Sunday morning we woke up early and got to McMurdo’s Movement Control Center (MCC),where we had dropped our bags off the night before, by 7:15am. Our flight to the South Pole was a backup to a flight that was going to WAIS Divide, which had been delayed for various reasons for over two weeks. We were told that they’d be in touch with us once they knew when our flight was going to have a chance to go out next. After a short nap and lunch, I hiked around the Observation Hill Loop another time and then re-packed my carry-on bag because I was afraid I’d have to fit it in the box (it would not have fit).
Sunday night the flight plans for the next day were on the TV by the Galley when we went to eat. Our flight to the Pole was a primary mission for the 1700 McMurdo time flight, but a backup for the 0900 flight, so we had to be back at the MCC at 7:15am again on Monday. I went to sleep early Sunday night, and walked into the MCC at about 7:05, just in time for them to tell us that the primary mission, another flight to WAIS (which had only been waiting just under two weeks) was going. We waited around McMurdo until it was time for us to report to the MCC again at 3:15pm. We got there early and waited around for a while, and eventually they told all of the South Pole passengers to get on the Delta, and the rest of the passengers that they were free to go.
This was the first Delta ride of the season for Sean and I, and we packed all 17 of the passengers on our flight into the back. We rode out to Willy Field and then waited around in the passenger terminal until it was time to go on to the plane. Our flight was originally scheduled to leave at 1700, but it was almost 1800 when we left for the plane and closer to 1830 when we took off. We flew in a LC-130 Hercules that’s owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the New York Air National Guard. It wasn’t as packed as the Herc that took us to McMurdo from Christchurch, and we had room to get up and walk around. The flight was about three hours, which I spent reading a book about Scott’s expedition to the Pole in 1912.
After about two and a half hours of the flight, we got told to put on our seat belts as we started our descent. One of the members of the flight crew started breathing oxygen out of a breathing mask at this point, since he wasn’t going to be staying on the ground for long. Soon, we landed on the Jack F. Paulus Skiway and taxied over close to the station.
The South Pole is officially at about 9300ft elevation, but the low pressure actually makes it feel like the altitude is higher. We had only a short 5-minute or so walk from our plane to the station, but it was exhausting.
We got off the plane and walked over past the sign officially welcoming us to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to Destination Alpha, the main entrance to the “Elevated Station”. We walked up a flight of stairs and were mercifully told to go into a lounge full of comfortable chairs and couches. It was only a short walk, but carrying my 40-lb carry-on bag from the plane and up the stairs left me exhausted at the altitude. We then got our arrival briefing, housing assignments, and an introductory video. After that, we were given a very quick rundown of where the important parts of the station were located and where our housing was located.
The Elevated Station, where just about everyone at the Pole stays, houses about 150 people. Our plane put the station population at 161, so some people were going to have to stay somewhere else. Since SuperTIGER was initially not planned to go through the Pole at all, we ended out in the “heated tents” known as Hypertats.
A Hypertat isn’t quite a tent, but it’s roughly the size and shape of a Janesway tent like the Galley at the LDB facility. The one that Sean, Dana, and I are staying in is called “Beth” and it has 9 small rooms in it. The rooms are a little longer than a standard twin bed and about twice as wide, so there’s enough room to sleep and keep your stuff, but not much else. All of the rooms have a wardrobe/dresser, and mine has a wire clothesline I can hang things on if needed. The Hypertat is heated—we’ve been keeping it about about 65 degrees fahrenheit—and it’s much more comfortable than I had imagined. This Hypertat is more or less dedicated to the SuperTIGER recovery team and the flight crew of the Basler plane that will be taking us into the field.
The downside of the Hypertat is that it’s about a third of a mile from the Elevated Station, and getting there and back is inconvenient, especially if you’re still adjusting to the altitude. Also, the bathroom facilities are an outhouse located about 15 feet outside the front door (or you can walk 10 minutes to the main station and use the heated toilets, but that’s inconvenient in the middle of the night).
Sean, Dana, and I walked over to our Hypertat after our arrival briefing. We dropped our checked bags and settled in for a little bit (and took a rest, because the walk over was pretty exhausting). Then we went back to the Elevated Station to return a phone call from the SuperGroom team at the SuperTIGER site. This was where we first went to the Comms department, run by the fire station, that serves as the nerve center for the South Pole complex. We talked with them and got a prioritized list of cargo. We were also told at that point that transporting the second snowmobile and other cargo out to SuperTIGER was the primary flight for the Twin Otter that was at the Pole the next morning. We went and got a snack and some water (and a strangely delicious Lime Drink) in the Galley and then went to the computer lab to check email.
There are only a few hours of Internet at the South Pole each day, depending on when the satellites they use are overhead. The satellite window right now starts at around 9:30pm and ends around 8am (although the best satellite ends its window closer to 7:30). Each day, the satellite window creeps forward by 4 minutes or so. The Galley has TVs with important station information on them, and satellite information is one of the main screens, along with other essentials like weather, the menu for the week, and incoming and outgoing flights. Then, we headed back to the Hypertat for the night. When we got there, I was exhausted. I could barely drag my checked bags (which had been delivered to our hallway) down to my room and then climb into bed.
