Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04


01 January 2004
03 January 2004
04 January 2004
05 January 2004
06 January 2004
07 January 2004
08 January 2004
09 January 2004
10 January 2004
11 January 2004
12 January 2004
13 January 2004
14 January 2004
15 January 2004
16 January 2004
17 January 2004
18 January 2004
21 January 2004

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


Hi All,

well I'm off the ice! For the first time I had an uninterrupted journey from Pole to ChC. On Monday at Pole, I raced around saying goodbyes, surprised as usual at the amount of people I'd managed to meet. I always return to Antarctica for the unique people I get to know while there. The day was cold and clear, and the blowing snow formed lovely ice halos around the sun, echoes of my first leavetaking from Pole. I took this as a good omen for a return!

Ange and Kara, my carpenter mates, zoomed up to the skiway on a snowmobile to say goodbye just as I was chatting to Doug and Kevin - the two American PI's of our new project, so it was good to introduce them. I felt good about going this time, I have a strong feeling I will be back soon, and also I am eager to get back home and dig my teeth into the final stages of my PhD (I never thought I'd be saying that!).

The flight was uneventful, except upon landing where the Airforce loading crew had clearly assessed all our luggage (the only cargo) as 'nonfragile'. Seconds after landing, still zooming along the ice runway, they opened the back of the Hercules and shoved our cargo out onto the snow! Wumph. Straight onto the ice in a great cloud of snow. It is amazing to watch. I'd like to see the looks on passengers faces if Qantas started doing this, offloading pieces of luggage on the runway like Plane Droppings as it skidded along. Don't think it will be popular somehow.

McMurdo was Mudtown, as usual, though the channel forged by the icebreakers is clear of ice due to big winds, for the first time in two years. So the orcas are back! We went out to the bluff and watched the young killer whales glide into the new strait, seeking seals, breaching and lolling in the water. Stunning to watch. They are the most beautiful creatures. Also saw a few brazen seals lolling out of reach on the ice.

Yesterday and we were sent out to the runway at 11am. Fat lot of good this does us as we are allowed to board the plane at 3:30pm. I am convinced they do this only to reduce the number of people eating lunch by eighty. So four and a half hours on a skifield, you get a little inventive. Some stuffed penguins I had bought suddenly went on a photo essay journey, driving snowmobiles, wedged nastily in the tracks of a big tractor, being squished by the terrabus. I
became a little vindictive and saw people grinning at the new terrors I invented for the little guys. Then later I saw others taking the same photos with their own penguins. Ah flattery is the best form of imitation :)

Finally at 3:30pm I was off the ice! A five hour journey and we touched down in Christchurch to 10C weather (oh, the heat!) and a glorious light drizzle. Water, wow! I leave today back for Sydney - and hopefully my normal contact
details for all my neglected bosses, friends and family. Thanks to all for reading my diaries again this year. All I can say is it has been a satisfying and promising trip, and lets hope, not the last!

Big smiles

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Last Day!

Wow, it is so hard to believe that this is it! Time always speeds by when I'm here, and this trip has been no exception. Today was an excellent last day. The main part of the day I went walking with a friend, the Science Tech here, Dana Hrubes. A great guy, and we walked for about two and a half hours around to the various upper-atmospheric projects that he maintains and runs (and will do for the winter). I also finished up a clean-up of the AASTO and a few bits of running around. Next thing it was nearly four pm, and we wandered over to the Cargo Do Not Freeze Shack for the Cargo Party, an annual event. To say it was a hysterical amount of fun is an understatement!

First off there was the Bubble-Wrap Sumo Wrestling. Contenders climbed into entire suits of bubble wrap and had to sumo wrestle their opponent out of a rope circle. This was outdoors, and done pretty quickly as it was a 16 knot wind today, and about -55C with windchill. Inside again and in a central area was the cleverest game of tug-of-war I've seen. It was one-on-one and the opponents stand on 3ftx2ft wooden blocks. The aim is to unbalance your opponent off the block, or to get all the rope from them. It is clever as it isn't so much a matter of strength as tactics, as you can pull and then suddenly let go a little and unbalance your opponent backwards. I played against Angela, a carpenter, and it was a massive workout. I lost though - twice!

There was also a game of Pin The Gallstone on the Winterover (last year there was a medivac rescue during winter for a Polie suffering from it, and this year all winterovers had to have a test for this) and a very funny pie-eating contest. Lastly was the banana-sled relay, and our team of four was convinced we had the goods! Three people sit in the sled while the fourth pulls it to the first post, where you turn around and the next person gets up and pulls it back. I nearly died of exhaustion! The main tactic is cheating, and we upturned other sleds, held them back, tripped up the runners. I was very excited because on my leg we went really fast!!! Then someone told me that Bill on our team had hopped off the back and pushed! And with all that cheating we still didn't win. I am coughing pretty badly now, though, so I think my lungs are a bit frostbitten. All in good fun!

Finally after dinner, Angela and I found a frisbee and we went out near the Pole for a throw. We also (after several very painful attempts) succeeded in doing spectacular layouts (where you dive horizontally to catch the disc) right in front of the South Pole marker. This was quite painful as the ice is hardpacked there and we are now sporting some bruises, but as we can now claim the two southern-most layouts in frisbee history they don't hurt so much. :) I did (hopefully) get them on camera.

