"The South Pole"

Geoff Haines-Stiles - December 4, 1994 - Summit, New Jersey
Project Director, PASSPORT TO KNOWLEDGE & the LIVE FROM... specials

    I miss THE LIGHT. Still do. I woke up on the huge C-130 cargo plane, droning its noisy way north from Mactown to Cheech, and it was dark outside. I was "back in Kansas", back in the regular world. The extra-ordinary was behind me, on the Ice, and the mundane was ahead. Of course, that plane ride was a recipe for disorientation: I was the only "pax" or passenger on-board, sharing the cargo area with a huge box labeled "Nose Skid" -- a broken piece of one of the ski-equipped Hercs that fly to Pole and the deep-field camps. Just me, the ski, and the air-crew. Yes, Jerry, what a long strange trip it had been.

Back in Cheech, I was also, of course, the sole person in the large hall where we had been trying on clothes, and getting suited up so many, many times, it seemed, as flight after flight down to McMurdo was canceled. Just two and a bit weeks before, but it seemed much longer. Now, at 1:30 a.m., it was a lonely place to say good-bye to the big red parka, the bunny boots, the bear-paws and the heavy long johns! How can you be sentimental about underwear? Strange place, The Ice...

Not that being back in the States has really been ordinary. Not returning about 3 weeks before "showtime"! It was great to see the family again... getting back, to my surprise, before Thanksgiving. Racing round to get a dub of the video sequences I'd brought back with me, and to get some stills processed, I got stuck in an early season snow squall on Route 10... large, wet flakes that did not stick, more falling snow, in fact, than I'd seen in Antarctica! Hmmm... The Ice was reaching out for me.

After the delays in getting to Antarctica, returning went without a hitch, leaving McMurdo, Monday 21st in the late afternoon, arriving in Christchurch late that night, catching a few hours sleep at the Devon Hotel... next morning, returning a camera lens, buying presents, sending off postcards, then out to the International Antarctic Center, with its NSF offices, getting dubs made of Navy films of Admiral Byrd's flight over the pole, visiting its library (where I bought some maps), its gift shop (where I picked up a wooden Gondwanaland puzzle, posters to dress the schoolrooms for the TV shows, the Reader's Digest book on Antarctica, a good overview of the explorers and the continent), and -- of course -- a place to do Email.

I tried to find a couple of free, clear hours to finish off my journal of what I saw down South, but there were too many tasks and too little time. So it is that I find myself, early Sunday morning, with the dark outside, and a corkboard beside me showing all the program video elements on 3 x 5 cards -- a jigsaw puzzle all of its own, a Gondwanaland of options -- trying to recapture what we saw and felt.

Friday, November 11th. Up early, cranking out text for the previous days "seens", including that wonderful excursion to the Dry Valleys. But after a hurried breakfast, there was something else I had to do, calling back to the States to Chicago, to a meeting of THE NEW EXPLORERS group, including host Bill Kurtis, and his colleagues at WTTW and their supporters and sponsors, Duracell, Amoco, the Department of Energy. Luckily it was not a video-phone, because I was pulling on my expedition weight underwear while talking to them! The helo take- off time had been moved up half an hour, and as usual I had not quite left myself enough time. Zippers were tugged shut, dog-tags pulled on -- a ritual before any air travel down here -- as I answered a few more questions and then, like Peter Pan, I told them I gotta fly.

It's hard to run in all that ECW gear, carrying one of those orange bags, but I puffed down to the pad. Brian Igelman was already filming Dianne Stoecker, the biologist from Maryland who we were planning to tape out at the ice-edge, and her helo was taking off as I got there. I'd forgotten my boots! I would not be allowed to fly without them, and JR had taken them to the Berg Field Center to be fitted with crampons in case we were climbing serious ice. Just this last time he'd get them for me, he said, with a sorta manly punch on the arm, and the sub-text of "shmuck, don't forget your stuff -- gotta be responsible", and then we were off. It was windy, I never much liked choppers, and putting on those dog tags makes you pretty conscious that this is always an extreme and sometimes dangerous environment.

