Antarctica

Week 1 October 25 2004 "Hurry up and Wait"

When I wintered in 2000 I wrote a weekly email home. Well mostly weekly. I got a lot of good feedback about these emails. So I'm going to attempt it again this year. I have put together a spam list for this weekly email - people from 2000, and people that have shown interest in Antarctica. If you would like off the list let me know - I won't be offended.

This year I will be spending most of the summer season at South Pole working on installing networking and the computer system for the new neutrino telescope called IceCube. It will take 6 years to install the complete telescope, and thus this season will be just a start.

My job and responsibilities have changed considerably since 2000. I now manage a significant part of the IT infrastructure for IceCube, manage Winter Over personnel, and still provide some level of support for the AMANDA telescope, which I originally started working on at South Pole.

Along with my change in job, this season will be a relatively short trip compared to the 2000 winter, with this years trip ending in early February at the very latest. This changes dramatically my approach and mindset for the season. More of a middle distance race rather than a marathon. Also this is my 6th trip to Antarctica, and I have spent about 3 years in total on the ice. So the picture I give will be from someone for whom most of the adventure aspects have worn off.

Over the next 3 months I will try and give you an insight into what it is like to work and live at the South Pole. I'll probably go into some detail about the actual work I do, the experiment in general, and factual accounts of events that happen this season. But I will also try and give you a picture of the people. People at Pole vary from the very experienced, to the complete FNGY, from the ideal fit, to the complete misfit.

One part of every trip to Antarctica is always the same - there is a lot of travel. I started my travel on Monday flying out of Madison. The trip starts with a standard international flight to Christchurch New Zealand. Other than the usual minor dramas involved in 4 flights, going through customs, and about 27 hours of travel, there is nothing special about this part of the trip.

We (there was about 2 dozen "ice" people on the flight to CHC) are met at the Christchurch airport and given our hotel details and information about ECW issue. Extreme Cold Weather gear is provided for the trip and we meet at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) the next day to try this gear on, get the correct sizes, and pack our bags. Everyone has their own system for dressing in Antarctica, and mine has become very personalized, and simple. The usual layer thing with my first 2 layers being the same as I would wear in winter in Wisconsin. The only ECW gear I use is the outer layer - down jacket, insulated Carhart bibs, XPD boots. The issue socks are quite good, and I keep these, otherwise I return everything else - about 2/3 of the issue, and just use my own gear. FNGYs are encouraged to take everything first time and end up with a huge amount of gear.

This takes me less then an hour, and a FNGY might stretch it out to over 2 hours. But there is still plenty of time to explore CHC and surrounds. For many of the people it is their first time out of the US, and this is an exciting prospect. I usually have a list of shopping I want to do, maybe a few people to see, but otherwise there isn't much I haven't seen and done in CHC many times! I bought some cricket gear, some clothes for Pole, and tried looking at the Canterbury museum in a different light.

This is the time of year when many of the outgoing winter over people are in CHC. While I've kept up on a lot of gossip, there is a lot that I will only find out by talking to people directly. I enjoy knowing how things went and it helps me do my job of managing the WO staff. I arrange to have dinner with a couple who had just got off. They had come off the first flight. Straight away this is a question. There has to be a reason they were on the first flight. A very few people get booted out, and some can't wait one moment more to leave. As it turns out it is a bit of both with these people, which is good as I like these people I would hate to think they had screwed up during the year - which they haven't. They tell me about details of a lot of things that happened. Most I knew about and it was matter of confirmation or getting some more details. While this past year was a good year in that no major problems occurred, there were many little issues. There will always be many little things, but they seemed to have more than their share. I can see this will have worn many people down, and I have an idea of what to expect from the leftovers when I arrive.

The next morning is when we start getting down to business. A fax is sent to hotel that night confirming our reporting time at the CDC - 5am in this case. I was waiting for my Super Shuttle (the preferred van company of the program) at 4:30am when the hotel nigh man came out to say they had rung to say the flight was canceled. Another day to explore NZ. I went into the office and caught up on work. Or attempted to.

And the next morning the shuttle arrived as expect and by 5:30 I was dressed in ECW and dragging my bags into the Antarctic Passenger Terminal. Here the NZ air force checks your bags, and we head of to breakfast. Slight change here in that the visitors center no longer does breakfast and we tramp over to the hotel near the roundabout. We got back at the scheduled 6:15 to hear there was delay due to weather. I went to check my email. Got back to find out the C-141 had a mechanical problem. This could have been bad, but in this case there was another option. We got put onto the C-17 "Galaxy" cargo flight. I've never flown on a C-17 and was almost excited! But we were on another weather delay.

