South Pole Diaries 2001/02



Sunday 30th December 2001 - Wednesday 23rd January 2002

From Tony Travouillon.....

Sunday 30th December 2001
The departure time has been set back to 3pm. There were 23 of us in the plane to Mc Murdo, of which three were going to the South Pole. The checking happened similarly to a normal plane, except that we were checked by the army. They gave us a badge as a boarding pass and we waited an hour and a half for the plane to be ready while they showed us a video about the flight. The flight attendant (called the loadmaster in this type of plane) was a young army boy and not the usual blonde and instead of serving us orange juice every hour, he gave us a lunch bag with a couple of sandwiches, a kit-kat and a bottle of orange juice and water. I was lucky to be the first to sit on the left side of the plane (they fill up the right side first) and got enough space to lie on the hand luggage packed next to me. Later I found out you can actually sleep on the pile of boxes and that's what I did from Mc Murdo to SP.

The plane seemed to take off at a very low speed and flew just as slowly. It made the landing the smoothest I have ever experienced. During the flight, the earplugs were very much welcome. The sound made by this type of plane is unbearable after a while. The view of the continent from the dirty windows gave us a good idea of what to expect down there. It looked flat with mountains sticking out and showing that there is indeed a ground under the ice.

When we landed at Mc Murdo, I was quite disappointed about the temperature. I was expecting -15 and a frosting wind but got 2 or 3 degrees and barely any wind. The landscape: flat, white and mountains in the background. We jumped on the bus (slow like hell) and drove for 40 minutes to the station. It didn't seem like the bus was making much progress. After 20 minutes, the surrounding was exactly the same. In fact, it was the trick of the landscape. The mountains, which I thought were close and small, where actually very far and therefore large. I would not try to estimate distances on this continent. We dropped a couple of kiwis at Scott's station and finished at Mc Murdo. The place looks like a construction site. All the buildings are rectangle and look temporary. The station was said to be crowed, but arriving at midnight (and bright day light), we didn't see many people around. The plane is schedule at 7:30 in the morning giving us 5 hour sleep before getting on a plane again.

Monday 31st December 2001
Guess what, I slept in as usual. I got up at 7:35 and ran straight to the meeting point. There, another shuttle took us back to the field and we quickly got on another LC-130, this one having skies instead of wheels. I got myself comfortable on the pile of luggage and slept during the whole 5 hours to the South Pole. This time, no disappointment with the temperature; there is two temperature measured: the still temperature and the wind temperature. There were respectively -25 and -45. The sky was as blue as it gets and brightness (due to the reflection of the ground) was so intense, that I had to squint behind my sunglasses. We had enough layer of cloths not to feel the cold but my ears and fingertips started to burn so from now on, two pairs of gloves and an extra hat under my hood. The shuttle drove us right to entry of the Dome and we all (3 people) got in the "galley" (this is how they call the restaurant). It was pretty busy in there and I found out that this year is the record high in terms of population: 220 people (the 40 I was told of, are the people staying all year long). Out of this 220, most are people building the new station, which should be ready in parts for next season. The building people wear a brown body suit while the scientist and the staff hare in black pants and red Jackets. Today I was told to take it easy. Apparently, altitude sickness (2850m) hits most of the people on their first few days. So far I don't feel anything but when I am outside, my breathing rate doubles because of the pressure. It feels like your lungs believe you are running even though you are walking slowly.

Today I will arrange computing, go around the facilities, and find out where is our equipment. The dorms are used 24 hours a day and far from the hotel I got in Christchurch. The main thing is that inside, the temperature in warm and that's the only thing that matters right now.

Wednesday 2nd January 2002
Ok, I think there is no point counting the time in days here. Well, first it's always daylight of course but also because I can't sleep at regular hours. I sleep 2 hours here, 3 hours there and so far only 1 hour in my bed. I realized the floor of the AASTO is much more comfortable as the temperature is around 22 and the dorms are much to hot. On top of that the satellite connection is only up during the night hours and I need it to communicate with my group. I won't talk about work in this journal.

