Friday, November 23, 2012

All Settled In

I've now been here for about 10 days and I'm feeling pretty settled in.  The altitude doesn't get to me as much, though soccer is still harder than Wolverine's bones (but it's getting a little easier each time).  The monotony is sinking in (which isn't necessarily a bad thing)--get up, work, eat, play soccer, play guitar, drink beer, chug lots of water, watch a movie, drink more beer, etc.

I'm writing this post while I'm waiting for some code to compile.  If you don't have any programming experience, just imagine what it's like to watch grass grow but having to continuously monitor it in case the grass decides to grow sideways or something.  I figure I'd take this time to describe daily life/my work down here.

First off, for those who are new to my blog or who have forgotten since last year, the South Pole is extremely cold, high, and dry.  It's been warm the last few days, meaning it's only -35F or so with less than a 10 knot wind (so windchill of around -55F or so).  We're also at about 9300 feet physical, but with the extreme cold, the pressure altitude can range from around 10,000 - 12,000 ft so you can go to sleep at 10,500 and wake up at 12,300.  It's an extremely dry desert here (which is why my telescope is down here) so your lips, hands, nose, and any other exposed skin cracks like a waterboarded terrorist (note: I do not condone torture--I do however condone colorful metaphors).  Because of this, you need to pretty much chug water constantly or you'll start getting the symptoms of dehydration.  It makes drinking alcohol down here a different experience but coupled with weak beers and the effects of altitude training, your hangover can be anywhere from non-existent to Robert Downey Jr in severity.

I usually wake up anywhere between 5:30 and 9am depending on how late I was working the previous night or any altitude related insomnia.  If I'm up early enough, I go to the galley to get some breakfast (served 5:30 until 8am). I usually don't make it a point to get up for breakfast just because it's so terrible.  It's not really the cooks' fault but your breakfast options are eggs, bacon, sausage, and usually pancakes or pre-made waffles.  Not exactly appetizing though sometimes a couple of over-easy eggs coupled with some fresh fruit can be worth it.  Ugh... just thinking about breakfast right now is making me nauseous...  After I wake up, I check the telescope viewer running on my computer to make sure everything is ok.  We have it set up so you can remotely view things like the telescope's movements, temperatures, log and error messages, and even the weather.  When things break, we have it set up to send me an email and when things REALLY break, it pages my radio.  Yes, my telescope can totally call me.  Though it spends its days peering at the birth of the universe, it never seems to have anything interesting to say.  Provided everything is working, I plow through all my spam emails twice since they're all forwarded to my usap (US Antarctic Program) email account.  I then pick up my laptop and head down the hall to the science wing--a giant room where all the experiments have lab/desk space (this is where I am right now).  People walk by the hallway and peer in through the windows, sort of like we're animals at a zoo.  This is of course the excuse I give for when I fling my poo at them.  Then I usually start chugging through the previous day's data, making plots, making website postings to share with the collaboration, and when the satellite is up I push all this data up north.  At meals, I find myself saying "Excuse me, I've gotta go push some data up north" which I realized is a pretty good euphemism for taking a dump (since all directions are north).

When I need to swap out a calibration device, refill the liquid helium tank, or if something breaks, I go out to the Dark Sector Lab (DSL) where my telescope sits.  It's a 1 kilometer walk and although sometimes you can catch a ride on a snowmobile or truck, it's really a nice walk and a surprisingly good workout.  Because of the low temperatures and constant windchill, you need to suit up to go outside.  USAP provides you with the necessary gear although since I've gone down a few years now, I'm supplanted some of it with my own gear for comfort.  I usually double up on socks but my hiking shoes are usually sufficient unless I spend more than 30-40 minutes outside stationary.  I then put on a pair of lined carhartt overalls which have more pockets than a pool table.  To protect my hands, I put on glove liners, then wool mittens, and then leather mittens on top of that to stop the wind.  And my hands still freeze.  Thanks genetics for giving me shitty circulation to my extremities.  As long as it's above -40 or so and not to windy, or if I don't plan on spending too much time outside, my standard down jacket is good enough.  To protect my face/head, I wear a facemask, goggles, and a knit hat.  When it's windy, I'll put my hood up over this.  When you're outside for a while, I recommend dancing to stay warm.  With all the slick surfaces, it's a good place to learn how to moonwalk.

