South Pole Diaries 1999/2000    


Saturday 22nd January:

From Jill:

If I said it was cold yesterday, I was wrong - it was cold today. The wind has picked up further, making it tiring to walk from the dome out to the AASTO. Our job for today was to lay the cables in the conduits so that we could control the telescope. Having completed this, we began to test various LEDs and lamps and after some more remarkable electronic detective work by Andre, managed to turn them on and off using the software. A very important step!

I have been learning a lot about electronics, but I think the three most important things I have learnt today are:

  • "real" men don't read manuals
  • women are much better at finding things in crowded rooms and 
  • a "heat gun" is really a turbo powered hairdryer.

Eyes rolled and I heard a "huh chicks" comment from the depths of the AASTO after the remark about the hairdryer. I was then asked if I would like to dry my hair with it - a suggestion which I flatly refused! Nothing much else to report for today, except the fact that my departure is rapidly approaching, oh and we had chocolate ice-cream for dessert tonight!

From John Storey.....

Rather unexpectedly I have been invited by Ing Mario Zuchelli, head of the Italian Antarctic program, to visit him at Terra Nova Bay to discuss future developments at Dome C. So, I'm leaving the Pole in about three hours! I'll spend tonight and tomorrow in McMurdo, then fly in a Twin Otter to Terra Nova on Monday.

We are making excellent progress with the instruments here at South Pole. However a major frustration has been the collapse of the station intranet, making it impossible for us to properly test things.


Sunday 23rd Jan: My last night :(

The weather is windy and nasty again today. Sundays here are very relaxed, for most people it is there day off. We took it fairly easy today getting the optical fibres ready to lay in the conduits (most of the credit going to Paolo). For my last night at the Pole, I thought I should get out and see the sights - you know do the touristy thing. My first sight to see (and highly recommended to anyone travelling this way) was the buried plane at the end of the skiway (a few years ago a plane missed the runway, hit the snow and was left there). Because the weather was so bad I didn't want to walk out there (it is several kilometres), so I got a ride out on a skidoo with one of the winter-over guys who also wanted to go. I think I was wearing all the clothes that I was issued with, including the "you'll never wear these" gloves.

The ride out there was great, we even cleared the snow on a couple of occasions! The view was magnificent, the dome was so small on the horizon, it really gave you the sense of isolation. All but the tip of the tail of the plane is under snow now, so to get to the plane you have to slide down a slippery slide tunnel at the tail. It was loads of fun - the only problem being that you have to climb up this slide to get out! Half way up I realised that the boots I had on were *not* made for climbing. we then proceeded to the front of the plane and crawled in the cockpit and passenger bits. Although it was really cold and windy outside, it was warm enough inside the plane (I think this was definatley relative). Having said that it must have been cold, as my eyelashes had ice on them and stuck together when I blinked! It was really great to sit inside the buried plane. Everything that could have been removed was, with the exception of some glass in the windows and a cup dispenser! After climbing out of the cockpit (I was thankful, there was a ladder this time) we took the touristy photos (before my camera froze), jumped back on the skidoo and skidooed back to the warmth and comfort of the dome! I'm glad I enjoyed the view on the way out, as my goggles were completely fogged up and icy on the way back - I couldn't see anything! (BTW I wasn't driving).

The next stop on the tourist tour was the greenhouse. The Pole has a small greenhouse where they grow herbs and vegies for a salad for the winter-overs. It was very humid inside (about 23C) so it was a nice place to defrost after the skidoo ride! The only other place of interest was the "ski Hut" which is only accessibly by skis (funnily enough). I didn't have the energy to do that, so alas I missed out - maybe next time!

The rest of the night was filled with packing, exchanging e-mails with friends I'd met and getting ready to leave :(


Monday 24th Jan: Leaving..

