Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Que Sera Sera

I think today may be the day we actually get to leave South Pole. We have 4 flights scheduled for today and this morning, the temperature is -49.4C (-56.9F), which is just under the required minimum temp for the LC-130s to land here. To open the station 10 days late is not the record (12 days late in 1998) but for those of us who thought we'd leave a week ago, it's long enough.

Coincidentally, today marks the 50th anniversary of the very first flight here at South Pole, in a modified DC-3 similar to the Basler that came through here a week and a half ago. The first plane, the Que Sera Sera piloted by Gus Shinn, landed here on Oct 31, 1956 at 8:34pm. It stayed on the ground for only 49 minutes before laboriously taking off again, but helped launch a new era of human habitation at the bottom of the world.

And so on this historic day, I hope we make our own history 50 years later and fly away from this frozen world, looking back at the endless ice plateau as Mr. Shinn must have done with wonder and awe. I still feel amazement at this place and am still captivated by the vast emptiness, the auroras, the crunch of the snow as you walk around. I hope to never lose that feeling, despite whatever people and politics pollute the environment here. It's still a special place that holds a certain magic for me, which is a good thing since I'm coming back for a 4th winter in January.

I'm gambling again by signing off from South Pole and hope to write the next post from some internet cafe in Christchurch or Sydney or Bangkok or beyond.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Full circle

It's now been 9 days since our scheduled station opening day and we still don't have a plane. On Saturday, the best weather we've had so far, they cancelled our flights before I even did the radio check-in a little before 7am. The reason: "mechanical problems" for BOTH planes scheduled to fly here. It also coincided with the night of the biggest party in McMurdo, the legendary Halloween party and apparently the Air Guard boys don't like to miss that one. See Brien's cynical interpretation of that one in Vicavag.

With this delay, my time on the ice is coming full circle. I flew down to Antarctica for the very first time in October 2002. I was the greenest of green FNGs, bursting with excited enthusiasm at this once in a lifetime opportunity (little did I know back then). I was in the second wave of people to swarm in and after they got their first plane in and opened the station, the weather got socked in at McMurdo, then Pole, then McMurdo, etc. In the end, we were stuck there for 10 days, getting up early each morning and reporting to the MCC to check in for the flight, sometimes getting transported out to the runway, only to head back after waiting for several hours of delays until they cancelled the flight. My group managed to make 2 attempts to fly here but ended up boomeranging both times. One of the biggest disappointments has to be returning to McMurdo after you thought you've escaped.

Meanwhile, there were some very toasty winterovers who were more than ready to leave South Pole and were also stuck there for longer than they wanted. I suppose that they, like us, made the most of the situation. But after one of our boomerangs actually flew over the station, then turned around and headed back because they couldn't land, those disbelieving toasty winterovers got their frustrations out.

They made an impressive LC-130 pinata, complete with old CDs for the turning props.

Photos courtesy Robert Schwarz

They all took turns trying to bash the hell out of it at a Halloween party out at Summer Camp lounge but found that the duct tape was a little too sturdy. They ended up taking a chain saw to it before they finally got their revenge on that damn plane that wouldn't land.

I know exactly how they were feeling 4 years ago because that's exactly how we're all feeling right now. How do you make a pinata of the weather?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Top 10 Reasons Why We REALLY Need a Plane

#10: We were reduced to watching "Born Free" on beta the other night.

#9: We'd really rather not be here for another Monday morning safety meeting. Bill's next topic: Suicide Prevention.

#8: The last candy bar, and it's left over from last winter.

#7: Jack Bauer is being held on a container ship bound for China and he desperately needs our help!

#6: Denis finished his igloo and is now looking to add a boudoir to the heavy shop.

#5: Don and Jeff are tired of zombies cluttering up their Met office asking about the weather.

#4: As much as we'd like to wait out the Bush administration fiasco hiding down here, we'd rather just go work on our tans right now.

#3: If we get any paler, the New Zealand Ministry of Health will quarantine us upon arrival.

#2: The best rumor making the rounds: we have only 8 days of fuel left.

And the #1 reason: Just get the &$%@# plane down here, damn it!

Feel free to leave your own reason in the comments below!

Friday, October 27, 2006

My Blahhhg

Yep. Still here.

We sit atop an ice plateau that is 2 miles thick, an endless supply of frozen water. The challenge is turning it into something that we can drink. We have something called a Rodwell, a hole bored into the ice and a spray of warmer water melts it as it goes down then we pump it out and drink it or flush it or shower twice a week. It gets deeper and deeper and last week we just passed the 500 foot depth for this well.

