Sunday, October 31, 2010

No way anyone is getting out of Pole today.  At 4 am visibility was less than a mile and winds were at 30 mph.  It seems the weather front that was supposed to be here this afternoon got here a little early.  Since the Herc needs 3 miles of visibility to land, we are not even close.  The forcast is for continued bad weather for the next few days.  I can't even see the South Pole Telescope from the main station because of the low clouds and blowing snow.  The front brought in lower pressures and we are now at 11,350 ft altitude.  That's not too bad for us winterovers, but the new people will be struggling today I think.

Its going to be a pretty boring few days I think.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Today is my last full day at the South Pole station.  Of course the plane to take us out has to get here tomorrow and we have not had any luck in that area so far.  Every scheduled LC130 has been canceled for one reason or another for over a week.  The most recent flight in had to turn back when one of its engines quit part way here!

Today is also Sunday which is the normal SP day off, so I have things pretty easy.  Up at 6:30 for toast and coffee and sitting around with other departing Polies until 10:30 when brunch was served.  Then brunch until 11, then reading and napping until 1 pm.  Yaaaawn.  I will go outside one last time to take pictures of my replacement at the Pole markers.

If all goes well I will be lifting off the ice here at about 12:30 tomorrow afternoon.  That's less that 24 hours!  About five hours later I will arrive in McMurdo where I will spend the night.  I'll leave McM Tuesday afternoon (Monday in the US), and arrive in civilization in Christchurch NZ that evening.  Trees, grass, birds, dogs, cats and all those other things I have neither seen nor smelled for almost ten months.  I can hardly wait.

I'll be in  Christchurch for about a week.  I'll probably continue to post on the blog during that time, but it is getting close to the end time for my adventure at the South Pole and I will probably retire 90Below in a week or two.
I don't like the tone this blog has taken over the past few days, so I am backing up.  I have deleted all the anonymous negative comments from Polies who won't identify themselves, and I have also deleted all my replies to them - both comments and posts.  I simply don't like the pissing contest this blog has been turned into.

Everyone can still comment, but if it is a negative comment from an anonymous Polie who just wants to complain, I'll delete it.  You can disagree with me, but do it in a less negative, aggressive way and it will be posted.

So this blog now reverts to its original character.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I am tired.  Bag-drag was today for my flight to McMurdo Monday so I'll be living out of a small overnight suitcase for the next two days.  I managed to mail most of my personal stuff home and don't have much to lug on and off airplanes on the way home.  I learned my lesson coming down here (or maybe I didn't - any comments anonymous?) and mail is much preferable to lugging suitcases.

We had a Twin Otter plane land a few minutes ago for refueling.  It is on its way to McMurdo, flying across the continent from Chile.  It will be flying various missions in Antarctica in support of bases and field camps.  We will get one of our scheduled C-130 flights in today, which will take out some winterovers.  The winterovers won't be able to go straight to Christchurch on the C-17 after arriving at McMurdo, but will have to stay overnight and fly tomorrow.

I'm basically a tourist at the South Pole these days, as all my duties have been taken over by my replacement.  I don't even have my radio any more.  My life now is packing and cleaning and putting stuff in skua for arriving people to use.
Here is a cute video of how to wear Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW) at South Pole during winter.  The video features two current 2010 winterovers, Emmanuel on the left and Shelby (aka Michelle) on the right...

As for leaving, everything is in flux because of yesterdays crash of the French helicopter in Antarctica.  Our two C-130 planes have been reassigned to rescue/recovery operations and will not come to Pole today as planned.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

No incoming planes tomorrow, so the dreaded 120 summer folks will have to stay in McMurdo.  The problem is that summer camp, which will house all the new folk, has a frozen sewer line.  That means no water can be used there so it is uninhabitable.  If we can't get it fixed we can't bring in people. If we can't bring in people, we can't leave.

[Note: I found out after posting this that we can open the jamesways at summer camp without running water or toilets.  We have solar-powered portable toilets believe it or not!]

We will get planes to bring in much needed fuel, but that is all - no people.  The winter engineering and maintenance crew have been working hard to get the sewer pipe unfrozen, and it looked like it was fixed over the weekend, but it froze again on Monday.  Will any winterovers be able to leave on those fuel planes? Well maybe.  We can't depopulate the station entirely, so many will have to stay until new people arrive.  My replacement got here on one of the Baslers so there is probably no reason for me to stay.  I may be able to hitch a ride on one of those LC-130s, but there is a complication that fuel-only planes normally don't take passengers either in or out.  It's complicated.

