REVIEW: Cold: Three Winters at the South Pole by Wayne L. White
Winter owns most of the year at the South Pole, starting in mid-February and ending in early November. Total darkness lasts for months, temperatures can drop below -100 degrees Fahrenheit, and wind-chill can push temperatures to -140 degrees. At those temperatures a person not protected with specialized clothing and an understanding of how to wear it would be reduced to an icicle within minutes. Few people on the planet can say they know what it feels like to walk in the unworldly, frigid winter darkness at the South Pole, but Wayne L. White can—having walked several thousand miles and never missing a day outside during his stay, regardless of the conditions.
As the winter site manager of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, White was responsible for the selection, training, and health and safety of the forty-two- and forty-six-person crews. Motivated by the determination and bravery of historical pioneers such as Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton, White honed his leadership skills to guide a diverse group of experienced and talented craftsmen, scientists, and artisans through three winters, the longest term of any winter manager. Despite hardships, disasters, and watching helpless as a global pandemic unfolded far beyond their horizon, his crews prevailed.
In Cold White documents his time in these extreme elements and offers a unique perspective on the United States Antarctic Program at the South Pole.
Antarctica has always fascinated me. When I saw the arc of this book offered, I was happy to get the chance to read it. But it goes to show that I need to do a better job of actually reading the whole way through a blurb. I was looking for an experience more like the documentary “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” but quickly realized that wasn’t what the book was about.
In “Cold,” Wayne White opens by telling the story of his decades long background working around the world as a federal government contractor. He’s always been interested in the stories of explorers and over the years built up a collection of artifacts from Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton, among others. Seeing an advertisement for a job as the Winter Site Manager (WSM) for the South Pole station, he jumps at the chance to apply. This person is integral to the smooth and safe running of the station for the majority of the year when the fewest number of workers are there. Those who stay from mid February through the end of October are the “winterovers.”
Over the course of the book, the importance of the face-to-face interviews of people seeking these jobs, the teambuilding for the selected crew, the health checks (to try and prevent hiring anyone with a nagging or potential health problem that might lead to trying to evacuate that person during harsh conditions), the psychological tests (some people just aren’t a good fit for months of isolation), and making sure that hirees can (and, in some cases, actually will) do the job are shown.
White talks about the weather conditions, the darkness, the paucity of internet access, the problems past teams have had, how mechanical things can go wrong, and how teams can fracture due to incompatibilities, stress, the isolation, and depression. The way that Covid affected him and his crew during his last winter is poignant as, though they were isolated from it, they were also helpless as they watched the rising infection/death rates and worried about family and friends. All this stuff was interesting and what I came for.
What didn’t work so well for me were the (rather a lot of) bits about White discussing his leadership skills and style. If a reader wants an in-depth view of how to try and lead and motivate people working under difficult conditions for a long period of time – here it is. If you want more about Antarctica – this might not be for you. White also spends an inordinate amount of time discussing his cold weather gear selections and purchases as well as his exercise regimen. For someone actually going to Antarctica this could be a godsend but it’s dry for the average reader. There’s also a lot of repetition, some of which almost seemed cut and pasted from earlier segments of the book.
“Cold” had a lot of information but the presentation is rather clinical and, if I may use the word, cold. White is also a little off-putting as a person in his job (as he feels it best to maintain some distance between himself and mask his emotions from the other winterovers though he does emphasize that he is always approachable) and unfortunately this comes through in the book. C+