Friday, June 30, 2017

Heavy Machinery at the South Pole

I'm sure the greatest comedic act in my life for my friends and family back home is the idea of me driving heavy machinery.  Well, here we are.  As a part of my job, I have been trained on a CAT 953c loader and 277b loader.  I've also been trained on driving an LMC (aka a snowcat) and the snowmobiles.  Inside the LO we have a small electric forklift that I am also required to operate as part of my work.

Each piece of machinery has its own regulations for how much weight that it can handle as well as temperatures that it can operate within.  The 953 can handle quite a bit of weight and is able to be operated for longer periods of time in the colder temperatures (sub -65F) than the smaller 277.  We use the 953 to retrieve large items like stacks of cement board from the outside berms, and the 277 is mostly used for small and light work - moving triwalls, retrieving insulation from the berms, etc.  The LMC is not a loader and rather just a snow equipped truck for lack of a better description.  It's used during emergencies and drills, to do reconnaissance at the berms, and transporting people to and from outside areas.  They technically can be used at all temperatures (emergencies), but you have to be cognizant of the tracks and hydraulics not freezing.  Finally the snowmobile is basically useless in the winter.  The tracks freeze way too quickly for us to use in these cold temps.

As a quick aside, let me discuss what the berms actually are.  One of our storage systems at the Pole is utilizing what are essentially long raised beds of snow behind the station.  These beds of snow have specific organizations and designations so that we can look items up in Maximo.  These are the berms.  They certainly come with their own issues, but it's what we've got right now.

So some issues that we encounter with driving in the cold and dark.  Our windshields can fog up pretty fast because of our body heat.  We try to avoid that by utilizing any cab heating within the machines and fans pointed at the windshields, but it's not perfect.  You have to learn to park the vehicles into the wind too to try to avoid having the exhaust freeze to the windshields.  Then there's the tracks and hydraulics freezing up, as I had already mentioned.  We keep things moving to avoid the track issue, and we operate within safe operating temperatures to try to avoid damaging the hydraulics too.  There are certain time limits that we have at the colder temps so the machines have to come in earlier.

We also can only use red lights because of sensitive science equipment mounted to the roof of the station.  The red lighting is definitely better than nothing, but it's also not perfect.  We can't see very far with just red lighting and, when you add wind to it, it can become a small nightmare.  It's easy to get turned around when away from station, stuck in the wind, and only have red lights.  In that situation, best to stop, turn around so the wind isn't obscuring your view anymore, and figure out where you are in relation to berms and red lights on buildings.  It takes some practice and knowledge of the maps we have for behind the station, but it works better than anything else.

Because of the temperature restrictions, when it's warm enough we make complete use of the vehicle time.  This week we had a few warm days where we could go and grab some plywood for the carpenters to use during their floor remodeling project.  Sometimes you need a spotter for the objects you're grabbing because of the snow masking the bottom of the pallet.  In those cases, Brett and I will hop in an LMC and direct Steve, who is in the 953, to the berms and help him there.  It's a group effort and a lot of fun to be able to get away from our daily work of inventory.  As always, biggest thing that bogs me down about it is the cold.  They say there's no such thing as being cold - just not wearing enough layers.  I call horseshit.  Those people have clearly never lived in a freezer.

Steve in the 953c bringing in a bundle of plywood for the carps.  I'm sitting on the crate in the back waiting to help put dunnage down.

Me driving Voltron, our electric forklift, to carry some cement board into the LO DNF.

A photo of the berms that Brett took back when we had daylight

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Emergency Response Teams

Considering the number of alarms, false and real, that we have had recently, I've decided to make a post in regards to what we do in the instance of emergencies.  The emergency response is similar in a lot of ways to that of Palmer, but the biggest difference is the role of "emergency response teams" (ERTs).

At Palmer, most everybody is assigned to a team (pump, fire, trauma, etc.), but there is also an overlap with the search and rescue teams (glacier SAR, ocean, you name it).  My role during emergencies at Palmer was to take over for Mike, our chef, with getting a full muster.  Mike was on the trauma team as well as in charge of muster so by having me take over muster, he could be available for the trauma team much sooner.  It was a simple job that essentially meant that I had to listen to radio traffic to hear people call in their locations as well as count people in our muster location.  Another part of that role was to dispatch personnel to the scene if necessary to help out the teams.  Because for a large part of the winter season we only had 19 to 21 people on station, this meant that all extra hands were accounted for.

At the Pole, we are assigned to a team 1-4 with a few extras being placed additionally onto a special technical rescue team (team 5) in the event we have to capture a body or patient in a crawl space or on top of a high structure.  As a brief rundown of the teams, here are their roles:

  • Team 1:  First Responders - this team goes to the scene immediately to check out the situation and send any information back to the station and the emergency operations center (EOC aka Wayne)
  • Team 2:  Fire Brigade - the name is obvious I think;  they are responsible for donning bunker gear to attack a fire on station;  most of those on this team have been to fire training school in Aurora, CO this past year, but Jason is the lone exception as he has been on the team in the past and therefore been to fire school in the past
  • Team 3:  Logistics - this is my team;  we are kind of a catch all group where our role is to supply equipment to all of the other teams, transport personnel to/from a scene via snowcats (LMCs), and package patients for transport;  we are also in charge of running a search and rescue mission in the event of a missing person;  we supply extra hands if necessary for mass casualties and other such events
  • Team 4:  Trauma - again, pretty self explainable;  this team is run by the doctor and PA and they train their teammates on essentially being emergency room assistants;  many on the team have outside training in healthcare such as being an EMT or working in trauma in the military
  • Team 5:  Technical Rescue - briefly described above, they train to retrieve people from spaces that require specific gear for the safety of the rescuers;  such spaces are on top of the power plant arch, within the confines of the water tanks in the power plant, under the fuel tanks in the fuel arch, and within the subfloor of the station

We were assigned to our ERTs by Wayne at the beginning of the winter season.  While I have healthcare experience being in pharmacy school and whatnot, Wayne has opted to make me a team 3 lead instead of placing me on team 4.  Team 4 already has quite a few members, and I work in the logistics department so it makes sense to have me be responsible for that team.  My experience at Palmer also makes me a bit more qualified for this role as a lot of their duties go hand in hand.  Jason got stuck on team 2 this year as he's been on the team in the past.  From what I gather he doesn't mind too much, but being beardless means a cold face so that bums him out.

