Saturday, December 26, 2009

Falling into Place...

Things are getting more solid and real by the day.  As well as having flights booked next month for the Denver training and then on to New Zealand, I now have been assigned a hotel in Christchurch starting on the 24th of January - the Windsor B&B.  The Windsor is a large old house near the city center that has been converted into a hotel.  I'm sure it was chosen by my employers for its economy, but it is exactly the kind of place I would chose no matter what my housing budget. I'll be there at least two days.

The NZ office of the USAP has sent me a schedule for my two days in Christchurch - how to get around, where and when to be fitted for my cold weather gear, where to meet shuttles, and the date for my ICE flight.  If the weather cooperates I will be on the ice exactly one month from today, January 26.  Unfortunately being "on the ice" isn't the same as being at the Pole.  Several days will have to be spent in the mud pit that is McMurdo Station where they will give me survival training (and yet another dental exam). Then onward to the clean ice of the Amundsen-Scott Station.

I've started preliminary packing.  Baggage weight for flights into McMurdo and to the Pole is limited to 150 lbs of personal gear.  This includes the ten pounds of extreme cold weather gear issued at the USAP Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch.  My ECW will be closer to 20 lbs because South Pole winterovers are issued two complete sets so that one can be stored in a remote building in case of a main-station fire. I don't think I will have any real problem with the weight limit even with the 20 lbs of gear but we will see. I'm an experienced traveler so I probably could get all my clothes for the winter in a carry-on bag.  I'm not sure how I will even fill up two huge duffels. Food, alcohol, chocolate and an Xbox maybe.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Getting close

It isn't long now - just over 30 days.  My flights are booked and my tickets cut.  I leave for Denver orientation on January 17th and then on to the Pole.  My ICE flight (where I actually reach Antarctica) is scheduled for the 26th into McMurdo Station from Christchurch, New Zealand. That flight will be on a C-17 military transport. The flight to the Pole a few days later will be on a ski-equipped C-130.

In the meantime I have been busy cleaning up around the house for a year's absence, installing security lights, shopping for cameras and other personal things, building a carport, and arranging for lawn-mowing and mail-forwarding services.

There is only one more training session after the fire-fighting and emergency responder training - Survival School. That is done in Antarctica under real conditions. After some classroom instruction they will drive us out onto the ice sheet and teach us how to build ice shelters (igloos!) and dig survival trenches... and then they make us sleep in them overnight!  Luckily I will be there at the end of January, which is the warmest month.  Temperatures for my night out should stay above zero.

Although I have known I am going to the South Pole for months, it adds quite a dose of reality to have flights scheduled.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Further Progress

I just heard from RPSC and they have moved my deployment date up to the week of January 18th.  That means it is now less than 60 days before I leave for the South Pole.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fire Training Update

I found a picture of the firefighters' halligan. This versatile tool is a combination pry-bar, adze, hook, ax, and reach-extender and was invented by (you guessed it) Hugh Halligan of the NYFD, and is now used by firefighters worldwide. It is also useful because when crawling along the floor on hands and knees it the two prongs on the end form a raised triangle that keeps the fire-fighter's hand off the floor. If the hand holding the halligan ever touches the floor the firefighter knows there is no floor ahead. Very useful knowledge to keep from going headfirst into a hole or stairway in pitch black conditions. As I found out, this thing is heavy steel and weighs about 10-15 lbs. - much heavier than an ax. Using one increases equipment weight for the average firefighter to about 70 lbs!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

South Pole Firefighter Training

I spent the past week at the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy in Aurora, Colorado training for the South Pole Station Fire Brigade. Apologies for not posting during the week, but you would not believe the stuff I was doing. I was exhausted every day. Every muscle in my body ached all week and I have a new respect for firefighters - the things they do are HARD.

Monday, in just one exercise, we crawled through a "burning" building (simulated smoke but zero visibility) on hands and knees sweep-searching for victims. In this case the scenario was "an infant reported to be in the building". As we discovered there was also an unexpected adult victim. My partner and I had to extract both (we always go in two-person teams). All this was done with 65 lbs of bunker gear, helmet, face-piece and self-contained breathing apparatus. It was all I could do to crawl out of the building with the baby under my arm, hand it (him?) off and collapse. The smoke was so thick in the building that at one point I could not find the open exit door when I was only a foot from it! I shouldn't admit it, but I probably dragged the "baby" out by the neck. Luckily there aren't supposed to be any babies at the Pole, but anything is possible.

