50 meters under

SOS Artic

The northernmost point we reached was N 65° 10’, and we certainly had a hard time of it. 

The day before, when we arrived at the U.S. base DYE3, we spent the whole afternoon reading weather forecasts and convincing ourselves that we would most likely not make it. 

Aeolus, I insist, is capricious, and if he knows that you have made the effort to picture your future one way, wham! He changes everything, just to keep you on your toes.

We followed the sun on its way to the horizon and as night fell, from the living quarters, my teammate Juanma and I heard cries of elation. We had been stuck in there all day, trying to survive the infernal field of sastrugi that was knocking us around inside the tent. Everything we kept inside the living quarter module, like gas, little by little conquered every inch of space and took over the whole interior, even burying us in the process, for hours on end... moving like a bowl of nuts shaken by a bar patron looking for cashews.

Dizzy, aching and tumbling over our scattered belongings, we managed to unzip the door and peer outside. There in the distance, silhouetted against a radiant sunset in the cloudless sky, was a small white ball. It was the first relief we had seen in almost a week and a half. 

The sensory deprivation had been so severe, the journey so grueling and the reward so sweet that tears came to our eyes. We had made it. Against all odds, against wind and... well, more wind, because there is no tide, we had finally arrived at the first destination on our journey.

The never-beginning tale had finally begun.

If the sled could drift we would have done a 360 right then and there, and if our pals in the piloting module had been a few years younger, they would have taken off their sunglasses, the CSI Miami theme song playing in the background with its famous “YEEAAAAAAAAH.” Horatio would have been proud.

However, there was an age difference and I think the scene only played out like that in my mind.

But that was the feeling. Excitement, pride, satisfaction and a strong, strong desire to explore, to finally give our brains a bath of stimuli.

We stopped the sled and immediately walked almost a kilometer to the base to get a closer look.

The small spherical dome I had spotted from the living quarters was actually about 15 meters tall.

But bear this in mind: those 15 meters were now the only visible part of a 40-plus-meter structure! The rest had been swallowed up by snow and ice since the base was abandoned in the early 1990s. Around the dome and the small walkway surrounding it, there was a gap, a toroid-shaped void making access rather difficult. In fact, without special equipment, it would have been utterly impossible for us to access the interior. 

After a brief survey of the surrounding snowdrifts and ledges, we decided that first thing the next morning we would go and explore the base. A moment of joy after the little scare when we saw how inaccessible it had become.

A short dinner, a good night’s rest, and the next day, off we went!

We rappelled down the ledges to the floor of the wide gap around the structure and climbed up to the narrow walkway. The dome is made up of triangular panels, and a couple of them near the floor were open hatches. 

Inside, the echo, the lack of wind, and the light filtering through the dome material created an atmosphere completely at odds with the blizzard outside. It gave a sense of spaciousness, ironically. 

A little bird, deceased who knows when, was perched on the narrow beams supporting the dome panels on the inside. We also found a couple of gas masks in another corner, which together with the little dead bird were beginning to give the place a rather forbidding atmosphere. Very video game-like. This is when the photo fever began.

Carefully descending a flight of icy stairs to the first underground level, we were greeted by what we have dubbed the Crystal Room. Countless icicles of all shapes and sizes fell motionless from the ceiling or jutted out from the ground, which was covered in snow that the wind had clearly blown in over the years. A real karst ice cave in the middle of the Arctic. 

Photos, photos, and more photos.

One level down, we entered the Kingdom of Carpet. Ah, the Americans and their love for carpets... No doubt we were on the right base. Photos, photos.

There were rooms of former workers, each as different from its neighbor as their occupants were in their day. Most of them had books, mainly science fiction, or magazines, especially Science and National Geographic. There were also completely empty rooms and others that had become seriously warped over time by their surrounding ice prison. Photos, photos.

Of course, one room was covered in adult posters. Oh yes, so cliché. Photos, photos. There were also used toilets, though we suppose by the few other people who might have visited this place after it was abandoned. 

All in all, a ramshackle place in extremely slow decay. The last thing to go will be the carpet, have no doubt.

Photos, photos.

There were no smells, of course, as it was too cold, nor was there dampness or mold of any kind. Just stains from when it was still operational. 

We wandered the halls and rooms endlessly, eager for adventure, throughout the whole second level. Equipped with our headlamps, we discovered the work room, the radar station, and the tea room (we assume), with low tables and the kind of reclining sofas that make it difficult to get up... Photos, photos, and more photos.

On the lower levels we found more rooms and as many chambers with different purposes. Then, on the last level, we came across the star of the show: a bar with a pool table and an open bottle of rum, of course. Photos, photos, photos, photos, photos...

Messages from other people who had been there were written on the walls, as well as a tally of the last game that had been played. The team members who drink alcohol took a sip of the rum. It was remarkably tasty, apparently. A game of Risk was open with all the pieces still in it (I can’t get over the fact that I found that board game on a U.S. Cold War base... way too meta). Plastic plants adorned the corners and there was chess, a ping-pong table, and a foosball table. It had it all!

Here, on the bottom level at less than -30°C we spent far more time than anywhere else on the base, recording videos (and yes, taking photos) and adding our message to the wall of memories that had been created there. We were the first to be there in 2022 and would probably be the last. It’s not like it’s an easy place to get to, after all.

After briefly checking out the food stores and fridges, the kitchen, and the dining room and collecting a few souvenirs, we made our way back up. My companion Carlos was determined to try everything edible we came across and there were doubts as to whether he would make it to the top before diarrhea set in.

(He didn’t end up getting diarrhea! Everything seems to have been super well preserved, for whatever reason...)

If it hadn’t been for the cold, which robbed us of body heat faster than I would have thought, we would have spent the morning and afternoon there. 

But at some point we had to return to our frozen, flat, white reality, back to the sensory void. Greeeaaat!

We retraced our steps and had some soup in the sled, chatting happily about what we had experienced that morning. Towards the end of the day we started to plan our return trip: we had passed the halfway point of the journey. 

We hoped to complete the second leg of the voyage in considerably less time than the first, but this was the trickiest part: the eastern side of the south dome is much closer to the coast than the western side, so we had to keep a precarious balance, walking the tightrope at the right altitude. Too far down and we would encounter very dangerous crevasses, as the glaciers on the east coast are very active. Too far up and the wind dies, leaving us back in a windless black hole. If we followed it, the wind would theoretically mold itself to the shape of the dome, swirling around the wall as it rounded out in the southern section. In short, with a northerly wind, we would supposedly make it back without a problem. That was the t h e o r y.



Author: Lucía Hortal

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