Day 45 – Leaving South Pole

We ended up stranded at the South Pole for a week after finishing all our work.  An unfortunate combination of bad weather and mechanical issues meant flights were cancelled daily.  The South Pole may sound like a great place to be stuck, but cabin fever sets in rather quickly with no work to do.  The NSF finally pulled together support and got a Basler to retrieve 12 of us who had been waiting for a while.

All aboard! The Basler is a  refurbished DC-3, a WW2 era design.
All aboard! The Basler is a refurbished DC-3, a WW2 era design.

The Basler is smaller than a C-130 but much roomier than the Twin Otter, especially without all the extra camping equipment.  The best part is that the windows are plenty big.

There are seats for over 20 people but when half the aircraft is occupied by luggage and survival gear the maximum passenger capacity drops in half.  Still, the plane was plenty spacious and ride was very smooth.
There are seats for over 20 people but when half the aircraft is occupied by luggage and survival gear the maximum passenger capacity drops in half. Still, the plane was plenty spacious and ride was very smooth.

The first couple hours of flying looked like the South Pole, just a whole lot of flat white horizon.  Eventually we came upon the Trans-Antarctic mountains.

The mountains seemed to just rise up out of the snow in the plateau.  It was exciting to see a ground feature that wasn't white for the first time in over a month.
The mountains seemed to just rise up out of the snow in the plateau. It was exciting to see a ground feature that wasn’t white for the first time in over a month.

The Basler doesn’t fly over the mountains very well so instead it navigates a pass through the mountains.  Before long we were looking out the window directly at rock faces.

The scenery was absolutely stunning.  We were lucky to be in the Basler since the C-130 flies too high and its windows are too small to get this sort of view.
The scenery was absolutely stunning. We were lucky to be in the Basler since the C-130 flies too high and its windows are too small to get this sort of view.

This went on for more than an hour before we got through the pass and past the range.  Before we got out of the mountains, the clouds started to roll in.

It was difficult at times to tell where the snow stopped and the clouds began.  It really played tricks on my eyes.
It was difficult at times to tell where the snow stopped and the clouds began. It really played tricks on my eyes.

The clouds made for incredible photos but proved to be an issue when we got close to McMurdo and wanted to land.  The pilots had to wait for the clouds to clear up so we circled the area for about half an hour.  We had plenty of fuel so there was nothing to worry about except keeping ourselves occupied.

The first glimpse of McMurdo was a welcome sight after the long travel delay.
The first glimpse of McMurdo was a welcome sight after the long travel delay.

Once the clouds cleared we got a good view of the base before coming in for final approach.  We landed safely a little over a month after we left for the South Pole.  There is 12 hours before the next C-130 leaves for New Zealand, so our time here is short.

Our ride back to New Zealand is waiting for us.
Our ride back to New Zealand is waiting for us.

I better get out and look for penguins, I don’t have much time left!

Until next time…

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Day 38 – Last days at South Pole

Our last few days at the South Pole have gone by pretty fast since we returned from the field. The first day back we mostly just slept to recover. Once we were well rested, we had to re-install a system outside the station since we were unable to get out to the field for a second trip as planned.

After spending several days before Christmas digging this system out of the snow, we dug new, shallower holes and put it right back into the snow outside the station.
After spending several days before Christmas digging this system out of the snow, we dug new, shallower holes and put it right back into the snow outside the station.

We’ve had plenty of practice so the installation was done in about a day’s worth of work, even with extra components for the newer model.  We made a slight change this time, however, by stringing the sensor cables a couple feet above the ground so they will hopefully be easier to recover whenever someone returns to retrieve it.

Hopefully by stringing the sensor cables above the surface we will have saved a future group many hours digging them out.
Hopefully by stringing the sensor cables above the surface we will have saved a future group many hours digging them out.

The last part of the station I had heard about but I hadn’t gotten to see yet was the ice tunnels. Most of the infrastructure for water and power is buried underground in ice access tunnels. As long as you ask one of the facilities workers nicely they will show you around, so that’s what we did.

Building and maintaining the tunnels is difficult work so the tunnels are a tight fit.
Building and maintaining the tunnels is difficult work so the tunnels are a tight fit.

