South Pole Diaries 1995    


27th January 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

At midnight I head off to bed in Jamesway #5 (of 8), bunk #1 (of 8). The Jamesways are hemi-cylindrical sleeping quarters made from two layers of canvas separated by some insulation. They are well heated, in fact, too well heated usually. Each person gets a bed area separated from the others by a canvas curtain. The Jamesways are surprisingly comfortable, although the temperature excursions as the heaters come on and off are fairly large (perhaps 10 degrees or so, on a time scale of 40 minutes). The two major problems with sleeping are (1) you have to drink so much to combat the effects of the low humidity that you have to get up 2 or 3 times during the night to go to the bathroom (situated in another building 100m away, which leads to an interesting dilemma: should you spend half-an-hour getting into your Antarctic clobber for the trip, or should you risk making a dash, with the possibility of arriving too cold to do anything), and (2) sleeping at altitude is always difficult - you tend to wake up every couple of hours and can have trouble getting back to sleep.

Despite these problems I feel well rested in the morning, but quickly begin to feel nauseous at breakfast time. Apparently this is a mild case of altitude sickness, and it incapacitates me until the afternoon. Unlike when climbing a mountain, at the Pole there is no way to get down quickly to a lower altitude, a fact which doesn't please me greatly.

Meanwhile John is running around with no altitude symptoms, taking lots of video and still shots of the base. Every now and again he appears in the galley area, covered in ice where his breath has frozen on his balaclava, clutching the camera which has stopped working due to icing up of its window. John finds that the rubber eye-cap of the camera freezes to his eyebrows in a few minutes of filming, and his moustache and beard freeze to his balaclava so that he can't open his mouth without difficulty. Also, the rubber camera strap freezes so hard that you can't put it around your neck, and the sunlight is so bright outside that it is very difficult to see the viewfinder. A final problem is that when ice crystals form on the inside of the camera window, the auto-focus suddenly locks onto them, and you get great footage of ice crystals instead of scenery. We are appreciating Michael Burton's pioneering efforts with his video camera last year.

We have a special bright yellow Sony ``Sports Pak'' for the camera to protect it from icing up when we bring it back inside. The Sports Pak looks pretty impressive, and people take John seriously when he starts filming. When he gets out our 10kg Manfrotto professional-series tripod with fluid head, people *really* take John seriously.

In addition to the video recording, we have already taken five rolls of film between us. So if you get an invitation to an Antarctic slide night, maybe think up an excuse.

After lunch we head out to the Pomerantz Building (alias ``Blue Building'', ``the CARA building'', ``the lab'', ``UNSW Astrophysics Field Station #1''), which is where IRPS is situated. It is a 1km walk across the skiway - we're interrupted by an LC-130 landing, so we spend some time filming the unloading and refuelling process. By the time we get to the Pomerantz Building we have been outside in the -37C conditions for 52 minutes, but the protective gear is more than adequate to keep us warm (although you can get frostbite in a few minutes if you leave your nose exposed).

The Pomerantz Building is spectacular. It is an elevated structure with two floors, lots of lab space, great windows for lighting and a view of the outside, and is crammed with state-of-the-art electronics and computers. We can not yet start work on IRPS due to lack of bench-space, but we should be able to get going tomorrow when GRIM is moved onto the SPIREX telescope. We spend the afternoon measuring our cable lengths and determining where we can place IRPS on the roof.

Another LC-130 comes in to land - this one carries the AGO crew: four heroes who have spent the last 10 days living from a 16'x8' box (the `AGO' - Automated Geophysical Observatory) on the high plateau at the AGO #3 site. During that time they were working hard at installing geophysical instrumentation around the AGO; one riometer aerial takes four people 2 days to set up. There were no other human beings within 500 km of the AGO. The AGO is in the middle of an absolutely flat (+/- 3m) and absolutely white plane.

On the last day the conditions worsened, the wind reached 30 knots (one 't' not two as in my previous message!) and the visibility dropped to 1/8 mile. In these conditions an LC-130 could not get in to pick them up. Luckily the weather improved enough for the aircraft to land, and a relieved AGO crew arrived at the safety of the South Pole dome.

We have a particular interest in AGOs since we have funding from UNSW and ANU (in collaboration with Mt Stromlo) to buy one this year for astrophysical purposes. Jack Doolittle is one of the AGO #3 heroes, and will be visiting Australia in March to finalise the contract. AGOs are made by Lockheed Missiles and Space (you don't mess with these guys) for the NSF.

Talking about heroes, I forgot to mention the Norwegian ski team that skied into the Pole from the coast (over 1100 km away) a few weeks ago. This doesn't sound as impressive as the Norwegian woman who did it solo at about the same time, until you discover that one of the team had no arms. Its incredible what people get up to.

On the topic of skiing, there is a tee-shirt you can buy here which says ``Ski South Pole - 2 miles of base, 2 inches of powder''. The ``2 miles of base'' refers to the 2 miles of snow and ice before you hit solid rock.

One thing I haven't mentioned is the disorientation of having the sun up all day at the same altitude. We still expect to go outside after dinner and find it dark - I found myself checking the positions of the toilets near the Jamesways so that I could find them in the middle of the night! The fact is that the temperature hasn't varied by more than 1 degree C since we got here. The only thing that changes is the azimuth of the sun, which is great for photography: you can take positions of anything you want with whatever sun angle you want by waiting to the appropriate moment.

Dinner at 5:30pm is superb: New Zealand lamb chops, potatoes with rosemary, fresh salad and vegetables, home-made bread, with peach crumble and real whipped cream for desert. They go to a lot of effort with the food here, and they succeed.

At 7pm a queue forms to sign up for Marisat satellite time for phone calls back home. John and I sign up for ten minutes each beginning at 12:20pm Sydney time on Sunday. This satellite is the same one that John used for his Andrew Olle interview. It is full duplex, and the quality is so good it is hard to believe that we are at the Pole.

At 7:30pm its time for the CARA meeting, where all the CARA people at Pole (some 23 of them) attend and report on what they have been up to. The meeting commences with Tony Stark giving a rousing rendition of the CARA song - John has it on video tape, and will return it to Tony for a price.

OK, that's all for now. Jamie has organised a plumber to install some vacuum tubing for IRPS tomorrow morning, so John and I are off to get some sleep.

Michael Ashley (with contributions, from John Storey)