Antarctica

Week 3 November 8 2004 "It Takes All Types"

A good half of this week was a write off due to my lingering illness. Early in the week I walked to Mapo, and did some other physical work, and the next few days I paid for my over eagerness by feeling sick again. By the end of the week I was feeling good, except for a lingering cough which just about everyone has.

Most of this week the population on station has been 217. Since last Tuesday there has been a PAX (passengers) flight, mission number P053 which has not been able to get in. First it had 2 boomerangs with mechanical problems, and then weather in MCM has kept it grounded. This flight has a number of friends on it, and it will also take a few friends out that have just finished their winter.

What do 200 plus people do on station? The long term goal for South Pole is to have around 160 people in the summer, and for a good proportion of those people to be scientists. At the moment scientists make up about 60 of the 220 people. How do all these people get along? Do they?

At present, and for the next few years, the population will be dominated by construction crews building the new station, steel workers, carpenters, electricians, and so on. Then there is the routine work that has to be done no matter, again carpenters, plumbers, electricians for maintenance, but also there are mechanics that keep the machinery working for cargo handling, snow maintenance (snow drifts up in places it isn't wanted and has to be pushed out of the way, and the snow roads need to be maintained for normal vehicle traffic), and the power plant. Helping just about everyone is a special type of person known as a GA - General Assistant. As the name implies they help out just about anyone. The job ranges from shoveling snow to helping skilled trades people.

This large population is self perpetuating. With all these people that means there has to be more cooks. In an attempt to be efficient there are 3 shifts, and thus the kitchen has to work around the the clock. There is quite a crew of hard working cooks. Helping the cooks are the DAs (Dining Assistant) who are expert dish and pot washers, and I will lump the janitorial staff in with these people, as in the old days these jobs were done by every body as House Mouse.

With everything coming and going by aircraft, and everything needed at the Pole transported in a few months of the year, a crew of cargo and materials people are needed. Cargo is a strange beast at the Pole. For some reason storage never rates high on plans for buildings, yet there is heaps of stuff that needs storing in DNF (Do Not Freeze) conditions. This results in lots of double handling and creative movement of gear. Then there is the trash that needs sorting (in theory everyone sorts their own into big tri-wall boxes), and preparing for retro. Cargo people are multi skilled, driving loaders, working around aircraft, and dealing with the complex paperwork that accompanies everything.

This many people results in the scourge of the modern world, management. I was not impressed by the management when I first started at Pole. There are 2 major management positions that influence just about everyone, the SPAM (South Pole Area Manager), and Winter Over Site Manager (Station Leader at an Aussie base). There are a number of things that can go wrong with these positions. There are the people that follow the book to the letter - the book written by someone that has no clue about Pole - or the people that do the job because they are on a power trip. This year both these positions are filled by the absolute best there is. Both have wintered, and spent many seasons at Pole. It is certainly not a power trip for them. Maybe they are why Pole seems to be running very smooth these days.

The scientists, known as grantees (they have a grant to be at Pole), make up about one quarter of the population this year. Pole is special for a number of different sciences, especially astronomy and atmospheric sciences. For astronomy the high thin, and very dry air are perfect for observing at certain radio frequencies. While the lack of sources of pollution result in an accurate baseline measurement of the composition of the atmosphere. For the experiment I work on the ice almost 3km thick is important. Anywhere in Antarctica with ice like this would be good for us, however we also need the support that the station offers.

In the winter there is one doctor and one PA (Physicians Assistant). In the summer there is usually another medical person such as a dentist or a visiting doctor. If everyone is well and healthy these people have a fairly slow time. This year has been the exception with at least 3 distinct viruses ravaging the population. There is nothing worse than a doctor you don't trust or like. Until a few years ago I was not impressed with the health care. But since WS 3 years back we have had a run of excellent doctors. This years doctor and summer PA (also a doctor) are a married couple from Canada. They have been unshakable and have dealt with the health crises and beat it into submission.

Finally there are the transients. People coming in a for a day or two. The DVs (Distinguished Visitors), sometimes important people with good reason for visiting, sometimes diplomats on junkets. There are management types that don't really need to be on the ice, but need to see what they are managing remotely. And of course there are tourists that fly in for a few hours, or skier adventurers that camp for a few days while they wait for their flight out.

When I first started working in Antarctica I felt there was a strong divide between scientists and non scientists. In the summer months this divide is less strong. However in the winter when sub-groups are inevitable it is more likely that these groups will divide on work grounds, and that bad feelings will develop between them. I'm not sure what to put the decline in beaker or boffin bashing down to. Maybe I'm less sensitive to it, especially since I've always fitted socially with most of the people in Antarctica. It could also be a slow change in culture away from the military influence. Though having said that it is disappointing that many of the traditions which have their origins in the military days are going away.

Flight P053 marks the end of an era. One of my best friends from Pole, Jake Speed, is leaving. Jake wintered for the first time in 2000, and has done every winter since. He has decided to take at least a break from winters, ending his record run of 5 winters at South Pole in a row. Jake has been leaving Pole for a couple of months every summer, but otherwise has lived at Pole for these last years. He has become a South Pole legend.

In 2000 we flew an Australian flag at the South Pole for Rodney Marks, who died that year. I have brought down a new Australian flag each year since and with some of Rodney's friends we replace it. Jake has always been a part of this, and since he was leaving we arranged to meet on Saturday morning. As the ice slides over the continent the surface position of the Pole moves each year. We fly the flag at the place the Pole was in 2000. I can see the years slipping away as the present geographic Pole moves away from the Australian flag. This year four of Rodney's friends replaced the flag, talked of the great times we had with Rodney, and kept his memory alive at the South Pole.

To be continued....

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