And this was just one exercise of a 5-day course. On the last day we all had to sweep-search for victims and put out a fire in a live-fire exercise.  You can see the remnants of the fire in the picture to the left. I cannot say I was looking forward to the search part since searching is hard enough without real fire (putting the fires out is a lot of fun though). In the end all went well in my fire-attack but my sweep-search could have been better. By the way, "could have been better" is a euphemism for "terrible". On the second floor searching for victims I got confused in the smoke and did not search the entire room.  As a result I left the room early and missed the victim (a bright orange traffic cone) which was behind a door.

The one thing I was not worried about was getting burned. On the first day we had been taken into the fire building in full gear while the trainers set fire to a pile of wooden pallets next to us. Thankfully all we had to do was crouch on the floor in the relatively cool air and listen to a short ten-minute lecture.. The lecture they gave in that room took on new meaning when there was a raging fire ten feet away and the smoke/air interface was dropping by the minute. By the end of the lecture the fire had turned into a raging inferno and the smoke had dropped to about 18 inches off the floor and was so dense we couldn't even see the fire ten feet away (but we could sure feel the heat)! We were in full bunker gear and bottled air of course. The firefighters told us that five feet above the floor the temperature was about 1,000 degrees, and if any of us were to stand up the heat would melt our face masks. Needless to say we all crawled out the door on hands and knees after the lecture.. I've learned that firefighters spend most of their time on hands and knees. As we were crawling out another firefighter warned us not to remove our gear for a few minutes because it was too hot to touch!

On one of the non-fire mornings we crawled down the Gerbil Tube - 80 feet of eighteen-inch diameter concrete sewer pipe - to learn how to negotiate tight situations. It was so tight we could only propel ourselves with our toes. Later that day we squirmed, crawled and scooted back and forth and up-and-down through a building called The Maze (which I tended to think of more as the Building from Hell) that had a complex multi-level wooden stud structure built throughout (complete with the occasional hanging electrical wire) to simulate a tight attic space - all in complete darkness with full kit and SCBA. On other days we learned forced-entry techniques using a halligan and ax, practiced extinguishing vehicle-fires (left), propane tank fires, extracting victims from cars, etc. Whew, it was quite a week of exhausting training and the thin air of Denver didn't help much.

And the best part is I was actually paid to do this! I can't say I was the best in the class, but I held my own - particularly when you realize that most of the other students were 20 to 30 years younger than me.  I'd like to take the course again, but I'll prepare myself better in advance next time.

110 days to the Pole!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wilderness Emergency Responder Training

Ok, since one of my three readers has complained I'm not posting fast enough here is what is happening so far in Denver.

CISM, Critical Incident Stress Management: This one-day course was not an auspicious start to the two weeks of training. Eight hours of lecture about potential psychological issues for winter-overs at the Pole and what to look out for. Useful and mildly interesting but I became concerned this was going to be a very long two weeks until day two arrived with ...drumroll...

Wilderness First Responder Training! WOW! What a great course! After a few hours of interesting and humorous lecture we broke into small groups and moved outside for simulated incident scenarios. Some of us played victims (complete with fake blood and bruise make-up, a list of symptoms, behavior and complaints) while the others evaluated the situation and treated us on the spot. We learned how to complete head-to-toe evaluations, do chunk evaluations when time is of a premium, how to identify spinal injuries and immobilize the patient, to evaluate LOR (Level of Responsiveness), how to remove victims from awkward situations without causing additional harm, and how to give CPR. And this was just the first day!

The remaining days were spent learning and practicing things like how to stop arterial bleeding, splint broken bones, apply traction splints and SAM splints, what to ignore (because they are beyond first responder's abilities to treat), how to report correctly to a remote medical professional, and how to identify and treat hypothermia. Of course all was oriented toward doing this in sub-zero temperatures. We even had to wear mittens for some scenarios. Trust me, taping a patient's head to a backboard while wearing mittens is no easy task.

