South Pole Diaries 2001/02



Saturday 12th January

From John Storey.....

Photo by: Jon Lawrence Today was not a good day. It began at 6 when I rose for breakfast and had my first cup of so-called coffee, and learned that last night's flight to the South Pole had turned back because of bad weather. Apparently the wind is bad at the Pole, picking up the snow and reducing visibility below the minimum acceptable level for the Hercules pilots. They can approach the South Pole skyway with radar, using the reflection from the fuselage of a crashed Hercules (now conveniently dragged to the end of the skyway) as a target. Then "...ya gotta be able to see at least 3 flags." If not, the plane resumes cruising altitude and circles for up to four hours before returning to McMurdo.

Anyway, it seemed worth a try. Fourteen of us dressed up in ECW gear and clambered into the back of the vehicle that would take us out to the McMurdo airstrip (otherwise known as Williams Field). Unfortunately Ivan the Terrabus was not available, so we were put in a "Delta". A Delta is a very large truck with a sort of a box added to the back like an afterthought - much in the manner of a child's drawing. Steering is by hydraulic rams that bend the whole truck in the middle. With tyres that are nearly 2 metres in diameter and a metre wide, the whole thing looks totally ridiculous. It reminds me of those gadgets that often win prizes on "Inventors" shows on TV - gadgets that clearly captured the judges' rather limited imaginations but which never should have been allowed past the engineering drawing stage.

The Delta has an appallingly rough ride, and the passengers are incarcerated in the "afterthought" box. In the event of injury the surviving passengers can communicate with the driver using a walkie-talkie. This is exactly what happened 3 years ago when a particularly rough bump resulted in one passenger suffering a broken arm. We arrived in McMurdo the day after this incident and were treated to a helicopter ride from Williams Field to McMurdo, the Deltas having been taken out of service while someone thought up a good story for the OH&S people. So, from that point of view I don't consider the Deltas to be all bad. But I digress.

Ably driven by a personable young lass called Casey, the Delta delivered us all to Willy Field unscathed. At that point we had to transfer from the Delta with really knobbly tyres that can go over slushy snow to the Delta with rather smooth tyres that doesn't chew up the runway. (A suggestion that we all stay where we are and simply get someone to change the tyres over was, surprisingly, rejected.) Then we wandered about, admired the Twin Otters, watched the Hercules refuel, wandered about some more, before being told there was "essentially no chance" of our plane landing at South Pole. The weather was expected to remain poor for at least another day. Furthermore, all our equipment had been offloaded to
make way for more fuel (so the Hercules could circle for longer at South Pole), so there's not a lot we could do if we got there anyway.

After a lot of discussion we took the advice of the crew and abandoned the flight. The plane will fly on and attempt the landing with just 4 of our number still aboard, they having decided that they may as well sit and read on the Herc for 10 hours as sit and read in McMurdo. At least the coffee couldn't be any worse.

Returning to McMurdo we were reassigned to our rooms (though I'll have to make my own bed this time) so sit out the rest of the day.

Just before dinner we received the depressing news that the flight did in fact manage to land at South Pole. There are no flights tomorrow (Sunday), so we're stuck here for a while. That's perhaps not too bad. It's still sunny here; 10 C and warm enough to wear a T-shirt. Perhaps that's why it is so cloudy at South Pole, and why Paolo is reporting rotten weather (warm and humid) at Dome C. Meanwhile, the novelty of seeing the sun blazing away, high in the sky at midnight has still not worn off - I suspect it never will.

From the Crary Lab (the science lab with the library and computers, among other things) one can look out across McMurdo Sound and even spy on things with a small telescope. This afternoon three large seals are lolling about on the ice. In wildlife documentaries these things are always fighting or mating or both and there is never a dull moment. However these three haven't moved more than a metre all day and look like lazy, oversized slugs. Don't they realise that the planet is warming up and they should be hard at work evolving into something else?

Photo by: Jon Lawrence As luck would have it, tomorrow is the annual Scott's Hut race. This is a 7.5 km running race, and is the major sporting event on the McMurdo calendar. Two years ago I completed the course in a finite if not particularly competitive time, and have a t-shirt to prove it. Tomorrow I will try to better my previous time, score another t-shirt, and at least show those seals a thing or two. I think I've also persuaded Duane to have a go, although my attempt to persuade him that everyone has to wear ECW gear and bunny boots appears to have failed, so now he'll beat me hollow.

After dinner I was invited by Wilfred to a quick tour of the Polar Sea icebreaker. This is an extraordinarily powerful US Coast Guard ship with 3 propellors, enormous diesel engines, electric drive motors, and then 3 gas turbine engines for when the going gets really tough. It can punch through 3 metre thick ice at a steady pace and looks indestructible. On the other hand it has a really big dent in the left-hand side, so somewhere out there must be something even bigger and tougher. This is profoundly disturbing - I hope it's on our side.



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