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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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January 25, 2011

Tuesday, Jan. 25 2011 5:22 p.m. UTC

Closure

Once again on the train bound for Picton, to catch the Interislander ferry to Wellington. I think this will be my last post for this trip, so I may try to sum up a few things. First and foremost I want to thank those of you who read along with me; knowing that there were at least a couple of regular readers made the writing more enjoyable, and helped keep me to the daily discipline of posting something, which in turn helped establish a sort of rhythm for the trip.

I have called this my last trip to the South Pole and have tried to treat it that way. Helping to hunt for neutrinos in Antarctica has perhaps been my life’s biggest adventure, and it certainly is bittersweet to say goodbye to it these past few days, thinking of each step of my northbound journey as the last repetition of a pattern established over years. Of course it is a fact that as long as life continues one doesn’t know where one will wind up — just as one never knows if the time one spends with a friend will be the last time or not (and, in fact, every time is unique, never to be repeated, whether you notice or not), I can’t say for certain whether or not I will ever go back to the Pole. There will be other projects on the Ice and I could see myself involved with those. Also, IceCube will hopefully run another 15-20 years and they will be sending people every year, and while I’m not sure I’ll be needed on the Ice I certainly wouldn’t rule out helping if asked. But with the completion of IceCube’s construction and the diminished likelihood of further trips, it seems appropriate to let the place go in my mind. I feel that this is a time in my life to start to let go of certain things, to let things fall away and see what takes their place.

I remembered a sentence from Rudolf Steiner, ... that when something ends, we must think that something begins. His advice is salutary, but the execution difficult, for we only know what we have lost, not what we will gain. We have a very precise image — an image at times shameless — of what we have lost, but we are ignorant of what may follow or replace it. — Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights

I wrote previously of success or Fruition, and tried to give a sense of the excitement of putting a capstone on a body of work, related not just to this two-week trip but to a decade or even half a lifetime of work. Now I want to think for a moment about more mundane challenges of the trip.

Towards the end of last year I got onto a sort of minimalism kick, reading books and blogs on living simply and thinking about what sorts of things I could give away or live without. The idea of paring down, eliminating distractions and noise, multitasking less, and focusing more on what matters, appeals lately. Of course traveling always helps to encourage a certain minimalism. Going to the actual Ends of the Earth, living out of two bags in a room no wider than my wingspan and not a lot longer, living with four minutes of shower time a week, not having to (or being able to) cook for myself, having no Internet for most of the day … this level of enforced minimalism is something I have enjoyed in the past, but it seemed this time to throw into relief the three choices available at any given time. These were: to distract myself with work (for there was always more work to do, always someone to help or a question to answer or a test to run, even before considering the ever-present backlog of pending software fixes and upgrades); to distract myself with play (movies, books, socializing, blogging, photography, games, ...) or, often less appealing, to just stop and be where I was: at the Pole; short of sleep; too hot or too cold; irritated by all the noise; worried about this or that; chapped or bleeding in various places because of the dryness; bad hair; missing fresh fruit and veggies; and generally being out of sorts at the Bottom of the World.

“This year I would like to set one goal, which is to be as fully awake and alert to the entire experience as I can.” Though there vivid and joyful moments, many of which involved stopping and just looking out at the lovely white waste, or moments of fellowship with colleagues, a shared laugh or the ordinary pleasure of lining up for food in the Galley, being awake often meant taking stock of just how uncomfortable I was and how I was searching for the next distraction. Having “awake” as a goal meant bumping against that over and over again, and confronting my resistance to whatever was going on. Perhaps by occasionally noticing, I wore a small nub off of that great ball of resistance.

My Antarctica has been:

  • The first acid bite of wind on my face after getting out of the plane after the flight to the South Pole
  • The smell of SimpleGreen™ used to mop the floors and clean the waterless urinals
  • Workouts in various gyms in the old and new stations
  • The hisses and rumbles of a hundred invisible machines inside and outside — heaters, generators, snow tractors, skidoos, Hercs
  • The metallic crunch of half-ton doors closing, and steps on metal stairs
  • Stash tea: licorice spice
  • The sound of the flags flapping from the platform above Destination Alpha
  • Having noisy neighbors, and (probably) being one
  • Carrying a radio instead of a cell phone
  • Music: David Bowie, “Outside” (1998); Soundtrack to “Pi” (2000); Kris’s 7-CD mix (2009); the fellow playing guitar down by the gym (2011).

“Everybody has his own Antarctica.” —Thomas Pynchon, V

I say goodbye to mine.

Thanks again for reading. I plan to keep posting pictures for awhile since I haven’t gone through all 2500 of them and because I’m still taking a lot here in New Zealand.

January 24, 2011

Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 10:09 p.m. UTC

Takeoff

Yesterday’s post was a bit of a tome and I am using today to do some shopping. Heading up to Wellington tomorrow by train + ferry. So I will leave you with a short post today consisting mainly of a link to the video I took taking off in the C-130 from South Pole:

January 23, 2011

Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 11:18 a.m. 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

January 22, 2011

Saturday, Jan. 22 2011 10:44 a.m. UTC

Eleventh Hour

Just a few more minutes to get this post in for January 22. This will be very brief since I need to catch up on sleep. The short summary is that we arrived safely in Christchurch this morning after a very eventful 24 hrs. It is great to be back in the real world but our night flight was quite exhausting and it will be a day or so before I feel rested. I will try to write much more in length tomorrow and post a lot of photos (and maybe even a video or three).

January 21, 2011

Thursday, Jan. 20 2011 6:57 p.m. UTC

Diamond

Morning on my last day (hopefully) and, like a kid on the night before Christmas, I’m excited and nervous. But in some way it feels like my last Christmas. I have been a bit sad off and on. Not a bad sad, but I’ve spent so much time absorbing the peculiarities of this place that it is a bit hard to say goodbye to them, and to it. Last night I spent quite awhile in Comms, the place with the best view on the station, looking out over the skiway and the Dark Sector. While listening to the radio traffic from McMurdo flight control, the attendant static pops and hisses and beeps, and the occasional words from the woman on shift, I looked out across the skiway at IceCube a kilometer away. From Comms one can see the extent of the entire hexagonal IceCube array, 1 km on a side — each of the 86 strings marked with a large red or orange flag, with the ICL building in the middle; and, surrounding this enormity, the much vaster enormity of the wide, white, expanse of the ice shelf we are on, flat as glass and encrusted with powdered diamond, textured with a million tracks of wind, vehicles, and footprints. There are so many beautiful vistas in the world, but that particular view is entangled with my life in myriad and deep ways, from the words on this page to the code I wrote which is running as you read this in 5500 computers deep in the ice, from the lines on my face from the years I have spent working on this, to the relationships (ranging from passing greetings to deeply challenging to strong affection) with so many people in the project… to the artwork I have made, to the artwork I want to make… all these ties and tangles feel, to some extent, a bit more exposed in these final moments.

The weather forecast last night predicted low visibility, which often means canceled flights. But today the forecast looks better and there are four flights scheduled. I expect this chapter does in fact get to close today. With any luck I won’t get stuck in McMurdo. Time for breakfast, two meetings, then clean my room and sail on outta here.

Late season rush of activity begins

Antarctic footwear: flip-flops for shower, boots for normal walking around, Baffin boots for major work outside

View in B2 with emergency sleds

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