This tour was actually the coldest I’ve been since we arrived on the continent.

Temperatures hover around 50 degrees below zero in the tunnels.  Some folks spend all day working down here to keep the station operating normally.
Temperatures hover around 50 degrees below zero in the tunnels. Some folks spend all day working down here to keep the station operating normally.

Super low temperatures and dry air mean that any water vapor that gets released into the air crystallizes very easily. Above some of the release points in the system where water vapor is allowed to escape you see can see crystals on the ceiling like this.

The ice crystals are fascinating to look at but can pose a risk if too many are allowed to accumulate.  A close eye must be kept on the tunnels to prevent any danger.
The ice crystals are fascinating to look at but can pose a risk if too many are allowed to accumulate. A close eye must be kept on the tunnels to prevent any danger.

The tunnels are by no means a danger free area, however, which is why we were required to find an escort. The tunnels are an average of about 30 feet below the surface.  Since the ice is always moving the tunnels must be constantly watched and maintained.  If things are not monitored closely enough, tunnels and even escape hatches can fill in.

People who work regularly down in the tunnels know which ways are safe and accessible, helping us tourists avoid unnecessary risk.
People who work regularly down in the tunnels know which ways are safe and accessible, helping us tourists avoid unnecessary risk.

Other facilities buried under the surface include the power plant and fuel storage area. Tunnels always need escape routes for safety and the rear exit out of the fuel storage area is the escape hatch I’ve had my eye on since we arrived.

I think if Super Mario ever built an Antarctic Station it would have tunnel entrances just like this.
I think if Super Mario ever built an Antarctic Station it would have tunnel entrances just like this.

With our work at the South Pole now complete, we now just have to wait for a ride back to McMurdo. Logistics are always a challenge here and no one is immune. Dealing with the harsh weather conditions causes delays every season, it’s just a part of working on the continent.

Until next time…

Day 37 – Field Camp, Part 3

After letting the system run for a day we discovered we had some difficulty keeping the sensor level. In order to fix this problem, we decided to anchor the sensor by turning the base to solid ice.

Peter gently poured water around the base of the sensor, spoonful by spoonful, to freeze everything in place.
Peter gently poured water around the base of the sensor, spoonful by spoonful, to freeze everything in place.

With the sensor level and firmly in place, we had a couple days remaining before the plane could pick us up.  This meant we had some time to kill so we found lots of ways to keep ourselves entertained. The first and most important was grooming the ski-way for the plane.

With nothing but our shovels we tried to make the skiway as smooth as possible for the plane to take off.  With all our gear loaded the plane needed a lot of space to accelerate.
With nothing but our shovels we tried to make the ski-way as smooth as possible for the plane to take off. With all our gear loaded the plane needed a lot of space to accelerate.

We also decided to take advantage of the skills we learned at happy camper. By that, of course, I mean we built an igloo.

The work was divided into quarrying the snow into blocks and shaping the blocks so they fit together snugly.
The work was divided into quarrying the snow into blocks and shaping the blocks so they fit together snugly.

Building an igloo requires excellent masonry.  A solid base is necessary to support the weight of the rest of the structure.  Once the dome was capped we excavated the interior of the structure.

By digging down into the snow we made the interior of the igloo tall enough for me to stand up inside.
By digging down into the snow we made the interior of the igloo tall enough for me to stand up inside.

The igloo made a nice addition to camp. Plus moving all that snow around is an excellent way to keep the blood moving.

With a doorway arch for a finishing touch, the igloo was complete.  It was a little smaller than the last time but still pretty good for three of us working an afternoon.
With a doorway arch for a finishing touch, the igloo was complete. It was a little smaller than the last time but still pretty good for three of us working an afternoon.

Another way to keep warm and pass the time was to simply go for a walk. Getting away from camp was a great reminder of just how isolated we really were.

Those little black dots on the horizon are our camp.  The rest of the view was nothing but flat, white horizon in every direction.
Those little black dots on the horizon are our camp. The rest of the view was nothing but flat, white horizon in every direction.

Once we got word on the radio that the plane was on its way to pick us up, fun time was over. We quickly got to work dismantling camp. Everything except the main tent came down until we sighted the plane, just in case something went wrong and the plane had to return the South Pole.