Frankly I don't know what is going on and there is no telling when I will be getting out of here.

In the meantime, all the incoming polies are hanging out in McMurdo unable to get to Pole, so McMurdo is packed with people sleeping on top of each other.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Things are certainly changing fast around here.  From "maybe" a C-130 this week we now will be getting three on Thursday.  Two of those will be carrying passengers, so that's 120 new people on Thursday!  I dread it.  I can't even tell you how much I dread it.  They are all going to be enthusiastic, excited, loud.

I will definitely (until changed) be leaving on Monday.  I may just hide in my room from Thursday to Monday.  I am getting my replacement up to speed, so I will be doing less and less in the safety area.  We have a few more days of turn-around and then he is the man.

Tomorrow we have our transition emergency response drill.  It will be a small fire and a minor casualty.  The winterover crew will handle it while the new crews watch, and then we will run it again while the winterovers watch the new guys.  It will probably take most of the day.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A quick update on what is going on here.  My replacement did arrive on Sunday via Basler, and I am doing turnover things with him.  He tires easily so we are going slow.  There may or may not be an LC-130 coming in this week - it all depends on the weather.  The weather has to be good at both McMurdo and here.  Right now it is great at Pole but bad at McMurdo.

It looks like I might be leaving on the first LC-130 next week, possibly on Monday.  But maybe even earlier on Friday.  Then maybe one day in McMurdo (or not) and on to Christchurch.  As you can tell, it isn't easy to make travel plans here.  When I get to Christchurch I am not thinking about travel things for a few days just to relax and be a complete bum.  I'm going to hang out in their botanical garden (remember I haven't seen a plant other than in the greenhouse for nine months), try to find a dog or cat to pet, walk around without ECW gear, and watch the Sun rise and set once a day!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ouch!  A storm system moved in right after the first Basler arrived and we haven’t seen a plane since.  It is now Friday, and although there may be a small window to get a plane here from McMurdo on Saturday it doesn’t look very promising.  After tomorrow the Baslers are all tasked to supply other bases in Antarctica and won’t be coming to Pole.  Soooo, it will probably be the LC-130 on November 2 that will be the next plane.  That’s bad because that was the plane I was supposed to leave on!  Instead it will be bringing in my replacement and  I’ll then have to stay several days to provide training and turnover.  Now, instead of 10 days to departure it may be 20 days or longer before I get to a warm place.  Nooooo, please noooo.  I don't want the planes to not fly.

In the meantime we are doing turnover things with the 15 people who did get here Monday.  Today we are bringing up three more 5,000 gallon emergency fuel tanks from storage in the far reaches of the station and transferring their fuel to the main station tanks.  We will transfer two tanks to show them how it is done, and then the summer folks will do a tank while we watch.  This will be good training for the next winter manager (who was one of the 15 people on the first plane) as it will have to be done next winter too.  Plus we are almost out of fuel in the station’s tanks – a small but significant point.
Reviewing fuel-tank dipping procedures.  It's warm!  Only -38F and 10 mph wind.  The winter-overs are shedding our ECW gear as too hot while the summer folks are bundled up like mummies.
Paul Smith and Mel MacMahon in the emergency fuel module preparing to transfer fuel from the 5k outside tank to the station's main fuel tanks.

We are adapting pretty well to the new guys on station. Late at night when we are up and they are in bed we sit around and make fun of them.  It’s good natured and done in humor, but the phrase “F’ing new guys” always brings a laugh.  Truthfully, they are not too bad and there isn’t any friction.  But they sure are intense!  They want to do things NOW.  They want to get going on work while we all want to stop working.  I sometimes go hide somewhere in the station to keep them from asking me more questions.  If they really need me now they can call me on my radio.  Still, I suspect all this current goodwill will wane when 50 more "F'ing new guys" show up on station.

