Unsolved Mysteries: The Antarctic Stare

On May 8th, 1965, Carl Robert Disch put on his arctic gear and walked into the frozen tundra.

He didn’t falter. He didn’t hesitate. He purposefully trudged to his death and disappeared from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.

Rewind. America was invested in the Vietnam War; Doctor Zhivago had been released to North American audiences; the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Far away from the tumult of Counter-Culture America was a little place called Byrd Station, an isolated research base located 600 miles from the geographic South Pole.

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That winter, Byrd Station received a fresh team of researchers. Among them was Carl Robert Disch, a 26-year-old ionospheric physicist employed by Boulder Laboratories. He spent most of his time in the Radio Propagation Lab’s outbuilding, known as the Radio Noise Hut.

This facility was one mile northwest of Byrd Station’s central hub. Given its size, only two or three staff members could be in the RNH at any given time, which made trips back to the main base a necessity. A handline ran from the RNH to Byrd Station proper, to ensure that researchers could make their way back and forth during blizzards.

Carl Robert Disch Disappears

Carl was on station for several weeks, working long hours at the Radio Noise Hut and making pilgrimages to and from Byrd Station. In the early hours of May 8th, 1965, Disch was reported to leave the RNH in order to make his way back to the main base. That was the last time anyone ever saw him.

A mechanized team was organized and swept the area of the handline in search of the physicist. Just before noon, a set of footprints was discovered headed southwest, away from the station. The search party travelled a little over four miles, to the edge of the skiway, when they were forced to return to base and refuel. They headed out again and searched for another three hours with little to show for it. Winds and drifting snow had swept away the main set of tracks leading away from the handline. Eventually, even the vehicular tracks from the previous rescue attempt were lost to the weather. This complicated the trip back to Byrd Station and the search team barely returned at all. Another mechanized search party was organized and tasked with sweeping the entire camp perimeter and checking each facility location. Still they found nothing.

 One of the last photos ever taken of Disch.

One of the last photos ever taken of Disch.

To make matters worse, weather conditions continued to decline and prevented another vehicular excursion. It was then that all able-bodied staff members were ordered to form a human chain and search from the dump area to the end of the skiway. After this too resulted in failure, all personnel returned to base to wait out the incoming blizzard. Overnight, the base’s floodlights were activated and flares were periodically shot into the night sky.

Footprints with Purpose

The following day, May 9th, another search party was formed and headed in a straight line for eight miles. Every now and then these men would come across the odd footprint or two, but they continued on and on into the vast Antarctic wastes. To the search team’s surprise, Carl’s tracks made no sign of faltering or second-guessing. It was clear that Carl was not disoriented or lost in the slightest. For eight miles Disch had marched with headstrong determination, deeper and deeper into the unknown.

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With these revelations in mind, a grand search party was organized on May 10th, with two vehicles and enough fuel and supplies to last a week. They even took one of the Jamesway portable tents with them. They followed Disch’s previous course south for 12 miles, marking their way with flags as they went. No tracks were found. The search continued during the 11th, and searchers finally returned to Byrd Station on the evening of that day. On the 12th no sizeable expedition could be launched, as darkness and poor visibility plagued any and all operations.

With all their attempts frustrated, the staff at Byrd Station gave up on the 13th of May, 1968. Disch had left his post in full Antarctic gear but given the extreme temperatures and length of time that had passed, it was concluded he was deceased. Memorial services for Disch were hosted both at Byrd Station and in his hometown of Monroe.

What Happened to Carl Robert Disch?

It is here where fact ends and speculation begins. The disappearance of Carl Robert Disch is still a mystery almost 50 years later. That amount of time has allowed for all manner of conspiracy theories and embellishment. There are rumors of Disch’s sled dog running away from Byrd Station in search of his master on May 11th; other sources state this event occurred on the 10th. Another popular story is of a transmission received through the Antarctica AA2 weather circuit in 1971. It is said that Disch’s voice was heard delivering a melodramatic speech about his survival and how he tempted his sled dog to join him in seclusion. This is about as believable as the dozens of sources that state Byrd Station staff members reported strange lights in the sky and an abrupt stop to Disch’s tracks in the snow, as though he were lifted right into the air.

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The real mystery of Disch’s disappearance comes from the very true detail of his footprints. He wasn’t lost. The handline that linked his workplace to Byrd Station was at the base of the RNH’s ladder. There was no possible way Disch could have missed it; in fact, he walked directly away from it. Given his unfaltering stride, it’s unlikely that Disch was lost due to poor visibility. What could have made such a successful young man walk away, never to be seen again?

Winter-Over Syndrome and The Antarctic Stare

The likely answer might disappoint UFO fans, but is fascinating in its own right.

Antarctic winters are absolutely brutal. Record-breaking temperatures of -129 Fahrenheit have been recorded; skin chaps and beards freeze instantly upon stepping outside. The temperature necessitates close quarters.

Seeing the same co-workers over and over, day after day; being trapped in a place so inhospitable and isolated that it remains uninhabited in the modern era; analyzing the same ionospheric readings day in and day out, all for little in the way of compensation…who wouldn’t lose their mind under such circumstances?

This brings us to the ominous winter-over syndrome. The extreme conditions of the Antarctic winter can cause symptoms such as irritability, depression, insomnia, and cognitive impairment.

Even more disturbing is the related Polar T3 Syndrome. A drop in the thyroid hormone T3, often experienced by those who winter-over in the Antarctic, can cause mood disturbances, cognitive dysfunction, and a fugue state known as the Antarctic stare.

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In a dissociative fugue state, sufferers entirely forget who they are. They lose their memories, personality, and sense of self. This amnesia is often reversible, but only if the sufferer survives.

This brings us back to Disch. It’s possible that he entered a dissociative state which caused him to walk for miles, eyes glazed on the white horizon, to his inevitable demise.

Carl Disch was a respected member of his field; a field that was considered to be experimental and advanced in the 1960s. He was well liked by his colleagues and loved by his family, and his loss was truly heartbreaking, especially when one considers the specifics.

Without food or drinking water, he walked for miles on end in temperatures in excess of -44 degrees Fahrenheit…all at a time when satellite technology was still in its infancy, and at one of the farthest outposts of mankind. Disch vanished alone on the surface of Earth’s greatest desert.

River O. is a writer and history enthusiast with an interest in the obscure.