We’ve finally arrived to our new home for the next year: Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station!? After two weeks in Purgatory, we’re VERY excited to be here. For more, higher-res pictures, see our web gallery: To The Pole!
After the Halloween party on Saturday, we spent the night in the Hotel California lounge (for the second time), we got up and watched Quiz Show while Lynette took a nap on my lap. After that, we headed over to the galley for brunch, then met up with a bunch of Polies to go bowling. It was a fun, but frustrating experience. Fun in that we were with our new friends, and how often do you get a chance to bowl in Antarctica? It was frustrating because the alley was about 50 years old and had not be refinished since. It was incredibly uneven, and skill didn’t really help (not that we have much of that, anyway). Since Lynette used a lighter ball, hers kept starting off well, but detouring towards the edges about mid-way down.
Monday was also uneventful, and a really big downer because we really thought that we’d be heading to Pole.? On Monday night, we joined a bunch of Polies for a few games of volleyball and stayed up late, not really knowing that the next day would be the day!
On Tuesday morning, I woke up and did my usual routine of checking the flight posting on the Hotel California lounge computer. My stomach dropped with reserved excitement… the flights were still on. The temperature at the pole was -48C, which looked good. I went back to the room, called Lynette to tell her the flights were still on, and packed up my stuff. When I got to 155 to meet Lynette for breakfast, the flight board still had showed that the flights were on (see the manifest picture).
We excitedly ate breakfast and headed for the building where we had bag-dragged a couple of nights before. The room was buzzing and everything looked good for a flight to the Pole. We all squeezed in two transport shuttles and headed for the runway. It was a beautiful day in McMurdo, and after our longer-than-expected stay, the view of town from the runway, with the sun shining brightly overhead, was a terrific sight, especially being that we were on our way out. We had tried to make the most of our stay there, but given the temporary separate arrangements and the inability to settle in, we were glad to be moving on. The picture below is on the bus, heading towards the skiway.
We moved from the bus and onto the tightly packed plane. There were 32 passengers on the plane, including Lynette and I, the station manager, BK, the winter-over manager, Andy, the NSF Polar Programs representative from Washington (who was running late and managed to jump on board just before we departed), and a camera man who was documenting the flight as the 50th anniversary of the first landing at the South Pole (which happened the afternoon of October 31, 1956). The excitement was rising, and it was fun to be on the first flight of the year, and especially cool to be on the flight commemorating such a historic anniversary. We settled into our seats, interlocking our legs with the person sitting across from us to make the arrangements a bit more comfy.
After getting to altitude and catching a few z’s, I got up to head towards the back of the plane where there were more windows to look out of. We were flying over the Transantartic Mountains, and the view was quite impressive. I snapped off several pictures and stretched my legs for a while. Not too much later, Lynette joined me and we admired the view together. After about 10 minutes, the mountains began to fade into a vast white plain. In my mind, there are a few downsides to spending a year at the south pole, the biggest of which is not being able to see friends and family for a year, but close behind is the lack of any geological scenery. The Pole is located in the middle of a huge ice sheet that stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. This was the last time we’d see any geological features for a year, and in the middle of the excitement, there was a patch of sadness. It quickly passed as we went back to our seat, ate some of our packed lunch and waited for word that we were approaching the Pole.
One of the perks of being on the first flight is that it does a flyby of the station in order to get an aerial view of the runway to make sure that everything looks safe. One of the perks of sitting in one of the front seats is the ability to get up and take pictures of the station from the window as we passed by. It was a very cool moment and the scene below was pretty surreal. A tiny-looking station in the midst of a vast field of white for as far as the eye could see. This would be our home for the next year, and it was quite the opportunity to see it from above.
After it passed out of the window, I quickly took my seat in order to prepare for landing. The excitement in the pit of my stomach had grown to a point of discomfort. We made four turns and were on our final approach. One thing I have learned about Antarctica is that there are no “givens”. You’re not at the South Pole until the skis hit the runway, and a flight can be boomeranged at any time. It seemed like we were on final approach for hours before the skis gently touched down on the South Pole ice runway. We were there… we had finally arrived at the South Pole!
