From South Pole:
17:01 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
Been here just over a day now and am settling in. Once I get here it’s easy to settle into a work routine, which makes it harder to do much writing. But I’m still acclimating to the altitude, trying to rest and stay hydrated, and the schedule isn’t too intense so far.
Did a debrief today of our outgoing winter-over (WO) scientists, who are leaving tomorrow, and did some training of our new WOs as well. Our old WOs are in good spirits but also happy to leave, and I don’t blame them. In addition to having been here for most of a full year (with just a brief R&R break before station closing), it sounded like a pretty challenging winter, with medical emergencies you can google about (and some you can’t). I’m glad I came when I did because it has been fascinating to hear their stories and their perspective.
My last post left off somewhere in the air between New Zealand and McMurdo. We arrived safely at the seasonal Ice Runway and were quickly put onto Ivan the Terra Bus. I couldn’t believe how close we were to town — the last several seasons I’ve landed at Pegasus which is a good hour (at minimum) from town. But Observation Hill and McMurdo proper were clearly visible and seemed but a stone’s throw from the Ice Runway, which I think they only operate early in the season when it’s cold enough to land there. The trip into town took a mere 20 minutes or so, after which we were briefed on life in town — a briefing which I’ve attended ten times now and portions of which I think I can recite from memory, despite the fact that much of it doesn’t really apply to short-timer Polies (I have never done laundry in McMurdo, used the gym, or even walked very far out of town, something which one cannot do without attending an outdoor safety lecture).
From the briefing I went to Crary Lab, got my laptop screened, and checked email, and then went to settle into my room… but not before grabbing someone else’s Big Red parka by mistake (they all look alike, and his name is similar to mine, and …). Before long I noticed my gloves, which were in my parka pockets, were missing, so I figured I’d left them somewhere, and chased around trying to find them for an hour or so (losing and re-finding USAP issue clothing seems to be my karmic fate each and every trip). My hat, I noticed, was also gone — that tipped me off to the fact that I had the wrong jacket, so I went back to Crary lab, gave back the jacket I “stole,” got mine (gloves and hat included), and went to a very crowded galley for chow. After dinner we weighed-in and I managed to get to bed early, in a room with only one other fellow in it (McMurdo facilities manager and unicycle aficionado).
Our flight schedule was not nailed down by the time I went to bed, so I was up at 5 AM and went off to check the flight manifest. By 8 we were at the Movement Control Center along with passengers headed to two other places on the continent. Our flight to the Pole consisted of just five regular passengers, plus the Guard crew, and a woman, already on the plane, who I assumed was a Distinguished Visitor or reporter of some sort. The plane was jammed full of cargo and some medical equipment and stretchers I assumed were bound for South Pole Medical. Later I learned that our flight was actually a medevac flight and that they were taking someone back to McMurdo in a hurry, which may have explained the rather hasty briefing (barely audible over the roar of the props) that we got on the plane.
Though there were minor differences when compared to previous trips, it was mostly quite familiar, and I found myself going through the motions, not really being surprised by anything. At one point I sort of woke up and said to myself, Dude, you are on a military aircraft bound for the South Pole. Pay attention.
That more or less worked, and though I did play with some programming stuff on my laptop for a lot of the flight, I also enjoyed the strange familiarity of it, the familiar strangeness. Somehow being bundled up in ECW gear and earplugs in a roaring C-130, with all its green guts clearly exposed for the viewing, just feels like the canonical Antarctic experience for me.
I managed to get up to the flight deck around when we passed over the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. The vast Beardmore Glacier stretched below, through black ridges of rock, a creamy, motionless river riddled with great crevasses which looked like tiny scratches at that distance. Though our window views were limited throughout the flight (due to the bulk of the cargo), that view out the front windows of the aircraft was stunning. The crew made sure I could take pictures and video from various angles, moving aside and motioning me forward. After I got my shots in, I talked to one of them and asked him about the geography we were passing through; he said, “I don’t know, I’m just a doctor.” (Presumably he was assisting with the medevac.)
At some point between McMurdo and arriving at Pole, maybe on the airporter bus to the Ice Runway, I thought about how much of a collaborative effort all of this is, this whole Antarctic program. The shuttle driver; the passenger manager who gave us our lunches, earplugs and a safety briefing; the pilots and crew; the airplane mechanics; the satellite techs; the waste management folks… there are so many people working together here, professionally and (for the most part) harmoniously… so many people doing their jobs, to keep us and each other alive and safe and to enable scientists to do their jobs. It is quite humbling, actually, to be on the receiving end of that. That of course is the reality of the “Real World” too — it’s just that so many of those people Up North are actually invisible… the water treatment engineers, air traffic controllers, homicide detectives, construction workers, priests… people you don’t normally see but who keep you alive and safe. Here, things are turned inside out, the machinery is exposed for all to see, you see each other more — everybody pitches in, whether it’s “house mouse” duties (cleaning bathrooms, etc.), working in the dish pit, helping to load “freshies” into the galley, ... you eat dinner with the people here who load your cargo and handle fuels from the Hercs, with the cooks and the managers and the dishwashers. People who could and would save your life if needed. Somehow it’s just more clear who you rely on here… and they rely on you too. It’s a good experience to have.
(It is also interesting to go somewhere where your comfort is not anybody’s primary concern, and where nobody is trying to sell you anything, but perhaps that’s a topic for another post.)
Arriving at the Pole was a rush, as always. It was about 40 below, maybe -66F with the wind chill. Freija, Sven, and Carlos met us at the skiway. Strangely enough, of all the places I’ve passed through in the past few days, this place feels most like home. And, as usual, I know a bunch of people here and recognize many more faces. But it’s less crowded than I’m used to, and I’m a bit more relaxed too, both of which are nice.
I sat down at lunch with a communications engineer named James who I met last season. James likes to discuss particle physics and quantum mechanics. I sat down with him and a GA named Pete, a young fellow with a robust blond beard who fights wildfires back in the real world.
James, sitting across from me, asked, “So, have you learned anything in the past year?”
“You mean has IceCube made any discoveries, or have I personally?”
I thought about it. “Yes, I think I’ve learned a lot, actually.”
“Such as?” asked James.
“Well, I think I’ve really learned a lot about programming.”
“Okay… I guess that’s good,” he replied.
“Also, I think I’m a nicer guy.”
At my side, Pete nodded sagely, and said, “That’s good. That’s good.”