Peter Cheimets'

South Pole Journal

I will be at the South Pole helping Dr. Antony Stark refurbish the AST/RO telescope. While I am there I will try to keep this page updated with the activities at the South Pole Station.

Getting There

The general plan for getting to the South Pole is to fly to Christchurch New Zealand, get suited up for the cold weather, and scheduled for a flight into McMurdo Station. At McMurdo you are scheduled onto a flight leaving from there and going inland to the Pole.

At least that's the plan. Unfortunately, there has been trouble flying into the Pole this year. So far nothing has gotten in (As of the morning of November 9th, NZ time). The people who made it to McMurdo headed for the pole have been stuck there for up to 2 weeks. To avoid overcrowding at McMurdo, Pole bound folks have been held in Christchurch. This includes me. Most of the time it hasn't been a real hold since the flights to McMurdo haven't been going either.

So, here I sit. I am scheduled to fly on Monday November 11th NZ time to McMurdo, and as I write this there is a Pole flight in the air. This will be the second attempt this week. But one must remember the last time the pole plane turned back after 4 landing attempts.

Well, I got to McMurdo. This was an ordeal. On Monday we all came and suited up to load a C-141, a large Air Force transport jet. We were loaded into the plane, but then the flight was canceled. They had loaded most of our luggage though, so we never got that back.

Tuesday they canceled the flight before we loaded.

Then there was Wednesday. We boarded the C-141, but they canceled that flight because of "turbulence" over New Zealand. Then they put us in a LC-130, a propeller transport that can fly under the turbulence. We actually took off. Twelve minutes out of Christchurch the crew saw a fuel leak from the inner port engine. We turned around and landed between 5 fire trucks as the Christchurch crash squad reacted to the possible danger in fine form.

Today, Thursday, suited up, loaded and took off. A fine cramped 5 hour flight. These planes aren't the comfortable commercial planes that we are all use to at home. Medieval arrangements are made for the passengers' (known affectionately as PAX) comfort.

The plan is for a flight to pole tomorrow morning.

Photos from the flight into McMurdo:

McMurdo and Beyond

My stay in McMurdo was very short, just 14 hours. I landed on the frozen waters of the Ross Sea, just off Ross Island where McMurdo Base sits. We climbed off the plane and boarded Ivan the Terra Bus for the several mile ride back to the base. My first sensation as I walked to the bus was awe, this was truly different from anything that I had ever seen. The mountains pressed against the blue sky like ripped black paper, everything was covered with snow. There was nothing green. The temperature was not too cold, about 20oF, the snow was melting on the dark cinder roads.

Once we got to town we all went to the Galley (please note the Navy runs this whole operation, so the names are consistent with their practices). There we were briefed about our stay, and given a little information of our next, Pole bound, flight. Now we had a couple minutes to ourselves. I spent some time on email and then 3 of us went up a nearby look out. From the top, McMurdo Sound, and the nearby mountains could be seen.


After this we had a "bag drag". We picked up our bags, had them weighed and checked them in for the morning's flight. I was able to get a couple of toiletries out of the bag that had been held for so long in Christchurch. After dinner I took a shower, one of those luxuries that is not readily available from this point on.

Next morning I discovered that the flight was canceled. Something that I was getting use to. But, by the end of breakfast the condition was upgraded to "Delayed". An hour later we were on the bus and off to the runway. Unfortunately, there had been a mistake in communication and the plane was not ready for us. We sat in a "passenger lounge" out on the ice for a couple of hours. Then we boarded the plane for the interior. This time the plane was an LC-130, a propeller plane designed for snow landings. Off we went for a 3 hour trip.

The windows are hard to get to. The flight was jammed, all the seats were taken and one of the crew members had to go into the back of the plane, with the cargo, to sit down. But after everyone was settled and it was clear that the flight was going to be smooth, people started to get up and stretch. I got a chance to look outside. We were flying along a very tall mountain range. The range was filled up with snow and ice. It was clear that the range held the central glacier in like an enormous dam. Between the peaks the ice ran through, carving wide valleys toward the continent's edge. Two hours later, the pilot started to land. The heat was turned off and the cabin recompressed. By the time we landed we needed the parkas we had all pulled on.