On the New Year eve, I was expecting a big party, but because the 31st was a Monday, they made the big party on the 30th. So I missed the big New Year party at the Pole. On the 31st they had a small party with the "winter over" band. It was pretty good but nothing special. The next day I spent a lot of time playing around with my camera. It's actually tricky to make the snow look white (and not grey) without over-exposing. I borrowed a tripod to get some steady shots. Then I religiously walked to the geographical Pole. In fact, there is also a commemorative Pole, which is surrounded by the flags of all the countries present in Antarctica and symbolized by a reflective sphere (great for pictures). The actual geographical pole is marked by a poorly looking stick and is moved every year at Christmas. It's not that the continent is moving but the Ice on top of the continent is. In fact they keep mark of the pole's position every year and you can see that it moves about 5 meters every year (and in a straight line). Beside this, there is nothing much to talk about. It's flat and white in all directions.

The AASTO is situated about 10 minutes walk from the station, in the "dark sector". I arranged to visit the construction of the new base on Sunday. Before that it will be working, working and trying to find someone to play Ping-Pong. I forgot to mention that this place works like a small town. There is a gym, a bar, a video room, a souvenir store (can only pay in American dollars) and I heard there is a Sauna somewhere (got to find it quick). John and Duane are now scheduled for the 10th of January so I'll spend most of the time here by myself. Food wise, it's not spectacular (it's an American base after all) but for some reason, I am always hungry. In fact, I show up at all of the 5 daily meals. It's been only two days but the chef already knows me very well.

In terms of human contact, I only get a limited amount of that. The construction people stay amongst themselves and the scientists are like me buried in their labs. I met 5 German scientists but I think that beside them and me the rest are Americans. In the evening, Warren (the man in charge of the construction of the new station) gave me a detailed tour of the future facility. First the new garage, the new fuel storage (2million liters and enough for 2 years). I learned that the water is produced by digging a hole inside which 1 hose sends hot water and another one pumps it back along with the melted ice. This way they can produce 50l/day/person (10,000 liters a day at the moment). The next step of the tour was the new generator. In fact there is three of them. 1 running, the second one starts if the first one has a problem and the last one usually in maintenance. This way is produced from the JP8 fuel about 450kW of energy. A smaller engine will soon be used to bring up the power to 750kw for peak times.
Finally we went to the station itself. In terms of structure, about a third of it is built but the inside is still a few months from completion. It is clear that when it will be all completed, the Pole will be much more comfortable. It will take 50 winter-overs and 250 people in summer. There will even be a basketball court. They are also digging tunnels for the water tanks (100m deep!) and the sewers. When one of the tank is empty (after 5 years, it will become a sewer storage and so on till the end of the station (expected to last 40 years).

Saturday 5th January 2002
Ok now the weather is getting somewhere. It's the end of this Club-Med sunny weather. The wind-chill is now -50 degrees and you can't see more than 10m in front of you. I had to get the full helmet and a second pair of gloves. I can finally claim to have experienced extreme conditions. I can imagine now what the first explorers felt when they crossed the continent (while I only crossed the path between the AASTO and the station). Some people organized a game of soccer but for some reason, I don't think it will go ahead. An important remark is that it doesn't really snow here. It's rather ice powder flowing horizontally. It looks like a sand storm but with ice. After only one day of this condition, the amount of snow pilling up in front of the AASTO is quite impressive. I'll have some shoveling work to do when it stops storming. Yesterday, I saw "the thing" on video. It's about an alien life form that takes control of a scientific base in Antarctica and kills almost everyone. It's the perfect movie for the occasion. There was also a pool competition at which I performed very poorly. I hope they'll organize a ping-pong comp soon. At breakfast today we had some croissant. They came right on time; I was getting sick of eggs and bacon. Strangely enough, they haven't got any fois gras here, so don't count on me to winter over. I was told there is a wreckage of a plane about a mile from the station. I'll try so go and see it tomorrow if the weather gets better.

Tuesday 8th January 2002
I still haven't received my equipment, I am starting to get really frustrated and useless. I see everybody else busy and all I am doing is taking photos, reading books and play pool. John and Duane are also overdue; they should arrive Friday night if there is no more delay. On Tuesday we had the visit of a European team from Patriot Hills. The crew made of 3 French cameramen, a Swiss man, a Swedish and the rest being Russian making up for the total 14. They came in a big biplane called the Antonov 3. They arrived in the afternoon on a courtesy visit and were supposed to leave on the same evening. However, things did not turn out so well for them. Their plane refused to take off and they are now stuck here with us in a full station. They are sleeping in the gym and spend most of their time in the bar. I found out from one of the French guy that the elder Russian (who replied to me in French the first time I talked to him) was apparently a big shot politician. He called the Russian president who organized a military plane to pick them up tomorrow. I really would have liked to find out who he was exactly. Their plane will remain here all winter until they manage to send someone to fix it next year. Beside this unexpected event everything is rather smooth.

