South Pole Diaries 1995    


8th February 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

Today is our last day at the South Pole. John is waxing lyrical about the place, and is even beginning to understand the attraction of wintering over. Our aircraft is due to leave at 1pm, so there is only enough time for one last look at IRPS, to tidy up our work areas, and to prepare our luggage for palettising.

John's early morning check of IRPS is proceeding nominally when suddenly the vacuum pump emitted a horrible grinding shattering death rattle. His first thought was that the pump had swallowed a tool or pipe fitting that the plumber had inadvertently left in the vacuum line. This could delay our departure by days. Moments later his horror turned to relief when he discovered that Bob Pernic was on the roof cutting holes in the vacuum feed-through box, and the sound of the electric jig-saw had simply reverberated down the copper tubes to the pump (attentive readers will recognise this jig-saw as the same one that John used earlier in an abortive attempt to cut through a sheet of Conetic, one of the hardest materials know to man).

Jamie is on the incoming flight, returning from a week's R & R at McMurdo. It sounds as though he has had more fun there than most people, having been ice fishing and snow-mobiling. In the tradition of the IRPS experiment we only have about 20 minutes to explain to Jamie the important new additions (this short overlap has occurred before on three occasions: between Jamie and Michael Burton, Michael and John Briggs, and John and Rodney Marks).

The LC-130 is ready for boarding at 4pm. There are only five of us heading out, and the Herc is empty except for us and our luggage. By this time I have had my fill of South Pole life, and am quite happy to be heading home. John, however, could easily stay longer, and it is only thoughts of his family that persuade him to join the flight.

By now, we're old hands at flying in LC-130s. I find a nice quiet spot between the Emergency Hydraulic Landing Gear System and the 35,000 lb Tie-Down Stanchion, and brace myself for a boring 3 hour flight to McMurdo. After an hour one of the flight crew comes across and shouts in our ears (the only way to be heard in an LC-130) ``we're going to fly down the glacier, have a look out the window.'' Upon doing so we are met by an unimaginably beautiful Antarctic vista. The Herc was flying at a height of only 160 metres above the Beardmore Glacier, at a speed of 400 kph. The glacier is some 250 km long, giving us almost an hour of breathtaking views. On either side of the glacier are towering icy cliffs, the glacier itself is tens of km wide and changes surface characteristics every few minutes of flying time. At first the surface consists of rocky moraine reminiscent of the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand. Then there are vast stretches of smooth snow-covered ice with obvious straight lines marking the direction of flow of the glacier, then the ice breaks up into huge chunks with alarming crevasses between them. Altogether there are over a dozen distinct variations in texture over the length of the glacier. At one point we are flying low over huge canyons in the ice, perhaps 50 metres deep, and easily large enough to swallow a Herc. The pilot is obviously enjoying himself as the plane weaves down the glacier taking short detours to get closer views of interesting spots. John is up in the cockpit, and records some video through a window at the pilot's feet.

At the end of the glacier the LC-130 banks at 45 degrees and does a full 360 degree circle before continuing on to McMurdo. We count ourselves as very fortunate to have been on this flight on such a clear day - most of the flights are dead boring. After the tedious flatness of the South Pole, and the mining-town atmosphere of McMurdo, it is great to have experienced some of the grandeur of Antarctica.

Touchdown at Willy Field, and back to the Hotel California. After a barely edible meal of beef chow mein and shrimp cordon blech, washed down with entirely undrinkable ``coffee'', John finds that he is sharing a room with three other people, one of whom is a chain smoker. This person alternates between snoring, smoking, and coughing, with an e-folding time of 2 hours, all to the beat of his 1950's technology bedside clock with real mechanical one-second 100 decibel tick.

The morning finds John a nervous wreck, having only managed 3 hours of intermittent sleep. During the times when sleep eluded him, John had mentally explored various strategies for disposing of bodies, and decided that the 300hp Caterpillar diesel powered wood chipper, followed by a trip to the aquarium, would be the most efficient.

As the new day dawns (an expression somewhat out of place in Antarctica) we wonder how long we will have to stay in McMurdo before we can get on a flight out. The people who left the South Pole on Monday are still here. The prospects of having a cup of real coffee and a baklava with whipped cream before the end of the week are looking grim indeed.

Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)