Wednesday, January 30, 2008


after almost three complete summer seasons, I was given the chance to go to 90 degrees south – scott-amundsen south pole station.

the station is named after first two men to reach the south pole on foot – the brit robert falcon scott, and norwegian roald amundsen. scott reached the pole frozen and half-starved only to see a norwegian flag stuck in the snow – it had been there for two weeks. oh, and he died on the way back to the coast, along with most of his men. that’s gotta suck.

this has been a busy season for the south pole station. a new elevated building has recently been completed and dedicated – a state-of-the-art facility that includes housing, offices, the cafeteria, a greenhouse, gymnasium facilities, a communications center, and lots of other things – all in a massive building on stilts that allows for snow to blow underneath instead of piling up alongside.

in stark contrast to the old dome (the original south pole station facility), which used to house most of the station’s facilities and which is half-buried, emptied these days of everything except pallets of frozen food, and slated for destruction in the next year or so, the elevated station is perched proudly atop snow piled two miles deep. earlier this month, a huge gaggle of distinguished visitors was flown to the station for a day trip that included a dedication ceremony, where they were given antarctic schwag and shown around the facility before boarding the planes that brought them back to mcmurdo and then took them on to christchurch.

it's really astounding to think that everything that went into building the new elevated south pole station was flown there on LC-130 - on approximately 925 separate missions.

anyway, back to my trip. for the second time this season, one of my chaladies (myrna this time) connived behind my back and, in cahoots with station management both here and at pole, got me manifested on a day trip last week. I really need to start cracking down on myrna and christina. they are sooooooooo sneaky.

the day prior, I went to the medical clinic and got a packet of diamox. the docs urge southbound pax to start diamox the day prior to going to pole to pre-empt altitude sickness. the altitude at pole is not quite 10,000 feet, but due to a phenomenon called physiological altitude, it feels much higher – somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 feet. and you get there in a single LC-130 flight from sea level, which doesn’t leave much time at all for acclimatization. in contrast to nepal, where we had several days to get used to the idea of summiting at 18,000 feet, my body had three hours to adjust. every season, someone at pole is medevacked due to acute altitude sickness of either the pulmonary or cerebral variety (which cause such pleasant things as hacking up pink froth from the lungs or projectile-vomiting, not to mention coma and death), and more often than not, it turns out that the victim refused their diamox on the way through mcmurdo. altitude sickness can plague those who have never before had problems with altitude, even if they’re in relatively good health, so the docs here push those little white pills on people for good reason.

properly drugged and along with one of my best girlfriends, susie, I reported at 0700 for transport to the plane. we were driven out to williams field to catch the first line (mission) of the day, along with about twenty others. in the group was a team from CBS news and also one from NPR, here from the states to capture footage for specials that will be edited, produced and aired in the near future.

we were given earplugs, a box of flight snacks, and a safety briefing on what to do in the event of a crash (muster 300 feet from the nose of the aircraft and wait for further instructions from crew). then, with the props starting to whirr, we climbed aboard and strapped ourselves into the webbed nylon seats that lined each side of the LC-130. a member of the crew pointed out the toilet facilities – a urinal at the front of the aircraft for the men, and a toilet at the rear for the ladies (shielded by an olive-green shower curtain). classy.

and we were off!

the flight took roughly three hours, putting us on the ground by 1130. we stepped off into the roar of the propellers and hauled ourselves and our ECW bags off the skiway and toward the elevated station. it was freezing cold and sunny and clear and OH MY GOD I WAS AT THE SOUTH POLE!

susie’s brother tim works on a science project at the south pole called ice cube. the project, which is so huge it constitutes its own line item separate from the NSF yearly budget, involves drilling kilometer-deep holes into the packed snow and ice under the south pole. into these holes, which are roughly three feet in diameter, are lowered cables onto which are strung sixty basketball-sized objects called digital optical modules (DOMs, for short). each DOM costs thousands of dollars and holds sophisticated equipment that can detect the collision of subatomic particles called neutrinos with ice molecules, which release a spark of energy. data from these collisions is sent up huge cables (see pic), collected and analyzed to give the scientists clues into the timeless mysteries such as age and size of the universe, cosmic happenings many worlds away, and why it’s impossible to say ‘expedia’ without adding on the little sing-song ‘dot-com’ at the end.

tim was standing at the skiway to meet us. he suggested we dump our stuff in his room (everyone at pole gets their own room, in contrast to mcmurdo, where rooms are shared by anywhere from two to six people). we climbed the stairs to the first floor of the station, where beth, the station support manager, greeted us and welcomed us to the pole, and then we were free to wander at will.

