Sunday, January 14, 2007

Two Weeks at the Bottom of the World

Holding up the world, with fellow Mac Town GA, Tracy:

I am back in McMurdo now, but the South Pole was fantastic! I worked for a project looking for neutrinos and involve drilling holes more than two kilometers down through the snow and ice, and then putting 60 instrument pods on a string to do the looking. My job mainly consisted of trenches: the digging of them, the laying of cable in them, the part filling in of them, the laying of electrical warning tape in them, and then filling them to the top. It was all hard work, and it was much the same each day, but I loved it. I was working with good people, had a good boss, and loved being outside in the cold (generally about -16 F with a 10 knot breeze), keeping warm by the physical exertion.

I awoke at 5 am for a 6:30 work start time. My commute was on a sled towed by a snow mobile across the runway, facing backwards with my workmates to avoid the cold blast of air as we cruised to our worksite. Back to the station for lunch and then out again for some more trenching. I was exhausted by the end of the day because of the cold, the work and the altitude, but I was very happy. At the end of the day, I was always happy to be back in the jamesway number 5, room number 9 (J5-9). I had forgotten how nice it is to have my own space. I spent many nights reading about the South Pole or just contemplating where I was. All I need is a quite room, my journal, my books, and my thoughts and I seem to be able to amuse myself for hours. Any lack of sleep at the pole was surely felt, so I did my best to be asleep by 9 pm each night - though sometimes I was more successful than others.

The social highlight of the two weeks was BINGO! It was Saturday night, 8 pm. And it seemed like the whole station was there, in good no-work-tomorrow form. The prizes for different games amounted to water bottles, binoculars and money among other things. On game number two, I was sabatoged by some "polies" when they told me, on purpose or not, that the game was for a cross (not a plus sign). So evenutally I filled out the pattern of a cross with the letters and numbers called and they all told me, "you've won, you've won!" And so I called BINGO, stood up, got my board checked only to have yelled over the mic, "Not a winner!!!!!" Thankfully, the game was only in its second round and the crowd had not gotten to its later quite rowdy state. Otherwise, I think I might have had rotten tomatoes thrown at me (if there were any vegitables that had not been already eaten). I'm now promptly going to do my best to forget about the embarassing incident.

During the two weeks, numerous folks came skiing in from various international expeditions arriving at their destination. A wonderful group of four English military men spent a bit of time at the pole waiting for the winds to change so that they could put up their kites and ski-ride back to the coast from where they came. They spent their time volunteering in the dishroom - much appreciated by the galley staff and the leader of the expedition even sang with the New Year's Eve band. They were excellent guests and anyone who's interested in their whereabouts can check out:

One afternoon I got a tour of the ice tunnels (permanently -55 F) that hold the water and sewage lines. The station water comes from pouring superheated water into the snow at tunnel level - this melts the snow down to about 100 feet and makes a little pond. Hot water is kept circulating and the pond evenatually gets so deep that the pumps can't pump the water up. At this point, the underground space is switched over to act as a sewage tank. Fascintating snow engineering.

The sun spent the day circling us in the now familiar counter clockwise manner. The moon was sadly absent for most of the time, but during the last few days, it graced us with its presence and proceded to climb in the sky as it moved toward the sun. Being at the pole was like I was in a celestial laboratory. I can only imagine my excitement if the winter stars were out! I did talk to some folks about wintering there - not this year, but something I shall keep in mind.

On my last evening there, I borrowed some skies and boots and "skied to the south pole." Yes, my ski was only about five minutes worth, but nonetheless, I have now skied to the pole, just like Captain Amundsen and have also skied around the pole, which is to say, that I have skiied around the world! All in less than an hour!

The flight back to town was excellent. Despite the loadmasters unfriendly look when I asked if there might be a chance I could go up into the cockpit, I was allowed to join the cockpit crew and stayed there for the whole flight. On this return trip, I was thankful that the skies were clear and it was incredible to fly over the trans-antarctic mountains. They are beautiful and I could clearly see the Beardmore Glacier that Captain Scott took on his journey to the South Pole. The pilot gave me her chart, so I spent most of the flight, standing behind her, chart in hand identifying the big peaks and glaciers and other interesting features.

Above you can see the ceremonial pole marker (barber striped) and the actual pole marker (to the left). As the station is on an ice cap that is moving, the geographical pole marker is moved each January 1 (about 24 feet per year). I was thankful to be a part of the ceremony and happy that the pole was exactly where it was marked to be. I had fun putting my head over the pole, and thinking that for the first time, my head was not moving anywhere except for where the earth is moving. Yes, so fascinating.

So that was the pole. I shall forever be thankful for the opportunity to go there. I have wanted to for many years, and I spent more than a moment looking at the sign commemorating Amundsen and Scott, telling myself that I was really there - at the South Pole. I already have thoughts of returning, but I don't know when that might be.

It's good to be back in McMurdo where I have lots of friends, constant internet access, can take more than two 2-minute showers a week, (though I secretly took four 1-minute showers per week) and can enjoy the near 40 F temps.

I hope the new year is treating everyone well. All the best to you. And thanks for reading.


  1. Thanks for the post! I was down there twice and never got to go to the pole, so it was neat seeing the pictures and your descriptions, especially of the water system. Hope the rest of your season goes well!

  2. Dear Ben,
    Your continuing account of your time in Antarctica is fascinating and really well written. You must be about to go now and we look forward to hearing what your next adventures will be.
    Sitting here in temperatures of about 98 to 103 degrees F, it's a bit difficult to imagine how cold it has been for you!

    Do keep in touch,

    Love from Mo and Richard