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South Pole Blog

Collected here are writings from previous trips to the South Pole. Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Previous blog posts from the old Blogger site can be found here.

These pages are under construction — I am currently bringing older writing in a variety of formats into this blog… please stay tuned!

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Passing Notes

Thursday, Jan. 22 2009 6 a.m. UTC

My room in the A4 wing of the Elevated Station

Been here about 58 hours so far and the reason I am counting in hours instead of days is that my sense of days is pretty shot. I have a screwy sleep routine: 10 hours awake, 3 hours asleep. Lather, rinse repeat. I am trying to be up at night (we keep New Zealand time here) for the satellite hours but usually that entails a long nap in the middle, which curtails my sleep during the day. I’ll figure it out.

Despite the goofy schedule and the altitude, last night I felt well enough to walk with Dave out to drill camp and watch the nineteenth and final IceCube string deployment. Being outside reminded me of how beautiful it is here and how hard that is to see until you are actually out in it, seeing the changing sky, the sastrugi, the myriad structures scattered about the snow, structures which do not qualify as architecture but are solely and completely engineering.

Ryan takes a well depth measurement during deployment.

Seeing the last deployment was a real pleasure, partly because I didn’t have to work it — I was a tourist, a real treat after having worked on perhaps a dozen or so deployments myself. It was also sweet because the drilling and deployment went so well this year… and also bittersweet, perhaps, because it was the last deployment I’m likely to see. I took photos and some video which I will post as soon as I can.

Heading back from the Dark Sector

Around midnight we decided to head back. A bunch of the drillers were driving back in the “Ford Gran Neutrino” (the modified van which IceCube uses to shuttle back and forth to the Dark Sector), and Dave and I squeezed in. After we crossed the skiway, the van stopped and the drillers started discussing the expedition which was camped near the station. A small handful of jacked-up and modified Toyota trucks have driven here from a Russian base in support of a ski race across Antarctica. It was decided to pay the campers a visit, so we drove the van over there and piled out, admired their trucks, and started talking with a member of the expedition.

Apparently about 300 people have skied, walked, or driven to South Pole this Summer. These people live in a sort of parallel universe which is disconnected with that of the station. They are allowed a cup of coffee inside and not much else; and few people walk over to their makeshift camps near the Pole marker. So it was a treat to talk to this fellow who has had a pretty different experience in Antarctica. After a few minutes of conversation he pointed to Sven and said, “Hey, you’re Sven!” Then he handed him a note written on a scrap of paper from a case of beer. It was given to him by a member of yet another expedition which he encountered during his trip, to give to Sven at the South Pole! We all laughed. Even though it is nearly as empty as Mars (i.e. nearly zero people per square kilometer), Antarctica is a small place!

Sven greets an expeditioner

After delicious burgers at Midrats, we started work. There is ever so much to do and I am starting to get acclimated enough to be able to focus on it. The task at hand is to connect the nineteen new IceCube strings to the rest of the detector, and to calibrate them to prepare for the new physics run starting April 1. Also to carry out a variety of software upgrades and make sure everything works correctly. Also, to report progress to the north and to coordinate all the activities to minimize conflicts.

Watching the Obama Inauguration

This evening, after another short sleep, we watched highlights of the Obama inauguration, hand-carried on a DVD on today’s flight. (The CBS news clips carried over the Armed Forces network carried the word “Live!” at lower right, which was certainly ironic in this setting, days after the fact.) It was pretty amazing to see our Hyde Park neighbor take the oath for the Oval Office.

A solemn moment

Now for a first foray to the gym, and to start into work again.


Tuesday, Jan. 20 2009 6 a.m. UTC

10:07 PM New Zealand Daylight Time and I am well-socketed into my room in the station at the South Pole, watching videos, napping when I can, drinking as much water as I can stomach and waiting for my body’s chemistry to adjust to a physiological altitude of… let me check… 10,455 feet (the local air density here depends on the weather, and is displayed continuously on the monitors and the local Web site).

To kill time while I acclimate, I just watched “Lost in Translation” which, with its parables of jet lag and alienation, seem somehow appropriate even for this very different destination. “Translation” in physics means moving from one place to another. I have definitely undergone some serious translation.

