Saturday, May 31, 2008


Last Sunday I awoke to find the left half of my face swollen to twice its normal size. That - I think understandably - caused me some alarm, and I ran off to find the doc.

Turns out I had a stone in a salivary gland, same sort of thing as getting a kidney stone. Only this one had clogged up the works and become infected. Apparently these stones are almost unheard of in people my age, and are usually brought on by dehydration. If there's one thing living down here does to you, it's dehydrate. Doc put me on a course of antibiotics and sent me on my way.

I tried to eat some cereal for breakfast, but my jaw was too swollen to chew, and hurt a lot when I tried. I gave up on the solid food and decided to try a glass of orange juice. I should have though that one out a bit more, because as soon as I took a sip, the gland tried to do its job, and - because it was clogged by the stone - swelled up quickly and painfully.

For three days I couldn't eat anything that required chewing or tasted good. Because of the antibiotics, I couldn't drink either. Not an ideal condition to be in for all the parties which inevitably accompany the monthly two-day weekend. Ah well, at least the infection was being taken care of.

Monday I woke up at 4am doubled over with a stomach cramp. Side effect from the antibiotics. Doc put me on a series of other meds to try and fix things, all of which came with a warning not to stray too far from a toilet. DSL doesn't have a toilet (or any sort of plumbing), so I ended up stuck in the station for the better part of a week.

Up until last weekend, I had walked to DSL and back every day since my arrival. Being cooped up in the station, even for only a couple of days, I started to go a bit stir crazy. "Toasty" in polie-speak. I don't know how the people who never go outside deal with it.

A couple of days on the meds, and I'm back to normal, enjoying food, drink, and the commute once again. The moon (which had resumed its role as floodlight through the latter half of May) set during my down time, and it's now wonderfully clear and dark out. I halfway froze my fingers off snapping photos on the walk this morning.

Glad to have things back to normal. Well, "normal".

Thursday, May 22, 2008

MCI Drill

Yesterday we had our monthly fire drill. Fire safety is serious business here. We're completely dependent on this station for our survival, and everything is so dessicated that fires are a real danger. That means that fire drills here aren't like they were in elementary school - evacuate the building and wait for the all clear. We have to do whatever we can to save the station.

Because we don't have any extra personnel on station, every one of the winterovers is assigned to an emergency response team - Trauma, Quick Response, SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus - the firefighters), or Logistics. None of us are experts in the field we're assigned to, but to make sure we're prepared in case something happens, we have monthly fire drills where we practice our duties.

I'm on the logistics team - we haul equipment (oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers, ventilation fans, etc) to and from the site of the incident, and are largely responsible for patient transport from site to Medical.

This month's drill was an MCI - a Mass Casualty Incident. That means there were more casualties than we're prepared to deal with. Yesterday, that meant 4 people down.

The scenario (of course, nobody knew this ahead of time) was that an engine had caught on fire and exploded in the heavy shop, where all our heavy machinery is kept and maintained. It ended up being a really good drill, because it exposed a lot of vulnerabilities that we weren't aware of.

Turns out the heavy shop works as a near-perfect Faraday cage, so no radio comms could get in or out. News never made it out about the 3rd victim, or the location of the fire. It was almost an hour before he was retrieved - by which time he had long since passed - and even longer before the fire was cleared. Had this been for real, the shop would have burned to the ground in about 5 minutes (as happened at McMurdo station a couple of years back).

Without mechanized transport, we had to physically drag the casualties back to medical on sleds, and because it was -90F outside, everyone pulling a sled experienced a fairly severe episode of cold-induced asthma. About 20% of the station spent the rest of the afternoon coughing and trying to catch their breath. Half a dozen got frostbite, too.

All in all, the drill was a bit of a fiasco, though I for one am relieved to have found that out while it was still all pretend. Every now and then I'm reminded that this is a pretty dangerous place to work and live, and the more we can prepare for the worst, the better.

