Kissing the Pole

I stood at 90 degrees. I considered the world in all directions.

Humbling privilege to reach such a spot. It’s a big world, friends, especially for a dark dust-speck in the center of an ice plateau at the low pole of a young planet. South Pole’s Amundsen-Scott Station is about 800 miles from the McMurdo Station as a plane flies, 1000 miles as a ground vehicle zigs-and-zags. Rules and field plans and itineraries are resculpted by the icy forces of reality, until anything could happen. Our life’s mission, it seems, is to keep the blood flowing, keep walking forward, keep asking questions, and see where we end up.

A few flags for old pole markers are still visible (pole shifts every year, as the ice of the polar cap is moving like a river), but the old marker plates have been removed for safe-keeping (to a case in the old Dome). Interestingly, the survey flags for the location of the 2006 South Pole marker are up now, the work being just finished by Larry, surveyor from the TAMDEF team.

My second day at Pole started early and was jam-packed. My excellent South Pole tour guide, “South Pole Charlie” Kaminski, of Science Planning Support, gave me a top-rate walking tour of the “summer camp” — a field of Jamesway huts (designed for the Korean war) which seem to be used for everything from sleeping quarters for both day/night shift, to Raytheon offices complete with cubical wall dividers and phone conferencing in process, and gathering spots where ‘Polies play music and celebrate birthdays and holidays and such. Over the years, it appears that some of the Jamesways have been highly customized with foyers and bay windows… every structure had a story to tell, and Charlie related many of their narratives. We walked through the cargo field, where long rows of palletized materials are crated and uncrated, and boxed waste is neatly stacked in outbound rows. Construction work takes place in the open. Brrr.

SNOW.

In some places, heavy machines drag and flatten and compress the snow, as on the roads and work areas, and the ice runway. Snowmobiles pull sledges of equipment, but mostly everyone seems to walk everywhere, often dragging sleds behind them. Hardened walking paths, approximately as wide as a snowmobile track, radiate from the new Station out to the remote science buildings. The paths are strewn with new drifts, daily. Other stretches of snow, even close to base, remain pristine with hard crisp drifts and small sastrugi. The sun rolls around the sky counter-clockwise, spinning shadows around every building, box, snowdrift. You walk on top without breaking the crust. You could cut the snow into cement-like blocks with a hand-saw, but there is no way to reshape a pile of loose snow into a ball. No humidity. Snowblock/snow akin to sandstone/sand. It is not like walking on snow in the Midwest, not squeaky or brittle or fluffy or shoooshy — like nothing I’ve ever experienced, really. If you fell down on it, you might twist an ankle or break an arm.

What are the sounds of Antarctica? At Pole, the wind-packed snow made strange musical sounds beneath our feet, like a blueboard (styrofoam) piano. The snow moaned as if it were solid wind. It changed pitches, ran vocal scales, glissando. It creaked like wooden floors in an old house. It chirped like a bird, rang temple bells. Walking beside me as we trudged toward MAPO, Charlie told me: “you’re never entirely alone at the South Pole, the snow is always talking to you…”

ICECUBE.

We hiked around a giant berm of plowed snow, and had conversations with an ice-frosted Farshid Feyzi and Jeff Cherwinka of the IceCube team at their staging area. IceCube is a neutrino detection array that will function like giant telescope, only pointed downwards, into the ice. The IceCube drill team is now assembling (based in Madison Wisconsin but actually an international collaboration between many institutions). Their ICECUBE-marked crates were on the flight from Christchurch, and several members were on the flight to pole with me. They are preparing an amazing array of hoses and engines and water heater tank trailers to be hauled to the IceCube (hot water) drill site. Last season, they drilled the first hole and installed their first sensor — lowered and positioned then permanently frozen into place in the refilled hole. Each ice hole is approx. 1.5 miles deep! This season, they hope to drill 10 more holes. There will be 80 holes, total, when the array is finished. Quite the operation. IceCube’s hose coil rig, for example, is massive, maybe a story-and-a-half tall, and had to be disassembled for shipping, then rebuilt at the pole. Their equipment is built on sleds, with giant runners, and will soon be dragged across the base by a large dozer. Farshid (with ice frosting his eyelashes) led us inside one of the tanker cars where rows of industrial heaters will be boiling the water for the IceCube drilling operation. It is really wonderful to see first-hand the “concrete” physical apparatus that are necessary to enable an “abstract” scientific undertaking (such as the hunt for subatomic particles) to take place. Jeff and Farshid described the project’s leader, Francis Halzen, as a scientific wizard who cast some sort of spell, convincing them and others to come to Antarctica and transform his grand idea into reality, despite all obstacles and against all odds.