Today was a sad day. As quickly as the time had come to go to the pole, it came to leave. The weather had improved which made it even more difficult. If had been blowing like it had the previous few days, then I think it would have made leaving a bit easier! I spent the morning saying goodbye to all the great people that had been so nice to us during our stay. The wait for the plane was long. When it finally arrived and we were loaded into the shuttle bus, I took a long hard look around me. As we left the dome, passed the ceremonial and geographic poles and seeing the AASTO off in the distance, I hoped that one day I would have the opportunity to come back. It really is a magnificent place.

As we boarded the Herc, I saw "diamond dust" again. I hadn't seen it for a few days because of the clouds and it reminded me of when I first arrived, which seemed like only yesterday. The Herc took off without too much trouble and I pictured it as I had seen it take off only a few days before - and as simple as that we were northbound.

From John Storey.....

Today did not begin well, when I found my legs so stiff I could hardly walk. Jess may well have the last laugh on this one. I did however check the results board and found I came 14th in the Men's Masters class and won hands down in the "Australian Physics Professors Who Own a Poodle" class.

In case anyone is wondering what the above is about, yesterday was the annual Scott's Hut race. It is much as Jess told it in her email---first we ran to Scott's hut and back, which seemed fair enough, but then the
race continued up and over a mountain half the size of Kosciusco to the turn-off to the New Zealander's Scott Base, then back to McMurdo followed by a return trip to Scott's Hut again for no apparent reason, and finally back to the Chapel where a highly trained team of religious officials were no doubt secreted inside, ready to administer last rights. It was actually a tremendous amount of fun; it is the first long-distance race
(or short distance race, for that matter) I have competed in since I was sixteen.

Today's breakfast was up to the usual McMurdo standard (inedible) so I settled for a little box of Rice Bubbles and one of Corn Flakes, eaten without milk since there is no substance on offer here worthy of the name.

I then took the shuttle out to Williams Field, but instead of settling down to wait for the usual Hercules I was directed to the "Ken Borek Shack" to await the arrival of a Twin Otter from Terra Nova Bay (BTN). Ken Borek Air operates out of Canada, and is subcontracted by the NSF to provide pilots and aircraft for the Antarctic summer.

The plane duly arrrived full of French and Italians who had recently been at Dome C. This was my first opportunity to take a really close look at a Twin Otter. At first sight it appears to have been designed with a
complete disregard for the principles of aerodynamics. There are cables hanging out in the breeze everywhere, the skis are attached to the axles where the wheels once were---even the anti-lock brake sensors are still in place, the suspension consists of a bunch of leaf springs that look like they're out of an FJ Holden, and a curious arrangement of bungee cords stops the skis from flapping up and down.

The bad news was that fog was rolling in to BTN, and that we might not be able to make it back. The pilot decided to wait for half an hour, during which he entertained me with graphic descriptions of how the Twin Otter that serviced AGO 6 this year had caught a wingtip in the snow on take-off and ripped the entire wing off. I found some reassurance in the fact that the pilot apparently felt this a sufficiently unusual occurence to be worthy of comment. It was in fact he who went in to collect the by now somewhat shaken (but unhurt) crew. Susequently a Hercules went in to collect up the identifiable bits of Twin Otter, put them in boxes and cart them back to Canada.

Anyway, that was basically it for pre-flight briefing, so we all hopped in and scooted off across the airfield to refuel.

Have you ever pulled in to a petrol sation only to find the pump doesn't reach? Embarassing, isn't it? Well, imagine doing it in a Twin Otter. It was only a matter of about a foot, mind you, but both engines had to be
re-started, given a good hard rev and then a sudden burst of coarse pitch to break the skis free (they freeze to the ice), followed immediately be a whole heap of reverse thrust to pull us up again. Could be worse, I thought to myself, we still have two wings.

