He remembers the whiteout conditions and men plagued by isolation and loneliness, but in the 11 months John was at the South Pole, he fell in love.
In the late 1970s, after returning from an eight-year stay in Australia, John ran a fish and chip shop in Methven with his wife Zelda, from Ashburton.
They returned to Australia after a few years where John, a carpenter by trade, carried out work on various mansions, including John Fairfax’s mansion, which now costs $70 million.
When Zelda became homesick, she returned to Ashburton to be closer to her family, and soon after John followed.
At that time, there was a call for able-bodied men willing to work on a cabin-building crew at Scott Base, Antarctica.
With nothing else planned, John thought he might as well apply and was interviewed.
“I remember coming back to Zelda after and saying, ‘I have no hope in hell,'” he said.
Nevertheless, he found himself at a defense force base in Tekapo with a group of other recruits who were undergoing a week-long training course designed to prepare them for life in Antarctica.
They performed first aid and emergency response drills, including how to get out of a crevasse.
Their mechanical and practical knowledge was tested, as well as their understanding of fire and static electricity hazards.
When it snowed, they were tasked with digging snow holes in which they then had to spend the night inside.
Everything has been designed to prepare them for life in Antarctica.
“And of course we had to have a full medical examination,” John said. “It was a long way to get you fired if you had a toothache.”
In October 1982, John, one of twelve men chosen from 1200 applicants, flew from Christchurch to Scott Base as part of the Scott Base Construction Team.
He would spend six months in this desolate environment, where people’s sanity and resilience were stretched to their limits. But John loved every minute.
He remembered feeling homesick, but he found peace of mind knowing that Zelda, his wife, was “tough” and had the support of her family to help with their children.
John traveled from Scott Base to Vanda Station, a research station in the Dry Valleys where he was tasked with building huts over a two-week period.
He ended up spending 50 days there and described the Dry Valleys as the toughest place he had ever encountered.
”It’s like a big river bed, made of rock and ice…extremely dry.”
It doesn’t rain in the Dry Valleys, but the wide ravines and inhospitable climate meant no shelter from the biting wind, which rips moisture from everything.
At one point, the weather conditions were so harsh that John and his crew were stuck in a tiny cabin for three days straight.
“It’s not forgiving,” he said of Antarctica.
But there, John learned to appreciate New Zealand’s wildlife and greenery, asking Zelda over the phone to water the lawns “every day”.
He got up close with penguins and seals, watched pods of orcas from Scott Base, and learned to understand the way of life in the Antarctic environment.
He also discovered an appreciation for social connections. ”There was no television or entertainment. All you had was the people around you,” John said. ”I learned that people are fascinating.”
Returning to New Zealand the following year, despite being rejected for a return job application, John received a call asking if he would be the supervisor of the 1983 Ciros Antarctica construction team to 1984.
He, alongside 34 other passengers, was flown from Christchurch to Williams Field near Scott Base.
John recalls the nerve-wracking moment when the plane passed the point of safe return (PSR), the point in the trip at which the plane used too much fuel to turn back. The pilot was forced to commit to the remainder of the eight-hour flight no matter what.
About 20 minutes after reaching the PSR, the pilot was informed that the weather conditions at the base had deteriorated significantly. The crew had no choice but to fly in the conditions that awaited them. John and the other passengers were seated in the hold.
It was a bumpy ride, he said, “We were handed out paper bags to vomit on.” After one person spat it out, “it started a chain reaction,” he said.
The aircraft landed without injury, although the pilot missed the runway by several miles due to whiteout conditions.
The crew was forced to hunker down in the plane and wait for conditions to clear. With the plane’s engine running to keep the heater and radio systems alive, it was not safe for anyone to leave. Not unless they want to risk stepping into a spinning propeller, John said.
A few hours later, when they finally left the plane, they formed a human chain to keep everyone safe.
“We couldn’t see our own shoulders,” John said. “It was like walking in cotton wool. ”
Although John had been through all of this the previous year, those arriving in Antarctica for the first time learned how much they would depend on their comrades for their physical and mental well-being.
Everyone was on a level playing field, John said. Titles have been stripped, even that of Prince Edward, the youngest son of the late Queen Elizabeth II who ventured to Antarctica in 1983.
“As soon as you landed on the ice, it was by first name,” John said. “You still had to show respect, but it was equal respect. ”
As a result, the friendships forged in Antarctica were ones that “would never die”, John said.
He and “the old Antarctica”, the men he has ventured with, try to get together once a year on the shortest day (in June) to reminisce and keep their special bond alive.
Their and John’s exploits have been documented in David L. Harrowfield’s new book If Only Walls Could Talk: Antarctic Huts with a Colorful Past, which tells the story of huts built in Antarctica that are still in use today.
The book came out just under 40 years after John’s first Antarctic experience as part of the Scott Base construction crew, and is a welcome commemoration for all involved.