Soon we caught up with Dianne's helo, flying in formation to the place where liquid water began. Though we were flying into a strong head-wind, Chuck and Brian were able to get some steady shots of the other craft... and then we were there! After just a few days, we'd gotten used to white from horizon to horizon, and now the black of the sea loomed up. How quickly we adapt! It seemed almost strange not to see ice everywhere. And then we saw the penguins, a clump of 5 or so here... then more off to the right. The pilots are prohibited down to land, we had a distant view.

It was REALLY windy! MacTown (McMurdo) lulls you into forgetting where you are. But classic Antarctica begins when you leave town and exit your vehicle. Actually, even before you leave your helo! With rotors running, the crew chief pulled out a large ice-auger and drilled down to check just how thick and stable the sea-ice was. Seemed good, he said, and only then did the engines get cut off, releasing the full weight down onto the ice.

Parkas were pulled up over heads, under- and outer- gloves cinched tight, but still the wind literally took your breath away, and froze your nose hairs, making my mustache tinkle with frozen breath. Spare batteries were stored in the comparative warmth of an inside pocket, and off to catch up with Dianne and her team of 2 others, swiftly pulling their banana sled of equipment the 200 or so yards to the true ice-edge.

Brian, with the camera, went on ahead, but it took us a while to get there. Humans may be forbidden to approach penguins by the Treaty, but the penguins obviously don't consider themselves bound by the same rules! A group of 3 or so began their characteristic waddle over to us, Emperors, about the size of my 8-year old son Max, back home. I started taking photos when they were about 30 yards away, then 20, then 10... thinking I musn't waste film, but that they would soon stop, afraid of us, and turn away. 5 yards -- click -- 4 -- click -- 2 yards -- click -- Gee, this is nuts, I'm going to be RUN OVER by a penguin! Three feet away, he, she, it stopped and surveyed us! It was incredible: the smell of the fish it had been eating, the sleek coat, clean from the ocean, bright, curious eyes, webbed feet. Chuck and JR were equally delighted, and some of the stills from that day may make it into press materials. Eventually the Emperors decided we weren't that interesting and turned and waddled off. We decided the makers of the Batman movie had done a pretty good job of giving Danny DeVito pengy-motion lessons!

Down at the ice-edge, Dianne Stoecker and her crew had taken precautions not to join the penguins in the icy ocean. She put on a climbing harness, roped herself in, and one of the air-crew wrapped the free end around a climbing ax, anchored in the sea-ice, and paid her out and in as she collected samples of the sea-water to study temperatures. It seemed ironic, but -- out on the ice, in sub-zero temperatures, she had an Igloo cooler to store the samples she would take back to base. Despite the blustery winds we interviewed her about her work, studying sea-ice algae, one of the bases of the food- chain leading up to and including the Emperors who now stood all around us, inspecting our strange doings, perhaps making mental penguin movies about these strange flying creatures who had alighted in their domain. Dianne was excellent about her research, and also told a story about how a leopard seal had come right out on the sea-ice and grasped the leg of one of her team, only letting go when it realized this was not an especially large and tasty penguin treat! (see what I mean about the top of the food chain!) But being dragged off by such a large and ferocious animal into the sea would definitely have been no joke. Interview over, Dianne and crew loaded up and pulled their sled back to their helo. We stayed behind to shoot some scenics, saw penguins bobbing up and down in the ocean, and then turned to watch a long line of penguins following Dianne back to the plane! It was an amazing sight, just another to add to a day which had already exceeded our expectations in cold, in penguin proximity, in the beauty of the location.

As we flew back, we saw a large crack in the sea-ice which looked as if it ran a good way across the ice-edge where we had been working. With this much wind, said JR, we were lucky the whole area had not come loose, and floated away, us with it. But that's the way guides talk, just to remind you this is not just another surface, not just business as usual. Or, maybe he was right!

We stopped at Cape Royds, and without the key to Ernest Shackleton's old hut, could only look at it from the outside. Close by was an Adelie penguin rookery, but since it was a protected area, with posted DO NOT ENTER signs, we needed a heavier duty tripod than the one we had brought to steady the camera for long lens shots, and so hut and penguin close-ups would have to wait for another day.

