John Jacobsen
Monday, January 22, 2007

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Earlier post The Big (Really really big...) Picture southpole

Later post All for McNaught southpole

Under way at last.

My flight to LA leaves in 40 minutes - the first of five flights, a migration of sorts. Flying south for the winter. Well, summer…

This is trip number six; as such, what I write about won’t be a complete blow-by-blow as I have done in earlier years (see the links to previous years on the sidebar), but you will get to see the trip digested through the eyes of an “old hand.” To get in the mood, let’s start with a few excerpts from my first trip, ten years ago…

December, 1996.


8:47 AM New Zealand time, Aukland airport.

New Zealand is cool!!!!

Everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. It’s green and wet.

A cyclone is expected to hit tonight. I totally love this place already. Gotta go, we’re taking off.


I think I have found the one place in the world more beautiful than Wisconsin. Way better than Hawaii, California, Switzerland… we’ll have to see about France.

On the coast near the Aukland airport, tiny green trees stick out of the shallow water like little puffballs. Everything is green and lush, a shock after Wisconsin. Apparently it frosts only a few times a year, and those are the bad winters. Lots of tiny roads and houses scattered about on irregularly-shaped land. Impending cyclones with 150 km/hr winds provide added excitement. I believe our aircraft took off just ahead of the storm.

Before takeoff, I thought we had a problem–smoke or steam was drifting into the cabin above our heads through long slits. No one else seemed to mind, so this is apparently normal. Maybe they want to keep people from drying out. I sure could use a hot bath, come to think of it.

Horse racing and cricket figure predominantly in sports news in the New Zealand Herald.

On the airplane telly last night (gotta start talking like the locals) there was a blurb on some sport that looked like it might be rugby, but I couldn’t tell. It was total mayhem–people running and kicking a football-like thing, catching it, tossing it around. Pure action but much more three-dimensional than soccer or football; it looked more like the pure hand-to-hand combat that all sports must have arisen from. [It was Australian Rules Football.]

Time for the second airplane breakfast of the day. I’m having fun!

4:45 PM, Jan 1, 1997, Hotel California, McMurdo Base, Antarctica Temperature, about 30 degrees F.



“Few people have ever seen this,” said Neck [our pilot]. I felt amazed that I had ever doubted that I would want to make this trip.

What began as a faint line of mountains gradually became a spectacular view. As we approached, I studied the approaching topography on the navigation chart, noticing the special symbol for crashed aircraft, and finding where one lay on the map not all that far from where we were flying. But the view soon overwhelmed my interest in the chart. I took many pictures which I hope will mitigate my inability to describe the mountains and long, winding glaciers. I [tried to see] the aerial view with both scientific and artistic eyes. Looking at rivers of ice and the clouds that flowed around them, I could see that ice and clouds/air have a lot in common in appearance and underlying form. Both flow through available channels, though on different timescales, and reflect the light hitting them with so much purity that one is not distracted by color, and can appreciate the near-still dance of pure form.

Especially beautiful were the contrasts between the raw, jagged faces of exposed rock and the breathlessly smooth contours of white, flowing ice, occasionally ripped in striations caused by sudden shifts of inclination in flow.


We passed close by town before landing on the skiway on the ice sheet beyond. From the air (and from the ground too), the town itself looks more like a collection of industrial freight boxes on black dirt and rock than a real town. It is, however, an actual town, with a peak summer population of 1200, a post office, a bank, a chapel, bars, apartments and dorms, laboratories, “roads” (stretches of dirt that people drive on, as opposed to stretches of dirt people don’t drive on), a hospital, and a power plant. As far as I know, the only thing McMurdo lacks is a cemetery. None of this is really apparent to the new observer from the air, cockpit view notwithstanding.

We passed the town and the rocky point it is on, and descended to the runway just behind it. All this while the crew was going through their landing checklist, acting very efficiently and professionally. I always like to see people do something they’re good at. And it was of course a tremendous thrill to see the runway rise up to greet the aircraft with a soft thud. Suddenly we were sliding down the ice, slowing down with reverse thrust, watching odd, orange tracked vehicles and equipment slide past. We went to the end of the skiway, turned 180 degrees, and parked. Not long after, I thanked the crew, and the other “beakers” [scientists] and I were led out on the ice towards a van with big tires and high suspension (like most McMurdo vehicles). It was quite warm, warmer than the Wisconsin I had left just a few days ago. I looked around. There was a great expanse of ice, and then mountains across the bay; nearby, the black hills hiding McMurdo from us jutted into the white plain. A single seagull or skua stood not far away. I was very excited. I had landed on The Ice.



I dozed and listened to music for a few hours, unpacked a few things, and pondered my situation while taking several trips in the snow out to the toilet and shower shack. It was there I met the guy who told me about the piss cans [makeshift chamber pots]. We also talked about other things about the Ice in general. I told him my impression of McMurdo was better because there was scenery there. He replied, “There’s scenery here, too. All you have to do is close your eyes.” Words to live by.

There really is no scenery here. It’s like being out in the middle of a frozen lake, except there is no end to it! The dome, various buildings, odd tracked vehicles known as “sprytes” as well as other trucks and construction equipment, the runway, and the ceremonial and true geographic poles, are it. They are within about a mile of each other. This is a small speck on an immense plain of ice. To think that Scott and his men made it here on foot boggles the mind. (Amundsen, who beat Scott by a few weeks, used sled dogs both to move men and gear, and to feed the men as well towards the end of the expedition. Amundsen made it back alive. Scott didn’t. The station is named after both of them.)

