My Furthest South
For a couple minutes today, I was the guy standing on the south pole. You may have noticed the minor perturbation in the earth's rotation. You might have noticed something unusual about the way the grounds settled when you stirred your coffee. If you're someone who cares about me, you might have looked at the sky or imagined to yourself that you were here with me, or maybe you wished I wasn't here at all. Let me talk to you about this. Let me tell you about my being here and what it feels like to be here. I can't say I understand why I feel it's important that I come here. The only thing that comes to mind is that it's a challenge. It's not within the grasp of everyone to get to the south pole. I didn't think it was in mine. And now here I am. It might have changed me (again).
When I stood on the pole I sent love and good wishes to everyone north of me, which at that point was literally everyone. I have the feeling a lot of people do that. Today is my first day at pole and from the galley in the new station you can see the south pole marker and inevitably there'll be a red parka there. Someone standing looking down at the marker itself, or out toward the horizon. Someone stands there and thinks to himself for a while, then goes away.
I bet it happens a lot.
The thing about the pole is that in addition to being a location fabricated by mankind and his maps, it's also an astronomical location. The earth really does spin around the pole. And unlike McMurdo which is surrounded by mountains and islands and the biggest Mt. Erebus|mother of a volcano you can imagine, there's nothing here at the pole except flat white. So it looks exactly the same no matter what time of day.
At McMurdo, you can tell what time it is by the color of the light bouncing off Mt. Discovery or the way the sea ice looks. But at pole, it just always looks the same.
When I got off the plane this morning, I came to the station, watched my orientation video, and then went to my room and passed out. I was feeling completely hypoxic. I reminded myself that I expected to feel hypoxic, which didn't make matters all that much better. Being horribly hypoxic is like being drunk only slightly worse. When you're drunk your mind isn't considering that you're suffocating to death. The good thing about me is that I've had a lot of practice being drunk in public when I have had to be on my best behavior (like all the times I was at business meetings in Tokyo). So my life's experiences helped me endure hypoxia. It's the knowing that the reason for my drunkenness was the "oxygen starvation to the brain" part that added the color to the moment.
It went like this.
When the herc landed at pole, it didn't stop moving. We did a 180 at the end of the skiway, and then the flight crew opened the big back door to the plane. A guy came down from the cockpit with a MASSIVE video camera and began to film as the loadmaster started crawling all over the cargo. And there was a lot.
We were only 4 passengers , and plane was filled to the brim with heavy wooden crates tied down with cargo netting. The loadmaster came back to the front of the plane, where we were sitting, and he pushed on what must have been 20 tons (no exaggeration) of cargo. It began to roll backward. Then he shouted something, and the pilot gunned the engines.
The plane lurched and twenty tons of cargo went sailing out the back of the plane onto the ice. It was exhilarating to watch, and I didn't have my camera out at the time so I have no pictures of it. But also, I know that still pictures wouldn't do the event any justice. The whole scene was backlit with the brilliant sunlit ice glaring from the opened rear or the plane, and the inside of the plane was dark. Also, there's no capturing the sound of the cargo moving, and the feeling of the plane jolting forward. You'll have to take my word for it, it was impressive. Imagine a 747 going from being packed to almost completely empty in less than 5 seconds.
Then, we were the only things left to unload. The pilot swung into position somewhere, and stopped the plane but didn't shut off the engines. He didn't even slow them down -- just feathered them so the plane wouldn't move.
A crewman opened the front door and told us it was ok to go. I had previously suited up in all my emergency cold weather gear |ECW gear before we landed, because I knew they were going to open the doors suddenly and we were going to be exposed to -50F weather. So I had on about fifteen pounds of clothes, which I had mistakenly arranged so they were constricting my chest slightly. This didn't seem to matter at clothing distribution center|CDC when I tried everything on, nor at McMurdo when I went to bag drag.
I was carrying 40 pounds of stuff. Twenty pounds of various clothes and camera lenses, and twenty pounds of laptop computer and other things. It didn't seem heavy back at McMurdo.
I had to twist and struggle to get out the crew door, and then I hit the ice and started walking away from the plane, whose four props were still blasting away at taxiway speeds. The safety videos all warn us to remain calm around running machinery. I'd finally mastered getting into and out of helicopters when the blades are thumping. It takes a while to get yourself to believe you're not going to be cut to ribbons. But I hadn't done blade-spinning C-130 evacuation training, and so my adrenaline pumped a bit. I walked slowly, but those engines are loud.
