Antarctica

Week 4 December 25 2006 Christmas

Accompanying Photos

A nice thing about being at South Pole during the holiday season is that there is no long drawn out lead up to it. There are some decorations put out, and a few people leave to try and make it home for Christmas. But otherwise it is work as normal until the 2 days off.

Most of the last week was work except for an event which broke it up. There was an air drop of cargo from a C-17 cargo jet. The ski-way, made of compacted snow, is only suitable for ski equipped aircraft to land on. This means the largest cargo planes that can land at Pole are LC-130 Hercules (the L being for ski equipped). Getting cargo to the Pole is one of the biggest problems facing large projects such as IceCube. Pole has been behind in cargo for the last 4 or more years. A C-17 can carry the cargo of 4 C-130 flights and if they could be used to transport cargo to Pole the present cargo shortages could be potentially fixed.

A test air drop was scheduled for Tuesday night. Typical of Pole it was postponed until Wednesday. At dinner that night the flight scroll had 3 flights, and the air drop between 8 and 8:30pm - a Twin Otter, a DC-3, and a LC-130. It was almost an air show! The drop zone was a few miles out past the satellite and RF facility. This was the limit of how close anyone was aloud to approach. After dinner it was clear the drop was going to be late. Soon after 9 I decided I may as walk out to have a look. There were a few people there when I arrived. Soon many more people started showing up and it took on a party atmosphere with everyone expectant of a good show.

The C-17 initially did a test pass. We all knew this was going to happen. It's a big aircraft, but was a fair ways off. After a huge loop around which felt like they were heading back to McMurdo it was starting to feel like a bit of a disappointment. Finally they approached and 4 large pallets were dropped. I expected white chutes, not dark green. For some reason this made it more dramatic, and everyone went away happy about standing around in the cold to watch. Says something about the entertainment at South Pole.

One disadvantage to the holiday is that it is such a solid milestone in the year which makes you very aware of the work that hasn't been done as planned. For me this meant trying to catch up on the changes in cabling due to the re-arranging of racks. To do the job I needed cable. We have lots of network cable at Pole. What we don't have lots of is storage space. Anything that can be frozen gets crated and put on the berms. The berms are rows of raised snow piled high with crates with everything imaginable in them. Each winter they get a good cover of snow which is cleared between them, and to a lesser extent off them. You could loose a house on the berms. I spent half a day crawling over boxes looking for cable. I found some special computers boxes I lost last year but no cable. I end up finding someone who lent me a thousand feet of cable. I probably only had about 50 cables to run. But the cable trays are a bit awkward to reach because the power conduits are under them. They also had to be terminated, of which about 10% had to be redone because I'm not an expert at it. In all it probably took me a few days by the time I had it all neat and labeled. During the process I wasn't near as happy about the rack layout changes as I had been when I agreed to it. I finished up latish on Saturday so I didn't have to think about cables over the days off.

Christmas dinner was held on Sunday evening. Because there are so many people on station (just short of 250) there has to be 3 seatings. Dinner starts withhor'durvers outside the galley, then people go in to find table clothes, candles, and places set. Everyone still has to serve themselves dinner buffet style and wine waiters serve drinks, and desert. You don't even have to take your own plates through to the wash room. The meals is not fancy by most standards, but special by Pole standards. Unfortunately after an hour everyone has to be encouraged to leave so the tables can be reset for the next seating. Then there is 15 minutes of frantic activity as tables are stripped and reset.

Traditionally the scientist buy wine for Thanks Giving and station senior management for Christmas. This year there weren't many scientist on station for Thanks Giving - the first in maybe 7 years I haven't been at Pole for - and it was decided to swap. In recent years it has also fallen on me to collect the wine money for IceCube. I thought I had got out of it this year. The galley has a small bar at the end of it and for a number of years organising the wine and working the bar has been done by Paddy, the cargo supervisor, and I have been her assistant. It brings the usual jokes about having the Aussie, me in particular, working behind the bar. It's a very social job, and one I enjoy very much. The down side is that by the time we've cleaned the bar before the meals, server 12 cases of wine and other drinks, help bus and reset tables, and then clean up at the end, it's a long day. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. Also means I don't feel bad about not volunteering to washing dishes.

In years past the after dinner party has tended to get a bit rowdy. The new station tends to spread people out more, and the aftermath is comparatively subdued. I will always look back on after dinner parties at South Pole as rather animated events with a good fraction of the station population jammed into the dark smoke filled deafening Club 90 South, rather than numerous small parties in spacious well lit and relatively quite lounges.

Another tradition is Race Around the World on Christmas day. A 1 mile loop is compacted around the the South Pole, and a 3 lap race is held. There are serious runners who compete to win, others enjoy dressing up, some ski, some walk, some bike, some take vehicles, and I watch. The first man and woman to finish on foot get to fly to McMurdo for their annual race. It seems more often than not the competitors from Pole, who have been training at altitude, win the McMurdo race. I don't think McMurdo residents feel it's fair, but Pole people enjoy getting one over McMurdo. The most creative entry this year was the sled mounted shower module, with people taking hot showers while circling the South Pole.

A dying Christmas tradition is carols by HF radio. In past years a number of Antarctic stations and field camps have participated. This was the first year the event was held in the communications facility in the new station, a.k.a. the SOC (Station Operations Center). Only Pole and McMurdo participated. As usual McMurdo was organised and sounded great. The half dozen of us at Pole gave it our best. It seems the days are number for this fun event. Modern communications I guess. The old comms was a very social place with the operators happy to see you. I would often go there and listen to sporting events on HF (I got hear us loose the last Rugby World Cup there). I've listened to the running of the Melbourne cup there quite a few times. The new comms is off limits for non work related activities except for special occasions such as the carols. Something else I miss very much in the new order.

For most people here the holidays are exciting. It is there first, maybe second time at the Pole, and being away from family and friends is a small price to pay for their big adventure. Then there is a smaller group of people who haven't been home for the holidays in many years. For them being at Pole is more normal, and most of their friends are on or from the ice. I am in this last group, except I have been home for about half of the Christmases in the last 10 years or so. I value my ice friends very much and spending the holidays with them at the Pole is special. However being away from family is a huge price to pay, and Christmas on the ice is coming to end for me. If it is my last I have had a very enjoyable one to finish with.

Merry Christmas from the South Pole!

To be continued....

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