Joking aside, this intensity by the new arrivals is a serious issue.  After being here nine months or longer our people are really tired and are used to working at a slow and deliberate pace in dangerous winter conditions.  The intensity of the new managers puts a lot of stress on the winter-overs to get things done for them.  This can (and has) caused accidents to happen.  It is a constant battle to slow things down and to resist new tasking being handed to the winter crew..  It doesn’t help that the only airplane to arrive so far has held summer managers, and the only people on station to do the work are winter-overs.  We miss those two other planes with summer workers that did not make it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The first load of summer people arrived yesterday at Pole, and things immediately changed around here.  Two hours after arrival the hallways even had a different smell!  Not bad, just different. And not perfume, cologne or other chemical smells – different human smells.  I would not have thought my sense of smell would have been that sensitive, but after nine months of the station holding only 47 people, it is very clear that there are a bunch of outsiders in the station.  We winterovers are apparently a bunch of cave dwellers who have woken up to discover that 15 new people have started living in our cave.
Meeting the new arrivals and all their baggage.  Temperature warm... only -60F.
Fifteen people came in yesterday and we are expecting another 15-18 today (in about five hours), and then another group tomorrow.  After the third plane we will be outnumbered by new folks.  My replacement arrives tomorrow, at which point he will be the Safety Engineer for the station and I will just be hanging around with my hands in my pockets (yeah, right).  

2010 winter-overs waiting on the sidelines to meet the new arrivals.
After having the station to ourselves it is strange to have to navigate around all these new people in the hallways.   No one but us winter-overs who have had the empty station to ourselves for the winter would think it crowded, but these people keep getting in our way!  There can actually be five or six people in the hallway I am trying to walk down!

In their favor, they are a pretty friendly bunch, and they did bring us bananas, watermelon, apples and fresh eggs.

The next few days will be spent getting these people up to speed on what is happening around the station at the end of winter.  They need to take it very slow and easy for the first two days, or their chance of being medivaced goes up tremendously.  They flew from sea level to 11,000+ feet in four hours and are now stuck here, and that can have serious health consequences if they are not careful.  Navigating the station at altitude is hard even for us winter-overs, so just walking down a hall can be stressful for them.  How well I remember from my first week here.

After acclimation we will start the official turnover that will last about 10 days.  I will lead my replacement around the station by the hand and show him all the places he will need to work.  He has never been to Pole before so it will be all new to him.  We will avoid the six-story beercan for several days so we won’t have to activate the emergency response teams.  Do I sound like a stuck-up winter-over?  Oh yeah?  Whadda ya wanna do about it?  Just kidding, but even though it will be hard for him (I remember my first few days) - it is daylight, warm (-60), and you don’t take your life in your hands when you walk out the door these days, and we don’t think there are any undiscovered crevasses to fall into.

On the positive side of things Martin Lewis, the Area Director, hand-carried my replacement iTouch with him on the first Basler, so I now have music!  Thank you Martin!!  For those who don’t know, I washed my original one in the washing machine last June. I liked my new one so much I was tempted to roll around under the table with it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The first Basler of the summer season landed Saturday, so the end is near for us winterovers. It didn't bring us any people or fresh vegetables, but just stopped off on its trans-Antarctic flight for fuel. In fact, we got two Baslers Saturday, the second one half an hour after the first. Each was fueled and on its way in half an hour.

One of these two Baslers was supposed to return to Pole today with the first batch of summer folks, but the temperature here at Pole was -70F, a few degrees below their minimum operation temperature. Because the weather forecast is for clear and unusually cold temperatures it does not look like anyone will arrive until the end of the week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Things have been postponed here. The Baslers, which normally operate in Greenland and the North Slope head down to Antarctica about this time every year.  They arrive in Chile, fly to Rothera Base and then across the ice to the South Pole, refueling at each stop.  From here they fly to McMurdo and start shuttling supplies and people between McM and South Pole.  Well the Basler is still stuck in Chile because of bad weather and we don't know when it will arrive in Antarctica.  It was supposed to have been here two days ago, and was supposed to bring the first load of summer people in tomorrow, but that clearly isn't going to happen if it is on the ground in Chile.

If the Baslers don't fly then the aircraft fueling personnel don't get to SP, and if the fuelies aren't at the Pole then the LC-130s don't fly in and we don't get flown out.  Everything is getting pushed back.  But I hear this is pretty normal so I'm not too worried - I'm just getting anxious to get out of here after nine long months.

Anyway - here are some pictures of general station opening activities.

Sunset picture six months ago. South Pole Telescope and ceremonial pole marker.

Mel MacMahon, station manager, on top of a fuel tank being moved in to add to the station's fuel reserves.

Look at that flag - it is really windy and cold.  Paul Smith on top of a fuel tank being connected to the emergency fuel module.  I don't remember the temperature that day, but I sure remember the wind.

Same day - Boyd Brown, left, and Jason McDonald preparing to pull a fuel tank out of its winter storage location at the far end of the station's perimeter. This is probably the fuel tank that you see in the pictures above.  Genevieve Ellison in the loader.

Mel MacMahon

Fuel tank being brought to its resting place near the EFM (Emergency fuel Module).

