, he went to the Antarctic 29 years ago with Admiral Richard E. Byrd, has spent four winters there since. As it turned out, Siple’s buoyant personality proved as valuable as his scientific knowledge. He ran a surprisingly contented camp despite the little group’s isolation, and the wearing, jet-black night of winter that was four months long. Siple’s formula: work like hell most of the time; be pleasant to everyone all of the time.

Hi-Fi & Movies. By oldtime standards, the camp was a plush resort. Air-dropped supplies floated down regularly. There was plenty of room for everyone in the huts, which were connected by undersnow tunnels. The men ran movies three times a week, exulted in the talents of their cook. About once a week they talked by radiotelephone to their families. Occasionally, some of them got tired of hearing certain hi-fi records, took to hiding them around the camp (one victim: twangy Ballad Singer-Guitarist Burl Ives). But the men balked only once—when a stateside psychologist sent down a lengthy questionnaire probing each man’s attitude toward the others. On unanimous demand, the camp doctor tore up the questions.

Says Siple: “One reason for the normal life lived down there was that everyone was kept very, very busy, so much so that a few sometimes complained that there was too much to do and not enough leisure.” Another was the fact that the men quickly learned to trust their gear and the sound, weatherproofed construction of their quarters. They filled much of their time deep below the ice crust in the “snow mine,” where they dug out enough snow to provide water for weekly baths and other uses. Each man spent about eight hours a month in the mine (250 speedy steps down, 250 weary steps back), where the temperature stayed close to — 61°F. “This was the first expedition of this sort I have been on,” says Siple, “where a man could keep really clean and smell clean.”

While Siple and his crew were running out their year, a rival team of Russians abandoned plans to camp deep within the continent, settled instead for a more accessible site in the interior. Last week, as his relief crew settled down in the Antarctic, Polarman Siple was taking a quiet pride in beating the Russians: “They didn’t even reach their original site. Our station has been working for a year now.”

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