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Trip Number Ten

If you want just the pictures, you can get them from my Flickr photostream.

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Milvans and Container Malls

Friday, Dec. 2 2011 8:59 p.m. UTC

Dec. 2, 2011, 08:10 NZDT Tranz Coastal train from Christchurch to Picton

Observatory Hill in McMurdo

The new Cashel Mall in Christchurch

Another gorgeous summer day here as the countryside rolls by: grassy, green hills punctuated by trees passing singly and in groups, as well as cattle, horses, and the ubiquitous sheep, which appeal strongly for some reason today, signaling tranquility, domesticity… humans living in pastoral harmony with the land. Icebreaker, perhaps my favorite clothing brand, puts tags on their merino wool clothes, each with a unique code you can type into their Web site to find out which sheep farm in New Zealand your woollen item comes from. I wonder if I’ll pass the farm that made the wool in the shirt I’m wearing. It’d be nice they would sell the sheep as well from their Web site. Or maybe even whole farms….

I’m on my habitual route from Christchurch to Wellington to see friends Neil and Amelia for a few days before heading back to Chicago. The usual blue, slightly creaky train cars have been upgraded to sleek new tan-colored ones with power outlets under the seats, bigger windows and a quieter ride — overall, an improvement. Flying would take one-tenth the time but I’m spending enough time on airplanes, and at any rate the scenery is quite gorgeous, an antidote to both the polar plateau and the coming Chicago winter.

I had just over a full day in Christchurch. As with the Elms hotel on the way down, the Pavillions was a disappointment. Expensive WiFi and rooms, noisy, with somewhat cheesy decor. Paying for WiFi is particularly irksome since it I know how cheap it is to implement — it feels like paying for tap water, by the cup. However, beggars cannot be choosers and the hotel situation in Christchurch is dismal after the February quake.

The advantage of the Pavilions is that is it relatively close to downtown. Had a big breakfast yesterday at a nearby cafe, and an interesting conversation with a friendly fellow diner who is very into meditation and marathoning and was accompanying a group of kids coming out of some month-long South Island adventure. Then I trotted down Victoria Street into the downtown area. Much is still fenced off so I had to circumambulate a couple-block area in various stages of demolition. Eventually I found myself on Armagh street staring at a familiar sign, that of the Winsor hotel, the first place I ever stayed in New Zealand. The familiar building, however, is gone, replaced by a generic looking construction-in-progress. Half a block closer to downtown, the Devon, my favorite place to stay, is completely gone, recognizable only by the fence behind the original parking lot. It’s all parking lot now. One thing to be said about Christchurch is that, on average, you can see farther now.

I’ve laid down a lot of pre- and post-Antarctic memories in these places so it was a blow to see them gone… gone so completely that it was hard to even tell where they’d been. Certainly a vivid illustration of the impermanence of things. Walking back towards the hotel I was snatched up by IceCube colleagues driving by: Stephanie and Anthony from Canterbury University. We were joined by Sarah at a combination cafe and garden store, where I had a delicious salad (still making up for polar freshie deficit) and “chocolate ice” (a sort of shake made with chocolate and whipped cream). After lunch we drove downtown to the new Cashel Mall, an area that was hit so hard that no original buildings remain. Instead, a few dozen structures made of shipping containers occupy a roughly one block area, serving as a new shopping mall. This sounds dubious on paper but in execution it was, like many things New Zealand, fabulously gorgeous and chic — imagine FEMA as tutored by hip architects gunning for a multi-page spread in Dwell Magazine. Walked back alone past the Christchurch art gallery, the Arts Centre, and the Dux De Lux, all still closed. Then through the Botanic Garden, in full bloom and betraying no evidence of seismic calamity, and “home” for Thai dinner and an early bedtime to prepare for the early morning departure of the train.

Christchurch and McMurdo seemed to lift me out of my slightly numb South Pole funk. In McMurdo, I felt some of the thrill towards the gritty texture of the town I used to experience each time I came down. Much of that texture has been bypassed in recent trips because they were straight-throughs, landing at Pegasus only to change planes.

My roommate in McMurdo was Bill, a kindly videographer from Chicago who’s lived in Louisiana long enough to acquire the Southern drawl. Bill said out of the blue, “It really is the simple pleasures down here which make life worth living.” A couple of showers and salads and nine hours of sleep, concurrent with continual re-saturation in oxygen, and I was inclined to agree. By Wednesday morning, I had enough time and energy to walk to Hut Point and summit Ob Hill before lunch, taking lots of pictures of “milvans” (shipping containers), buildings, and rock and ice along the way. At Hut Point I sat for awhile with eleven seals sunning themselves nearby on the ice, some the size of small Chevies. Trails from the seals to nearby holes in the ice which looked far too small to accommodate the animals… and some blood stains near one of these were a reminder that this was not a sanitized game park but actual habitat, with life and death coexisting precariously as always… perhaps more so, at the base of Mount Erebus (whose volcanic plume could be seen in the clear, continual daylight), there on the edge of the highest, windiest, driest, coldest, iciest, emptiest, cleanest, darkest, quietest continent.

