South Pole Diaries 1995/96



McMurdo January 17th 1996, 9pm

From Michael Burton.....

This is year 3 now of our South Pole reports, with this years players being myself (Michael Burton) and Craig Smith, but I'm sure by the end of this diary many others will have made guest appearances. The JACARA South Pole site testing campaign is still growing, and this year our plan is for a refurbishment to the faithful IRPS so it can survive a third year wintering on the Ice. Michael Ashley's enhancements should now allow the IRPS to now dance a jig (or at least continually replenish the liquid nitrogen supply without external assistance (it can now monitor the amount of LN2 in the storage dewar, and pressurise the dewar if necessary)).

Craig Smith (from the ADFA) is also taking his pet mid-infrared spectrometer (MIRAS) down to measure the day time mid-IR sky, and help us quantify how much better this form of astronomy will be from Antarctica than elsewhere.

As usual, our expeditions South seem to start in chaos. First over uncertainty as to when and who might actually be able to go, with ever changing population caps at the Pole flowing back to alter travel dates and the number of us who might go. Craig ended up leaving Sydney on Jan 8, with myself following on Jan 14. As I write this I am in McMurdo a few hours away from catching my flight to the Pole, where Craig has been for two days now.

Such travails are a part of polar life, with detailed planning next to impossible as schedules are reorganised to cope with changing weather conditions and other logistic constraints. For instance, on arrival in Christchurch on Sunday I was told I might get off on Wed, but most likely Thursday. Then by Monday morning it had become Tuesday night and by that afternoon it was 5am Tuesday morning! Eventually, after being woken up at 2am to be informed there would be a delay, we left CHC at 1pm, to touch down on the Pegasus ice runway 7.5 hours later (a `quick' flight we were told due to tailwind). The flight down is the worst part of Antarctica - Hercules aircraft do a great job, but they are noisy and vibrate terribly.

We arrived to a heat wave, about 3 degrees above zero. I saw Mt. Erebus (the 3700-m local volcano) for the first time as it was beautifully clear on landing, with the 40km hike to it looking like an afternoon stroll. Many of the locals were strolling around in T-shirts, and we felt definitely over-dressed in all our cold weather gear (which you need to wear in flight for safety reasons). I even saw a couple of streams flowing! (But no penguins I'm afraid.)

McMurdo Sound, the southern most point you can reach by boat in the entire world, is still covered in ice, but any decent ice breaker can pierce it, as evidence by a US Coast Guard vessel off shore, and the Nathaniel B. Palmer, the US NSF's luxury ocean studies vessel docked at the port.

By early afternoon I learnt that I was to be off tomorrow morn, so my time for sight seeing was limited. I tried to check out the souvenir shop (`ships stores') but, of course, it closes all day Wednesdays. The shop at NZ's Scott Base (`best souvenir shop in Antarctica' it proudly advertises) was only open when I had to `bag drop', and the barber was fully booked out! So much for my attempt to go on a shopping spree. The Pole shop better have a few trinkets left when I get there!

One interesting piece of trivia. I checked out Hillary's hut at Scott Base, which is now a museum to NZ's first Antarctic outpost, and one end of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition of Hillary and Fuchs in the IGY of 1957. (My father actually went down to Antarctica along with that expedition, though he stayed at Halley Bay to do science as opposed to the adventure to cross the continent!) From the visitor book I discovered that Edmund Hillary himself, as well as several of the Fuchs clan, had visited the hut just 4 days after my visit in Feb 94! And that someone has obviously dropped the book in a puddle of water since then!

Following John Storey's experiences I found the exercise room, and checked out the Marvin-like (as in hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy) exercise machines. Having managed to program the machine to test the fitness test of a 10 year old child, it complained mine was immeasurable! So I went of for a run, my first in Antarctica (those who know my habits in this regard and might wonder why I didn't manage any on my last visit - well I was fighting against the flu that time). Actually I must have seen at least a dozen runners around McMurdo, which surprised me somewhat, until I saw the signs up for the `Scott's Hut Footrace', which turns out to be next Sunday! I tried to buy the race T-Shirt from the organiser, but they wouldn't accept my pleading I'd be stranded at the Pole by then. There are only 2 foot races in Antarctica, the South Pole Round the World Race, and this one, and so far I have managed to miss both. I will have to talk to my sponsors before my next visit and see if I can manage one some day!

Craig has reached the Pole, though we have had little communication as yet, other than to discover that apparently the crew weren't expecting the 300kg of gear he was carrying with him for his experiment!! A great start that, and I wonder what I will find waiting there for me when I arrive about lunch time tomorrow.........

Michael Burton



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