Thursday, November 12, 2009


Hello to anyone who might still be reading this! I'm finally putting up my posts from the end of last season! I wrote them all on the dates they say, but I didn't post them because I was waiting to go through the photos. Well, at last I've decided that if I wait until I go through the photos I might wait forever, but I at least want the text up, so there you have it. However I find myself delayed in Christchurch once more ( :) ) so perhaps I'll get the rest of the photos up today before I start my next icy blog, which will be going up here:

cheers bro!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Two Quick Updates from Madison

The first update was a shock, the second is funny.

I learned just the other day that Len Schulman, whom I met that day we were delayed in Christchurch, and who Jens and I were working with to dig out all of the IceTop tanks, had a heart attack just after I left the Pole! He was airlifted into Christchurch—I could have visited him while I was there, had I known. I was very shocked by this news. Len is not very old, and seemed in tip-top shape, but I guess the altitude and the hard work can cause some serious problems. Fortunately he’s okay, although this coming year will be the first that he will not be on the ice in 20 years. (He’s fine to go the next year, though.) I was really bothered that I didn’t hear about it until now. It is distressing to me that I can become so quickly disconnected from someone that I worked so closely with. At times I feel the invention of the internet made the world too small, but other times I am surprised to find that it’s not as small as it seems. Here is a photo of me and Len in the hot tub at New Year's (he had the coolest waterproof camera so he could actually take photos that 'night')


The funny story is about my knife! I lost it, remember, after having placed it on top of a DOM on a sled, which was shortly thereafter moved into the tent, knife not in tow. Well, I happened to tell Jon Dumm about this before I left, saying I was sure it would never be found, but if by some miracle it appeared he should know that it was mine. Well, one day he was out at the OML and one of the GA’s (general assistants) came in with a knife and asked if it was his. He figured he’d dropped his, so he thanked the guy, put the knife in his pocket, and went on with his business. Until he boarded the flight to Christchurch. On this flight (where you have to wear all your gear, remember) they remind everyone to put everything sharp in their checked bags. So he went through his pockets and was surprised to find this knife. He remembered where it came from, but he also remembered carefully packing away his knife in his checked bags. So he realized that it must be mine! Well, he didn’t know what to do with the knife now, so he stuffed it in his carry on bag (they don’t x-ray on Antarctica) and forgot about it again. Until he was boarding the plane to the US and they found the knife in his carryon bag and took it away. Shoot! So I lost my knife, by some miracle it was found, returned, and lost again. Sad!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Continuing On to New Zealand

Hi friends!

As I'm finishing up this blog, the Tims and I have started a new blog here:

My blog ought to be finished within a day or two (the photos are taking me forever), but in the mean time you can start reading about our Kiwi Adventure!

Thanks for following!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

A fresh dawn

This morning I woke up, back in the Windsor hotel, and I felt as though it was all a dream. After all, the sun rose the morning I departed from Christchurch and did not set again until my return. And so it feels unreal and will forever, I think. I am glad for a record to prove I was there, else in my dotage I will doubt it for sure and my grandchildren will never believe the truth of it.

After breakfast, I went back to sleep, did my laundry, and took an incredibly long and wasteful shower. Ahhhh, hot water! Ahhhhh, a razor! Ahhhhh, cleanliness! There is nothing like being clean after a long, long journey.

I went for a walk in the botanical gardens and they felt like the morning after a spring rain: shining, clean, refreshed. Actually, maybe it's I that feels this way, and not the gardens...

At 6 or 6:30 this evening I was to meet Bob Paulos for dinner since my brother and boyfriend weren’t arriving until the next morning, and Bob wasn’t leaving until the next afternoon. So I walked early over to Baillie’s’ and read outside by the Cathedral, thinking I would surely see him come walking by. But I never did, so eventually I went in, walked around the restaurant, didn’t see him, picked a table outside and ordered some fisn and chips. I ate slowly, enjoying the sounds of the street and watching an incredible fight between two seagull clans, thinking Bob would show up eventually. But he never did. So in the end I paid my tab and went in to stop in the ladies’. And who did I see? Bob. He had looked around for me, couldn’t find me, and ate by himself at the bar! How silly! So we went for drinks instead.