At lunch I met a longtime colleague Ryan, waiting for his LC-130 ride to Wais Divide. Ryan went to the Pole as an undergraduate on AMANDA, years before I did, and now he does mostly glaciology and climate studies at UC Berkeley, logging dust concentrations as a function of depth in deep holes across Antarctica. We talked about deploying to the Ice over and over again. His perspective interested me. “It’s a nice break from your routine, back up North. And you come back stronger each time.” I thought about it for a bit, and I think I agree. As one gets older it is easy to get into a comfortable routine — I have a really good life in the North: Eden, meditation, art, work, Chicago, Madison, family and friends. But the months do speed by, and deviations from routine seem more and more jarring. Traveling does break you out of that. Even simple things like remembering what needs to be done without relying on a computerized to-do list seem easier after a few weeks of having to keep track of gear, travel dates, and ever-changing circumstances.

I had time for a nap before reporting to the Movement Control Center for the flight to Christchurch. Eighteen of us packed our gear and selves into a Delta and headed out to the Ice Runway, one of the last flights to do so this season (flight operations transition to Pegasus airfield as of today, considerably farther away from town). Despite the quick trip to the plane, we wound up spending a good hour parked nearby, while the back of the Delta gradually turned into a greenhouse, cooking us in our ECW gear until we opened, against strict instructions not to, the back door of the vehicle to let in some cool air. Finally we made it on board and got a good look at the cause for delay — two empty liquid helium dewars, each the size of a small school bus, which no doubt were tricky to tie down correctly (I, for one, was happy for the extra attention to detail on the matter).

Eighteen passengers is a pretty light manifest for a C-17. After takeoff some people took several seats along the side walls and managed to sleep that way for most of the five hours to Christchurch. I was perhaps the only one to mosey up to the flight deck. Talked with one of the pilots for awhile, who said he’d been to 55 countries since he started flying in his squadron. Most commonly Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, but also frequently to Southeast Asia — they are apparently still finding remains of American soldiers in Vietnam (DNA techniques being the evident game-changer there), and aren’t above sending C-17s down to collect them, with appropriate ceremony, one assumes.

We’re pulling into Kaikoura now, so I’m going to tie this off for today and get a breath of fresh air. Already saw some seals in the water from the train. Liquid water, as far as the eye can see… what a strange and marvelous improvement, over an ocean of ice.

New train in Kaikoura

Marlborough Sounds


Tuesday, Nov. 29 2011 5:09 a.m. UTC

Nov. 29, 2011 17:30 NZDT Crary Lab, McMurdo Station

Made it back to McMurdo where liquid water runs in the streets, mountains can be seen in all directions, helicopters take off and land every twenty minutes or so, and the oxygen flows thick and warm into your lungs.

Our flight to McMurdo had only five passengers. After packing a lunch and waiting with bated breath for the announcements from Comms indicating the plane’s arrival, I headed out, with Carlos, Sven, Ralf, Gary, Martin and David coming out as well to say farewell (thanks guys!). We took a few group photos in various combinations of cameras and individuals, and then those of us who were leaving headed onto the plane. There were no instructions of any kind from the crew (indeed, it would be hard to hear anything anyways)... just strap in and off you go… and so, in a few moments, we were aloft over the Polar Plateau.

Leg room

I managed to sleep a bit after take-off (I’ve been up since 4 AM), slumped over and wrapped up in Big Red, with no shortage of leg room (the plane was nearly empty). Read a bit, ate my makeshift burrito-and-cookie lunch, and then took pictures out the windows for 45 minutes or so.

After ten trips, one thing I do not tire of or take for granted is the view from the plane of the Trans-Antarctic mountains. As a Midwesterner I have always found mountains to be a bit alien and fascinating, but mountains in Antarctica are ever more so. I think I’ve probably taken the same photos of the same features over and over again, but the terrain is stunning. It feels like looking down from orbit onto another planet — a land you know you will never set foot upon (and, in many spots, nor will anybody), but you cannot help but wonder what it would be like to see it up close.