Recently, some of my colleagues and I have taken up body sledding down snow drifts for entertainment.  Because of the constant wind, giant snow-drifts will build up around buildings and they can be rather steep.  Sometimes, the snow plows and forklifts will pile up giant mounds of snow to try to keep everything flat around high traffic areas.  There's one right outside the station that I've starting colloquially calling "the Murderhorn" which can be a lot of fun sledding down.  Occasionally, I'll just take off sprinting and slam myself into a snow berm with an elbow drop reminiscent of the best Macho Man Randy Savage wrestling matches.

Today is Thanksgiving back home, although it's Friday here and we don't actually celebrate until tomorrow.  Since the standard work week is 6 days (although us scientists don't exactly have "working hours"--our hours are 24/7), holidays are usually pushed to the closest saturday to give people a two-day weekend.  Although I do wish I was home with my family, the excitement of being at the South Pole is totally worth it.  This is my niece's first Thanksgiving ever!  So naturally, my family has a lot to be thankful for this year.

Because it's tradition to annoyingly go around the table and say what we're thankful for this year (thanks Dad), I'll go ahead and give a short list.

I'm thankful for the healthy arriving of my wonderful niece, Lauren Lee Hunt.  I'm especially thankful that I got to meet her the day she entered the world.  I'm thankful that my sister and brother in law are so awesome and live so close by.  I'm thankful for the relationship I have with my parents and how active and involved they are.  I'm thankful for my research being more exciting than in previous years.  I'm thankful to have the opportunity to be at the South Pole and I'm thankful for those who recognize the opportunity this presents and who love me while I'm gone.  I'm thankful that there is a cease-fire in Gaza so my friends living in Israel can take a moment to breathe.  I'm thankful that you made it to this point in this exercise in selfishness we like to call a "blog."  Happy Thanksgiving, and I'll talk to you all later.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Back in Antarctica

in the belly of the C-17 en route to McMurdo

My stay in Chch was only one night and I arrived in McMurdo, Antarctica on monday.  Due to my seniority I was put up in a room with only 2 other roommates.  Usually us transients get packed like sardines into whatever room doesn't currently violate the fire code.  I went for my traditional hike out to Discovery point to observe the seals.  I always take pictures but they never can quite capture the sheer awe-inspiring beauty of the ice shelf.  Mt. Erebus looms ominously behind you, its constant bellowing of smoke painting the otherwise crystal sky.  Below you, a handful of enormous seals sun themselves on the frozen waves, somehow thriving in the desolation.  Then ice for miles, broken by the dark seemingly impenetrable mountains in the distance.  All the while, an unceasing sun does its best to warm against the constant breeze.  I try to stay out there until I can't feel my fingers to soak it all in.  At 18 F, it wasn't too bad (I realize how ridiculous that sounds).  Later, there was a science mixer at the Crary lab.  Being a transient in McMurdo is a very lonely experience.  At this point McMurdo has been open for about 2 months so the cliques have formed and they aren't interested in taking in any temporary members.  I recognized a few people from previous seasons but I spent most of my time staring out of the telescope at the mountains in the distance.  At one point someone recognized me from my performance at New Year's last year and we started talking about music, etc.  Later on a band called Condition Fun played.  Their name is a play on the weather conditions at McMurdo where condition one is clear, condition two is bad weather, and condition three is a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  They sang parodies of pop songs where all the lyrics dealt with life in Antarctica.  It was very funny and quite catchy.  Luckily, my flight to Pole was on schedule and I left the next day.

I arrived at Pole warmed by my big red and supplemented with excitement.  When your destination is Pole, McMurdo is a hell-hole and Pole is Shangri-la.  I hear McMurdo is an awesome place to be but its sort of reminiscent of that weird town from Twin Peaks.  Pole, on the other hand, is like a space station on some alien world.  The McMurdo crowd tends to be more outdoorsy adventurers but Pole is full of more sci-fi people.  I got out of the LC-130 and once I caught my breath (due to the extreme cold) I passed by my friend Molly from last year who was directing traffic on the runway.  I gave her a big bear hug and then proceeded towards the station.  I was greeted by my group as well as a few other people who I've known from previous deployments.  Arriving at Pole is a really amazing experience full of so much love and excitement.  One of the winter-overs for SPT who incidentally was a grad student on BICEP1 was leaving so I stuck around a little while to say bye to her.  After 15 minutes or so I was too cold and hungry so I went inside and found my room.  Because this is my 4th deployment (and because I'm a grantee, not a contractor) I was given one of the "big" rooms.  It's about 3 feet wider than the other rooms but it actually makes a really big difference.  I've even got a window with a view.  Usually the windows just point towards the other berthing wings but my berthing is on the end so I have a clear view of the endless horizon.

