And Then There Was One: Old Pole Blast

On a windy day in early December, I got to help blow up the South Pole. That morning, a slim band of pale blue sky sat between the white horizon and white clouds, looking really quite pretty from the station. People were getting up from their coffee (dayshift) or cocktails (nightshift) to look out the galley windows, taking pictures, gazing. We took the warm Pisten Bully out past MAPO, past the South Pole Telescope and down a little flagged snow road, pulling up to the snow crater from the first blast just a few days before, the men still smelling like dynamite. We had watched it from Destination Alpha but both Daniel and I, on different levels completely with different cameras, looked away at just the wrong moment and missed the main explosion—the sound arrived some ten seconds later, traveling super-slow through the high altitude air.

The crater from the first explosion, with the elevated station, MAPO and South Pole Telescope in the background

We started the morning by sorting the packaging from the first blast’s dynamite, digging through and recycling cardboard and greasy looking nitroglycerin-soaked brown paper. A heavy equipment operator brought out a horizontal silo on a sled, a red Wisconsin-Dairy emblazoned piece of farm equipment, 180-degree water sloshing inside of it and shooting out the feed nozzle, instantly transforming into smoky steam streamers.

Based on the GPR readings (ground-penetrating radar), the blasters placed stakes along the outer edges of the buildings of the original South Pole Station from the 1950s, now buried under many years of snow drifts, maybe 20 feet below the surface. It was ghostly to walk on top of—knowing that under our feet were open rooms, food left on tables, fuel caches, trash, pee jars and girlie magazine centerfolds plastered on every surface.

Laying stakes

To drill the holes, the blasters would place the flat nozzle of the hose on the surface of the ice and turn the valve at the base of the silo, gravity pushing the water through the hose until a burst of steam came from the far end, the water cutting the ice like a hot knife through butter. The blasters fought with the long hose, full and heavy, until it was positioned to slide straight down aside the buried buildings. When they hit the 25-foot mark (or in some cases, a hollow thud on the roof of a building when the GPR readings had been off—these holes had to be re-drilled) they would turn around and hoist the hose out, three or four of them putting the weight of it on one shoulder and tug-of-warring the hose out of the hole, throwing their whole bodies into the effort. When I helped with this part of the process, my puffy leather work gloves were so icy from water and steam that I couldn’t bend them into any other shape than that of gripping the hose.

A few days later, those of us who had helped drill and/or lay the dynamite (mostly G.A.s and a few station management personnel) went out to the site to view the blast. The lead blaster had instructed us to always keep an eye on him; while we of course wanted to watch the explosion, we had to be ready to jump behind a Pisten Bully in case something went wrong. Jason, one of the G.A.s who had worked many days with the blasters got to push the plunger, blowing up all the thousands of pounds of dynamite and the contents of the structures below.

Strings of dynamite below the surface
Running the connection wires

Explosion and Jason

After the blasters did a preliminary check to make sure the dynamite had all exploded, we all drove out to the blast site, the sulfurous yellow smoke still hanging low in the imploded crater. The brick-like layers of drift snow, one for every winter, were like tree trunk rings, and we all had to be careful of crevices and cracks near the edge, indicating a shelf that might slide into the hole.

Jason and Ed
Layers

Pisten Bullys and Crater
Me

Last year at the beginning of the summer the original Old Pole Station (1957-1975) was still buried under the snow whole, and the Dome (1975-2003, decommissioned in 2008), the second station, stood on the ice waiting to be deconstructed. This year, they’re now both gone—the elevated station the last man standing.

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2 thoughts on “And Then There Was One: Old Pole Blast

  1. Wow I mean wow and what a blast. You guys really shook the ice enough for a Richter reading ! That’s what I call excitement at the pole. Great story never to be forgotten.Thanks for putting it into words and pictures

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