En route back to McMurdo, we had to fly right over Big Razorback Island, where Michael Castellini and his team were studying Weddell seals, and which we planned to visits soon, so we decided to try for an aerial establishing shot. We circled a couple of times, but it was very bumpy. When out trusty pilot himself said he thought it was a little too risky to try this one more time, I was happy to comply, and say please head for home!

Back at base in time for lunch... but this was no ordinary morning's work, as I could tell when talking penguins to those who worked back in MacTown. Our job was taking us out to the sights of a lifetime, a real privilege, and we just hoped the video would look good for the kids back home.

Saturday... Sunday... 12th and 13th... more days of waiting. I was scheduled to travel to the Pole with the ASA communications crew, to talk the project through and scout locations, but Saturday's flight was canceled. Sunday we got suited up... went out to the airport, hung around for a few hours... then the weather got really bad, the crew were at the end of their watch, the plane was broken... we never quite got the whole, complete story... and we were back at base for another night.

This was actually not so bad. (Sunday dinners were not to miss! But how come this journal has so many references to food?). We also got to hear some of the people who were in town for NSF's Artists and Writers program (which is described in the Teacher's Guide, along with some wonderful written excerpts.) Every Sunday evening, there's a lecture in the Galley, and the whole community -- scientists, support staff, military) is welcome. This was a standing room only crowd, who heard Rebecca Johnson talk about writing her previous book on the ozone hole (her travel experience arriving early in the season is excerpted in the Guide), two photographers (including one who actually works as a carpenter but takes great pictures in his spare time!) and a painter, David Rosenthiel (who had worked for several seasons at McMurdo) who had wintered over last season. That morning I had sat with him at breakfast (one of those chance encounters that makes meals in MacTown fun as well as filling) and was stupid enough to ask him why an artist would want to spend months of total darkness on the Ice. Well, in the film and tv business we call early morning, just before the sun comes up, and a little after, and the evening around sunset, "magic hour". The light is diffuse, gentle, and with a little cloud or strange weather, it's magic -- hence the name. With MONTHS of twilight as the long Antarctica day becomes the long Antarctic winter, there are MAGIC MONTHS. Thanks, David Rosenthiel, now I get it!

It was a great presentation that evening, fine words and fine pictures, and we gathered in the make-shift studio which had been dedicated to our video project afterwards for an impromptu "media event". S-328, LIVE FROM ANTARCTICA, was to make next week's presentation, and I wondered: (1) will our editing equipment EVER get here? And will it work, so we can show some clips? and (2) will the community be supportive of and interested in our efforts? Down here they call tv types "media pukes" because they resent the way some crews have behaved in the past, arrogant, dismissive, pushy, not understanding the peculiar Zen of Antarctic logistics, the need not to be too zealously dedicated to pre-arranged timetables or other material things. But with four live shows to come, I was never sure how Buddhist I could ever be!

Monday, 14th November: THE SOUTH POLE
Wow... If the ice-edge was cold, this is... well, polar. How cold is it? About 30 below, with a wind-chill taking it down to minus 80. So cold a hand ungloved to fiddle with a camera feels tingly in seconds, and I begin to worry that after briefing my crew about how careful they must be about frost-bite, I am afraid that in my first hours at the Pole, I have done it to myself. I think about how embarrassed I will be if I've really been so foolish... as the MacTown saying goes, "they'll talk about me in the galley"... but after some huffing and puffing on the fingers, the feeling comes back and I won't have to feel a cool fool. It's so cold that now my beard and mustache and the balaclava all get frozen from my breath... so cold that my sunglasses freeze up with condensation, and I have to stop and peek out below them to find my way to my tent. Yes, it's this cold, and I am billeted in a tent... in "summer camp".

Actually, it is canvas, but not quite like any tent I've ever been in before. It sleeps about 20, in a kind of opaque, fabric equivalent in width and length to those greenhouses used to grow tomatoes. There's a kerosene heater, noisy but effective, which keeps things toasty warm. It's just very odd to walk in out of the FREEZING cold and then have to strip off layers of clothes, in the dark, illuminated by bare light bulbs, and with -- shall we say -- frugal shelf-space to hang things. I am quickly convinced of the need for NSF's planned upgrade of facilities at the South Pole! Can't be too soon, as far as this chilly media puke is concerned.

