my trip to the Antarctica and the South Pole

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Sipole Dome Field Camp

Before I forget too many more of the details, I want to tell the rest of the story of my travels.

The morning after getting back to the Pole, I ship out again. I am the only passenger on my flight this time. A couple hours into it, just when I'm getting used to the idea of a warm shower in McMurdo, one of the load masters has some news for us. Turns out, the weather in McMurdo has gone bad. Normally, in these conditions, they would head there anyway, and make a few passes if necessary on the ice runway, or go for one of the alternate runways near the station. There is only one problem with that plan. We don't have enough fuel to even make a 2nd approach on any runway there. Like most planes into Pole, we had offloaded fuel until we had just enough to get back to McMurdo, with some extra for contingencies, because that is how Pole gets all it's fuel for the winter. On our flight out, however, we had to burn a lot of fuel keeping our altitude low while the next flight headed into Pole. I believe the exact words that the flight engineer used to describe our situation were "We are counting fuel by the molecule."

We hang a right over the Ross Ice Shelf and head for a field camp called Sipole Dome. The load master says we'll grab some fuel there, call over to McMurdo for a weather report, and either head out if we can, or, as he puts it, "camp". Camp? At first, I'm a little stunned by this proposition. Then, it hits me. "Really?" I belt out, a smile exploding on my face, "SWEET!". Simultaneously, the girl receiving the same news sitting next to me is overcome by a look of horror and doom. I go on to ask just what this Sipole Dome place is. Some Antarctic field camps are decent-sized operations with several buildings and such, and some are tiny remote outposts with tents. Sipole Dome, I'm told, is somewhere in between. There are some tents, but at least one temporary structure resembling a building. And a population of 6. Just a few days prior, the first plane had offloaded enough fuel there to reload our tanks. We would be more than doubling the population just by landing. I look at the survival bags stored in front of me. I sure hope the crew has enough stuff to share. All I have is the parka on my back, and I'm cold just sitting in this plane.
An hour or so later, we're descending for our first landing of the night. A few specks in the whiteness get bigger as we approach, but not that much bigger. For the most part, the place we've just handed our lives over to is a tiny sprinkle of humanity on a huge white, flat plain. It's like Pole, only much less of it. The fuel pump we're depending on is about the size of a small household generator, and the people there keep hitting it with hammers in an apparent attempt to keep it working. The fuel hose for our LC-130 is about as big around as a garden hose. I see a triangle shape in the distance...a tent that the Sipole Dome residents call home. I step off the plane, away from the propellers, as instructed, and stand in the most remote place I have ever been on this earth. Although we're at about the same Latitude as McMurdo, it feels extremely cold here, and the wind is blowing snow. I secretly hope we have reason to camp, while at the same time wondering how warm my sleeping bag will be.
The crew eventually runs back from where they made their call to McMurdo for the weather report. We're going for it. We button up the plane, and take off once again, from white nothingness into white nothingness. A couple hours later, we break clouds over McMurdo. I can feel the plane rocking back and forth more than usual, and we have to use a special runway to avoid the worst of the crosswinds. Either these folks were just too busy to notice, or they didn't care any more at this point, but I stood up in the cockpit behind the pilot until about 400 ft. altitude. The crew seems nervous, but, luckily, our landing is pretty smooth, all things considered.
We're on a shuttle heading for the station before I know it. Seven hours on the plane. The shuttle driver told us that not ten minutes before we landed, there were white-out conditions at our runway. By some miracle it had cleared literally minutes before our approach.
The next day, I have a bunch of emails from friends at Pole who heard about my diversion to Sipole, and can't believe my luck. I'm getting a reputation at Pole for being a charmed souther-hemisphere jet-setter.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

destination McMurdo

destination McMurdo

<> Today was my first day back home. I just finished up an amazing 2 weeks of traveling that has left me with pictures from remote field camps, receipts from fancy restaurants, and a friendship with just about every LC-130 crew member on the continent.