South Pole, the End of the Earth:

Okay, McMurdo was a little freaky, getting off the plane at South Pole was like nothing else. I still had the ear plugs in from the flight, and the parka was tightly, but badly adjusted against the -30o F cold. The airplane's engines were roaring and the wind was blowing in at over 25 knots. Snow poured along the ground obscuring everything shorter than 20 feet. We walked in a line, red parka after red parka, around the airplane down a 20 foot snow embankment and into the tunnel entrance of the partially buried dome that holds the heart of South Pole station activities. The inside of the dome is dark and cold, but there is no wind. We are quickly led into the galley, again, for a briefing, again. Everyone is excited to be here. We are given our rooming assignments. The next several hours are spent moving in and eating. Each trip outside involves an elaborate wrestling match with my ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. I keep trying different combinations to see what I need to do to end up warm. Meanwhile we see people scurrying from building to building without jackets.

The plane that we had taken in, and the one that followed by 30 minutes loaded their passengers and headed back to McMurdo. Both planes had to turn back because of weather there. They landed, everyone but the captain got out, and the planes were left to idle while everyone had dinner. At these temperatures you really don't want to turn off the engine if you can avoid it. Four hours later the planes are still idling, and the weather is getting worse in McMurdo so the decision is made to shut the planes down, and billet the crews and the people who were supposed to leave. This brings the station population to a record 197 for a night. There are not enough beds, some of the crew slept on couches.


C-130s on the ice at South Pole:

The first night is hard. It's a new place, the sun doesn't set and I was drinking water like a crazy person to counter the effects of altitude and dryness. I drink up to 1/2 gallon of water an hour in an attempt to keep the ever threatening headache at bay. Whether it is the obvious reaction to the water intake or a perverse bodily reaction to the altitude or both, I am up and into the bathroom every hour until 3AM. I take a break from sleeping at this point and watch a little of a bad movie. By 4AM I'm ready to try this sleeping thing again. Good sleep until 7AM.

I get going earlier than most people. I dress so I can stay outside indefinitely. I photograph the 2 airplanes and the two South Poles. One is ceremonial the other is the actual geographic South Pole. Many people died in the attempt to reach the South Pole and this fact is ever present here. People who come to South Pole often, know its history. After breakfast I talk with members of the flight crews. New York folks in the National Guard for their 1 month tour of duty.

They try to get the plane going, one does just fine but the other is cranky. It blows a propeller seal. They make the decision to leave the plane, and the flight crews leave on the working plane without the original passengers.

The day is spent in meetings. Working out logistics, debriefing the winter over telescope scientist and touring the telescope facilities. And still plenty of trips to the bathroom. But I started to acclimatize.


North and South, Day and Night:

The funniest things down here are direction and time. The place is unique, in part because there is no direction or time. But people are really uncomfortable about this.

Well let's look at: What time is it here anyway? The standard answer is that it's whatever time it is in New Zealand, since that is where everyone here had to go through to get here. It is also the time in McMurdo. But the time, at least sun time, is defined around meridian passage, when the sun passes due south in the northern hemisphere, or due north in the southern hemisphere. By that reckoning, it is always Noon time, right at the Pole. The sun is always to the north, exactly. Now if you walk away from the Pole things change immediately. If the standard local time is Noon, thus if it's noon in New Zealand, then if you walk toward the sun, it stays noon. No question. But if you walked the other direction, boom, one step and it's midnight.

Okay so let's try direction. Standing at the Pole every direction is North. If two people stood back to back at the pole and started walking away from each other, they would both be walking north. If they turned and faced each other, again they are both facing south. They each put out their right arms and they are both pointing west. So that is strange too. The solution is to create a local grid, with north aligned with the Greenwich meridian.

So using New Zealand time and defining night as such, and aligning north to Greenwich you have the sun rising in the west and setting in the east, something that doesn't happen anywhere. But you do end up with Night and Day, and North and South, here in the land of perpetual Noon.

Life at the Base:

After a day another plane showed up at the base with a crew for the idle C-130. They showed up with all kinds of heaters. They attached the heaters and allowed the engines to warm up for about 4 hours and started them. Both planes took off and headed for McMurdo.