Then, without further ado, off to BTN! It was actually a fabulous 90 minute flight, cruising at a mere 1500 feet down the coast of McMurdo Sound in brilliant sunshine and quite spectacular scenery. As we approached BTN we could see low cloud so we dropped to 700 feet to come in under it. After a few minutes the ground disapperaaed and then the sky, until we were in complete whiteout. As far as I could see the radar altimeter was the only thing with even the vaguest notion of where the ground was. It was pretty clear we didn't know where we were so the pilot gunned the engines and spiralled up to 5,000 feet, so at least we could see where the mountains were (everywhere, basically). We then swung out to sea and came in for a second approach, this time at 500 feet. I even got to see my first penguins! (Well, they might have been minature nuns but I think they were penguins.) However the low fog got us again while we were still 9 miles out from the runway, so there was nothing for it but to head back to McMurdo.

We'll try again tomorrow at 5:30. The same fog also caused the incoming Hercules from Christchurch to turn back, so there will be no northbound flight tomorrow. Jill (who arrived from Pole this afternoon) and Jess
will be stuck here a while longer.

The film "Mad Max II" has recently been mentioned in these dispatches, and so I was amused when leaving through an issue of the Sierra Club magazine to find that it was given a "thumbs up" rating for its positive portrayal of environmental issues. It just goes to show that you don't need to hug a tree to be a greenie.


Tuesday 25th Jan: McMurdo

From Jill......

Back in McMurdo! The weather is noticeably warmer and it is nice to get out of my big boots and wear normal clothes again (i.e. without zippers and velcro!). As soon as we arrived the rumours started about cancelled flights and priority lists. Jess and John are still here, awaiting the next flight out. Jess and I spent the day playing basketball, doing washing and in the sauna. We were quite surprised to hear a flight scheduled for tomorrow had our names on the manifest. What we were about to find out was that I had priority 60, Jess had 61 and John had 62 (out of a maximum of 65). This not only confused us, but several other people who had been "bumped" from previous flights (with a priority of 1 and 2) now found themselves with a priority of 65 and 58 respectively! We gave up trying to work out the logic behind it and began to pack. With 65 people we knew the flight was not going to be pretty. Jess and I decided that the best tactic to survive the flight was to stay up all night in the hope that we could lie all over cargo and sleep on it the whole way back (and yes John we were studying problems in Electrodynamics...oh wait, does beer count?).

We also walked around to "Huts point", where Scott's hut is still standing. We were trying to spot whales, but alas they were nowhere to be seen. The final flight manifest went up at 5am - we were annoyed, but not surprised to find they had cut the list at 60...which meant I was going and Jess and John were staying (how is that fair?). John as well as a few others eventually made the flight and after a few "mechanical problems" we were in the air and bound for the grass, darkness and fresh food and beer of Christchurch!

From John Storey......

Today began at 5:30 am when I rang the pilots to find out if we were going. Unfortunately they didn't know themselves, because for some reason all contact with Terra Nova Bay (BTN) had been lost. It wasn't until 8:30 that we finally got through, and found that the weather there was just like it was in McMurdo---perfect.

We jumped into the shuttle van and headed out to Williams Field, collecting Jack Sayers (formerly logistics Manager for the Australian Antarctic Division and now Director or COMNAP) from Scott Base along the

I had mentioned to the pilot how much I'd enjoyed the low-level flight the previous day, so before taking off he asked me if I'd like to go lower this time. I said: "Sure. How low are we allowed to fly?", to which he replied simply "How low would you like to go?" We settled on 500 feet.

Pre-flight formalities were minimal, in stark contrast to the Hercules flights where you typically have to hang around for hours, climb on, sit around for yonks and then climb off again, only to repeat the process a couple of hours later. With the Twin Otter it was just a matter of walking up to the aircraft, lobbing the hand-carry in, and starting the engines. The main problem was deciding which seat to sit in.

Breaking the skis free from the ice was a moderately dramatic exercise, which involved giving full throat to the engines and rocking the elevators up and down over their full travel so the aircraft see-sawed up and down. It suddenly broke free and took off like a turpentine cat, before being reined back to taxi sedately across to the skiway.

The flight to BTN was perfect, taking just 90 minutes in crystal clear conditions. From 500 feet we could see every penguin and seal along the way, and the scenery was just spectacular.