Ah, the easy mundane things you take for granted. Drinks at a bar with beer from the tap. Choices for meals. Fresh vegetables. Unknown people walking around. Skirts and sandals. Children’s laughter. Sunrise, sunset. Water while brushing your teeth. So ends the part of my journey where I learn to appreciate the tiny things. Tomorrow the Tims join me and we undertake a new adventure. I bid you adieu and, finally, a good night!


At the Close of the Day

Just as I finished eating my last meal (of cereal and juice—it wasn’t meal time so there was no real food) at the South Pole I heard the announcement that my Pax Out flight was on deck. I cleared my dishes, ran downstairs to drop my 50+ post-cards in the post drop box, ran upstairs and grabbed “big red” and my carry on from my room (my FDX boots, Carhart coveralls, street clothes and long jons were already on, and in my parka I’d stowed my goggles, sunglasses, facemask and–crucially—my camera) and headed to B2 to see if anyone else was there. On the way down the hall I ran into one of the Swedish drillers who said “Leaving already? But you just got here!” I know, but in this business you take what you can get! It turned out that everyone else was coming out to say goodbye to us—I was traveling out with Bob Paulos, our engineering manager and “on-ice lead” (ie the big boss). So we headed outside to take our places amongst the departing. Our names were checked off a list, but we still had about a 20 minute wait while the Pax In passengers were welcomed, the plane was cleared and the cargo was loaded.

During the last moments, looking around, all I could think was that I will be back here. It would be romantic to say it’s just a feeling or an intuition but it’s more than that—the truth of the matter is that I know that I will put some effort into trying to return: I have too many unanswered questions, too many places still unexplored. Three weeks is simply not enough time. Some people say the South Pole is like a disease people catch and can’t shake—I don’t know that it’s like that for me, but I definitely want to come back.

I also remembered, right before I left, that I’d promised my brother to fill a water bottle with snow from the Pole. So I dumped out one of my water bottles (I had two) and in I scooped. The friends I was with thought it was so funny that they took a video of me scooping in the snow—of course I haven’t seen it yet since I was leaving, but I thought it was really funny that they thought it was so funny…apparently it’s not common to bring South Pole snow along with you. (In fact, on reflection it might be illegal because of the Antarctic Treaty—oh well!)

Also at the last minute I was instructed as to the proper way to wave goodbye in order to get an awesome waving goodbye shot. I followed the instructions to the letter so hopefully I’ll have an awesome photo—I won’t find out until I get back to the States, though.

Finally the plane was ready: I hugged my colleague-friends goodbye, walked out the snow-clad runway and boarded my Hercules C130 out. I grabbed some earplugs on the way to my jump seat and as soon as the plane took off—and my eyes were sufficiently dry behind my goggles (blessed goggles)—I went to sleep. There are times in life when you can feel a chapter breaking—maybe even closing altogether—and, although that means an exciting new section is beginning, there is some nostalgia…some ephemeral emotion to which you know you can never exactly return. This was one of those times.

Midway through the flight I woke up freezing—these flights are heated, but unevenly, and it seems I’d chosen a cold spot. So I ate my freeze-dried apples and pears and my granola bar that I’d brought for lunch (noticing in the process that the apples and pears had an amazing smell that hadn’t been at all evident when I ate them in the station), and I stood up and moved around before I became too cold to do so—immediately I was asked if I’d like to head up to the cockpit. The crew gave me a headset so I could hear them talking and they showed me how to talk, too. Then they told me everything I was looking at and asked me all about what I was doing—this whole trip the pilots have been great (I heard that lots of other people weren’t allowed into the cockpits, so I must have gotten really lucky)! The previous time I’d been in this cockpit I was dazzled from flying across so many time zones—the process to get in to the South Pole really is long and confusing and strange the first time. Fortunately (bad sadly), having done it once, there will never be another first time for me.

