Antarctica: November 2005


At 4:30 pm, I start my journey away from the strange civilization that is Los Angeles (see photo for two of the weirdos who live there). Several hours and several terminals later, I'm on my way to Auckland, dragging a 35-kg monster-sized computer named bicep0.


The flight to Auckland was long (12 hours) and uneventful. I passed through customs in a sleepy daze, and got on the plane to Christchurch.

Apparently, Qantas specifically forbids Furby usage.

New Zealand is beautiful from the air ... green as far as the eye can see on a sunny day.

Waves coming in parallel to the shore (calculate that with your physics).

Experiencing the greeniness up close in Christchurch. That's the Avon river, and it snakes through the city.

More green. Cute bridges like this one are scattered everywhere over the river.

A view of Cathedral Square, the center of Christchurch.

The city center features a giant waffle cone, ...

... and a giant chess board. I spent about an hour watching some old men battle it out.

The art center. They have an awesome exhibit, Alchemy of Daily Life, that features contemporary Korean artists.

The art center from the inside.

Later on, I had dinner with a handful of fellow travelers at Hay's, a place that specializes in New Zealand lamb. I also experienced Speight's, fine New Zealand beer ... the taste is all right, but I mainly like it for its name.

A bunch of biologists (Jenny, Lydia, and Tina) outside of the Windsor bed and breakfast.

A strange sticker we saw along the way. Thanks to Fish for this and the previous photo.


Today I'm scheduled to pick up my extreme cold weather (ECW) gear at the clothing distribution center. There were a few hours to kill in the morning, so I spent them wandering around the botanical gardens.

Lots of duckies live in the gardens. And lots of people like to feed them.

Mysterious duck alignment. The smaller black ducks (one is on the lower right) are very pretty.

A sunny path in the gardens.

Some intense green.

A cute duckie family.

Waiting for instructions at the clothing distribution center. Kiwon looks awake. Jenny, Bobcat, and Lydia are on the other end of the bench.


Our flight to McMurdo, the station on the coast of Antarctica, is scheduled for today. After a few-hour delay, we make it over to the clothing distribution center to swap our normal clothes for the ECW gear.

Bobcat, Lydia, Fish, and Jenny waiting for the information session to start.

Lots of orange bags and red coats.

The Antarctic Center. (I'm trying to catch a final bit of moist air and the smell of vegetation.)

The terminal for Christchurch-McMurdo flights.

Me in all the ECW gear except for the parka, hat, and gloves. Here I'm wearing three layers of pants, two shirts, and socks + boot liners.

The boots! They're more comfortable than they look, although the padding makes you feel like you're wading through sand. I get a couple extra inches of height from these. :-)

Back in the terminal, with the parka...

Bobcat's ready to go.

A bus takes us over to our plane.

The plane: a Hercules C-130. We're unloading our bags and picking up sack lunches for the 8-hour flight.

Ready to go! That's Jenny, Bobcat, me, Fish, and Kiwon.

Fish and the plane.

The plane interior. The red nets are the seat backs, and we sit in two rows facing each other.

It's cramped, the engines are loud, and the bathroom is suboptimal. Several McMurdo/Pole-veterans recommended dehydration.

I escaped from the passenger area and hopped up to the cockpit to hang out with the kiwi flight crew. Steve, one of the air force guys, was kind enough to give me a tour of the controls. The buttons and dials are actually less complicated than they look -- most of them come in sets of four, corresponding to the four engines. Steve also told me about his job, loading the cargo in a manner that keeps the plane balanced. That, in contrast to the flight controls, is more complicated than it sounds. He actually uses a slide rule for his job -- one that's specifically designed for balancing the weight of a C-130! The most remarkable thing he told me is that the center of gravity has to fit within a 24-inch margin along the length of the plane. (I.e. if all the passengers move to the back, the plane goes belly up.) Running the plane seems to be a demanding job, but the air force guys were all pretty relaxed. They were constantly pulling out big boxes of sandwiches and muffins, and brewing cups of coffee and tea.

The flight crew told me that this guy was the most photogenic one among them. I'm guessing he thinks otherwise.

That's Steve, my tourguide.

They didn't let me fly the plane...

...but they loaned me this cool headset so I could talk to them above all the engine rumble.

We're not the only ones who use KF fittings.

That's the radar guy. He checks the opacity of clouds and determines whether or not to fly around them.

He's also a fellow fan of the Garden State soundtrack (which was playing in the cockpit). Apparently I'm the first one to say something positive about his music choice.

After an hour of chatting with the crew, back in the passenger area.

Bits of ice started appearing in the ocean...

...and then more ice appeared...

...and bits of land too.

Steve's seen this all before, so he reads some magazine with girls in it while the rest of us take photos of the ice.

Approaching our landing site!