My first breath of air was like a cold splash in the face. I literally swallowed a gasp and reminded myself it was air, and not water. Then my heart started to race and I began, ironically, to sweat. It was as if I couldn't catch my breath. Like I was holding my breath and I couldn't stop holding my breath no matter what I did.
The whole time this was happening I was walking away from the plane toward a complex of buried buildings, but I honestly had no idea where I was supposed to go, nor did anyone point the way. All I could think was that it would be entirely stupid and would make the front page of a lot of newspapers if I simply collapsed to the ice, and died suffocating.
My ears began to ring. I just kept moving. My fingers began to tingle and I staggered.
And then I just couldn't believe I was going to die even though my body thought it was. It made no sense. I knew tens of polies. Many of them from homes and jobs at sea level. None of them even blinked when they talked about the pressure altitude except to say: "yeah, it's pretty high." It would be great to talk about determination and guts here, but I was doing something hundreds of people did every year, and tens did every day. Getting out of the plane and walking to the new station is the trial all pole visitors face, and nobody falls down dead. Everyone grunts and sucks wind. Nobody drops dead.
This was going through my head as I walked -- that nobody died doing what I was doing. My clothes were tight on my chest and I made a decision. Loosen my parka. Wind would get in and start freezing me, but it wouldn't feel like a gorilla had me in a bear hug. In retrospect, it was probably an ok idea. I was overheating anyway, and the freedom calmed me down at bit. And now, standing on the polar plateau with my black computer bag and my orange bag full of clothes, I had no idea where to go. No one had met the plane. At McMurdo, you went from the plane directly to a transport vehicle. I was roaming aimlessly suffocating about 200 yards from the geographical south pole.
I located the moving red parkas of two of the people who were in the plane with me and followed them. They seemed to be heading nowhere useful. We were passing buildings and they were walking, and I figured if worse came to worse, I'd just go into the new station building, walk to the first office I saw, and ask someone what to do.
Eventually we got to a stairway the went up about 50' (which seemed a very cruel climb in my state). There was a sign at the base of the stairway that said, "DESTINATION ZULU". God knows what that means. I still don't know.
I went up the stairs, keeping in mind to go slowly. Keep sweating to a minimum. Try to remain conscious. After a couple minutes I was at the top landing, sweating next to a thick steel door. I knew it was going to be warm inside, and I didn't want to get blasted with 80-degree air when I was sweaty and wearing six layers of clothes. So I stripped off my hat and balaclava. My outer gloves and my goggles.
And when I was done I looked out at the south pole from the landing.
It was a level from Dante's Inferno. It looked like a field of volcanic fumeroles. It looked, literally, like I imagine the end of the world will look. There were clouds of steam rising from heavy machinery, diesel generators, and various ventilation ducts. The ground was solid white and piled in hummocks. The sun blazed mercilessly through a sky that seemed nearly black. It was in absolute truth, hell frozen over.
And then I turned and opened the heavy steel door, pushed through some thick plastic sheets, and came face to face with a woman wearing hornrimmed glasses and sandals holding a yellow booklet with my name on it.
She said, "Joe?"
Then I was a polie.
The temperature is -46.9 C / -52.4 F and there's a 6.6kt wind which gives a windchill of -60.7 C / -77.3 F. The barometer is at 670.7 mb so it's the same as being on a mountain 10981 ft high.
I'm going to tell you something you're not going to believe.
It's this: the whole outside thing is no big deal. As long as you paid attention in survival school, you can operate at those temps and not even feel the cold. I was toasty warm standing on the earth's south pole. I did not get frostbite even though my face was uncovered and skin is supposed to freeze in 20 seconds, and I did not pass out from hypoxia.
I'm realizing that if you follow the "rules" about how to live in this place, it can be done safely and happily, with hardly any adventure at all. However, they did mention (in the 24-minutes instructional video I saw), that I was a minimum of 12 hours from the nearest civilized hospital and that any kind of health related issue would be impossible to fix without airlift. And the planes have been stalled getting down here (mine was the first in for 2 days).
But that said, I feel fine. I had a nice nap after my instructional video. I had a great dinner. Cookie John is world-renowned for his restaurant meals, and here at the south pole the food makes McMurdo food seem like prison gruel.