In the event of an emergency, the fire alarms and strobes are supposed to go off to signal the situation.  An automated message about the location of the alarm will play on replay as well so people know where to go.  Wayne gets on the all call PA system and radio soon after to let us know that we are to respond to this alarm.  As a team 3 lead, I am required to report to the scene as well as deal with other team lead issues (schedule and host trainings, advocate for my team in meetings).  Each emergency and training is unique in its own way of course so how we go about attacking the problem will change.  

Off hours, we have an on call schedule for the teams.  Each team is separated into an A team and a B team, and the team on call (A or B) switches off every two days.  The schedule for being on call is posted on the South Pole intranet and the galley scroll.  The rules for being on call vary from team to team, but Kim and I (both the team 3 leads) have decided that if you are sober enough to carry a fire extinguisher and respond then you are good to go for the emergency response.  Some seasons being dry for your on call nights was a requirement, but we are a bit lax this year with understanding that one or two beers/glasses of wine likely won't ruin the ability of our teammates to respond to an emergency.  During the day, however, A/B designations don't apply;  we should in theory all be up and awake so we all should be able to respond to the alarm.

ERT can be hectic at times as we run around trying to deal with threats, drills, and alarms, but it is an important part of living on station.  We are far and away from any kind of outside support so it is absolutely imperative that we maintain our life sources here - water, fuel, and power.  Our efforts help us to protect those sources and each other.  My only complaint so far is just one of discomfort;  I don't want to go outside to respond to an out-building alarm in the middle of the night should the event occur!  So far so good, and I'm glad that I have such a great and responsive team this year :) 

That being more night alarms please.  I like getting a full night's rest when possible.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Case of the Ramen

I am being lectured by Brett and Steve for not posting another blog post, so here you go:  The Case of the Ramen (or, rather, lack of a case of ramen).

Newest drama on station is in regards to the amount of Top Ramen packages available over the weekends.  This past weekend there was no ramen available to the masses so somebody left a passive aggressive note on the whiteboard in the galley complaining about it.  Our steward has sent out an email explaining the situation.  There just isn't enough ramen on station to be able to put out a lot each week as we would run out before winter ends.  There was also the blurb about saving food for the summer crew, but I still don't understand that argument as, well, fuck the summer crew.  They are here for only three months and get freshies the whole time whereas we are here for nine without freshies.  They can deal without getting some of the smaller luxuries that we have on station.  Yes, Top Ramen is considered a luxury apparently.

Anyway, I am not particularly affected by the Top Ramen issue as I don't particularly enjoy the food of the poor (Elitist?  Oh most definitely).  There are weekends though where I have to suffer and eat the "food" as there isn't anything in the leftover fridge that appears appetizing to me (not a fan of Asian, southern, or BBQ food and those cuisines seem to show up a lot on our menu).  Other times we seem to be out of bread and sandwich materials so Top Ramen is one of my limited choices.

So the current talk of my office (it's 3:55 P.M. here on a Monday afternoon) is about the ramen email we just got and the silly little memo on the whiteboard.  As I have mentioned in the past, people become wicked sensitive over minor issues as winter progresses.  Now that we are past midwinter, I guess that the latest "drama" on station is going to be in regards to a microwavable soup.  Hopefully the explanation of our limited supply of Top Ramen will be enough for those folks.  If not, as I always say, there are always Cheddar Guppies (knock-off Goldfish that we have that I eat when nothing else looks appetizing to me).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Happy Midwinter!

Sunday, June 18th we celebrated midwinter.  Midwinter occurs on June 21st in the Southern Hemisphere.  It is the shortest day of the year for us below the equator, which means (in South Pole terms) that the sun is at the lowest point below the horizon that it will get.  Because our weekends fall on a Sunday/Monday schedule when we get two day weekends, we had our dinner on Sunday rather than today (the 21st!).

Midwinter dinner is a longstanding tradition in Antarctica, going back all the way to the days of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen exploring the continent.  The tradition involves eating a feast, having a few drinks, and enjoying the company of your compatriots on station.  My midwinter at Palmer meant that we got some delicious guanaco from our chef, Mike Hiller.  He did an amazing job that year, and the freshies were a nice surprise considering that Palmer does not have a greenhouse and did not have any new shipments of fresh food.

This midwinter, our chefs did a fantastic job as well.  Appetizers consisted of duck confit, apple and brie crostini, and a crab and artichoke dip.  The cocktail of choice during the hor d'oeuvre portion of the meal was an old fashioned.  And, as a nice symbolic gesture, the weather decided to cool down all the way to -100F for the first time this season!

Congratulations 2017 South Pole Winterovers!  We are now a part of the group that has hit -100F in the winter.

Following the cocktail hour, we were served a salad with an orange vinaigrette, made from the greenhouse freshies.  The main course was lobster thermidor, a filet of beef, asparagus, and mashed potatoes.  Dessert was delectable as well - a homemade chocolate lava cake and homemade vanilla ice cream.  We don't have any vanilla ice cream on station this year, so this was certainly a nice treat.