For three days the hotel parking lot looked like a small disaster area. Victims were laying in the parking lot, in ditches, over rocks and under trees with teams running back and forth. Face up, face down, curled up, conscious, unconscious, fake blood, occasional screams and combativeness. Not to mention practicing carrying victims in a litter across parking lots, up and down stairs and through halls and doorways. Once, after a scenario, I was loading a backboard and kit bag into an elevator when a guest asked me if there was an emergency in the hotel.

I'm going to give a plug for the instructor of this course, Mark Crawford of the Wilderness Medical Institute. Mark is the perfect trainer for this course having been a career Air Force SAR team member and combat parajumper. Every bit of theory in this course was backed up with real-life stories about situations he has experienced, including mistakes and successes. There were two EMT's in our group and they seemed in awe of Mark. If you need emergency responder training at any level, including for physicians, WMI are the people to call.

Now on to Firefighter Training which will start Friday. They say that is the really fun course. If it's any better than this I'm not leaving Denver.

Days to the Ice: 122

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Emergency Response Training

138 Days to the Ice
Things are starting to move along. My pre-deployment emergency response training in Denver will start in 10 days and I have learned what its components will be:

Critical Incident Stress Management Training: 1 day
Trauma Team Training: 3 days
Fire Brigade Training: 5 days
OSHA Training: 1 day
Raytheon Orientation*: 2 days

*Raytheon Orientation is normally given immediately before deployment, so that part may be postponed until nearer my deployment date in February. Still, it's going to be a busy two weeks.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Style

I'm changing my blog's style as you can see.  I don't think flower anthers really fit an Antarctica blog so I'm working on changing the header image. Be patient - it isn't a simple JPG sitting up there that I can switch.

[Update] Aha! Changed to a Pole panorama.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Live Cam at the Pole

RETURN OF LIVE PICTURES - The live web cam at the South Pole Station is operational again today after being off-line for the winter.  Above is a view taken 9 September.  I can’t believe that’s daylight so soon.  I’ll check with my Polie friend when satellite communication is available later today.  Note the line of flags that guides people to and from the main station year-round when ground level visibility is poor.  This photo is taken from an atmospheric research building in the Clean Air Sector (you can see the building as a tiny dot at the far left of the sidebar aerial photo). 

Current SP temperature -89F, wind at 10 mph. Wind chill -126F.

[Update] Haven't heard from the Pole yet but I think this really is daylight at the Pole! Sunrise is September 21, only 12 days away, so this is pre-dawn light coming from the Sun circling just below the horizon.  I bet there are a bunch of excited Polies right about now.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Outfitting an Expedition

THE ECONOMICS OF SHOPPING - Few of us do all our shopping in one huge super-market trip once a year, but that is exactly what has to happen when you spend a winter at the Pole.  Yes, meals are supplied, but only in the cafeteria, and as well-prepared as they might be it is still rather institutional.  For  example, cafeteria cheeses are probably that cheese-like orange stuff called “cheddar” that comes in extruded cubes or the stuff called Parmesan you shake out of a green container. As an American I was practically raised on all that but I also know there is better. Much better. 
So, the nicer things in life that make it all bearable are not supplied at the Pole - like really good tea and coffee.  Or skin moisturizer (required in the ultra-dry conditions), or really good chocolate.  As I have found out, eight and a half months of anything is a lot of stuff.  For example:
  • A mere 1.5 oz of cheese a day is 24 lbs 0f cheese in eight and a half months! Since one 7 pound wheel of a medium quality Manchego cheese costs $125 that's over $450!
  • One 1 ounce drink of single malt scotch  per day = 1.1 bottles per month.  Which is 9 times $60 (cheap scotch!) or $540.
  • Heck, even one bag of Dorritos a week equals 34 bags of Dorritos,  $70!!!
And what else do I want to take for eight months? Espresso coffee ($150), Earl Grey tea ($150), good chocolate - two bars/week turns into 68 bars ($210), 8.5 months of skin moisturizers ($200), batteries ($200),  WOW!  This is like outfitting an EXPEDITION!