Finally we land, and we're quickly herded into a bus.

Bye bye plane...

Hello McMurdo!

It's bright outside!! (The plane landed at around 8:00 pm local time.) By the time I went to bed at 11:30 pm, the sun was still blazing. Coming to Antarctica for the first time is like landing on an alien planet -- the whiteness, desolation, and silence are completely overwhelming.


Our flight to the Pole was scheduled for this morning, but it got canceled and bumped to Monday. Took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep and get better acquainted with McMurdo.

The room I'm staying in. It was empty when I moved in, and now I have one roommate.

I love these boots.

Trash bins right outside the dorm corridors. We have to sort everything we throw out. Food waste gets shipped back to the US.

The charm of McMurdo wears off pretty quickly once you realize there isn't much to do (apart from checking email and drinking). Most people here spend their time on the latter. There are 3 bars at the station, and Gallagher's seems to be the most popular one among the non-smokers.

Fish likes his foosball.

An action shot. You can't tell from the picture, but the pub is pretty dead compared to last night. I guess everyone's saving their strength for tomorrow.

Gallagher's closed early (11 pm) tonight, so we relocated to Kiwon's room. That's Dolores in the bottom center. (The cushion, yep.)

The other side of the room.

More people, and someone groping Dolores.

Damon is getting friendly with Dolores...

...maybe a little too friendly. The fire house called shortly afterwards and brought the party to its conclusion.


This morning's project: get outside and climb up Observation Hill.

Fish and I tried to drag Kiwon along, but he was busy eating breakfast.

A view of the path up to the hill.

The hill is covered with funky rocks like this one. The loose rocks make it hard to climb up, especially in the giant boots.

Me struggling to keep my balance. Thanks to Fish for the pic.

A closer view of the peak.

McMurdo from above...

...and planes that land next door.

If you squint, you can just barely see roads going across the snow.

Fuel lines run all over the place.

Me and the memorial cross to Robert Scott et al.

Fish and the cross.

At the top!

Time to head back... The view of the station and the surrounding mountains is beautiful on the way down.

Fish walks faster than I do.

The station again.

The cross and two people in the distance.

One last look up at the top.

The smell of Antarctica = the smell of diesel.

For the final part of the descent, Fish proposes sliding down.

We should have stolen the sleds that we saw sitting at the station. We both got a buttload of snow. Literally.

A cool snow vehicle that we walked past on the way back. Check out those wheels!

Don't know if it's a good or a bad thing that this building exists.

Thanksgiving dinner is served today in the cafeteria. Actually, there are three rounds (3:00, 5:00, and 7:00 pm) because the crowds are so big. Fish, Kiwon, and I catch the 5:00 dinner (with Kiwon planning to come back for seconds at 7:00).

Although you can't tell in this photo, a ton of people are carrying bottles of wine...and some have already started drinking in the hallway.

Kiwon and Fish waiting in line.*grunt*. Lots of people are dressed up for the occasion too.

Kiwon and his first tray of food. Fish got a massive drumstick.

A shot of the cafeteria in building 155. How many wine bottles can you count?

Which one of the trash bins is different?


(Hopefully) the last day in McMurdo. I spent the afternoon stalking out the resident metalsmith, Harry, who showed me how to extract Erebus crystals from a volcanic bomb and how to melt rock. In the evening, several of us checked out the local coffee house.

Kiwon, Lydia, Carrie, and Jenny playing Trivial Pursuit.

I'm sure this seems funnier after a few glasses of wine.

The coffee house just closed...time to go home. Note how bright it is even though it's 11:00 at night.

Fish likes getting his picture taken.


Today we fly to the Pole! Our plane left bright and early in the morning -- another C-130, but this one's more upscale than the previous one (more leg room, normal seat belts), and it's flown by an American crew. I managed to get onto the flight deck again. :-)

The engineer and his controls (the upper panels).

A beautiful view out the window shortly after takeoff.

A better view of the mountains outside.

Some strange ice and rock formations that we flew over.

The pilot is on the left, the copilot is on the right, and the engineer sits behind them.

The navigator sits behind all of them, manning the radar.

The shiny buttons and knobs are simply irresistible.

The windows look funny when you look through polarized glasses.

The windows up close, looking through polarized glasses.

The passenger area is pretty classy; look at all the leg room! Note the guy sleeping on the very top of the cargo...

After a short flight (3 hours), we land and get out of the's friggin' cold here! (So cold that I didn't dare to take my camera out.) The first sensation I had was the inside of my nostrils freezing; every breath taken stings. Today it's about -36 C outside. The second thing I noticed, after the biting cold, was the building for our telescope in the distance. After looking only at photos for three years, I feel like I'm finally home. :-)

The elevation here is about 9000 feet -- I have yet to feel any serious effects from the altitude, although occasionally I feel a bit dizzy. It's also considerably drier here than in McMurdo -- I get zapped every time I touch a metal surface. After a brief orientation session, we wandered off to find our rooms. Most of us lucked out and are staying in the new station (as opposed to the jamesways and hypertats, i.e. fancy tents).