We worked quickly to pack up almost everything once we got the good news that the pilots were on their way.
We worked quickly to pack up almost everything once we got the good news that the pilots were on their way.

The Twin Otters in Antarctica are extremely busy and we were lucky our plane and its crew finished their other commitments a day early.  The pilots were very generous working a long day to come get us.  Finally, late on day five of our camping trip, we spotted a very welcome sight on the horizon.

We were all pretty excited to see our ride show up.  We didn't have time to celebrate, though, since we had to take down the main tent and load up the plane.
We were all pretty excited to see our ride show up. We didn’t have time to celebrate, though, since we had to take down the main tent and load up the plane.

Very quickly the main tent was down, packed up and ready to go. All that remained of our camp was a couple wind walls, an igloo, and the solar panel sticking up out of the snow.

The only signs of our work were the tower sticking out of the snow and a handful of flags marking the buried equipment.
Soon all that will remain of our work will be the tower sticking out of the snow and a handful of flags marking the buried equipment.  The snow walls and igloo we built will not last long.

Everyone was exhausted as we headed back to the station.  We were all pretty satisfied with the result of the trip. The system is in place and running well, and we made it back safe and sound. Our trip wasn’t quite over yet at that point but it was certainly a good job done.

Until next time…

Day 36 – Field Camp, Part 2

Our first morning at camp “dawned” almost exactly the same as the previous day, eighteen below with a light wind.  In fact we were lucky with good weather, we had almost exactly the same weather every day.

This is how we spent breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as time for snacks and hot drinks in between meals.  Fighting the cold works up quite an appetite.
This is how we spent breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as time for snacks and hot drinks in between meals. Fighting the cold works up quite an appetite.

We had a warm breakfast to start each day.  The tent wasn’t enormous but we had room to sit and enjoy our meals.

Our "kitchen" was a pretty standard camping setup.  The mountaineers who keep us safe on trips like this spend a lot of their time keeping water hot by melting snow on the stove.
Our “kitchen” was a pretty standard camping setup. The mountaineers who keep us safe on trips like this spend a lot of their time keeping water hot by melting snow on the stove.

Our mountaineer, Carrie, spent the majority of the trip keeping us supplied with hot water.  Not only is hot water important for cooking meals, it also really helps you warm up when the outside temperatures get to you.   Staying hydrated is important both because the camp was at about 11,500 feet in altitude and because your body works so hard to stay warm.

This system design required putting together small nuts, bolts, and washers, which was no fun with freezing cold hands.  Newer designs have simplified things with pins and large T-bolts that are easier to handle with gloves on.
This system design required putting together small nuts, bolts, and washers, which was no fun with freezing cold hands. Newer designs have simplified things with pins and large T-bolts that are easier to handle with gloves on.

After breakfast we got right to work.  When assembling the system, the first thing to do was to put together the tower.  That was one of the worst (i.e. coldest) parts of the assembly since it required dealing with very small parts, which was difficult to do with mittens on.

Getting the tower vertical went smoothly without any issues.  To secure it in place we bury three large deadmen and attach them to the top of the tower with guy wires.
Getting the tower vertical went smoothly without any issues. To secure it in place we bury three large deadmen and attach them to the top of the tower with guy wires.

With all the solar panels and the antennas attached we raised the tower and anchored it in a small pit.

Excavating the main pit was slow work in the thin air but I didn't mind.  It kept the blood moving and the snow blocks helped build the wind walls behind our tents.
Excavating the main pit was slow work in the thin air but I didn’t mind. It kept the blood moving and the snow blocks helped build the wind walls behind our tents.

The rest of the day was spent digging the main pit and filling it with the electronics and battery boxes.  The big blue box contains almost all of the electronic components for the system.  The box is so large mostly because it’s lined with lots of insulation.  The wooden crate contains 16 large, car-size batteries for storing the energy collected by the solar panels.  With everything hooked up we were almost done, but exhausted, so we called it a day.

The hole required for the sensor itself was much smaller.  The tricky part was getting the thing perfectly level and aligned with magnetic north.
The hole required for the sensor itself was much smaller. The tricky part was getting it perfectly level and aligned with magnetic north.

