Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Leaving Pole

My time at pole has finally drawn to a close, and after two more-or-less frantic days of turnover with the incoming SPT people, I'm now safely off the ice and back in New Zealand. Civilization at last. I'll try to write one final post after a couple of weeks back in reality, but for now, just a few words about my departure from pole.

I have to admit, it was much harder than I expected to tear myself away from the station. After living there so long, it was home, even with our winter community shattered amid the influx of summer folks. I tried in vain to convince myself that there was in fact a whole new world out there, oh so much bigger and more exciting that my little existence on the ice, but it was still tremendously difficult to pack and leave everything behind.

Eventually the moment came, and with hugs and well wishes from the new SPT folks and the last few winterovers, I boarded the C130 to Mactown. That afternoon & evening, the polies gathered in our berths to share a bottle of whisky and some cheap wine. Mactown is no place to celebrate your freedom, but that doesn't mean you can't get pleasantly drunk there.

The skin on my hands, which had been a sort of scaly parchment, tearing at every opportunity and never quite healing up, was smooth and supple within 6 hours of landing at sea level, wounds healed, knuckles finally no longer cracked and bleeding. The humidity & warmth in Mactown seemed obscene, and while the locals were dashing through the -12C air and 30 knot winds, giant red parkas pulled tight against the wind, polies wandered happily about in shorts and flip-flops. We smiled at the sun, sniffed the dirt underfoot, and generally looked like a bunch of madmen strolling through town.

Leaving the next day for Christchurch came as a too-long delayed release from captivity. We cheered as the C17 lifted off the ice shelf, though everyone was too hungover to celebrate for long. Most of us spent the flight napping, until we began to descend into NZ. Suddenly a rich, thick, fragrant air filled the cabin. It wasn't the smell of flowers and pollen everyone had suggested we'd smell. It was dirt, plain and simple. The smell of earth has never been quite so beautiful, such a welcome relief.

We landed in Christchurch around 9:30 at night, and after clearing customs, walked over to the CDC to turn in our well-worn ECW. The walk was punctuated by people rolling around on the grass, stopping to smell the bushes (not the flowers, the plants themselves), and generally marvelling at everything that teased our senses.

It's good to be off the ice. I'm sure I'll miss pole eventually, but for now life is very full. Tomorrow I'm off for the botanic gardens, to see trees and watch ducklings paddle about on the river. Hurrah!

Monday, November 10, 2008


The last couple of days at pole, the population as been roughly a dozen winterovers to 190 new people. Bumping into someone you know in the hall is inevitably a moment for celebation as a look of immense relief at a familiar face floods over both people's faces. With so few of us winterovers left, these encounters are becoming fewer and farther in between, but flashes of recognition still cross our faces every few minutes.

Every time we turn a corner, every time a someone walks through a door, every time we catch a glimpse of anyone from any distance or angle, there's a moment where they become a fellow winterover. Someone's hair, stance, shirt - anything can set it off - will look like someone we know, an ally from the winter, and our minds will seize on that before they suddenly revert to a stranger, summer person once again.

It's an odd experience walking the halls we know so well with so many strange new faces flooding through them. Our minds haven't quite adjusted to the new reality, and continually imprint faces we know over those we don't. Things are getting progressively less comfortable for the remaining winter crew, and we're all looking to get out as soon as possible.

I think once we get back to the real world, this shouldn't be such a problem. It's just that in these surroundings, there are only 59 other people we expect to meet. Anyone else - to a winterover's eyes - simply doesn't belong.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Photo Recon

The day after station opening, I got to take part in one of the more interesting start-of-summer tasks. Thanks to the many pictures I took throughout the winter, I was recruited to go up in a little Twin Otter plane for aerial reconnaissance photos. These shots are taken and archived twice a year, to watch the development of snow drifts, better understand the status of construction, and generally record the condition in and around station.