The following are photos taken by Dr. James Casey of IceCube that were saved onto our network's common drive:


Our main dinner plate 

Dessert.  The red sauce is a raspberry puree. 

Aside from our dinner, we had a number of events occurring on station in celebration of midwinter.  Earlier in the day there was a facial hair competition, of which I was a judge.  Jason was told to shave this winter thanks to being on team two for emergency response (fire response - they need a close seal between the mask and skin so beards are a no-go), but he participated regardless.  He presented a photo of himself with a beard from Palmer in the summer of 2015/2016 and expressed to the judges the plight of being beardless.  Shockingly enough, he almost won for best attempt!  Alas, there were other men on station who had actually attempted to grow a beard so they won the prize of a six pack of beer.

Here we are judging the contestants.  As you can see, we take this job seriously

Jason talking about his plight of being beardless at the South Pole.  Yes, he wears socks and sandals.

Final deliberations!  We separated ourselves to not spoil any surprises for the winners (and losers).

After dinner, one of my fellow winterovers designed a murder mystery for people to enjoy.  Jason and I did not opt in on this event as it just seemed like too much work and too much of a commitment.  I could have changed my mind mid-dinner and decide not to participate which of course would screw up the storyline for everybody else.  It was best to just not sign up and not ruin the fun for others.  From what I hear, everybody seemed to really enjoy the event that night.  I had fun observing everybody in character while on the sidelines.

So now that we are officially at midwinter day, what does it mean?  Well, the sun will slowly begin to rise again.  In August we'll start to see our first glimpse of sunlight over the horizon.  I can't say that I'm eager to welcome the sun back into my life though.  Sleeping is difficult with 24 hour light, and putting up window shades and blankets only does so much to block out the light.  It also means that the stars and auroras will be gone.  What will be nice is having the temperatures warm up a bit as the cold is really starting to get old.

EDIT:  Here is our official Midwinter Photo.  This photo gets sent to all Antarctic stations, ASC, and the NSF.

Friday, June 16, 2017

How cold is the extreme cold?

Prior to coming to the Pole, I had no idea what -75F would feel like.  In fact, it was an unimaginable amount of cold.  Growing up in Boston, I have experienced the wet and cold winters there.  Usually the coldest days of winter in New England involve numb thighs and red noses, but you don't ever feel like you're at risk of losing some body parts.  Denver winters have been a complete joke in comparison what with their sun and snow-that-melts-immediately.  But the South Pole?  Again, completely unimaginable.

As it turns out, yes, -75F is cold, but it's not nearly as bad as I thought that it would be.  You have enough layers on you outside that you're protected from the environment - at least for a short period of time.  The best that I can compare such cold temperatures on bare skin to is when you put an ice cube directly against your face and don't remove it until it truly burns.  For the science types, it's like standing in front of an open -80C freezer for an extended period of time or touching sample vials directly coming out of an LN2 dewar with bare skin.  The cold just bites.  Honestly, the wind is much worse than the cold;  at least you can dress for the cold, but the wind finds a way to get through all of your layers anyway.

One of the more interesting things about the extreme cold is what it does to just about any material.  Jason had told me that he once snapped an electrical cord during the winter here because it was sitting outside for too long, and before coming here I didn't believe him.  Turns out he's right (go figure).  I have experienced what it is like to finagle an electrical cord that has been sitting outside for a few hours;  it is frozen solid and inflexible, like a piece of plastic.

Similarly, the rubber soles of our boots will freeze.  Obviously the colder the temperature the quicker it will freeze.  You don't feel it happening, but as soon as you walk inside to the warmth your shoes sound like they are high heels on a hardwood floor.  The slipperiness is also noticeable almost immediately as the frozen rubber soles become slick like the ice.

When buying work boots before coming to the ice, I selected a pair of composite toe Carolina boots that I wanted to get.  We need composite toe rather than steel toe due to the cold once again, although there are individuals here who have gotten away with steel.  Jason suggested against the boots that I had selected because the soles were a harder rubber.  He kept saying how they will freeze so quickly, and with a harder rubber I'll slip almost immediately.  Again, I didn't believe him, but he's done two winters at the Pole and a summer so I figured I'd be best to give him the benefit of doubt.  Yup, he was right.  My soft rubber soles freeze within ten to fifteen minutes outside.  Hell, sometimes when just climbing the beer can stairs in -80F temps they freeze!  Imagine what it'd be like if I had went with the harder rubber.

Another issue to be aware of is metal.  Don't touch metal with unprotected hands if it has been outside.  You can easily take off a layer of skin from your fingers by doing so.  Even just a thin glove liner (aka the cotton/polyester gloves that I would wear alone back in a world with warmth) is enough to protect your hands when dealing with frozen 55 gallon drums and freezer doors.

You should also remove metal from your body if it is going to be exposed to the cold.  When I first arrived here, I would wear my watch (metal face) on my wrist like any normal and decent human being.  Well, on day one of work I cold-burned a bit of my skin on the wrist because of the cold steel.  It has since healed just fine, but now I know to keep the watch hooked to the hammer loop of my Carhartt bibs.  I've heard stories of girls in the past freezing parts of their ears from their earrings so I've made it a point to either not wear earrings at all or make sure that they are totally and completely covered by my balaclava and/or hat.

So yeah, the extreme cold really is extreme.  You learn quickly to take precautions that otherwise would be silly in the real world.  Such is life at the end of the world.  It's difficult to truly describe what we have to experience on a day-to-day basis, but I hope that this entry has provided some insight into the reality of the temperatures.  Only one other place on this planet can get as cold as the South Pole during the winter, and it is Vostok Station - the Russian Antarctic base just east of us (well, north I guess since everything is north from here!).

