South Pole Diaries 1995    


26th January 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

* 1:30am schedule has slipped to 2:30am
* 2:30am drive to Willy Field again, told to proceed to the Pegasus runway
* 3:20am arrive at Pegasus, plane not leaving till 4am
* 3:30am the aircrew didn't realise that there were any passengers, so there is no Fire/Crash team present. A team is requested from McMurdo
* 4:10am we drive out to the plane, but the refuelling staff are still at McMurdo, so we have to wait for them
* 4:30am scheduled take-off time
* 4:40am we drive to the plane and board
* 4:50am we leave the plane, which has developed a mechanical problem (which turns out to be a switch which has fallen behind the flight deck).
* 5:00am I tuck into an artificially flavoured butterscotch pudding made from modified food starch and partially hydrogenated soybean oil - I felt homesick for mom's pudding made from unmodified food starch and fully hydrogenated soybean oil.
* 5:50am take-off for the South Pole!
* 7:00am John spends some time in the cockpit, videoing the impressive Trans-Antarctic Mountains. John is surprised to find that the plane is heading due north. The navigator explains that this is grid north, which means that we are flying directly to Greenwich. Luckily the South Pole is on the way. There are several different poles. Here is a brief description:

Geodetic South Pole: this is the point at which the axis of the Earth pierces the ice. It is moving by 10m a year due to the ice sheet moving with respect to the rocks far below.

Ceremonial South Pole: a few hundred metres from the Geodetic pole, this is the one with the glass sphere and flags that you see in photos.

Geomagnetic Pole: a couple of thousand km from the South Pole, this is the point at which a dipole best approximating the earth's magnetic field would pierce the ground.

Magnetic Pole: a thousand km from the Geomagnetic Pole, this is the point at which a compass would point straight down.

* 8:50am arrive at South Pole

The LC-130 lands very smoothly on its skis on the prepared skiway. The rear cargo door is opened while we are taxiing along, and impressive snow flurries are stirred up by the propellers. The cargo area (where we are sitting) is now very cold, and we are grateful for our special Antarctic clothing.

Upon disembarking, the cold hits like a sledgehammer. The water vapour in my nostrils freezes immediately. It is -37C, and the windchill puts the physiological temperature at -51C. The altitude of the Pole is 9,500ft, but centrifugal and temperature effects reduce the pressure to the equivalent of between 10,500 and 12,500ft depending on the weather. At this altitude the oxygen content of the air is only 69% of that at sea level, and any exertion will quickly tire you.

The horizon is dead flat - the ground is blindingly white, the sky is deep blue and cloudless, there is a gentle wind of about 8 knots. Nothing, not even the weekend in Christchurch, could have prepared us for the sense of complete isolation from the rest of the world. There are no inhabited places for over 1000km in any direction.

Luckily we only have to drag our bags a hundred metres to the protection of the dome (which is unheated, but blocks the wind), and then the warmth of the galley.

We learn that a Norwegian woman skied into the Pole a few weeks ago. She travelled about 1200km by herself, carrying 90kg in supplies, and made it to the Pole in 55 days with no airdrops of food. If she had needed rescuing she could have radioed for help from ANI (a company that specialises in Antarctic adventures), but it would have cost her $1 million.

Unexpected visitors to the Pole are treated very well, despite what you hear.

Our first priority is to establish satellite contact with Sydney for Andrew Olle's interview with John. We are lucky to have a newly acquired satellite available, and the Comms people are very helpful in setting up the call. We have missed our original contact time of 7:15am (Sydney time, 2 hours behind the Pole), but manage to make contact at 8:45am. At 8:57 Andrew introduces us as the two southernmost Australians, and John has a 2 minute interview up until news time. I'm not sure what the audience numbers are, but it could be as high as 100,000. This should be very useful publicity.

After the interview we settle in quickly, have something to eat, explore our living quarters (hemi-cylindrical canvas structures called Jamesways, about 500m from the dome), drink lots of water (to combat the effects of the altitude and extremely low humidity), and make contact with Bob Pernic, Bob Loewenstein, Jamie Lloyd, and various other of our CARA colleagues that are down here.

John visits the Pomerantz Building (where our experiment is) and makes good progress on locating our cargo and doing some preliminary organisation of the workspace. I'm feeling slightly unsteady on my legs so I catch a couple of hours sleep before dinner at 5:30pm, and a waste-management meeting at 7:15pm (they take this issue very seriously here - all waste is separated into about 20 categories and shipped back-to-the-states for recycling or landfill).

I'm going to stop today's entry here (at 11:00pm), and try to get this out to you'all via the satellite that has just risen. Then its time for some sleep...

Michael Ashley (with contributions, as always, from John Storey)