Tomorrow I head out to Mactown around 11:30am (NZ). I will give you a final report from there, I think. I am not getting my hopes too high to get out of McMurdo the next day. Once I was stuck in Mactown for nearly eight days. Eugh. Fingers crossed, eh?


Saturday, January 17, 2004

Saturday 17th

Hey All,

sorry I didn't get around to writing yesterday, it was a hectic one. The morning was an excruciatingly early one again, even more painful being a Saturday, so I could meet the carpenter guys to move the electronics and monitors from the AASTO to the warm hut a 1km away. All of the track vehicles (the only ones that can make it out to our building) have broken in the decreasing temperatures so the only choice was to cushion and wrap everything *very* carefully, and take a long slow snowmobile ride to the dark sector. The two guys, Dave and Rosco, who came out to help are the Station clowns - they had me in stitches as I packed everything up. I insisted on sitting on the sled to hold everything in place. As I sat down on a crate, and they used cargo straps to hold everything down, suddenly they roped a loop of cargo strap over me and the crate and tied me to the sled!

Even my hands were pinned and they thought this hilarious as we drove over to the warm hut. I couldn't help but laugh. It was a cold, blowing snow day and I was pretty chilled by the end of it, but everything (including living cargo!) arrived in one piece. Then a science meeting and a debrief of my last two weeks with the science leaders, and suddenly it was late afternoon. I had been invited to a BBQ the carpenters were holding and I took over a case of beer as thanks for all their help. It was a merry event - even to inclusion of a frisbee throw with a few people outside. A deceptively still day and I walked out in only a light shirt and rugby top and no gloves. I felt ok for about fifteen minutes before realising I was *really* cold (it was about -35C). Back inside I soon thawed out, and then with a few people we rollicked on over for the Saturday night "Open Mike" night in the Galley.

Those who know me well realise how shy I can be about my singing, so I was quite amazed at myself when along with the guys I'd been jamming with for a week, I got up and sang about eight, nine songs during the night. Everyone was very polite, even enthusiastic (at least nothing hard was thrown at the stage). It was a lot of fun and the talent was varied (spoken verse, to naughty limericks, to a full highland reel on bagpipes!) and late in the evening we descended into three-guitar, and vocal jamming blues till about 1am. Great stuff. It was nice to hear some people lament that I wouldn't be here for the end-of-season party to sing with the full band. I told them I was up for it and will hide in the AASTO, if they sneak me cookies and beer for two weeks, while swearing they saw me get on the plane... Only kidding, boss.

take care all

Friday, January 16, 2004

Hey All,

today was a hodge-podge of a day - packing bits and pieces, trying to get a vehicle to move gear, all the sorts of boring stuff that make terrible reading in a diary like this. I stomped over to the Dark Sector again though today it was blowing about 10 knots, and the nearly mile walk this time meant frosted eyelashes, and a neck gaiter that was frozen to my face and crusted with ice. I was allowed to crawl all over the new-ish submillimeter instrument SPIFI, which is amazing, and learned how they cool the detector down to 60 milliKelvin (-272.04 degrees celsius!). -273C is absolute zero. They use a superconducting magnet, that pumps 22 Amps of current through it, and makes a magnetic field of about 8 Tesla, enormous. The way they test to see if the magnet has ramped up enough is by finding the biggest heaviest wrench they have, and watch it snap out of their hands, onto the side of the instrument. It is a clever test because if the wrench drops to the floor while observing, they know something is going wrong with the cooling system!

A sad bit of news today was the discovery that 2003 South Pole marker has been stolen. Each year on Christmas day, there is a little ceremony where a GPS is used to reposition the exact spot where the Geographic Pole is now situated. Due to the ice shelf on top of the continent's gradual slide in one direction, the ice (and the entire station upon it) shifts by about 10m a year. It has been a tradition during the winter to have a design competition to create an image which the machine shop person carves into brass and is placed atop the new Pole to represent that year's season. There is a line of several Pole markers from about the last five years which is lovely as it gives a great indication of the motion of the ice, as well as the passage of the seasons at Pole. It is a source of quite a bit of pride and morale on station and so its loss was quite a shock, and unfortunately seems to coincide with the departure of a group of visitors who flew in for a few hours only. I only hope it doesn't appear on E-bay in a few days.

It is shower night tonight, so I think I'll go enjoy that now. Two whole minutes of water, yay! I hope everyone has a good weekend,


Thursday, January 15, 2004


Hi All,

today started out pretty standard - I stumped around the base, writing out cargo sheets for manifests, chasing down computer people etc etc. It meant that it was after lunch before I arrived out at AASTO where I would meet Crazy Billy who would help me re-install the tower webcamera. I stepped into the AASTO, and whoosh, nearly passed out. It was boiling in there! I staggered over to the heater, and noticed that someone (there had been both computer and electrical-type people in there after me yesterday) had gotten a bit chilly and turned the heat up full and then left. My bleary eyes moved over to the temperature gauge that normally sits in front of the webcamera and saw that it had maxed out at 120F (or 50C)! This meant it was at *least* this temperature, but I guessed closer to 60C. I picked up a wrench to turn the knob on the heater to OFF, and promptly dropped it - every metal surface in the room was hot.