After a slightly-less-than-three-hour flight we landed in McMurdo. The first thing I noticed was the snow—it’s completely different than at the Pole. At the Pole it’s completely dry and crunches—sometimes in the winter the snow in Madison is similar, but really not the same. It can be blown around and tossed about by the slightest breeze. The snow at McMurdo was…moist! It could be compactified—you could make snowballs out of it! After noting the snow I also noticed that I could breathe again—the moisture in the air is inconceivably helpful. The third thing I realized was that I was walking around with a bag that at the Pole had felt like it weighed 100 lbs. Here at sea level I could lift it like a feather, no problem. I could walk, I could breathe, I could lift: overall I felt super-human. (I discovered later that evening that I could also drink an incredible amount without any effect—if only that had been the case on New Year’s Eve!)

As we looked out the windows of our shuttle between the landing field (on the ice between Ross Island and the mainland) to the station, we became rather wary—the ice is melting now. Really melting. To the point where water was pooled up in some places and large machines were stuck in others. Fortunately we were riding in Ivan the Terrabus again, so of course we were invincible, but that didn’t prevent us from feeling a bit nervous every time we drove by open water. I was rather relieved to make it to dry land. That’s right, dry land…as in dirt. Dirt! It may be volcanic and not have much growth, but it still carries the memory of green things growing, and the grubs attending them. And the land doesn’t just have dirt, it has features—mountains! No flat nothingness for Ross Island, that’s for sure.

So I spent that evening reveling in the recognition of sights, sounds and smells. For me the most amazing of these was the water. On the way to the bag drag that evening we crossed a bridge under which ran a new stream from the melting snow in the mountains above: it made the most wonderful sound in the world. Most of you hear it every day—water dripping, tripping, rushing and gushing everywhere. I had not heard water in this excess in weeks—even our showers were switched to a trickle for the most part—it sounded beautiful to me.

I spent dinner that evening with Bob Paulos and Erik Verhagen (our winter-over). Erik was there for one week of R&R before he goes back to spend the winter at the Pole and couldn’t recommend McMurdo highly enough. Later he bought us tons of drinks, simply because he’s been missing spending money on his friends—it’s funny the things people miss. I also spent some time talking with one of my roommates—who is also a Pole winter-over—the next morning. She turned out to be the person in charge of safety, a job she’s held for a number of oil companies in the past—she had a very interesting back story. The people who decide to winter over are incredibly varied but their stories are never boring—if you meet one never forget to ask them how they decided to do what they’re doing.

That evening I realized that McMurdo really feels like a town out of the old West. As we drove in, we passed “Annie’s Laundry” and there was Annie, leaning against the doorpost in a flannel shirt and coveralls, hair up in messy braids, arms akimbo, just waiting for business. She ought to have been holding a rifle. We went to the bar and there was the bar maid and maybe three other women, perfumed and well-coifed, in a room packed with scruffy men clad in flannel and carharts. I felt like any one of them could be talking about mining for gold or laying tracks for railroads or the 10,000 head of cattle they had to get to Chicago for slaughtering before winter. But this analogy is not so far from the truth: McMurdo is the last outpost of civilization at the edge of the last great frontier—there may not be large predators but there is danger deep in Antarctica, and isolation, both in the wintry darkness and in the 24-hour sunshine of midsummer. There are features that exist which you can’t find on any map simply because ever-moving ice sheets are not so easily surveyed. The mountains and valleys are still being christened: if I stay with this project one could be named for me. That’s when I realized that I have just visited the last of the dark places of the Earth—the ones labeled “heare be dragons” on the hand-drawn maps of old. Those days seem long-gone from the perspective of Middle America, but in Antarctica we are living them yet.

