Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Absolute Zero

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Absolute Zero

Article excerpt

It's fine that I've lost visual contact with camp when it's -49 degrees out with thirty-five-knot winds. It's no big deal that I've lost sight of the flag line leading the way back, and that a hairline crack in my GPS has spidered its way through the protective covering, freezing its components. That the sun doesn't rise for another two weeks this far north, so that even if they do come looking for me in this weather, they probably won't be able to find me until I'm long dead. There was really no better way this could end.

What did I think was going to happen? That a taut, tiny gal like me squeaking in at just under 103 pounds (and dropping, no less-but hey, 128 with snow gear) would thrive at an arctic research station alone with three tough dudes and no other humans around for three hundred miles? That I would prevail against those odds?

By my calculations, Dirk should be navigating back on his snowmobile to camp by now to grab more flags and form a search party (of only two people, that is-not much of a party), but there's hardly anything they can do. Visibility's down to fifty feet with sheets of snow wafting up in a white wall, and though the weather was decent when we set out, it seems there's a windstorm brewing.

My snowmobile still works, but I must've nudged the handlebars one or two degrees off course so that I missed one of the flags, and now I can't find them at all. If I'd kept going, I'd almost certainly have veered off in the wrong direction, given that 359 of those 360 degrees aim toward empty space and only one points back to camp. So here I am, staying put like they drilled into us in training, twiddling my thumbs on the ice until either I'm found or I can't feel my thumbs anymore. Meanwhile, every instinct tells me to flee.

Dirk had the backup satellite phone, and my radio is busted. Machines, like humans, tend to succumb to the elements when it approaches -50 degrees. Out here we lull ourselves into this false sense of security with all of our redundancies, rehearsals, and safety procedures-spare batteries in our pockets to keep them warm, a snow pod survival shelter hitched up to the back of the snowmobile-but life gets mean anyway. The radio breaks, the top half of the fiberglass snow pod shears off at its rivets from the jostling and the cold. You are diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer only weeks before the expedition of a lifetime, a time which is no longer theoretical but increasingly finite, measureable, like the instrument readings you've just ventured out to collect for climate data, which half of the reading public won't even believe, and which has now stranded you in snow that is miles-deep.

I probably shouldn't have slept with Dirk last night, not because of the cervical cancer thing (which nobody knows about, by the way, and so what?-it isn't catching), but because now he'll feel responsible if they fail to rescue me and I freeze to death. Also because I'm married. Simon doesn't know about the diagnosis either-do you think he'd have let me come if he did?

There's a saying whenever something goes terrifically wrong here at Summit Station, Greenland, atop 10,500 feet of ice and nearly 300 miles from the nearest town, that whatever near-catastrophic thing has transpired-a pipe's just frozen and burst, a generator's broken down-at least we aren't in Antarctica. But even there, though the physical conditions can be technically more brutal, the permanent outposts are at least well-populated year-round. Here, in winter (which is now), the station's operated for months on end in perpetual twilight with a skeleton crew of exactly four. If that number of people were mentioned in a news headline as casualties in some natural disaster, it would elicit barely a collective shrug from humanity: too bad, good thing that it wasn't more.

There was supposed to be another woman here-they try not to maroon us out here on our own, and now there are enough of us in the field to make it work-but the gal broke her foot mountain climbing just before our session began, and they had to find someone qualified and experienced to take her place on practically no notice, and that person was inevitably a guy. …

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