Monthly Archives: February 2013

South Pole Winter 2013: Intro

February 14, 2013 The air is almost painfully cold as I inhale – even through my thick fleece neck gaiter pulled up high over my nose. I squint out at the bright white, blinking heavily, my eyelashes weighed down with clumpy mascara-like beads of ice. The edge of my vision between gaiter and hat is framed in thick white ice too. I close my eyes and my lashes freeze in place, I slip off my glove and pinch them between my warm fingers to melt them free. The bundled bodies around me let out regular gushes of breath, opaque clouds in the cold. People stomp, the dry snow crunching loudly. We stand there in our poufy Big Reds or thick carhartt jackets, defiant of the cold. We’re the Winterovers, we can’t get cold yet. It’s going to get a whole lot colder than the -50F it is today before we’re done!

The Herc has loaded the last of the passengers and is preparing to taxi. They drag the fuel line back and close the door. People are snapping pictures, moving around, keeping the blood flowing. Everyone has come out to send off the last Herc. The last plane to McMurdo. Two Twin Otters are still here; they’ll leave in a few days heading to Rothera station.

The last LC-130 Herc

The last LC-130 Herc

A close-up of the contrails - as the temperature nears -50C contrails form on the ground behind the engines. As you can see operating equipment to load/unload cargo can be extremely difficult.

A close-up of the contrails – as the temperature nears -50C contrails form on the ground behind the engines. As you can see operating equipment to load/unload cargo can be extremely difficult.

Once the cargo is loaded, the transfer of fuel is done, and the pax are on board the plane revs it’s engines and inches away on it’s big hydraulic skis. It feels like we’ve been out here for hours…this last day of summer simultaneously stretching on forever and going by so quickly I feel like I can’t keep up – Not ready to close, not ready to take over all the waste management, not ready to commit to 9 months at the bottom of the world, not ready for the deepness of a Pole winter. Yet I’m vibrating with energy – we all are. The winterover crew of 44 is fairly young. There are a lot of newbies (myself included, having not wintered before). The excitement is tangible. Nervous laugher, shutter clicks, the creak and crunch of snow, exhalations. The Herc is lost in it’s own ground level contrails, but then it appears, off the deck rising into the sky. They swing out past IceCube and loop back towards us. The plane gets bigger and bigger, until they’re directly above us and so fast I nearly miss it they’re off, carrying away the last of the summer folk – some of whom will return in November to open the station for another year. I stand for a while, watching the plane shrink to a speck in the wide blue. I don’t know what I feel exactly: scared, excited, happy, nervous, grateful…I feel like I’ve had one too many cups of coffee, I can hear my heart beating in my ears. It’s like the beginning of any big adventure – an enormous build-up, an emotional send off, and then everything slowing down and the future opening up wider than you could have imagined with possibilities perhaps good and bad. Like being dropped off at school, or arriving in a foreign country with a one-way ticket, or moving out for the first time – in the final moment of separation it’s somehow both exhilarating and slightly anticlimactic. Well, time for dinner…

After a while I feel the cold seeping through the soles of my boots, realize my hands are cold even though they’re balled into fists inside my thick insulated leather gloves. I look around and see Big Reds shuffling towards the station. All covered up, frosted up glasses and goggles pulled off, the only part visible are the eyes. Thick creases betray a wide grin, though some are wide, a little afraid, uncertain. Someone gives me a high five. “Happy Winter! Now Get To Work!” Laughter. This is it.

Winterovers head back inside after seeing the last plane off.

Winterovers head back inside after seeing the last plane off.

The next day is my birthday. There’s no big party, no fancy gifts, but the first day of my first winter is a milestone in and of itself. That night, as per tradition, we set up the gym and have a showing of all 3 versions of  the classic polar horror film “The THING.” Crazy as it is there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

February 18, 2013 The last Twin Otter left today. We all went out to see them off, but it feels less significant than the last Herc. We left the dock on the 14th and this is just the pilot boat returning to shore.

The last Twin Otter takes off from the South Pole...if all goes to plan this will be the last plane until station opening in early November 2013.

The last Twin Otter takes off from the South Pole…if all goes to plan this will be the last plane until station opening in early November 2013.

44 Winterovers. 8 and a half months more or less. One sunset, one sunrise. About 4 months of darkness and some of the coldest temps on earth. Winter at the South Pole. They’ve done mid-winter airdrops before, and even a few medevacs by Twin Otter, but this is pretty much it. It would take 3-4 weeks for any sort of rescue plane to make it down here once we’d determined it was needed. We’re here for better or worse, until they open again in late October/early November…About as isolated as one can get without going into space.

