Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Warm again

A forecast for low visibility at South Pole cancelled the morning flight but after good conditions prevailed all day, an evening flight was launched and at 9:35pm the first LC-130 of the summer season landed.

It was a great relief to a large group of us who were anxious to get out of there even though it meant landing at McMurdo at 2am. It made sleeping on the plane easier although it was really cold in there especially since we ended up standing outside waiting for about an hour to board.

Twelve hours later we were on the C-17 at McMurdo's Ice Runway and starting the trip north to civilization. I slept most of the way on that leg and before I knew it, less than 24 hours after I was at Pole, I was walking on pavement again at the Christchurch airport.

It's great to be back in a city, to smell flowering plants, to see someone other than the same 53 people, to have an endless supply of freshies. It won't take any time at all to get used to this again. The next few days will be busy with medical appointments to get PQ'd for next winter but I'll also be spending plenty of time at the favorite hangouts enjoying fresh beer on tap and the best sushi around. I'm just happy to be walking around outside in sandals with no worries at all about frostbite.

To our friends back at Pole, we'll see you soon!

Monday, October 29, 2007

South Pole IS Colbert Nation

Last year Michael Rehm gained dubious notoriety when the Comedy Central TV host Stephen Colbert featured him on his show "The Colbert Report". It was an embellished before and after story and a subsequent show in March served up a challenge to Michael to design a Colbert Nation flag and fly it at the South Pole (and get rid of all of those other dumb flags). By the way, Michael's website hasn't been updated since he spilled a Mountain Dew onto his laptop and shorted it out.

As one who excels in cooking and procrastination, Michael finally finished the mission and yesterday, a few of us in the winter crew posed proudly with the Colbert Nation flag at the geographic pole. All photos by Robert Schwarz.

We're heading up the southern-most fundraising campaign for Colbert for President. OK, we're not raising any money but we made signs (I'm holding the hot pink one and Michael is the one behind me).

Using Michael's design drafted up on a napkin, Dainella Nartker sewed together the flag from old red flag markers and the blue is an old flannel sheet. Nate Dyer sketched the Colbert image with a black sharpie marker. Michael will fly it next winter when we take the other flags down for the long night and then the Colbert Nation flag will truly be the sovereign reigning flag at the bottom of the world.

After the photo shoot, some people couldn't resist the giant snow hill.
Meteorologist Johnny G was carving turns on skate skies...obviously he's from Alaska.

Brian H. was working the hill on his board, getting ready for his surfing vacation in Costa Rica.

As I was watching this I was just glad to no longer be on call. I've officially turned over my radio, keys and all duties to my replacements and I'm scheduled to fly out of here today. If all goes well, our first LC-130 of the summer season will land here at 11:30am and take 28 of us out of here to McMurdo. We'll spend the night there and then head on to Christchurch tomorrow. Michael and I will be in New Zealand for a couple of weeks before heading back home to the states. We'll spend Thanksgiving in San Francisco with his family then over to Thailand until January when we'll once again begin the southern migration to spend one last winter down here. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Otter's eye view

It was time once again for the aerial photo missions. Yesterday the Twin Otter took up two groups of several Polies to take photos of the entire station. This is done every year to survey the place and to help measure the amount of snow drifting that occurred during the winter. Photos are by Robert Schwarz and Steffen Richter.

This is the whole thing, minus the Dark Sector that is to the left of the skiway. The plume of exhaust is from the power plant generator.
The Dome and Elevated Station.

This is a good shot of the snow mound that is being created from the snow dug out of the Dome entrance. A couple of guys have skied down it already.
The Dark Sector: MAPO on the left and SPT, the 10 meter South Pole Telescope on the right.

SPT is where we took our winterover group photo.

The Ice Cube Lab is in the foreground and SPT in the back. The haze is the power plant exhaust.
Another good one of the station. HERE is about where the geographic pole is (where the word "HERE" is just outside the photo).