Here I am doing inventory at the UT Roof

EDIT:  Other things that freeze - eyelashes to neck gaiters;  beards to balaclavas and sweatshirt zippers;  nostril hairs;  frosted head hair;  etc.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Totally not a guest post from Steve...that would be preposterous

One of the most neglected topics when you’re at Pole (or anywhere on Ice…or in any government contract, really) is INFOSEC. That’s a buzzword for “Information Security”. INFOSEC boils down to a series of best practices to keep your computer and the network safe from malicious code. It’s a huge deal in military installations and large companies, but it’s important no matter where you go. For instance: as a student pharmacist, if I ever let slip that the governor of New Mexico regularly sneaks into Colorado to get his Viagra prescription filled at my Walgreens, I could get in buckets of trouble.

Believe it or not, INFOSEC matters down here too. Mostly it means we have to lock our computers when we leave a room, report suspicious/spammy emails, and never discuss BEEEEP considering BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP and those damned probes. Could you imagine the panic that would cause?

One of my co-workers (a brilliant and enigmatic man) has taken it upon himself to keep an eye out for unlocked computers. He’s been known to write harmless emails from unsecured accounts, play with the screen orientation, even ghost write blog posts. It’s all done in good fun, and we’ve all fallen victim to pranks at least once. Unfortunately, some of our fellow Polies have found his brilliance to be a rebuke and have taken offence to his delightful antics. We all hate these people who can’t take a joke.

As a counterexample, Kim (our lead) has been the butt of many a joke. Yet she has been able to maintain a positive attitude and has only stabbed Steve that one time.

In honesty though, his dedication and steadfast commitment to our safety is what makes him a great American, and a great man. There are so few people in this world that I actually respect…Steve is one of them.

From the bottom of my heart, I wish you God-Speed. Keep fighting the good fight.

Yes, we all want you to INFOSEC properly

Daisy Chain!

On Monday mornings, as I have mentioned in a previous blog post, we usually push the food order for the week up to the elevated station via the freight elevator in the beer can (vertical tower).  Sometimes, though, the temperature outside and in the beer can drops too low for the elevator to be safely operated.  In events like that, we as a station populace meet in the galley to do a "daisy chain" up the beer can with the food on the last day possible to deliver the food.  Essentially, we all spread out over the ninety-two steps in the beer can and pass the food up the chain.  We wait until the last day possible so as to give the beer can time to warm in hope of using the elevator in lieu of manpower.

This morning was one of those mornings.  It has been hovering between -80F and -90F for the past week or so, and the beer can temperature has not been far behind.  We warned the station prior to our weekend that we would likely be hand-carrying the food up the beer can on Tuesday as the forecast has predicted continued cold temperatures.  Thus, the day has come, and we performed the Great Daisy Chain of the South Pole.

In preparation for the daisy chain, the materials department (colleagues and me) double wrap the 50 lb. bags of flour and 25 lb. bag of sugar in large plastic bags.  This is to prevent any spillage or tears as it makes its way up to the station.  We also check some boxes for any vulnerabilities and try our best to mitigate the damage preemptively.

After, we meet upstairs in the galley as mentioned.  Safety Gavin gives a talk to us all about proper lifting techniques and ECW as not everybody here at the Pole has to move heavy objects or work in the cold.  We aim to cover the bases for the lowest common denominator so as to avoid any injuries.  Once the safety discussion is over, we remind everybody about spacing on the stairs - two individuals to a flight of stairs and one individual on the landing.  The materials department spreads itself out so that we span the entire staircase.  We also try to ensure that we are located on landings so that we can control the events occurring on both flights of stairs.

All in all, the daisy chain takes about fifteen minutes to complete.  This is much faster than our typical routine of using the freight elevator.  There will always be a few in the group who complain about the weights of the boxes;  the cold temperatures;  or having to wake up to complete the daisy chain.  Regardless, it goes smoothly without too much trouble.  Some station personnel enjoy being able to see the food going to the station that week as it gives them a glimpse into the menu.

This week's food pull included all of our midwinter dinner items.  Midwinter is an annual tradition at all Antarctic stations where we celebrate the shortest day of the year (constant darkness here at the South Pole though so that is irrelevant).  It also marks the point in time for most of us for being halfway until we redeploy North.  The dinner is a formal event, and this year we will be feasting on lobster thermidor and filet mignon.  Dinner will be Sunday, and I think it is safe to say that we are all looking forward to it.

A photo of me in our electric forklift that my colleague, Brett, was so kind to pimp in Microsoft Paint

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How do we get down here?

A common question that I get before leaving for the ice is how the travel is arranged and which countries I will have to enter.  It's a reasonable question considering that Antarctica is the most isolated place on the planet.  First things first, the USAP books and coordinates all of our travel.  It would be a whirlwind without those folks.  When I left for Palmer in 2014, I flew out of Boston to Miami airport, connecting to a red-eye flight to Santiago, Chile.  In Santiago, I had a layover of a few hours where my research team and I ate some lunch.  Quickly after, I flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, stayed there for a few nights in a hotel and then took a four day cruise through the Drake Passage on the Antarctic Research Vessel Laurence M. Gould.  The Pole, being much more isolated than Palmer station, requires a whole other slew of connections for the USAP to arrange.

The Neumayer Channel at the Antarctic Peninsula on the LMG

I left for the Pole from Denver this time around as I am now a Colorado resident.  Jason and I arrived at the airport pretty early so we decided to grab a beer at one of the airport bars.  A nice gentleman from North Dakota actually paid for our tab as he was interested in hearing our stories about Antarctica.  From there, we flew into San Francisco.  Again, we had some time to spare so we got some dinner.  We figured that it was our last time in the United States for almost an entire year so we might as well enjoy some classic American foods - cheeseburgers and french fries with a local microbrew.  After that, we had to board the dreadful flight from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia.  I say dreadful because it is an ungodly long flight to cross the Pacific Ocean.