A consultant for the program named John Rand sent us this fun graph:

(click on graph to enlarge)

Using ice core data from Tony Gow, collected in 1981-82, which dated the ice based on the depth, Mr. Rand correlated the depth of our well water with the age of the ice in terms of historical events. At 500 feet down, the ice that we're melting to drink today fell as snow in Antarctica during the time of the fall of the Roman Empire in 550 AD. That beats the 14 year old haddock.

So we're still waiting around, 6 days after our scheduled station opening day. We've got a warming trend going on but whether or not we'll warm up enough for a plane later tonight is sketchy. It's currently -53.4C (-64.F). Stay tuned...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The southern-most gym

Let's not talk about the weather.

How about a tour of our new gym? The mezzanine workout area was completed at the beginning of this winter and it's quite a nice little facility.

We have brand new treadmills, spinning bikes, a Cybex universal-type weight machine plus our older but still good equipment. And there's a big flat screen tv for watching movies while you run.

It's at the end of the station on the second level and overlooks the gym, which isn't quite complete but recently had the new colorful flooring installed. The walls have blue pads for people to crash into going for rebounds.

Here is an action shot of Robert, Craig and Denis playing. Johan is just out of the picture, of course.

And a big goofy grin from Robert.

Just kidding!

Ha ha. We're still here.

Turns out that the Basler also has temperature limits and can't fly colder than -55C. We stayed at -58C all morning. The bright side is that they delayed the offdeck only a couple of times before finally just telling us, "Forget it - it just ain't happening today" and then we were able get on with our lives. I don't mind delays because you just have to accept that it's going to be the norm. What can turn frustrating is having hope dashed time after time, but if you don't really expect to get out of here, you don't have any hope to be crushed. My God, that sounded pathetic.

OK, it's really not that bad. I'm listening to the weather guys Don and Jeff and they're saying, "Look. It's not going to be warm enough for at least another 48 hours. Period." That tells me to not expect to go anywhere for a couple of days. So when we get the daily fixed wing schedule from McMurdo and it lists FOUR LC-130 flights to South Pole for today, I know I'm still eating dinner here in the galley tonight because it's -56.4C (-69.5F) and Don says it's not warming up today.

Another positive side of this: the 14 of us who thought we were leaving yesterday, actually got our rooms cleaned up and packed. And after the flight was cancelled, we pretty much got the day off because there was no way anyone was going to be productive. I slept through 2 movies in the lounge in the afternoon. That's a good day.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Outa here...maybe

Temps are a bit warmer but still not really warm enough (-58.7C/ -73.7F) for the LC-130s so a new plan was announced suddenly late last night - they're going to send the Basler DC-3 back here with 18 summer folks to do a mini station opening and send 14 folks out. I'm one of those lucky pax since my replacement was the PA last summer and he won't need much turnover from me.

The plane is scheduled to offdeck at 0800 and arrive here at 1200. Since it's a small plane, they're limiting weight to 320lbs per person, which includes the person. At least 5 people came up to me last night joking that I won't be close to that limit so they're planning on using my leftover allotment. Hey, I should charge a buck a pound!

So if you don't see any posts on this blog for a few days, that means that I did indeed get out of here and am either stuck in McMurdo or am in Christchurch, enjoying a nice stroll in the Botanical Gardens, walking around outside NOT wearing 20 pounds of clothing and probably forgetting that I have to pay for food again. I'll keep you posted from the road.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The wrong direction

Look at that:

We're gettting colder instead of warmer. The plane didn't come on Saturday or Sunday or today Monday. The weather guys Don and Jeff say their models are looking like these colds temps aren't going away anytime soon, so all we can do is go about our usual business.

It's worth mentioning that Station Opening day used to be later, Oct 25, and only in the past few years has it been pushed earlier and earlier. Don has weather records from over the years showing that the trends from previous years usually don't show temps warm enough until around the 25th so no one should be too surprised that we're still too cold at this time.

It's lunchtime and I'm taking a break from a busy morning - doing the flight following in Comms (we have a C-17 en route from CHC to MCM and a C-130 hoping to offdeck at 1515), doing the Operations timecards for the last time, stitching up someone's head and doing the paperwork, trying to answer emails, etc. I think it will still be a few days before I post from somewhere where the temperature is above zero.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The view from above

Might as well make the most of the situation. Since bad weather at McMurdo is keeping the Twin Otter here, they ended up doing an aeriel photo mission of the station last night. At the beginning and end of summer, these aerial photos are taken to help evaluate the snow drifting around the station and just to have overhead shots of the structures.

