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RUSSIA BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Revealing details on one of the world's most freshwater sources
March 11, 2012 * Alexander Yevstigneev, Special to the Ogoniok magazine
Polar explorers from Russia’s Antarctic station describe how they extracted water samples from the sub-glacial lake.
Generally, it isn’t allowed to fly to Vostok Station just for the sake of it. Russian expeditions either arrive to the Antarctic by sea, although this takes several months, or by plane from South Africa. There are only 10–12 of these special flights per year, and only during the three to four short months that the weather is good enough for the trip to be made
It takes five hours to get from the African heat to the polar cold. The airstrip at Novolazarevskaya Station, Russia’s gateway to the Antarctic, resembles a hostel or alpine campsite. There are huge tents, skis, backpacks, and flags upon flags from all over the world. Antarctic tourists constitute a club of a select few, like visitors to Mount Everest or space. It is the start and finish line of gutsy adventures. Some ride to the Pole on bicycle, and some run the Antarctic Marathon. Paul, an Englishman, paid a lot of money to get here and, judging from his burnt face and frostbitten lips, he has already gotten a taste of Antarctica.
“We reached the South Pole on skis. After all, this is the 100th anniversary of Amundsen and Scott first reaching it. It took us a month. Frankly, we were at our breaking point. But we made it. It was cool, a real adventure!”
Vostok is the coldest place on the entire continent, where extreme winds hold sway along with zero humidity and a lack of oxygen comparable to that at an altitude of 16,000 feet.
Russia does not have its own South Polar aircrafts. Within the continent, Russian polar explorers fly on Canadian airplanes, small Basler turbo-props. When the plane climbs to 16,000 feet, the pressure inside the cabin is the same as it is outside. Breathing is difficult––even in your sleep. Cheyne-Stokes syndrome sets in, which is when the body manages a deep breath with one out of every five. It’s important not to make any sudden, jerky movements. The crew recommends the passengers breathe oxygen “through a tube” but no one wants to be the first to show weakness.
The polar explorers who live at Vostok for months on end acclimatize; they say that within just a week, and a half their heads stop hurting, they stop vomiting, and the begin to be able to sleep. This is partially the reason there are only three permanent scientific bases deep in the Antarctic continent. At the South Pole, there are the American Amundsen-Scott base and the French-Italian base Concordia. And at the Pole of Cold, there’s Russia’s Vostok. For nine months a year, it is cut off from the outside world––completely. And that’s no exaggeration: planes can’t make their way through the constant storms. Ships get stuck in the ice. At Vostok, there is no stop valve, no red button. No matter what happens, there will be no outside help.
At Vostok Station, there is no time to talk about polar romantics. After two or, at the most three, hours, the plane has to depart. If it gets colder than -56, the plane cannot take off, even in windless weather. Skis won’t work. At this temperature, the snow freezes into tough, sandpaper-like grit.
What is Vostok? A white desert. Several buildings, antennas, and a drilling rig. Fifty years ago, the station looked different, a small village that has now gone completely beneath the snow. To get inside requires descending into a narrow, frozen labyrinth. It’s a sort of avenue, dug under the snow. In the niches of this ice corridor there is a bookcase, a bust of a legendary polar explorer, and a potable water supply––cubes of snow the size of a soccer ball. There is nowhere to get liquid water.
Russia Beyond The Headlines * Magazine