How did we get here? This time a C-130 operated by the New York Air National Guard (ANG), which works down here for some weeks each summer, took off pretty much on time. It was a great flight, and since I wanted to see the Transantarctic Mountains, (including the Beardmore Glacier, where we hoped to tape scenes on searching for meteorites), I'd asked if I could sit up in the cockpit for part of the way. It was pretty cloudy, but I was lucky enough to fall into conversation with the ANG Commander, Col. Archie Berberian, who turned out to be deeply interested in education, and in involving youngsters in exploration, expeditions and interactive projects like ours. He told me of NY ANG's work in Greenland, originally to service the nation's early warning radar systems, now -- with the end of the Cold War -- to support cold weather capabilities for airlifts, etc. Apparently each year they take some city youngsters to Survival School in Greenland, and he asked us to think about coming along and doing a live broadcast next year. Since we have begun thinking about LIVE FROM THE ARCTIC CIRCLE (with sites in Siberia, Alaska and other places) this was a chance encounter that might prove very interesting.

Most of the trip down, the cloud cover was pretty complete, but landing at the Pole, after all that emptiness, was amazing. This was the first SKI-landing I'd ever experienced, and it seemed to go on for ever, sliding, pretty smoothly, down the runway. The air-crew suited up, serious, camouflaged, cold-weather gear covering all bare skin before the door was opened. Then a quick walk -- out, forward and RIGHT, away from the props which keep spinning for the hour or so the plane will stay on the ground -- and there it was, the tunnel entrance to The Dome I'd seen in so many photographs. WELCOME TO THE AMUNDSEN-SCOTT SOUTH POLE STATION. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Bright sun... really cold... dark tunnel... relatively cold interior of the Dome... with snow-stalactites creeping down from the open panels in the geodesic roof. Under the Dome are single and double story structures, painted NSF-red, windowless. The floor is snow. It's like a set left over from ALIEN, designed by a Geiger who'd spent too long in Disneyland at Christmas-time, and built on a Roger Corman budget, a spaceship on an ice-planet assembled out of bits and pieces.

Our "in-briefing" was in the Galley. Unlike MacTown's massive structure, this one looked as it if could almost certainly not house at one time all the 135 people that are the maximum polar population at the height of the summer research season. The station manager was blunt: this is a dangerous place. DRINK LOTS OF WATER, OR THE ALTITUDE AND DRYNESS WILL GIVE YOU HEADACHES. Don't take anything for granted. (We will put the handout they gave GHS up online: it's got some great facts about the place, and some interesting DO's and DON'Ts for when YOU visit the Pole, either electronically, via TV, or for real.) But though we knew we had to take this seriously, the fact that we could see the chefs at work behind the counter also told us that this was a much-more close-knit community, where the extreme conditions outside meant that inside scientists and support staff all lived and worked pretty closely together. Lunch was great -- as was the conversation with carpenter "Dog" (Doug) and his partner, who recommended wearing a bandana instead of a woolen balaclava, saying it was a sure way to cut down on condensation on sunglasses.

Then a long haul of equipment out to the Jamesway tent... and, before anything else, THE POLE. Actually, with ASA Director of Communications Diane Kirkpatrick, it was off to the two poles you can visit at this station. And, of course, for professional and personal reasons, you have to take a photo of yourself at the pole. Even James Cameron, director of TERMINATOR 2 and one of the ALIENS films, had done this, when he visited the week before. So we did not feel too touristy!