I should probably describe a bit what the social life is around here. The main buildings of the station are under the Dome. Before I arrived, I thought that the Dome itself was heated but it is not. It is just a metal structure protecting the inside building from the wind and snow accumulation. When you step into the Dome, you can turn left to the medical building, right toward the garage and the new station construction or straight ahead where the most important building is: the restaurant. It's a two-storey building. The bottom floor is the restaurant itself with the kitchen behind it. The food standard is not European but I think they are doing a great job considering the conditions, the kitchen staff is also very nice and are the guys I am playing pool with all the time. Above, is the bar. I don't go there much. First because you have to pay with American money which I spent all on souvenir, and also because the atmosphere inside is not quite my style. The second building is also cut in two sections. The ground is the "comm." Section. They take care of the radio contact with the outside world and the flight schedule. The top floor is the library that is rather used as a Pool room, the video room, the store (with souvenirs, candies, and personal hygiene stuff) and the office of the station manager. The following building is the science and computer room. There are a lot of computers that anyone can use for email. The meteorology center is also in this building. The other buildings are mainly dorms for winter-overs. The dorms for the summer people like me are located outside the Dome and look like black army tents. The rooms are as basic as it gets: one bed, one small table and you access your room through curtains, no doors. Anyone could steal anything with this sort of security but it never happened, people here haven't been chosen lightly.

The people are quite nice but some are easier to talk to than others. For example the construction people stick together will the science guys are scatters in little groups. I get along best with the kitchen staff, the architects, and the science construction team. People use emails a lot to communicate or to be funny:

"My Dear Fellow Polies,

Embarrassed to say, but I've lost my blow up doll. She's about
3 and a half feet tall, looks like Joan Rivers, has a smile to warm your
heart. Please help me find her. We've developed such a close
relationship over the summer; I can't bear to be parted for long. I
implore you, look deep in your hearts and the plastic recycling bins,
return my dearest love.

Ben "

There is also the telephone everywhere and if you dial "01" you can tell something to everyone through the speakers. Most of the time, the speakers are used for messages like: " Mr X can you call 342"
Two things very annoying here:
1) The static electricity shocks, which happen to me about 20 times a day. It's apparently due to the low humidity. I noticed it as soon as I got here, the hair of my body straitening to any cloths or plastic.
2) The second bad effect of the low humidity is the noise bleed. I get that twice a day and if it continues I am going to need a blood transfusion.

Ok now back to the pool table…

Wednesday 9th January 2002
Well, the Russians are gone but the series of visitor is not quite over yet. Now it's the turn of a few Americans from the NSF (National Science Foundation) and other sorts of white collars. They are here to see the progresses on the new station. They'll be given a tour of the major facilities including the science experiments. Tomorrow we'll have a Time Capsule ceremony. The idea behind this comes from the completion of the first South Pole station in the late 50's, when they buried stuff from that epoch and was meant to be dug out in the year 2000. The problem is that it was so well buried that they still haven't found it. This time, they are being much more clever by burying the box next to one of the new station foot. Unfortunately, I missed out on the explanation of what they will put in the capsule. The only thing I know of is the poster that everyone at the station signed. We were all invited come back at the opening of the capsule in 2050. It's perfect, I'll be 74, just enough to make to the Pole and back in one piece.

Thursday 10th January 2002
John and Duane were supposed to arrive today, but the bad weather has delayed their flight between Mc Murdo and the South Pole. The temperature is now -19 degrees, the hottest day since 1985. Strangely enough, outside it's probably the worst day I have experienced, the wind is now biting very hard. The Time capsule ceremony was very short for this very reason. One guy did a 30sec speech; everybody got their photo taken in front of the box and then, ran back inside.

