my trip to the Antarctica and the South Pole

Saturday, February 26, 2005

the first day of the rest of the winter

the day was so overcast and windy, nobody actually thought the planes would have enough visibility to land. it was the fourth or so day in a row of this weather--the first real storm of the summer. the skiway was getting so drifted over with snow, there were people in cats grooming it 24/7. i couldn't see very far when i was zooming around on my snomobile, and basically had to go by the flag lines to get to the telescopes.

one, two, then three planes gathered at the last checkpoint before reaching the south pole, and were all circling waiting for a break in the weather. i kept my radio volume high so i could hear if something changed. we were all planning on being at the plane to see the last of the summer people take off. lunch rolled around and the planes were still circling a 15 minute ride away, 20,000 ft. up. every once in a while, one would circle over the station, and we could hear it, but not see it. the wind was so harsh, i'm sure i wasn't the only winter-over wondering what i had gotten myself into. every walk outside was a challenge. it was -45F with over 20 knots of wind. i couldn't help but wonder what -100F with 25 knots of wind would feel like.

around 1:30, we finally heard the announcement that the passenger flight was going to try to land. everyone on station who could spare the time was on the flight deck in 15 minutes--about 30 with luggage, and the rest of us empty-handed. we wouldn't be packing for 8 more months. it was a huge flurry of hugging, picture taking, and goodbyes. most people were so bundled up, it was hard to tell who was who, and people kept looking at nametags to see if a hug was appropriate. by the time everyone's eyelashes were completely frosted over, the plane was ready to take the passengers. we all waved to the last people, other than eachother, that we would be seeing for a long time. we stood in a line with our arms around eachother after they boarded, some people crying, some laughing. we saw gloves waving through the few windows on the LC-130 as it began to taxi. despite the cold, we watched it disappear to the end of the skiway, and go by again as it took off.

then, for some, there was nothing left to do but go back to work. for others, it was time to move into new rooms, and a buzz of activity broke out in the new station as people rearranged furniture, moved boxes, and talked to their new neighbors. it felt different. the place was wired.

that night, dinner was incredibly smaller and quieter. it was refreshingly peaceful, but fun, and intimate. news got out about a couple different showings of "The Thing" going on that night--a South Pole tradition on the first day of winter. I watched it with friends in the bar, and then heard the announcement about the last plane of the season, a fuel tanker, taking off soon. comms had word from the pilot that he was planning to do a wing-tipping fly-over. i ran to the roof of the new station, which is technically off limits, and waited in the cold and wind. below us, the station was dotted with people waiting outside, all looking up for the fly-by.

The plane came closer than I ever would have hoped it could, and I swear it flew RIGHT over just us. It was like that feeling at a concert when you're absolutely sure the performer is looking right at just you the whole time. Excitement welled up inside me and I screamed and jumped up and down and waved goodbye. Seeing planes come and go here is so normal (we get about 6 per day) it was hard to imagine this was really the last one. I hugged my favorite person on station and we walked back down together. So that's what the last day before wintering at the south pole is like, i smiled.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

pre-station closing crisis

pre-station closing crisis

"we have to have a cryo crisis at the end of the season" says my boss on sunday afternoon after the dust settles on a close call with the liquid nitrogen plant, "it happens every year". of course, the usual ONE crisis at the end of the season wouldn't be enough for Christina. noooo, my season as the cryo tech, three things have to go terribly wrong within 48 hours of the close of station.

crisis 1:
"don't worry, no one was hurt, and the liquid nitrogen plant doesn't seem to have any permanent damage"
"excuse me?"
"yeah, a snowmobile crashed into it"
such was the conversation sunday afternoon just as i was contemplating whether to take a nap, eat more cookies, or do some email. it may not sound strange except for one small detail...the liquid nitrogen plant is INDOORS. motorized vehicles should not be hitting it. it was like someone saying, "yeah, don't worry, nobody was hurt, but a motorcycle just crashed into your bathtub." it just doesn't happen. not to mention this liquid nitrogen plant is the sole source of this essential cryo item on station, and there would be little reason for me to be here without it, not to mention the telescopes couldn't function.

i rush out to the plant building and walk into a beehive of activity. one guy has a camera and is beaming the hugest smile, like he's thrilled something exciting has happened and he's definitely going to get it on film. an electrician is sprawled out on the floor attempting to fix the main power feed to the plant, which got ripped up, and another random guy is standing around still assessing damage. there's a huge dent across the one remaining panel on the plant, and it's sitting about a foot behind where it usually sits, knocked into other parts of the plant behind it. It looks like a car that just got in a bad fender bender.