145 day to the Pole 

Monday, August 31, 2009

154 days to the Ice

THE PSYCHO TEST - I was trying to come up with some funny remarks about the psych evaluation - the test everyone has to take (and pass) before wintering in Antarctica, but I can’t do any better than Paolo Calisse, an Italian astronomer at the South Pole, who wrote about his own "Psycho Test" in 2002:


10 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse -

To get admitted to the tiny club of people wintering in Antarctica is a frightening adventure. Getting out of a crevasse? Fighting with killer seals? Tiring walks in the gale? No, nothing like that. After a long series of medical exams, including removal of most of your poor wisdom teeth, you have to pass the most frightening test. The so-called "Psycho". 

Some people included me have been submitted to the exam today, directly here at South Pole. At 7:30 we have been asked yesterday to meet in the upper galley, inside the dome. There were 6 other person with me. The test consists in the endless Minnesota test (567 questions), continue with another test called M2 or something like that (185 questions) and finish with the interview with the "psycho", that is my favourite because at last you have found someone happy to know also the most boring details of your life and for free.

The Minnesota test, in one of its multiple forms, consists of exactly 567 true/false questions. The declared aim of the test is to check if you lie, but I guess that it works just in this way: if you suddenly stand up, redden and start to scream the 10th time you have to reply to the question "Sometime I feel my head tender (true/false)", in one of his various form or to declare that "I would prefer to be a sport journalist than play wrestling or baseball (ture/false)" you are out of the game. In my case this endless test was even more boring because I couldn't get 1 by 10 times what the hell the question was meaning. As most of my most reader will know by now, I am not exactly the kind of person skilled for other languages.

But let me explain using a simple example what's happened. For example: question 65 asked to say if it's true or false that "Most of the time I feel blue". I taken my time to try to imagine a person that actually feels blue. I watched to the skin of my arm and tried to see it turning from beige to cyan and than blue. It didn't work. I never feel blue. But I couldn't really imagine such a person, wishing to spend a winter in Antarctica and contemporarely feeling blue. Why should someone feel blue? Why not green or black, for example? For politically correctness?

I continued for a good 2 hours to reply to questions like that. I have been asked if "Almost ever I feel a lump in my throat". If someone will send me an e-mail at this address telling me what the hell is a lump I'll be very glad. I checked false, and continue ahead. Anyway at question 566, just one before the end, something happenede. I found the following question: "When I am sad or blue, it is my work that suffer". Uh...oh! I got the feeling that I had just misunderstood the word in another 13 or 14 statements. 

But the worst was that only close to the end of this endless series of questions I realized that "hardly ever" doesn't mean "almost ALWAYS" as I was guessing, but "almost NEVER". This means that the portrait will come out of my test will probably be the one of a person that would like to kill his father each Christmas while getting upset for almost every reason, and, even worst, the kind of person that if Penelope Cruz would access his "cubicle" at midnight, would just starts chatting with her about submillimeter site testing. This doesn't mean that I will not be envolved in the winter at South Pole. First, as my boss said one time, you have to be completely crazy to wish to do that, second, if you could see the kind of people populating the station you could "hardly" believe that the psychologist has still not killed himself.  

Anyway, in this way I spent 3 hours of my poor time here addressing stupid or inchoerent questions. The second test included other 185 questions. After that I got to the interview with the psyco, that last a good half an hour longer than the other people because, you know, it is particularly nice to find someone interested in accurate description of any detail of your life. And for free! I enjoyed that poor guy with a discussion about arguments starting from the problem of emigration from South Italy after the WWII (the guy's father was coming from a tiny center in Calabria), to the production of amatorial movie with brodcast quality cameras

After that I got my lunch and get back to the AASTO, where I work. We had a long list of things-to-do. They span from maintance to the experiment, preparing crates, cleaning up, dismounting assorted stuff, replying to the mail, send diaries, to change the IP address of obsolete computers, find the allan key 7/64 (this could take several hours) in the tool box, depressurise stirling hanging from 28 to 4 bars using a pushbike tyre gauge, shoveling the snow, put a thermometer large like a tower-clock in a stick on the snow, convince a webcam to wear sunglasses, etc. Let me say that it's true that doing this kind of things in this place I never get blue.  Right? 

Thursday, August 27, 2009

158 days to the Ice

THE LAST JUMP -  With my successful completion of the winter-over psych evaluation I have now been fully PQ'd for the winter 2010 posting at South Pole.  I was contacted by RPSC Medical yesterday to let me know I have been PQ'd.  No more jumps!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More Images...