Monday, October 11, 2010


Nothing like an unexpected fire alarm at the South Pole to get everyone's adrenaline pumping.  At about 9 am this morning we had an alarm of a fire in Summer Camp (the group of  structures that we are bringing on-line for summer occupancy).  This was no drill and all the ERT teams mustered.  Summer Camp is about 200 yards from the Main Station, so that meant ECW gear for everyone before we could head out there.

I learned a good lessen - always have your ECW in one place.  Some of mine was in my room and some in my office.  By the time I had run to get it all together I was exhausted and dizzy (altitude here is 11,100 feet today) and had to rest before I could even start to put it on.  There was no option on the ECW - the wind chill outside is currently -101F with a 15 mph wind.  No short-cuts in ECW could be taken.

After I got my ECW on and headed toward the DZ doors to go to the Jamesways it was announced over the emergency response radio that the fire alarm had probably been set off by the portable heaters that were being used to warm the Jamesways.  Their exhaust plume had gotten into Jamesway 13 and set off its alarms. This news put everyone into lower gear and took the pressure off all the emergency response teams (and me).  I hung around in my ECW at the station exit with the fire-fighters while the false alarm was verified.

After about ten minutes we knew it was a false alarm and all the ERT teams were told to stand down.  That all took place about 30 minutes ago and my adrenaline still hasn't dropped to normal.

More turnover stuff

Winter season officially lasts only four more days!  That is when the new summer manager arrives on the first aircraft to land here in over nine months!    That doesn’t mean we get to leave - the plane, a Basler, only carries a few people.  We have to wait until the first large aircraft arrives.  That ski-equipped LC-130 cargo plane that will take most of us back to McMurdo is scheduled to arrive and take us out of here on November 2. 

In the meantime I have started working on station opening tasks.  The station is supposed to be clean and fresh for the first flight so we are all cleaning.  I have shoveled snow and have started cleaning my work area and room.  I have also started packing things into boxes for mailing home.  We get up to $88 of postage paid to send things home by mail, so I am trying to send as much as possible so I don’t have to lug it as baggage on the plane.

I have also started preparing things for my replacement who arrives on the third Balser, probably around October 20.  There will be about ten days of turn-over when I show him around the station and acquaint him with the way things work around here.  The days after the first flight, and particularly after his arrival, are going to be busy for me.  There will be meetings, walk-arounds, paperwork, station and buidling tours, and still all the normal things that are done weekly.  It will all have to go very slowly though – he will be suffering from the altitude.  I imagine we will spend a lot of time in the galley drinking tea to keep him hydrated (caffeine is not recommended) and going over things.  The first two days of new arrivals are spent mostly resting, particularly if the altitude is high. This isn’t just being nice to the new arrivals; it reduces the likelihood of high altitude illness and medivacs.  

The problem with the altitude is that he, and everyone else that arrives, will go from sea level to high altitude in the four hours of the plane ride.  There is no acclimatization at all.  It can be dangerous, so everyone has to rest and are watched closely for the first few days for signs of high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema (HAPE and HACE).

At least the frostbite on my face has healed, so I won’t frighten him when I meet him at the plane.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It isn't over yet...

A hard day today for me.  Last week a small crevasse was discovered running the length of one of the out-buildings.  Although the crack in the ice was only about an inch wide, it was approximately 30 feet long.  Today the width had increased to about two inches and it was felt that it was best to restrict access to the area with black danger flags.  Although no one would fall into a crevasse that narrow, we don't know what is under it - it could be two inches at the surface and two feet wide a foot down. It could be thirty feet deep for all we know. Although unlikely, it could be large enough to swallow a piece of heavy equipment - again it just depends on what is under the surface.

There are ice tunnels in the area , and we do not know if this crack is over one of them or not.  Adding to the concern, another crack was found today about a hundred yards way in the waste area.  All will bear watching.

So this morning I rounded up an ice drill, some black flags, and marked off the larger crevasse to keep heavy equipment away from the area.  It was -71 with 15 mph wind, with ice fog and very poor visibility, and it was cold - -119 wind chill.  Everyone agrees that although today was not really different from many other days, it just seemed colder for some reason.  I did not put on enough ECW gear, thinking I would only be outside for half an hour, but I ended up taking about two hours to place those flags. I have to put more flags out either this afternoon or tomorrow morning.   Everything takes longer and is harder to do here than other places.  A surveyor is coming in on one of the Baslers in a few weeks and he will be looking at the cracks and trying to determine what is under them.