The next day I ate lunch with Bob as we waited to hear about our flight—our departure was eventually posted for 5PM, with a meeting time at 3. So at 3 we grabbed our dinner boxes, were “checked in” (which consists of people telling us we’re not supposed to have sharp objects) and hopped on Ivan again. After much standing and sitting and general waiting around, we finally boarded our plane. And guess what—there was no C130 out of Antarctica for me. This was an AirBus. That’s right: a real, honest-to-goodness passenger flight, chartered by the Australian government, with stewardesses serving drinks and everything. We were allowed to choose our seats, so I definitely took the only first-class seat I’ve ever taken in my life—out of Antarctica. I can’t tell you how much of a kick I got out of this. It was absurd! And the day was perfect, so the fact that we all had windows was just amazing. The pilot even flew around Mt. Erebus for us with an extra wing-dip so we could peek in and see all the steam coming out the top of the volcano! Wow, what a life—this last bit was truly over-the-top and unique. I almost feel like I didn’t get the true Antarctic experience: I got to stay in the new station, where there’s a sauna, a gift shop, an exercize room, a library (no running outside in my pajamas in -30 degree weather to use the toilet for me!)… I got to work in a well-heated building (as opposed to outside, as was done for many years) and DOM-testing is done in a really efficient way, thanks to the experimenting of previous generations of DOM-testers… and now my flight out of Antarctica is first class on an AirBus. How much more posh does it get? Is it possible that anyone could have had a luckier first trip to the South Pole than this? Never. There’s absolutely no way.

Since we all had windows, I managed to catch the sunset—the first sunset I’d seen in weeks. At the time I only realized that this was the end of a very long day. But the next day it would have further implications.

On arrival in Christchurch we disembarked and loaded up onto a bus. On the bus radio was playing Yael Naim’s song “New Soul” (the one from the Mac commercial) and I can’t think of any more appropriate music for that moment. The smells seemed new. The feeling of walking around outside without all my heavy gear seemed new. The ability to breathe right, and lift my bags, and run on solid ground seemed new. Life doesn’t get any better than this.

And how cool is that? Well, at the South Pole it was -15F with windchills of 35 below. In McMurdo it was +30F with unknown wind chills. And in Christchurch? The day before I arrived it was over 100F. But when I got into town, it was evening and the temperature had cooled to 65F. Perfect. Absolutely wonderfully incredibly perfect.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Of DOM_Testing Disasters

Yesterday I began the training of my replacement. We waited to do our DOM-Dance until 1:30PM when the forklift guys could meet us, so in the morning I ate and worked on corrections to the instructions I had written him. At quarter to 1 we headed out to the OML, I showed him where things are, and we went through the whole process. Starting took longer than usual, not just because he was new to hooking up the DOMs and being overly cautious (breaking the connectors is always a concern, since we don’t have replacements, so it’s smart to be slow at starting) but also because the DOMs we had chosen to use were difficult to access for the forklift—they were next to some snow that wasn’t well packed, so the lift would sink in and look like it was going to be stuck.

But we finished the hook-up, covered the DOMs with their shades, zipped up the tent, and started our tests from the terminal in the OML all in less time than I had expected. From the beginning there was something strange—one of the DOMs wouldn’t communicate properly sometimes. But it seemed as though it would be okay as long as we were careful to be sure it was communicating when we needed it to be, so we went back to the station. Immediately we knew it was a mistake. After about two more tests we had to get back into our gear and go back outside to remove two DOMs from the sled, replace them with two new ones, and start fresh. Again, we went back to the station, and again we discovered a problem pretty quickly. Unfortunately this problem DOM was called Cruden Bay after a famous golf course that the guy we work for really likes. So we left it in at his behest and ended up cursing its existence for the rest of the testing. It threw off all of our tests in ways I have never seen a DOM do before in all the tests I’ve run both here and in Madison—it would stall them in ways they shouldn’t even be able to stall. At one point one of the writers of the scripts looked over my shoulder and was baffled. Many of the tests had to be run by hand—prodded along with a poker just so that they would finish, all for that wretched Cruden Bay! At 1 AM I went to bed, disheartened at the slow pace and concerned that we wouldn’t finish in time for me to leave the morning after tomorrow!

The same slow progress was made the next day. Fortunately there was time enough for Jon Dumm—my replacement—to learn to do the analysis since we did most of it before all the tests were complete. But finally, at the end of the day, we started the last test (which runs for many hours).