Repeatedly, I had the sensation that I was on an entirely different planet, a very cold one, touring a remote outpost populated by a species of friendly humans who had evolved to be a bit more cold-tolerant, with slightly larger brains. Standing on a balcony of the SkyLab, Charlie mentioned that he’d dreamed of being an astronaut his whole life, ever since he hand-ground his own lens to construct a telescope as a kid. This is where he ended up: Space Station Antarctica, an environs largely inhospitable to humans — complete with airlocks and pod-bay doors on the roof of the new station (for installing future science equipment), and a magical pod where hydroponic green vegetables are being grown indoors.

On our hike back, we stopped into the meteorological building, and I had the privilege of personally releasing the morning’s weather balloon, after waiting for the computer to search for satellite connections. The data-gathering device that dangles below the balloon must sync up with at least 3 satellites. Once the balloon is filled, the sync’d device is tied on tightly…. giant 2-story doors swing open, and the balloon is walked outside. The balloon needs to be held for a few moments, to acclimatize to the frigid air, then it is released and lifts upward, quickly pulling taught, unwinding (without damaging the delicate metal capacitator)… then the data box is released too, and the whole thing floats up and away like a folded prayer paper dangling from a smooth white balloon. We watched until it was a just a speck, as if it never had happened.

We had lunch with Martin Lewis from Station Operations, who is a friend-of-friends, and I relayed their greetings. Martin is also a photographer, and has many seasons of working experience on Antarctica, including a past experience in the Artists and Writers program. After lunch, Charlie gave me a personal tour of the ingenious ice tunnels that house the pole’s utilities (small pipes wrapped inside huge layers of insulation). I met John Wright, the engineer of the ice tunnel mining project, earlier this summer while I was in Colorado. John Wright (currently cast as God in a local McMurdo movie project!) is now leading the Traverse — the “Ice Road” convoy, which departs McMurdo tomorrow. Down in the frigid ice tunnels, one row of pipes moves the fresh water supply, melted from ice in heated “rod-well” cisterns; while the other line of pipes moves sewage (to be stored in a similar ice void). I felt like frozen hamburger. Here is how musician Henry Kaiser described the ice tunnels after his personal tour with their engineer:

“On my last morning I drop down into the snow/ice tunnels beneath the pole. 40 feet down, it is 50 degrees below zero, as promised. My guide is John Wright (….) John shows me how two tunnels, drilled into to meet, “golden spike” style, meet up within an 1/8 inch of perfect alignment. You can walk through about 1200 feet of tunnel and then it’s necessary to step into a warming room to reheat your body. There is no bright and ever-present sunlight in the tunnels to warm your body in the extreme cold. I was impressed with John’s deep concern for safety for his crew; which is so different from the concern for liability protection over safety that I see in so much of the today’s world. Bill and Scotty of John’s crew work with a chain saw and sledge to cut more tunnels through the cold, hard snow/ice. Dressed in heavy clothing and covered with ice dust from the chain saw, they look the part of workers in the farthest extreme of human habitation. Or perhaps like albino coal miners, mining albino coal. We are not in Kansas anymore, nor ON THE ICE; this is BELOW THE ICE.” (-Henry Kaiser)

The South Pole station is connected, via these tunnels and walking tunnels and segments of buried corrugated metal archways, with various other areas, including ramps and side-tunnels into machine shops and equipment garages, and the new silo-shaped enclosure around flights of stairs leading up into the new Station (nicknamed “beer can”). The metaphor: that everything is connected.

Martin arranged for a snowmobile, and Charlie and I sledded out to visit the Satellite building supporting the Marisat and GOES dishes (uplink/downlink for the station’s telecommunications). First we toured the computer facility that translates the signals both ways – basically, the network hub. An old friend of Charlie’s was working on the satellite dish itself, so I was safely able to walk up inside the egg structure surrounding the dish, and climb up a ladder to view the joint where the dish pivots and rotates (the dish was not functioning at the time, due to the daily outage period when the satellites are not over Antarctica).

A bit further afield, we viewed a team at work on the new antenna array. I must say that the workers who are assembling the steel sections of these antenna are an unbelievably hardy group! They work without shelter on the farthest fringe of the South Pole station zone, wearing their highly-functional but less-insulated Carhartt overalls and work-jackets (so as not to be immobilized by warm parkas, like scientists and poets). While working they must regularly stop and do jumping jacks together, to keep the blood flowing and warm their extremities — I observed this firsthand. Conditions: -51 F, real temp, with a very slight wind that created a -79 F windchill, and there was the antenna team doing jumping jacks together on the ice. Brrr.

Beyond the antenna field there is only the flagged line of the runway approach. Black flags run on in a straight line for several more miles out into the plateau. Then nothing, for hundreds of miles.