We hit Sydney and only had an hour to waste before our connecting flight to Christchurch, New Zealand.  He went to go exchange some money for more Kiwi dollars, and I waited by the gate to ensure that it didn't change on us last minute.  The flight to Christchurch was speedy relative to the last flight we had, and we were certainly thankful for that.

Upon arrival in Christchurch, we met with the USAP representative at the airport to help shuttle us and our luggage to the hotel.  Unfortunately Jason's luggage got lost during the last leg of the flight, but it arrived a few days later and was shipped off to the South Pole for him.  Once we arrived at the hotel, we were essentially free until the next day.  In the morning we had to get up early to go get our ECW (extreme cold weather gear).

The next day, the shuttle arrived again to ship us off to the CDC (clothing distribution center).  At the CDC, they had our ECW bags pre-packed with all of the clothing that we would need during our deployment.  I had requested ahead of time to get FDX boots instead of bunny boots (military issued cold weather boots), and they luckily had fit me pretty well!  We all take the few hours at the CDC to try on our gear.  It is imperative that everything fit properly as there is a limited amount of ECW available here at the Pole.  Most sizes here for our non-emergency cache of clothing actually don't match the population either (i.e. plenty of XS Big Reds and not so many of the larger sizes for the men).  Many blogs of previous Polies document the ECW that we get, but, as a brief rundown, I'll go ahead an rehash the elements of a South Pole outfit:  insulated black Carhartt bibs, suede mittens or gloves, polyester glove liners, a Canada goose red parka (Big Red!), fleece sweatpants/long underwear and zip-up sweatshirt, hats, bear paws (if requested...I requested them but haven't used them yet...they are also called military overmitts), a Carhartt jacket, a Carhartt hood, balaclava, and neck gaiters.  We have to bring our own wool socks nowadays (in 2014 they were provided), so Jason and I did plenty of shopping for some thick wool socks prior to deployment.  I also opted to bring my own wool hats and multiple balaclavas for layering.

At the CDC we also do a few orientations to prepare us for our flight and arrival to the ice.  Most of these videos are related to not packing a pest and being a good community member.  Antarctica is a pristine continent that is void of much human influence still.  We try our best to not bring along any seeds or dirt that could potentially cause the growth of an invasive species on these lands.  Considering how isolated we are and how long of a deployment we have, it's crucial that we all try to treat each other with respect.  It may seem silly to have to watch a video on not slamming doors while on station, but when in the thick of the winter even these slights can cause a commotion.  We have a few day sleepers on station, and if we all went about slamming doors then they would never be able to get a proper night's rest.

After our trip to the CDC, we were free once again.  Jason and I spent the afternoon walking around Sumner Beach near Christchurch, and then later in the evening went to dinner at the Christchurch Botanical Gardens.  It was the last bit of greenery that we would see for a while as well as the last bit of fresh food.  I quite enjoyed my seafood that night, and it is a meal that I hope to have upon returning to the city in November.

The following day, we boarded our C17 flight to McMurdo Station.  The US Air Force runs all of the flights to and from the ice on this side of the continent, hence the use of military airplanes.  Again, the shuttle transported us to the CDC.  At the CDC we got our laptops scanned to ensure they were safe for connecting to the government network and donned our ECW for the flight.  We were required to weigh-in with our ECW on and our carry-on luggage so the flight crew could estimate fuel needs.  The flight to McMurdo took a few hours, and, all things considered, it really wasn't that bad.

Arrived in Mactown!  Photo of the C17 on the skiway.

Our noble chariot to escort us to the main station (McMurdo).  It was much too warm for all of the layers that I was wearing.

Jason flew to the South Pole the day after we arrived in McMurdo.  I was not manifested for a flight to the Pole until about six days later as I had a few trainings to complete in "Mactown."  It was a slow week, but I appreciated the chance to explore another Antarctic station, even if the station is a college hippie commune meets mining town.

When you get manifested to fly to the Pole, the day before the flight you have to "bag drag."  Essentially you pack up your belongings, clean your room, and carry your stuff to the logistics building to weigh everything (you and ECW as well again) and drop it off.  The following day you arrive in your ECW with your carry-on luggage and emergency ECW gear at this building again, and a bus will shuttle you to Pegasus Airfield.  At the airfield, you board an LC-130 for the flight to Pole.  I learned quickly that it is an important distinction to mention the "L."  Apparently the "L" stands for the skis of which the planes are equipped rather than just wheels.  My flight was slightly delayed, so we all stayed warm inside the skiway galley.

LC-130 in McMurdo, prior to our departure to the South Pole

After another three to four hour flight, you finally arrive at the South Pole.  The plane's engines remain running as it is just too cold to turn them off.  Luckily there are a number of people directing you on where to walk when you get off of the plane.  It can be a bit daunting disembarking from a live plane with its propellers running just feet away from you on top of the fact that it is colder than most have ever experienced and more white than you could imagine, but their help puts you at ease.

Arrived at the South Pole.  The cones are there to direct us off the skiway towards the station.  Jason is the guy standing in the background dressed in black (no Big Red for him).

And voila.  I arrived at the South Pole.  Jason was waiting for me at the skiway to help carry my extra ECW bag and backpack to the main station.  His help was much appreciated as I definitely felt a bit out of place once landed.  The best way to describe this place is like being on a space station.  It is unlike any location that I have experienced in the past.  I have been here since February at this point, and at times it is easy to forget just exactly where we are.  This is truly the most isolated spot on this planet, and I'm glad that I finally got the opportunity to be here.

