Vostok Station : An old, high altitude Russian station in East Antarctica that has the dubious record of recording the coldest temperature on Earth. Even by Antarctic standards it’s nothing more than a very primitive outpost. In the old days Russians would spend two full years on the ice and were paid well relative to Russian wages back home. They often had fuel shortages in the winter and were forced to shutdown parts of the station, forcing them to consolidate in limited buildings with enough heat to stay above freezing.
We went to Vostok to setup a temporary camp for the scientists and their areal radar surveys of the newly discovered subglacial lake. I went in with three others as a first wave put-in and we decided to locate diagonally across the ski-way to keep a level of separation from the Russians. One day, while we were building a small tent to store the supplies that would eventually be flown in by LC-130 Hercules, we heard a snowmobile approach. Two Russians arrived, and through their broken English, we learned that one was the station doctor who was self taught from the Afghanistan war. Just to make it all the more interesting, he has tons of gold teeth caps which would seem pretty uncomfortable in the cold.
Eventually, we went over to the Russian station and were welcomed in, they were all friendly and, needless to say, we drank vodka. The Russian station and crew all smell like tobacco, grease, and sweat—a unique smell that I could pick up years later when a Vostok Russian was nearby. Even though the Russians offered all three of us American's lunch, I was the only one to accept—I knew was the right gesture. After a lunch of warm, dehydrated milk broth with butter and noodles floating in it, I went into their old, worn out kitchen which was lined with stainless steel tables, walls, etc. On top of one of the tables was a whole frozen cow leg—fur and hoof included. It appeared like it was self serve carving station.
One of the unique environmental conditions at Vostok is very light winds due to the downward convection of atmospheric circulation in the region—this is an anomaly on Antarctica. For my team, this meant the freedom to build a tent camp without concerns of high winds and heavy snow accumulation and drifting. As a result, our final camp layout were tightly configured tents set perpendicular to one another.
My favorite memory from Vostok involved one of the two outhouses which we had placed next to each other. The construction was simple—melt a 12 foot deep hole and place the outhouse over it! No doubt being partially a result of the sub–zero terperatures, someone had a terrible episode and made mess of the toilet cowling that lead down into the frozen hole. I blamed (rightfully) a fellow field carpenter for the mess and we debated on who should clean it up before the scientists arrived. While we were discussing the situation, the third guy on our team and the one with the least amount of Antarctic experience took the initiative to clean the mess. He heated a large pot of water on the stove and walked past us to the outhouse. He opened the door, reached in and proceeded to pour the hot water down. Being it was around -30 F outside, when the hot water hit the hole, a massive steam cloud came errupted, billowing out and eventually engulfing the entire outhouse. We heard a scream and could only see two arms frantically reaching out from the steam cloud as he walked out of fumes hacking. It was hilarious, he said he could taste crap for days later.
While we were there, a Russian traverse team arrived to resupply the station. They start at their coastal station, Mirny, which was a hell of a trip up to Vostok and back. The traverse consists of old cold war ICBM tractors and a hodgepodge of even older tractors. When the traverse was on the horizon, a massive plum of diesel exhaust could be seen for miles. When we went over to meet them a few days later, we could see their clothing was covered in engine grease and grim since they were burning low grade fuel. The drivers would live in their cabs—even when in Vostok—and they were often fixing transmissions and replacing engines along the way. The crazy part is if they arrive in Mirny late on the return trip, their ride of the continent will sail without them and they will have to winter at Mirny until the ship arrives a year later.