Station Population: 1000+ (in McMurdo)
Current Location: Somewhere above the Southern Ocean
Time to New Zealand: 4 hours
On Tuesday of this week my replacement arrived at Pole. We had corresponded almost everyday throughout the winter and he was here last year so our turnover was actually quite brief. Wednesday was a busy day for planes coming and going. I think there were 5 or 6 in total (all Hercs). I worked to wrap up some loose end for work and finished the majority of my packing. Of the stuff I brought down to pole with me, much of it I left behind in Skua which is a sort of leave stuff and take stuff stash. Over the winter I found several nice things in Skua…computer speakers, shirts, a pair of shoes. Now it was my turn to make donation to the pile with stuff that I no longer needed or wanted. The rest I was able to ship back to Seattle. I sent 4 large boxes of stuff directly from South Pole to home. It will be very nice not to have to drag that stuff through New Zealand. This left me with a modest sized duffel bag of stuff I’ll need in New Zealand. The cargo people took this bag in preparation of my flight the following day. Wednesday evening they posted the flight schedule for Thursday. 2 morning flights and 2 evening flights. Thursday morning I woke up and checked the flight schedule. The two morning flights were on weather delay. The winds at Pole were from grid west and this brought in warm moist (both relative terms) air. This was dropping visibility to the ¾ miles range. This was by far the warmest day yet since I’ve been at Pole with temps in the -18F range. However, the stiff west wind kept a real bit to the cold. The Hurcs typically need 1 mile. As the morning advanced, the 2 hour delay became a 4 hour delay. Then the first flight canceled. Then the second flight canceled. Thus, it was looking like the 10pm flight was my next best option. The weather was slowly clearing though the day and they scheduled a new evening flight for 8pm. I had my final dinner at Pole, made my final-final packing and toured the station, saying goodbye to the few people I still knew. I make a final trip out to the pole and thus began my journey north. The Hurc flew over the landing strip on a low and slow pass undoubtedly checking visibility since we it was very borderline. About 5 minutes later we saw the plane again over the landing strip about a ½ mile from the end of the strip and still not on the ground. I figured this was just another flyby since they usually land quite a bit sooner and taxi in. However this plane only got its skis on the snow with a ¼ mile of strip left. “Touch and Go” I thought. But the plane stayed down and the engines were thrown into reverse and they roared at full throttle. The plane was moving fast and the end of the landing strip was coming faster. The plan glided about 100 yards past the red flags that mark the end before coming to a stop. These Hurcs land on unimproved field camps all the time so it was not really a big deal, since the only difference between the landing strip and what lays beyond is just some grooming, but it was exciting none the less.
Some people came out to see me off. Not many though. The plane was only bringing cargo and fuel to pole so no one got off. There was only one other person leaving pole. He was an IT guy that had only been there about 3 days. After cargo and fuel were off loaded, we were signaled to the aircraft. It was strange crossing the safety line that had separated me from so many other planes that left me behind. As I neared the aircraft I looked back one last time at the station and the handful of people seeing me off, while at the same time being careful not to veer off into one of the 4 propellers of the 4 running engines. I climbed into the fuselage of the empty airplane an took a seat on a fabric bench seat along the starboard wall. My one green duffel bag was comically strapped down in the center of the large cargo bay. I sat down and was confronted with my first seatbelt in 10 months. This was something I forgot about, but only took a minute to locate a pair of dissimilar ends to couple together. One of the flight crew gave me a 10 second safety briefing that that was mostly “If we crash, follow me! Don’t walk into a propeller! It’s all the same as when you came in”! I shouted over the engines that that was 10 months ago, so he spend another 5 seconds pointing to a couple doors and gave me a thumbs up.
The plane taxied to the grid south end of the landing strip turned and took off into the wind. The first hour of the flight was just pure whiteness outside the windows. Around hour 2 we flew over the Trans Antarctic mountains. I again was impressed by their size and steepness. They really give perspective to the size of the glaciers that fill the valleys between. These mountains also constituted the first earth I’ve seen in 10 months (rocks, dirt, gravel) We hit a good bit of turbulence as we neared McMurdo. It as pretty intense but only lasted a minute or two.