The one fortunate thing about this is that none of the computers in the room were running at the time. This would most definitely have killed them. I tore off my excess layers (I needed a bikini in that room!) and frantically opened doors and windows after shutting the heater off. Luckily the -40C day outside meant the room cooled reasonably quickly - and boy what a rush an instant 100C rise in temperature does for the pulse. I checked over the electronics and computer racks - nothing looked damaged which is very relieving. I got Billy to call up a Utilities tech, and now we have a brand new heater (whoever turned up the heat also tightened the grill so that the fan banged into it hard and made an awful racket). The new (and very quiet) heater keeps the room about 15C which is perfect for both computers and people dressed in lots of clothes.

The heater shall have a sign installed above it saying "DO NOT ALTER TEMPERATURE" and some suitably gruesome threats, when I think of some good ones. On a boring, but useful note the cargo is good to be shipped and webcamera is back in place, and all cables ready to go. The days are getting colder, the average temp has dropped by about five degrees in the ten days I've been here and by the time the last flight leaves in four weeks, the temperatures can get down to -50C, thats -60 or so with windchill. Brrr.


Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Hi All,

not much to report today. It was clear, but very cold, and todays early job was re-installing some of the cabling and conduit I pulled up only a week ago! I had some help from the carpenter shop again, which was essential, and all three of us were very frosty and cold by lunchtime, but the conduit was done. It was therefore after lunch that I discovered that one of the cables for the webcamera, which was tied together with some old optical fibres and therefore for on the retro pile, was obviously not in the conduit where it belonged. Arghhhh!

So I'll work out a solution to that tomorrow - it was a full afternoon job just to disconnect it from the fibre optics. Our network connection is also up and running, though ironically I have no computer to make use of this fact! I also met a girl who plays ultimate frisbee, so we might set up a game late on Sunday - a better way to kill myself from lack of oxygen I cannot imagine! Should be fun :)

Tomorrow the webcameras go up, and I chat to cargo about sending our retiring instruments home to Sydney. It is hard to imagine I have only a few days left, and a week a go the AASTO, tower and instruments were all over a mile away and buried in metres of snow.


Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Stairway to end all stairways

Hey all,

the carpenters at Pole do *not* mess around. When they said they'd make some stairs for the AASTO I pictured some well-used, now-discarded plywood things. What we have got is some brand spanking new (if slightly rejected) parts from the station under construction. The stairs may be slighty longer than the AASTO itself, though I haven't yet measured it. They have big steel sides, railings, and lovely yellow grated steps so the snow falls out from your boots before you walk in. Ahhhh. And the yellow perfectly matches the color of the AASTO. Magic stuff. It is akin to putting a chandelier in a fishing hut (no offence to fishing huts intended).

Today I disassembled one of the telescopes and put it in a box made by Crazy Billy, the chippie. Billy gave me a ride out to the tent where the 'scopes are kept warm, and I made the mistake of sitting backwards (which is comfy and out of the wind) and perfectly fine when anyone other than this bat-out-of-hell is driving. With legs braced against the railing I feared for my life as we actually got some airtime over the fuel lines. He topped off the end by playing bumper-snowmobiles with the parked one near the hut - we crunched into it at great speed, and I hopped off a little quicker than usual. Nothing broken though.

Also today was rush-hour for NGA (non government approved) visitors to Pole. This time of year sees a surprisingly large number of crazy people ski, walk or fly into SP, for a day, or just an hour or two. Yesterday a british woman set the record for the fasted solo ski trip by a woman from some part on the coast, doing the trip in 42 days. Today we have seen no less than three twin otter planes, full of tourists in two cases and in the other, a charity trip by an English guy with muscular distrophy who is raising money to help research into the disease. They flew in and he walked, with the help of a minder and his cane, the last few hundred yards to the Pole. He has already done the same in the Arctic.

Most people on Base have mixed reactions to these visitors. There is generally respect for those who ski and walk in, but it is a strange bemusement as we watch people pile out of the Twin Otters, having paid a minimum of $40,000 (US) for a seat, to jump out at Pole take a few photos (in a cheeky groups case today, they dressed in ski suits and posed with skis as though they'd skied there!) and then hop back in again and fly off. I worked out for the number of people in his twin otter, the pilot earns about $30,000 an hour.

The official policy to these visitors is uniform and quite firm. They are allowed to go to the Pole Store (to buy memorabilia) and into the comms unit if they require emergency contact with their support group. That's it. Every other type of help (food, water, showers) and all parts of the base, are off limits. One of the scientists invited the solo skier woman to lunch yesterday and the powers-that-be went up in flames. I do understand the reason for the policy and also agree with it, especially in the case of the five-minute Polies, but it is quite sad to see someone turn from a dot on the horizon into an exhausted person with skis and a big sled, who then pitches their tiny little tent on the other side of the skiway and chews their 43rd powerbar while you chow down on your three course meal...

