Frozen Solid A Novel - By James Tabor


SETTING UP ITS FINAL APPROACH, THE C-130 PITCHED NOSE DOWN and snapped into a thirty-degree bank, giving Hallie Leland a sudden view of what lay below. It was the second Monday in February at the South Pole, just past noon and dark. Two streaks of light, thin and red as fresh incisions, defined the runway. Half a mile distant, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station appeared to float in a glowing pool. The air here was clear as polished glass, red and white and gold lights sparkling jewel-sharp a full mile below.

“Pilot having a bad day?” Hallie yelled at the loadmaster, the only other passenger. Glum and silent, he had spent the flight reading an old issue of People magazine. The peace had been unexpected and much appreciated. She’d been traveling for four straight days and nights, and her need for sleep was like a desperate thirst. But the aircraft was designed for cargo, not comfort. Her seat was nylon webbing that hung, hammock-like, along the entire length of the fuselage, and four roaring engines made seeking sleep like trying to doze behind a waterfall. So for most of the flight’s three hours she’d alternately revisited the bad parting from Wil Bowman at Dulles and tried to visualize diving a subglacial lake with twenty-two-degree water—her primary reason for coming here.

“Just a little fun.” A bit more cheer in the loadmaster’s voice. “It gets boring, flying McMurdo to Pole and back. Plus, if he goes in, there’s just them up front and us two back here. Know what I mean?”

She wasn’t sure she did. But she was watching, down on the ice, a clump of white light break into jittering pinpoints. “What’s that?”

“There’s a Polie saying: ‘Two best days of your life are the one you fly in and the one you fly out.’ Lot of happy flyouts down there.” He peered at her. “We don’t usually get incomers this late. You a winterover?”

“Looks like you’ll be full heading back to McMurdo.”

“Tell me about it.”

“You don’t sound happy.”

“Most’ll be drunk before they get on. Always a lot of throwing up and fistfights and such.”

“Drunk? It’s noon.”

He looked at her. “First time down here?”

The cowboy up front could fly, Hallie gave him that. She barely felt the Herc’s steel skis kiss the ice, no easy trick with sixty tons in the scant air of thirteen thousand feet. The plane taxied, stopped, lowered its cargo ramp. She paused at the top to don a face mask and pull up her fur-trimmed hood.

“I wouldn’t linger, ma’am. They’ll run you right over.” Beside her, the loadmaster gestured toward the mob down on the ice.

“Sorry. You don’t see that every day, though,” she said, looking up at the southern lights, unfurling like green and purple pennants across the black sky.

He frowned, hunched his shoulders. “Not supposed to look that way at noon.”

On the ice, a wall of bodies in black parkas blocked her way, faces hidden behind fur ruffs, headlamps on top, fog of liquor breath. The pack shuffled and stamped like horses at her family’s farm in Charlottesville.

“Coming through, please,” Hallie called.

“… come through you,” somebody slurred, and a few people laughed, but nobody moved. She walked around them. The loadmaster yelled, “Board!” and jumped aside like a man dodging traffic. Eventually, he dragged her two orange duffel bags down onto the ice.

“Welcome to hell froze over, ma’am. Enjoy your stay!” the loadmaster exclaimed. It was the first time she had heard anything resembling good cheer in his voice.

“How come you’re happy now?” she yelled.

“Ma’am, ’cause I’m flying outta here.”

She watched the plane claw its way back into the thin air, turn toward McMurdo, and then she was alone on the ice. She had never been in a place that looked and felt so hard. The sky shone like a dome of polished onyx etched with the white flecks of stars. The ice could have been purple marble, scalloped into sastrugi. The wind was blowing twenty miles an hour, mild for the Pole, where a thousand-mile fetch delivered hurricane winds all too often.

A digital thermometer hanging from one zipper pull read sixty-eight degrees below zero. The windchill dropped that to about one hundred below. She had heard firefighters describe fire as a living, hungry thing. This cold was like that, seeping through her seven layers of clothing, attacking seams and zipper tracks and spots of thin insulation. The exposed skin on her face felt as if it had been touched with lit cigarettes.

It occurred to her that