This deployment so far has just been spectacular.  Everything from my room, to the group down here, to my responsibilities has just been fantastic.  I'm the only BICEP2 person deployed and although there are 4 other people from the collaboration, they are all SPUD specific so the telescope is entirely mine!  I do the cryo refills, cycle the refrigerator, modify the schedules, run the schedules, analyze the data, and send all the data up north.  If I were any more productive, I would be powering the station!

Doing a cryo fill out at the lab.  Safety first, y'all.
Last night was my first saturday here and it happened to be Open Mic Night.  Trudy, who I've known from the past few seasons, plays guitar and sings mostly country-folk or bluegrass style songs and Daniel, my bass player from my bands down here, organized everything and set the gym up to look like a coffee shop.  I've been spouting my philosophy about Pole which is "at Pole, the answer is always yes."  This is a safe place to step outside of your comfort zone and have some fun.  In that regard, I played some songs that I've never played publicly and sang a few tunes too.  I was very rusty but the show went great.  The most fun, however, was afterwards when John Carlstrom, the big boss man of SPT (and one of the most renown, powerful physicists alive) and I took over the band room and drank beers and jammed until about 2:30am.  Talk about networking...  He's a helluva physicist and a damn good guitarist.  And a really great guy too (and a possible future boss).

Well, I'm off to play soccer.  Hopefully it will go easier than on wednesday (my second day here) which damn near kicked my ass.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Back in the Enn Zed

Well, it's that time of year again. Time for me to head back to Antarctica. I arrived in New Zealand this morning after 3 flights, ~15 hours. I'm back in Christchurch which is an absolute wreck. Two years ago (and six days after I left) Chch was hit with a massive earthquake which damaged many of the buildings downtown and killed around 150 people. When they were rebuilding, about a year later, another massive quake struck. Now all the buildings that were being fixed have been demolished and downtown is essentially non-existent. It's very sad. I really loved coming to Chch. It was a very manageable, friendly city with some truly excellent bars and restaurants. Now it's just a bunch of thrown together strip malls and rubble. I feel bad for those who this is their first deployment. I'm fortunate in that I got to experience the real Chch before it was leveled.

I've been up now for about 36+ hours and I'm preparing to go to bed (it's 7:15pm here but I'll try to hold out as long as possible). I had a really great time so far today. I walked along one of the main streets towards the remnants of downtown until I was met with a promise of great beer from a chalkboard sign on a sidewalk. That promise was not honored. New Zealand beer is weak. Most are 4% with some pushing 5.3%. I tried the beer with the most amount of adjectives describing its flavor (usually the most you'll find are some combination of pale, crisp, and lager). It was a black lager promising hints of coffee, chocolate, and rich malts. It tasted like watered down murphy's. Where I come from, if you have the balls to make a black lager, you make it 8% and unforgettable. And then you dry-hop it.

Naturally, I had the green-shelled mussels for dinner. They are gigantic and so sweet. They came in a delicious garlic cream sauce with some bread to sop up the left-overs. Very delicious. While there, I overheard someone reading a paper talking about Jeb Bush v Hilary Clinton in 2016 and we struck up a conversations. It turned out he was an ex-pat who worked with the DoD fixing our C-130s for polar operations. I drank and philosophized with him, his british wife, a few local Kiwis, and all the bartenders. They were locals and apparently ran the joint. It was a lot of fun especially since there were only 3 USAP people on my flight (including me) and I didn't know either of the others. I actually hope our flight leaves on time since it would be dreadful to be stuck in this flattened husk of a city without anyone I know. If all goes as planned, we should leave monday.

I am very excited to get to Pole this year. I have friends already down there and as this is my fourth trip I sort of feel like a high-school senior. I've paid my dues, done my time, and now I'm the old fart who knows everything about the inner workings of the place. I'll even get you the answers to friday's geography test. This will also be my first deployment single which isn't to say I'm excited for the prospects (you know, the 3 women down there) but that my previous girlfriend had a tendency to stress me out to the point that I couldn't eat for the first week or so every time I deployed. So I'm looking forward to a much smoother psychological transition.

I'm starting to fade and my thoughts are becoming less coherent. I'll just end with this: ketchup does not belong on a falafel. Other than that, it was delicious. That and Kathmandu is having a 70% off of cold weather gear sale so hopefully they are open on sundays (unlike most of the stores in this damn country--it's shocking that they can sustain an economy).