As I begin to communicate with people at the Pole I am being sent great information about what to expect when working and living there next winter.  Here are some photos by current Pole resident Patrick Cullis:
South Pole Station in Moonlight
Photo by Patrick Cullis

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

South Pole, June 2009

Photo by Patrick Cullis. untitled

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Friend at the Pole

I just heard from the person currently performing my future job at the Pole, Laurie B. She sent this picture of my future home! It's nice to have a contact there to ask questions of and I'm sure she'll be very helpful. Just today she reported that there is a faint glow of sunlight on the horizon signaling the end of winter, although it is still very cold: -96F. Look at those stars - I can't wait to see them in person!
Next week I'm off to Denver for the dreaded psych evaluation, the last hurdle before PQ.
Photo by Patrick Cullis
In case everyone is wondering about the trapezoidal pictures, I am corrected the perspective.

Monday, August 10, 2009

More of the same...

Just more medical tests happening now. I get to meet two new doctors tomorrow. Yippeehowwonderful.  I won't bore anyone with the details.  I'm also reading Antarctica: Life on the Ice, a book of essays from various people about their experiences in Antarctica. Some are funny, some scary, some reassuring.  Recommended.

At the end of the month things should start picking up for the blog when I fly to Denver for my psych evaluation.  All winter-overs must pass this test.  It sounds like a good idea to me.  Then in September I'll fly to Denver again for a week of training in both Firefighter Training and Emergency ECW* Trauma skills (which will include such things as how to pull an injured person in a sled behind a snow mobile).  I can't wait.  Those should both be interesting and I'll finally be able to post some pictures and some interesting training information.

I just happened to notice that the temperature differential today between the Pole and my home in North Carolina is 185F!  It is 100F here in NC and -85F at the Pole.  

*ECW: Extreme Cold Weather

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Although I had been told I would get the contract, this morning a nice person from Raytheon called to officially make me the offer, and I accepted.  Official is good. So unless problems arise I will be the Safety Engineer at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station starting next February and continuing into October.

I should say a little about how this happens.  After interviews it is necessary for every candidate to go through some rigorous physical exams.  This is called physical qualification, or PQ.   Because it is often difficult or impossible to evacuate injured or ill people from the pole even in the summer, the health of the people working there is very important.   I completed my PQ tests for a summer season and I am happy to say I passed with flying colors, but for a winter position I will have PQ at a whole new level.  We're talking nuclear imaging and CT scans here!

But I think it will all be worth it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Who is there now?

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station began austral winter operations this year on February 14, 2009 with a station population of 43 people. Of this group, 36 are employees of Raytheon Polar Services Company, 5 are providing technical support for fifteen ongoing research and meteorological observation projects, and 2 are supporting the IceCube neutrino detector. The station will be in winter operating mode until late October 2009 when the summer research season begins and the population of the station will increase to 250+ over the space of a few weeks.

The winter operations in 2010, my posting, is expected to be between 45 and 50 people.  At least this means everyone gets their own individual room in the main station building!  

Polar Fashion

Here is the typical basic cold weather gear supplied to everyone going to Antarctica - except I might get a GREEN parka that is reserved only for Polies.  I think green is much more attractive.  I'll also go for the mittens rather than the gloves...warmer.

Together this stuff weighs 17 lbs.  I'll explain later why that is important.  They give it out at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) in New Zealand, so I won't have to lug it all the way from the US.  I'll also take a nice East German Army fur hat I was given when I was last in Berlin. 

Friday, July 24, 2009

Introduction to 90 Below

Hello World - This blog starts today and will attempt to chronicle my experiences working and living at the South Pole. Although I won't reach 'The Ice' until February 2010, seven months from now, I think some of my experiences in learning about and preparing for the deployment may be worthwhile to post.

This will be my first time on the ice so I will be an FNG. I'll post some information on ice slang later, but FNG is a rather rude way of saying I'll be a newbie - a new guy. Time on the ice for me will be from early February to mid October - which includes the darkest and most inaccessible of seasons. But I'm eager to see the Southern Cross and the aurora australis.

Wintering at the South Pole is something only 1200 people have ever done, and I am excited and honored to be able to add my name to the list.

I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences, I know I'll enjoy telling you about them.

Aurora Australis, South Pole Station, June 2009 (USAP Photo)