Here are some photos by Robert Schwarz: an overview of most of the station - Dome in the left lower corner, Elevated Station in the foreground, Summer Camp in the middle, berms in the back and the Marisat satellite dish in the very back.

The Elevated Station, halfway dressed.

A beauty of a shot - Robert asked the pilot to do a spiral over the Dome and his wish was granted.

The Dark Sector Lab where Denis works on the BICEP telescope. You can see his igloo just to the right of the building. The bump to the upper left is Old Pole Station, long buried now.

Another shot of Marisat and the berms.

I was doing the radio comms in the SOC so I got some photos from the windows as they flew overhead.

They're heading out for another photo mission this morning. I'm sitting in the SOC again, the plane got warmed up by the Herman Nelson heaters and is heading over to the fuel pit now. I'm just going to enjoy the show from the windows.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Minus 2, plus 3

It's October 21, our scheduled station opening day, but we're not going to get a plane full of people in today. Our temps are still a bit too cold for the LC-130s to land, although it toyed with us by reaching -50.4C but is now back down to -57C. Doesn't really matter though - McMurdo is having some pretty crappy weather with earlier winds of 50kts, lots of blowing snow the planes could not have taken off in that kind of weather even if our temps had stayed "warm".

Yesterday we had some excitement with the arrival of a Twin Otter and Basler DC-3. They're just passing through on their way from Rothera station to McMurdo. The Basler landed, took on some fuel and a couple of winterovers with them. The crew generously offered a ride to McMurdo for 2 people and there were a few people who needed to get out of here to tend to other matters. One of them was our friend UT Craig who is missed already.

This is a photo that Brien took of the Basler coming in to refuel. I was stuck in the SOC doing the radio comms.

Now the Twin Otter crew is spending the weekend here, so although we lost 2 people, we gained another 3. They're different faces from the ones we've been seeing for the past 9 months and it's a little weird to see a different shape that you don't recognize coming down the hall.

And so it goes. Now we're looking at flights on Monday and playing the weather waiting game again. Oh well, it just gives me more time to pack.

Friday, October 20, 2006

But we still don't have any polar bears

Now this is not going to help correct the popular misconception that we live in igloos down here and chase away polar bears, but we do have a new prime new piece of real estate.

Denis, the weird French BICEP scientist, built an igloo this winter. It's taken him the entire winter to finish it, but he finally placed the keystone block of ice last week, and yesterday invited us over for an open house.

The entrance is recessed so you need to crawl in through a narrow tunnel, a little challenging to do in bulky ECW gear.

But it's quite cozy inside! Denis even brought a little mood lighting.

Brien and Renee enjoying the new digs.
Here's Robert - my flash went off and now you can see the haze from our breath condensation.

What's a celebration without a little bubbly? Interestingly, it takes less than a minute for the champagne to start turning to slush at -78F degrees. We also had some chocolate chip cookies, raisins and Hershey's kisses - they were frozen solid but we ate them anyway.

Robert took this photo of Team Igloo. Fortunately, we didn't encounter any polar bears on the way back to the station.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Listening patiently

One of my many odds jobs around the station when I'm not seeing patients, stocking store shelves, or washing dishes is to man the HF radios for flight activity from Christchurch to McMurdo. South Pole does backup flight following for Mac Center, serving as another set of ears listening for position reports from the planes as sometimes radio communications on the continent can be sketchy.

Comms is now the SOC, or Station Operations Center, the new comms facility in the Elevated Station. While it doesn't have the comfy charm and character of old Comms which used to be under the Dome, it does have nice big windows where you can look out at the skiway, the Dark Sector and the pole itself.

Here's a view of the Dark Sector buildings. And that's only half of the Pez dispenser collection.

This is the radio - no longer the old one with toggle switches and dials.

And a wonderful new feature, the spycams, I mean webcams. You can check out live shots at
http://www.usap.gov/videoclipsandmaps/spwebcam.cfm while our satellite is up (currently about 9:30am to 8:30pm central time).

We have one C-17 and two LC-130s en route from Christchurch to McMurdo as I write this. So far, it's not looking good temperature wise for having company on Saturday. Nothing else to do except wait patiently...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ready for the invasion

We're almost done with preparing the 10,000 ft skiway for our first plane. Yesterday, I helped Kiwi Mike and Brien put up the approach flags at the end of the skiway that the planes will use to line up for their landing.