The station is split up into several areas. The center of social activity is the dome. It's about 165' in diameter and encloses several tractor-trailer sized buildings. The kitchen/cafeteria, several lounges, the science center, a library, Post Office, and a small store are inside the dome. Outside the buildings, but inside the dome, the temperature is the same as outside, but without the wind. So people will run from building to building without putting their coats on. The dome has a number of tunnels attached to it. In some are stored fuel, in others there is food. In addition, there is a couple of living quarters where the people who stay the winter live (winter-overs).

Outside the dome there are a number of summer sleeping quarters. The summer camp consists of numerous tents and prefabricated Quonset huts. The tents are called Jamesways and date from the Korea war. There is also the "Beaker Box", an elevated dorm that is almost exactly like freshman housing. It gets the name because scientists sleep there, and the construction people tend to call the scientists Beakers. I am staying in the Elevated Dorm. Each room has two or three people, with little cubbies for working.

The science installations tend to be outside the station. The astronomy buildings are in an area called the Dark Sector. There are several buildings each housing one to several astronomically related experiments. This is where the AST/RO telescope is, and where I have been working for this trip. To get to the Dark Sector you have to walk a little more than 1/2 mile. I leave the dome and walk passed the South Pole. About 200 yards out you cross the skiway where the planes land. It is a 15 minute walk. I have been lucky on a couple of occasions. Once I got a ride on a sled behind a ski mobile. And once I go a ride in a Sprite, a full track passenger vehicle.

Daily Life at the South Pole Station:

The whole place seems like freshman year at college. Everyone is living in dorms and eating in the cafeteria (galley) together. There is hard work to be done, but it all seems to be an excuse for just being there. And the people who are at the Pole really want to be. I find the same desire to be at other Antarctica installation, like the McMurdo base. But the pole, being so cold, so crowded, and so isolated, has a special tightness. Anyway there are 4 meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Mid Rats or Midnight Rations for the folks that are working all "night". The food is excellent.

My days there tended to start early, I would usually wake up at 6AM-6:30AM. I would then dress quietly to avoid waking up my roommate, and head to the computer room to catch up on the email that might have come in from the overnight satellite pass. Then I would eat breakfast.

I should note that the South Pole does not have a modern telephone connection, of continuous internet coverage. There are 3 satellites that the South Pole station uses to relay various forms of information, they are only usable certain times during the day. One satellite relays telephones conversations, but it works like a radio, only one person can talk at a time. The other two are data satellite links. While I was there, there was about 8 hours of internet link, from around 1AM until 6AM and a couple of hours around lunch. All incoming or out going email was held at the earth end of their respective link until the satellite is in position, then the mail is sent in. The satellite availability times changes about 4 minutes a day.

After breakfast it is a 1 Kilometer hike across the airfield, passed the South Pole to the Dark Sector where I was working. The telescope is on the roof of the AST/RO (Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory) building. It usually operates in the open. To work on it, there is a cover that can be brought over the telescope. The cloth cover keeps you out of the wind, and collects the warmth from the sun. It gets up to freezing under it. That was a big difference from working right out in 25 mile per hour winds at -25o F.

At about 11:30AM we would walk back to the dome for lunch. This was often interrupted by a plane flight. We can't cross the runway (actually skiway) with a plane coming in. The walking path is closed for about 10-15 minutes for an incoming or leaving plane. So we tended to time our walks to avoid the aircraft. Lunch was fun, and they served soup a lot. Plenty of the people there worked outside all the time, and a warm meal was important.

One little detail that people here at the Pole have to worry about that I never encounter at home is drying out your face mask. When you are outside at the Pole, you have to cover everything. There are a number of ways to cover your face. The way I did it was to put a thing called a neck gator around my neck and pull it up to my goggles and tuck it under them. Then I pulled my hat into the top of my goggles. This kept the wind off my face, and me nice and warm. But after awhile the water in my breathe would start to freeze to my beard. Anyway, once you get inside you have to warm the mask or gator up to get the moisture out of it. I tended to forget this and leave it in my pocket of my coat. When is was time to put it back on, not only was the gator still wet, it was usually frozen.

Anyway, after lunch it was another trudge out to the Dark Sector. Three days a week there were meetings with the group I was with. They started at 5:00PM. If you were late you were charged a case of coke or beer, so it was important to get there on time. If there were no meeting you could work until 5:45PM. And then it was back for dinner. Mostly after dinner I was too beat to work and would go to my room to read.

