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.


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