Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Day in the Life on Swing Shift

The Ceremonial South Pole Marker and the South Pole Station

The South Pole can potentially get flights all day from 10 in the morning to midnight. For one shift that makes for an extremely long day so Cargo runs a Day and a Swing shift. The day shift works from 730am to 530pm, while swing works 300pm to 100am. We generally switch halfway through the season and for the first half at least, I’m on swing.

Self portrait at the Pole

It’s day all the time here, the sun being up 24/7, so it doesn’t really matter when we work; the station operates 24 hours with day, swing, and night shifts. Waking up around 11am I get a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee and sit with friends while they eat lunch. Since we don’t start work for a few hours I have some free time to write or try to catch the internet if the satellite is up. At a quarter to 3pm I put on my gear and head out to the Cargo office. The day shift is in full swing. Christine sits down with Zondra, the other load planner, and starts working on the paperwork for the upcoming flights.

We gather in the office first for a quick summary of the day then head over to the DNF for a half hour of stretching. This is built into the schedule for everyone down here; stretching regularly significantly reduces the number of strains and sprains caused by physical labor in the cold and altitude. It’s also a lovely way to fully wake up and figure out the plan for the day. Then it’s to work.

If there are no imminent flights we start either organizing and building pallets of material to go out or tearing down recently received pallets. If it’s windy and there’s a lot of drifting we might pull up the rows of dunnage (4”x4”x6’ long pieces of wood that pallets sit on) so Equipment Ops can groom. Or we might lay down the rows of dunnage on a freshly groomed line.

Jeremy helping me lay out dunnage for pallets in the Cargo Yard after grooming

The Cargo Yard as seen from atop a mountain of snow – created by the heavy equipment operators as they clear the drifts from around the station

As the day shift winds down we pick up where they left off. At around 1800 (6pm) we head in for lunch. It’s a little weird being 6hrs off from everyone else, having lunch and getting ready to head back to work as everyone else finishes dinner and settles in for the night, but I like the quiet and calm of swing. There are no, or very few, deliveries to be made as most folks work days. We can just focus on building pallets and working the flights.

This week it’s Thanksgiving so we don’t have many flights at all, last week however we were getting flights at 1900, 2000, and 2200 which made for a quick and busy shift.
At 1930 we collect and make a pallet of any baggage for pax going out the next day and mail from the Post Office on Sundays and Wednesdays.

With little or no flights we’ve been focusing on waste pallets. Over 60% of the waste generated on USAP stations is recycled. Here at Pole we have to ship everything out to McMurdo in 100 cube “triwalls” (or the biggest burliest cardboard boxes you’ve ever seen). I’ve gotten used to it by now, but it can be a daunting process to throw out a piece of trash! Is it metal? Is it ferrous or non-ferrous, light or heavy metal? Is a cracker box bandable lightweight Non-R (non-recyclable) aka Paper Towels or is it mixed paper or cardboard? How about a piece of plastic? With a recyclable triangle mark it goes in plastic, otherwise Paper Towels. The “Wasties” are always happy to answer a quick radio call asking where something goes.

Some waste bins in the Cargo Office

The waste room in the station

A sign for Non-R with common ok and not-ok items

The triwalls for waste at DZ – the station has two main entrances “Destination Alpha” and “Destination Zulu” (aka DZ)

Good clothing and other reusable items are put in “Skua.” A skua is an Antarctic coastal bird that is like a really big, mean, vicious seagull. They are notorious in McMurdo for swooping down and snatching up anything food related or really just anything that catches their eye. Nothing is safe – a cookie in hand from the galley is particularly risky. So Skua has become a verb and a noun. “I just skua’d these awesome shoes!” or “Try checking Skua for a new fleece…” With baggage fees nowadays and lots of people coming and going there are often good finds.