But everyone was positive, and as expected by most we actually did leave at about 11:30am. The flight was uneventful. The C-17 was VERY big. It had a drill camp structure in it (an IceCube building made from a shipping container) half a dozen more pallets and plenty of space around the edges! Even saw some of my cargo - a 350 UPS (uninterpretable power supply) perched on top of a heap of other boxes. Hope nothing underneath was fragile... The seats are much more comfortable than a C-130 or C-141, and the flight in general was quite comfortable.

We arrived at McMurdo at about 5pm. There was a bit of weather out at the ice runway. I guess the weather delay. I didn't think it looked too bad. But from MCM it did look worse. We (about 50 people) got onto a couple of small shuttle buses and were taken to the NSF Chalet for a arrival briefing and housing assignment. Boring in the extreme. At least at Pole I won't be made to go through this as though I was a FNGY.

I'm staying in a 4 person room in building 155. This is the main central building with the galley, store, and many other services. I'm sharing with another Polie in transit. So plenty of room.

Saturday night was the Halloween party. I've been to one of these before at MCM. The locals really get into it. The costumes are very creative. There were a couple of bums lying in newspapers on the floor outside the store. Hard to explain, but it was extremely funny. They would have looked right at home on the street in San Fransisco. The abuse and demands for money from them was very realistic. But I've found these MCM parties usually get me a bit down as I'm an outsider here. Plus after all the travel I'm a bit beat and not in the mood to put in the effort.

Arriving on a Saturday means we have to spend Sunday in MCM - the guard doesn't fly Sundays. This is okay. I catch up with some people, catch up on some work, tour the Crary science lab, walk around Scott's Discovery hut, and go to the Sunday science lecture. Before the science lecture I see someone I know and we talk about his work in MCM. One of the new people sees me and sits at the table. A young woman doing the outside equivalent of dish washing (a GA - General Assistant). A senior NSF manager says some words before the talk and can't help myself telling the GA very quietly that if she ever has any dealings with this man that she should be very careful as I consider him the meanest man in Antarctica. How can someone like this not only come back to the ice year after year, but also get promoted well beyond his level of incompetence. Even on the ice there are gross injustices.

More than half the people on the flight down were first timers. They all had grins from ear to ear they were so excited about being in this exotic land Antarctica. On the shuttle into town I was sitting next to a woman on her first trip who was obviously overwhelmed and I pointed out things so she knew what she was looking at - Mount Erebus, Observation Hill, Cape Evans up the coast, Arrival Heights, Scott's Discovery Hut, and MCM of course. "Where is the sea", she asks. "We're driving over it, the ice edge must be 100 or more miles north, that way. The ice will either go out or a channel will be cut by an icebreaker later in the year a bit to the left of where we are now, and a resupply ship will dock a bit to the left in front of us". Her mouth was wide open - she look stunned.

I could easily have given this season a miss and would much rather be at home with Helen and Henry. But this is the job I do. I'm good at it, and in this first year of installing IceCube we HAVE to do a good job. While I have very good people working for me, I can not expect them to do a job exactly the way I want it unless I'm there to guide and support the work. I think this is probably one reason why I am good at this job, lots of experience feeding a good instinct, focus on the details, and full commitment. It's a lot (too much?) to ask of others. Next year they will be experienced on the ice and have a better understanding of what I expect of them. Then I take some time off!

Deep down there is still a spark for me also. Every time I see Scott's Hut I imagine it sitting there without the ugly MCM, a sailing ship laying off shore, or a team of dogs pulling a sled toward it. I'm a hundred years late, but I'm right there physically. It's not a display in a museum, or a picture in a book. There it is. I walk around the building and know that all those famous men did the same thing in that very spot. It's still an amazing feeling.

Off to the South Pole tomorrow - hopefully.

To be continued....

Christchurch Cathedral.

Mens fitting room at the CDC.

Seating in a C-17. The orange thing is IceCube drill camp building.

C-17 at MCM on sea-ice runway. Observation Hill under wing in distance.

One of the small aquariums in the Crary Lab.

MCM from the end of Hut Point. Building at left front is Scott's Discovery hut. Hill to the right is Observation Hill. No the best day for photos.

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