I took another little nap after dinner and woke up feeling about 95% great. Still a little headache, but I drank another liter of water and took some Motrin.
Now, everyone in the world advises rest on your first day at pole because everyone suffers the same hypoxic shock. I saw my friend Charlie Kaminski in the hallway while I was roaming around the station, and he advised me to go back to my room and rest. But after my second nap I was feeling peachy and so I figured I had to start on my acclimatization as I'm only going to be here for 3 days, total. So I suited up, went down the beer can, and walked over to the dome.
An interesting thing about the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is that it's criss-crossed underground by a network of tunnels. I wound up in a couple of these tunnels by sheer accident and to say it's cold in there is like saying sumatran tigers are fluffy and orange. It was so cold my windpants began to make stiff crinkling noises with every step. The ground shifted under my weight -- and what I mean by this is what Scott meant when he wrote in his journal that the grains of snow made weird clinking and clanking noises when he walked. At first I thought I was going to fall through into some subice cavern below. But nothing of the sort happened. What happened is that I was passed by an impatient polie, who thanked me when I yielded the right of way. Eventually I wound up at the entrance to the dome.
There I went to comms where I was invited to use the ham radio shack. I tried to no avail to contact someone from the famous KC4AAA station situated within the south pole dome, but propagation was terrible, and all I heard was static. The comms folks, Tracy and Mark, invited me to come back whenever I wanted to operate. They said propagation was good in the afternoon, and so I will try then. It will be about 6PM eastern time, 3PM pacific, and noon here. So if you're a ham radio operator, please listen for KC4AAA on 20 meters around 14.250Mhz then, and I will try to speak to you.
I still haven't brought my camera outside, because I'm pretty sure that -53F will kill it fast, but I'm going to have to try before long. I will get some dome pictures, as the dome is going to be torn down soon. I'll have someone take my hero shot at the pole, and I'll get pics of the new station.
Another fact about pole is that we only have network connectivity for 10 hours per day. And it's a rotating 10 hours. Right now, it's 4AM. The window moves about 4 minutes per day.
It's an inconvenience, but if you think about it, the fact we have a network at all is amazing. The fact we have indoor plumbing and electric sockets we can plug things into is incredible given what Amundsen and Scott went through. What would they think if they saw all this?
I doubt I'll have time to integrate to the culture. I leave Tuesday morning and it's Saturday already.
The being here will have to be enough. Like the instructional video said, "we're all lucky to be here." It also reminded us to eat all the food on our plates in the galley, as transport costs and overhead assure it is literally the most expensive food on earth. And there's lots of it. It's like being on a cruise. There are 4 meals per day, but you can go into the galley at any time and eat something. I found the chocolate-chip/walnut/raisin/oatmeal cookies to be fabulous.
We estimate it costs the program about $10,000 dollars U.S. per day per person to keep us in Antarctica. This is a fully loaded number, meaning things like flying C-130s and helicopters are included, even if you don't fly in those. But still, as vacations go, this is a very expensive club for someone. That someone is all of you who pay taxes to the federal government.
There are probably other civilian programs that eat up this kind of cash. The USAP takes about $250M per year, which in the grand scheme of Washington is pocket change. And the bureaucrats we deal with in Washington convey the attitude that the program is exactly that. With wars and natural disasters on home soil, nobody really gives a damn about what goes on down here. We'll spend a lot more on disaster relief this year than polar science. Frankly, we all think that's exactly the right prioritization for application of funds. But it leaves the people in this program in the interesting position of having their productivity and output largely unjudged. And when the powers-that-be aren't watching closely how their money is spent, inefficiency can occur and I believe you might be able to say that's happening down here.
If the $200M Ice Cube project suffers schedule delays and misses finding the neutrinos its looking for, not a lot is going to suffer in terms of quality of life for Americans.
Meanwhile we're all down here at the bottom of our planet. We're working. We're living.
We're having the sort of life we imagine our heros had. And we're the only ones who think that.
I will put one monitor outside by the skiway where the planes land, and one inside the station. My colleagues will come here in January and remove them to get their data. There's some minor controversy about this I don't yet understand. But I will deploy the sensors and get out of town.
Then I'll be back north like all the normal people, and someone else will stand on the pole.
November 5th, 2005 -- South Pole Station