We loaded up the Screamin' Eagle, one of the LMC 1800 tracked vehicles, with flags, bamboo poles, drills and other tools, and Mike drove us to the south end, past the buried plane wreck, where we started putting the flags on the poles, which are in a cross formation.

It was sometimes a pain in the neck because some of the old bamboo poles were skewed or broken and needed fixing or replacing, then the flags quickly froze and became unworkably stiff, especially with heavy mittens on. Thank goodness for velcro fasteners - someone had a clue when designing the flags for down here.

We also had to replace some of the side flags, which need to be screwed in, and the only casualty of the day was when Mike accidentally screwed his glove liner to the pole. Despite the falling temperature and needing to make a few trips back to the station to get more supplies, we managed to make some progress and the whole job should be done today.

Here's a shot looking down the skiway.

As expected, the temps are not cooperating and we're sitting at -60C or -75F. Again, we need to be warmer than -50C if that plane is going to land. We may have a brief warm spell on Friday and if that happens, they'll try to fly in one day earlier. In the meantime, the crossing beacon for the skiway is thawing and waiting to be turned on when that first plane is 10 minutes out...

Monday, October 16, 2006

One big happy family...from a distance

Every year we take a photo of the crew, or most of the crew, and it's always a challenge to come up with a shot that's different from what's been done in previous years. As the winterover group gets larger, it's also harder to figure out a good vantage point from which to set up the camera but this year, Robert Schwarz and Denis Barkats came up with an ingenious idea: mounting a camera on an old weather balloon and sending it aloft to take the picture.

Here's Robert making his way from the BIF (balloon inflation facility) over to the ceremonial pole where about 50 of us were assembled. The camera was tied to the end and set to take a photo every 5 seconds. He kept it warm by wrapping a sock around it and stuffing hand warmers inside. Otherwise, at -80F, the battery in the camera will freeze in a matter of minutes.

There were a few kinks to work out so we were just standing around waiting for the whole assembly to go airborne. The short person in the red parka...that's me.
Finally, the balloon was reeled out and manuevered into place, snapping away photos on its way up. We have a lot of shots that are off-centered because it was a little tricky getting right position and angle for the balloon.

But in the end, we came up with a good shot, which was combined with an earlier photo taken in the gym and this is our official Winterover 2006 group photo:

And one last shot that someone took of the whole circus from the galley window.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

I repeat, Coffee = Morale

OK, this one is going to require a little background. We all work for Raytheon Polar Services, the contractor for the National Science Foundation to provide support services to run the stations in the US Antarctic Program. In this case, it's probably a typical relationship between employees and "The Man" where there's not too much love lost, for a number of reasons.

Denver HQ has this Polar Morale Committee, which sponsors monthly functions like ice cream socials, picnics, golf tournaments, bowling nights, etc. They look like fun, from the pictures that they post in the monthly company newsletter of happy people at BBQ's, wearing shorts or playing mud volleyball. It always makes us down here on the ice wonder whose morale this committee is trying to boost because it ain't ours and maybe instead of "Polar" morale, they should call it "Cubicle" morale.

In fact, this Polar Morale Committee has quite the opposite effect for people who are actually working IN a polar region, 9 hours a day, 6 days a week with only one 2 day weekend off per month. Seeing all of these tanned and smiling people, sometimes all wearing specially made t-shirts for their Take Your Child to Work Day or whatever, in the company newsletter of which they make sure we receive an electronic copy, just turns our morale into toxic cynacism.

So last week, as part of company-wide cost cutting, the free coffee was eliminated at Denver HQ. "The Man" said, "Either the coffee goes or we let go of one employee". Well, we could think of a few people they could fire up there in order to keep the java. But to make things worse, they can't put Mr Coffee makers in their cubicles either due to fire hazards. So now they are caffeine-free in cubicle land. Dilbert knows just how wrong this is:

And boy are people at the home office pissed. We may not have any more coffee filters at South Pole (ran out in August), but we still have a few years worth of beans frozen outside. So, in an effort to show solidarity and compassion for our non-polar comrades, we held our own Denver Morale Committee Coffee Social last night.

OK, so we didn't actually have any coffee, more like lots of wine, beer and Scotch, but we're all hoping that our efforts boosted the morale of the workers at HQ. I'm working on submitting these photos to the company newsletter.

Denis, Jonny O and Holly

Denis, a weird French guy who specializes in sticking things in his mouth or up his nose.

Renee and Jeff during a truce in the round of bare knuckle boxing.

And Michael - he just woke up (works sort of a night shift) and is having scotch and pizza for breakfast.