First it was the ceremonial pole, a shiny glass ball, on a barber's pole, surrounded by the flags of the original Antarctic Treaty signers. Then the exact geographic pole... 90 degrees south. This was the smaller marker that student Elizabeth Felton will help reposition during our January 10th live program, if all goes well. Technically, we've been told, you shouldn't say she's moving the pole, since the pole is always by definition 90 degrees south, but the ice sheet slips over the underlying surface, and so the marker moves nearly 10 meters a year. (see REPOSITIONING THE POLE by April Whitt - on page 28 of the printed Teacher's Guide or online under Antarctic Resources/Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA) Resources/Moving the South Pole)

The wind was blowing hard, and it was so cold that this first day's pictures have both Diane and I bundled up so that you can hardly tell who is who. I think about whether anyone will be able to tell it is Elizabeth moving the pole, and how she will be able to talk with students back in America, through all the mufflers. Maybe we need to put a little arrow on screen so you can tell her and April Lloyd, the 3rd grade teacher from Charlottesville who'll also be at the Pole apart from all the other red-suited figured bundled up out there? Ah, well, that's the point of coming on "recces", or production scouts, to find the nitty-gritty problems with all the grand ideas.

Then inside -- for the other purpose of the Pole trip: meetings. First a technical discussion about satellites and phone lines: Bill Macafee (an ace photographer with some great pictures of the Aurora Australis) seemed to have things under control, he reported to ASA telecomms manager Eric Siefka, and with the other pole comms specialist, Brent Jones, expected back in late November, all seemed well in hand. (Don't jinx things, Geoff!!!) We were planning a complex borrowing of NOAA's GOES-2 satellite to carry the video and audio signals back to the States, with a second satellite, Marisat, carrying the production cueing audio. It was the need to have both satellites visible from the South Pole that drove us to a 17:30 Eastern time slot for the Jan 10th program and the Jan 12th backup date, in the event of technical problems. (As Steve Peterzen of the Long Duration Balloon experiments said about planning and logistics in the Antarctic, "the most redundant redundancy is not enough".)

Then Eric, who had been helpful throughout, took Diane and I on a tour of the station. Somebody had mentioned that Eric had for a long time been the human who had spent the most time at the South Pole, and though he was now second in this exclusive title race, he had clocked up 56 months, starting out as a radio operator at age 18 (see SOUTH LIGHT by Michael Parfit.) Taking us around, seeing the fuel bladders with their heated pipes, the underground (undersnow?) tunnels for the heated water pipes, the gym, the "Skylab" 4-story skyscraper with its atmospheric experiments, and its top-floor lounge, equipped with amps and guitars for the polar rock group that practices here, the half-size gym where they play "volleybag" (it's not big enough for a really bouncy ball!), the balloon launch tower, the gym... it was clear Eric loved this place, and clear that Elizabeth could take kids back in the States on a great guided tour of the research station that was to be her home for a little over 2 weeks. I thought she'd love it!

Then dinner... and a visit to the gift shop, buying postcards to send back to my own four kids, and bumper stickers and baseball hats to give away as prizes for competitions and activities we had begun thinking about having on-air. What's a PBS show without a premium or two? And though we weren't going to ask for money, we thought kids would be interested in the badges and pins that real, corporeal (not electronic or "virtual") visitors seemed so ready to buy at the shops in McMurdo and at South Pole. The line here was so long I was even a little late for the next meeting, with station manager John Parlin (RJPS) and NSF rep. Jim Gardner and other station staff, to go over detailed plans. Fortunately they did not mind, and we had a very productive meeting.

It was now about 10:30, time to turn in, despite the bright sunshine outside, and so, another trek back to the Jamesway. I slept well... though this I will put on record for other visitors to the Pole. Do drink lots of water... but ensure you know exactly where the toilet facilities are before you turn in. Drink lots of water, but if you are a guy, consider taking one of those tin cans from the toilets back to the Jamesway before you turn in. In other words, DRINK LOTS OF WATER and prepare for the natural consequences. Say no more, as the Pythons would put it, good night.

Tuesday, 15th. Pole
Next day dawned bright, as of course it would, absent a blinding snow-storm. (In fact, midnight would have dawned bright.) NSF's Program Director for aeronomy and astrophysics, John Lynch, had volunteered to take us out to the new CARA facilities, the cluster of telescopes and buildings you could see out in the "Dark Sector", across the runway, beyond the poles. (For much more on CARA, the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, see the online files.)