We turned to circle back, stopping so that I could take photographs (well, after my fingers had warmed a bit, clenched into fists within my double gloves). We had to leave the snowmachine running, which disturbed the stillness, but it still was a sublime, awesome landscape: sastrugi-rippled snowfields meeting pure blue atmosphere in a line that ran away in all directions, with the ghost of a half-moon faintly visible in the sunny sky, due to our high altitude. Suddenly the South Pole station complex seemed far away and insignificant – a few cardboard boxes at the edge of vision. For a brief moment I could imagine walking away into the serene white. On our ride back to the base, I got a tiny patch of frostnip on the tip of my nose, the only exposed part of my body (24 hours later, it looks like a spot of bad sunburn and doesn’t hurt). Dangerous work, poetry, but someone’s gotta do it.

Spent some time after dinner chatting amiably in the galley with a smattering of astronomers & astrophysicists from the AST/RO project, which is being “retrograded” and taken apart and shipped off the ice this season. Despite the fact that they are all bonafide geniuses, by my yardstick, they had a hard time visualizing how poetry might be written about their work. Nevertheless, they demonstrated a great sense of humor. Our amusing after-dinner conversation ranged from personal stories to station humor and anecdotes by a British scientist who “winter-overed” conducting observations with the AST/RO telescope. AST/RO is (was?) the “Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory,” a submillimeter-wave telescope surveying emissions from the Galactic plane, star formation regions, high-latitude translucent clouds, the Magellanic Clouds, and nearby galaxies. Two of these folks are now working with the new HEAT project (HEAT: High Energy Antimatter Telescope). Thus one scientific candle lights the wick of the next.

I returned last night on the last flight from pole, leaving at 10:45 pm (many thanks to Vladimir Papitashvili for getting me on the latest possible flight). Charlie walked me out, and waited with me out at the runway until refueling was finished (they don’t shut down the engines). Suddenly I was motioned to get onboard. I waved goodbye to the South Pole, and my new friend Charlie (musician/astronomer/telescope operator/pilot/author — like everyone at Pole, he seems proficient at everything) Here is a great excerpt from the journal he kept during his winter-over experience in 2001:

“Several of my friends back home have expressed concern about how I feel being isolated from the ‘real world’ while I’m living at the South Pole. Can’t say I miss your ‘real’ world…I know this can be a hard concept to understand, so I’ll try to explain it again. Where I am is the real world to me. To us. It is a very different world than the one most of you live in now, but none-the-less, it is quite real. We do not have distractions such as television to numb the mind. We do not have to worry about bills or where we are staying or where our next meal is coming from. Crime is unheard of. Yes, this is a very different reality from what you are used to, but we are free to get to know one another in a way most only ever dream of. It is a closer human contact than possible out there. Every day I talk with interesting people from vastly different backgrounds and skills. As I’ve stated many times before, this is the biggest collection of over-qualified people in the world. We get into conversations that cover world politics to the best type of paint to use for coffee tables. I learn something new at the South Pole every day. I just never know what it is going to be. Have I said that before? It’s almost like a mantra now.” (Charlie Kaminski, 2001).

HERCULES, TAKE ME HOME.

Daily flights of cargo and passengers, or PAX, are being moved to Pole, but the return flight was empty except for the crew and me. Riding in an empty Hercules cargo hold — plane all to myself — rather strange! Flight crew on the LC-130 was just wonderful: my hands were numb when I got on, but the load master gave me coffee as soon as I got strapped in (to warm my hands on the paper cup) and then he took my mitten liners from me, and held them up to the hot air duct on the ceiling, to heat them. Incredible. Our communication (coffee? hands hurting? strapped in?) was all done with hand gestures, of course, since we have earplugs in our ears to block out the damaging roar (and high pitched whine) of the engines. Later, the same fellow blew me away by magically TOASTING a grilled turkey sandwich for me, in the galley and delivering it on a white paper plate, with a juice box. Talk about in-flight service!

South Pole quotation-of-the-day was sent to me by my friend Stuart Klipper:

“What an evening! The sun is high in the heavens in spite of the late hour. Over all this mountainous land of ice, over the mighty Barrier running south, there lies a bright, white, shining light, so intense that it dazzles the eyes. But northward lies the night. Leaden grey upon the sea, it passes into deep blue as the eye is raised, and pales by degrees until it is swallowed up in the radiant gleam from the Barrier. What lies behind the night – that smoke-black mass – we know. That part we have explored, and have come off victorious. But what does the dazzling day to the south conceal? Inviting and attractive the fair one lies before us. Yes, we hear you calling, and we shall come. You shall have your kiss, if we pay for it with our lives.” (- Roald Amundsen)

One thought on “Kissing the Pole

  1. Hi Kathleen,

    Met you at pole. Was my first time, too.
    I had to leave the ice early. Back north now.

    It is really all a sort of dream.
    Five seasons for me.
    Merrily merrily, merrily merrily…

    Joe

    Like

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