Nothing – not the extreme-weather training in the Colorado Rockies, not the four-hour plane ride over the Transantarctic Mountains nor the endless waves of ice that look like sand dunes – can prepare you for a first landing at the South Pole, says UNC Charlotte graduate Justin Marsh.
It was Nov. 1, late spring at the Pole, when the professional engineer arrived for a two-and-a-half-month assignment for the U.S. Antarctic Program. The LC-130 Hercules cargo plane, fitted with skis, shuddered to a stop on a sheet of ice two miles thick.
The temperature outside was 50 degrees below zero, the wind was howling and the Arctic atmosphere sucked oxygen out of the atmosphere. Marsh, 34, had to carry all his gear on his back from the plane to the bright yellow steps that led into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
“The first thing you notice is that your entire face freezes,” he recounted Wednesday. “Every single thing that you got for extreme weather doesn’t seem to work. You can’t breathe, you can’t see and you’re trying to struggle down the ski-way to the station. It was one of the most exhausting things I think I’ve ever done in my entire life. It felt like forever but it was probably about four minutes.”
But the body adjusts. By the time he left this month, Marsh was strolling around outside – briefly – in flip-flops, gym shorts and a light jacket.
The Wilmington native, a former Navy nuclear engineer, earned a UNCC degree in systems engineering in 2011 and a master’s of business administration in 2015. Seeking a “perfect escape and adventure for a bit” before beginning a new job in Atlanta, the Southerner headed to the southernmost place on Earth.
Marsh signed on as facilities engineer at the Amundsen-Scott station, run by the National Science Foundation, where his job was to “keep the power on, the water running and the waste flowing.” As part of a summer crew of about 150 people, ranging from those on short-term assignments to veterans who came back year after year for decades, Marsh lived in a spartan 10-by-12 room and was on round-the-clock call.
The Pole also has brilliant, 24-hour sunlight in summer. The station’s deck, out of the constant north wind and bathed in sunlight, could feel almost balmy.
“You get so used to it that you really have to watch yourself,” Marsh said. “I had a couple of times when my ear lobes froze, and that didn’t feel very good.”
He spent a lot of time outdoors for his job. That meant layering Carhartt bib overalls and jacket, military extreme-cold “bunny boots,” neck gaiters over his lips, nose and ears, a wool beanie and sunglasses over his indoor attire of thermal underwear, wool socks, flannel shirt and jeans.
“The only thing you really have to worry about is your breath, because as soon as your breath froze on your glasses you can’t see anymore,” he said.
Marsh was glad for the experience but happy to leave the Pole this month, as the 40-person winter crew began arriving. He landed back in Charlotte on a 2 a.m. flight last week, when it was 14 degrees and icy.
“The cold down South is a lot different from the cold in an Arctic condition,” he said. “Being from here, we have a lot of humidity and that wet cold really sucks it out of you. Down there the air is really dry and it’s different. In my opinion, it felt colder here than it did there.”