It makes me realise how lucky I am to be here - someone at dinner said that while the tourists fly in and can claim to their mates that they "were at South Pole" they can't have really experienced it. And the experience really is something else...

take care

Monday, January 12, 2004

Lucky its 110V...

Hey all,

the most exciting thing I did today was give myself a 110V shock. All I can say is that the only good thing about it is its twice as much fun as a 240V shock (and I've tried one of those before). It was only for a second, and the only reason it surprised me is because if you'd asked me before it happened how sure I was that the other end of this forty metre cable, that was tangled in about ten other forty metre cables was unplugged at the other end, I would have said "100 percent". But no damage (pity, I hear you say!). Might have even improved things!

Today I had many visitors in the little AASTO, at one point there were eight of us, and I was getting a bit worried about the green and yellow box's wonky legs! But we held up ok, and it meant lots of business and a bit of (albeit distant) company. The girls were outside burying the power cables - and the loud drilling sound I heard was actually a chainsaw, which they use to cut blocks of ice out to make a channel, the other follows and levers the blocks out with a shovel. Very cool.

Then there was the guy who came to make the optical fibre connection for our phone and network, but kept having to leave because he forgot something. At one point I was convinced he was sick of the job and was quitting for the day, as he turned and asked "Do you have any alcohol?" I replied that I hadn't bought any beers out to work with me, and not all Aussies are alcoholics, and it turns out he meant ethyl alcohol to clean the fiber ends. Oops.

I spent the day electrocuting myself, impaling myself on copper wire, getting splinters in my hands helping the carpenters package up the NISM, and generally catching up on the abuse I need to dish out to mysefl in regular helpings. But the day was productive, despite me, and I still have the use of most of my fingers!

Tomorrow we shall hopefully have some stairs and I may get a ride in some strange new vehicle they are going to use to move some computer bits for me. Will keep you posted,


Sunday, January 11, 2004

Enter the Crypt...

Hey All,

not an awful lot to report from today except me catching up on a bit of sleep, which was pretty exciting (for me that is). The day looked stunning and clear, which is an example of just how deceptive it can be down here, for outside though sunny and clear, the wind was bitter, and brought a -28C day down to -50C with windchill. For all this, Dana had promised me a tour of the soon to be defunct Seismic vault, which is a crypt several metres below the snow, about 200m from the station. It is now being retired, and it is likely we were the last to go down there before it is closed up permanently in about three days. The new seismic project, SPRESO, is much further out, and is said to be the most sensitive measure of seismic activity on earth and can detect seismic activity all over the world.

I have attached just one photo of this dag down in the vault, trying to look cool (actually, cold, as the vaults under the ground usually sit at the annual temperature average of the site, so it was about -55C). The ice crystals were huge, perfectly geometric and stacked in clusters all over the vault. These are caused purely from the exhalations of the people who have entered the vault in the ten years of its operation! I liked the idea that my breath would soon help to improve and form new little crystalline sculptures that might never again be seen by another person. I purposely breathed nearer to the littler crystals, to give them a bit of a boost, since it was going to be the last chance they would get.

Following that, since the weather was so clear, we walked to the ceremonial Pole and I got Dana to take my obligatory 'hero shot' in front of the flags and next to the barbers pole. It was pretty bright though, so it is likely they will all come out with me squinting or with eyes completely shut. We then played a game of horseshoes which had been left there near the Pole, and is clever as it is really one of the only outdoor games you can play with any skill with gloves on. Skill is a bit of a stretch though when referring to my horseshoe talents.

I will soon head to the weekly science lecture, being glad that this time it isn't me! Tomorrow will be busy with telescopes, cables and boxes. I'm sure the prospect of that diary thrills you all to tiny pieces. Hope you all had a good weekend,


Saturday, January 10, 2004


Hi All,

the AASTO is back standing on its little yellow legs for the first time in a few years. Like a building that's had a couple too many beers (really Jess, thats terrible) it isn't at all too certain about it. This morning, Froggy the cranedriver was back, and before 9am the AASTO was a couple of metres off the snow, and the tower was looming in front of it. Before the guylines were used to steady it, you could put your hand on the building and it would creak in the other direction and sway back. A bit concerning. I headed back indoors for a meeting, and the carpenters came in at lunch and told me that even after the guylines were put down, the AASTO still had a bit of a drunken lilt to it! We are hoping in the next week or so it will settle into the snow a bit. In the meantime I have promised not to hold any barndances in there. Damn.

The carpenters are going all out and today are making a set of stairs to make getting into the AASTO easier, which will be good. I meanwhile sat through a science meeting, and then an I.T. meeting, and then a construction meeting, and have therefore met far too many people for today. It was all useful though, and if all goes well, next week is planned reasonably well.

Last night was the first night I could keep my eyes open past 8pm, and so I went up to the music room in the Skylab which overlooks the dome, and had a bit of a jam session with a couple of people who play acoustic guitar. It was fun, and there is an Open Mike night next Saturday, where I *may* join them for a couple of songs. We'll see how we go ;) This did mean I missed Slushies - which is out in the Clean Air building. Slushies is an event where one of the meteorologists heads out into the Clean Air sector, upwind of the station. This space has the cleanest air, and snow, on earth. It is filtered over nothing but snow and ice for nearly two thousand kilometres. They grab an esky full, and come back upstairs where everyone grabs a cup, fills it with snow (which is powder-fine) and adds their favorite alcoholic beverage. Maybe next week...