Back to our tasking…the Wasties collect the triwalls of waste and we use the CAT 950 (aka Big Foot) to stack them on the pallets, fitting cargo nets neat and tight around the pallet (easier said than done). Averaging 88” they’re well over my head and it can be challenging to reach the side straps of the higher straps of the topnet. After they’re all built up we weigh and measure them and put them on the line to ship out on the next plane. It’s an ongoing process and with some music and good humor can even be fun. Right now we’re all working on waste to catch up from winter and to get set for when we have lots of flights again.

"Big Foot" and waste pallets

A good waste pallet – square triwalls, even tight nets, no twists…

Some of the pallets we’ve made this week ready to go on the next flight

At midnight we start cleaning up. It takes a while to fuel the equipment and put them to bed. The diesel engines need to run for a while after being worked, so we let them idle at a low rpm as we chip off the built up snow and ice from the tracks and moving parts. It’s cold work – holding the freezing heavy metal pry bars used to chip off the ice.

After filling in our time cards it’s time to head inside for Midrats – the meal served from midnight to 0130. The station is quiet and the sun is shining into the galley. It’s a nice time to chat and laugh about the flights and drama of the shift. Then the walk back to Summer Camp and sleep.

An empty galley after Midrats

The walk back to Summer Camp from DZ

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Air Transportation Specialist I (aka Cargo)

Myself sitting in the 953 loader “Sundog” waiting for a plane to land. Photo taken by Genevieve (Her blog can be found at: http://icewishes.wordpress.com/)

This season I’m working as an “Air Transportation Specialist” or ATS-1 in Cargo. Pretty much everything here at Pole arrives via the C-130 Hercs. It’s our job to unload the pallets of material from the plane using a CAT 953 or 950 loader (be it food, welding equipment, toilet paper, or science gear), disassemble or “tear down” the pallets, and deliver the goods to the appropriate place. The other side of our job is to collect any material leaving Pole, package it on pallets and send it out. The pallets we use are generic US Air Force pallets. Special nets hook onto D-rings along the edge of the pallet and drape over the cargo to secure it as well as chains and ratcheting cargo straps if necessary.

A stack of “US Air Force 463L Pallets.” With an aluminum exterior and a balsawood core they are each 88”x108” and 290lbs.

Cargo side and top nets hook together and cinch down to secure material to the pallets.

Cargo straps are used all the time for securing odd loads. There is a huge box of straps in the DNF building and there are always straps to be rolled.

We get anywhere from 2-7 Hercs a day depending on weather, mechanical issues, and demand. This is my first year working in cargo and we’ve spent most of the time so far training and leaving the actual flight operations to the returnees, but last week was the first time I worked a flight. Over the past two years I’ve worked quite a bit with the Hercs at Summit Station in Greenland so it was not as intimidating as it might have been otherwise. Nevertheless, it’s always a rush and this was my first time operating heavy equipment in close proximity to the very expensive airplane.

About half an hour before the flight arrived we gathered in the heated break room/office to figure out what exactly was coming off the plane and in what order. All the necessary details are written each morning on a white board by the Load Planners.

The Cargo Office and break room. Our equipment is plugged in around the edge of the building – equipment here have little heaters that keep the fluids and engines from freezing up when not running.

The necessary details for each flight. Each individual plane has a unique tail number, Herc flights to Pole are numbered sequentially so as of this picture we’ve had 39 flights so far this season, the estimated and actual times leaving McMurdo and ETA at Pole, cargo specs for incoming and outgoing cargo, and whether or not there are any passengers (aka pax) going out and the number of bags.

Geneieve and myself were working the plane. Depending on how many pallets are coming it takes one or two loaders and an “ATS-2” or a cargo senior to work a flight. The senior stands at the very back of the plane when the ramp is open coordinating between the flight crew and the cargo folks, helping the loadmaster inside the plane push pallets out onto the forks, and marshalling us in if we can’t see the loadmaster.

Around 20 minuets out Comms announced on the radio the new ETA for the plane. Communications, or Comms, here at Pole is 911, 411, and basically, as the name implies, the hub of all information and communications. That’s our signal to get ready. Bundled up, we head out to the flight line. In addition to our ECW I’m wearing a giant respirator to help protect against the nasty Herc exhaust, it’s not great stuff to breathe in and while the respirators work well my clothing smells like Herc for days. I also have on a large radio headset that blocks out the noise of the plane while enabling us to communicate and hear what’s going on between all the teams involved with a flight.