Now a funny thing about leaving the dome after dinner is...the sun is out. As you eat dinner you become convinced that it is evening. But when you step outside the dome, bingo you're awake. Anyway, you learn to deal with this.

Working at the Pole:

The reason the Pole Station exists is to provide a location for scientific observation. The site is unique in several ways that make it important scientifically: For all these reasons scientists of various disciplines are drawn to the South Pole. In order for them to be able to work effectively, there has to be some infrastructure. Other, less permanent sites have tents and portable cook facilities, but the Pole operates year round and hosts up to 200 people in the summer, and 28 through the 9 month winter season. All the work of constructing or modifying the extensive facilities has to be done in the summer. Beyond the addition of new buildings there is the problem of removing the drifting snow. It builds up many feet a year. The snow removal equipment can not really run in the winter. Below -85o F the hydraulics systems fail very quickly, the work has to be done in the summer or the buildings will disappear below the rising snow. The present plan is to allow the dome to be covered, it is passing beyond its usable structural life and is in the process of being replaced. The storage arches that extend several hundred feet in either direction are still usable, but need to be dugout and raised to continue to be so. That work is going on this year. While I was there it was discovered that the snow could not be effectively removed with bulldozers alone and dynamite was brought in to help. The charges were laid during the day, and set off at around 10PM. Living in a dorm on stilts, the explosions were exceptionally strange since you heard the sound then felt the supports shake.

Some of the construction requires temporary housing and this can be constructed at the site, or indoors and moved to the required location.

Of the 200 people at the Pole for the summer months, only 57 are there for direct scientific reasons, either to enhance or install equipment (like myself) or make observations. The remainder are there to construct required facilities.

I came to mount a new secondary mirror support structure on the AST/RO telescope. It is required for the operation of a new scientific instrument that will be used on the telescope the year after next. Like many large changes to existing equipment, this one ran into trouble. The new equipment interfered with the existing telescope. With the new equipment in place the telescope could not point as low as was required. As a result the new component will be removed and reworked. It will then be replaced on the telescope next year, in time for its intended use.

Homeward Bound:

It has been difficult to get flights in and out of McMurdo throughout the time I have been traveling to the pole. Since I would like to make it home for Thanksgiving, I leave the pole on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Pole time, this is Friday evening in the US. The plane has brought a bulldozer into the pole, and they had a hard time getting it out. The back of the plane has been open for over an hour when we load. There are only 2 passengers. The plane is as cold as outside when we take our seats in the very back under a hanging container of recycled trash being shipped back to the US.

After takeoff we can roam the large nearly empty plane at will. I look out the windows as we fly along the Transantarctic mountains. The terrain is again breathtaking, even a second time. Later we are over the Ross Ice shelf. There is so little detail on the ground that it is hard to focus on it. I think we are looking at clouds.

I spend about 20 minutes in the cockpit. Look out of the front windows. The pilot, copilot, and woman navigator read and eat, paying no attention to me. These are all Air National Guard and they have been on their rotation for a while. This is old hat. The newer members of the flight units are usually very excited about a Pole trip.

A crew member tells us to fasten our seat belt, which we do, and the plane lines up for landing. The pilot makes such a smooth landing on the ice I can't tell we have landed. There is a van to drive us back to the town. The sea is starting to melt near the shore, and we all joke about falling through into the water. But it is warm, 34o F, nearly 60o F warmer than where I left, only 3 hour before.

Back in McMurdo:

The people who travel to and from the Pole tend not to like McMurdo. It is a much bigger station and the Pole people tend not to know anyone here. But I didn't really know anyone at the Pole so that does not make much difference to me. The problem is the waiting. My work was at the Pole so there is little for me to do here but wait. Wait for email, meals, and hopefully the next flight. I came here to catch a Tuesday flight of a Royal New Zealand Airforce C-130. It usually flies down on Monday and returns on Tuesday. Right now, mid-morning Monday, we have gotten word that the Monday flight here has been delayed a day for reasons that are not clear. So it looks like another day of waiting.

