my trip to the Antarctica and the South Pole

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Halloween at the South Pole

Halloween at the South Pole
Last night was a good night to be at the South Pole. It didn't really feel like Halloween all road side pumpkin stands, no leaves changing color, no jack-o-lanterns, or Halloween impulse aisles in the stores...but we made the best of it. I wore the same costume I've worn for the past 4 years or so, a flapper outfit. It was one of the more planned costumes, since I was warned in advance that Halloween is big down here. Lots of people put together last minute costumes, made up from the skua bins and shacks around station. Skua, named after a scavenger bird found in coastal areas in Antarctica, is how a lot of stuff at the station is recycled. When people leave the ice, they drop off stuff they don't feel like lugging back home in skua bins. Then, people on station go skua bin diving for the stuff. I was very impressed by some of the skua costumes--a sock monkey, a skanky woman in drag, a gypsy, a "cereal" killer, a gardener, Kurt Russel from "The Thing", a ninja, and even a sperm cell were some of the highlights. We had to walk about a quarter mile in about -50F to get to the party, which meant I had to hike up the skirt to get my insulated Carharts on over the costume. I had my big blue boots on my feet and my costume heels hanging out of my parka pocket. Besides the crazy dancing, the highlight of the night was probably when I decided to run outside through the snow to an adjacent building to the closest ladies room, which I did in nothing but my little black flapper dress, boa, and heels. Funny sights at the South Pole...
Halloween at the South Pole

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Mike & Christina at He racks.jpg

Mike & Christina at He racks.jpg

Many people have been asking me just what exactly I do. Well, my official title is Research Associate. There are 3 Research Associates on station out of about 250 people in the summer, 100 in the winter. We are employed by Raytheon, who is contracted by the National Science Foundation to run the station. We help out scientists with experiments while they're here in the summer, and then run and fix experiements in the winter. Out of the 3 RA's, one is the Cryogenics Technician, which is me this year. The cryo tech has some experiments to monitor and help with, but spends a lot of time maintaining the cryogenics on station, including liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, which the scientists need for various experiments. So, I run huge stores of cryogenics and a liquid nitrogen plant. I also bring cryo to the satellite labs around station on a snowmobile. This picture is me at one of the compressed helium gas tank racks that the meteorology people use to fill their baloons.

Monday, October 25, 2004

First day of work

Today I got mail for the first time here! It was just a couple of the packages I had sent myself before I left, but it was still fun to get mail. I was very surprised it got here so soon after station opening.

Today was also my first real real day of work, and it was pretty cool. I mainly just trained with the present cryogenics tech in the morning. I had my first scary altitude related physiological issue today. Getting enough oxygen here is a challenge on a normal day, as the equivalent physiological altitude here is usually over 10,000 ft. Today, however, it was around 11,000. I was standing out in the cold learning about the big liquid helium transport when I started to feel extremely dizzy. I realized I was standing right downwind of some idling heavy equipment runing on JP-8 and breathing in serious fumes. I was extremely cold and my hands and toes were going numb, and my head was swimming. I kept dropping the stuff I was holding and couldn't concentrate. I tried breathing deeper, but there just wasn't enough oxygen in the air I was taking in, and for one of the first times in my life, I really felt like I was going to faint on the spot. I finally went inside eventually felt better after I sat down with my head between my knees. It's pretty normal to gasp for air here, especially after going up stairs or walking quickly, but today's experience was different. Mental note: stay well clear of machinery exhaust!

My afternoon was spent on a thorough tour of the station learning about all the fire panels and systems. On station, we don't have a dedicated fire crew, so a team of winter-overs go to fire school and serve as the fire squad. I'm one of the trained fire people, and was assigned to Team 1, which is the first responder team that goes directly to the location of a fire alarm to asses the situation and prepare for Team 2, which is the team that wears all the bunker gear and air tanks and actually fights the fire. So, I went into every mechanical room, every power generator room, and all kinds of other places on station I normally wouldn't see, like the huge fuel pump arches and the water melting plant. It was really cool! Plus, I got my own radio to monitor for fire alarm calls. So now I look like a real Polie with my radio stuck in the pocket of my Carhart overalls. :)

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Arrived at South Pole

On Friday Oct. 22, around 4pm, the LC-130 I was in touched down on the skiway at the South Pole. I was terrified, excited, and overwhelmed. Everyone was dressed in their ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear without a speck of exposed skin. Even the old salts were geared up to the nines, which was a little scary...I had hoped their nonchalance would have helped me stay calm. None of us had really been able to talk much since we left McMurdo because the engines were so loud we had to wear earplugs, which added to the stress of the unknown. I couldn't help but wonder just how cold -66F would feel. We already knew it was possibly the coldest opening days in history--well below the threshold temperature for flights. The Coast Guard had to get a waiver just to land. We had a small taste of the cold already because our plane's cargo had to be "combat offloaded"--the freezing comtrails made it impossible for people to offload behind the plane like normal. This meant that while we were taxi-ing, the back of the plane was opened to make a big ramp. The cargo and all of us sitting in front of it were exposed to the open air, which looked like a huge yellow fog through my goggles. Then, the pilot steps on the gas, the military cargo dude unhooks the pallets, and the huge cubes go flying out the back of the plane loudly and slam onto the skiway. Then the ramp is slowly closed. It felt like I was in the middle of a crazy sci-fi movie, seriously. We all cheered.
Then they stop and open the crew door and we file out. Stepping onto the snow was like entering a new world. I was awe struck and nowhere near being able to speak. I spun around to take it in. The "New Station", the Dome, the temporary housing tents, the telescopes, and finally, the plane that brought me here with my friends still spilling out of it's foggy comtrails. It was like walking into an image that is so concrete in your mind it's like a photograph, only now it's come to life. My boss luckily met me and the other Research Associates and lead us through the snow to the New Station. Amazingly, the cold was bearable. Well, all except for my hands, which thoroughly froze. I thought I would be cool and wear my own ski gloves. Bad idea. Even with double liners, my fingers were completely numb and the outside of the gloves totally frozen stiff by the time we got to the station--a 5 minute walk, if that. We dropped our stuff inside and I tried to catch my breath, and my vocabulary. At over 10K ft effective altitude, even walking up a flight of stairs is a challenge. I half got my brain working again, and we headed to the galley for some water and to freak out together. My boss pointed out the geographical South Pole marker to me through the window. I only believed we were really there because I spent a long time watching out the plane's window and seeing nothing but whiteness go by. I had the thoughts of wondering what in the heck I was doing here, and that I must be at the coolest place on the planet all at once. Something about being somewhere so singular makes you think big.