Arriving in McMurdo

We arrived in McMurdo to a buzz of activity. There was a mass casualty drill just before we arrived; they are also packing up the Ice Runway in preparation to move out to Pegasus airfield, much further away from town. We had to wait for a shuttle into town for half an hour or so. When the shuttle did arrive, both passengers and crew from South Pole piled on, as well as other airmen, and crew and passengers from a Twin Otter flight arriving from somewhere out in that aforementioned crazy terrain. I had to ask around to figure out where I would be staying the night — finally I found my room, got some linens, headed off to Crary Lab for Internet access and now am about to head off to the dining hall for dinner. Tonight we weigh in with our bags and gear and should get the flight schedule for the trip back to Christchurch tomorrow.

Starting tomorrow, hopefully, I am going to get spoiled with a week of summer before heading back to the beginning of Chicago winter. But first, dinner.


Monday, Nov. 28 2011 7:37 p.m. UTC

Nov. 28, 2011 15:51 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Walking home

Last full day here, insh’Allah. We had flights today, so whatever weather problems were plaguing McMurdo seem to have sorted themselves out. I’m ready to leave, despite the short and comfortable trip (relatively speaking). So far on this trip, unlike some previous trips, I have not had to:

  • Go to Medical for assistance with altitude/sinus/cold/flu issues (roughly 1/3 of trips)
  • Work outside for 16-20 hrs straight (AMANDA deployments, ’97, ’98, ’00)
  • Give an impromptu presentation or tour to Distinguished Visitors or 'tourists’ ('08 at least)
  • Implement software without which IceCube would not be able to take data ('05, ’06, ’07)
  • Prototype a brand-new Experiment Control system in situ ('08)
  • Sleep in Summer Camp ('97, ’98, ’00, ’05)
  • Try and sleep during daytime through fire alarm testing ('07 at least)
  • Wait due to flight cancellations in McMurdo or Christchurch (knock on wood)
  • “Boomerang” (have flight turn around, a relatively common occurrence which I have so far avoided) (” “)

This is going to be short because I have to go pack. No satellite connection to the real world anyways at the moment.

21:54 NZDT Greenhouse

Now it’s a few hours later. Having cleaned out my room and packed, eaten paella and bread pudding in the galley, dropped in on Pole Mart (the Station store), chatted for awhile in B2 and watched two episodes of Firefly in the video lounge, I’m headed now to bed but am first making a slow farewell circuit of the Station — possibly the last one “for awhile” (let’s leave it at that). After hitting the sauna for a few minutes (yes, there is a real cedar sauna in the Station), I’m sitting on a couch in our tiny greenhouse, to write and read a bit for a few minutes before bed.

Leaving is always bittersweet, but differently so now. As I was sitting in the sauna I realized that, having said my goodbyes so thoroughly in January, I feel a bit ghost-like here, like someone who needs to move on but hasn’t yet for some reason or another. It’s a feeling I think I need to take seriously, regardless of what happens in the future.

I think that’s all I have to say for tonight. We shall see what the trip North brings tomorrow.

Update Nov. 29, 08:24 NZDT B2: Plane from/to McMurdo is en route, so my next post will be from there or Christchurch….

Today’s flight schedule

Turkey, Stuffing, Eclipse

Sunday, Nov. 27 2011 6:07 a.m. UTC

Nov. 27, 2011 18:37 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

The iClipse

Interesting last couple of days. Friday (two days ago, for us) we had a partial solar eclipse, my second here. Whereas two years ago I traipsed outside with colleagues to take pictures, this time I stayed in the Galley where a viewing party formed. Aside from being much warmer and cozier, this also turned out to be a good move because, while nearly perfect for every other photographic task, my little Canon S95 was not up to direct shooting of the event; a big DSLR with a telephoto lens (and a mylar partially-silvered filter) is really needed to do justice to a direct exposure.

That’s a nice eclipse you’ve got there, ma’am….

70% totality

Getting just a little bit closer to that eclipse

Fortunately, one scientist set up a pair of binoculars in reverse atop a tripod, projecting the image of the sun on a cardboard box on an adjacent table for convenient viewing and photographing. This was cool even before the eclipse started, since you could see sunspots on the projected image. The eclipse got to about 70% of totality, during which the snow outside turned the same liquid-silver-grey colors I saw here two years ago during the last eclipse. Quite beautiful and a little eerie. The viewing turned into quite a gathering, with maybe fifty or so people turning up. A few die-hards also went outside to view the mercurial snowscape up close and personal.