Fast-forward to 2007.

Airborne now en route to LAX, listening to “Dub Side of the Moon,” a thoroughly postmodern Reggae-Floyd mash-up (thanks, Todd) on the new red Nano courtesy of Santa Jobs and the Apple-cheeked elves of Cupertino. Fell asleep already before takeoff, and realized as I awoke to the trill of the engines that I could happily stay asleep until magically waking up in my small room in the A wing of the station, go for a quick jog on the treadmill, take my 2 minute shower, and start working. Sad, eh? I’m ready to be there before the trip has even gotten under way. I may think I know what to expect, but I know enough to know that there can be surprises1 good and bad when traveling to the Ice. If nothing worse than previous years occurs, I’ll be perfectly content. Once I get to Christchurch I’ll be in good shape. The concatenated series of three flights (4+13+2 hrs) is the hardest part of the trip.

For newcomers to the blog, the flight sequence is ORD->LAX->CHC->MCM->NPX: Chicago to LA to Auckland, NZ to Christchurch, NZ; get extreme cold weather (ECW) gear, fly to McMurdo station on the edge of Ross Island, then to South Pole. Acclimate to the altitude, then accomplish miracles.

A suitcase, a small backpack and a manly-purse are my only luggage items. Packing light is a challenge and a pleasure. Most of the way I won’t have to schlepp the big bag, but a long schlepp it is indeed, and I know what not to take now. Colleague Bob Morse told me, “all you really need is a toothbrush and some underwear.” He’s not far off. A laptop and a towel are the other necessities, though some people manage to do without the laptop (how?) and one colleague I know forgot his towel and had to suffer through until a fellow South-bound traveler could liberate one from a hotel in Christchurch for him. Some things I do take I wouldn’t have thought of on the first trip: spray bottle for extra humidity, clothesline for same (most clothes hang dry in <8 hrs in the driest, highest desert in the world). An extra bag to store summer clothes and other stuff I won’t need in Christchurch, and for gifts on the way home. Similarly, I give back perhaps 1/3 of the ECW gear in Christchurch, since I know I won’t wear it.

As the engines gunned for takeoff from Chicago I thought of the software tests on “new DAQ” we have been running for the past few weeks. Three or more of us in separate offices, separate cities, tethered together by online chat and daily conference calls, putting the software out on the “runway” (a bunch of networked computers), giving it lots of gas, and watching with bated breath to see if it took off. Cheering when it did, sighing when it crashed and burned, sending us back to the proverbial (digital) drawing board. It’s not exactly the way you build jet engines – thankfully, I thought, as we soared into the skies above O’Hare.

Or is it?

A few small personal and work goals for the trip:

  • Help to achieve and maintain hitherto-unseen stability and elegance in the data acquisition (DAQ) software;
  • Stick to a routine of sleep, meditative stretching, and running that keeps me healthy and positive. Keep up my running conditioning for Shamrock Shuffle and ‘07 Chicago Marathon;
  • Maintain good-natured and constructive dialogue with colleagues. Steer as clear as possible of any of the ugly politics that tend to crop up during summers at Pole;
  • Finish or at least take a good whack at Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” a brown-paged paperback copy of which I “borrowed” from the AMANDA lab in MAPO in the Dark Sector at Pole in 1998. I’ll be leaving the book (sans overdue book fines) behind in the library in the new station. I like Pynchon but have had trouble finishing anything except “The Crying of Lot 49.” But I’ve beaten Stephenson’s amazing Baroque Cycle (almost 3000 pages) twice now, so I may be ready for the “’Rainbow,” and if I can finish that maybe I’ll try “V” again or his latest brain-bashing brick of a novel;
  • Keep moving my drawing forward in bits and pieces. It has been a real source of pleasure of late to return to drawing. My focus has been on figurative drawing from life and from imagination, steered by a measure of storytelling or narrative intent. Originally I was going to make this a blog of drawings, and I may post some drawings if they “work,” but I’m going to leave it open-ended for the moment. But I have four sketchbooks and plenty of implements to play with;
  • Get completely caught up on episodes of Battlestar Galactica (my new favorite guilty pleasure);

Of course, the first goal (doing the actual work) will probably take up 99% of my time and energy.

Other differences between this trip and last year:

  • I’m supposedly lodging in the A wing rather than the B wing of the station - which may mean a larger, or at least a quieter, room.
  • The new gym (and, in fact, the remaining half of the newly-constructed station) is available.
  • I have no management responsibilities, since Kael (IceCube DAQ software lead) is coming at the same time - whew!
  • This trip is shorter by a week - also a good thing. Anything shorter than three weeks is perhaps not worth the long slog to the Ice. Anything longer starts to feel too long, though I’ve done six weeks and, of course, some people go for a year or more….

About this blog: apologies in advance if things are not explained enough or background details (such as what we’re building) go missing - if people have specific questions, they’re more than welcome to write – I’ll try to answer them here. Check out the old blogs too.




Surprises I or other colleagues have experienced en-route: wandering herds of penguins; tours of Scott’s Hutt; unexpected cabin depressurizations; being invited to sit in the cockpit during landings; flights “boomeranging” (having to turn back due to weather or mechanical issues); scenic flights over active volcanoes or through canyons; and, of course, sitting around Christchurch or McMurdo for hours to dozens of days, waiting for the weather to clear or for a needed replacement aircraft part to arrive from somewhere in the US military’s global infrastructure.

Earlier post The Big (Really really big...) Picture southpole

Later post All for McNaught southpole

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