I'll try to take some pictures of me drilling holes and putting flags in the ice, but that is hard to do because it is so cold.

On a lighter note, we had the last raffle for the national flags that flew at the Pole this winter and I won one.  There were only three flags left: France, Russia and Argentina, so I picked France.  I would have liked to have had Norway because 2010 is the 100th anniversary of Norwegian Raoul Amundsen reaching the Pole, but it had already been chosen.

I'll try to post some pictures from when I place more black flags.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More Daylight Pictures...

Some more pictures of the station now that the Sun is up.
Flag cache uncovered with the rising Sun.  Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) is in the distance on the horizon.

Snow piles and supply berms.

At the construction Jamesways.  During the dark of winter being this far from the station on foot would have been a risky thing for me to do on any but the clearest of moonlit nights (I can't wear glasses in the extreme cold so I get the navigation lights mixed up) , but with the Sun above the horizon it is merely a cold (-82F) 10-minute walk.

Wind-blown patterns in the snow.  Seen from the top of A-Pod stairs.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Snow shoveling

Went out today to shovel out the J3 jamesway.  Temperature -79F, wind 14 mph, windchill -120F.  But I got it done.  We aren't talking a little sidewalk shoveling - this is what the snow is like...
You can see the rear door to one Jamesway at the two red flags.  There is also a door to the furnace room, and the front door.  My Jamesway had about that much snow at its back door and it took about an hour  for me to get rid of it.  Trust me, that's a lot of snow.  Particularly at -80F.  Luckily the snow isn't too heavy, but because it has been there all winter it gets compacted and heavier the further down you get.  That snow you see at the center of the frame is a good five feet deep.  The dozer will get that, but we have to manually shovel all that snow near the doors.
Only one more building and I am done shoveling unless we have a storm come in over the next few weeks.  It has been known for a good storm to re-deposit all the snow that has been shoveled so that it has to be done all over again.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Pictures 2

Post-winter drifts, flag, cold, snow, ice.  At least it isn't dark.


Various pictures...
Photos by Genevieve Ellison, Ice White & Blue blog.

Spool Henge - spools for wire and cable left over from the construction of the Main Station.  These should be flown out one day.  They are stacked this way so they will not create drifts during the winter.

The BARRF being towed by the D6 to its now home near the ice runway flight line.  It was stored in a remote part of the station over winter, again to prevent drifts.  That's me in the background "observing".

Me, climbing from 10,760 feet to 10.770 feet to get to the LMC.

Made it!  Was cold though - 67 with a 30 mph wind.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Cold, cold, cold...

Today we finished getting the fuel pit set up with its buildings.  Fuel tanks come later.  Once power and heat are suppled the buildings will be ready to receive planes and people.  This was the second day we worked on this, and although yesterday was colder in absolute temperature (-83F), today was a much more difficult work environment because of the high winds.  Wind speed today during operations was 26 kt (~30 mph) and temperature was -66F.

Jason McDonald (front) and Mel MacMahon, Station Manager, discussing placement of buildings for the aircraft fueling pit. Notice the flags in the background - it was a bit windy, with blowing snow.  Ah, Spring at the South Pole!

This job took about 2.5 hours Friday and another 2 hours today.   Two hours outside in these conditions are pretty much a full work day.  Not because we couldn't do more, but the machines can't take it.  I was dressed in my most aggressive ECW setup and was fairly comfortable the entire time.    My clothing included long underwear tops and bottoms, pants, wind-proof pants, insulated windproof pants, two pairs of wool socks and four chemical toe warmers, insulated boots, long sleeved shirt, down parka, insulated glove liners, mittens, chemical hand warmers, chemical thumb warmers (toe warmers wrapped around my thumbs), full-head balaclava, fleece neck gator, fleece headband, and parka hood with fur ruff.  If I had it to do again I would have added a fleece pull-over, but I stayed fairly warm for the two hours we were outside.

Fuel Pit Convoy.  BARFF, Fuel Shack, and PAX Terminal, all being towed to their summer locations in preparation for the arrival of summer LC-130s.  These buildings and the aircraft fueling module and heating module placed yesterday constitute the fuel pit.  All that is left are three 5,000 and one 10,000 gallon fuel tanks.  They will be brought up Monday and then everything can be connected, heated, and powered.  Boyd Brown is in the front D6 dozer pulling the BARRF, Genevieve Ellison is in the middle loader pulling the fuel shack, and Virgil Porterfield is in the rear D6 pulling the PAX terminal.