South Pole Diaries 2001/02



Monday 28th January

From John Storey.....

Last morning at the South Pole!

The first part of the morning was taken up with logistics - packing up the equipment that will not be needed over winter, putting out my hold luggage in the snow for collection by the cargoids, making sure all my ECW gear was in my hand-carry, and so on. At 9 am there was "redeployment briefing", which sounds terribly formal but in fact was just an opportunity for the station management to say what a great job we'd all done and to hand out handsome personalised certificates, together with a shoulder patch which says - for reasons I haven't yet got to the bottom of - "South Pole Medical Facility".

I also had to rush around giving back all the stuff we'd borrowed - well most of it. The replacement Supervisor computer (late of keyboard woes) was now in such a sorry state I was too embarrassed to return it, and was last seen in the Construction Debris bin with a pile of snow on it to make it less obvious. The Ethernet hub with the terribly noisy fan was clearly so noisy that no-one would want it back, so it's still in the AASTO. I think Tony signed out for both these items. They'll be after you, Tony...

That left just two hours to do a final check of the equipment and write some last minute notes to Mike Whitehead and Wilfred, who will look after the AASTO and its instruments through the winter. There was one essential aspect to running the equipment remotely that we hadn't yet properly checked - would it be possible to wake-up the instruments via commands over the Internet?

We make provision for this with a piece of electronics aptly named the "wakey-wakey" board. It just sits there listening for any attempt to communicate with the instrument and, when this occurs, shakes it into life. (It also wakes the instrument up every couple of hours anyway, just to keep it on its toes.) What I quickly discovered was that, yes, we could wake Summit up remotely, but that it promptly went back to sleep again 60 seconds later. Clearly this was an instrument that, if it had the choice, would buy an alarm clock with a "snooze" facility.

What I had hoped would be a routine confirmation that everything was OK was quickly assuming the proportions of a major drama. An instrument that won't work for more than 60 seconds at a time is worse than useless. At 11:00 am the incoming Hercules would be approaching, and the flashing beacon would prevent anyone crossing the ski-way. It was now 10:15, and I needed to leave at least 15 minutes to get back to the Dome. At 10:30 I discovered, after a frantic search, that we did not have a spare wakey-wakey board. Five minutes later I confirmed a growing suspicion that we didn't have the necessary parts to fix the old one, either. I turned the soldering iron on to give it time to warm up, though what I was going to solder was not at all clear. Finally, with just a few minutes to go and circuit diagrams spread across the floor of the AASTO, I decided it was better to have the instrument running all the time than not at all - and hot-wired the power supply appropriately. The soldering iron was still cooling down as I rushed for the plane.

I was last on - not a bad position to be in because a) you're first off at the other end, and b) you get one of the very few windows to look out of. (The fact that the window is behind your head normally wouldn't matter, but in ECW gear you turn your head around and all you see is the inside of your parka hood.) I did manage to overcome this little obstacle, however, and my final view of South Pole was of the AASTO, with a cheerful puff of white clouds rising from its exhaust stack.

The flight to McMurdo was uneventful. McMurdo itself is always something of a disappointment after the Pole. For one thing, it's dirty. That's not really McMurdo's fault - it's built on dirt; in fact old volcanic ash from Mt Erebus. Dirt without vegetation is unattractive. South Pole is sitting on nearly 3000 metres of the purest ice on the planet. So, by comparison, McMurdo is drab. It's not nearly as white as the South Pole, either. McMurdo is also frustrating because you can no longer work on the equipment, but neither are you yet reunited with your family. It's a sort of Antarctic limbo.

To cheer me up they have promised to fly us to Christchurch tomorrow night in a C-141 Starlifter. This four engine jet is a lot faster than the Hercules (it can do the trip in 5 hours) and has a proper toilet with a door on it.




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