We saw the AST/RO telescope, and SPIREX, atop its old tower. We heard of plans to move it to its new location, and hoped our crew would be there to see it. We visited the new control rooms, built up on stilts to allow the drifting snow to pass harmlessly underneath, and not overwhelm surface structures, as had happened with the existing Dome and tunnels. John and his Principal Investigators were great guides, in the buildings and as we chugged from place to place by Spryte. John was very pleased to see what looked to us like a rather old-fashioned metal-working tool, amid all the exposed fibers and cables for the computers. This is what you'd expect to see in an observatory back in the States, he said, to fix a piece of equipment when it goes wrong, to build a widget you didn't realize you need when you packed up your experiment back home, many months ago. Before this, he said, you always had a chance that something could go down, for unanticipated reasons, and you'd lose weeks fixing it. Seeing the old-tech along with the new-tech made him feel that astronomy at the pole was coming of age, with logistics to match the world-beating clarity of atmosphere, altitude, lack of water vapor, and months of observational darkness.

After another photo session at the poles (today was warm enough that we could raise our balaclavas long enough to be identifiable while pix were snapped!) and a quick chat with CARA's head of operations Bob Pernic, it was back into the Spryte and over to NOAA's Clean Air Facility. NOAA Lt. Kate McNitt, who'd wintered at pole last year (we had been told that "wintered" was a perfectly good word, and you did not need to say wintered OVER) and was to winter again in the 94-95 season, briefed us on how she and colleagues monitor ozone, trace gases in the atmosphere, and other indicators of global climate change that make Antarctica so important as a laboratory for the entire planet and the human future. Kate was just as eloquent and interesting as I'd expected, based on meeting her at the Orientation conference, and also turned out to have a commitment to interaction with students. She'd taken over some editorial responsibilities for the "New South Polar Times" -- an Email journal -- and confirmed she was happy to be a guest in our 3rd or 4th program.

The Clean Air Facility is to be upgraded soon -- apparently it is too close to the other buildings to be "clean" enough. We were also delighted to find that NOAA operates a sister facility in Barrow, Alaska, one of the uplink sites for the 4th program. We were sure that this would give us some opportunities to have the northernmost school district in the US talk to the Antarctic about ozone and climate change, telescience and how students could interact with distant sites and researchers, and those plans will come up in more detail, online, in the weeks ahead... before the January 19th program.

Then... lunch, a wrap-up briefing from John Lynch, a jog back to the Jamesway (now I felt adjusted to the altitude, it did not seem as far away as it had done the day before) and farewells. It had been a very intense day, only a little over 24 hours, but it felt like much, much longer. This was something that had been said by a participant in a program on Antarctica I'd helped write a few years back: because the sun is up, you feel like working hours you'd never do back home, and, with the right attitude, you can get an awful lot accomplished.

As if a bonus for the hectic pace at pole (this is how they talk about it, not "the pole", but "pole") the weather on the flight back was superb all the way. The Transantarctic Mountains were clear, the mighty glaciers stretching for miles down from the polar plateau, crevasses gaping. From horizon to horizon, on both sides of the plane, out to the Earth's round edge... whiteness. Vastness. It was so impressive that when Guy Guthridge, NSF's Manager of Polar Information asked me what it was like, I had no words that I thought would do it justice, and -- goofily -- remained silent. Watch the programs to see what I eventually figure out can be said about this amazing sight! If the students who participate are 1/10th as excited as I was about the pole, I think we'll have a great, inspiring and instructive show.

Another bonus was getting back to MacTown and finding our digital editing gear in place and working fine. The crew, under field producer Deane Rink, had been out fishing with Art DeVries, (for a story on the organic anti-freezes which keep fish alive in sub-zero waters) but also had some sample sequences up and running. It was great to see stuff shot only hours before already crafted into a slick sequence.

Then bed: it sure was good to have a bathroom only a warm walk away!

Wednesday, 16th, Mactown
This was an office and e-mail day... preparations for Sunday's presentation, interaction back to the States, putting all our plans on a large board, meeting potential live guests, video house-keeping. Lots happened, but nothing happened.

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