Wearing my respirator and radio headset - All senses secure and ready to go.

A flight involves cargo, “fuelies” who either take or give fuel to the planes, and a team of firefighters standing by in case of an emergency. Most of our night flights are “tankers” that bring in one or two pallets and several thousand gallons of fuel. It takes all summer to get enough fuel for the winter. On Tuesday we had 6 tanker flights that brought in over 18,000 gallons of fuel!

The runway here at the South Pole is a 3 mile long stretch of ultra compacted, groomed snow bordered by large black flags. At Summit we often have issues with the runway being too soft, but here it’s cold enough, and there’s enough traffic that it stays hard enough. Towards the station there is a wide groomed and flagged pull-out called the taxi-way. The planes turn off the skiway and taxi up to the fuel pits where we’re waiting with the loaders. The plane is now about 10 minutes out. Genevieve and I get our loaders into position, backing just out of the way of the plane. Whoever sees the plane first radios Comms:

“Comms, Comms, Flight Deck. Herc in Sight! Herc in Sight.”
(or “Cargo has visual of the aircraft” if we’re feeling particularly competitive with Fuels)

Everyone on the flight deck looks towards the approaching aircraft. Genevieve and I adjust our respirators and gloves and take a deep breath. The Herc seems to hover in the distance. Slowly it grows larger and the gap between it and the ground narrows…

“Comms, Comms, Flight Deck. Skier is on deck.”
“Copy that. Skier is on Deck.”

The plane which was just a slight speck in the sky, the exhaust plume more visible than the plane itself, is suddenly very close. A billow of snow and exhaust rise up behind it as it slows and then turns to glide onto the taxi way.

“Comms, Comms, Flight Deck. Skier is clear of skiway.”

Waiting in the loader as the Herc approaches. Photo by Genevieve.

As the plane approaches the roar of the engines builds. It’s loud. Crossing in front of us close enough to hit with a snowball, it continues moving forward towards the fuelie who is marshalling it in. I can see the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit.

The pitch deepens as the prop blades change angle and the plane comes to a stop next to the fuel hose. The back of the plane opens and it’s our signal to pull forward. The pilots raise the skis, lowering the plane onto the wheels. The skis are warm from friction and will freeze in place to the taxiway if left down. There are three pallets coming off this flight. A half sized “speed pallet”, an awkward pallet loaded with two snowmobiles, and a load of pax bags and other DNF material. DNF, or “Do Not Freeze,” is placed in one of Cargo’s two buildings which we call simply… “DNF” – a long jamesway with double doors on either end and rollers installed on the floor inside. We can store up to 5 pallets inside to keep whatever it is from freezing: Batteries, mail, pax bags, and freshies.

I roll forward into line with the back of the plane. The respirator is working well and while I can see the brown exhaust and blown snow rushing past the cab I can’t smell a thing. The headset is working well too; the roar of the plane is audible, but not deafening. I can hear the fuelies talking about which valves to open and which tanks to fill. I raise my forks and continue moving towards the black gapping hole that’s opened in the back of the Herc. Breath. Move slow.

The view from my loader as I approached the aircraft to receive the first pallet. Usually we wait for a minute or two in line behind the aircraft while they adjust the ramp, before the loadmaster signals us forward.

Slowly I roll forward, as we move beneath the tail of the plane the loadmaster takes over and my focus shifts from the big picture to the loadmaster and the movement signals he’s giving. Photo by Genevieve.

I focus on lining up as precisely as possible with the rollers in the plane’s floor and glance at Sean (the ATS-2 for this flight) to see if he has any directions to give. With the sun shining bright off the white snow it’s hard to see inside the dark plane. As I get close to the tail of the plane I can see the loadmaster step into view. He steps out to the back end of the ramp and waves his arms marshalling me towards him. I focus on him – so close to the plane we must follow his hand signals without fail. Sometimes it can be difficult not to anticipate what they’ll need, to give up fully and trust him or her, but it’s crucial that we follow the signals slowly and reliably.

