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Trip Number Ten

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Shower Instructions

Wednesday, Nov. 23 2011 4:09 a.m. UTC

Nov. 23, 2011 14:53 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Forlorn Slippers

How to take a twenty second shower

First, work up a sweat in the gym or the sauna. Change out of all clothes except flip flops (you might want to go into the bathroom first). Turn water temperature to maximum heat without turning on water yet. Get towel, soap, washcloth and shampoo ready.

Apply water to washcloth for 1/2 second, then turn off shower immediately. Wet hair and dampen body. Apply shampoo to hair and lather. Rub end of soap on towel to get it soapy. Rub soapy towel across entire body and scrub with towel.

Step into shower and turn on water. The first five or six seconds of water will be COLD. Use this to rinse hair. As the water warms, rinse off the rest of your body. It only takes a few seconds to get the soap off (short hair is definitely an advantage here). If the water gets too hot either turn off the shower and get out or turn the heat down for the last five seconds.

Dry off and enjoy that clean feeling.

Busy last few days. My departure time has been moved forward by two days, so I’m pushing a little harder to get through all the training exercises I came up with for the WOs, as well as helping out with some software upgrades on our servers. My ragged sleep schedule is back, but I’m in pretty good spirits today. I’m also keeping busy in my free time, going to the gym, reading a novel (“Surface Detail”) left here by ex-WO Freija, listening to Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE, learning a new programming language (Clojure), and have started writing a book of my own….! (Don’t hold your collective breaths, it’s going to be awhile.)

Thanksgiving is on Saturday here. That’s Friday for most of you; I suppose the reason for the delay is to avoid having to give people an extra day off (as far as I can tell, non-scientists here get one weekend day off per week; scientists take off when they want, which is usually never). That may seem unreasonable but if people take time off there are no flights, no cargo, no meals, etc. — it costs a lot to keep people here so I guess it makes sense to use that time as productively as possible. Thanksgiving and Christmas are a big deal at the Pole (I’ve heard). There are three seatings, the second one of which I signed up for, as well as dish duty afterwards. I like washing dishes here — it’s an excuse to plunge your hands into warm water (compare with shower instructions, above) and move around after a day sitting at the computer.

Gary prepares to meet the plane

Off-roading it

Fresh Air and Bananas

Sunday, Nov. 20 2011 1:44 a.m. UTC

Nov. 20, 2011 12:49 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Peek-a-boo with the Ceremonial Pole

Sunday here, so a light work day. Station has been pretty quiet all day. Slept a solid 8 hours, had a banana and oatmeal for breakfast, then suited up and went out for a walk. It’s funny, yesterday morning I had a dream about bananas, and then the first bananas showed up on-station. I’m eating one now (hi Dad!).

If you don’t go outside you forget how amazing it is out there. You get to feeling like you are living on a cross between a cruise ship (comfy and isolated) and an aircraft carrier (not so comfy but still isolated). We are indeed floating on an ocean… a solid one. But the solidity of the water doesn’t always make it easier to get out and about, if you’re sleeping on station and your duties don’t take you outside.

Get out, though, and it’s another story. The air is cold, yes (100 degrees colder than inside the station) but it is fresher than any most other air you could conceivably breathe — the cleanest air in the world, they say. When you walk, the snow squeaks like styrofoam. It actually sounds hollow and had me wondering if it was at all possible to encounter crevasses at this part of the Polar Plateau. After several days of crystal-clear skies, there are a few clouds, doing their usual it’s-so-cold-and-flat-here-let’s-also-do-the-flat-thing thing. Nearby, the power plant belches a steam cloud the size and speed of about one Graf Zeppelin flying away every ten seconds.

Went out to the Geographic and Ceremonial Poles just to say hi and look around. I have been noticing that the horizon here is not strictly flat — there is a slight rise between the end of the skiway and the Clean Air building, which is easy to see if you look for it from the Galley, and still noticeable from the Pole markers. What passes for terrain is a barely visible inflection of an otherwise perfect horizon.

Went to the gym and did some stretching, sat, and just got back from brunch. In short, between some fresh fruit, a couple of good night’s sleep, and a stroll, I’m in better spirits today. I know that getting outside is part of it and so I moved all my ECW gear to the coat room near Destination Zulu so I don’t have to drag it out of my room every time I feel like a stroll. I don’t think I want to do a lot of running outside (my co-worker Carlos regularly does 10k or more out on the skiway—he just passed in front of the window in front of my desk mere seconds ago, covered in frost), but will make more time for walks, and continue my runs on the treadmill.