Three hours later, with a little luck, the plant is actually running again. but, just ,like after you get in a car accident and the car still starts, you're constantly waiting for some unseen damage to surface, like your bumper to fall off, or some strange noise to start happening. luckily, the only permanent damage seems to be to the person's pride who neglected to take their hand off the snowmobile accelerator. there goes my one day off wasted fixing the plant and writing up the incident report.

crisis 2:
this crisis was more like a saga. it started the morning after crisis 1 when i went to turn on our cryo-cooler thingy that saves us a bunch of helium by keeping it so cold it doesn't boil off. without it, we run out of helium before the end of the season.

there is a compressor and a chiller to this thing. turning them on was supposed to take 5 minutes. i press the power button on the chiller. nothing. no tick, no lights, nothing. oh-KAY.....plugged in, check...breakers, check, every possible way of pressing the on button, check. alright, i'll try the compressor. nothing. oh-KAY....i radio for the electrician. he checks the panel and we do have power....which means my problem is worse than i hoped. chiller first...we tear off the housing and go poking around with the meter...power isn't making it out of the red box marked "DO NOT OPEN, HIGH VOLTAGE." we immediately open it. lucky we did, because the low voltage limiter inside is keeping our little guy from running. readjust it, and that's one down. compressor next..... i check the pressure gauges on it and find out that for some reason, and completely contrary to everything the manufacturer has said, the pressure is almost completely gone. this means a long sequence of using a helium cylinder to add helium after pulling a vacuum to be sure no impurities get in, etc.... all kinds of heavy crap and equipment has to be drug from other buildings in -40F across the snow to make this happen. when all is said and done, this 5 minute procedure has taken over a day. now we're ready to turn them on for real.

i'm next door when my boss does this. by the time i get there, enough glycol has spilled on the floor to cause our hazardous waste guy to have a heart attack. luckily we have backup and someone starts thinking smart and drains what remains out of the 7 gallon reservoir. this glycol stuff is slippery, so this whole clamoring to fix the leak happens in a mess of grown men in big boots slipping around like they're on ice skates. i just watched in amazement. fixing the leak took more time and energy that i barely had. but a few hours after the supposed end of my work day, it was finally done and i was going to head to the galley. i thought.

crisis 3:
what's that noise?.... i wonder to myself after i opened the vent on our new 27 ft long, 8 ft. high 4,800 gallon liquid helium tank. i *was* finally on my way to dinner. it's a hissing. ooh, and there's a little pop. and now louder hissing. grrrreat... it's 7pm, i've had an incredibly long day, and now this. probably just a little something that needs to be tightened. hmm, that's weird...the noise is coming from over there. that part shouldn't be leaking. that part is the main relief device for the tank, and is only supposed to go off in an extreme emergency when the inside pressure reaches it's uppermost limit. quick check of the pressure gauge....we're well below that limit. this is the part of the container that you generally just forget never have to adjust it, open it, close it, etc. it's usually invisible to me in the jungle of plumbing. and now it's LEAKING. with this leak, not only will we not be able to regulate the pressure, we won't be able to monitor how much liquid is in the tank. not to mention it's audibly getting WORSE, and there's no way to valve it off without completely sealing in the boiling-off liquid that would be building pressure. a quick check of the manual reveals that this particular relief disk is something that's not to be mucked around's extremely fragile..."installed only by professionals"...a fingerprint on the plate can cause it to fail...etc. that's echoed on the part itself, which is the ONE thing in all the plumbing that is sealed from being tampered with by wires holding the bolts from being turned.

one hour, two wrenches, and a wire cutter later, i have it completely disassembled.

i had no choice i guess...that's the south pole for you. 4 tries of tightening various little screws inside the device, carefully replacing it, re-tightening it in place, and holding my breath while i re-vent the dewar, it finally doesn't leak any more. and that was my night the day before station close.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