These are the berms where we store all kinds of stuff including
a bunch of spools like the one that rolled up the fuel hose.
The fourth Basler flight came in yesterday and our population is 116, now doubled what we had for the winter. The fifth and now final Basler flight is planned for today. We have beautiful clear skies and unlimited visibility so if conditions are good in Mactown today, we should have more company later today. Currently the temp is -60.5F or -51.4C. We'll need to warm up a tad if we want to get an LC-130 landing here on Monday as scheduled.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Our old friend the Dome

We finally had our third Basler flight make it in last night around 6pm and now our population is 99. Replacements came in for IT, maintenance, the kitchen, science techs and the summer doc is now here.

Yesterday I had to retrieve some supplies from the Dome, some more sharps containers, one of the few medical supplies that we can safely store frozen outside.
This is what the inside of the Dome looks like now. It's just an empty space for frozen storage, mostly our food, and no buildings are left. Notice the hole in the wall that is letting sunlight through and a slow trickle of snow that has piled up over the winter.
The double wooden doors to the entrance of the Dome are still a bit buried but if this looks bad, take a look at what is just outside the doors:
The snow ramp that usually leads from the Dome entrance was not maintained all winter and a huge wall of snow built up in front of the entrance.
That's Froggy the equipment operator bulldozing away the snow. I'm peeking out of the door to take the picture in case the snow comes crashing down.
And this is what it looks like from the Galley window. Snow removal by heavy equipment is a full time job for an entire fleet of operators around here.
The dig out job is halfway finished. All of the snow has to go somewhere and what was removed from the Dome entrance was piled in front of the station in an irresistable hill.

It was gorgeous out last night and with winds about 11 knots, it was perfect paragliding weather for Robert Schwarz.

He got airborne a few times and dragged downhill at least one good time. Froggy said that he's trying to make the snow mound "as peaky as possible" and it's no coindicence that it's in perfect position in front of the Dome entrance to make a nice long sled ride from the top of the hill down the ramp entrance and through the double wooden doors to the Dome that will be open for the summer.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It's not our fault

This is the latest update as of 23 Oct 2007/0545L from the McMurdo airfield:

The ice runway has snow drifts as outlined below. Request the C-17, C-130 or other aircraft arrive no earlier then 1500L from CHC. Its expected it will take this time to remove snow drifts and open the ice runway and ramp to all aircraft,

If we can open the runway earlier will advise Charleston and Christchurch,

The first 5,500 feet of the runway is about 70-80% clear of any and all snow. The 20-30% of it that does have snow is 3"-4" in finger drifts.
There is about 2,500 ft. of runway that is across from the town site and apron area that has about 85% coverage on it. In places it's up to 6" deep but again mostly 3"-4".
The last 2,000 ft of runway and the 1,000 ft. over run area has about 40-50% coverage on it most of it being 4" deep.
The apron is about 60% covered with snow. Most of that is on the taxiway end of it. The fuel pits are in very good shape right now.

Williams Field and Pegasus Airfield, and associated snow roads remain closed.

Meanwhile, this is what it looks like here:

View from the window in Medical, looking at the skiway and Dark Sector.

The Basler offdeck is delayed until 1pm today so we'll see if we get new people in for dinner tonight.

Monday, October 22, 2007

No planes today either

Once again the weather is messing with us, but it's not too bad. Yet. For the third day in a row, less than ideal conditions here at South Pole and then at McMurdo have kept the Basler from returning here with more summer people. Today, at McMurdo they're having up to Condition 1 weather where the wind speeds are greater than 55 knots and visibility drops to less than 100 feet.

Down here, it's a beautiful day with clear skies, temps around -45F and winds around 10 knots.

It's work as usual and we're all taking advantage of the extra time to get things done before the masses arrive.

A fuel line has to be laid out from the fuel tanks in the arch off of the Dome, around past the geographic pole, around the station and out to the flight deck fuel pit. The hose gets rolled up on a giant spool and put away during the winter and then rolled out and laid down again during the summer. By the time the LC-130s start landing, scheduled to be happening a week from today, the hose will be all set to go to offload fuel from the planes, fuel that we use to run our generators and power everthing on station.