The recon flights consist of three passes over the station, repeated at 500 and 1000 feet, for each of the two photographers taken up. When it's your turn to shoot, you swap places with the co-pilot, roll down the window, lean out a little (not too much - the wind will catch anything that actually crosses out of the window and yank it violently away), and start snapping.
We took up a couple of winterovers to fill out the empty seats, and everyone had the same reaction: the station is sooo tiny! It was a shock to see our little world in context, a tiny oasis in a frozen ocean extending seemingly forever in every direction.
On each pass, there are specific things they want photographed, and the plane circles and tips to ensure the best possible angles. While this works pretty well, it's a little disorienting when you're shooting - the horizon keeps moving around, and because of all the centrifugal force, it rarely matches with what you think is level - and positively sickening when you're in the back. After the 10th or 11th pass, all the passengers were looking a little green around the gills.

I'd never done anything like that before, and am really glad I got to go up and see our world in context. It was also awfully fun to sit in the cockpit and shoot out an open window with the plane diving this way and that. I guess there are some upsides to station opening & new people.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Station Opening

The weather at pole this past week has been windy - too windy for planes to land - and station opening had to be delayed a day. On Wednesday, winterovers still outnumbered summer folks 57 to 34. By the end of Thursday, we were down to 30, and the new people up to 110. Saturday it was roughly 10 to 190. Very quickly the station was overrun with new people, and most of our family of winterovers had disappeared.

Station opening is defined by the arrival of the first Hercules C-130, the workhorse planes that transport everything - people, fuel, and equipment - to and from pole. The last one left pole February 14th, beginning our winter season. Thursday, the first one we'd seen in 8 months landed and taxied over to the station, where it disgorged a mass of 40 new people. An hour later, another arrived with another 40, snatched up half the winter crew, and flew off to warmer climes.

That evening and the next day, it was tremendously clear that life had changed. All throughout our home, strange people were running about, acting like they owned the place. Winterovers were marginalized, newly ousted from places they used to tread freely. In the galley, we began to cluster at one end, suspiciously watching the masses of new folks. In the hallways and at work, the arrival of a fellow winterover - even someone who you rarely spoke to in the winter - is now greeted with a smile of pure delight.

Nobody quite realized through winter how much we had become a family. Only when a horde of strangers moved into our home and dragged away half of the members of that family, did we begin to understand. We sixty people living through the six month night on the bottom of the world formed a strong bond. We are now and always will be close; polies to the bitter end.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

South Pole Diet

Writing about the arrival of freshies the other day reminded me that I've been meaning for a while to write a short note on the diet down here. The meals we live off are not exactly health food. Far from it, we eat mostly comfort food. Heavy, rich, and constantly available.

Due to both the elevation and the cold here, we seem to burn calories at a ridiculous rate. To provide maximum calories with minimum complication (see my post on South Pole Cooking for details on trying to cook even moderately complex dishes), most meals end up very meaty, and very fried. Cholesterol levels inevitably skyrocket through the year, and most of the oldtimers end up on medication to keep theirs under control.

I certainly don't mean to denigrate the efforts or skills of the galley staff - they work wonders within the limitations of the place. The problem is that very little is available, meals need to be as caloric as possible, and food is one of the few tools available to keep morale up through the long dark winter. Keeping everyone well stuffed with fried chicken helps to pacify the mob.

I made no effort early on to restrict my meals, and after 6 months of eating nothing but fries, ice cream, steak and corn dogs, I'd dropped nearly 20 lbs. I feel like I should write some sort of diet book - "Eat whatever you want and watch the pounds melt away! Just spend 3 hours outside every day in -100F and at 11,000 feet, and you'll be amazed by the results!" (Since sunrise, I haven't burned quite so much energy stumbling over sastrugi, and my weight's recovered somewhat.)

I'm certainly getting a bit tired of the same greasy food day in, day out, and the arrival of freshies only served to sharpen that feeling. I'm not much of a fruit eater, but the thought of a fresh apple, some berries, or a pineapple (oh, my kingdom for a pineapple!), readily available, any time of day or night, seems like paradise. New Zealand is our first stop on leaving the ice, and it's starting to look more and more like some sort of tropical Eden.