Carlos and Julie at Thanksgiving

Yesterday, finally, was “Thanksgiving,” or Thanksgiving dinner at any rate, two days after the official date — my first major holiday meal at the Pole. Nearly the entire station turned out for appetizers, followed by dinner, in three separate seatings (most of us IceCubers took the 2nd). The galley windows were blocked off by screens, and lit candles adorned the tables — probably the first open flames I’ve ever seen at the ever-so-fire-safety-conscious South Pole. Rather than displaying information about how cold it was outside or the day’s flight cancellations, the overhead monitors showed images of flickering fireplaces. It was downright cozy, I have to say, and we had a fabulous meal:

  • Turkey
    • Smoked
    • Roasted
    • Fried
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Sweet potato medley (probably kumara from New Zealand – tasty)
  • Stuffing
  • Gravy
  • Cranberries
  • Fresh salad with REAL tomatoes and REAL cucumbers
  • Pie with whipped cream
    • Pumpkin
    • Walnut
    • Apple
  • Red and white wine
  • Other great stuff which my food coma has forced me to forget

Dinner is served

After our seating, several of us stayed to help out with the next. I served wine and pie for an hour or so, then helped with the dishes. It really felt like a community effort, with so many people helping, from the kitchen staff who clearly had worked hard for days, to Katie the station manager making sure the place settings were correct, to several wine-n-pie servers. Fun, also, to do physical work with other people — while bustling to and fro, pouring wine, busing tables, and cleaning plates, I remembered taking pleasure in moving quickly, with purpose, with others, in my restaurant job days (so many years ago now).

Today was fairly quiet, with much of the station recovering from dinner and the follow-on parties (which I mostly skipped, creeping back to my room and watching Avatar on my laptop before conking out). But the friendly communal feeling still hangs in the air, a feeling I will miss when I head North in two days… something I am nevertheless very much looking forward to doing (weather and mechanical gods permitting).

Serving wine at the third seating

Wind Storm and Moon Dust

Friday, Nov. 25 2011 2:47 a.m. UTC

Nov. 25, 2011 15:32 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

The “South Pile” in windstorm

For those of you who don’t know, December and January are the centennial anniversaries of Amundsen and Scott’s arrival at the South Pole, respectively. I think a lot of people are writing online about the event, and at any rate, I’m going to miss the celebration here, so I won’t go too much into the preparation and planning that’s being done to prepare for a record number of 'tourists’; but it is interesting to contemplate the history a bit and to think about how comfortable it is here compared to what Amundsen and Scott went through.

Today we received an email 'status report’ of where Amundsen and Scott were about this time one hundred years ago. Amundsen recorded that the dogs were doing well and that he had pitched his tent in the most beautiful campsite in the world. Scott wrote, “quite the most trying march we’ve had…. If it were not for the surface and bad light, things would not be so bad. There are few sastrugi and little deep snow. For the most part men and ponies sink to a hard crust some 3 or 4 inches beneath the soft upper snow…. Our forage supply necessitates that we should plug on the 13 (geographical) miles daily under all conditions, so that we can only hope for better things. It is several days since we had a glimpse of land, which makes conditions especially gloomy. A tired animal makes a tired man, I find, and none of us are very bright now after the day’s march, though we have had ample sleep of late.”

Other interesting tidbits on Thanksgiving Day (in the States, anyways — it’s Friday here): there is a partial solar eclipse this evening at about 6:30. Unfortunately it is cloudy and windy here and you cannot even see the horizon. Yesterday is was even windier. We have not had flights for three days or so because of the weather here and in McMurdo.

Halo in windstorm

Last night I went to the greenhouse to read a bit before bed. I’ve learned that it’s OK to be in there when the greenhouse guy is working, so I didn’t clear out when he came in. He introduced himself as Jon and we talked for quite awhile. We both agreed that one of the best things about coming to Antarctica is meeting all sorts of really interesting people and learning about what they do, but Jon himself personifies that very phenomenon. He explained in fascinating detail about the greenhouse, its control systems and its yearly cycle of operation. In the winter, it produces enough veggies for one salad per person each week (!). But what I found most interesting is that he also studies greenhouse designs for possible lunar and Martian habitats. Did you know that there are recent indications that the dirt on Mars is extremely toxic, which could severely impact the possibility for creating long-term habitations there? That the International Space Station has (or has had) a small greenhouse that revolves around an axis to create simulated gravity for plants? Or that the lunar south pole contains lots of water ice and is possibly the coldest place in the solar system? He has also touched (studied) moon dust — I dare say a lot more people have been to the South Pole than have touched objects from the moon.

Today I’m feeling a bit under the weather, perhaps due to something in the food not agreeing with me. But I have less than four days to go, the winter-overs are doing well, and I’m eager to start heading back northwards. The weather will have to clear up first, however!

Ceremonial Pole from B2

Sven and David

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