We woke up early the next morning, after what was not a very restful night’s sleep. I had a bit of a headache, was exhausted just from walking, and felt like going back to sleep, but we needed to get all of our cargo together before the Twin Otter left. We had breakfast, but the altitude took away a lot of my appetite and I had to force the last few tater tots down. I was not feeling well at all, so it was both a relief and a disappointment when we were told that because of bad weather at the Pole the flight out to SuperTIGER was cancelled. We took that opportunity to head back to the Hypertat and nap until lunch.
After I got my appetite back and some food in me at lunch, I felt a lot better with the altitude. We talked to the cargo department and tracked down all of the things we needed for the field that had been shipped to the Pole already. We then got in touch (eventually) with the groom team and talked to them about the things that they wanted. When we got it all sorted out, we found out that a couple of things they wanted were still in McMurdo, but will be on the next flight out to the Pole. By this point, the Comms department knew us well because the groom team would call the station, and they would have no way of reaching us out in the Hypertat, so they’d have to call back again later.
We took a break before dinner and then went back to the Elevated Station. There, we got in touch with the groom team again and talked to Henry, the Twin Otter pilot, about the plan for the morning. At that point we thought the flight out to SuperTIGER would be the primary again, so we planned to meet at breakfast and then go help him load the plane.
After dinner I was so tired I couldn’t stay up for the satellite window that night, so I went out to the Hypertat and went to sleep early. This worked great until I woke up in the middle of the night for a couple of hours. Sean got some construction paper from the Arts and Crafts room and blocked out the windows on the front and back doors of the Hypertat, so we got it pretty dark.
Wednesday I woke up early to go catch the tail end of the satellite window for internet before breakfast. At breakfast, we were told that the Twin Otter was going to fly to a different site to put in a team that had been waiting at the Pole for almost a month. We also got news that the Basler that will put us in needed a replacement part.
In the morning, Dana volunteered washing dishes while Sean and I went back to cargo, tracked down a missing duffel bag, and then talked to the cargo office again. One of the things that we weren’t able to find that the groom team needed was transmission fluid for the snowmobile, so we went over to the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF).
Looking at the main station from our Hypertat, there are two almost-buried structures called the “arches” immediately to the right, which have snow ramps dug out so that people and vehicles can get in and out. The VMF is in the rightmost arch, and we walked down into the underground building. It was really cool looking, but also very cold. We got the oil we needed, and went and put it with all of our other cargo.
On our way in to lunch, we passed a group of tourists who had flown down with a private company (that also contracts a Kenn Borek Basler and a Twin Otter) who were getting a tour of the station. We walked in to the galley and almost immediately a member of the fire department told us that the groom team had called Comms trying to reach us again. We walked all the way back to Comms (on the opposite side of the station) and tried to call them back, but weren’t able to. After lunch, we got a radio for our team, that should let Comms call us if we get a call there again.
We didn’t have the radio long before we got a couple of different alerts on it. The first was that the Basler that had taken the tourists in was going to fly out soon, so Sean and I walked to the end of the building by the skiway and watched it take off from the observation deck. The second was that there was some help needed unloading a shipment that had come in.
I went to help unload, and there were two large boxes of drinks that were being unloaded. Enough people were helping that we just had to grab a box of drinks from one person and pass it to the next. It took about 20 minutes to get everything unloaded and mostly sorted. Some of it was going straight to the store, while the rest was going to a couple of storage rooms on the first floor of the station. I helped push the cart of boxes down to the first storage room and unload it, and then load it up again with a load for the next storage room. There were cases of beer, wine, liquor, Mountain Dew, Coke, and a few things of snacks.
Once that was unloaded, I went to find Dana and Sean. They were in the game room upstairs in the main station, and Sean had just talked to the groom team. The skiway is still a couple of days from completion, and apparently the part that the Basler needs is being flown in by a Basler from the Australian Antarctic Program today. We’ll see when it ends up getting here to Pole. We also talked a bit about shipping deadlines and how much time the Tiger Tail team will be able to spend at the SuperTIGER site.
After that, I went out to the Geographical South Pole marker and called my family with our satellite phone. It was weird to be able to call home with the phone in one hand but also have the South Pole marker in the other hand.
Before dinner, we went over to the station store for some souvenir and essential supply shopping (limit one package of Tim Tams a day. It’s a harsh continent). The store also doubles as the Post Office, which is open twice a week, so we went and bought some stamps tonight when it was open. I wrote a couple of postcards and had dessert (they have real ice cream here. I never thought I’d say it, but it’s much better than Frosty Boy. It’s a harsh continent). Our satellite window started just now, so I’m going to post this, check email, and go to sleep. We’re going to plan on helping the Twin Otter folks get the snowmobile loaded into the plane to take to SuperTIGER if all goes well.