My first trip took me to McMurdo Station, which started with the flight from my last posting. I arrive ready to turn around in two short days after the Helium shipment gets in. I am put in a transient room with 3 roommates who are wonderfully welcoming. I meet the Helium, as expected, and put in some work with the McMurdo cryo tech at the station's Science Labs. Then, according to plan, I pack my bags, clean up my room, put on all my ECW gear, turn in my key, and head out to pick up my transportation to the ice runway. Ten steps into the door, I am met by air services...they had just tried to call me. My flight is cancelled because it's too cold to properly offload the 1000 gallon helium tank, which was deemed too large to be safely combat-offloaded. I do an about-face and head back to housing to complete the leaving process in reverse. The next day, I would repeat the drill exactly...right down to the part where they tell me my flight is cancelled.

Each day, I return to my room, play another round of the skip-bo card tournament my roommate and I have started, and spend the day explaining to everyone I run into about the cancellations. Around this time, people have stopped saying normal greetings like "hi" or "how's it going?" to me. They simply say, "You're STILL here?!?" By day 3, we've had it with waiting for the weather, and we go ahead and transfer the Helium into smaller containers that can be combat-offloaded. The transfer is going nicely, when suddenly, the other cryo tech runs into the room and says we have a problem. A line in our big tank has burst...the first failure like this he's seen in his 15+ years in the program. Luckily, we eventually improvise a bit and still get our small tanks full. I imagine in horror what would have happened if my flights weren't cancelled the last few days and the faulty tank had flown and failed while on the air plane! I could have been in charge of a decision on whether or not to drop the container from the plane while in flight!! That's one of the only contingency plans we have for flying over the Antarctic plateau in a small aircraft with limited radio contact.

Instead, I land safely at the South Pole the next day around 8pm with our smaller containers. The flight was thankfully uneventful, except for the frantic unhooking of vent lines before the landing so we could be ready for the combat offload, and a spastic liquid gauge on one of my tanks that has the loadmasters nervous that we were going to blow up. We weigh and store the containers until 10:30pm, when I finally get to see my room again. I'm not done though. I have to unpack, and then re-pack. I am slated for the 10:45am McMurdo flight the next morning for a trip that would eventually have me stepping off a plane in warm, humid Christchurch, New Zealand. But, of course, the Antarctic continent couldn't ever make it that easy.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Pinch me.

Yesterday was possibly one of the coolest days of my life. I spent the day time preparing for Helium. After months of being out of this precious commodity needed for the experiments, we were finally getting some in--and I was to be it's escort from the big town, McMurdo Station. I was to leave Pole sometime the next morning to meet it. After spending all day getting ready for the big arrival, I went for a jog on the treadmill, only to hear my call sign over the radio a few mintues into it. "Cryo Chris, Cryo Chris, do you copy?" It was Cargo Paddy, the woman in charge of the Helium delivery. She told me that due to weather, all flights tomorrow out of Pole had been cancelled. She asked if I could be ready for the 8 o'clock flight out tonight. It was 6:20. I told her no problem, and ran off the treadmill. I spent the next hour or so throwing my stuff around my room and into bags, scarfing down dinner in the galley, and packing some snacks for the ride. No free peanuts on the LC-130. I walked out to the skiway with a backpack and an empty larger bag for all the stuff I was going to bring back for my friends from MacTown (McMurdo's nickname)...mostly good booze we can't get at Pole. We were motioned onto the plane...four passengers in all. This was a designated fuel plane, meaning it offloaded it's extra fuel from it's tanks into our reservoirs, so we could have enough to run the station. It's too cold for loading cargo at the Pole, so the belly of the plane was mostly empty except for us and our luggage. I had a "window seat", and watched the station disappear into the vast whiteness as we took off. Strange to see everything that has sustained you for the past few weeks disappear into nothing in a matter of minutes.