I move forward until the tips of my forks are inside the plane, the loadmaster is to my left now, still on the ramp. He lines up the forks and gives me the signal to lower the boom so the tips rest on the edge of the ramp. I comply, inching slowly downward. Sometimes they can seem impatient, as Genevieve said “Yelling at us with their hands!” But it’s better to go too slow than too fast.

Tips resting on the ramp of the plane the loadmaster checks inside to make sure everything is perfect. Sean stands to the side ready to help or relay signals if needed. This close I’m almost out of the rush of exhaust and prop wash, it’s quieter. Photo by Genevieve.

A picture I took of a different flight with Genevieve in the loader.

When the forks are in just the right spot the loadmaster closes his raised fist or crosses his wrists above his head – Stop. I nod and raise my hands from the controls, glancing again at Sean. He’s on the ramp now too and helps the loadmaster push the pallet off onto my forks. I can feel the sudden weight jerk the loader slightly. The loadmaster steps to the side again where I can see him and signals me to raise the boom and then back away from the plane. I move slowly and when the tail of the Herc comes into view he gives me a thumbs up and a wave away. “It’s all yours!”

Slowly backing away from the plane with the pallet on my forks I move out from under the tail and out of the way of cargo being uploaded. Photo by Genevieve.

Taking the pallet to the cargo yard or DNF. Photo by Genevieve.

I back slowly away from the plane swinging towards the cargo yard and out of the way of Genevieve who will repeat the process and set the little speed pallet on some wood on the side of the taxi way. It’s not DNF so it will sit there until we have time to bring it into the cargo yard and take it apart. The pallet off my forks I back up further and get in line for the third pallet. Genevieve plucks off the second pallet and very slowly drives it into the cargo yard. I move forward again for the final pick.

Lowering a pallet onto 4x4 pieces of wood (aka “dunnage”) in the cargo yard. Photo by Genevieve.

It’s the same deal, roll forward, follow the loadmaster’s signals, and get the pallet. This one’s DNF so as soon as he waves me off I bring it straight to the DNF building. Another one of the cargo folk is standing by to open the doors and marshal me in. The building isn’t huge and there’s no more than a few inches on either side of the pallet as it moves through the doors. I lower my fork tips and the boom so the pallet rests on the tracks and rolls forward on the rollers.

Placing a pallet into Cargo’s DNF Building. There are only a few inches on either side between the pallet’s edge and the door frame.

Inside the DNF – it’s crowded, but there’s room for 5 full pallets.

I back up and park the loader, coming inside to get a sip of water and put away my respirator and headset. Now that I’m done I can feel my heart beating through my body, the adrenaline rushing, my peripheral vision returning. I take a deep breath and can’t hold back a grin as Genevieve gives me a huge smile and an exuberant high five.

We get enough flights that I’ve since worked at least one a day, but it never gets old.

Sean walks back to cargo after loading the last pallet.

My cubby in the Cargo Office with little thermos, water bottle, sharpies, and respirator.

Genevieve has spent a number of summers and winters here in Antarctica. This is her second summer in cargo here at Pole. Her blog, with some awesome links and references, can be found at: http://icewishes.wordpress.com/

The photos within this post are not necessarily from the described flight. All photos on this blog have been taken by myself unless otherwise cited.

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Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station United States Antarctic Program

Bright. That’s probably the first thought that comes to mind, the first perception my senses register. The sun is up 24/7 during the austral summer and at nearly 10,000ft, with no ozone, extremely low atmospheric water content, and virtually no dust it’s harsh. Beneath me the earth is pure white snow. Above me the sky is one moment a cirrus haze…and the next a most magnificent infinite blue.