February 24, 2013 “Is it dark yet?” I’ve been asked this a few times already by people back home. Even though I knew better, I half expected it to get cold and dark all of a sudden, as soon as station closed. It’s not. It got down to -60F one day last week, but the sun is still shining and it’s a balmy -49F today. -50F is the limit for Hercs – the oil and hydraulics begin to congeal and the contrails get so bad it’s dangerous. Those temps don’t slow down the station much though. We have time to clean up the station, learn our roles, and get everything staged for the darkness.

Howard Hawks' The THING 1951

Howard Hawks’ 1951 The THING in the Arctic

How does one prepare for this? I know a number of people who have wintered at the South Pole, some more than once, and they all say how special it is, how transformative, how challenging and rewarding, how simply beautiful it is. I have also been told how potentially awful (or fascinating) it can be from a sociological/psychological point of view. We’ve all undergone, and passed, a fairly intensive psychological exam, but that doesn’t stop people from loosing it in “Angry August” when someone sits in “their” chair or takes the last of the ice cream…

The station is great and sure, we’re stuck here with the same people for 9 months, our rooms are tiny, there’s not much fresh food, we only get two 2-min showers and one load of laundry a week…but compared to Byrd it’s luxurious: A population of 44 rather than 4; my own warm, quiet, dark room rather than a flapping, bright yellow, unheated tent; professional cooks; hot showers and washing machines rather than tin pails of snow melted and warmed on little diesel burning stoves…I’m grateful for my time at Byrd, it was a solid experience, but it feels like a step up coming to Pole.

The 2011 The Thing - a prequel to the 1982 version

The 2011 The Thing – a prequel to the 1982 version

As the one and only “Wastie” I work with everyone and no one – coordinating with all the work centers and yet working alone for the most of the day. I’ll be one of the few who gets to (has to?) go outside almost every day, whether it’s -60F or -100F in the darkest of months. Dressed properly and with plenty of snacks and warm up breaks it’s fine working outside. I enjoy it.

Some people will never leave the station. They’ll sleep, eat, work, and socialize inside all winter. Maybe they want that. Everything is harder in the cold, but leaving the station is refreshing, cleansing. It dissolves away the claustrophobic stuffiness of being inside all day. It helps to keep things in perspective.

1982 John Carpenter's The THING

1982 John Carpenter’s The THING

We’ll work 6 days a week, 9 hours a day. Cleaning and dish duty (“housemouse”) assigned at regular intervals. The schedule is fairly regimented, like those on ships, submarines, or in space…it’s important to maintain a routine on such a long haul. It’s day 10 (of ~250) and we’re all pretty excited to be here, optimistic about the season ahead. Laughing hard at jokes, setting ambitious goals to learn languages, new skills, fitness goals, thinking up pranks and games and already teasing each other mercilessly.

The sun won’t set until the Equinox on March 21, and then it will be twilight for a while before it gets full on dark. But the sun is definitely lower than it was mid-summer! It looks like late afternoon all the time…our shadows growing longer, the snow picking up subtle hues of pink, blue, yellow, purple, the relief of the sastrugi growing more defined. We had a few cloudy days this past week and I realized my sunglasses were nearly too dark. Winter is coming…

Lengthening shadows

Lengthening shadows

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Filed under Antarctic, Flights, South Pole, Winter

A season at Byrd

Byrd Angels

Byrd Angels2

The Antarctic summer is winding down and the stations are all preparing for winter. The 5 deep field camps (Siple, PIG, WAIS, WISSARD, and Byrd) have been closed  and everyone is back in McMurdo, off travelling the world, or on their way home. It was a challenging season at Byrd, but overall a very good experience. After a beautiful and rejuvenating week of R&R in New Zealand I returned to the ice and spent a week in McMurdo working with the hazardous waste group there (All the Wasties rock – Haz and Solid!). On Februay 11th, after several weather delays, I flew down to the South Pole. We closed for the winter on Valentines day with 44 souls on station.

A few months ago on November 2, 2012, 6 of us squeezed onto a Kenn Borek Air Basler crammed with food, gear, and a snowmobile and left McMurdo crossing 1,400km into the heart of Marie Byrd Land – Byrd Surface Camp (80°S, 119°W). A C-130 (aka Herc, short for Hercules) with the rest of our supplies and crew was scheduled for the next day, though due to weather, mechanical, and priority changes it was a full 10 days before they left McMurdo.

