This morning I got to answer questions over Skype from Mrs.Higdon’s Preschool class. Mrs. Higdon and I went to college together and now she teaches in northern Indiana. The kids always have great questions and are so curious. These kids, because they live in a cold climate could understand some of the cold concepts better than the kids I’ve done this sort of stuff with in California. While I was in Antarctica I corresponded with Ms. Hernholm’s fourth grade class. One of their in-class assignments was to learn about books. The parts of a book, the cover, the title page, the back cover, reviews and the such. Through the emails the kids were asking me about my favorites and such and they discovered that my great grandmother gave me a little stuffed Curious George doll when I was born. Well, Curious George has traveled all over with me including when we lived in Europe, when I moved to Australia and Japan and he even came down to the Antarctic with me. So, growing up, I was a huge fan of the Curious George books and his adventures. Somehow, Ms. Hernholm’s whole class decided they wanted to make “Curious George goes to Antarctica/South Pole” books!
Stepping off of the ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft at Williams Field on the Antarctic coast after the three hour flight from the Pole, the first thing I noticed was how the warmer snow felt under my feet. It was nearly 40 degrees below zero (conveniently that is where the Fahrenheit and Centigrade scales are equal) when I boarded the plane at the pole. I didn’t think much of how the snow felt under my feet, or what it sounded like. The squeaking crunching sound had been there all season. But when I set foot on the warmer costal snow, where it was right about freezing, the snow felt very different – soft and creamy.
Four of my polie co-workers and I, plus a dozen scientists from the pole were on our way back to the land of green. Our first stop was a night in McMurdo. Not long after us, people leaving the pole will be able to fly straight through without an overnight layover in McMurdo. Instead of getting a ride to the base like we did, they would simply get off of the smaller ski-equipped LC-130 and be shuttled from the softer snow ‘skiway’ to the harder ice runway where the huge wheeled C-17 Globemaster III will whisk them straight to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Knowing it would be warm when I arrived, I wore shorts under the heavy Antarctic clothing. Peeling off the layers as soon as I was on the tarmac waiting for the shuttle bus to the terminal felt glorious. The warm moist air enveloped me, light drops of rain tingled my skin and my sense of smell felt keener than ever. Even darkness took on a new fascination. The stars, having been hidden from me by 24 hours of sunlight a day at the pole, were partially obscured by scattered clouds and the light pollution of the city, but they were more beautiful than I could have imagined. It was approaching midnight but I was totally wired with all these sensory stimulations that had lain dormant since I flew south three months ago, all the way south.
Life at the pole has become routine. From the outside, it might seem that being at the South Pole could be anything but routine. But when you live and work here… much less work nine hours a day and six days a week, it does eventually just become where you live and work. Granted, it does dawn on me every now and then that I am right on the axis of the earth, and that is still very cool.
We do make occasional use of the pole with our recreational activities. Like on Christmas Day we have the annual Race Around The World. As long as one defines going around the world as crossing every line of longitude, then that’s just what we did. Some took the race seriously and made a good run around the three kilometer course. Others were dressed in costume, on skies and even on stilts. While others spent time in the weeks before building floats to be towed behind snowmobiles. The plumbers for instance, built an open air bathroom complete with a few toilets, sinks and even urinals. The carpenters pumped up the handle bars on one of the snowmobiles to Harley-Davidson style ape hanger handle bars and had a black bearded driver who fit the profile. In tow, they had found a hot air balloon basket and they tied a large weather balloon to it. On the front of the snowmobile they painted “South Pole Choppers.”
The wreckage of Skier 917 has been found. It took the effort of many, but we’ve reached the goal of crawling down through the escape hatch into the buried plane. Everyone who visited the wreck site took at least three hours of their free time per visit skiing or walking out to the site, climbing down into a five-meter snow hole and hauling out a few buckets of snow. That’s a true group achievement.
Two days before Christmas Kris from the meteorology department and I skied out there to check it out. No one had visited the site in some time so a few inches of snow drift had accumulated on the sheets of plywood covering the access hole.
