Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Arrival at the South Pole

We all met at building 140 in McMurdo to drop off our bags and get weighed. We then boarded the Delta to head out to Pegasus field. The Delta, is a giant orange truck with tires probably 4 or 5 feet in diameter. We all get shoved into and locked in the back, which is covered in graffiti and stickers from previous years. I like the Deltas, they make me feel like I'm actually in a harsh environment. The ride to Pegasus takes about an hour and is usually fairly bumpy. Supposedly the day before our shuttle driver had gotten air in the Delta. The ride ended up being fairly smooth and we made it to the field without any problems. At the field, there wasn't a shuttle to take us to the plane (which wasn't ready yet anyway) so we stayed in the galley nearby. Since the weather was so much better, we decided to walk around and take some pictures. Mt. Erebus was covered in snow and spectacular. The Royal Society Mountains have many more features and really look like they came from some artist's imagination. It's an amazing view. It was also relatively warm (around freezing) and with the sun shining, the snow was fairly soft. This could only mean one thing: snowball fight. A few of us got together and started winging snowballs at each other. It was a good way to pass the time. Eventually, we tired of getting pelted and went back in the galley for some cheesecake. One of the people traveling with us was former Air Force and current EMT at Denali in Alaska. He was telling stories about how he lives off grid, how small his town is, and how he survived no less than six air-crashes. It's definitely a certain class of people that are attracted to Antarctica.

The flight was late by about an hour since it took longer than expected for the flight crew to get out to the runway but once we loaded up, we were soon on our way. The LC-130 we were on was completely stuffed with cargo. I've never been on a Pole flight with this much cargo. Naturally, it took a looooong time on the runway to take off and it was only after our second attempt that we actually got off the ground. Later in the day, I was talking to someone who left earlier in the day who said the plane took 13 tries before it actually took off. Supposedly, they are way behind on cargo shipments due to weather and Thanksgiving so they are packing these flights full to the brim. The flight was great, as it always is with the Hercs. It's very, very loud but very smooth and the air force let's you get up and walk around. I went up into the cockpit and took some pictures and just generally hung out around the plane. One of the SPT grad students was allowed to sit in the cockpit as we landed! I was so jealous. Apparently, all she did was offer to give a tour of the telescope to the crewmen and they said "you seem cool, do you want to sit in the cockpit as we land?" That's crazy! We always give the airmen tours of the telescopes. This wasn't anything special!

We landed at pole about 3 hours after taking off on the snow runway--another smooth landing with the skis down, deplaned and headed towards the station. There were a lot of people out to meet us since the entire PAX (passengers) list was either SPT or BICEP2 (me) which was so much fun. You walk up and everyone gives you a big hug and says "welcome to Pole!" It really makes you feel good to have arrived. There were more people than I thought down here for our sister telescope, SPUD (or Keck depending on what part of the world you live) and it's all people I've either worked with for years or at least known for a while so it's a good group of people that I'm happy to be spending time with.

After I got into the station and changed, I met up with some of the guys to watch a cheesy 80's movie (The Delta Force starring Chuck Norris). I stayed up long enough to chug a couple of bottles of water and then headed off to bed. Sleeping wasn't too difficult, although the altitude was hitting me pretty hard. I've been taking Diamox, which is a medicine to prevent altitude sickness. The main side-effect, well actually the main intended effect is that it makes you have to pee every couple of hours. So naturally, I woke up in the middle of the night having to pee like my life depended on it. Unfortunately, my room is at a certain point of the station where the closest bathroom is up a couple flights of stairs. So by the time I got to the bathroom, the effort of putting on my clothes and climbing the stairs made me almost pass out. I was able to sit down and rest until it passed but it made it very difficult to get back to sleep. It's a strange experience--Diamox essentially triggers your breathing reflex so you do it more, so you're very aware that you're taking frequent, huge breaths. Eventually, I fell back asleep until morning. In the morning, I grabbed a quick breakfast and then headed out to the Dark Sector Lab. To get to DSL, you have to cross the skiway (where the planes land) and just when I got to the skiway, the crossing beacon went on signaling that the runway was closed. A small twin-otter aircraft took off and the did a few circles in the air. Twenty minutes later, the beacon was still on. At this point, there were a few other people waiting at the crossing beacon and we were all wondering what the heck was going on. Eventually, we saw a Bassler aircraft off in the distance coming in for a landing. Finally (after about a half hour of sitting in -20 F temperatures), the beacon was turned off. Fortunately, a Pisten Bully was waiting as well so we were able to catch a ride out to the lab.

I'll head back to station in a couple of hours to grab some lunch and then probably take it easy for the rest of the day. The altitude is hitting me harder than normal this year.

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