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.

 

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