South Pole Diaries 1995    


4th February 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

Dear Patient Reader,

You are probably wondering by now if we had fallen into a crevasse, or been blown off the roof of the Pomerantz Building, or accidentally walked into the propellor of an LC-130, or suffered terminal frostbite, or simply walked off into a blizzard saying ``I may be some time''.

Rest assured that none of these things have happened, its just that we have been busy working on IRPS, and I've been too busy to get to a keyboard.

The story continues ...

Today we make an all-out effort to get IRPS out onto the roof of the Pomerantz Building. This involves more work than one would expect. There are about a dozen cables to thread through holes in the roof, vacuum connections to make, and so on. We happen to pick the coldest day of year, -44C (windchill to -66C) with a stiff breeze blowing. It is extremely difficult to work in these conditions when you have to manipulate small bolts and assemble connectors and vacuum flanges. Ten minutes is about all we can stand at a time before we have to come inside to warm up.

All except one of our cables is teflon insulated, which means that they remain flexible at these temperatures. The exception is the ion pump high voltage lead - it becomes absolutely rigid within a minute of being outside, and we have to use a heat gun to persuade it to bend sufficiently to get it down the cable holes.

There is some insulating material covering IRPS, and this has to be stuck on with a special reflective sticky tape. Unfortunately, the adhesive on sticky tape becomes rock hard at these temperatures - the solution is to put the tape in place and then heat it with a heat gun until the adhesive becomes soft, at which point the tape will stick. It is extraordinarily difficult to do this - you have to wear thin polypropylene gloves so that you can manipulate the tape, and this gives you little protection from the cold. The heat gun provides some warmth, but in an attempt to restore sensation to cold fingers it is easy to melt the polypropylene. After several trips outside we succeed in getting IRPS fairly well covered, and in melting my gloves.

A quick check of the computer shows everything working well. The filter and aperture motors are sitting at about 20C, the preamp is at 0C, the dewar is at -10C, and the ambient temperature is -43C. The vacuum is looking good at 2.5x10-6 torr, and the detector is at -198C (due to the liquid nitrogen). We run off a quick HK and L CVF scan, and there is much rejoicing when the familiar daytime spectrum of the sky appears on the computer monitor.

The next task was to install the LN2 dewar and solenoids on the roof, and start pumping on the inner can. Lifting the 50l dewar onto the roof took some effort, and connecting all the fiddly cables and fittings was again a difficult task. When we started the pump we noticed that it seemed to be having a lot of trouble pulling down the vacuum. After an hour of trying, and several trips up to the roof to see if there were any leaks, John suddenly realised that it was possible that the exhaust and vacuum fittings to the pump were interchanged. This turned out to be the case - the plumber had mis-identified the two copper pipes where they crossed over and went through the roof. So instead of evacuating our dewar and expelling the waste air into the Antarctic air, we were trying to evacuate Antarctica and stuff it into our dewar! There was much rejoicing when we realised that a fix would be fairly easy.

I should have mentioned that at 5:30pm we took some more ``Hero photos'' of Jean Vernin, John, and myself in various poses with various items of memorabilia around the Ceremonial Pole. With the colder weather, and the wind, it wasn't long before my hands were feeling very cold. Rushing inside I realised that I had come within about a minute of getting frostbite, as it was I had a small painful area on the tip of my thumb. John had a previous small patch of frostbite on his cheek from the tidy-up on Wednesday.

At dinner a fruit drink is available. It cycles between orange juice, apple juice, Five-Alive (some combination of leftover fruits), and ``toxic purple''. The latter is an interesting purple-coloured foaming concoction with a strong chemical taste, and no recognisably natural properties. Only the new arrivals try it.

After dinner John grabs the video camera and lurks around the Post Office / Store waiting for closing time (8pm). At this time each day the storekeeper, Eileen Serdrup, resumes her usual role as the Station Physician. We follow her to the Biomedical Building (the one with the two intertwined snakes on the door) where she gives us a guided tour of the facility. The medical rooms are remarkably well equipped for x-rays, surgery, dentistry, and pathology. Members of the winterover crew have received sufficient training to be able to assist with x-rays and anaesthetics. The 2-bed hospital is used as an emergency TV lounge when the main TV area is playing Murphy Brown repeats.

Eileen shows us her collection of medical implements used over the years at the South Pole, which includes a small box labelled ``Embalming Kit''. John asks whether it would be possible to get someone out of the Pole in a serious medical emergency over winter, and the answer is no - people could be flown in to assist, but the aircraft would be unable to take off again.

During our filming in Biomed, several real patients turn up to add authenticity. John is slipping further into the role of movie director, and insists that the filming must go on despite medical (non-emergency) cases accumulating in the waiting room.

Heading off to bed at 2am, John will be up at 8am to help make brunch for the station (Sunday is traditionally the cooks' day off, so other people are expected to volunteer). I continue working on software till the early hours, and am rewarded with a fine sunny morning and some spectacular ``diamond dust'', including the characteristic rainbow segments and inverted parabola towards the direction of the sun.