- Transantarctic Mountains
We landed on the ice runway just off the coast from McMurdo. When I came through last fall we were landed much further away and had to be driven about a 30 minutes into town. This time it was just a 5 minute van ride. I was dropped off a some type of cargo building and waited for my green duffel to arrive. It got to ride in its own vehicle. I did some last minute re-packing and turned it back over to the McMurdo cargo people for tomorrow’s flight. Here I learned that the 10pm and 11pm flights to Pole turned around en route due to bad weather. I was so fortunate to get out when I did. I also learned that a big storm was moving into McMurdo and the C-17 were probably not going to fly tomorrow. The good news was the New Zealand Air Force was flying an C-130 Herc (without the skis) in the morning and they were putting passengers on that. It was leaving at 8am so I had to be ready for the shuttle van at 7. I really wanted to sightsee in McMurdo and without an alarm clock I was really nervous about oversleeping so I decided to do a little e-mail and facebooking, go to the midnight meal served in the galley and then go explore all night and then sleep on the plane. There is 24hour daylight here, but the sun does get lower on the horizon at night. The weather in McMurdo was around +14F with a bit of a wind. I was out in just a sweatshirt and jeans and was getting pretty cold. I was disappointed at myself for being such a pansy in positive temperature, but reminded myself that +14 is still still well within ice fishing temperatures and a sweatshirt is still just a sweatshirt. Around 1am I decided I would go to my room and just kill a few hours with a quick sleep. The room was dark. As I entered, just as I suspected, there were other people in there. How many I don’t know as I was trying to be discrete and used my flashlight on it low setting to find my way to an empty bunk. I just took my boots off, laid down with all my clothes on and used my Big Red as a blanket.
My tiny watch alarm did not wake me at 5, but I awoke at 5:30am regardless. I was tod to be ready well before 7am since they might try to leave earlier to beat the storm, but the flight schedule was still showing a 7am shuttle for the 8am flight. So I had some breakfast and another round of computering and headed for the shuttle bus. The whole time I was in McMurdo I was washing my hands like someone to OCD because I wanted to get in and out without picking up the McMurdo crud with is some kind of flu/cold/pinkeye concoction I was warned about. As I was walking up a steep slope with my heavy carry on bag I instinctively kicked into low gear to compensate for the the altitude, but then remembered that I was now at sea level and probably hadn’t taken a breath for the last 30 seconds. I adjusted my pace accordingly and was up the hill without any extra panting. This is quite the opposite from when you get to high elevations and the part of your brain that knows how fast you can go doesn’t understand this new lack of oxygen and sets your legs at their usual sea level pace and 30 seconds later your consciousness needs to step in to sort things out while you are panting in your tracks. After 10 months at altitude, the opposite seems to be the case.
This fight has about 12 people on it. Since it is a Herc it is slower (and nosier) than the C-17 planes that usually do the New Zealand to McMurdo run for the US Air Force. The Kiwis have treated us well with snacks and drinks on the plane. The flight crew is either sleeping in cots suspended from the ceiling or making their round checking the mechanics of the aircraft. Flying over the Southern Ocean is serious business. Here is pretty much zero chance of rescue if we were to go down here.
Temperature -17.9F !!!
Station Population: 220 (Summer People)
Station Population: 5 (Winter Overs)
Time until New Zealand: ??? hours
Days on the ice: 286
Station Population: 175 (Summer People)
Station Population: 5 (Winter Overs)
Time until New Zealand: 123 hours
Days on the ice: 282
Hits to this blog: 23,538
On Wednesday about 25 winterover polies left the South Pole. This left about 10 on station. Over the next couple days about 5 more left. Now there are only 5 of us. Me and 4 scientists. I’m the last of the Raytheon winterover crew.
My departure date is November 12th. The extra time here is a drag but the hardest part is seeing your friends leave and knowing that you will not share that part of the experience with them. The best analogy is can give is it is like failing Seinor Englsh and having to watch your friends walk across the podium and graduate while you have to go to summer school and get your diploma from the mailman. It has also been hard to watch all the Facebook posts of those who are now in Christchurch. As long as my flights go on time, I’ll be ok. Otherwise, I will be a very unhappy camper. One can only withstand so much disappointment with good spirits.