Me at the end of the world

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Another day of work

Yesterday we spent our afternoon continuing with the inventory of one of the electrical milvans on station.  It appears that any work in regards to maintaining its inventory has not been done since 2011, so we have been tasked this winter with inventorying four milvans to get them back on track.  So far we have successfully updated the Unistrut milvan, and currently we are working on the electrical breakers milvan.

My coworkers Steve (left) and Brett (right...obviously).  They make inventorying much more fun.

Inventorying the milvans is a real headache if I am to be honest with you.  We are reliant upon, usually, guessing at part numbers to try to search the items in Maximo.  Often times, the part numbers are not attached to the descriptions in the database.  This is likely because these parts are incredibly old, and Maximo has been in the USAP only since early 2015.  Back during my first season, we had Mapcon as the inventory database.  Luckily some old archives of Mapcon are still around as occasionally we can only find these milvan parts in those spreadsheets.  Otherwise, I have to try my best to type a description search into Maximo.  The way things are described in the system are not always the most uniform, but we can get pretty close.

My goofy coworkers help make the process much more entertaining.  Lately this entertainment has been at my expense, such as yesterday when Brett decided to use the word "helo" instead of "hotel" when spelling out his part numbers.  What does helo sound a lot like?  Try kilo.  Yep.  A young Sterling Archer we have here ("'M' as in 'Mancy'").

The milvans are located outside.  We could try to inventory out in the cold, but it isn't conducive and we wouldn't have access to the computers.  Instead, Brett and Steve have been pulling items off of shelves in the milvan and bringing them into the cargo office for us to inventory.  This way we all stay warm and can enjoy some of the perks that the cargo office provides us - hot chocolate, coffee, and all sorts of snacks.

Other perks of this work involve just generally being outside!  There was a smoky looking aurora out over the station yesterday.  To my eyes it was pretty uninteresting, but my camera picked up the vivid greens.  Unfortunately those photos are embarrassingly shaky as I did not use a tripod to photograph the aurora.  I'll have to practice that skill a little bit more :)  The moon was also out in full blast, lighting the way for us so we don't have to use those pesky headlamps.

Although I did learn towards the end of the day yesterday that I am still a bit blind in the dark...

When we have to use the bathroom while out at cargo, it requires us to walk back to the elevated station or to the power plant bathroom.  As I mentioned yesterday, I drink a ton of water.  As you can gather, I needed to use the bathroom.  My lovely coworker Steve told me to not fall in a snowdrift and pee my pants on the way back to the station to use the bathroom.  I opted to do the walk without a headlamp at first, but quickly I walked into a snowbank, falling over, and, luckily enough, not peeing my pants.  I turned around, went back into cargo to grab my headlamp, and faced all of my coworkers while covered from head to toe in snow.  Now that's a whole different version of a walk of shame.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Healthcare at the Pole

I find it appropriate to make a post regarding healthcare at the South Pole as I am currently a pharmacy student, taking a leave of absence for the year to complete my winter season.  As one would assume, a large majority of the resources that we have in the "real world" are nonexistent down here.  We have a small clinic on station that is run by the station physician and physician assistant, but their abilities can only go so far with what they have on hand.  There is an array of prescription medications available to them if the event arrises as well as some equipment (ultrasound, x-ray, etc.).  A majority of their work here is to encourage preventative medicine and treat the minor injuries that we acquire due to the harsh working environment.

While most of us tend to remain healthy, some health-related issues do arise.  Such is the nature of working in a cold isolated environment with no sun exposure for close to nine months (the sun is gone from March until about September).  Many of us struggle with bouts of insomnia or other sleeping issues.  Fatigue is common as we have little outside stimulation and poor sleep.  Cold injuries do occur, usually caught in time before a full blown case of frostbite appears.  Skin issues seem to be going around too as the South Pole has an incredibly low amount of moisture in the air.  Cold air is simply incapable of holding much water so many of us end up with dry itchy skin and dandruff.

So what do we do to combat all of this?  Sarah Baddorf, our station doctor and the wife of my coworker Brett, gave a presentation recently on aiding sleep.  Some of the tips that she gave may seem obvious to most, but they serve as a nice reminder to those of us who are sleep deprived and not thinking the most clearly.  Avoiding coffee late in the day;  turning off blue/white lights a few hours before bed;  meditating;  and taking melatonin were all suggestions that she gave.  While prescription sleep medications are available in the clinic, the clinic staff are hesitant to prescribe them to us all.  With good reason too - the side effects can be more detrimental than what it's really worth or we could become reliant upon their help.

As for the cold injuries, obviously the best medicine is prevention.  If we start to feel too cold, go inside.  Nobody is going to balk at you for warming up your fingers and toes when you get to the point that you can no longer feel them.  I myself work outside in the cold a lot due to the nature of my job, so I would like to think that I am capable of advertising some help for those of us who tend to get cold easily.

I have a number of tips that work for me.  For one, I use two hand warmers in each mitten.  The mitten is important as your fingers will freeze within minutes down here with just gloves.  I also always wear a glove liner under the mittens if I am to work outside for an extended period of time.  The thumb hole in the mitten is useless to me;  using that thing is a great way to ensure a very cold thumb very quickly.  Instead, I tend to hold one of the hand warmers in my mitten in a fist as I walk to and from outside buildings.  I also know my threshold for the cold.  Yes, I get cold easily, but there comes a certain point where I know the cold feeling is starting to get dangerous.  Go inside when you are getting too cold.  If you get a cold injury, you will be useless until everything heals.