However coming across the ice towards the landing strip at BTN the pilot adjusted his seat belt very tight and advised us to the same, on account of "turbulence". Shortly later the plane was being thrown all over the sky, but somehow managed to weave up the narrow valley between the mountains. Suddenly the pilot stood the plane on its wingtip and did an extraordinarily tight U-turn, then started dropping out of the sky at an alarming rate. We hit the ground surprisingly gently, considering the speed we were going, and pulled up in what seemed like just a few feet with the help of an enormous blast of reverse thrust. When we climbed out the folk on the ground were desperately trying to reload their cameras and were discussing who'd managed to get the best shot. Apparently it was one of the most spectacular approaches and cross-wind landings they'd seen in a while---the wind was at exactly 90 degrees to the skiway and 24 knots gusting to 40.

A small group of French and Italian folk then climbed aboard, and the Twin Otter took off for McMurdo again by flying *across* the strip, getting airborne in no time.

We were then introduced to an amiable New Zealand helicopter pilot who led us to a beautiful little French-made Squirrel. Within minutes we were airborne again, lifting up above the steep sides of the valley. From that vantage point I could see just how narrow the valley was and was very glad we didn't push our luck with yesterday's landing.

We flew across the ridge and then dropped down in to the BTN station, to be met by the station manager and Head of the Italian Antarctic Program, Mario Zuchelli. For the next four hours he treated us to a tour of the station, followed by an excellent Italian lunch with fresh lettuce and tomato and *real* coffee. We had a long discussion about Dome C and our future plans there, and made a lot of progress towards what I think is going to be a very valuable relationship. There seems to be no obstacle to taking the sub-millimetre tipper to Dome C next summer.

BTN station is in the most beautiful location, with weather-worn rocks all around, a steep snow-covered ridge behind and a clear blue sea in front. In the distance, Mount Melbourne (2,700m) towers above the station in much the way Erebus does at McMurdo. Most of the station has fairly unarresting architecture, being constructed from shipping contatiners all joined together. However just above the station are three new buildings which look like Tyrolean ski-lodges, adding a surreal touch to this lovely place.

By the way, I asked the pilot how they get an unpressurised Twin Otter into Dome C, which is at some 12,000 feet pressure altitude. The answer seems to be that you fly at 800 feet above the snow and breath oxygen from time to time.

Halfway through the visit Paolo called up from the South Pole on the HF SSB radio to discuss a problem with the epoxy we had used on our optical fibres. I could hear Paolo very clearly (I think they have 10kW at Pole), but with only 1kW from BTN he was having a some difficulty hearing me. I was busting to tweak the antenna tuner but there didn't seem to be any knobs to turn. Modern transmitters are no fun. Nevertheless we had a useful chat. At the end of the visit we climbed once more into the Squirrel, did a slow orbit of the station, and lifted up and over the ridge to drop down into the valley where the airstrip is. A short time later the Twin Otter arrived (no drama this time) but announced on landing that the hydraulic pump had busted. I thought we were going to have to spend the night in BTN, but unfortunately the pilot said he didn't really need a hydraulic pump because all it did was work the flaps and stuff, so we all piled in and flew back to McMurdo.

Thank you, Paolo, for organising the visit. It was great, and very useful.

I'm currently scheduled to fly to Christchurch tomorrow with the New Zealand Airforce (do I really want ot fly with an outfit whose symbol is a flightless bird?) However, my priority number is 62 out of 65 passengers, so there's a fair probability I'll be "bumped".


Thursday 27th Jan: The story stops here...

From Jill......

After arriving last night, we handed in all our ECW gear, headed straight for our respective hotels - in the shower and then on to the "Dux-de-lux"! We longed for fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and beer - all of which can be found in abundance at the "Dux". The "Dux" is a regular meeting place of Antarctic travellers and at any one time, you can find at least 5 people either going to or returning from the Ice (trust me they stand out!).