I was required to have my bags packed by 7:30 that evening so that I could leave my checked luggage at the bottom of the stairs, to be palletized overnight by the cargo people. In the morning I had showered my last shower so my towels could dry, and that evening I took one last trip to the store at 6, ate some dinner, and then dug into this daunting task. I discovered that in the space I have in my room (width = 1 twin bed + space to open door, length = 1 twin bed + space to open door) it is rather difficult to get organized. You can’t put your luggage on the floor and still open the door, but you can’t put it on the chair and still open the drawers to the dresser! So packing was a neat trick, but I finally managed to get two checked bags worth of things, with one carry-on bags’ worth separated out (I was very careful to include the items for my shower at McMurdo in my carry-on bags this time!) . I also put aside the 50-or-so postcards that I had, of course, neglected to write until the last minute. Around midnight I began the process of writing them, and around 3 AM I finally finished. I was watching the deployment webpage again that evening, wondering if the day shift would be needed in the morning—I was excused, of course, but my replacement DOM-tester would have to go and then I wouldn’t have time to show him how to unhook. It’s not so hard, and I have the utmost confidence in my typed instructions but it’s easier to show than to explain. In this way, yet another night passed without much sleep.

In the morning I attended the meeting where it was announced that the NSF had finally approved us for 19 strings this season instead of 16. This is fantastic news! We are ahead of schedule, under budget, and under our fuel allotment, which basically never happens in large physics experiments (here I give another nod to Jerry Marty, the retired NSF guy who helped us develop our plan). The NSF could have taken our excess money and fuel and given it to someone else, but fortunately they agreed to recognize our great effort this year and grant it back to us—good thing since the drillers, who have been working ‘round the clock (except on New Year’s Eve) to get so far ahead, would have been really disappointed. (So would the rest of us.) They are all very proud of their accomplishments, as they should be. I am proud of the DOM-Testers’ accomplishments as well: the previous guys got us on track, and Jens and I pushed us quite far ahead by testing through the holidays, so now Jon only really has two sets of DOMs to test on his own (of course he’ll have to put everything away, which is a huge task, but with extra time we’ve made up it will be easier to do it right, which means that next year they’ll be able to get a fast start). It has been good to be a part of something that has been so successful—and everyone has been integral to that success. It’s a great feeling.

As soon as the meeting was finished I put Jon to work finishing up the analysis and making a checklist and a deployment list while I began the task of pulling my room apart: sheets in the pillowcase outside the door; floor vacuumed; trash sorted; drawers cleaned out. Everything must be done or they might not let me board my flight! Before I was finished Jon was finished, so we went out for the unhook around 9. It took us only a little over an hour, but I still had to eat something and sort my trash before the plane arrived, so I didn’t take time for more hero shots at the pole, which I was hoping to do. In fact, there are a bunch of things I had thought about doing that I ended up just plain running out of time for. It is unfortunate. I guess I’ll just have to come back somehow!

By the time my plane arrived I managed to fully educate Jon as to the ways of DOM-testing, which was my goal and is a big relief, so now I can travel at my leisure. Whew, what a lot of work here at the end!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Changing of the Guard

Today everyone left. Or at least, everyone that I see everyday and/or work with regularly—on the plane they were to depart arrived a new guard whom I have only three days to know before I follow on the road back to civilization. I am now the only girl left in my group, which I didn’t notice until everyone else left. I did not sleep well last night, and I awoke this morning to a bleak and dreary day. Previous “cloudy” days were marked by white heavens to match the snow, blurring the line between land and sky and eliminating all shadows. Without shadows, distinguishing the well-packed snow from the fluff became difficult, making walking both a mental and physical challenge. Today the clouds were dark, in ominous contrast to the white Antarctic Plain below. I hoped the flight wouldn’t be able to make it so my friends couldn’t leave: I hoped it would arrive quickly so I would have time to train my replacement: I was a wreck. Alas, the plane arrived—if not quite on time then not late enough to make it worth the general nervousness that preceded its appearance. I put on my gear and went outside to meet and greet the new and bid my farewells to the old. I nearly missed my arriving recruit—he had grown a beard against the cold (which I say is cheating!) and I had to ask around to make sure he’d actually been on the flight that day. Fortunately he had and eventually he found me, so I carried his bag in for him and set him up for the orientation. I then returned to the “flight deck” to say my final farewells. Some of these friends I will see in the not too distant future: some I will never meet again.

