SOUTH POLE JOURNAL Refael Klein blogs about his year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.
In three weeks, Amundson-Scott station will close to flight operations. There will be no more planes in or out and, for those who have chosen to winter over, the South Pole will be their home for the next eight months. No fresh fruit. No new people. No change in topography. No escape. An endless, flat ice cap in every direction, horizon to horizon.
A week of rest and recover (R&R) is given to those who will be staying the winter. In the past, this meant a flight back to Christchurch, New Zealand, to pick up last-minute supplies and indulge in the warmth, humidity and greenery of the South Island. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case.
Over the years, enough winter overs have decided to extend their R&R permanently — preferring to quit their job and stay in New Zealand rather than return to the South Pole — that R&R is now held in McMurdo Station, located on the south tip of Ross Island in Antarctica. Management says, “We don’t want to risk another winter without a plumber or electrician.” I can’t help but agree.
I was supposed to leave for R&R last Monday, but flying conditions were poor so all flights were canceled. An LC-130 made it to Pole the following day, but shortly after our 11 p.m. takeoff, we were forced to return to base due to deteriorating conditions at McMurdo. It’s exceedingly rare for flights leaving Pole to boomerang back and, from what I’m told, it’s only happened twice in the past decade.
A new flight was scheduled for Wednesday, but was canceled due to limited visibility at McMurdo. The two flights that were supposed to make it Thursday morning were delayed until the afternoon and then canceled due to mechanical issues.
Meanwhile, the plane that had boomeranged sat idly off the runway as mechanics worked on a slew of issues that can pop up when you park a large plane in sub-zero temperatures overnight. By Friday morning, I had come terms with foregoing my R&R. I unpacked my bag, cleaned my room (it’s more enjoyable to be forlorn on top of a freshly-made bed), and headed off to work.
The morning was going as all other mornings do — daily instrument checks, email, working on misbehaving computer programs — when a scratchy voice came over our PA system: “Skier 51 will be departing McMurdo for South Pole at 1600 estimated time of arrival 2030.” I was in disbelief; a new flight was scheduled for us?
I called station communications to confirm the announcement. A flight of distinguished visitors would be leaving for Pole in the afternoon and would have room for additional passengers, like me, to take back to McMurdo.
Distinguished visitors (DVs), such as congressmen, famous artists and international dignitaries, routinely make their way to the South Pole. They typically stay for only a few hours, taking a quick tour of the station and its scientific facilities, before walking out to the ceremonial and geographic pole markers for a few glory shots.
According to station management, the DVs on this flight were all high-ranking military personnel, including a four-star general from the army who, among many things, was in charge of National Guard flights in Antarctica. I couldn’t imagine a flight he was on being canceled or delayed. He would surely have the best plane and flight crew at his disposal. The chances of getting out today were high, but I still kept my fingers crossed.
VIDEO: Flying with a four-star general has its perks. As we crossed the Beardmore Glacier, the general requested that we fly lower for a better look. We descended to about 1500 feet above it.
The rest of the day I spent walking on egg shells, expecting an announcement, at any moment, that the flight had been moved to another day, or to be taken aside by the Winter Site manager and told that the manifest had been changed and I was no longer an outbound passenger. Nothing of the sort happened and, to my surprise, at 2030, sea bag in hand, I boarded the LC-130.
I was one of the last passengers to board, so I sat towards the front of the plane. Beside me sat the army general. He fumbled for a pair ear plugs, pulled out two apples, looked around, tapped me on my shoulder and offered me one. I respectfully declined.
Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole here on Science World.