South Pole Diaries 2001/02



Sunday 27th January

From John Storey.....

In the western world, Sunday is traditionally a day of rest. So it is, too, at the South Pole. There are no Hercules flights, the building work for the new station stops, and the bulldozers are still. Even the galley is unusually quiet, with breakfast and lunch replaced by a simple brunch. Acid rock gives way to Bach and Brahms. There are no "all-call" announcements over the public address system, and a tranquility descends over the ice. It is possible then to gaze out over the plateau and imagine what this place must have looked like 90 years ago, when Amundsen first arrived.

However today would be my last full day here, and there was still much to do. At 6 am I was already checking the Stirling engine (from the shower recess, of course), and not long after was on the roof of the AASTO adding even more insulation to the exhaust stack. Glueing things at the South Pole is an inexact science. It hit -36 C today, much colder than when we first arrived. At these temperatures paint doesn't dry, solvents don't evaporate, and glues don't harden. In the end I was happy just to "freeze" the insulation onto the exhaust stack with glue - if the glue ever warms up and melts it will also harden, so either way the stack should remain wrapped up - as snug as a bug in a rug, or snugger.

My other big task was to write up some documentation for the winterover people and to put labels on things. I can hardly imagine what it would like to stagger across to the AASTO in -75 C temperatures, in the pitch dark, only to find a mass of cables and connectors and somehow have to identify them. So, the least I can do for the winterover is to properly label things. Now the inside of the AASTO looks like a kindergarten classroom - although instead of having complicated words stuck to things like "window" and "ceiling" and "draught excluder", it's mostly simple phonetic words like "AFOS" and "Webcam". There's also a note on the exhaust fans saying "Warning, fans start automatically", which I added after one of them nearly took the end of my finger off.

I also wanted to take some photos. Rodney Marks, a PhD graduate from UNSW, was spending a second winter at the South pole in 2000 when he suddenly and inexplicably died. This tragedy affected all of us deeply, especially those people who were wintering over with Rodney at the station. On 1 January 2001 a new marker pole was placed at the exact South Pole by a team of surveyors. On it is inscribed a dedication to Rodney, a star-map of the constellation of Scorpio, and the quotation "Not without peril". The Australian flag also flies permanently beside the 2000 marker, as a mark of respect for Rodney.

Tomorrow I leave for McMurdo, and I'm rather looking forward to getting my sea-level brain back again. Although South Pole is only at an elevation of 2850 m, in polar regions the air pressure is actually significantly lower again than the altitude would suggest. The "pressure altitude" (or "physiological altitude") depends slightly on the weather conditions, but at South Pole can approach 3300 m (11,000 feet). This of course is what leads to the headaches, nausea and sleeplessness of the first few days, along with doctors rushing around trying to stuff Diamox into you. After a week or so at altitude all these symptoms go away (apart from the doctors), except for one - your brain no longer works properly. Mostly I find the effects are merely inconvenient: hand writing already poor becomes next to illegible, I can't read the little tiny writing on things like computer chips, and the humour in the diary becomes a bit suspect. But by far the worst effect is forgetfulness. I set out to do a task and before I've gone three steps I've forgotten what it was. I've taken to writing myself copious notes, and have started carrying around a sheet of paper so I've always got something to write on. Before I started doing this, I'd find that, by the time I'd found some paper to write a note on, I'd forgotten what it was I wanted to write.

It's difficult to sleep tonight because I'm sure I've forgotten something important. But I probably won't remember what it is until I get back down to sea level.



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