My stay in McMurdo was very short for a southbound trip — less than twelve hours. Which suited me fine. We arrived after 10PM, fairly exhausted from the long and crowded flight, had the usual (relatively extraneous) briefing, and then immediately bag-dragged for the Pole flight. The weather was pleasant and sunny, with a small stream of water flowing downhill past the Movement Control Center (MCC) where we weighed in.

After a brief midrats (midnight meal) we turned in for a few hours of sleep in the dorms. Then we trudged back up the hill at 0645h to the MCC for transportation to Williams Field our flight South. The air had chilled quite a bit during the 'night’ and the stream had frozen.

Willi Field Air Control Structures

Main Street at Willi Field

Today’s flight was quite a bit easier than yesterday’s. Two of the Air Guard loadmasters hung out and chatted with us in the airfield cafe while we waited for our plane to be readied, and then rode out in the van with us. There was no briefing, just 'get in and go.’ There were only 7 passengers this time, so there was room to spread out after take-off (I even got to lie down for awhile).

Our ride

The scenery was lovely, as in previous years, but another veteran and I compared notes and we were certain that today’s flight took a different route up to the Polar Plateau than in the past. (I think it’s fun to be able to know the route well enough to be able to tell the difference with no map and no human landmarks.) Low clouds obscured some of the terrain which made it both harder to see anything and more beautiful, as sky and ice merged into one milky mixture punctuated by craggy, chocolate-colored rock.

Watching the Scenery

Before we knew it the plane began its landing approach and we suited up, goggles, balaclavas, neck gaiters, boots, glove liners, mittens, fleece, and Big Reds (the ubiquitous parkas). Always a student of economy of means, I enjoyed watching the senior loadmaster giving the order to his subordinate across the plane to put on her gloves, by wagging his leg at her and raising one (gloved) hand.

And then we were down, out, breathing those first breaths of cold, rarefied air (an experience I will miss, assuming this is my last trip) and looking out at the minimal snowscape punctuated by the hyper-functional structures of South Pole Station.

Arrival at South Pole

Yours truly arriving – Photo by Mark Krasberg

Mark and Dave came out in the -21F cold to meet us, which is always such a nice thing — to come to the end of the Earth, and see friends and colleagues, familiar faces, to have someone carry your carry-on while you suck your first breaths of high-altitude air, to make your way to your room and start the slow process of unpacking and settling in. I am here until February 13… long enough that I have to think of it as home-away-from-home. After seven times already it should be pretty easy.

I will post more drawings and photos soon, and will back-populate some of the posts with pictures, so check back for updates.

Soon the satellite will be up!

More pictures from the flight to the Pole


Monday, Jan. 19 2009 6 a.m. UTC

Flight to McMurdo

Well, this is a first for me. I am one of about 5 or 6 Polies traveling south to McMurdo along with a gaggle of New Zealand Defence Forces cargo loaders. We are flying in a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 stuffed to the gills with cargo, a lot of it bound for the South Pole. I have never traveled courtesy of the Kiwi military before. So far it seems a bit more relaxed than either VXE-6 (US Navy) or the New York Air National Guard, as exemplified by the lack of x-rays, metal detectors, pat-downs, etc. during check-in, the short and casual briefing by the flight crew, and the people sleeping here and there on top of various cargo pallets (including our carry-on luggage, from which I just had to rescue my stash of bananas before they turned to mush).

Boarding the flight

When we took off the plane was so loud that it echoed in the cavern of my mouth. I could change the pitch of the sound rattling through my skull by opening and closing my mouth or moving my tongue. It was like being able to sing without breathing—very strange.

We were delayed an extra couple of hours taking off due to weather in McMurdo, and we’ll arrive later than usual because this is a slower plane. I like C-130s because you can see their insides better and because they’re sort of an iconic military aircraft, but the C-17s are faster and more comfortable. The trip on a 130 is almost eight hours instead of the usual five in the C-17. In another hour or so, by my reckoning, we pass the point of no return (after which they have to land, as opposed to boomeranging back to Christchurch, even if the weather is sub-optimal). At any rate, we’ll get in for a late dinner, probably get weighed with our bags again, sleep, and then fly (hopefully) to the Pole tomorrow morning. I’m ready to get there, cosy on into my room (whether in summer camp or, more likely, the station building) and start getting stuff done.

Playing cards to kill time

The View

Inflight video tour:

Getting ready for landing

Welcome to McMurdo

Briefing in 'Delta’ transport into town — how to use a radio to talk to the driver.