Tomorrow is Sunday, where most people get a day off on station. I will maybe even get to sleep in until 8:30am. Wow!! Dana, the science tech, has a problem with the VHF antenna, and I have agreed to go out with him while he sees if he can find the trouble. He also said a tour of the underground Seismic Vault might be possible - and one of the last opportunities, as they are sealing it permanently in about a fortnight. He also is sending me some great photos of the AASTO cruising past the tower, station, and the Geographic south pole, which look really good. I will try to get them posted when I receive them.

Hope you are all having good weekends,

Friday, January 09, 2004

Its all about the hard hat

Hi All,

its true, its all about the hard hat. It was another 5:30am start, and by 6:15am I started the walk out to AASTO, and saw that the big black crane was already most of the way out there. When I caught up I met Froggy, the night crane driver who was working through his supper and bedtime hours, just for me. He was a very cool little dude, with a big handlebar moustache and I learned how he got his name a few minutes after I chatted to him when he walked up to his crane, and in a big bounce, landed on his knees on the big tracks of the crane, before another leap launched him into the cab.

Soon about six or seven people had headed out to help with the move, and I saw they were all wearing hardhats. I felt a little disappointed because I didn't have one and within minutes saw how much fun it was. It is amazing just how much more important you look in a hardhat. All you have to do is point at stuff, gesture authoratively, nod seriously in agreement with your workmates and talk in unintelligible lingo on your radio and you have instant street (or should I say, construction) cred.

As they lifted the telescopes down, I stood quite a ways back on the AST/RO building to get some good photos. Then as I came down on the ground, Froggy leaned out of the cab of the crane and gestured to me. I walked up, confused, and he threw something at me. I ducked, before realising it was a hardhat!!! All for me! And it was in black. Very slimming, black. He showed me how close I could stand, and next thing I was right up in the action as they hoisted the AASTO out of its huge snow-pit. Soon I was pointing, gesturing and nodding with the best of them. They didn't trust me with a radio, though. Wise of them.

The AASTO lift went amazingly quickly, and they slid it down off its stilts onto the ground and then placed it on a sled. As they prepped the tower for its lift, I went out to the new site with the Support leader, Jack Corbin. The new site is really just a cleared patch of snow that they'd run over with a bulldozer a few dozen times. It was ready with electricity and computer cable, and after a few minutes I felt like the owner of a new block of land, trying to work out with the site manager where the house was going to go. I tried to couch it in scientific lingo, like "Oh, we really should put the short axis of the building into the lee of the prevailing wind" but in honesty I was trying to angle the AASTO so that it has a great view of the dome and station from the front door. Luckily the two goals coincided, and I think once we set the webcameras up again, it is going to take some pretty cool pictures, even in winter.

By the time we got back to the old site the tower was already standing straight up on its own sled and I got a few shots of it as it headed towards station. For this evening it is actually sitting about two metres from the geographic south pole, and you can see it close up from the windows of the dining facility. I have had many comments on it from "is that our new diving platform for the pool?" to "hey I could use that to go deer hunting" and "we could ice fish from that thing" no matter that the closest deer are about three thousand kms away, and to icefish we'd have to drill a hole two miles deep, and then it'd likely hit land anyway. I said "actually I was thinking of doing astronomy from it" and they looked at me like I was mad.

The AASTO is already snug in its new location, and powered up. Tomorrow Froggy will be working through his dinner again to shift the tower to the new spot and raise the AASTO up on its little yellow legs. The telescopes are tucked up snugly in a warm weatherhaven tent still out in the dark sector. When I looked out there after dinner, they had already filled in the deep holes where the buildings were, and all trace of the AASTO and tower were gone from the whole area. Strange days...

more tomorrow and hopefully some photos

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Showers are soooooo good.

Hey all,

what a difference a day makes. This morning I stepped outside to blustery, iceblowing clouded conditions, less than eight hours since I'd last seen it. The wind makes an amazing amount of difference to the temperature that it 'feels' down here. On TV screens in the dining area it constantly updates the outside temperature, and then secondly the 'wind chill' temperature based on the windspeed. Today when I walked in for lunch, while the temp was -28C, around the same as yesterday, but with a 12 knot wind the windchill calculated the temperature at -50C. And you can really feel it.

The walk out to AASTO was chilly, and luckily the girls who were coming out to help me again pulled up along side halfway. And they had a snowmobile! This is almost the most fun you can have outside at Pole. I sat in the sled, behind the snowmobile, so that there's just half-centimetre thick plastic between you and the ice. The ride is bone-jarring, and its wise not to keep your teeth too close together but so close to the snow the speed is exhilarating, and behind my gaiter that covered my face I couldn't contain a grin. I hopped off, all business like I did this every day, and one of the girls said, "Its funny, you must do this real often, most beakers (scientists) have this big grin on their face when they get off the sled..." Yeah, well, sue me. :)

Again we had great progress today. We started at 7am, and by 10 all the cables were threaded inside. I had anothe visit from the support bosses, and we decided to try moving everything tomorrow. Their daytime cranedriver is on leave - as it's light 24hrs, there are three working shifts day, night and swing (which is half way between the two) and so the night cranedriver is unimpressed at having to do anything in the middle of his 'night'. Personally I agree as I don't want a sleepy, grumpy cranedriver swinging our telescopes around in the sky. So now they will do the move at 6:30am tomorrow. No sleep-ins for Jess.