A view of my room. It's small, but there's lots of space under the bed.

Someone left a penguin in the room for me. Awww.

Looking from the other side.

...and the most important part, the stash of junk food I dragged from Pasadena. :-)

The view straight out my window. Note that the station is raised up on stilts.

Looking out from my window, away from the station.

The station has the feel of a giant something straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The architecture is very rugged and industrial, and most of the doors are giant freezer-style doors.


After a sleepless night (due to the light and the dry air), I got up at 5:00 am to catch the satellite connection, which provides our internet and phone connections to the outside world. The satellites are visible for only about 12 hours a day, and the window of time shifts a few minutes earlier every day. Right now they're up between 2:00 am and 2:00 pm local time.

We're allowed only two showers per week, with two minutes of running water per shower. It's pretty gross, especially since you get kind of toasty walking around in the ECW gear. I ventured outside this morning and walked over to the Dark Sector Lab (DSL), the home for our telescope.

The inside of the lab. We're still moving in, and there's still construction in the area. The cardboard box in the center is the monster computer I dragged with me from Pasadena.

Phil, the electrician, working on wiring up the lab. The telescope will sit on the wooden platform and look through the giant hole in the ceiling.

The view from one of the windows. The closer building is MAPO, home to the QUaD and ACBAR telescopes. The building in the distance is the station I'm staying in (the mothership).

Another view. Except for the roads and the tanks in the middle, the landscape is completely flat and completely white.

Photos don't do justice to the Antarctic landscape. The feeling of being outside is similar to being in a plane, high above the clouds, so that you see pure blue above and an infinite expanse of white below. Indescribable, and awe-inspiring.

Yuki, hard at work. The metal can behind him is the drinking water supply for the lab. (No running water yet...don't ask about bathrooms.)

Kiwon and the "packing material" (a.k.a. unpacking incentives) that we stuffed into the telescope crates. $160 of chocolate and cookies...

Kiwon's custom-made vacuum attachment. The lab is filthy from the construction work.

An important telescope component that we forgot to pack in the crate.

The crate for our cryostat...the monolith. Now we just need a bunch of screaming apes dancing around it.

The beginnings of a clean working area for the telescope receiver.

The telescope insert, the heart of our instrument. It survived the shipping process!

A CMB photon's view of the focal plane.

John and Yuki starting to unpack the cryostat from its huge crate.

Yuki, John, and Evan extracting the inner crate. The packing foam makes excellent sleeping surfaces (we bought it from a furniture store).

I went back to the mothership after a relatively short day...the high altitude and dehydration are giving me a bit of a headache.

The hallway I live in (in Pod B of the station). My room is at the end of the hallway on the left.

The main hallway along Pod B.

Did I mention this place reminds me of a spaceship?

The residents of the growth chamber. I keep expecting the lettuce to develop a set of pointy teeth.

Another view outside from one of the hallway windows.

The stairs leading to the berthings.


Kiwon opened up our 4He/3He/3He refrigerator to remove the shipping constraints.

A thing of cryogenic beauty, eh?

Today's major project was to crane the telescope mount into the building.

The mount beginning to emerge through the hole in the ceiling.

Catching the mount..

...and lowering it further...

...and positioning the feet.

Finished! The lowering process was remarkably fast.

Some aliens left a message in the snow for us.

Next project: finish unpacking the cryostat.

(Almost) finished after a long day of work! From left to right: Pete, Evan, Kiwon, John, me, and Yuki.

After dinner, Kiwon and Yuki went to the dome (the old station) to sign up for snow school. I'm too much of a pansy for snow school, but I went exploring with them.

The entrance to the old station.

The spooky tunnel leading into the dome.

Emerging into the dome...

The inside is stunning -- the air is completely still, and there's dead silence except for the occasional tinkle of an icicle tumbling down from the ceiling.

Lots of random freezable stuff is stored in the dome. I found a shelf piled full with boxes of cookie, pizza, and fillo dough.

Looking back towards the entrance.

We hung out in the library for awhile, and Yuki killed everyone in a couple rounds of pool.

Kiwon, Yuki, and I made an obligatory visit to the ceremonial south pole.

Me and the pole! (You can't tell it's me except for the name tag.)

...and a closeup view. The pole is shiny. :-)

A short trip over to the geographic south pole (as of January 1, 2005).

90 degrees south!!

It was a particularly windy day...time to head back to the mothership.

Main index | November 2005 | December 2005 | January 2006 | February 2006