By the time you read this, it will be Christmas here at the South Pole. Due to the timezone we observe here, the South Pole sees Christmas a full nineteen hours before those of you in the Midwest.
Normally, people here on station work six days a week and Sunday is an off-day. However, Christmas traditionally is one of the rare occasions when people get two days off. Since Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, the station worked on Sunday and got Monday and Tuesday off. Of course, for scientists and support staff like myself, we’re not necessarily bound by what the NSF and Raytheon Polar Services Corp. do, so we usually work a bit nearly every day.
As part of the Christmas celebration, the station has Christmas dinner, complete with appetizers, egg nog (with rum), and live music. Due to the size of the station’s summer population and the physical realities of the galley, Christmas dinner is eaten in three shifts on Christmas Eve. We met in the hallway outside the galley for the appetizers, egg nog, and music a half-hour before the meal. We then entered and sat at the usual tables, only they were covered with cloth tablecloths. Instead of paper napkins, we used cloth napkins. The plates were still plastic and so were the water glasses, but there were candles (usually a huge no-no in Antarctica due to the fire danger), strings of lights on the ceiling, and wine stewards who poured wine and delivered dessert. We still ate the main course buffet-style, but nobody complained. The dinner this year was beef wellington, lobster tails, mashed potatoes, vegetable wellington, two types of gravy, asparagus, some sort of root vegetable combination, salad, chocolate something or other pie, pecan pie, some sort of meringue pie, fresh whipped cream, chocolate truffles and fudge, and an array of cookies. Suffice it to say that anyone who left the galley hungry after that meal had only themself to blame. You only got an hour to eat, including toasts, dessert, and waiting in line for food, so no one could push back from the table and ruminate about the meaning of life, but again, it is Antarctica (a harsh continent, or so we always say), so no one complained. After dinner, we all bussed our plates into the dish pit so that they could be quickly washed and placed back on the tables for the next shift.
I volunteered in the dish pit yesterday morning. There are a few people on station who are dedicated dish washers, but even they get time off and helping out in the dish pit is something of a station tradition. Doing all those dishes isn’t exactly a great time, but it is something that people here do to participate in the community. Just as we all have to clean bathrooms, lounges, and the like, doing a whole heap of dishes is part of living here.
While I was working the dish pit, two planeloads of tourists came by to see the place. Their planes, pictured above, were parked in the non-governmental activies area here. If you’ve got well over $34,000 to spend, there is a company that will happily get you to the Pole for several hours. You can’t spend the night here, and you aren’t exactly free to wander about without an escort, but you do get a tour of the station, a cup of coffee and a cookie in the galley, and an opportunity to shop the station store. There were twenty or so filthy rich…er, I mean intrepid souls who wandered past the pit while I was working there. Most of them looked like tourists, just wearing more cold weather gear than you might expect to find on a tourist in a more typical locale. One or two of them looked decidedly displeased with the altitude.
Lest anyone think that it’s all peaches and cream here, I should relate a story of youth, testosterone, alcohol, and stupidity. As you might expect when those four items are key elements in the story, it doesn’t end well for all concerned. Generally, flights into and out of the Pole are non-existent on holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Years. That’s why I was surprised to see a skier (that’s what we call LC-130 Hercules flights here) inbound for the Pole on the flight schedule today. Eventually, I learned it was a medevac flight. The story behind that flight is uncommon, but not unheard of. As I may have mentioned in the past, many of the RPSC employees here are younger, and the majority of those are male. There are no shortage of twenty-something males who spend their days doing stereotypically manly things like driving heavy equipment, doing construction, performing maintenance, and the like. Two of the local drunken rowdies both chose last night to get stinking drunk and unfortunately for them, their paths crossed sometime after two in the morning. Words were exchanged, punches were thrown, and when the dust cleared one of the rowdies had a bleeding and broken jaw. His assailant fled the scene while the broken-jawed wonder started wandering around the station. He knew he was bleeding, but was so drunk that he couldn’t think straight or feel too much pain. Eventually, someone on the night shift found the bleeding wonder and summoned the doc to Medical. That’s when the station’s management was alerted to the situation and the fact finding began. Soon thereafter, the jaw breaker was named and found (there aren’t many places to hide here). So, the skier I saw was carrying both knuckleheads off the continent: one for medical care and both for termination from their jobs. Normally, the Air Force and National Guard crews get Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, so I can’t imagine they were thrilled to be flying two nitwits off the ice. I’m sure there were no special privileges extended to the drunken duo on their flights back to New Zealand.
The weather here was fairly rough a few days ago. It wasn’t much colder or windier than usual, but the atmospheric conditions made it seem like you were living inside a ping-pong ball when you went outdoors. As you can see in the picture above, there was almost no definition between ground and sky. Several vehicles were driven off what we call roads here and into drifts, even though the station speed limit is fifteen miles an hour. It was hard even for pedestrians to see definition in the ground twenty feet ahead. Some flights into the Pole were delayed as a result of those conditions, but not nearly as many as I expected. The National Guard pilots who fly the Hercs out of McMurdo to the Pole must not have found the conditions as daunting as they seemed.
Once the weather cleared up a bit, a coworker and I went up onto the roof of the ICL to examine a few things in our rooftop antenna farm. While we were up there, we took a few photos. The picture below is me, standing on the roof of the ICL, with the IceCube drill camp in the background.