In regards to our dry skin, I make it a point to always apply lotion immediately after my shower.  It helps to build up and maintain the skin's moisture barrier, and I have noticed that I get extremely itchy if I fail to do this step.  My face has been a little tricker to take care of down here though.  I cannot factually explain why facial skin seems to get drier, but my best guess is that the skin on our faces is thinner and more exposed to the air so it has a higher likelihood of becoming dehydrated.  I am always good about applying lotion after washing my face, but down here I have been having to apply Vaseline on top of the lotion to serve as an occlusive layer.  Of course, we should all be drinking enough water too.  This would help combat some of the issues of the dry environment, but, for me, I already have that bit covered - I drink anywhere from six to eight liters of water a day, whether at the South Pole or home in Colorado/Massachusetts.

I could go on and on about the physical issues we experience here and how the medical staff treat us all.  A few studies have been done on the psychological changes that a South Pole winter can cause.  Most of those issues seem to derive from fatigue/insomnia and the general fact of being isolated.  It seems that those studies have documented that we Polies become more irritable as we continue into winter, and that our conflict resolution abilities decline.  So far this season I haven't noticed anybody truly falling off the deep end.  I suppose we're lucky in that sense this year!  As for my mental state...I am still the same ol' me.  I actually prefer the isolation and darkness, but I can do without the cold.  It's becoming a pain to spend ten minutes getting dressed whenever I want to walk outside.  Until next time - I'm off to admire our night sky.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Day 129

Today we did our typical Monday morning routine of sending the food for the next week or two up the beer can via an elevator.  The galley orders the food about two weeks in advance as it can actually take that long to properly defrost some of the meats that we have on station.  The food is kept in the logistics arch which mimics the temperature of the outside environment pretty closely.  If you were to defrost a roast by removing it from the -75F temperature and leaving it at room temperature, the meat would start to rot on the outside as the inside remains frozen.  To combat this, the galley has to slowly defrost the meat by taking it from the outside temperature to a regular freezer and eventually the fridge.

After the food push, we usually take the time to collect issue sheets around station.  These are forms that people fill out when they take an inventoried item for their work or general use.  As we are the logistics office, we are in charge of electronically issuing these items in our inventory database, Maximo.  Normally Brett is the one to collect the sheets, and I will join him from time to time.  We usually stop by people's offices and say hi.  Think of it like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, but the South Pole version.  This time around I didn't accompany Brett during the collection rounds.  I helped him with the actual electronic issuing once he collected the sheets instead.

After lunch we assisted the galley staff with removing their trash.  They utilize an electric hoist to carry the food waste down to the ground, and the hoist can only be used during temperatures warmer than -80F.  Our current temperature is around -75F so it was getting close to the cut-off.  When using the hoist, some individuals will remain on the deck with the hoist while wearing a harness (safety first!) and the rest of us will be downstairs at ground level, waiting for the hoist to drop.  One person will also grab the rope tethered to the hoist to help it navigate its way down to the ground.  From there, we grab the trash and sort it into respective triwalls (food waste, landfill, recyclables, etc.).

When enough people help, the whole process can take less than thirty minutes.  It still feels like forever sometimes as we are standing outside in the cold, exposed to the wind.  Luckily today the moon was out so we were able to actually see what we were doing.  Relying upon a red headlamp (they need to be red lights as white light interferes with some of the science that occurs) is not always the most beneficial, but, when it gets really dark, it is better than nothing at all.

This evening I think I'll continue watching Game of Thrones.  Yesterday Jason and I began watching season three of the show.  Remember how I mentioned the South Pole not really being all that adventurous a few blog posts ago?  Yup.  Still isn't all that adventurous.  Life here is pretty boring most days.  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Ice Tunnels

One of the more fascinating locations here at the SP is the ice tunnel.  The ice tunnel(s) are carved out mazes about 30-50 feet under the elevated station.  Within them lies the access points to the Rodriguez Wells (RodWells) that provide our water and deposit locations for human waste.  They also remain at a consistent -60F throughout the year.  Currently during the winter season, this is often warmer than the outside temperature.  When I took my tour of the tunnels a month or so ago, the ice that had frosted on my neck gaiter and hat from my breath actually started to melt during the walk through the tunnel!  Likely this was because of my body heat from walking with an extra twenty pounds of gear, but I think that it serves a neat point about how warm it can feel relative to the outside and the arches under the station.

While they obviously serve a significant purpose to our lifeline, they double as a place for winter Polies to showcase objects that created a story or event during their season.  During Jason's first winter at the South Pole in 2012, the last container of vanilla ice cream on station was made into a shrine (I believe Anthony Bourdain's video on his tour of the Pole will show this tub of ice cream too).  Apparently the station manager that year got everybody together for an all-hands meeting to discuss how somebody on station "stole" the last tub of vanilla ice cream and ate it without permission.  Thus, it has become a shrine.

This year we have not decided on our "official" shrine (if there even is such a thing), but we have made a contribution, complete with a small ritual during the induction of the shrine.  As most would know, Buzz Aldrin had visited the station in the summer and was medevaced to New Zealand to seek medical treatment.  At one point, he had left behind a tissue.  As you can probably gather at this point, Buzz Aldrin's tissue has now made it into the shrines of the ice tunnels.

Buzz Aldrin's tissue enshrined at the South Pole.  Photo by Brett Baddorf as mine was a bit grainy.

Small gags like the shrines are commonplace at USAP stations.  I remember there being items like toast hidden at Palmer Station as a joke about how "toasty" people can get during a winter on the ice.  Nevertheless, the ice tunnels remain probably one of the more spoken about items of the station.  They do serve a real purpose for us, but the fun quirks that we add to them help make the winter season more entertaining.  I wonder if the Polies of '12 will feel famous for their ice cream making Bourdain's TV show or if Buzz Aldrin even knows about his enshrined tissue.

Friday, June 2, 2017

What do we do for fun?