Then, Cold! A shock that steals the first breath and nips at bare skin. So cold sometimes the metal tracks of the heavy equipment crackles like rice crispies. So cold that doorknobs stick to finger tips and palms. So cold that breath freezes onto eye lashes like chunky white mascara and films over sunglasses, hats, and gaiters, with persistent frost.

The world down here is white and blue; the horizon as flat as a sheet of paper. The only place that has come close to this openness is the sea, far from the sight of land. The minute relief of sastrugi provides a bit of texture, it is the waves of the ice – the result of the constant wind that drifts and scours, transporting some grains and hardening others. The result is a beautiful wave-like surface. They generally rise no more than a foot or so in undisturbed areas around Pole, but can grow to several feet with sheer sides depending on conditions.

The white and blue horizon of the polar plateau. Note the sastrugi on the wave-like surface.

It’s sterile here. The first step off the plane is exhilarating to most, myself included, but can instill a deep sense of intruding in some people – a sense that humans are not suppose to be here. That life is not supposed to be here. It takes an enormous amount of energy to support a station here, a fact that is not forgotten or taken lightly. There is no plant or animal life, nothing to smell; too dry even for mold. Some days this simple world seems untainted and pure, while at other times it’s just dead. We joke about the common sense of the rest of the animal kingdom not to venture to the edge of the world.

Despite all of this it’s beautiful. The cold is bearable and just adds to the sense of exotic and adventure. It’s at once a very plain and simple landscape, but also one of the most complex I’ve encountered. Like the sea there are innumerable moods to the seemingly boring landscape of snow and ice. Never exactly pure white, it’s a mix of pale blues, yellows, greens, purples, pinks, browns, and grays – a bit like clouds. The texture and movement of the snow changes by the hour.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station beneath the immense sky.

Welcome to the South Pole, Antarctica.

90 degrees South – where the pin fits into the bottom (or top) of the globe. It’s on the rotational axis of earth, so standing at the surveyed pole itself you are in all time-zones simultaneously! For convenience we operate on New Zealand and McMurdo time. This means we’re a day ahead of the U.S. because we crossed the date line flying to N.Z. At the time of this post it is 6pm on November 12 here, and 9pm November 11 on the Pacific Coast.
The sun rises and sets once a year at the Equinox and other than a few weeks of dusky-dawn light it’s either daylight or night 24/7. The sun follows a gradual spiral higher and higher to a point about 23.5 degrees above the horizon at the December solstice, and subsequently follows its path down to a point at the same angle below the horizon in June. (This is indeed the same angle as the earth’s tilt – if the earth spun on a axis exactly perpendicular to its orbital plane the sun here would stay right on the horizon all year round)

There’s no change in temperature between noon and midnight. It’s just varying degrees of cold. While -50F to -60F isn’t unusual for this time of year the temperature will gradually rise to -30F and up to almost 0F around New Years before dropping again in February. Lately it’s been very warm for this early in the season – yesterday the high was -32.4 F and the low was -42.7 F.

A red and white barbershop pole topped by a mirrored ball marks the “Ceremonial Pole” and is surrounded by the flags of the first 12 countries to sign the Antarctic Treaty.

The Ceremonial Pole

This site is positioned pictorially front and center of the new station. The actual Geographic Pole is a little ways away. The ice here is gradually moving towards the sea carrying the station and everything else here with it. This motion makes it seem as if the Geographic Pole is moving. Eventually it will sit right on top of the VMF or Vehicle Maintenance Facility (aka Garage)! Surveyed annually the actual pole is marked by a metal rod and a sculpture designed by the departing winter-over crew.

The Amundsen-Scott U.S. South Pole Station is named for the first two men to reach the Pole. It was a close race and a competition not only of the men and their crews, but of the countries and philosophies they represented. Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14th 1911. Sir Robert Falcon Scott arrived on January 17, 1912. Brokenhearted, Scott died on his return to the coast.

There have been several stations here since the U.S. Navy erected a year-round base in 1957. The modern station is a futuristic two story building raised up about 15ft on pilings.