360 degrees

360 degrees

Today I went with some people from meteorology on a snow stake run. it was my last time being away from the station before winter sets in. we followed a line of stakes that went 20km out from the station--far enough to not be able to see anything but horizon for all 360 degrees. we drove out in a tracked vehicle called a pisten bulley, which has a maximum speed of maybe 10mph. the whole trip took about 3 hours in all. we measured the snow depth at 40 stakes along the way. i must be really sleep deprived because i managed to fall asleep in a vehicle driving over hard ridges in the snow taller than 1 ft, over and over and over! if anything here were to remind me of being on a boat in choppy water, that was it. we had to call south pole comms every hour, and since we were too far for our radios to reach, we had to use the portable satellite phone. just didn't feel the same as driving while chatting on the cell phone at home though. it was -45F today (without wind chill), and we had to take enough survival bags for everyone along, just in case we were to get stranded. it's funny to think that back home, my typical daily commute is over 30 miles, and here, going somewhere less than 15 miles away is a huge deal.

the last flight is only 6 days away now....then 8 months of winter. it will be interesting to see how it feels to be in one place with the same people for so long. today a big group of people left for the season, leaving our station population at just about 180, down from 260. we'll be just under 90 for the winter. there was a noticible difference in the crowd in the galley and around station after the passenger flight left. it's quieter and more comfortable with fewer people. in a week i'll be toasting the take-off of the last flight with other winter-overs!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


i never thought i'd have my own personal flight across the continent on my birthday, but such is luck in the united states antarctic program. it was friday around 10am, birthday eve. i was sitting in my shop/office filling time while waiting for someone to return my snomobile so i could do some real work. just yesterday, i had been told that i wouldn't be going out to new zealand today, as planned, or at all for the rest of the season. a couple hours ago, i had learned that i was actually going to be going to mcmurdo on monday to escort a tank down to pole. i went to glance out the door again at the snomobile "parking lot" when my boss walks up.
kid, you're going to mcmurdo today. i'm sorry.
what time? i asked, barely phased.
the 1:30 flight.
will i be home for my birthday?
i made them promise to put you on the first plane back tomorrow.

okay. the next three hours were a hectic mess. i had to get a ton of helium delivered to the telescopes, finish up the regular day's work, send some packages, eat lunch, and pack. around 1pm, i get through the post office line and ask my friend "hmm, so what's more important--eating, or packing?" somehow i manage to do both and be out on the flight deck in time to freeze my butt off waiting for them to offload fuel from the plane and then board us. the one other passenger and i get the luxury of sitting in the cockpit on take-off. three hours, and one spectacular landing approach later, i step onto the Ross Sea Ice Shelf.

as a special welcome, the mcmurdo housing department neglected to assign me a room because they mis-read the manifest. when i finally did get my room, i dropped my stuff and ran off to the galley before it closed. i bumped into some people from the pole doing r&r and made some plans for my one night in town. we ended up hanging out chatting and then hitting one of the two bars in town to wrap up the night.

the next day, i woke up early to make my plane, and smiled, thinking about where i was on year #26 of my life. my friend took me "out" to coffee for my birthday while we waited for the air field shuttle. luckily, when i got to Williams Field, i had plenty of time to spare and noticed a phone in the galley where i was waiting. yay for not having to wait for a satellite to be up to call home! i talked to my dad for a while, which turned out to be the only person i talked to off the continent on my birthday. soon they were calling for the cryo tech on the radio and i was on the plane hooking up my 3000 gallons of liquid helium to the aircraft vent. my own private plane on my birthday, taking me across 800 miles of trans-antarctic mountains and vast plateau to my home, the south pole. that sort of thing eases the sting of being a year older and all out of milestone birthdays to look forward to. plus, it reinforces my theory that if i do something new and exciting every year, i'll never have a reason to not be happy about another birthday.

the hours following my landing turned out to be every bit as hectic as the hours before my take-off the day before. it was only better because everyone kept welcoming me back and wishing me a happy birthday. i worked the rest of the day, unpacked just enough to get ready for my party, and headed out. the galley had made brownies for the occasion, and people brought funny little gifts wrapped in whatever they could fine. we made ice cream and hung out for a while. the "end of season" party was also happening that night back in the new station building, so we all headed out to that. i danced away to the 3 live bands that played and had an absolutely wonderful, fun, happy time. this birthday will definitely go down in christina history.

thanks to everyone for your calls, cards, emails, and gifts!