Couch Surfing at the South Pole

By Laura Moon Parmeter (UWRF Undergraduate)

It’s so hard to write this blog post because it’s impossible to describe the feeling you get being at the Pole. The South Pole has been one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Even with it being -40 wind-chill! Everyone is so nice and has the same adventurous attitude! There are only about 150 people, which is max capacity for the station. Just passing people walking down the hall everyone has a smile on their face and is so friendly. Because of the small space that we work in there is always people to talk to. Everyone hangs out at the end of the day in the game room lounge. Doesn’t matter what your job title is, firefighter, scientist/grantee, mechanical engineer, cook, etc, all hang out together. You get to meet some amazing people!

Image reflected in ceremonial South Pole marker.
Image reflected in ceremonial South Pole marker.
South Pole Station.
Amundsen-Scott station

We actually arrived to the pole on the day we were scheduled to!! With it being above 9000 feet the sudden altitude change made things difficult. Just walking up the stairs made you winded. So the first day we took it easy and just wandered around the station getting acclimated. This station is newer than McMurdo and has so many accommodations. There’s a gym and a workout center, two movie rooms (so full of movies I don’t think I could watch them all even if I wintered over), a music room, game room (with a pool table, dart board, and foosball table), a greenhouse, quite reading room (with a ton of books!), a science lab, and a sauna!

The green house growing lights and my camera did not get along
The green house growing lights and my camera did not get along

The food at the Pole is so much better than the food at McMurdo! The first day we arrived there were raspberry blondie brownies made by a lady who owners her own bakery back in the states. Another day we got filet mignon and crab legs! They even have fresh apples and oranges. I never thought I would eat so well in a cafeteria.

We were only scheduled to be at the South Pole for 5 days, so the next day we got to work! We wandered out to the IceCube lab (ICL) to set up the muon tagger equipment. We also checked out the neutron monitors, some bare inside the science lab, others fully covered and insulated sitting outside.

After getting most of our work done we changed gears a bit. We helped with the artists and writers program. Two artists want to recreate some historic photos from Antarctica, but because room space in limited at the Pole they were unable to come. So we got a GoPro camera from them and a Scott tent from the station. The tent was just a little too tall so we had to dig a trench and bury it about 3 feet. Part of the reenactment of the photos was to do interviews of the people participating. While Dr. Madsen and Robert were outside in the cold filming people, I was inside in the warmth of the station doing the interviews. This gave me the opportunity to get to know a lot of people very fast.

Digging the trench for the tent
Digging the trench for the tent
One of my favorite groups reenacting a famous photo. These men are all firefighters and amazing characters to hang around with
One of my favorite groups reenacting a famous photo. These men are all firefighters and amazing characters to hang around with

Before we knew it the five days were up. Our flight was scheduled to leave on Monday. Normally we need to check in our bags the day before (called “bag drag” because you literally have to drag your bag to the check in spot). But because we were leaving on Monday we had to bag drag on Saturday because on Sunday they weren’t working. We are allowed one carry-on bag to keep with us, but it has size restrictions. So the key is to try and balance how many clothes to bring but still keeping in light. The problem is you never really know when you’re leaving.

At the Pole the flights are done a little differently. First a flight will come in and drop off people and cargo. They won’t even shut of the engines before they start loading it with new cargo and people leaving the pole. They’re only on the ground for maybe an hour if everything goes as planned. So our flight came in at 11:30 pm and we all got on the plane at 12:30 am. We flew for about 45 min before they decided the weather was too bad in McMurdo so we had to turn around (what was surprising to me was that the weather was hardly ever bad at the south pole, always sunny and very little wind). We got back to the pole and had a 2 hour window were, if the weather cleared,  we would still take off. So we waited around till 3:30 am before they finally decide to call it a day. They shut off the plane’s engines… This could be bad… very very bad…! Once you shut off the engines it’s very hard to get them started again. It’s just too cold at the Pole. Also once they shut down the plane their navigation systems start to act funny and they can’t fly unless they have perfect weather conditions.

Needless to say we were stuck at the Pole until Friday. With weather delays and problems with the skyway our 5 day trip turned into 10 days. Before the boomerang flight I was ready to go. Five days were long enough for me and I was starting to get home sick. But by the end of the five extra days at the pole I didn’t want to leave!!! After we boomeranged and got back to the station our rooms were already given away. And now the station was over max capacity with 177 people. They had no more rooms for us. So they set up 10 beds in the gym. The flight crew slept in one of the movie rooms on the couches while other people found couches in the other lounges. I had the time of my life! Couch surfing pro!!!

SpiceCore, 50,000 year old ice!
SpiceCore, 50,000 year old ice!