The satellite picture we saw before heading out (uploaded in a prior post) showed significant drifting along the winter berm, but while there were huge drifts downwind, the upwind side was fairly scoured. Very little was completely buried! We set up our tents just behind the only hard-sided building and got to work. After starting the generator and getting the “galley mod” heated the first big job was digging out the equipment and then I went to work grooming the skiway.

The 6 person put-in crew!

The “put-in” crew!

KBA Basler

KBA Basler

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It was about a 3hr flight to Byrd, crammed in along with a snowmobile, food, and extra gear

Our initial "tent town" on the backside of the berms

Our initial “tent town” on the backside of the berms – Arctic Ovens. The conical thing to the right is the outhouse.

The galley mod with the 50KW generator and mobile fueling tank

The galley mod with the 50KW generator and mobile fueling tank. This was after we’d cleared the drifts from around it in preparation for towing it down into town

A buried Challenger 55 - not as bad as it might have been!

A buried Challenger 55 – not as bad as it might have been!

Melting out the 2010 Tucker

Melting out the 2010 Tucker

I spent many hours driving this road...smoothing out the dips and rises, compacting the snow to make a landing strip for the LC-130 Hercs, Baslers, and Twin Otters.

I spent many hours driving this road…smoothing out the dips and rises, compacting the snow to make a landing strip for the LC-130 Hercs, Baslers, and Twin Otters.

The next 10 days were taxing. Working 7am-midnight, getting used to sleeping in a tent at -20F, lots of digging…we would all crowd into the galley mod for meals, fill some buckets of snow to melt for water, and crash at the end of the day to sleep a few hours before doing it all over again. Once the Herc came the population rose to 20 with the carpenters (carps) and the PIG Traverse crew, and we got busy setting up the rest of camp and getting the traverse ready to go.

The traverse didn’t leave until November 28th so everyone was there for Thanks Giving. We took the day off, rearranged the galley to make one huge table, and had quite the feast. Tara did most of the cooking throughout the season, but for the big meal we had a lot of volunteers. Even without freshies (all our food was either frozen or canned) we put together a delicious and impressive spread. Two turkeys, stuffing, rosemary mashed potatoes, yams with caramelized pecans, green beans with almond béchamel, chipotle-jack cornbread, spiced cranberry sauce, and honey-soy tofu. There were several bottles of wine and delicious dark chocolate pecan, strawberry-rhubarb, and pumpkin pies for dessert.

Thanks Giving at Byrd! With the PIGs, Carps, and Byrds...

Thanks Giving at Byrd! With the PIGs, Carps, and Byrds…(Photo by Abby)

Fresh homemade cherry, chocolate pecan, and pumpkin pies! (with hard-sauce and meringue kisses...)

Fresh homemade strawberry-rhubarb, chocolate pecan, and pumpkin pies! (with hard-sauce and meringue kisses…)

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Abby and Tara enjoying a break from cooking

While they were at Byrd the carp crew was kept busy setting up the sleds and structures for the PIG Traverse and the large tents for Byrd Camp: a Jamesway for the mechanics, a smaller “Rac-tent” (kind of a modern Jamesway) for science/rec, a 40ft of Rac-tent extension on the Galley, a little blue “polar haven” tent, and 3 outhouses.

The galley mod with the 40ft RAC-tent extension

Putting finishing touches on the galley mod extension as the winds picked up

On November 28th the PIG Traverse left for WAIS Divide, taking the carps with them. Then there were four: Abby, Tara, the mechanic Toby, and myself.

The PIG traverse and their carp pax

The PIG traverse and their carp pax

And then they were off...heading to WAIS and onto PIG - leaving just four of us behind.

And then they were off…heading to WAIS and onto PIG – leaving just four of us behind.

As the Heavy Equipment Operator I worked at keeping the skiway groomed and got lots of practice pushing snow with the 931 bucket. Both Abby and Tara got in the equipment to help groom and Tara even got some experience pushing snow.

The good old CAT 931 "Happy Camper" which we dubbed "Leo" - when I wasn't grooming the skiway I was likely pushing snow with this guy...

