South Pole Diaries 1995/96



McMurdo Report, Saturday February 10th

From Michael Burton.....

Well I'm finally out of Pole, and on my way home. With luck, this will be the last report from Antarctica that you, the patient reader, will have to endure! After 5 flights in a row being cancelled on the Wednesday (for reasons that were never explained to us, but certainly wasn't to do with the weather), the first "off-deck" from McMurdo actually did take off at 7am on Thur, and we knew there would finally be a flight for the Pole. There were 17 "pax" on the flight; most of the remaining science contingent at Pole, apart from the 10 or so staying on till "reverse winfly" (or station close, to use English, as opposed to navy-speak) in about 10 days time (who happen mainly to be AMANDA guys desperately trying to calibrate their instrument before winter by firing flashes of radiation into the ice and seeing what they can detect from these "false" neutrino signatures).

Unfortunately I didn't leave the IRPS in the best of states. In the past 24 hours, since the time I was originally due to depart, the instrument has been displaying some strange characteristics. These may just be due to one of the temperature sensors deciding to be temperamental, or it may be a more serious affliction, and its not something I was able to readily diagnose in the time I had available. So I left Chris Bero, our winter-overer, with some emergency instructions to keep the IRPS alive and hang on until Jamie arrives back and can check it out properly. At least the instrument can still take data!

So we arrived in MacTown in mid-afternoon of the Thursday into unbearable heat - it must be 3 or 4 below zero with just a light breeze! On our shuttle ride back to the base from the ice runway at Williams Field I spotted a small green and gold building waiting on the skiway ready for loading onto an aircraft - it was our AASTO! After being checked in I rapidly made some enquiries to learn the AASTO was ready to be loaded into a Hercules in the very near future ready for transport to Pole tomorrow! So I rapidly gathered up my camera gear and the University banners I had been lugging around Antarctica and found the first shuttle bus I could back to Willy Field (incidentally it had NT plates - "Outback Australia" - though heaven knows why?!).

So a few minutes later I was standing outside this green and yellow building out on the Ross Ice Shelf again. I had the combination for the lock (Jack Doolittle's office phone number!) - but in fact it was emblazoned in large numbers on it anyway. Actually I was a little disappointed to find the AASTO looked somewhat shop-worn. Despite Jack's careful attempts to keep it clean by wrapping it in plastic, it had obviously been torn off on arrival and various packing and freighting labels had been adorned over it! It needs a fresh coat of paint, and subsequent enquiries extracted the promise that we will be able to use one of the heavy vehicle maintenance sheds at Pole in mid-Dec (the hot season) to do the job!

The AASTO wasn't quite an empty shell; it was equipped with some furniture and even a ladder (to get on to the roof). I adorned it with ANU and UNSW banners and started shooting away. Only just in time. A large fork-lift soon arrived, driven by a kamikaze navy cadet, to whisk the thing away. He didn't even want to wait for me to get out and lock things away before lifting up the AASTO. Within a few minutes it was shoved onto a transportation platform and whisked into the back of a nearby Herc by a whole gang of these cadets, with my both trying to capture the whole incident on film with out being impaled by a high-speed fork lift and my praying they weren't going to impale the AASTO into the side of the Herc!

Standing by all this time were 2 members of the AGO field service maintenance team. These are the people who are now contracted to go out into the field, recover the data from the AGO's, and service the modules for another winter seasons work on the Ice. They had been there to test whether a new fuel delivery system for the AGO could actually be made to fit into the Herc! None of this get a tape measure and design it to fit - it seems the best way is to build it first and then see if you can get it in the back of the plane! Apparently the AGO's have been encountering some difficulties with their fuel lines, with leakages, and here was a new compact package designed to alleviate some of the problems. It might well be that our AASTO will be the first module to benefit from the new system! Anyway the service crew were keen to press upon me their services when we need a field crew to go and maintain our AASTO!

That was about it for me for the day; after dinner I was exhausted and went to bed and slept for 11 hours. The next day I found we had a "bag drag" scheduled for the evening (when we check our luggage in), for a probable departure the following day. So it was then a matter of packing in as much sight-seeing as possible in the day.

There is a hike to a prominent rock outcrop, Castle Rock, a few miles off base that is a popular day trip, but you not only have to go in pairs, but need to see a safety video and be checked out. So the morning was spent sorting these details out - enjoying a video telling you about all the people who have died out on the route you are about to take, and how you must follow the right flags (the red and green ones, not the black ones which lead into crevasses, or the yellow ones, which are to be used for peeing around (yes, seriously!)). Bob Loeweinstein, one of CARA's stalwarts (and leading cross-country skier) and myself then finally set out on the trail to Castle Rock. The first section is in fact dreary, winding up the back of McMurdo past the station rubbish dump, and the "Arrival Heights" area (scene of one of the most protracted disputes ever under the Antarctic Treaty system between NZ and the USA about trespass over a site of special scientific interest, that got so complicated that only the lawyers in the end knew what people were arguing over!). But then the route reaches a ridge, and the view becomes spectacular as you head towards Castle Rock. Erebus, the mighty volcano is directly behind Castle Rock (and another 40 km away!), McMurdo Sound is behind you with the Transantarctic Mountains 100 km away across them, the open Ross Sea to your left, free of ice, and the Ross Ice Shelf to your left! We were lucky that the day was beautifully clear and the wind virtually absent, and got to see the most spectacular views of Antarctica, once we were out of sight of the ugly mess that is McMurdo.

On returning we bumped into a colleague who had just obtained the keys to Scott's Hut, so we went and had a quick tour of that historic monument too, past the remains of food, clothing and equipment used by the early explorers in that part of the world. Despite all the "specials" they had delivered from London in graphically labelled food boxes, it certainly was a tough existence for them.

That evening, after a climb up the local hill, "Observation Hill", I was just snooping around the Crary Laboratory (the delux science labs they have here) when I was caught by the director of the Lab, and given a personally guided tour of the whole establishment! You might wonder why a director has the time for such personal service - well he had been due to travel out the same flight as me, but had been "bumped" off it at bag drag earlier that evening and now had an extra day to kill in Antarctica! The Crary lab is certainly an impressive place, stocked with the latest equipment serving a wide range of sciences. Though concentrating on the biological sciences, there are facilities for ice core analysis, balloon launches, electronic mapping, geological analysis, electronics labs etc. etc. And all apparently vastly under-utilised! In fact the place is a zoo in the early part of summer, but in late summer, when it no longer becomes safe to venture to the ice edge to collect your samples, most of the visiting scientists head home, leaving a vast expanse of free space. As the director impressed upon me, anyone wanting to work here from late January on has virtually unlimited call on the labs resources. Maybe this is the solution to our space crisis in Astro back at UNSW?!

After this I crashed again, and now, all being well I simply have to wait around till 4pm for check in for todays flight out. All being well, it'll leave at approx 7pm, to get into CHC around 3am, to end another expedition to the great white continent. But these could be famous last words.........

Michael Burton



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