Friday 11th January 2002
Today again, more delays John and Duane are due tomorrow and the guests will also have to wait one more day to depart as no plane can make it here with this weather. I feel really useless now. No work to do, I wonder if people think I am a lost tourist. I should be really good at pool when I leave this place. I even played a bit of ping-pong with the cat drivers. I finished the day at the bar playing this American card game with 9 other people and drank this hand made whisky from Kentucky.

Saturday 12th January 2002
Another upset today. John and Duane were scheduled in the one and only flight today. I walk to the point of arrival to greet them but to my surprise only 4 people got out of the plane; no John, no Duane. Apparently, the plane was not sure to be able to land so people were given the choice to take this plane and to either get successfully to the Pole or to waste 10 hours in the plane to come back to Mc Murdo. Obviously, John decided not the chance it and to wait for the Monday flight. Monday being the day I am supposed to fly back, I went and ask for an extension of my stay. I might be able to stay until the 18th of January, but I'll get the confirmation tomorrow.

Sunday 13th January 2002
It's Sunday. That gave me a chance to sleep in; no one works here on a Sunday (strange tradition). I think this is my most productive day so far. I started by changing the tip of the best three queues with tips made by a company called "Le professional" and played for 3 hours. The second item on the list was a game of bingo. Maybe 25 people participated. They had prices like bottles of fresh milk and chocolate bars (hard to get at the pole) and more interesting items from Christchurch like tee shirts and caps. I managed to win one of those tee shirts by completing an "S" shape on one of my bingo card (you can see the skills right there). Finally, the day ended with "12 monkeys" and "Rushmore" two movies I strongly recommend.

Tuesday 22nd January 2002
This is it! Unfortunately, they won't let me stay forever. The dreaded moment had finally arrived. After saying everybody goodbye (and tried to hint to John to send me back here next year before Dome C) I embarked on board of yet another Hercules which is now a very familiar piece of appliance (along with fridges and pool tables). I got to ride in the cockpit, but frankly, the view was disappointing. There is 4 people in the cockpit: The pilot, the co-pilot, the radio guy and another man (I don't know what was his job there) who was sitting in the middle, just behind the 2 pilots and much higher than everybody else (A bit like captain Kurk in the Enterprise) Arriving at Mc Murdo by day time this time, I got the impression of a large transit station, a bit reminiscent of the one in "Men in Black" with people coming from everywhere and having nothing to do with one another. We were lead to an office and we got given a key to our room. Mine was 155/125. You would thing they would nicely tell you what these numbers mean and give you a bit of explanation about the place (maybe even a map). Instead, they give you the key and off you go on an adventure to find out where you are supposed to sleep (and the meaning of life if you find your room too quickly). I got in a sense lucky as I was sharing a room with 3 other guys who came from the Pole on the same flight. So we all knew each over and managed not to get too bored in this ugly town.

Wednesday 23rd January 2002
Luck stroke again the next morning, I was scheduled on the next available flight going to Christchurch but still had to wait 24h for it to happen. Again the pool table came handy (although the table at Mc Murdo is a leftover from the trade center compared to the one at the Pole). I also went around outside in order to find some penguins and seals but saw nothing. This year was particularly bad for the wildlife in Mc Murdo as a huge 200km long Iceberg (Romantically named B-15) got stuck in the bay and kept the ice from melting. All together, Mc Murdo is very forgettable and the food is particularly bad. I was glad to depart from this base and glad to have spent a very minimum time there, as apparently it is normal to spend there almost a week to wait for an available flight.

The flight to Christchurch was packed and as uncomfortable as it can get, with no room to even move your legs. It was 7 hours of a struggle to find a position comfortable enough to sleep in. The other 60 guys were on a same struggle and many gave up and got up all together during a fair bit of the trip. I know I complain a lot about the flights but I'd like to point out that it is a very cheap price to pay to make it to probably the most amazing place on earth and I'd do it again anytime (how does next year sounds?)

Arriving at Christchurch, I felt nothing beside the strong desire to drop all my heavy and hot cloths and jump into a hot bath (my weekly sauna will be well welcomed back too)

That's it for this first "too-good-for-word" adventure at the Pole. From now on I don't want to be called anything less than Tony the explorer, but Antarctic Super Hero Grade-1 will do just fine (I wonder what grade Paolo is)

See you Next Year….