Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A wittle bit of twubble

Well, what a roller-coaster week.
Two weeks of extended goodbyes came to an abrupt end today with the last passenger flight leaving Pole around 2pm, not to be seen again till the 22nd of October. I was expecting this to be a repeat of the on-mass goodbyes the day before when about forty people left.

We milled around, circling through hugs of friends, chatting, smiling and moving on, before discovering there was more time left, and starting the process again with the same people until the flight was finally loaded up.

It is strange for me having three times been on the other side of these exchanges: there is an excitement and sadness at leaving Pole for me each year, the looking forward to seeing loved ones, warmth, green and smells. It is quite a different thing to be on the other side of this: watching the smiling people leave, and even though you stay through your own desire, and choice, it still feels somehow the lesser of the two choices at that moment.

We have had some of the most extreme weather I have ever seen down here these last five days. Winds of a steady 25 knots, and gusts of 35 knots - which can knock you about a bit, stripped temperatures down to -60C withwindchill. Jeff Peterson, a brilliant academic who i met on my first trip here, was here helping me with some motor problems we'd been having. He changed off the motor twice wearing only his glove liners: I was impressed. The third go he said "Ok, now you try it." What I had not noticed was the change in wind direction. Where before the telescope shield sheltered us from the wind, now it came straight up through the grill below us. I was, however, determined not to be a wuss, stripped off my mittens and began the work. Less than half way through I said to Jeff "I may have to go inside". I hadn't felt my fingers in about two minutes. Inside and sure enough, they were bone-white to the second knuckle. Not good. Twenty minutes later andthey finally got the blood back: it felt like someone was holding an oxy-torch to them. Really ouchy. I frostnipped them quite good: the tips of three fingers blistered and peeled and I had a nice lesson in being macho. Incidentally, when Jeff was finishing the job, he too got nipped, as a result of the wind change. Paying attention to these things is important here, and a good reminder for me.

We got the fixes done thanks to Jeff, and all seemed to be going swimmingly for station close. Then the weather completely closed in and we started losing flights: we have even less fuel than we thought we were going to have now.

I moved into my new room - winter housing changing now that all the summer people are leaving. I lose my dome view, but this isn't a bad thing as it'll be dark soon. I am now downstairs on the other side of the first wing of thenew station: I have a window and two solid walls (before I had a partition which is well, quite indiscreet in the noises it allows through), so it is agreat room. I have gone all out rearranging it to be homey: there are new photos on the page - hope you noticed!

Anyhoo, we get to Tuesday; Station Close. I wake up and chat to a few people leaving. I also wake up with my *Third* dose of Crud, very unhappy after a bad night's sleep, snotty and sore throated. Then I check, casually, the instrument temperature on my computer. I do this every morning, just to check all is well before heading out. The temperature of the dewar, cold, isabout -272.7K, or ~300 milliKelvin. The helium that keeps the dewar cold condenses at 4K, and there was around 40% left in the tank when I checked it last at 1am. I check again: the dewar tells me it is at 60 Kelvin and there is 0% left in the tank. Translation: this is a bad thing. My heart stopped for nearly ten seconds. By this stage I was already geared up and out the door. Someone met me with a skidoo and it was action-stations. Allan andRobert helped me drag two helium dewars up to the roof and frantically I began to fill. Here's the problem: if the dewar lost pressure as it heated up, I would have to remove the instrument from the telescope and pump it down, cool it and put it back on. It weighs about 250kg. Again, this is a bad thing.

A mad hour later and things were clearer: the computer that runs the cooling cycle had gone a bit crazy, and had started sending commands to the dewar, to try and cool and keep cooling. It asked it to do this for eight hours or so, and burned off the helium. Now I am getting it cold again, and hoping that I won't have to take the instrument down; it may take over 24hrsto get it back up again.

It has been a very frightening few hours with an interesting coda: all this happened while the last plane left South Pole. I didn't say goodbye to anyone, wasn't there to stand with my fellow winterovers and watch the plane fly off. Instead I watched it from a mile away, on the roof of the telescope, as it took off and disappeared into the wind and fog. I was strangely ambivalent about missing this parting. Sure it was a shame, but the cold, clear reality of the small crisis had crystalised my resolve. The fright and madness somehow made me a little tougher to the station close, where before I had eyed the date with some trepidation. Now I am almost glad to have been there, alone, watching the plane go. It was a solitary, stand out moment for me, and I now look forward to the winter, despite being knee-deep in shit right now!

Sorry about the annoying technical details in this one, but I have numbers coming out my.. ears at the moment. There will hopefully be a more breezy, newsy mail soon, once things have calmed down and I stop breaking things.

all of you take care,
write often,

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