Last week I also had to change rooms. I had to give up my room to a summer person with more seniority. Again, the move itself is a drag and my new room is smaller. However, the part that’s hard to accept is that if I had departed with the other winterovers, it would not have had the hassle of the move. Just another drawback of not getting to leave on time.
So Hurc flight are now daily occurrences. The weather has been nearly perfect. Sometime we get 2-3 a day. This has brought the station population to 175 people. I now have to wait in line in the galley. The lounges are always busy. The Internet is slower. People stand in doorways and block entrances. For 9 months I saw the same faces everyday with never an exception. Now it is a rarity to see a familiar person. I’ve gotten to know a few of the summer folks and they typically nice people, but we are on different trajectories.
The temperatures are much warmer too. Ambient temps are running in the -40’s and windchills are in the -60 to -80 range. I have to be careful with the temptation of going out under dressed in windchills in the -80’s. Compared to the winter where the windchill rarely got above the triple digits, windchills in the -80’s are downright balmy. However, without good coverage it will still bite you. However, even with modest head gear, it’s easy to be comfortable in a -80 windchill where as at -130 or -140F even when wearing everything possible it still gets you. The range from -60 to -80 is tricky because you can be out for a while in big red, jeans, hiking boots, a hat and gloves, but if you’re out too long your hurting. I’ve found that a -60 windchills is quite manageable without a face mask.
I’ve got most of my stuff in boxes now. My plan is to ship most everything home and walk out of here with only a modest bag or two. In a couple days I’ll do my “bag-drag”. That’s where my “checked” luggage will become th property of the cargo department. They will weigh it and load it onto a airforce type pallet. This usually happens the day before the flight, but if the flight is delayed you could be days without your luggage. Another part of life in Antarctica that warrants careful planning and patience.
One interesting thing that is occurring is the removing of the winter drifts. These huge drifts that are around every building on station are excavated and pushed into even larger piles where they will eventually be drug off station.
I’m not sure what the future of this blog will be from this point on. I usually do my blogging on Sundays (my day off). Hopefully this will be my last Sunday on the ice and I really don’t think I want to spend my time in Christchurch sitting in the hotel writing about the Antarctica (or anything for that matter). So, I might try to make a few small posts during the week, both from here, McMurdo and Christchurch. Just updates, nothing philosophical. I may start other blogs in the future, but I doubt that I will ever have an experience that is of interest to such a broad audience as living at the South Pole for nearly a year..
I will eventually do a re-cap and postmortem on the experience, but that might be months out when I’m back in Seattle. Either way, I’d like to thank all those that read my blog and and a special thanks to those who left comments or questions. At the time of this posting I’ve had almost 24,000 hits to this site.
PS: My Wife has been bicycle touring through New Zealand for the past month and has started her own count down…
Temp -47.9F, Windchill -74.7F
Station Population: 121
Days remaining on ice: 12
Days on the ice: 278
Hits to this blog: 22,931
The news of the week was the arrival of the first LC-130 Hercules airplane. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_LC-130 Due to all the bad flying weather, they have pushed up the Herc schedule to help us get caught up with moving people from McMurdo to Pole. The Baslers can only carry 16 passengers where as the larger Hurc can carry 30-40 passengers. These are still tiny compared to the big C-17 Globemasters that fly from McMurdo to Christchurch that take on about 100 passengers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C-17_Globemaster_III The Hurcs are the largest aircraft that can land at pole because our landing strip is only a snow surface and cannot support wheeled aircraft. McMurdo has a sea ice runway that is much stronger. Rumor has it that there has been some talk of trying to create a hard surface runway here at pole to support larger wheeled aircraft. However on of the the arguments against doing that is it would allow more tourism here at Pole and that is generally frowned upon. I don’t know if that of that is true, but it’s interesting. Regardless, the ski equipped Hurc remain the backbone of logistics of the South Pole. Occasionally a C-17 will air drop supplies to South Pole, but that is more a test of concept than a significant method of moving materials. So the Herc showed up on content one day before its arrival at pole. They come here from working up north in places like Greenland. The weather the day the Hurc came in didn’t seem any better than any of the weather of the previous week. I wonder if there isn’t a little bit of rivalry between the Air National Guard and the Ken Borek Air Service as to who can get the job done. That is also probably not true, the the reality is more complicated, but I’ve got to wonder.