As the day went on Monday the weather got worse. It was cloudy and snowy. With the sun behind clouds the water on the ground started to freeze up. Tuesday morning I ran over to the flight information to see what the story was on the plane from New Zealand. It was delayed for 6 hours, presumably to give the weather time to get better. By lunch time the flight has been canceled. Depression is stalking me. I take action. I go to the recreation center and get checked out to travel outside Mcmurdo, off the roads. It turns out that even though I am now checked out, I need a buddy. This I do not have. I walk on the roads. I go to a shack, actually a nice house, that Scott, one of the explorers to the pole, built as a base of operations early this century. As I walk I see the bulldozers plowing the snow on the ice in preparation for the ships coming in, in several months. There is lots of water on the ice as they are doing this, it does not look like that effective a plan. After lunch I walk over to the New Zealand base, a short walk. I visit their store and buy a candy bar. I hop the shuttle back to the American base.

When I get back I find that they have posted a flight up to Christchurch tomorrow made up entirely of Air National Guard people returning from active duty. There are no civilians on the list. The plane can clearly hold more people, and rumors begin to run wild. And not just in low places. After dinner there is a notice of a second bag drag, for all civilians. This one for the Royal New Zealand Airforce C-130 that has not come down today. It seems that the plan is to figure out how many people the Guard flight can take, and then prioritize the passengers for that, then have the New Zealand plane just turnaround as soon as it gets here and take the rest of us up to Christchurch overnight. Who knows, bag drag at 21:30 more on the morning news.

I drag my bags over to MCC (McMurdo Cargo Center). Actually, I call the shuttle and get over a little early. I'm told that my priority number is 20, this is not very good, 1 is as good as you can get. The woman at the desk tells me that people high into the 30's will go, I should check in the morning. I take the rest of my bags, those that have not been held for the flight and head back to the dorm.

In the morning I check the flight manifest, I'm on, still number 20 but the flight is leaving earlier than planned. I eat breakfast and go back to the dorm to write an email home. While I'm in the lounge the phone rings, I answer it. It is someone from the MCC telling me that the person that I was eating breakfast with has been bumped from the flight. I ask if there are more bumps, she says yes but no one else at that dorm. I ask her to read the list of bumps, I'm not on the list. I get the guy who has been bumped, he laughs. I guess he is a veteran at this. I go back to my email, shaken.

I am now getting very superstitious, should I strip the bed and hand in the room keys, will this anger some deity. I am not sure. I strip the bed. The phone rings in the lounge again. They are bumping another person from the flight. This time it is someone who does not mind, in fact he is glad. He stays on payroll for another day, while he watches TV. I am truly unnerved. I take my bags to the MCC for transport to the plane. There is a heavy layer of fog over the airstrip, but it's clear everywhere else.

At MCC, people are jockeying for a seat. They are trying to trade with people who say they are willing not to fly today. There are phone calls made. No changes are permitted. We board the bus and head out to the plane. It is very foggy. We take our seats and strap in. The engines start and warm up. Then they shut off. There is panic in everyone's eyes, nervous laughter can be heard over the dying engines. Everyone pulls out their ear plugs and waits for an announcement. The crew chief yells that it is only an oil light, just 10 minutes for them to put some oil in, just 10 minutes. As a mechanical engineer I know there a lot of things that can cause the oil light to come on that are not related to oil level, I fret.

The engines re-start, they rev, the warm air starts to fill the cabin. We taxi into the fog. Once we are lined up the plane speeds down the runway and into the air. I think, there are mountains out there, big mountains and they can't see them. I look out the window and see we are above the fog.

It is 3 hours to the last point we can turn around, I have time to fret some more. Every time the engines change pitch or the captain adjusts course I start. The woman across from me sleeps the whole 7 1/2 hour flight, I'm envious. On some unseen signal the crew chief hands out oxygen. There is a minor panic, once again, until we realize it is regulation for flying above 25,000 ft.

We pass the point of no return, and I relax. I'm going home.

We land in Christchurch at 5:30PM local time, the sun is high and it is very warm. The colors are so bright I can't believe it. I take my time getting on the bus and there is no more room. I don't care. A returning Guardsman and I ask if there is another way back. They put us in the back of a truck. Much more comfortable than the bus. The two of us are grinning ear to ear in the warm sun. I change my boots for sneakers.

I get to the hotel, a very nice one in the center of town and take a long shower.

Pictures of the Station From the air:

High resolution photo, 750Kb.
Same Picture at reduced resolution, 100Kb.
Questions, comments