Farewell RNZAF

More photos

The Usual Delays

Monday, Jan. 19 2009 6 a.m. UTC

Woke at 0550h this morning to get the shuttle for our Ice flight to McMurdo. After a quick shower and hauling half my bags downstairs Sandy told me there is a two hour delay. At least they told us before we left for the airport!

Yesterday morning was devoted to buying extra food for the trip. Last year my stomach didn’t like the food at Pole towards the end of my stay. So I bought bananas, granola, apples, dried fruit, granola bars, vitamins… things I know I can eat that I won’t be able get there (or at least as much as I would like). I’m going to try to eat the plain stuff and steer clear of a lot of the rich food there (which can be challenging).

So, I went to the supermarket in a mall south of town (Sandy drove me which was nice) and walked back past all the lovely little shops. The day started out cool but got quite warm, probably almost 80 F.

Trying on Baffin boots at CDC

After lunch we met out at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) to try on all our clothes. Just to review, they give us about 40 pounds of cold weather gear, all of which has to be tried on and exchanged if they got your size wrong (or if you just don’t like it). They seem to know more or less exactly which items I take each year now so I didn’t have to give back as much stuff. Nevertheless, despite having done this eight times now, I was STILL the last person to finish!

After the storm

Dux De Lux

We had an afternoon thunderstorm, which was a real treat. Then I had a delicious dinner at the Dux De Lux: 'groper’ (grouper?), 4 salads, a beer and a delicious dessert called Banoffie Pie, which is essentially a banana cream pie with caramel or dulce de leche — amazing. Then I took a walk in the Botanical Gardens — Mom, if you’re reading this, I so wish I could take you there — you would think you were in heaven. They have thousands of plant species from all over New Zealand and the world. It is truly the perfect place to wander before heading to the coldest, driest, highest, most sterile desert on Earth.

In the Botanical Garden

Big tree, small man

Today, with luck, we head South. Apparently it might be on a Kiwi Herc(ules C-130) — the Kiwis take our planes, and I guess we take theirs sometimes. Several days ago when the Kiwi Hercs were away on some training excercises, they contracted an airline to fly commercial Airbus jets to fly to McMurdo! I’d certainly never heard of that. Anyways, the bummer is that the flying time is 8 hrs on a C-130, as opposed to the 5 hrs I’ve gotten used to on the C-17 they’ve had here the past few years (the C-17 is supposed to be back by the time I head North again).

So, maybe we fly today, maybe we don’t. Sometimes one delay leads to more delays, or a cancellation. We shall see. But for now: breakfast.


Saturday, Jan. 17 2009 6 a.m. UTC

Christchurch Passersby

Spent the day so far meandering slowly around Christchurch. I tried to see my friend “Neil Pardington”:'s photos in a gallery south of Cathedral Square, but the gallery was closed. As I wandered around the area I realized I had made a mistake in past years by sticking close to or north of the Square. I had sort of written off the south part of town as a place for sex shops and fish and chips places. But the place has been transformed in the past few years into a hip mecca full of achingly tasteful, creative stores selling clothing, used books, antiques, gifts, skate clothes, and ethnic food, with miniature cafes and bars sprouting from tiny alleys. I felt as if I was in a Calvino Invisible Cities -style reworking of Christchurch, turning it into a southern version of Wellington’s Cuba Street, minus the cold wind off the Cook Strait.

Christchurch Streetside Bar

It has been great people watching here, though I haven’t been able to do them much justice in my drawings so far (it’s hard drawing people who don’t hold still!).

Most people are either young and so hiply-dressed that they should be working in an art gallery, or old and so sun-wrinkled that their faces look like dried fruit (some of these look like the gallery owners). Tourists seem to be mostly Chinese and Japanese families. I am a complete outsider here (I have seen very few Ice people so far) and don’t mind a bit. People seem to be relaxed, friendly, and happy. It’s as if New Zealanders are too busy for unpleasant matters such as wars or economic meltdowns and would rather stay in their own country and sip coffee at outdoor bars or create incredibly beautiful books, furnishings, clothing, etc. It would be nice to take some of that back home.

A fun day so far. I hope everyone up North (or way South) reading this is doing well. For those who are curious, I started uploading some drawings and photos.

Did I mention it’s about 79 degrees Fahrenheit here (25 C)?

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