Welcome to the South Pole

From McMurdo, we flew to South Pole Station in a C-130 military plane, a deep gray monster machine, passengers lined up along the walls stuffed in in our ECW gear, slouched on the industrial webbing cot-like seats. Our carry on luggage, mostly in orange issue duffel bags, was lined up neatly in the center of the plane and strapped down tight for stability; our checked luggage, which we had parted with at Bag Drag the night before our first of many scheduled and canceled flights to Pole, was palletized and loaded into the back of the plane, right where we could see it. Because of the noise from the engines, everyone wore earplugs, making conversation strained. Most of us read or slept, people sinking into their parkas and nearly disappearing for a few hours.

We landed smoothly, about three and a half hours later, some thousand miles South and nine thousand feet higher, greeted by a bitterly cold, dry wind and a bundled up welcoming committee standing off to the side of the ski-way; all you could see was red parkas, white snow, metallic blue-gray buildings, sky-blue sky. Many of our managers were there to meet us, including mine, although I had to be reintroduced to him later that evening since both of our faces were entirely obscured by polar fleece and snow goggles. We carried our bags across the ski-way and towards Destination Alpha, essentially the well-dressed front door to the station. We were heaving and breathing hard by the time we reached the stairs leading up to the station (which is elevated to prevent it from being buried in snow drifts) due to our added gear weight and the altitude. The galley had saved us dinner, and after a brief orientation we ate, explored the building that would be our home for the next four months, and made the first quarter mile trek to Summer Camp.

Summer Camp is a grouping of about a dozen Jamesways on a slightly elevated ice platform, olive drab war issue tents about twelve feet tall and forty feet deep, each with plywood partitions between the little rooms, and plywood or curtain doors separating the twelve beds from the very dark hallway through the center. Daniel and I got rooms 1 and 3 in the same Jamesway, which we were relieved to discover is a double—not only do we get to share a room, but we get twice as much space. The room came with a plywood wall and a door with a latch, two tall shelves, two twin mattresses with twin sheet sets, a princess-castle-frog themed bolt of fabric for decoration, a string Christmas lights, a carpet patched together of sample sized rectangles, a crusty homemade snow globe that appears to depict the Pole and station, and, unfortunately, a previous resident’s plastic water bottle labeled “pee.” Some people who live in Summer Camp (and some very, very lazy souls who live on station) use jars to pee in so that they don’t have to leave their rooms at night; I guess this makes sense as you have to go outside and face the cold and the bright sun to get to the Summer Camp bathrooms, but it’s not a practice we partake in. It’s really not that bad going outside, especially now that we’re acclimated to the temperature; I can go outside in just long underwear, boots and sunglasses without getting too cold.

Within the first few days of arrival, we experienced the full gamut of weather. From -40 degrees Fahrenheit with a -60 windchill when we arrived, the temperature dropped to -50 with a -80 windchill, and within a few days an unusual storm blew in, warming the air to -11 but blasting us with 30 knot winds for nearly a week and covering the sun with a heavy haze of blowing ice crystals. This made Summer Camp invisible from the station, transformed the walk to the station into an aerobic fight every morning, and prevented all incoming and outgoing flights, about 6 a day, leaving Pole winterovers stranded here and incoming Polies at McMurdo Station. Part of my work before the storm was to help install lines of red flags from the station to some of the remote science facilities and to Summer Camp; we also ran guide ropes from the station to Summer Camp to prevent people from losing their way.

The drifts from the storm were enormous, and all old ice crystals rather than fresh snow. One morning I spent four hours shoveling out the inside of the big bay doors at the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (where I spend most of my time), dense snow drifts up to my armpits. The outside of the door was considerably worse, with fifteen foot drifts blocking some doorways. The plows can only get so close to the building, leaving some intense shoveling for the GAs (General Assistants—that’s me). The heavy vehicle operators plowed for days, clearing out the “bowl” that the VMF is nestled inside of; its metal arch encasing used to be on top of the ice years ago when it was built, but has been slowly buried and now has a somewhat cavernous entryway. The tractors waltzed around each other, one pulling backwards into the bay doors of the VMF while another slid up alongside the front side of the building, pushing snow into its pathway, then backing up while the first vehicle pushed the pile up the bowl hill to sit on the “ground” level until it could be taken care of at a later date.

This post is photoless because we have been having some major satellite failures and I have very little access to internet. I hope to get some pictures up soon.

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