We'll see what the weather brings tomorrow...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Population: 67

Only a day behind schedule, the Basler returned to South Pole on October 18.
It brought in 15 new people to help with station opening and left with two of our winterovers.
Brien had a huge smile on his face as he waited to board the plane. He and Francie are scheduled to fly on to Christchurch today and will hopefully be enjoying city life and warmer temperatures tonight.

The Basler also brought more freshies and a very important delivery: flu vaccine. We've just spent the last 8 months in isolation without any infectious diseases being passed around and haven't had any colds or cooties to share for a while. McMurdo during the summer is like a giant petri dish and there is always "the crud" making the rounds through the population. So each plane that arrives here with a load of coughing, sniffling passengers is like a plague ship descending upon a New World tribe. We always fear that once the summer people arrive, we'll all come down with colds.

Or worse, the flu. New Zealand is having a bad season of influenza and we all have to spend at least a couple of days in Christchurch on the way down to the ice. There have already been 22 confirmed cases of influenza A and B at McMurdo and an aggressive campaign to immunize as many people as possible is underway.

54 doses of southern hemisphere flu vaccine were hand carried down here on the Basler and within an hour of the plane's arrival, I set up a vaccination clinic in the Galley, as most everyone was milling around in there relaxing and eating fresh watermelon, honeydew and pineapple.

Neal was one of first in line. He eventually sat down in a chair for me so that I didn't have to reach overhead to give him his shot.

Robert the QuAD scientist, pretzel maker and all-around medical assistant helped out in administering the flu shots. He's really very good and actually I didn't feel a thing...I was just hamming it up for Sven the photographer.

Now our population is 67. Another Basler flight is scheduled for today and it looks like a beautiful day for flying down here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When you can't fly

Yesterday the weather in McMurdo was a little blustery, preventing the Basler from taking off to fly here and keeping the Twin Otter grounded here. Faced with another day of not flying, the Otter crew gamely volunteered for dishpit duty.

Brian the pilot had the floors gleaming

During the winter, we have no DA, or Dining Assistant, so we all take turns spending a full day in the Galley washing pots and pans, wiping down tables, cleaning the floors and vacuuming the carpet, filling up napkin dispensers, doing laundry and making juice. We all rotated through the dishpit four times this winter and the last scheduled person was last week, then we went to a volunteer basis since we were expecting the summer DAs to come in soon to take over.
Steve the pilot having too much fun with the dishes.

So it was hugely appreciated that the Kenn Borek crew volunteered to pitch in and they did an outstanding job. The weather looks like it's going to be a bit soupy here all day but I think the Otter crew should take the day off and just watch some movies today.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Unexpected company

Sometimes you have unexpected visitors crashing your last 2 day weekend off.

We had a window of decent weather and the Kenn Borek aircraft, the Basler and a Twin Otter, were positioned at Rothera station waiting to pounce. We were all set to enjoy our last 2 day weekend of rest and relaxation before the craziness of summer hits, but learned on Saturday that if the weather held up, the planes would make the journey south on Sunday.

I got up early on Sunday and found out that the planes were fueled and ready to take off at the British station. They departed a little after 8am Pole time and I assumed my part time job of doing flight comms and tracked their progress as they inched degree by degree closer to 90 south.

At around 3:20pm the Basler touched snow. I can't tell you how weird it is to finally see something like a plane after being down here for 8 months without any. We're amateurs when it comes to flight ops and the Basler got parked just a little too far away from the fuel pit but with some earnest stretching of the hose, they were able to get the fuel all the way to the tanks.

The Kenn Borek guys have been doing this for a while and they know what's important to bunch of scrappy Polies who have just spent a winter cooped up.

Sean the pilot gave Andy our manager a bottle of Pisco from Chile. Hopefully Andy will share.

