Last year Darryn Schneider flew to Antarctica for what would be his 10th deployment. It was a straightforward four-month summer stay, but these days, trips to the pole are bittersweet for him. The old Dome that he called home for a cumulative two years of his life has since been repurposed as vehicle and refuse storage. The South Pole he remembers has all but disappeared.
January 2008 was the ceremonial opening of Amundsen-Scott's third and latest incarnation, a striking outcrop of steel and glass, perched on stilts 12 feet above the ice. It's three and a half times the size of the Dome, which is now nearly buried under 34 years' worth of spindrift. The new 65,000-square-foot facility cost $150 million to build and required nearly a thousand cargo planes full of materials. It's an engineering achievement: Its stilts can be jacked up as snow accumulates below the structure, and the two units of the main building can move independently as the ice shifts in different directions beneath their feet. It towers above the old Dome like an enormous gravestone.
These days Schneider finds himself wandering its cavernous hallways feeling a bit lost. Even though he has spent four seasons at the new base, which became partially operational in 2004, he misses the "old pole" and the old way of doing things. "One of the observatories where Rodney and I worked was just shut down last month," he said earlier this year, while still on base. "Rodney's death also had an influence on getting rid of the old biomed facility, but the real turning point was when they finally got rid of the bar. The NSF did not like the culture of 90 South." A new bar was built, but after it became illegal to smoke in a government building, it was converted into a TV lounge. "This was a place that was supposed to replace the old 90 South, and now it's a place where people do Pilates," Schneider says. There's no more moonshine still either. The NSF hauled it out onto the open ice and made a show of running it over with a tractor.
Schneider says things have been slowly changing for a decade now, and old-school Polies like him are an endangered species. He was puzzled by the introduction of a follow-up psych test, mostly dealing with addiction and mostly handed to those who spent time in 90 South. He also began to notice that fellow veterans were no longer being asked back in favor of more rule-abiding new blood.
"The government just underestimates the importance of the culture," Schneider says. "It's strange; you would think they would keep some of these old-timers around because of their institutional knowledge. Tradition used to mean a lot down there."
Despite the changes, there's one tradition Schneider refuses to let die: a living memory of his good friend Rodney Marks. After the winter crew of 2000 buried him in the ice, they planted an Australian flag over his grave, a temporary marker to help them find the casket again at the end of the season. When his body was flown back to Christchurch, a flag was all that remained at the South Pole to mark the tragedy. Schneider decided it should stay. Since then, each time he returns to Amundsen-Scott he removes the old, brittle, sun-baked piece of cloth and replaces it with a new one. For nearly 10 years now, he and three of Marks's other close friends have acted as unofficial stewards, making sure there's always a Commonwealth Star waving at Marks's last resting place in Antarctica.
"The NSF hates it and continually fights to get rid of it," says Schneider. "I guess they don't want there to be a reminder of the incident. But I want that flag there, and Rodney's family likes the fact that that point in the ice is marked. The fact that the flag moves farther away from the base each year, as the ice moves, is a very graphic reminder of the passage of time since this terrible event in our lives. At some point it might die, but the ephemeral nature of it makes it a powerful memorial."
With or without the flag, it's doubtful anyone will ever forget the curious death of the South Pole scientist in the winter of 2000. One crew member's blog from 2006 says it's now lore that the fuel arches are haunted by Marks's ghost; as recently as 2004, Schneider overheard some Polies who never even knew Marks talking about his "murder." "People love putting rumors out there, and South Pole stories become mythical," he says.
Ultimately, Rodney Marks may have simply slipped through the cracks – disowned by the NSF for the sake of its reputation; overlooked by his native Australia; left to rest in peace without resolution by a coroner and a detective exhausted by an eight-year battle with the NSF; nothing more than a stark reminder to his fellow Polies that at the South Pole, shit happens.
Polies have a saying: "What happens on the ice stays on the ice," and, to them, to try to help outsiders understand what life is like there is an antithesis to why one goes there in the first place. Perhaps Rodney Marks himself would be perfectly happy remaining one of the South Pole's great enduring mysteries.