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.


Blogger Roberto Iza Valdes said...

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November 3, 2005 at 10:31 PM

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