With this extra time we got to tour a few things. We went and saw SpiceCore. We were lucky enough to show up right as they were bringing up a core. The ice was 50,000 years ago! We also got to launch a weather balloon. We got pretty friendly with the weather man Oregano who brought us frequent weather updates. We got a tour of the South Pole Telescope and also got to see the ice tunnels were the piping for the station is ran. The tunnels were really cold, about -50. At the end of that tour we got to climb a 30 foot ladder to get out of the tunnels. That was a little scary considering we just spend an hour in freezing temperatures and my hands were starting to go numb.

I got to let go of the weather balloon!
I got to let go of the weather balloon!

 

30 foot ladder we had to climb to get out of the tunnels (see Robert's post below)
30 foot ladder we had to climb to get out of the tunnels (see Robert’s post below)

We got back to McMurdo and spent a few more days doing some work at Cos-Ray. We got to go inside discovery hut, which you’re only allowed to do with a guide.

 

Robert Zill at the South Pole

By Robert Zill

We made it to the South Pole! After all the troubles we’ve had up to this point with flights getting down here, it was a relief to make it to the Pole successfully on the first try (see featured photo by Delia Tosi, IceCube, UW-Madison). Upon our arrival, there were some very excited IceCubers waiting for us outside on the skiway to welcome us to the station. It was nice to know that we had friends there waiting for us! We then sat through an orientation video in one of the lounges to familiarize ourselves with the station. The main difference between the South Pole and McMurdo is that it takes significantly more resources to make water at the pole. For this reason they are stricter about things like showering. You are only allowed to take two showers per week and they can’t be more than two minutes long.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Elevated Station
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Elevated Station

Another big difference about being at the pole is that with the exception of the experimental facilities such as IceCube, everything is located in one building. Labs, lounges, bedrooms, the galley and the gym are located in what is called the “elevated station.” It makes sense that everything is one place there because it was typically -20 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills of less than -40 while we were there. You don’t want to go very far without gearing up in your ECW!*

ICL, the IceCube Lab
ICL, the IceCube Lab

Getting around to the different sites at the South Pole can be done by taking a “sled.” This is what they call their snowmobiles. There are also a variety of trailers so that you can haul equipment or more

Happy times with the neutron monitors
Happy times with the neutron monitors

people to the site you are visiting. Since we were not staying at the pole for very long, none of us opted to take the snowmobile training session so that we could drive, but we often found ourselves getting a ride from one of the IceCubers.

After getting acquainted with the technician who has been taking care of the neutron monitors, we went out to see the sites where they were located. There were three large and heavily insulated enclosures for the three tubes that were kept outside, identifiable by their distinctive smiley faces. There were also some bare tubes inside the station that contained helium 3, though they lacked the smiley face trademark.

Muon Tagger test in ICL
Muon Tagger test in ICL

The IceCube building is referred to as ICL, and we went there to set up our muon tagger and see it in action at the South Pole. There were some hiccups in the process of getting it to run smoothly and take data how we wanted it to, but after working with the electronics and consulting with Joe back at River Falls, we got it to work almost how we wanted it to. There are still a few kinks to work out. We also opted to bring back two other DAQ’s with us so that those can be upgraded before next season.
While at the South Pole, everybody was extremely friendly and nice. We got to go on some tours of other people’s projects including the South Pole Telescope group who studies the microwave cosmic background and SPICE Core who drills down into the ice and takes samples back up in order to be studied.

The final tour we did was rather interesting as well. One of the plumbers took us down below the station into what they call the “ice tunnels” where all the water and plumbing lines are located. It was about -60 degrees Fahrenheit down there, brrrrrrrr!! Every so often they have to go down with a chainsaw and widen the halls because the ice moves in and shrinks the passageways.

SPICE Core team bringing up a 40,000+ year old ice core from over a mile down
SPICE Core team bringing up a 40,000+ year old ice core from over a mile down
Ice Caves at the South Pole
Ice Caves at the South Pole

Trying to leave the South Pole, we again ran into troubles with the flights. We were supposed to leave for McMurdo on a Monday and we didn’t end up getting back finally until Friday because there were weather delays and an incident with another plane getting stuck on the South Pole skiway for several days. On our first attempt, a plane come picked us up and dropped off more people at the same time. We ended up boomeranging back to the pole after a short flight because it was apparent that the weather in McMurdo would not provide for a safe landing. The problem was that they had already given away our rooms to the newcomers and the station was at maximum capacity. So Laura and I became South Pole couch-surfing bums while Dr. Madsen opted to sleep in the gym where they had brought in some spare mattresses from storage. This lasted for three nights until finally another plane came to pick us up and bring us back to McMurdo. Due to the kindness and hospitality of everybody there, it was actually not a bad experience. We hung out with the stranded flight crew, the firefighters, the IceCube winter-overs, and various other people every night. Good times were had by all in the lounge playing pool and darts, listening to music and just having good conversations. The South Pole station is a very special place and I feel extremely lucky to have had the experience of spending time with all the amazing and interesting people there.

*ECW=Extreme Cold Weather clothing.