The next morning all we had left to do was dig a small hole for the sensor, the fluxgate magnetometer.  This sensor is the whole reason for the system installation so we took our time to get it right.

All of the shipping crates stay with the system.  if and when this system needs to be removed, we need everything you see here to pack it up again.  The 2x4s support the plywood that we use to cover the pit.
All of the shipping crates stay with the system. If and when this system needs to be removed, we need everything you see here to pack it up again. The 2x4s support the plywood that we use to cover the pit.

With everything completely hooked up we filled the main pit with the remainder of the extra equipment and materials.

We use flags to mark everything that we bury.  The ground drifts over in a hurry due to the constant wind and turns very quickly into a featureless surface.
We use flags to mark everything that we bury. The ground drifts over in a hurry due to the constant wind and turns very quickly into a featureless surface.

All the pits are covered with plywood to prevent everything inside from getting saturated with snow.  With the pit covered we were pretty much done.  It was a pretty tiring couple of days.

We worked pretty hard the first couple days to get all the real work done just in case the plane was able to return early and pick us up.  The timing of flights didn't work out that way, so we ended up with plenty of time to rest and recover instead.
We worked pretty hard the first couple days to get all the real work done just in case the plane was able to return early and pick us up. The timing of flights didn’t work out that way, so we ended up with plenty of time to rest and recover instead.

All that remained for work after the third day was to let the system run for a day to make sure it worked properly.  We still had to wait a few more days before the plane could make it back and pick us up but since we were basically done with work, we found ways to entertain ourselves.

Until next time…

Day 35 – Field Camp, Part 1

Two days after Christmas we finally headed out for the field camp installation. We got all our gear packed up and ready to go early that morning.  Once the plane was fueled and ready to go, we were on our way.

The inside of the loaded Twin Otter from my seat in the back of the plane.
The inside of the loaded Twin Otter from my seat in the back of the plane.

Inside the Twin Otter, it was cozy with all of our camping equipment and survival gear strapped in, but there was still plenty of room for the four of us in the back.

Our last view of the station on our way to the field camp site.
Our last view of the station on our way to the field camp site.

Shortly after takeoff we circled around for a nice view of the station, almost like a last goodbye before heading out to the field.

The pilots had to stop for fuel on the way to our site.  These barrels gave us enough to get to the site and back.
The pilots had to stop for fuel on the way to our site. These barrels gave us enough to get to the site and back.

Our field camp site was farther than a Twin Otter can reach on a normal tank of fuel, so we had to stop along the way to fill up. There aren’t any gas stations in the middle of the plateau, so prior to taking us out to the field the pilots had staged some barrels about halfway to the site.  That gave us a chance to get out and stretch our legs.

The view on the way to the field camp site was pretty much the same the whole way.  The only difference was shadows cast by the clouds.
The view on the way to the field camp site was pretty much the same the whole way. The only difference was shadows cast by the clouds.

Most of the three hour flight out to the camp site looked almost exactly the same. The terrain is basically a featureless plateau between the South Pole Station and our field camp about 380 miles away.

Our science cargo was waiting for us when we arrived at the field camp.
Our science cargo was waiting for us when we arrived at the field camp.

After a short flight, we arrived early in the afternoon to find the rest of our cargo intact. The temperature when we landed was around -17 degrees Fahrenheit with a light wind of a few knots. Before a flight crew leaves any field party, you have to establish communication with McMurdo, get the main tent set up, and demonstrate that a stove works.

Once we had the essentials of camp established, the plane left us behind and we got to work.
Once we had the essentials of camp established, the plane left us behind and we got to work.

When the pilots saw we had camp initialized, the plane was off and we got to work setting up the rest of camp.  The first day is all about survival, getting tents and equipment set up.

It took the entire first day to get camp set up, but things went well.  It was our home away from home for the next four nights.
It took the entire first day to get camp set up, but things went well. It was our home away from home for the next four nights.

It only took a few hours for us to get the majority of camp set up, but the finishing details took the rest of the day.  Each of us had our own tent in addition to the main tent, which served as kitchen, dining area, and general warm-up spot.

My own tent was on the edge of the field camp.  The temperatures were low but the view was pretty great.
My own tent was on the edge of the field camp. The temperatures were low but the view was pretty great.

