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.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Explorations around Town and other stories

The few days after New Year’s and before Jens was leaving I was trying to convince him to help me get as much DOM-testing done, so that the new guy wouldn’t have to do it on his own. We were working at a breakneck pace. We also helped one morning with deployment, but it was only for an hour. My total deployment has only been 14 DOMs over two strings. Not very much, but enough to get a feel for what’s going on.

But on the side, Jens really wanted to see a few things before he left. So in return for him helping me with the DOMs, I went exploring with him. We saw three main things: the clean air sector and ARO (the Atmospheric Research Organization), the old dome, and the Satellite Station at the end of the Spresso Road.

At ARO we got a tour from Mark, their winter over. As you might have guessed, these are the people who do the atmospheric research. They are positioned with respect to the station so that they are the first to have access to the air blowing all the way across the continent. For this reason, they have nearly constant access to the cleanest air on Earth (since there are no pollutants in Antarctica). These are the people who discovered the ozone hole above Antarctica (which is worst in October), and who are doing a lot of the pollutant studies that people like Al Gore then go around the world presenting. And guess what? They are still running on computers from the 1990s. I would say that’s kind of ridiculous, but that would be too much of an understatement.

The old dome is the previous station at the South Pole. Now, I have to be specific and say “the previous station” instead of “the old station” because there was a station before the dome. The Dome is where anyone who came down before 2004 lived and worked. All the winterovers for ~20 years stayed inside the dome. Due to the accumulation of snow from the wind blowing across the Antarctic Plane (this is that same wind that brings the clean air to the ARO) the dome is nearly covered now, and in a few years will be entirely inaccessible. But for now, tunnels from the Dome still lead to the new station, and those tunnels are the coldest place here at the Pole at a constant -70 degrees. The old Dome is presently used only for storing things like food and cleaning supplies. Also, it seems incredibly small. I don’t understand how there was enough space for everything! I’ll have to ask some former winter-overs when I get back.

The Satellite station was really just an oddly shaped building far out at the end of the Spresso Road. (I don’t know why they call it the Spresso road, by the way…there’s no espresso.) The Spresso Road goes straight out from the station and is actually a pathway between boxes and boxes and boxes of…stuff. The boxes are labeled things like “Mary’s” and “Alexander’s” and “Detergent”. There are also old mattresses there. And washing machines from the 1970s. And food…a whole lot of food. How old are these things? And to whom do they belong? They look as though they’ve been here for 20 years. It brought to mind the beginning of the movie Wall-e. Boxes and boxes and boxes. And forklifts. And complete silence—only the wind, whistling around the boxes. It was one of those days that is completely white—the clouds were low-hanging, white, and indistinguishable from the snow and, although the clouds provide extra insulation and make the day warmer, it feels cold on these days. And creepy. You completely lose your sense of scale, for some reason. Distances are impossible to judge. It makes me feel somehow claustrophobic. Jens and I both became very silent, and by the time we reached the satellite station I felt thoroughly unnerved. At the satellite station we did not get a tour, and we only managed to exchange about 2 words with a random guy who happened to walk out of one building and into another. He was not wearing gear and clearly wanted to get inside as soon as possible. Without us. So we took some photos, made our way back through the graveyard of things, and went inside to drink hot chocolate.

After that I went to the salsa dancing class—that’s always a good way to cheer up!

Here are some anecdotes that haven’t fit elsewhere. I thought they were interesting so I figured I’d better toss ‘em in!

One of these nights I was woken at 7AM (my normal rising time is 7:30) by a fire alarm! There was the loud blaring and announcements throughout the station to make your way to the galley. I had heard there was to be a drill sometime soon, but it woke me up, so I was completely alarmed. I tossed on my parka and my blue FDX boots over my pyjamas and started going to the galley. Around this time I noticed that other people were not in so much of a hurry. They were taking time to wash their faces, brush their teeth, use the toilet, etc, etc. When I got to the galley, I was the only one in my parka! It turns out the fire drills at the South Pole are not quite like in high school where everyone goes outside and waits for the all clear signal. No, we go to the galley and eat breakfast. Apparently there is no risk of being sent outside so no one even prepares for it. Clearly the joke was on me. I sat down at the IceCube table to general laughter and fun-poking and felt really stupid. But seriously—doesn’t it make sense that you might want your parka if there’s a fire? Ugh.

Also during these few days I was finally beat, fair and square, by my Belgian friend Freija. She knows the word menhir. Do you know the word menhir? I do (now). But I didn’t feel so bad because it was a really lovely board—my favorite part of scrabble is trying to fit the pieces together cleverly, not necessarily trying to make the most compliated words.