After a little more digging and cleaning up around the edges, Kris handed up the hatch cover and disappeared into the perfectly round hole and entered the cockpit.
It was our weekend of Antarctic car camping. An instructor came up from McMurdo to take a group of us “Polies” out into the Great White Nothing to go camping for a night.
We started off with a classroom session on Friday night to get the basics on keeping warm, avoiding hypothermia and other ‘winter’ camping skills. Then, Saturday after work and dinner, we gathered and loaded up our ride out to the campsite in the middle of the Antarctic Plateau.
Actually, not everybody rode the “Piston Bully,” a personnel transport on tracks. Chris and I decided it would be fun to ski. Somehow skiing to camp heightened the adventure of the experience.
Chris and I loaded our gear onto the Piston Bully (this is car camping, remember) and started off on skis behind the rest of the group. At first we skiied in the tracks churned up by the transport vehicle, but after skiing on the raw sastrugi (wavelike formations of windblown snow) we found we got much better glide.
Here at the Pole, we celebrated Thanksgiving on Saturday. And by celebrate, I mean we got the day off from work and consequently, our first two-day weekend of the season. To celebrate, we had a big turkey dinner on Saturday night.
But I’m not writing to tell you how amazing the food was, how interesting it was to see everyone dressed up (relatively speaking – these are people I normally see in heavy work overalls, huge jackets, and frost-covered face masks, neck gaiters and goggles). Nor is this about the dance party that ensued after I had a nice long sit watching a movie (because we can’t get any football games on TV).
This is a story about the next day. The day I joined my first off-station Antarctic expedition.
Things are really swinging here at the Pole now. I’ve joined the South Pole Station Fire Brigade and we’ve had a few fire alarms, but no fires thank goodness. I’m working in the station greenhouse. And oh yes, there’s still plenty of snow shoveling. But the shoveling has declined as other projects start to demand more labor.
Last week we had a change in the weather. The winds shifted about 30 degrees and picked up speed. From what I gathered from the meteorologists, a low pressure system formed or moved into the Weddell Sea and due to the lay of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, it influences our weather. Opposite the Weddell Sea from us, a high pressure system started flowing towards the low pressure system and we were caught right in the middle of the exchange. That exchange included a fairly constant 25 knots of wind with peaks up to 32 knots. I was assigned to work outside in the Dark Sector that day, and it was glorious.
I was told when I applied for the job that there would be a lot of snow shoveling, especially for the first month. There was really no way for me to totally understand what that meant.
For the past week I have shoveled snow at least five hours a day. Most days it’s been eight or nine hours — my entire shift. On Thursday, after a solid nine hours of shoveling, it felt so amazing to just lay down, in all of my ECW (extreme cold weather) gear and do nothing. The risk in that is falling asleep and missing dinner which would be very bad. By about day two, my appetite picked up and I’ve been eating mounds of food at each meal. Fortunately food is part of the deal here so it’s all free (so to speak).
Mine may well have been one of the fastest trips to the South Pole. Amundsen, who led the first party to reach the South Pole ever in 1911, took 15 months and 9 days from Norway via ship and dog sled. Byrd got to the South Pole by ship and by plane in 15 months and 3 days (he had a particularly slow ship hauling his plane and, like most, dealt with weather delays).
Just as these explorers piggy-backed on the transportation technologies of their day, I did, too. My trip from the US to the South Pole made use of the most modern of aircraft and took me 69 hours – not quite three days.
Three days is an impressively short time to get to the pole. Most trips involve some sort of delay, if not many delays as they compound upon each other. The first leg – a flight from Los Angeles to Christchurch, New Zealand – is pretty straight forward. What Antarctic travelers truly dread is when their flight on the military C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from Christchurch to McMurdo Station on the Antarctic coast “boomerangs.” They get part way, if not all the way (5 hours), to McMurdo only to find the conditions are too poor to land, “boomeranging” them back to Christchurch to await better weather.