first item was of course to get our hero shots at the geographic and ceremonial south poles. the geographic south pole consists of a metal marker that is moved every year due to the fact that the snow piled on top of the continent moves several feet in a year’s time. the ceremonial pole, a few feet away, is surrounded by the flags of the countries that signed the original antarctic treaty and consists of a larger pole topped with a shiny metal ball. it’s the prettier of the two markers and is a popular spot for folks to take pictures of themselves. not until much later did I realize that I had been standing at the southernmost point of the entire planet. at the time, I was concentrating on squinting so that my retinas wouldn’t combust (the sunlight and snow made it very, very bright there) and on keeping all my extremities covered (even with no wind, the ambient temperature of -40F kept us on our toes).

after the hero shots, tim and our friend bear took us around the various facilities. bear picked us up on a people-sled rigged to a skidoo and off we zoomed.

led by another friend, sven, we toured the icecube facility and saw them drilling the final hole of the season - #18 of 18. the project will eventually drill so many of these holes that they will take up an entire square kilometer – and since they go down a kilometer in depth, the entire thing will resemble a cube – hence the name. we were not only lucky enough to see the drilling in action (done with a high-pressure hose that uses two engines totalling roughly 6700 horsepower to shoot hot water into the hole, then pump out the resulting meltwater, heat it, and pump it back in to continue drilling) – we got to sign one of the DOMs with a sharpie – something that only DVs are allowed to do! our DOM, named ‘wolf’ (each one has a name, like ‘ear’ or ‘tube top’ or ‘jerusalem’) will be lowered into the hole along with 59 others and frozen into the hole, where it will watch neutrinos colliding with ice molecules for the rest of time.

here is sven, explaining the finer points of icecube to a captivated susie.

next we visited the NOAA (national oceanic and atmospheric administration) facility, a separate building in a wedge-shaped plot of snow called the clean air sector. basically, the air in this area, due to the lack of winds carrying pollution or other contaminants into it, is the cleanest in the world. the scientists showed us the vials they use to capture the air and test it for carbon dioxide levels. then they gave each of us a little glass vial in which to capture our own ‘cleanest air on earth.’ on the side they wrote the date and the carbon dioxide level for that day, which (incidentally) was off the given chart. if anyone tells you that climate change is a myth, send ‘em over to me – I’ve got the evidence in a little glass jar on my desk.

due to the length of our visit (nine hours on the ground), we were allowed to eat both lunch and dinner in the south pole galley, where the cooks had dished up sloppy joes for lunch and beef bourgignone for dinner – fabulous! my buddy keith, who cooks at mcmurdo, was there too, working in the kitchen as a replacement for a SP cook who had gone to mcmurdo for the week on R&R. (anyone who is slated to do a summer-winter contract at pole gets to spend a week in mcmurdo on R&R prior to winter. the polies usually spend this week lounging in the coffeehouse during the day, hiking our trails, looking at the wildlife, and running around in shirt-sleeves – all things they are unable to do at pole even in the summer.)

after dinner, beth took us down into the tunnels dug into the snow under the station. these tunnels are roughly ten feet tall and five feet wide, and they contain the sewage and water lines that run between the disparate sections of the station. parts of them have inevitably burst from the cold, so the tunnels, even at the cozy temperature of -60F, smell faintly of poo.

they were lit by what looked like hanging miners’ lamps, and the walls were smooth packed snow, the ceilings fuzzy with frost. side tunnels snaked off in different directions, and some of these held interesting offerings and art installations, such as a real pig’s head that had been stolen out of food waste and mounted on a plaque and adorned with a pair of sunglasses. another tunnel held a two-foot-long sturgeon, displayed in a window cut out of the snow wall. in a plastic sleeve tacked to the wall was a typewritten account of how the sturgeon had come to rest in a snow tunnel under the south pole. apparently it had come off a food shipment headed to vostok (the russian station in east antarctica), spent a winter atop a food container at williams field, and been hand-carried to the pole under one of the pax seats on an LC-130. it was therefore much more well-traveled than the average mililani resident.

I would have many, many more pictures from my day trip to the pole, but delaney’s camera battery kept freezing. I had it under my jacket, sheltered from the wind, and would pop it out to take a quick photo before it succumbed to the cold. in the snow tunnels, I couldn’t take more than a couple – and due to the poor lighting, they didn’t come out anyway. here is one of me, however, upon emerging from the tunnels.

all too soon, it was time to head back to the skiway to board our return flight. susie, a firefighter named will, and myself were the only pax on the aircraft this time. dehydration and altitude, as well as sheer exhaustion, had taken their toll on me, and even though I had fully planned to try to sit up in the cockpit on the way home, all I could do was sink into a supine position on the webbed nylon seat and lie in a little red-parka pile all the way back. we got into mcmurdo at 1:00 am.

I had been to the south pole and back in one day. I had taken my hero shot, shopped at the store, eaten two hot meals, marveled at a pig’s head stuck to a wall, toured science facilities, and all without having to eat seal blubber or amputate a frozen limb. roald amundsen and robert falcon scott would have been jealous.


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