The good old CAT 931 “Happy Camper” which we dubbed “Leo” – when I wasn’t grooming the skiway I was pushing snow with this guy…

Pushing snow with Leo

Me clearing some of the drifts around the galley with Leo (Photo by our mechanic Nate)

Our CAT Challenger 55 "Drag Queen" she was great for grooming, until the transmission completely seized....

Our CAT Challenger 55 “Drag Queen” grooming the skiway

The 1990 Sno-cat Tucker sounds like an airplane, and while it's top speed was ~5 mph it felt like 20 mph!

The 1990 Sno-cat Tucker “Jethro” with it’s sweet old Detroit engine sounds a bit like an airplane

Jethro at work

Jethro at work

Several big storms from mid November to mid December left us well buried with monster drifts nearly as large as the Jamesways! On November 20th we had sustained wind speeds of 30 knots, with a peak gust of 36kt! I spent days on end after each storm pushing snow away from camp. On the polar plateau there is little to slow or stop the constant wind. There were a few calm days, but for the most part it stayed around 10-20 knots. MUCH more wind and drifting than at the South Pole!  The temps however were remarkably warm. For a few weeks in mid-summer it was averaging 10-20F! Our warmest day was 28F (-2C!) while our coldest was -34F (-29C)…

The flag line to Tent City...the tents barely visible

West Antarctic storm – The flag line to Tent City…the closest tents barely visible (my tent was to the left, past the dark box that was the outhouse)

The science tent and the galley

The science tent and the galley

Climbing the drift between the Science tent and the Galley...note the drift is as high as the galley roof

Climbing the drift to get to the Galley after two days of storm…note the drift is as high as the galley roof

Finally the winds let up and the sun broke through to show the extent of the drifting

Finally the winds let up and the sun broke through to show the extent of the drifting. At it’s worst we couldn’t see more than 10 ft so we set up rope lines to follow

We had a few Hercs in December, one to bring in a carpenter and another mechanic to help with some big projects. A week later a Twin Otter came in to pull them and our original mechanic Toby back to McMurdo for Christmas. For a full 3 hours it was just the three of us girls – Tara, Abby, and I – before a second Twin Otter flew in to bring us our second main mechanic, Nate.

Loading up the first Twin Otter

Loading up the first Twin Otter – Kenn Borek Air

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Twin Otter that brought Nate

The second Twin Otter, of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

A pretty sweet plane

A pretty sweet plane

The next three weeks were quiet. We groomed the skiway, pushed snow, watched movies in the Science/Rec tent, cooked, and went through the pallets of material that had accumulated over the past several years. We built and sent out 29 pallets back to McMurdo over the entire season.

Mail!

Mail! and ziplocks and new gloves…

Loading a Herc with Leo (Photo by Denene)

Me loading a Herc with Leo (Photo by Denene)

The skiway

The skiway freshly groomed

Life at Byrd was calm. Our primary purpose was to maintain camp as a back-up refueling stop for Hercs flying to PIG and wait until the grantee group arrived, scheduled to arrive on January 9th. While on some level it was quite a modern camp – with Iridium satellite phones, modern industrial kitchen set-up, weather monitoring equipment, and heavy equipment to work with, at other times it felt like Little House on the Prairie…or Little Camp on the Flat White.

Abby calling a Herc about an hour away on the HF radio

Abby calling a Herc about an hour away on the HF radio

Tara making raising the skiway flags look easy...

Tara making the arduous task of raising the skiway flags look easy…

Our first load of freshies in 3 weeks! There is nothing better for morale in Antarctica than freshies and mail.

One of our few deliveries of freshies! There is nothing better for morale in Antarctica than freshies and mail.

Calm or storm we had to shovel all our water by hand - filling these large buckets with snow and melting them inside

Calm or storm all our water was shoveled by hand, carried inside, melted with electric heating elements, and stored in a large reservoir tank.

Rising sourdough

Rising sourdough next to the AN-8 burning KUMA stoves

Fresh sour dough bread

Fresh sour dough bread!

Laundry!

Laundry! We washed our clothes by hand in the tin pails shown. It would take only a few hours to melt and warm a pail of snow on the stove.

Bath time

Bathing in a new fuel containment berm with a scoop and a bucket of warm water. When it was just the four of us we set up a solar shower in the “Science” tent which we filled with water warmed on the KUMA stove. The bathing process was fairly time intensive even after we got it dialed…we all bathed once a week or two, the good part being there really isn’t any dirt out there and little cause to sweat.

My lil' Arctic Oven tent...home sweet home.