But more importantly they brought:

FRESHIES! This is the first fruit we've had since the last dregs of our end of summer stash fermented and got squishy and moldy around April. Those Basler guys really made our day and hopefully those who overindulged on the fresh ambrosia won't be paying for it today.

The Basler refueled and took off again after a short half hour. They flew all the way to McMurdo station despite a change in weather over there resulting in some nasty conditions.
And our last visitor the Twin Otter KBG arrived around 5:30pm. The 3 member crew stayed with us overnight so our population increased to 57 souls. Since it was a day off, the cooks weren't making any dinner and everyone was foraging through the leftover fridge. Not very hospitable on our part, but we did save them some homemade calzones from Saturday night and they seemed happy with that instead of old leftover Mexican food from the back of the fridge.

The weather today in McMurdo is crap so the KBG crew is staying with us another day. If conditions are good tomorrow, the Basler will make a return trip to Pole bringing in the first of the summer crew and soon we'll have to learn all over again how to behave in public.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It's almost summer

The end is in sight. After 6 months without the sun, 6 months since our fresh fruit ran out, 8 months since the last plane took off, we are about to end our isolation and are expecting company next week.

The first scheduled arrivals are the Basler, a twin engine DC-3, and a Twin Otter which have flown all the way from Canada down the length of the Americas to get to Antarctica. They will be coming from South America via Rothera Station (British) and will stop here sometime on Monday, weather depending. The Basler will refuel then go on to McMurdo and the Otter will spend the night then get going.

On Oct 17, the "soft opening" is scheduled to begin with the Basler returning here with 18 Polies. A total of six Basler trips is planned over the following week or so, each one bringing in 18 people, including our replacements, fuelies, cargo people, cooks, dishwashers, managers and others. Then the official station opening day is scheduled for Oct 29 with the arrival of the first LC-130 planes bringing in the masses for the summer.

Hopefully on Oct 29 I will be on a plane heading north, the only direction possible from here. A replacement PA was hired but only until early December...after that, who knows. Today I signed an offer letter to return next winter for my 5th and LAST one. I know I've said that before but I mean it this time. It promises to be a good crew next year with some familiar faces from this winter, past winters and other seasons. There will be quite a few first timers too, but we were all a first timer at some point.

I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Southern-most Oktoberfest

We don't need many excuses to throw a party at the South Pole but Oktoberfest has been a big celebration here every time Robert Schwarz has spent the winter.

A native of Bavaria, he was born with the ability to make pretzels.

He deftly rolled out long strands of dough and twisted them into giant pretzels the size of a hubcap.
The twelve flags that were hanging in the Galley for the winter are gone now but Kris helped to transform the boring colorless dining facility into a festive bier hall.
Travis was in charge of the streamers. OK, it's toilet paper.
But it still made for a fun party and we dined on bratwurst, sauerkraut and pretzels.

To add some scale, here's BFK eating his pretzel. He's a rather large guy so the diameter of that pretzel is actually about 2 feet.

And of course there was beer. People brought out their precious supplies of imported beers that they've been saving all winter. Brien still had a can of Kokanee that was flown in from Canada in 2005 by the twin otter pilots for Eric the Canadian cook.

Robert and Laura look like they came straight from Munich. The party went long into the night with countless rounds of Ein Prosit and bad 80s German music. It's a good thing we just celebrated for one night instead of several weeks like the real Oktoberfest.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The 296 Club?

Well, we didn't get to initiate any new members into the 300 Club this winter but we did just set a new all time record low temperature for the month of October with -95.6F/-71.4C temps today. Maybe we can fire up the sauna anyway and do some naked runs around outside, although without the cloak of darkness there might not as many eager streakers.
When I did my first 300 Club run in 2003, we didn't hit -100F until mid-September. My friends Jon and Dan and I thought we'd wait for the first rush of people in the early morning to finish up so that we could have a little more modesty. When we finally made our naked dash after 11am, we didn't realize people were already gathering for lunch and we ended up having an even bigger audience from the galley windows than we realized.

Here's the latest addition to the wall of winterover crew pictures:
Classy, no?