After having our fair share of excellent food (and a bit of mud cake) we walked around Christchurch, enjoying the dark, the warm weather and the stars! Unlike several other people I had travelled with, I was only gone 2 weeks, but still missed the trees, the fragrances in the air and especially the stars! Jess is still waiting in McMurdo and is scheduled (with hopefully a higher priority) for the flight on Friday, at which point we will gather our things together, get some photos developed (watch these pages in the next weeks), hire a car and head for the best hot springs and cocktails NZ has to offer!!

Just before I finish, I'd like to thank the NSF/CARA and the UNSW for giving me the opportunity to go the South Pole - a memorable experience that I'm sure will be a hard act to follow (although Jess and I will do our utmost to try in the following weeks!). Thanks also to John, Andre, Paolo and Jess for being great to work with and to Michael Ashley for being our "sea-level brain".

Hope you enjoyed the diaries. 


Jill :)

1st February 2000

From John Storey.......

This will be the final email from me for this trip. I am writing it as I fly Qantas across the Tasman from Christchurch to Sydney on the final leg of my journey home.

Yesterday (Australia Day) was a very on-again, off-again sort of day. The drama started the previous evening when we received our "priority numbers" for Wednesday's flight to Chch. Sixty-five lucky people were listed to fly---Jill, Jess and I were allocated 60, 61 and 62 respectively. The only problem was that there are only 60 seats the Hercules, and then only if there are no head winds, additional cargo or last minute crises of confidence that make the pilot decide to hurl a few more passengers off the list. So we were pretty confident we were all going to get "bumped". I went off to bed, while Jill and Jess decided to stay up all night. Being concientious students I guess they were= working through problems in Jackson's "Electrodynamics". At 6 am I wandered down to check the manifest and sure enough, Jess and I were bumped but remarkably Jill was still on. So
I went back to bed again.

I was woken an hour later by people in the corridor yelling in Italian and German. This pleased me none, so I lay staring up at the ceiling thinking what an awful place McMurdo was to be stuck in and wondering if I should revise my uncharacteristically ambivalent glossary entry for it, possibly along the lines of it being one of the few justifiable uses for thermonuclear missiles.

This ungenerous train of thought was shattered a moment later when the phone rang. Could I be ready to leave in six minutes? I shoved everything in my carry-on and said a quick farewell to Robbo, my room-mate. (Robbo is the South Pole winter-over doctor this year, who was "enjoying" a week's R&R in McMurdo. He's known at South Pole as "Robo-doc".) I was picked up by a van (service! Normally you have to stagger up the hill to board the bus) and whisked directly out to the Pegasus ice runway where a wheeled Hercules of the New Zealand Air Force was waiting. Two other folk, neither of whom was Jessica, were also with us, having also been "un-bumped".

So everything was looking pretty good for getting on the plane. Apparently three of the Italians had failed to check in on time and so, after efforts to locate them failed (I guess that's what all the yelling in the corridor was about), they were crossed off and we were substituted. Rumours started to circulate that we had duct-taped them to their beds, but this is completely untrue.

Then things went bad again as the New Zealander's decided there was something wrong with a wheel strut, and it would
take a couple of hours to fix. So we hung about out at Pegasus and finally boarded, and then they decided one engine didn't have enough oil so we sat on the plane for another hour and ten minutes, and then finally just as I was certain we were all about to driven back to McMurdo and some of us replaced by Italians, we took off.

So that was more or less it for yesterday. On arriving in Christchurch I discovered my luggage hadn't arrived, but Jessica's had. I guess I can live without mine for a couple of days, but I fear Jess is by now getting thoroughly sick of McMurdo and that her mood will not be improved by the knowledge that most of clothes are currently orbiting the baggage carousel at Christchurch airport. She should be able to escape in a day or two. We can only speculate on why
they couldn't contact her at 7:15 am yesterday. Perhaps she was in the shower. Perhaps she was crying so loudly she
couldn't hear the phone. We may never know.

Jessica will be glad to know that Jill and Von and I toastedher good health in the Dux Deluxe last night.

Farewell till next time,



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