The rest of the morning was used to move our 'webcamera-on-a-stick' inside, and while the girls went back to make a pallet to rest the telescopes on, I relocated everything in the AASTO so that it wouldn't relocate itself during the move. We also climbed up the tower, as someone started to finish off the excavation of the snow around it, and secured the telescopes so they wouldn't move during the lift. Up on the tower it was amazingly cold in the wind. In five minutes my fingers were blue, and my eyelashes had flaked ice on them. Another snowmobile ride back for lunch, absolutely no grinning this time, and I nearly fell asleep in my tapioca. I still don't know what that stuff is made of. They are turning the power off to the AASTO for a couple of hours this afternoon while they excavate around the building so I am going to catch up on my computer work.

Oh, and the talk went well last night. About thirty people, luckily not too many, and I seemed to bumble through ok. There was a nasty question about fuel cells, that I mumbled an answer to all the while having nearly zero idea what the real one was, but I was rescued by another engineer on the other side of the room who told the first guy that I was quite right and he was being ridiculous. Score one for Jess, master bull**** artist. I also took the opportunity of the talk to make myself presentable and have my first shower since I arrived. This sounds a bit skanky, but you are only allowed two two-minute showers a week here. This isn't as bad as it sounds, because you don't sweat as much due to the dryness of the air. I actually like it because it makes showers really exciting. Oh, wow, tonight is shower night, yay! And then you walk around feeling all clean and warm, you really appreciate warm water on your skin at Pole.

Hopefully I'll have some photos of the lift of the telescope for you to peruse tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Cable chicks

Hey All,

I am writing now, as I plan to be comatose as soon as my talk ends, around 9:30pm. It will be touch-and-go not to be before that! Today was ridiculously productive. I was up at 5:20. AM. (CRIKEY). And out at the AASTO by 6:15. What a keen little bunny I hear you all say. By the time my crew had arrived an hour later the finicky job of disassembling the fibre optic supports was completed. My crew was all girls - two carpenters Ange and Kara, and they were miracle workers. Removing the cables from the tower was, well fiddly. I seem to notice that when people (including myself) come to Pole and assemble something, the single aim seems to be to affix it in such a way that even if every event in Revelations was to occur to that structure/instrument it would remain intact. There seems to be little thought to the poor sods who have to disassemble it someday ;)

That said, all went very well! By lunch we had the cables loose. The cables then thread through several PVC conduits down the tower legs, under the snow (at a formidable depth of 2.5m) to the AASTO walls. We then twisted the angled PVC at the tower base down to the snow and slid the conduit off the cables. Then the hard part. I had allowed up to three days to attempt threading the heavy and fragile cables through the well buried conduit that runs deep underground to the AASTO. After all, if it gets stuck halfway, the only way to retreive it is to dig down and bust the pipe. After covering the cable ends in socks and duct tape (cause I'm all sophistication, as most of you know!), the job was accomplished by 3pm.

To top it off, while Ange, Kara and I were taking a breather in our deep, sheltered snow pit (and the sun so hot I have a good dose of sunburn to the lower half of my face), we watched one of the most wonderful ice halos I've ever seen, appear in the sky. An ice halo is like a rainbow, only the shapes are caused by ice crystal refraction, instead of water droplets. A great white ring encircles the sun, and today two brilliant spots of rainbow color sit on either side of the circle, in a line with the sun, and these are called sun dogs. Then a line parallel with the horizon bisects these and a circular rainbow at the sky zenith evolved right over our heads. Clearly the Antarctic gods saw the Cable. And it was Good.

After this some of the work Bosses appeared, and they were as surprised with our swift progress as I was. Many hands make light work and ten minutes later Andre Phillips' clever domed webcams that perch on the tower, were safe and unscratched in the AASTO. Like I said, ridiculously productive.

Dana, the science tech, has provided a few photos of today for you, including an excellent one of my double chin. Hope you like 'em! Tomorrow, the girls and I will thread the cables into the AASTO and by the afternoon the power will be shutdown so they can excavate around the rest of the building. At this point we will do the lifts with the crane on Friday.

I am now going to stagger off and try to be coherent in front of a bunch of people. Wish me luck, will chat more tomorrow,

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Return of the cold...

Hi All,

hopefully with this are a few pictures kindly taken by Steve from AST/RO that pretty much describe my Tuesday. With a 6am (ye GODS) wakeup, and a 7am meeting, I was high on lack-of-sleep-and-oxygen by 8am. The meeting was with the two big dudes of Science Support to discuss how and when they were going to help me to dig up our very precious telescope cables from under the snow, and then move the entire observatory to a new location. They were very positive and polite, and I can already hear myself picking up Yankee lingo (oh my GAWD...).