So I stayed until the cargo was carefully loaded and secured by the forklifts—it was many palettes worth. I stayed to watch my small band board, receiving as my reward a thick-gloved hand to the sky from one of the dearest of these. I stayed until the engines revved and the metal bird began to rumble and stir. I stayed until it turned its back to me and I turned my back to it, hood held fast by raw hand as the maelstrom of pelting snow and pungent fuel kicked up by the propellers blew my way in an opaque cloud, timely joined by the abrupt mute of the engines (caused by their now-sideways orientation to my ears): I had unwittingly located myself perfectly to be caught simultaneously in both the silence and the storm and the effect must be similar to the thrashing wind but deathly quiet of a bomb. I stayed to hear the plane once more, its turn complete, as it hurled down the runway, cloaked in billowing snow. I stayed, thankful for the ski goggles masking my brimming eyes, to say goodbye.

Strangely enough the plane returned, and turned and returned again. It took this plane three or four passes before it left the ground. The snow blown about by the engines had completely swathed the entire runway so I could only listen and try to discern from the sounds what had happened. I saw a twin otter emerge from the cloud—it had landed in the time between passes—and thought perhaps its timing had disturbed the plan for the departing Herc. [I later discovered that the weight was poorly distributed—there was a great deal of cargo and so many passengers that the last of them was forced to sit in the cockpit the whole trip. (Oh shucks—the only seat with a good window!) The one in the cockpit was one of our winter-overs, Erik Verhagen, whom I ran into in McMurdo when I passed through three days later, and he told me that the pilots would pull up, and the nose would barely lift, and then it would come back down—I would have been very nervous in his chair, I think!]

That afternoon I showed the new arrival around, but since we were waiting to start the next set of tests until tomorrow my mind was free to wander, and wander it did: across the Antarctic Plain, up and over the ice-covered mountains to McMurdo where I would follow in a few days time, and back to the station where I thought of things I need to do before I leave. My feet, however, took us out to the drill camp where they were just raising the drill head out of the newest hole. The Former President of Slovakia was in for the day and being given a tour which coincided with ours at this point—when he turned and saw me he flashed a jovial grin and said, “Ah, you again!” (Me again? Have I met the Former President of Slovakia? I think I’d remember such an honor!) I smiled a big smile and said a friendly hello—one of my aunts taught me that sometimes you just shouldn’t ask.

A deployment was scheduled for that evening and both the night shift lead deployer and “lieutenant” deployer had left that day. We were forced to take two arrivals off the plane and tell them to go to bed immediately since they would be working that very night, a horrible thing to do to someone when they’ve just risen 10,000 ft in altitude!

[Aside: Earlier that day those same two had been in the computer lab at the same time I was. Now, these are well-educated, technologically savvy guys who had both been to the South Pole a number of times before…including last season. The conversation between them and myself went something like this (the one guy is Russian, so for the full effect imagine it in a Russian accent—an accent which was more prevalent at this time than at any other time I’ve ever heard it):

“Okay, so how do I check email”
“Um, you have to log in.”
“What do you mean?”
“You need to log in. Do you have a login id?”
“I don’t know, what login id?”
“I don’t know, didn’t you have one last year?”
“Right.” (about 2 minutes go by)
“So…how do I know…what’s my password?”
“You don’t remember?”
“No idea.”
“Then you’ll have to ask the guy.”
“Right, the guy.” (another 2 minutes)
“Which guy is that?”
“The computer guy…at the desk…right there.”

This slowness is one of the effects that a quick change in altitude has on people. It was really funny…and you know I must have been the same when I arrived! But I have to say, I was impressed with my own replacement who seemed to show absolutely zero signs of altitude sickness—lucky dog! //End Aside.]

So I spent the night in fitful slumber, constantly arising to check on the deployment webpage to see how they were progressing—if they did not finish by 6 AM they would need me at 6:30 as part of the day shift. At four they finished (9 hours after they began—the night crew who left could finish in 4.5—ah altitude!) and I knew that I wouldn’t be needed, so I set my alarm a little bit later and finally slept deeply…for about 3 hours. This was a day… A gloomy day. A tired day. A sunny day. A sad day. A funny day... this was one of those.