Saturday, December 19, 2009

South Pole Update. Christmas-time, 2009.

Here’s to a white Christmas!

It’s so easy to forget that being at the South Pole is remarkable. After the initial wow-factor, life takes to its ruts and everything seems quite normal. Consequently telling you all about it seems sort of silly. BUT, here I am, remembering that this is a pretty incredible place to be.

Some words to describe the South Pole – away from station, in the wilderness:
Sharply inhospitable

And some words to describe the station itself, as seen from the white desolation beyond:
Civilized, and what an ambiguous word that is

I do like it here, but what a weird place it is.


I’m sick. Have been for two weeks. It’s just a regular cold – referred to by the many sick in this dessicated petri dish as the MacTown crud because it came from McMurdo like everything else – but I can’t kick it. It’s cold here, and dry (very very dry), and there isn’t much oxygen. Sleep comes irregularly, so your body struggles. This regular old cold, then, is dragging along, keeping me whiney and tired, and forcing me to slow down. Which is good, as I’ve been quite busy:

Snow School.

A few weekends ago I got to go to snow-school, or ‘Happy Camper’. Awesome. We learned about radios and airplanes and field-camps and everything, and that was all good fun, but then we went out and lived in the snow, miles from station, for 23 whole hours. Dropped off in the stark white, 12 of us set up tents, built a wind-wall out of snow-blocks, cooked dehydrated noodles, and generally grinned our little faces off. It was warm – minus 15 – but still, just sitting around out there gets you cold. Instead of sleeping in the tents, they said, we were welcome to dig survival trenches. So I dug. And slept five feet under, wrapped in a really huge sleeping bag, nestled up to my hot water bottle. I slept better than any other night here in my survival trench.

Also, I’m in a band.

Well two really. One of them plays Violent Femmes songs and is loud. The other plays folky-bluegrassy songs and is loud. Loudness is crucial.

I sing for the Violent Femmes cover band, which is incredibly fun. We headlined an open-mic night (is that even possible?) and if I do say so myself, which I do, we rocked the house. I never realized how much cardiovascular fitness it requires to shout and sing and yell into the mic while strutting and jumping and waving your arms. Like I said before, incredibly fun.

Other than playing in the snow and playing music and being in a movie, I work and occasionally sleep. There is an infinite supply of laughter, of good food, of sitting in the sauna and skiing out into the cold. Life here is good. But I do miss animals, plants, smells, and the woods.

So that’s life at the South Pole.


Open mic night, go preppie-emo-Eli!

Open mic night, rocking so hard oh man.

Open mic night, so happy to be rocking.

My survival trench, pretty spiffy I think.

This is what it looked like from inside.

The boy is so happy with his survival!

This is how I dressed for snow-school. Yup.

How many polies does it take to set up a Scott tent?

Me 'n Raydene, King and Queen of the South Pole store.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On the way to Pole - pictures

The view out the window on the way from Christchurch to McMurdo. This is what Antarctica looks like people.

Us and our faithful steed, the C-17. We landed on sea-ice, and are being herded to busses that will take us to McMurdo Station, or new and temporary home.

McMurdo is big enough it has both power lines and stop signs. Whoa. We started calling it New Yorktica.

Ob hill! McMurdo has topography! I'm pretty envious actually. Not shown in this photo is the giant smoking volcano next to McMurdo. Yup.

Here I am on Ob hill! Oh! And there's a tiny little Australian on my shoulder, so cute!

The view out the window of our Basler to Pole. That's the trans-Antarctic mountains out there. Turns out they're beautiful. Who'd of guessed?

And yes. Here I am at the actual South Pole. The little tiny point that stays still while the rest of the world rotates around it.

Daniel and the dome, soon to be destroyed. The dome that is, I don't think Daniel is scheduled for destruction.

And me in the dome spitting out the glowing crystal that I created with my mind-power. South Pole is awesome.

And this is the South Pole.

The scenery is fairly minimal, but desolation has its own beauty.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So a botanist and a horse are at the South Pole...

Well, there's not really any horses here. But maybe we could make one out of cardboard and carpet scraps.

So I'm at the South Pole.
It's cold here, as you might expect. What you might not expect is how used to it everyone gets, and quickly too. Like today I was out helping move all of our food out of the old dome - which is destined for deconstruction - and everyone was very casually working away in the shade at about -50F. And last night, the wind died down and it was only -30 out, almost tropical! Me and a friend sat in the sauna for a while, then ran outside in our shorts and shoes to do a loop around the pole, and found it so bearable that we loitered at the pole for a few minutes, had a snowball fight, lost feeling in our hands, and bolted back to the sauna.

But I digress.

I got here about three weeks ago, just before Halloween. From Seattle, it took 11 days to get here, by way of Denver, LA, Sydney, Christchurch, and McMurdo station. We figured it was a total of about 30 hours of flying, whoa. But, from McMurdo we flew in a Basler. Baslers are awesome. They're tiny little planes (retrofitted DC-3s from the 30s, yup, the 30s) that work better in the ultra-cold than any modern planes. When you go above 10,000 feet you have to put an Oxygen tube in your nose. Like I said, awesome.

So that got me to pole. I already miss a lot of the people I met in Denver and had to leave at McMurdo (yup, miss you guys), but I'm settling in here.

THE SOUTH POLE: a fact sheet.
Elevation: 9300 feet
Average summer temp: -30F
Relative humidity: 3%
Thickness of ice under station: ~2 miles
Number of people here right now: 261
Hours of sun per day: 24
Amount of soft-serve ice cream I ate before the machine broke: so much
How I feel about the machine being broken: dismayed, horrified, despondant
What I eat instead: cake, but I'm thinking about ice cream the whole time

I live in the elevated station, the centerpiece of this giant work-camp they call South Pole station. This building is where everyone eats. It's where the gym is and the computer lab. It's where the sauna is, and the greenhouse too. Out the window of the galley you can see the ceremonial pole - positioned perfectly in front of the station. You can also see the real pole, which moves away from the station about 30 feet every year, as the ice the station sits on slides towards the ocean, pulling the whole operation with it.

All around the elevated station (named for the fact that the whole thing is on stilts in an attempt to prevent snow drifting) is scientific out-buildings, enormous telescopes, and a village of half-cylinder tents called Jamesways. The village is called summer camp and is home to most of the folks that live here as well as various carpentry shops, storage for everything, and the little climbing gym. Hurray for climbing!

We work six days a week - I'm about 2/3 in the greenhouse and spend the rest of my time working in the store - stocking beer and folding t-shirts - and doing training and drills with the rest of the trauma team. I mostly work alone, which can get a bit lonely. My main purpose is the greenhouse, which I'm cleaning right now. My mission is to get the place all cleaned and fixed up then plant it so when the last flight leaves (mid February) and the sun starts ducking for the horizon, the winter crew is already chowing on fresh veggies.

So here I am, working long hours and playing all night. Loving all of the wonderful folks down here, dancing and playing music. The hardest commodity to find here is sleep, both because of the social scene and because of the weirdness of 24 hour sunlight and living at high altitude. I do miss trees and mountains and rain and the smell of dirt. But really, I'm glad to be here.