Home sweet home. We each got our own Arctic Oven tent to sleep in for the season. While they were unheated, during the warmer days it got above freezing inside from solar insolation. Not too bad until the wind picked up.

Everything at Byrd ran on AN-8 jet fuel – the equipment, generators, Hercs, Twin Otters, Baslers, and heating stoves. Twice a week we would hook up the ~220gal fuel tank, top it off from one of the four 10,000gal bladders, and fill the smaller tanks at each building.

Tara fueling the 20K generator on a blustery day

Tara fueling the 20K generator on a blustery day

Finally, after more weather delays, on January 16th the Grantees arrived! Our population jumped from 4 to 21 overnight and we switched from quietly maintaining, to a full on camp with science, flights, cargo, big projects and small. It was a challenging transition, and hard for me to stay present with R&R dates changing and the Pole winter looming nearer.

The GIMBLE group's Basler

The GIMBLE group’s Basler

Inside the Basler - packed with geophysical equipment

Inside the Basler – packed with geophysical equipment

With the larger population we were able to get some big projects done – such as digging out and tearing down two of our four fuel bladders to be returned to McMurdo and taking apart our Challenger Drag Queen, as the transmission had seized in late December.

Many hands make light work shoveling out bladders!

Many hands make light work shoveling out bladders!

Once the bladder was clear of snow we folded it up and packaged it onto a pallet

Once the bladder was clear of snow we folded it up and packaged it onto a pallet

Drag Queen on her way out

Drag Queen ready to return to McMurdo

Loading the Challenger onto the Herc

Loading the Challenger onto the Herc

Finally on January 25th, after 85 days at Byrd, I loaded the herc – parked the 931 loader, jumped out, hugged Abby and Tara goodbye and ran to the plane! The crew was very nice and they waved me up to the cockpit for the ride back to McMurdo – even letting me call back to Byrd on their radio to say good bye and report the condition of the skiway and some damaged markers. I was a little sad to leave early (they didn’t close camp fully until the first week of February), but also very excited about everything to come – a week of R&R in New Zealand and South Pole winter 2013…

Oh give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure…” Thoreau

Yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity.” Edward Abby

For a while again, I remember the health of self-forgetfulness, looking out into the sky. Black woods wintry on the hill. And I know, this is one of those moments between heaven and earth, from which even I can step forth and from myself, be free.”

Some outhouse graffiti

Some of my favorite, and classier, outhouse graffiti

Town proper from atop the berms - the skiway/bladders are off to the left, tent city is on the right

Town proper from atop the berms – the skiway/bladders are off to the left, tent city is on the right. You can just make out the three yellow Arctic Oven tents for Myself, Tara, and Abby.

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, Flights, Traverse

Goodbye Summer. Hello Winter.

I will write more later, post something about my season at Byrd and much more about the Pole, winter, and what I’m doing here, but for now this is a brief note to say that I have made it to the South Pole and we have officially closed for winter! I will be working as the one and only “wastie” or “waste management specialist” managing everything being thrown away. We recycle over 70% of our waste. Everything, save the sewage/greywater from the station, gets packaged up and flown or shipped back to the states in the summer.

The last plane left today, closing the station with 49 people. This is including 5 Twin Otter crew members who will leave sometime next week. The next plane to arrive isn’t due until late October or early November depending on temperatures and weather. 9 months. No planes. No mail. No freshies other than those we grow in the greenhouse. And no people other than the 44 of us “winter-overs.”  The sun will set on the March equinox and it will grow very cold, and very dark, until the September equinox when it will rise again, and we will prepare for the summer crew to arrive around Nov 1.

It’s been a hectic past few weeks as I transitioned from Byrd to McMurdo, had a week of R&R in beautiful New Zealand, and then came back south for training in McMurdo and turnover at the South Pole. The next few weeks will be a rush to get everything wrapped up and staged for winter and then we tuck in and try to stay warm.

It’s currently -54F and the sun is shining brightly 24/7.  Good bye Summer. Hello Winter.

A sign in front of the South Pole Station

The United States Antarctic Program welcomes you to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – 90° South – Established 1957

The last LC-130 Herc for the 2012-13 summer season

The last LC-130 Herc for the 2012-13 summer season – note the contrails behind the plane

Winter-overs head back into the warm station after seeing the last plane depart.

Winter-overs head back into the warm station after seeing the last plane depart.

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Filed under Antarctic, Flights, South Pole