South Pole Diaries 2001/02



Tuesday and Wednesday 29 - 30 January

From John Storey.....

Today's diary entry covers two days, because they merged into one anyway.

The day begins in McMurdo which, as has already been noted, makes an unhappy contrast to the South Pole. It is as if, having spent two weeks in the communist fantasyland that is South Pole, McMurdo is required as a kind of an antidote to prepare one for life back in the real world. The hard metallic lump in my pocket is a set of keys - a strange device I now use for locking doors, an action whose sole purpose is to prevent someone else from going through that door and doing whatever it was they were planning to do. In return, as it were, I am continually confronted with doors that have been locked by someone else, with no apparent thought for the inconvenience that might now be causing me.

(Poor Karl, he was not to know that his ideology would not work once the village had more than a couple of hundred people in it. Nor would he have been able to predict that, once the village grew to a city of a few million, a substantial fraction of his comrades would be driving around in 2-tonne four-wheel-drives, purchased in the hope that, should they have the misfortune to collide with someone they don't know, all the property damage, injury and disfigurement would be suffered by the other comrade, not them. But I digress.)

And there are signs, everywhere, telling me that I cannot go here or there. At South Pole there are also areas one cannot go - but always for good reasons. For example, one cannot go to the transmitting antenna farm, or one might get fried. One cannot go to where they collect the snow for drinking water, in case one absently-mindedly does something unmentionable on the snow. And of course one can absolutely never go to Old South Pole Station because, as everyone knows, that's where the aliens live.

In contrast McMurdo has a lot of signs that contain the words "no" or "not" or "forbidden", and no reason is given. Even the shipping containers scattered around the station are labelled: "This is not a refuge", as if to emphasise the fact that you're really stuck here, mate.

The grim reality is underlined by a set of photocopied signs on various doors, put there by an anguished researcher bemoaning the recent theft of his laptop computer from his dorm room and offering a $200 reward for its return - no questions asked. Welcome (back) to the real world. And the coffee - oh dear, the coffee...

Fortunately the breakfast waffles and maple syrup are excellent. As Robert Falcon Scott might have said, but didn't: "Great God, what a waffle place!"

At 10 am we do "bag-drag", effectively the same as check-in for a commercial flight except you get to take your carry-on luggage away again once it (and you) have been weighed. Experienced antarctic adventurers know that it is wise to include in that one retained bag several changes of underwear, toiletries, some good books and a pair of comfortable walking shoes, for you may not be re-united with the rest of your luggage for some days.

Over lunch I struck up a conversation with Gonzales from the University of Washington, who invited me to visit his lab at Arrival Heights, an area in the hills above McMurdo. Arrival Heights is an area reserved by international agreement as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, in this case because it is a "radio quiet zone" where there is minimal radio interference. For this reason, no transmitters and all of the radio experiments for studying the ionosphere are located there. A few years ago, the New Zealanders set up a two-way satellite communications facility at Arrival Heights and thereby created a serious international incident or, to put it another way, injected some life into the otherwise astonishingly dull international SCAR meetings. Unfortunately all the fuss seems to have died down now.

>From Arrival Heights there is a wonderful view of the island - Ross Island - which McMurdo shares with Mount Erebus. This year has been unusually warm, and today was bathed in beautiful sunshine. I enjoyed the walk of a few kilometres back to McMurdo, breathing in the dense sea-level air and appreciating the fact that it was possible to spend more than a few minutes outside without my moustache freezing to my beard, preventing me from opening my mouth.

After working 16-hour days at South Pole for just on two weeks, it was great to relax. I spent the rest of the afternoon asleep. At 9 pm we checked in for our flight and climbed aboard the Terrabus for transport to Pegasus. Pegasus is the sea-ice runway, some 45 minutes drive south of Mc Murdo, which can only be used late in the season when the sun is no longer fiercely melting the ice and causing pot-holes in the surface. The advantage of the runway is that conventional wheeled aircraft can land on it, unlike the ski-way which can only be used by the Hercules and their ilk. Today would be the first flight from Christchurch for this year of a C-141 Starlifter - a larger four-engined transport jet. It carries more people (typically around 90), and flies much faster than the Hercules, making the trip between McMurdo and Christchurch in just 5 hours, rather than 8 or 9.

Clearly sensing that we would be disappointed at spending a mere 5 hours squashed together, knee to knee, cheek to jowl, the transport folk arranged for us to be at Pegasus a good four hours before we were due to leave. Crammed into the only building available, some people dozed and others watched a movie. This was something called, I think, "The Insider" and, despite having been nominated for umpteen Academy Awards was so stupefyingly dull that most people either became stupefied or wandered outside to gaze for one last time at the midnight sun, now dipping low across the southern horizon.

The C-141 landed, and then proceeded to taxi up and down the runway - still fully loaded with its 92 passengers. I discovered that this was because it was the first C-141 flight for the season. Before taking off again, the pilot wanted to be sure that the runway was up to the job and that the plane wasn't going to fall through the ice at any point. Amongst those on board who were contributing their body mass to this proof-loading test was the New Zealand ambassador to the US who - unless he reads this diary - will probably remain blissfully unaware of this most useful task he has performed.

Back in New Zealand I returned all my ECW gear. I then wandered across to the National Science Foundation office complex, talked my way past the security guard and found my way to the bathroom, where I enjoyed the first long, hot shower in nearly three weeks. Human again, I returned to the computer room and logged on via the Internet to our experiments at South Pole. All was running well.

So that brings this season's diary to a close. For the next 12 months we will run our experiments remotely, relying on Michael Whitehead and Wilfred Walsh to fix whatever breaks at the Pole. Be sure to check in next November, to see how it all worked out.



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