- First LC-130 Hurc
One of the passengers of the Hurc brought me a US flag that I ordered online. We have been raffling off the old flags to the winterovers, but luck was not on my side. Regardless, the idea of having a flag that flew over the geographic south pole was tantalizing. So a couple days ago, it put up the flag and will probably take it down after a couple more days. Since we are on top of a huge glacier, we move 33 feet per year. That means the location of the geographic pole is now something like 28 feet from the real pole since the survey last summer. So I paced off about 30′ in the direction it should be and planted my flag. So to the best of my knowledge, my flag is flying directly over the geographic South Pole.
I have not been that interested in meeting the summer crew and generally preferring the company of my fellow winterovers. I attribute that to a number of factors. First is that we are on our way out and it seems pointless (to me at least) to get to know these people. I believe many of them feel the same about us and would rather invest their time into more important relationships. (They might be a little afraid of us too ;) ) I am also kinda socially exhausted and the effort of meeting the new people seem like so much work. This does not seem to be the case with all of the winterovers however. Also, it’s just more comfortable to be with like mined people. We all have our inside jokes, the twinkle in our eyes of our futures and the toasty 1000 yard stare. We can commiserate or reminisce about our winter together. Much like our families, we didn’t choose each other, but for better or worse here we are.I answered a posting on a climbing forum (www.cascadeclimbers.com) by someone looking for mitts for a climb of a 20,000 foot peak. I thought I might have something to contribute so I replied. I’m been wanting to write about my hand wear system for a while, but never got the ambition to actually do it, I thought I would just add a copy here.
I’ve got to give a strong vote for the BD Absolute Mitts.
I’ve been living and working at the South Pole for the winter (February – November). I’ve come to really love these mitts. I used them almost exclusively when the temps are colder than -60F, and that has been virtually everyday for the past 8 months. When it gets really cold (ie -80F to -95F) my hands can get cold, especially if I am holding something, or if I have them out of the mitts too much. But really…-95F with a -145F windchill what do you expect.
There might be warmer mitts, but there is more to a glove system than just warmth. I love these mitts because the shell is insulated with primaloft. Most other mitts have a really thick liner that goes into an uninsulated nylon shell. What I do is remove the liner from the right mitt (I’m right handed) and I wear a modest fleece glove (OR Gripper) on my right hand. Without the mitt’s liner, the right hand goes in and out easily. This give me the dexterity to do almost anything. This does not happen if you are trying to use a fleece glove with a mitt that has a fleece liner. If you were to try this with most other mitts, you wouldn’t have any additional insulation provided by the shell. Thus it wouldn’t be much warmer than your fleece glove alone. In extreme cold (like we have down here) exposing skin for a few seconds = frostbite (been there – done that). For my left hand I just run the mitt stock since I don’t usually need that level of dexterity in both hands.
I’ve been really quite happy with these mitts and how they work with my system. The are obscenely expensive at $180 a pair, but if any one can justify the most expensive mitts on the market, it is some one spending 10 months at the coldest place on the planet. The program issues gloves and mitts too. There are 2 types of gloves, one is a lightly insulated leather glove and the other is a better insulated leather glove. Neither is particularly warm, but for some they are ok in surprisingly cold conditions. I tend to have cold hands so, this is not and option. The next step up is a pair of leather mitt that are reasonably insulated. These are fairly popular for winterovers. They are still rather pitiful, but can be paired with liner gloves and chemical hand warmers to result in a workable system. The next step up is the bearpaw mitts. These are just military issue mitts. I got a pair of these at the CDC, but I put them the the emergency gear cache and never used them. I actual own a pair back home, but they are so bulky that you can’t really do much with them. I guess they are good for driving the snowmobile or to use them like a muff where they are just a place to rewarm hands or for walking from place to place. In my opinion are not that warm. However, some people down here give them strong marks for their warmth.