But the adventure had just started. Not long into the flight, one of the loadmasters invited us into the cockpit. I was a tourist at first, taking lots of pictures and gawking at the amazing view. It was clear then at our altitude of about 20K, and the landscape was peppered with mountains. I started asking a lot of questions, especially of the navigator, and his radar. Either out of fustration or generosity, he eventually just gave me a headset. A few minutes later, I was chatting with the entire crew, consisting of our Pilot, co-Pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and 2 loadmasters. We got to know where everybody was from, and a little about what they do. I mainly just stood between the pilot and co-pilot, watching as the clouds filled in beneath us and overcast the Antarctic plateau. I made no motion of leaving when they started their descent, and nobody mentioned that I should. I heard all the weather reports, the pre-landing briefing, and the plans for a ARA (radar assisted) landing. Visibility was reported as 6 thousand, and our pilot was freaked out for a second because he thought they said 6 hundred. He had them repeat it three times. They decided to do a practice landing that involved going around almost 360 degrees around the runway, and be guided in by flight ops at McMurdo. We started our descent, and at 8K, we popped through the clouds to reveal a stunning sight of blue glaciers, rocky mountains, and sea ice. I was standing right behind the co-pilot, holding onto the handle they advised me to when the turbulance hit. The navigator pointed out all the sights to me, including the mountains he was advising the pilot on regarding their altitude. "You're fine at this altitude over the mountain, but not if we continue this descent rate." Hmm....not exactly making me comfortable with that comment. Neither was the fact that every few minutes they told the pilot a new mileage and corresponding altitude, and they kept forgetting and saying things like "was that nineteen thousand at 10 miles, or twenty six?" It seemed like we were literally weaving between mountains, guided by visuals of the pilot and instructions from the radar guy. Details in the sea ice and glaciers were becoming clearer as the pilot read through his falling altitudes. The view was blowing my mind, and I couldn't even believe I was actually there. No tray tables or seat backs to put up. I was STANDING in the COCKPIT, behind the freaking co-pilot at 1000 feet!!!! Finally, at 800 feet, when it looked like were just bouncing low above the sea ice, they said that I might want to sit down. I sat on a bench at the back of the cockpit and listened to the directions coming from McMurdo. "slightly to left of course and high...heading two nine five" over and over. No automation whatsoever. Landing gear down. Engine 4 looking squirrely. They have a load master go to check the front landing gear because this red light keeps coming on in their panel. The load master reports that the ski is down. It shouldn't be. Since we're landing on an ice runway, we're supposed to be using only the wheels. We are on FINAL finall approach. The runway is RIGHT THERE. They abandon the landing, pull up and around, and the flight engineer flies out of the cockpit to get a visual on the landing gear. My pulse is absolutely racing. After a warning about a nearby mountain that the pilot insists he has a visual on and doesn't need warning about, the flight engineer returns and says we're fine. The ski is only partially down, and being held up by a piece of hardware designed for that. Just land high and bring the nose down slowly, he tells the pilot. SERIOUSLY! The pilot decides he's had enough practice and he's going to do the landing visually only. Nobody speaks and he heads for the runway. A visual-only landing in a sea of whiteness on flaky landing gear. God help us. I loosen my seatbelt and stretch up for a view of the runway getting closer. Soon the familiar buildings surrounding it are crystal clear, and flying by. Holding my breath, we touch down, first in back, then, nervously, in front. That was the sigh of relief that could be heard around the world.

Minutes later, I am outside the plane on the sea ice, marvelling at the first almost-sunset I've seen in weeks. We ate midnight rations ("midrats") with our LC-130 crew that night, and I found my way to my room eventually falling asleep around 2:30am. It's sometimes hard to believe this is really my life.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Election day

Election day
Originally uploaded by teenmachine.
Today was election day back home. Everyone here has been checking the internet all day, waiting for the electoral votes to come in. No TV to watch, we just hit "reload" minute after minute on Even that was only available until about 3pm, though, when the satellites went down. Then we all just figured we'd wait until morning to find out who our new President was. Some people said they would call home on the highly controlled Iridium phone, which is our 24 hour emergency satellite phone line. Surprisingly, though, someone must be getting through to McMurdo on some kind of radio, because the electoral vote count has been available to us on our internal intranet, which is also put on the TV's in the galley. We have no idea which states have been counted, though, and which ones are still up for grabs. We only know what someone is typing in after hearing numbers over the radio. More than once, the numbers have been wrong...maybe there was too much static over the air. It's strange to be experiencing something so big from such an isolated place. We get used to the idea of being able to find anything out at any time, but down here, when the satellites go down, we really can't get live information. I can only imagine how the people felt who experienced 9/11 here. I keep having the urge for a split second to just call home to find out what's really going on...before I realize it's impossible. By now, most folks have finally wandered out of the galley, where many of us were waiting for new counts to come in. I guess I'll just wait for tomorrow morning too.