People are working on fixing these failures on every level, and I'm actually feeling somewhat more confident in our ability to deal with a disaster. Here's to hoping it doesn't come to that.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Woo! Egg oiling party! Woo!

Wait - what? Yup, it's that time of year again, when we all get together and re-oil the eggs.

The Antarctic treaty prevents us from keeping any sort of livestock, and we're completely cut off (physically) from the outside world through the winter. Eggs - important not only for breakfast, but also for most of the baking done here - will ordinarily only last a couple of months, but if you keep them well oiled, the oil will seal the shells and keep them from going off until fresh supplies come in November.

They were all oiled at the start of the season, and last night it was time to freshen up their coatings. About half the station crowded into the kitchen, poured themselves bowl after bowl of canola oil, and started dipping, rolling, and massaging eggs. There were the predictable casualties (beer, very oily hands, and thousands of eggs were never meant to go together), but within an hour we'd unpacked, oiled, and repacked more eggs than most people see in a lifetime.

It's funny the stuff nobody tells you about until you get here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

...and Warmer

Not long after the cold snap, it got very warm, very quickly.

The temperature soared above -40C (-40F), but much to everyone's surprise, it remained clear and calm outside. Usually warm periods come with wind and clouds, but not this time, leaving us free to take photos of the crystal clear sky for hours on end. (And to be fair, this was more of a tropical heatwave than a warm period.)
Several pipes in the belly of the station, which had (unbeknownst to anyone on station) frozen solid and burst during the cold, thawed out fairly quickly, and at 4am one morning an alarm went off to let us know we had dropped over a thousand gallons of water through the floor.

After weeks at -70C, -40 feels hot. Not cold, cool, comfortable, or even warm. Hot. Walking over to DSL every day felt like walking through an oven, and I rarely had my hat on or jacket zipped by the time I got there.

I'm kind of afraid of positive temperatures now, and can't really imagine what they must feel like.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, the windchill hit -90C (-130F), and I'm willing to admit it: that's too cold for comfort. I kept bearably warm enough bundled up in my ECW, but was a long way from toasty.

That said, the cold always comes with crisp, clear skies, and now that we're finally out of twilight and into full-on night, they're stunning. There's always an aurora somewhere on the horizon or overhead, but for the past couple of days, the backdrop of stars has stolen the show.

I interrupted my walk to DSL to lay down on the path and stargaze for a good hour yesterday. The Milky Way is now a bright speckled band across the sky, and even the Magellenic Clouds are impossible to miss. Despite the cold, I can't imagine a nicer walk to work every day.

If history is any guide, we've still got 10C (18F) left to drop before we hit our low for the year, but the temperature is likely to hover around this for the rest of the winter. I'm probably going to have to start wearing a sweater.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Polestock '08

Last weekend was the first 2-day weekend since sunset, and everyone on station felt the need to celebrate. We've got a lot of musical talent down here this winter, and there are 5 bands of various shapes and sizes who have been rehearsing since station close. It was time for Polestock 2008.

People went a little overboard with the whole concert setup. The stage and backstage took up the majority of the gym. Then again, that may have made sense, since more than half the station was accounted for in the performers, roadies, sound technicians, bartenders, and security. (Yes, we had two guys working security. They had metal detectors, and were quite drunk on power. Also liquor.)

Of course, it was a blast. People here know how to party, and the combination of free booze, a big dance floor, and live music certainly didn't hurt. The music started at 5pm, and we were still going strong at 1:30 the next morning.

I've got to give people here credit for their creativity, too. Some bands played covers, but there were also a couple of thoroughly entertaining South Pole originals. Mike "Fancy Pants" Symanski did a solo performance of his new composition, "Bang Your Head Against a Vast Expanse of Seductive Nothingness", while the Death Metal band Korpsicle gave a stirring rendition of their hit, "6 Months of Darkness, 1 Night of Pain". Beyond being surprisingly talented, the whole crew seems to have a great sense of humor, particularly about life here.

I can't imagine how people could get bored down here.