The back of the station as seen from the Cargo Yard where we build and tear down pallets from the aircraft

In theory the wind scours beneath and around the structure automatically clearing drifts. Like everything here it works better on paper. In practice, while it does scour quite well directly underneath, a large bow wave-like drift grows in front of the station and long contrail-like dunes extend downwind. This main building contains housing for ~150 people, a kitchen and galley, a small gym, a half basket ball court, an emergency power plant, a small experimental hydroponic greenhouse, a few lounges for movie watching and game playing, a little self-help library,   a laundry room and bathrooms.

I took this picture of the front of the station last year during an early season storm.

The other ~100 or so souls that reside at Pole during the austral summer live in “Summer Camp.” A series of Jamesways about a quarter mile from the main station. Jamesways are structures of insulated fabric stretched over wooden ribs on a wood foundation.

A few of the Jamesways in Summer Camp

The view of the station from Summer Camp – as we sleep in Summer Camp and all meals are in the station it’s a bit of walk each morning and evening, especially at -30F or -40F and at ~10,000ft.

They are dark and warm inside, which is really what counts. The space inside is separated into 8-10 rooms with walls of canvas curtains and a narrow walkway down the middle. Over the years people have taken charge of their small space installing desks, windows, plywood walls, or cubbies and shelves. Each space is unique.

J-12: my home away from home this austral summer

People from all over the world, with a full range of backgrounds and experiences, end up down here. The dinner conversations alone are fascinating.

A picture of me last year as a G.A. or General Assistant as we shoveled out buried Summer Camp doors

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NYANG C-130 Skiier 30491 MCM-NPX

After several delays we finally left McMurdo on November 2nd. Everyone else in our deployment group had left on Saturday. So though the handful of us polies were “stuck” in town for another 5 days we got to attend the famous McMurdo Halloween Party, the first big party of the season. I went as a “Herc Fairy” with cardboard plane wings and tail and a bag of cards on which were typical flight notices and reasons for delay. I got a lot of laughs, especially from the several C-130 flight crews who were there at the party.

The Herc Fairy!

On Sunday the wind picked up and blowing snow reduced visibility to tens of feet at best, making travel outside treacherous even though the temperatures weren’t particularly cold. In town it was “Condition 2” out at the airfield and remote sites it was “Condition 1.” Over the next few days McMurdo was more or less buried in drifts of blown snow. Obviously, all flights were cancelled for the first part of the week.
Wednesday Nov 2nd broke sunny and calm, but it took several hours for the equipment to clear the runway of snow and get the planes ready to fly. The flight to the South Pole is about 3 hours on a C-130 Herc. While most flights to Pole bring in the full ~40 people, our flight had only 9 pax and several pallets of cargo. After lunch we gathered at the MCC and piled into the back of a lumbering Delta truck which took us down to the airfield. We waited there for about an hour, only to hear there was a mechanical issue with the Herc and we were delayed until further notice. The last group had spent 6 hours waiting at the airfield only to have their flight cancelled in the end so expectations were low. This time however, they fixed the issue we were cleared to leave at 4pm.

We filed into the plane juggling the bulky, orange carry-on bags and stuffing hats, neck gaiters, gloves, and goggles into the pockets of our Big Reds (a nickname for the huge red coats issued to all personnel deploying to Antarctica). The seats on a herc are comprised of flat webbing supported by metal rods which fold out from along the walls. Unlike on commercial planes, passengers (pax) sit sideways to the direction of travel. Additional seating can be installed along the center, but with all our gear and clothing there’s not much room to stand up, let alone try to move forward or aft. With only a handful of us we had plenty of leg room at least. Stretching seatbelts around Big Red, shedding layers in the warm air of the heated plane, and scooting closer together to fit everyone side by side along the walls we were briefed on emergency procedures and given ear plugs. As everyone was getting settled the loadmaster leaned over to me and asked “Are you the Herc Fairy?” I laughed and nodding yes. “They’re asking for you up in the cockpit.”