Jess and the AFOSThen I trudged out to the AASTO. The weather is still fantastic here, though by the end of the day cloud cover had moved in. I had noticed yesterday, grimly, that when they had excavated around the tower they removed the big ladder that allows access to the top, and the telescopes. I tried firstly, to replace it by myself. I am very very very glad there was no witnesses to this. If you see one of the photos, this was just after I spotted Steve taking shots, and am desperately trying to look cool. Moments before, I had taken a slide headfirst down into the pit, swearing. I didn't hurt myself, mum, too many clothes. But I struggled on, until conceding defeat and going to find an old pal who always helps me out of my gaffes - Bob Spotz, a great dude with a brilliant Chicago accent like out of a 1930's gangster movie. He quickly agreed we couldn't put it up in its old spot due to the big pit, and so we leant it against the outside rail and lashed it there with cargo ropes. This is a big dodgier (but this is ok, as the Safety Officer is on R&R), and means I have to hoik my leg over the railing to get onto the platform. Its actually quite safe, just horrifically ungraceful and I usually take a quick look around to make sure no-one's around before trying it.

Todays job was to disconnect the optical fibres and the power cables from the telescopes so that tomorrow when my 'help' arrives, we can begin trying to move the cabling. To be honest this was the job I was dreading and it turned out every bit as revolting as I thought it would be. The optical fibre mounts are fixed in place by tiny screws which need me to remove my heavy gloves and simply leave the cotton undergloves on. Extended time without gloves is quite troublesome, especially as your dexterity (sorry, MY dexterity) is quite decreased by the altitude, as well as the cold. I would stop for short spells and jam my hands into my overall top and try to warm them against my belly. I usually go by my feet as to when I'm getting too cold, and after two hours they, as well as my bum on the metal platform, were complaining of the chill. After thawing out in the AASTO I went back up and finished that job. So the cables are ready to go for tomorrow.

High altitude does funny things. I am lucky and find that I don't struggle physically - my breathlessness and headaches pass after the first day, but it certainly affects my thinking. I find I have to talk to myself a lot about what I'm doing otherwise I entirely forget "Ok, now put these in your pockets cause you'll need them on the tower. Have you got this? No, silly girl. Ok, now you can go.". Maybe I shouldn't be admitting this, but I find it helps (*defensive thrust of chin*). There is usually a lot of abuse in the monologue!

This is particularly worrying as I have to give a lecture to the station about our work here at Pole and Dome C tomorrow night. I am working on it now, and words aren't coming as easily as usual. My next mail will be after that, so I'll let you know how it goes!
The G-tower in the pit


Monday, January 05, 2004

Pole Monday 5th January

Hi there,

well I sent a lovely long email to you all last night, pressed send, whereupon it crashed and the satellite went down. Such is life at Pole so here I am to try again.

We had a no-hassles flight here, much more comfortable than from ChC as there were only 18 passengers which left us free to wander around the plane, lounge on the cargo, or wander up to the flight deck and get an amazing view of the Transantarctic mountains. After a three hour flight we descended, and as we landed, and the cargo doors opened, I felt my heart start a deep, heavy thudding. This wasn't excitement, but the familiar first signs of a sudden jump to high altitude. As you step out of the plane and take a few breaths, your head and heart ask 'hey, where did all my oxygen go?' and for the first few hours this means dizziness, and a heart that races in fright like you've just seen George Bush in drag in your bedroom closet.

It was a balmy, bikini type day, at -25C, and zero wind. Stunning. I was met at the plane by a good friend Charlie Kaminski, so I got a big bearhug, which is always a nice way to be welcomed anywhere. We trudged into the new station (or at least the fraction that is already completed) and now towers, resplendent in chip-board, above the famous sinking shape of the old Dome. In the new Dining Hall we had our briefing, and after that I wandered out to my cosy room in Barney (a hypertat), which is nice and poetic as last time I was in Betty [and yes, next door are Fred and Wilma]. Then I had an hour sleep, to get my body a bit in tune with the height, and reduce my heartrate. It worked as I now feel pretty good, though I'll stil take it a bit easy today.

Then I wandered out to inspect the AASTO and Gtower (for more description on these, see the archived diaries). My first impression was of a horrible crime scene. In a big rectangle around both the AASTO and then another around the Gmount, was a fence of yellow tape: DANGER, DO NOT ENTER!!!!. My panic was quickly allayed as I realised the support crew had done exactly as I asked and excavated the snow from around the feet of the now well-buried structures. In the AASTO's case, standing at the feet of the building, there is a wall of snow about 4m tall, just up to normal ground level. Amazing, and understandably dangerous. At the feet of the Gtower, likewise dug out, there was a bucket and a lonely shovel. I shall have to find that poor fellow and buy him a beer.

In the AASTO was warm and cosy though, and I am impressed with the level of preparation done, so everything seems set for me and hopefully some help, to start the tricky process of retrieving the dozen cables that lie between the AASTO and up to the tower that are now well-buried and frozen solid. I have a meeting at 7am Tuesday with the Science Support leader to get this underway.