Traveller and the Human Chain

Thursday, Nov. 17 2011 4:20 a.m. UTC

Nov. 17, 2011 11:39 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Summer camp from the A4 wing

Just helped form a human chain to bring the mail into the Station, brought to Destination Alpha Zulu by a snowmobile/sled combo and a front loader from Cargo, and swapped hand-to-hand up the stairs into the airlock to the Post Office. Mail is a big deal here, and I’ve enjoyed getting it in the past, so it’s fun to be a part of that, even if just a few minutes.

Though I’ve continued to acclimate and have started running in the Gym, I have not been sleeping well. Not sure why, because, though noisy, it’s not as loud as it’s been in the past. It’s still bearable. But I have to admit it feels as there is no getting away from this place sometimes. Getting through a few weeks is enough of a challenge that I find it hard to imagine a whole year (much less multiple years like some winter-overs here have done). I do remember, however, that it always seems to take a period of adjustment to get into a rhythm here. The irony of the short trips I usually take is that I’m generally more or less settled in by the time I leave.

At some point I owe returning readers to this blog an explanation. Though I’ve always looked at my trips to the Pole as potentially “the last time” (as any visit to an extremely strange/strangely extreme place can be), I was pretty sure last season WOULD be the last time, since we were done with IceCube construction. I kind of made a big deal out of it, and said my goodbyes to this place in this blog last January.

Clearly I was wrong, since here I am. The reason why is that we still have to run the experiment we built, at great cost and effort, for many years to come. Each season we have new winter-over scientists, who have to get trained in many different, rather technical and esoteric areas relating to the operation of the detector itself. This includes the maintenance of roughly 150 servers in our laboratory building, keeping an eye on network switches, disk and tape drives, UPSs, etc.; and running a dozen or so homebrew software subsystems, each written (mostly) by physicists, and each with its own characteristic quirks and features. Though we do some days training on a test system in Madison, Wisconsin, there is no substitute like training in situ, and so my task for this early-season visit is to help facilitate that training, to answer those questions I can answer, to provide exercises and training tasks which will help them prepare for the coming year. My hope was also to get a bit more caught up on various programming tasks (a hope so far not really realized).

All this raises the question, how many more times am I going to do this? Some of you probably figured out long before I did that I might have to actually “decline further missions” if I want to be certain that this trip (or any future one) is the last.

To contemplate further trips requires some notion of how such work aligns with one’s goals and aspirations.

In the 1980s, at the height of the Dungeons and Dragons-inspired craze, my friends and I would occasionally take a break from D&D to play a science-fiction variant called Traveller. The basic idea is the same as D&D — one person 'creates the world’ and the other players create characters who do various things in the world, with a sort of story unfolding spontaneously out of the interactions between the characters and the world, and each other. But rather than knights and magicians entering lairs of monsters, in Traveller, one learns esoteric skills and then travels from planet to planet to carry out various adventures. Worlds can vary wildly in climate, culture, and technological sophistication, from backwards forested planets to dazzling urban arcologies to frozen wastes….

The first few times I arrived at Pole, it felt like I was in a Traveller game. The military modes of transportation; the quirky, unwashed characters; the utter lack of scenery; the only-slightly-breatheable atmosphere; and the elusive sub-atomic quarry we were hunting… it was all just so damned sci-fi. Of course the old Station with its ’70s-era geodesic aluminum dome and the somewhat ramshackle orange buildings within, the slightly chaotic, dirty charm of the place, contributed to the atmosphere of duct-tape-and-gritty-humor. I loved that aspect of it… in a way, I guess I was living out the dream we had carved out gaming in my friend Fred’s basement fifteen years earlier, and in the books and films I consumed wholesale throughout my (er, extended?) adolescence.

Now, much of that feeling has been worn away with familiarity. I’ve been asking myself what’s left when you take away that sci-fi feeling. The South Pole is a job site. People make money here, make and lose friends, fall in and out of love, go to the bathroom, get inspired or depressed (or both), have accidents, get older. What arises to fill the absence of the fantasies that this place used to fulfill? Other than, of course, the physical and emotional discomfort — sleeplessness, chapped hands/lips/elbows/..., headaches, light-headedness, shortness of breath, sinuses made of wood, lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, two minute showers twice a week, lack of privacy, restricted entertainment options, lots of rules, nowhere to go.

I don’t have the answer now but I’m living it, whatever it is. It seems to be something about how to maintain cheerfulness under discomfort and duress. About trying to stay curious about other people when your own life doesn’t feel that easy. About the gap between when someone coughs in an adjacent berthing and when the wind rattles the wall behind your pillow. About enjoying small things like a good cookie or a shared laugh. About accomplishing what you set out to do, with as much contentment as you can manage. And, when you leave, about the satisfaction of seeing night time, and leaves, and (liquid) water, and loved ones again.