One night I was eating dinner in the galley and discovered that Gary Freeman, the guy who helps out with directing the forklift for the DOM-dance, used to be a winter-over station manager at one of the other stations. Luckily I had the presence of mind to realize that winter-overs go a little crazy over the winter, unable to leave the dark and the cold, so I asked him what his scariest experience was. He said that one night he woke up to the fire alarm going off. Now, when the fire alarm goes off, everyone is supposed to gather in the galley, so he rushed down there, noting on the way the emptiness of the halls. When he reached the galley, he realized why the halls were bare—everyone was already in the galley. And they were all paying rapt attention to the kitchen where two of the men were facing off, covered in blood. One was holding a butcher’s knife, the other the fire axe (which is why the alarm had gone off). I asked Gary what he did, and he said “Well I jumped right between ‘em of course, before they could kill each other!” (Does anyone else see the problem with that? ) He wrestled away the axe and the knife and locked the guys in their rooms to cool off. (As for the blood, I guess the medic took care of their wounds, but I forgot to ask.) So. Now you know what can happen in a winter on the ice. Oh, and what was the cause? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

Speaking of winter-overs, I asked our winter-over Erik Verhagen how he decided to apply for the position. He definitely did not give me the answer I expected. He was working at CERN as a graduate student. As he was soon to be graduating he was looking for something to do next. He set his sights on a telescope somewhere in the Andes, applied for the position--for which he was well qualified--and they said “I’m sorry, we can’t take you as you have no experience working in an extreme environment.” He was really bummed, but there was nothing he could do so he started asking around about other opportunities. One day a friend of his pointed a neutrino physicist to his office. This neutrino physicist tried to recruit Erik to neutrinos, and Erik ended up telling him the story about this telescope in the Andes he wanted to work on. So this neutrino guy said “I may have a solution for you!” and pointed him to the IceCube winter-over page. On a lark Erik applied, thinking he would never get the job so what harm could it do. Well, surprise, surprise, he got it. As he was telling me this story, he then said that he told his Dad and his Dad was really supportive. So I asked what his Mom said, and he hemmed and hawed, and looked guilty, and said he’d kind of left it to his Dad to tell her. But his Dad hadn’t told her until the week before he left! So he got a call from his Mother saying “Dad tried to pull this great prank by telling me that you’re going to live at the South Pole for a year. And you leave in one week! Ha ha!” Oh, his poor mother!

During this time I got an e-mail to call someone in McMurdo about my travel arrangements coming out of the Pole. Which means I got to use the Iridium network to make a phone call! I had never used the iridium before, and I felt really cool. (And I was only slightly let down by the fact that the connection has about a 20 second delay!)

Last but not least, I sadly lost my knife this week. I put it on top of one of the DOM boxes while I was removing the next overcarton, and I forgot about it. By the time I remembered the forklift had moved the sled into the tent, so I went back to look for it, but with so many forklift tracks in the snow I’m positive it’s been thoroughly buried and will never be found again.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Eve Day and New Year's Day

Yesterday I awoke to a bleak day—all white with no sun. We had record highs and the wind was blowing like crazy as Jens and I hooked up our DOMs in the tent. But we managed to get them hooked up and our tests have been run over the holiday—we’re really far ahead now, which is good because I’m worried about the new DOM-tester who is coming. (Since the weather’s been strange I’m afraid he’ll get delayed and we won’t overlap, so I’ve spent a lot of time writing up a really detailed document for him in case that happens).

But that is all in the background: yesterday was New Year’s Eve! The station has a party which is apparently very cool, BUT I didn’t bother to attend. What? But…not attend the New Year’s Party? Am I crazy? No. Absolutely not. Wait until you hear this: IceCube has our own party out at our drill camp—very exclusive, hoity-toity, all that jazz. What makes it so cool? Ha ha….the hot tub. Or rather, the hot pool. Yep, that’s right. You know how I told you we use hot water to drill into the ice? Well, since we’re running ahead of schedule there was time to dig out a large area of snow, double line it with tarps and fill it with hot water. They even wrote an algorithm to stabilize the temperature (since last year someone was badly burned). We had everything—hot pool, slide, changing rooms, pool signs, alcohol, palm trees, floating cup holders, an ice bar: literally everything! Sadly I’m not supposed to show photos, but I’ll show the very innocent “before” shots so you get the idea. The pool opened at 7:30 PM and I was there until about 4:30 AM, which was about the end. Yep, that’s right, I spent 9 hours in a hot tub at the South Pole on New Year’s Eve…you should have seen how wrinkly my hands were!

Today on New Year’s Day there was the annual moving of the official pole marker—they move it because the ice shifts every year and they want the marker to match the actual position of the geographic South Pole. I hear this is pretty cool and interesting but unfortunately I missed it. I have to say, though, I think my excuse was worth it! How cool is that? A record-high of 0 degrees F—the perfect temperature for a pool party! Awesome.