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From South Pole:

January 23, 2011

Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 UTC

Mummification

A full day in Christchurch, a Pole month’s worth of showers, sushi, photos of graffiti, walking around, going to the Christchurch art gallery, good conversations, and a nap have all helped get me back into the Real World™. I would like to try and remember the trail of events that led here from the last long blog post, because if I wait another day they will be gone down whatever tunnel of emptiness my leaky memory feeds into. They are gone already, of course, but I perhaps I can share bits and pieces with you nonetheless.

My last day at Pole was good. I disengaged with work long enough to wander the Station quite a bit, shooting videos of the place and the people and savoring and digesting the smells and the sights and the low, thrumming vibrations of the place. One nice thing about having the camera which does stereo video is that it captures the sounds almost adequately (I have long dreamed of bringing enough equipment to the Ice to do really good audio recordings of very banal things like wind and machinery and radio traffic and the ebb and flow of conversations in the Galley — the Canon S-95 let me do that with the video well enough as an approximation without having to haul a lot of gear all over the place).

Friday morning I got up as usual, skipped my gym workout, meditated, had breakfast in the Galley, did the 0800 and 0830h meetings, had a good talk w/ our cadre of Polies about software development within IceCube, then did the final packing and cleaning up of my room. There was a lot of discussion about whether we would actually go that day — there had been a lot of delays due to weather, people were delayed Southbound into McMurdo and the forecast for Pole hadn’t been great the previous day, but it cleared up to be fairly nice (partly sunny and -18 F or so, which was the coldest it ever got for me this trip — quite a bit warmer than previous trips, though I came midsummer rather than the usual end-of-season). Also the northbound Polies from a few days previous were all stuck in McMurdo, including a bunch of “DV“s (distinguished visitors) who I’m sure had to get back home for Various Important Things. It wasn’t at all clear whether we would get stuck in McMurdo with them or whether the logjam would break with our arrival.

The day you leave, the cadence and excitement builds, starting, if the weather and mechanical gods allow, with an all-call announcement around 9AM of your plane taking off from McMurdo (“Attention South Pole… we have our first off-deck of the day, skier 93 arriving South Pole at 12:10 PM… this is our inbound/outbound passenger flight…”). Comms tells everyone your flight “has reached Pole-3” (about 25 minutes away) and then “the flight is 10 minutes out… the crossing beacon is on… please stay clear of the skiway…” and then “aircraft is on deck… crossing beacon is off” and finally, “passengers please proceed to the flight deck.”

We were four 'Cubers and one radio guy, and a few people I didn’t know. It was nice to have several of those who were staying come to see us to the plane — a sort of karmic reward for having greeted several of them, I suppose. We all made our way out, took the obligatory group photos, and killed time while Cargo unloaded and loaded the plane and the fuels person sucked AN-8 fuel out of the Herc to add one more increment to the winter’s fuel supply. Some over-eager passengers headed to the plane a few seconds early and had to wait until the Air Guard gave the all-clear; I was the last person to the plane, waved a final goodbye to the remaining IceCubers out on the snow, and then piled into the Herc after everyone else. As soon as they closed up the hatches the flight crew blasted the heat and it went from -18F to probably 60F in about 5 minutes, and people shed various hats and gloves (the parkas, though warm, are excellent to nap in, since you can pull your hood over your head to shut out light and some sound and sort of self-mummify yourself to sleep). We all juddered in our seats as the plane literally skated down the skiway, gradually gaining speed… it takes a good bit of time for the C-130s to actually get airborne and I cheered the plane on, twisting around in my seat to film my goodbye takeoff video from the window behind me. Then we were in the air and past the last skiway flags and over the great white void that is the polar ice cap.

The cabin pressurized almost immediately and I happily sucked down the extra oxygen. I spent the flight writing a bit and photographing the Transantarctic Mountains. Though I thought I recognized some of the places, it is scenery one doesn’t tire of. Then I dozed a bit and before I knew it we were descending down to Pegasus field. When we got out it was nearly 60 degrees F warmer than when we left — above freezing, not quite slushy but definitely a different character of snow. We snapped a few pix and then got a brief van ride to a much larger Delta transport vehicle, the least comfortable transportation I know of (the passengers rattle around in a compartment completely separate from the driver, so she tosses in a radio after loading them in so they can call her in case of emergency).