Regardless of whether or how I return here in the future, at the moment, getting to know some of these things better is the way forward: both the effort, and the reward.

Gary tries out a helmet

Departing Hercules

Shadow and Summer Camp

Station Exterior

Destination Alpha

Carlos after a 10k run at -40F/-40C


Monday, Nov. 14 2011 7:46 p.m. UTC

Nov. 15, 2011 05:36 NZDT Berthing A4-209, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Fire sled next to refueling pit

Well, that’ll wake you up nice and quick. We just had a fire alarm which went on for long enough to get everyone out of bed and the fire team half-dressed for action. False alarm, apparently.

I’ve had a checkered history with fire alarms here. A few years ago when they were testing out the system, I was on night shift. Of course, testing only occurred during the day. So for about four days I could be practically guaranteed to be pulled out of bed (or at least woken up by the shrieking of the alarm in my room) a couple of times a night. Sleep is a precious commodity at South Pole (altitude and noise conspire to make it challenging for me), and I was not a happy camper.

But testing or no, frequent fire alarms are a fact of life here. Though it may seem counter-intuitive with the cold, the practically zero percent humidity and frequent high winds make fire an ever-present hazard. Couple that with the remoteness of the Station and, well, you take it seriously. If a fire starts, help will not arrive from McMurdo on time, except to collect the injured.

And even that assistance can only come in summer. As I understand it, every winter-over is either on the fire team or the trauma team. There is no “Let’s sit around and let’s see how it plays out” team.

We had a real incident here a few days ago with a glycol spill in the power plant. Fortunately everyone was OK but we had to reduce power consumption for several hours afterwards while they cleaned up and brought everything back online. A similar episode happened a few years ago which resulted in injuries and medical evacuations.

So I’m OK with false alarms.

Now to try to get back to sleep. Morning, all! :-)

(Postscript: beat the odds and managed to sleep a few more hours. Sometimes you’re so tired that you can just sleep no matter what.)


Sunday, Nov. 13 2011 4:17 a.m. UTC

Nov. 13, 2011 16:35 NZDT B2 Science, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Feeling a bit run down this afternoon. Got up and decided it was my first “workout” day, working out consisting of twenty minutes of walking since this is still just my fourth day here. Had a nice walk and a bit of a stretch, and then a SHOWER, my first since McMurdo. Feeling pretty peppy, I had decided today would mostly be a day off, to rejuvenate and prepare for the week ahead. I was headed back to my room to practice, and ran into WO Carlos who informed me that a server had crashed in the IceCube Lab (ICL) and that the detector was therefore running short one string. So much for a day off, but this was another training opportunity, training being primarily what I came down for. Sven and Carlos and I suited up and Sven got a snowmobile with passenger sled ready (I was happy not to have to walk the half-mile distance there and back, having perhaps already pushed it a bit by walking in the gym).

I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote the other day, about being tuned into differences between this trip and previous ones. In fact, I have mostly been struck by the sameness. The rhythm of the plane rides here, the same faces year after year, the process of acclimatizing to altitude, the same nooks and crannies (unmarked bathrooms, locations of semi-private phones for calling home) — much has simply not changed at all (at least in the past several years, since the new station was built). It feels as though this place is on another plane altogether, not part of Earth or the world at all, a kind of parking ground for (temporarily?) lost souls. I would liken it to the Tibetan notion of bardo, but bardo is an in-between state between incarnations, and this place doesn’t feel in-between at all to me, but somehow out of the normal flow of things. Limbo, perhaps.

A shift in perspective came to me as I was riding the sled out to the ICL. The winds are still quite high, keeping the wind chills below -60F, and making snow drifts and sastrugi everywhere. As we crossed the skiway I looked out across the vast space and thought about the drifting snow, the constant shifting and drifting, and realized that the change I was curious about, in myself and in others, is more subtle, a building and shifting over time which is hard to notice even on the time scale of months or years. Yesterday in the galley a colleague of many years, Robert, looked at me and said, “You’re getting grey, man.” True enough. The wearing of time sometimes is noticed not in sudden shifts but in gradual drifting, accumulation, wear and tear and the greying of hair. Doesn’t sound cheerful, I guess, but it was actually a pleasant notion to contemplate as we zipped across the wide white waste.

After which, of course, we quickly fixed what needed fixing and headed back for brunch.

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