A common question that I get from people is what Jason and I are doing for fun down here when not working.  Surely there must be something for us to do despite being locked in this building for nine months, right?  Well, kind of.  The South Pole's recreational activities certainly differ from those of Palmer.  At Palmer, most nights were spent in the bar or in the lounge watching movies.  It was also a warmer environment so many people would ski or snowboard on the glacier.  Here at Pole, we do not have a bar.  In fact we even have rations on all alcohol (wine, beer, liquor).  We have two lounges where people watch movies in group settings, sure, but Jason and I haven't been spending our free time there most nights.  I seem to develop ADHD whenever I need to watch a movie with a group;  I quickly fall asleep or just stop paying attention all together.  The few times we have spent in the lounge watching a TV show that we selected, some of the noisier and...smellier...individuals on station arrive, ruining the affair.  It is also significantly colder here so it is difficult to participate in any outdoor recreational activities.

Some nights, usually on long weekends, individuals on station will throw a party for all station personnel.  After sunset dinner, our formal dinner to celebrate the sun dipping below the horizon, we had a party at the climbing gym.  It was slightly tropical with little umbrellas for our drinks.  In contrast to the sunset, the drink of choice was a tequila sunrise.  Other parties have included one at ARO, NOAA's atmospheric research observatory at the South Pole where they study climate change, and the Big Lebowski Party in the gym on station, where we all watched the Big Lebowski and drank white Russians as is Antarctic tradition.  We usually attend these events as they are helpful to break up the monotony of day-to-day life down here, but they are obviously not a regular occurrence.

Jason and I at the post-Sunset Dinner party.  Why does Jason have a resistance band around his neck and a white fluffy hat on?  Who knows.

Lately we have been watching Game of Thrones.  Jason has never seen the show, and I am more than happy to rewatch it.  We have already finished watching the last few seasons of Mad Men, and we watched the first three seasons of American Horror Story a few months ago.  Aside from watching TV shows and movies, I have been knitting and crocheting various objects.  Jason has read a few books since arriving on station.  When the internet is up, the obvious choice is to make use of that time.  I try to keep up on the news;  check in on my emails when the accounts choose to load;  and, if possible, load Facebook to talk to some friends.  We also take this time to plan our vacation post-SP.

So far our thought is a two week road trip around the south island of New Zealand.  There are a few locations that we want to hit such as Akaroa and Queenstown, but a lot of the other destinations are yet to be determined.  I also have requested that we spend a day or two in Sydney, and diving the Great Barrier Reef out of Cairns is an absolute for me.  Jason's brother, Brian, may join us in Australia to also get his open water diving training in Cairns.  Jason has considered getting a mixed gases training as he is already a rescue diver, but he is still debating its actual use to him.  From there, we have considered being a bit more adventurous and doing a camel trek/camping trip in the Australian outback.  I am still not sure that I'm "bad ass" enough to handle something like that, but the fact that it would make one hell of a story is motivating!  We have also discussed possibly going to Bali for a few weeks as it is incredibly cheap there and would knock out another continent (Asia).  At that point we would both only need to get to Africa to have conquered all seven continents in the world.

As you can see, life here at the Pole is mundane.  Often you hear of how adventurous a South Pole winter is, but I would have to disagree.  The journey is a mental one rather than a physical one.  Long bouts of boredom and fatigue make for some boring nights.  Too often lately have I been falling asleep at seven in the evening, making it impossible to attend the communal movie nights or to just watch a movie alone.  I have a strong suspicion that my evenings will become much more interesting when in New Zealand.  Something about freedom and having options will do that for you.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A random South Pole day

Well, I'm going to try to give this whole "blogging thing" another go.  In 2014 I had created a blog to discuss my winter at Palmer Station, Antarctica as a grantee from Dr. H. William Detrich, III's laboratory at Northeastern University.  Unfortunately, I grew bored with the blogging experience and quit writing.  This year, while wintering at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station as a contractor, I am hoping to make blogging a more consistent activity in my life.  We are a few months into the winter, and I am finding communicating with friends and family back home to be severely difficult;  our internet is reliant upon a satellite connection, and one of our better satellites has been brought down for maintenance for the past month.

Photo of the RF Building at the South Pole by Hunter Davis, our sous chef

So here we are.  The other motivation, I admit, to returning to the blog is that my coworkers (Brett Baddorf and Steve Ashton) have insisted upon me resurrecting my old blog.  I refuse to go so far as to commit a biblical act, but this can be a happy in between.  They are curious to see if my writing is still as sarcastic and, so I like to think, at times funny.  Likely not much has changed as I have had the same personality for the most part since I was a child, but we'll let those two be the deciders.

Photos will be difficult to upload due to the slow speed of our upload link, but I will try my best.  I should also warn that I have not been taking nearly as many photos as I should have.  Most photos that I post will be photos that were taken by other personnel on station, such as the one above that was taken by our sous chef Hunter.  I will also add the disclaimer now that most of these photos are not quite what the environment looks like with the naked eye.  DSLR cameras are capable of absorbing much more light than our retinas and thus can capture all of the colors in the auroras and even the star clusters in the milky way.  When auroras are outside, they are green;  they do occasionally have red pigments in them; and they do dance just like in the videos on YouTube.  The milky way is also strongly present, and we are capable of seeing the different colors emitted by the various stars and planets in our night sky.

I suppose that should be all for now with this post.  Life at the Pole isn't always the most interesting so many blog posts will be boring reads.  They'll serve as hilarious reads for me in the future I'm sure, just as those Palmer 2014 posts are.  So, my dear friends and family (and Steve and Brett), please email me or message me on Facebook some suggestions for future posts.  Perhaps I'll be motivated enough to actually follow through this time around!