It took a lot out of us getting camp established so we hit the rack pretty early after a quick dinner. We were exhausted from the travel, the cold, and the additional elevation so no one had any trouble falling asleep. The next day the real work would begin.

Until next time…

Day 34 – Happy New Year!

Happy 2015!!! We made it back from our little camping trip with only minutes to spare before the clock struck midnight on the 31st. The folks at the station were already busy celebrating so after unloading our cargo we joined in for a quick toast.

Happy New Year from the South Pole!!!!
Happy New Year from the South Pole!!!!

The next day, on the first of the year, the South Pole held a quick ceremony to mark the new geographic South Pole. Since the ice sheet we’re sitting on moves about 33 feet every year, the station marks the location with a new marker each year. In fact, the movement of the ice sheet is a much larger factor than the precession of the earth I mentioned in a previous post.

Members of the South Pole Station team start moving the flag from last year's mark.
Members of the South Pole Station team start moving the flag from last year’s mark.

The station manager said a few words to honor the occasion. Then all the members formed a semi-circle and we passed the American flag person by person from last year’s location to the new mark.

The flag was passed by hand by each member of the South Pole Station team before reaching its new home.
The flag was passed by hand by each member of the South Pole Station team before reaching its new home.

With the flag in place the station manager unveiled the new marker, which every year is designed by the winter-over crew at the South Pole Station.

The 2015 geographic South Pole marker is very impressive.  The inner part rotates and features a really cool glass representation of the continent.
The 2015 geographic South Pole marker is very impressive. The inner part rotates and features a really cool glass representation of the continent.

The 2015 marker is pretty awesome, the designers did a great job.  I have lots of pictures and details from our field camp that I will post in the coming days but I wanted to take the time to first wish everyone a Happy New Year and best of luck in 2015.

Until next time…

Day 28 – Christmas at the South Pole

The South Pole Station celebrated Christmas yesterday, but we had a little bit of work to do before letting loose for the holiday. We leave tomorrow for our first field trip so the pilots had to fly one last load of advance cargo out for us.

We had one last load of cargo to send out to the camp site before we go out for our field trip.
We had one last load of cargo to send out to the camp site before we go out for our field trip.

After our work was done, the day started with an annual South Pole Christmas tradition, the Race Around the World. Participants dress up and race a lap around the station.

The Race Around the World is a little over a mile and a half lap in sub-zero temperatures.  Everyone has a great time dressed up in costume.
The Race Around the World is a little over a mile and a half lap in sub-zero temperatures. Everyone has a great time dressed up in costume.

Some people raced in style. Obviously some even are a bit more used to the cold than others.

I think these ladies had the race all figured out!  The driver might be a little crazy though.
I think these ladies had the race all figured out! The driver might be a little crazy though.

After the race folks just relaxed and enjoyed the holiday.

The whole station was decorated for the holiday.  Even Elvis joined in the festive mood.
The whole station was decorated for the holiday. Even Elvis joined in the festive mood.

Everyone was in a festive mood, even the king himself.

The galley was set up nicely for Christmas dinner.  The staff and volunteers did a great job making the place look nice.
The galley was set up nicely for Christmas dinner. The staff and volunteers did a great job making the place look nice.

We had a fantastic Christmas dinner put on by the galley.

Who can beat lobster tail and prime rib for dinner?  The food was great and we all ate a little too much.
Who can beat lobster tail and prime rib for dinner? The food was great and we all ate a little too much.

The food was absolutely delicious. Somehow they managed to get lobster and prime rib flown in for the event.

Santa made it all the way to the South Pole on a sled, though not his normal ride.  Maybe the reindeer were too tired?
Santa made it all the way to the South Pole on a sled, though not his normal ride. Maybe the reindeer were too tired?

For those that might have been concerned, Santa was able to find us even all the way down here.

I got to say hi to Santa as he made his way through the station.
I got to say hi to Santa as he made his way through the station.

After enjoying the holiday with the South Pole family and friends, it’s back to business as usual. Assuming weather holds we will fly out to our first site this weekend. I won’t be able to post from the field but I’ll be sure to update everyone on our progress as soon as we get back.

Until next time…