The patch worn by the C-130 Herc crews

The crew had received word that I’d be on the plane and remembered me from the party. The cockpit of the C-130 is larger than a commercial jet, but every inch of space is crammed with switches, buttons, dials, and controls. It sits above the cargo deck and a short ladder leads up from the door in which we entered. The pilot and co-pilot sit up front surrounded by numerous windows, between and behind them sits the engineer who keeps and eye on fuel tank levels, changing them when necessary, and stands by for any mechanical problems that might arise. Behind him on the right side of the plane sits the Navigator at a little desk filled with radio and navigation equipment, gauges showing various flight stats, a computer for navigation, and a bag full of backup maps and charts.

The C-30 co-pilot wearing the helmet and oxygen mask as they came in land at Pole which is at nearly 10,000ft

There are two seats in the very back for two extra people and a bunk up by the ceiling. As soon we got off the ground I was ushered up to a space by the windows, next to the engineer and in between the pilot and nav. Leaving McMurdo we climbed to just above 20,000ft and flew over the frozen Ross Sea along the Transantarctic Mountains, eventually crossing the 14,000ft peaks. The views were incredible as we watched the sea ice join the glaciers which filled the valleys and revealed textbook flow patterns and detailed crevasse fields. The glaciers grew to eventually smother the mountains all together as it flattened into the wide, flat, blinding expanse of the polar plateau.

The Transantarctic Mountain Range

The C-130 pilot checks a map showing the names of the peaks and glaciers

While much of Antarctica is volcanic the Transantarctic Mountains are comprised of sedimentary layers above granite. They were uplifted about 65 million years ago and many of the Antarctic fossils come from this region. The East Antarctic ice sheet spills over the mountain range and into the Ross Sea in beautiful and massive glaciers. These glaciers provide the only overland route across the mountains to reach the geographic South Pole. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is there, at 9,300ft and roughly 800 miles from McMurdo. I’ll write more about the South Pole Station itself soon.

Looking out over the eastern polar plateau that extends unchanging to the far side of the continent

Ice from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet spills over the Transantarctic Mountains towards the Ross Sea

The 3,500km long Transantarctic Mountain Range runs across the entire continent of Antarctica from the Ross to the Weddell Sea. It separates the two halves, West and East Antarctica, which are distinct in elevation, accumulation rates, and thus glacier flow rates, and also reaction to climate change. West Antarctica includes the Peninsula and is bordered by the Ross and Weddell Seas, areas in this region may get up to a meter of accumulation per year. East Antarctica on the other hand, is a huge polar plateau at higher elevation and with extremely little accumulation. Combined the two ice sheets contain almost 60% of the world’s fresh water.

Nunataks

"The Great Flat White"

The radar on the Nav’s panel picked up Pole around 70 miles out, but it wasn’t until we were only 20 miles away that we could see a small dark speck on the great flat white. We landed around 7pm and were greeted by a crowd of excited winter-overs leaving on the same plane, and a few cargo and fuelies who came in before us.

The LC-130 Hercules skiier 30491 that brought us to Pole

Stepping off the plane into the sterile bright light and blinding white expanse my heard raced from a combination of the altitude, temperature, and adrenaline. Due to the cold and the limited time on ground the Hercs don’t shut off the engines and props so it’s deafening. Exhaust condenses around the planes shrouding everything behind it in a freezing fog. My heavy FDX blue boots crunched on the snow and I could feel exactly where my face was exposed between neck gaiter and glasses. It was -58 F with a -89F wind-chill. Not cold enough to cause frostbite immediately, but pretty cold.

The air caught in our throats and lungs from the cold and everyone coughed, and smiled, and struggled towards the station in bulky ECW gear and with our heavy bags. Coming directly from sea level to nearly 10,000ft is a bit of a strain on the system. Hearts race and despite lots of water and limited exertion slight dizziness and headaches are to be expected. The Herc loaded up the winter-over pax and left quickly, the rest of us settled in the station for a welcome/safety brief and got some dinner.

The skiway side, and main entrance for the South Pole Station.

Welcome to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica!

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