Ok, best go get some sleep. More news soon

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Well today was a little slow. McMurdo is to South Pole, as well, Monica Lewinski is to Hillary Clinton (not too sure thats a good description). Its like a big Alaskan mining town, black volcanic dirt, powerlines, a maze of ugly buildings. I spent a little of last evening in the "Coffee House" which is a pleasant wine-bar with tables and couches, and this morning wandered around to Scott Hut, where Scott and his crews possessions, and even last, half-cooked meal, are preserved within. The three US coast guard icebreakers are working all hours in McMurdo sound, grinding and cracking there way through the sea-ice to make way for the tankers to reach the dock and unload their gallons of fuel.

I watched one trawl at great speed through its channel and smash into new ice, where a great sheared chunk of ice slid half-way up the vessel. There is stopped, for nearly two hours, and I learned from another Ice breaker chief that they split an oil valve in that move, and nearly spilled fuel and oil into the hull, though thankfully the waters of the sound were not in danger.The chief explained that the ships received incredible damage each year as they carve into the harbours, sometimes losing entire propellers to the ice. This said, they can crack and move into ice that is up to 6m thick, though their hulls are only 2" thick at their fronts. Amazing.

I find it hard though to look at McMurdo and be at peace with human's contact in Antarctica, for here it is obvious that though care is taken now, the coast in particular is still suffering from the impact of our endeavours. McMurdo sound has a higher heavy metal content than Boston harbour, thanks to a policy held up until only twenty years ago, of driving old and near-useless vehicles and rubbish out onto the sea-ice, that melts in summer and then drops the garbage and vehicles to the bottom of the sound.

I have 'bag-drag' at 7pm tonight (like a check-in, only they weigh you with your bags - which is a little depressing), hopeful of flying to Pole tomorrow. Though the katabatic winds are strong and icy today, I have my fingers crossed that it will improve enough in the morning to allow us to fly.


Saturday, January 03, 2004


Well, second time lucky. They raced us onto the plane this morning, a little less bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than the day before. If these weather delays go on for a while, it begins to feel like groundhog day, checkout of hotel, go to airport, dress in silly clothing, get out of silly clothing, leave airport, check back into get the idea.

So it was great to be loaded onto the bus and taken out to the plane: luckily this year, its a ride in a C-141, instead of a Hercules C-130. Its the Herc's big brother, with huge wings that dip down towards the ground, almost like a bird, mid-flap. Unfortunately it doesn't improve much in the comfort stakes, with eighty-eight people on board, you sit in your netting seat rubbing knees with the people opposite you. The only good thing is the 141 makes the trip to McMurdo in five hours, instead of eight. Very good thing. I munched through my paperbag lunch, and we landed - which is quite strange as there are no visible portholes to see through, and for such an enormous aircraft, they touch down so lightly on the ice (and on wheels, not skis like a Hercules) that you very nearly aren't aware of it.

We stepped out to a stunning clear still day - very rare, even for this time of year. It is three years since I've last been to the Ice, and it felt a bit like starting a trip home. The volcano Mt Erebus loomed in front of me, and behind, on the other side of the permanent sea-ice we'd just landed on, were the jutting black lines of the Trans-Antarctic mountains. A thirty minute ride into McMurdo base, and we arrived in the midst of the stations New Year celebrations. And I mean in the midst. I stepped out of the main building to see a big stage set up for a band, and most station people in front of it. But really I didn't see this first. The first thing I saw was two men on stage in oversized cardboard top hats, gumboots and nappies. With "04" painted on their chests in black paint. Welcome to Antarctica.

It is Sunday tomorrow, so no flights to Pole until Monday. So I have a day here at Mactown instead, and will be working on a science talk I've been asked to give at South Pole next week. It was meant to be tomorrow and I was hoping to get out of it given these delays, but the gentleman in charge has kindly postponed my talk till Wednesday. Bugger.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Christchurch, heading off tomorrow

Hey All,

i have arrived in ChC in one piece, and with surprising efficiency for me, had all my antarctic gear fitted and organised at the USAP Clothing Distribution Centre within an hour of landing. They are very keen to give you mountains of gear, but I try now to limit what I accept to the amount of clothing you can physically wear all at one time, which is still 12kgs or so and leaves you with your arms and legs sticking out from your sides like a snow angel.

Nothing to do then but celebrate New Year in NZ! No really important events occurred here apart from meeting Kevin, a one-legged Kiwi at the pub who is about to be on NZ 60 Minutes in January (he tells me) to campaign to legalise marujuana. He also showed me his prosthetic leg, worthy of interest as last week an altercation with his lawnmower severed all five plastic toes.

There was a band in the square and my friend and I wandered out and listened to the cover band playing on stage. I livened up when the leadsinger cried out to the crowd "Anyone like reggae?" The crowd yelled approval so he launched into "I come from a land downunder..." Never actually heard that referred to as a reggae song before, so we careened into the crowd and danced up a storm, singing patriotically. We received a few beercans in the back of the head for our national fervour, but we bore the wounds with pride.

I have a 4am wakeup call tomorrow, to head down to McMurdo, on the Antarctic coast. Hopefully, weather allowing, my next message will be from the Ice. Happy New Year, to all. Hope it is a good one,


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