The moment quickly passed when the engines went into full reverse with a loud roar. I was almost thrown out of my seat and the plane came to an abrupt halt. In my hurry to get back into my seat after taking photos of the station, I had forgotten to put my seatbelt back on! We turned off the runway and onto the taxi way. The lady sitting across from me tapped my leg and pointed to the back of the plane, “Watch this!” After a couple of minutes, the rear cargo hatch lowered and a blinding light came in through the opening. There were two large cargo pallets behind the passengers. One was mounted to the rear hatch itself. Another perk of being on an early flight, while the temperatures were relatively cold, is the unloading of the cargo. At temperatures below about -40C, the propeller engines create contrails (the white puff that you see behind a plane as it flies by at high altitudes), even when on the ground. This makes it impossible for a fork-lift to see well enough in order to unload the cargo. So, they came up with a creative way to unload the cargo: open the hatch, unsecure the pallet, hit the gas and watch it roll out the back of the plane onto the taxiway! We couldn’t see the rear pallet because the other pallet was blocking our view, but it was quickly released. It took a few minutes to prepare the second pallet, but we soon heard the roar of the engines and felt a rush of acceleration that pushed the pallet right out the back into an almost eerie white mist behind the plane. It was a very cool sight to see!
The plane parked and before long, the front passenger hatch was opened. I had expected a blast of cold air when the rear hatch was opened, but it didn’t really come. I again expected a blast from the front door, but again I was surprised. So far, the ECW’s were doing the trick. We stepped off the plane with the propellers still roaring about 20 feet behind us. There was a gigantic white cloud swirling and spinning behind the plane, which I thought was snow being kicked up by the props, but I later learned was the contrails that I talked about above. I snapped a few pictures as I walked in front of the plane and towards the crowd of winter-overs that were waiting to greet us (and the “freshies” that we had brought with us). I quickly found the guy I was there to replace, Bob Melleville, despite his nametag being ripped up and showing only “Bo lle”. I introduced myself (I still hadn’t put my name tag on my jacket) and we stood there and talked (or rather yelled over the engines) for a couple of minutes. Lynette met up with Safety Bill, her predecessor and walked off towards the station. Again, I was very surprised that it did not feel colder.
We made our way with the crowd towards the station. The scene around us was a surreal one. I had seen several pictures of the station from the air, despite my efforts to not bring any expectations. But the sights were just not quite making full sense in my head. In front of me was the main station, a large, modern structure with plywood exterior (the siding is still being installed). To my right, the Dome, which had been vacated the year before as the new station interior was completed, could be seen about 300 yards away, past the new station. To my left, across the ice runway, was the “Dark Sector”, with a few smaller buildings and antenna dishes about 3/4 of a mile away. Between the station and the Dark Sector I could see the ice sheet sprawl out to the horizon. I’d been telling people that this was as close as we’d get to stepping foot on another planet, and that’s exactly what it felt like. It was definitely surreal, and definitely very, very cool!
We walked up a flight of stairs (which instantly put us out of breath… the pressure altitude was somewhere around 11,000 ft.) and went through the big, metal freezer door into the station. The long hallway of the station stretched out in front of us and we were finally home. Bob, Al, and I walked up the stairs and to the far end of the station to the galley where most of the FNGs and winter-overs had gathered. I met up again with Lynette and Bill. We sat and ate grilled cheese and ham sandwiches and made small talk with out counter-parts. Lynette and Bill couldn’t sit around long, Bill was only there for two-and-a-half days and they had ALOT to go over before he left. I sat in the galley for much of the afternoon, and Bob also showed me around my office, the B2 Science Lab.
Our room was quite a bit of a disappointment. Apparently they weren’t exactly ready for us. One of the outgoing winter-overs had left a bunch of his stuff in there as a staging area. But what’s worse, is that the only furniture that we had was one twin mattress and two shelves that fit onto the bed frames, which we did not have. This was not a happy situation. We made complaints to a few people, and by the end of the day, we had two dressers with three drawers each, and two new mattresses, but still no frames. After our two weeks of being unsettled at McMurdo, it was very disappointing to not be able to get settled in. None the less, we were happy to be there, and things were otherwise good.
I caught up with Lynette again at dinner and we ate and chatted with Bill. He had a major case of perma-grin. He was excited to be leaving and it showed. Apparently the South Pole had gotten old for him right about the time of station closing, about 8 months earlier. The 10-day delay in us getting there didn’t make things any better for him, and after talking to him at dinner, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t make a run for it in order to stow away on our plane back to McMurdo. But he’s a friendly guy, and we had a good chat during an extended dinner.
After dinner, we met up with the Bloodsuckers in order to put on our life shirts so that they could monitor our first night of “sleep” at high altitude. Nobody sleeps well on their first night at the Pole, and I’m sure the lifeshirts didn’t make things any better. It was a very restless night, and I don’t feel like I got any sleep at all, but I’m sure I at least slept in spurts.
It had been quite a day. At long last, our journey, which had started about 1.5 years earlier with a trip to the career fair in Denver, was at an end. A new adventure was beginning. An adventure that not many people get to experience, and one I’m still amazed that we’re on.
I like it here. I think it’s going to be a great year.