It was ironic to have to take the hour-plus journey into McMurdo, knowing that the plan was to have us back out there for a night flight in just a few hours. I took it as a sign that they didn’t actually expect the C-17 to arrive from Christchurch, and that we would be stuck in Mac Town for several days. But, whatever, I was at low altitude, with warm air, in a place with actual landforms. We jostled and jolted into town and immediately bag-dragged for Christchurch. Afterwards it was nearly dinner time so we headed towards “building 155” which is the main hive of activity in town… Sebastian and Andrew in T-shirts, all of us skipping down the wooden steps and crossing actual an actual stream of water, then headed down the road and kicking at rocks and watching dust blow hither and yon.

When Shackleton’s crew, having survived a desperate winter and the crushing of their vessel in the sea ice, reached Elephant Island, the men were delirious with joy to tread upon something other than ice. “They were laughing uproariously, picking up stones and letting handfuls of pebbles trickle through their fingers like misers gloating over hoarded gold,” he wrote. Though McMurdo is quite an ugly place by most peoples’ standards, to see actual dirt, rocks, and running water in McMurdo is quite a pleasure after the Pole, a pleasure I wasn’t immune to this trip despite my relatively short stay at the Pole.

At dinner we ran into the other 'Cubers who were stuck in town waiting to go North, and I saw several other people I recognized from other Pole seasons. The consensus was that there was no way we were going to get out that day; the next day was Sunday (no flights) and the rumor was that no flights had gone on Monday either for several weeks. So I basically was preparing to have to completely rethink my New Zealand plans. Afterwards we headed to Discovery Hut and
saw the lone Adelie penguin which has apparently been hanging around for several days or more. Colleague Mike came out with us in just a thin shirt and in fact all of us were a bit underdressed; the wind started picking up quite quickly and we hurried back and then headed to the Coffee House (which is really more like a bar) and killed time waiting for news of the flight from Christchurch. Again the consensus was that there was no way, we were all going to be stuck there for days.

Finally, two bottles of wine later, around 11 PM someone came in and gave us the news: the C-17 had taken off from Christchurch and was en route; we were to report at 1 AM for transport to the airfield. At this point I began to simultaneously get optimistic that we would go, and very tired (I typically went to bed around 10 PM at Pole). From then on things gradually became more and more dreamlike, as we headed back to Pegasus (this time in Ivan the Terra Bus, a step up from the Deltas but still a long ride in the middle of the “night”... though we did see five emperor penguins!!!), rattled around the “terminal” (a square orange trailer on skis with chairs for maybe 80 people) while the C-17 was unloaded, then, finally, about 45 minutes standing around the snow watching while they filled the C-17 with our bags, a bunch of retrograde waste cargo, and, oddly, the propellor of an airplane. We left the Ice around 4 AM as I sunk into a slightly delirious cycle of half-sleep, dreaming for a few minutes, blearily waking up and fidgeting and then sleeping a bit more. As in all long distance flights, it took forever and was over before I knew it.

When we arrived it was raining. People even complained.

I was happy to be back in New Zealand, to have a full week of rest and creativity and the pleasures of summer, and to go home after that. Immigration and customs took only a few minutes (“Did you leave for the Ice from Christchurch? OK, thanks very much.”). I have no idea how they de-palletized our bags and got them to the terminal so quickly. Before I knew it I was shedding 40 pounds of gear (it is always SUCH a relief to give it back) and heading to my hotel. By 10 AM I was at the Grange B&B waiting for my room to be readied (I had expected to have to go nap by the river since check-in time is usually late afternoon, so this was a big relief as well). While waiting I talked to another guy from the C-17 — he had spent two months in the Dry Valleys, a helicopter ride away from McMurdo, with NO SHOWERS, sleeping in constant daylight, drilling ice cores. He spoke of 2000-year-old mummified seals and penguins (the air is so cold and dry that normal decay is essentially stopped).

Since arriving I have basically sleeping, showering, eating and walking around. And speaking of sleep, it is time to do that. I was going to add a bunch of photos and videos to make this a very multimedia post but it is too late… perhaps tomorrow will be an all-media day. Good night to all.

McMurdo: actual dirt

New Zealand, Summer, the Real World