Like I said, even at negative whatever, it is rare for my to get really cold hands with my Black Diamond mitts. If I am holding something (especially metal), it does tend to compress the insulation a bit and the conductive heat loss can be an issue. One time my thumbs got very cold in them. I started out with cold hands and then took a snowmobile on a ¾ mile ride to take some photos of some buildings. It was about -85 F and I had to stop a number of times to swing my arm to force some more warm blood in to my vasoconstricted fingers. Another problem usually comes from when I am in and out of them for detailed work (ie writing, fixing something, taking pictures, etc). When I need dexterity, my right hand has a fleece windstopper glove with a liner underneath. That’s still pretty good dexterity and warmth. The most important part is that the fleece glove be windstopper, otherwise forget about it. If I know I will be doing a lot of detailed work I’ll drop in a pair of hand warmers inside the right mitt. One other “trick” is to use the idiot string where I can remove my right mitt and I can let it dangle while I do what I need to and the mitt doesn’t blow away or get lost in the darkness.
I wonder what percentage of the world’s hand warmer industry output goes to Antarctica. I’m not sure, but we go through thousands of them here. I typically think of these things as cheating (or “aid” for the climbers). However, when the windchill is running at -130F or colder…anything goes. However, I try not to depend on them. I like to have the confidence that my system will keep my hands from freezing without the warmers, because they can get dropped or stop working prematurely. It’s a safety issue if you are relying on them.
Temp -57.1F, Windchill -91.8F
Station Population: 72
Days remaining on ice: 18
Days on the ice: 268
On Monday the 19th we go our first flight in. It was supposed to arrive on the 15th, but they require 3 miles of visibility before they off deck from McMurdo. This seems excessive to me. It is also a rule that seems to bend in direct relationship to the number of days they are behind schedule. Regardless, the first flight came in without incident. Joe and I were up in comms at the time assisting the flight from a communications point of view. Comms is the center of activity when there are inbound flights and that’s where everyone wants to be to get the most up to date information. However, we had to eventually close the door and put of a “Stay Out” sign, since the commotion was starting to interferer with our ability to hear the faint voices in the ether. 16 people got off the plane and 3 winterovers left.
The shock of new people was far less this time than when the transit flight came through. While the plane was on the ground, much of the station was helping to bring in the cargo. The Baslers don’t bring a lot of cargo; just some hand carried bags for the passengers, about 50 lbs of fresh food and a few critical parts we have been waiting for. Regardless, the hand carry bags are a bit too much for most of the new arrival to manage at 11,000 ft and the fresh food needs to get out of the -50F weather before freezing. After the plane departed and the cargo was up in the station, there was group forming in the galley eating the newly arrived fruit. Bananas and Kiwi fruit being the predominate options. There was quite a bit of mingling among the new people and the winterovers. Most of the people that arrived have one or more summers on ice so there wasn’t the complete star struck aw that would accompany completely new person, although there were a few. Some of the new people I recognized from the end of last summer or whom I have corresponded with throughout the winter.
The next morning we had fresh eggs for breakfast. Two fried eggs. Amazing. I really haven’t had too many food craving here. They galley staff did a great job with providing variety and I’m not too fussy about freshness. However, these eggs were a surprise to my pallet that I was not expecting.
The next 3 days were touch and go in terms of flying weather. The visibility would be bad here. Then it would clear up and get bad in McMurdo. Then get bad here again.
On Wednesday, we had the winterover awards ceremony. Each winterover was issued an Antarctica Service Metal http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctica_Service_Medal and http://www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/Awards/ANTARCTICA%20SERVICE%20MEDAL1.html. As I understand it, the metal is actually a military decoration that is award to civilians. Also, Steele, the winterover machinist, made each winterover a token that with out names and winterover number on it. My winterover number is 1243 since I’m the 1243rd person to winter at the South Pole. The token is made from metal from each of the South Pole stations. One of the metals from the old Navy station from the 50’s. Another is from the a discarded door frame from the old dome and also some metal that was from the new station.
Finally on Friday, we got our second plane. More or less the same routine, only this time I didn’t have to work the comms and was able to be on the ice for the arrival. This second plane also brought in one of my colleagues. I meet with him and again helped haul cargo into the station. This was a late flight arriving around 7pm. Thus there was only a little milling about before everyone went off to bed.
Attendance was good, but still only about half of the station population of 72 was there. Many of the winterovers are toast and were just to tired to attend and some of the new arrivals were having the same symptoms, but for different reasons.