Antarctica: December 2006

03-December-2006 ... 05-December-2006

This story begins with leaving home...a sad start, but the snow and penguins are calling my name. Twelve hours and three bad movies later, I'm back in New Zealand. FYI Qantas still forbids on-board Furby usage, and their barf bags still double as film development kits.

I'm staying at the Windsor again. This is a very friendly, chubby, and lazy dog that hangs out on the front step.

Wandering through Cathedral Square, trying to stay awake and remembering familiar places.

Moving in for the kill... He eventually won the game, with the black side reduced to the king and one pawn.

Walking along the river, soaking up the green.

A punting group drifts down the river behind the dandelion fountains.

I really like these fountains...

...but this is the real reason why New Zealand rocks. I only bought two today, but I am definitely stuffing my suitcase full of these precious eggs when I return.

A last walk by the gallery before grabbing dinner and crashing for the evening.


Clothing fitting day... Here's the display at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) that shows the wide variety of extreme cold weather (ECW) gear.

More gloves and boots than you can shake a stick at.

A peek into the storage area where they keep all the clothing. Endless racks of parkas...

Walking outside around the Antarctic Center while waiting for the shuttle to go back into town.

For our last night in Christchurch, we went to the Dux de Lux for dinner. The leftmost 5 people are artists who are doing an installation in McMurdo. From left to right, a filmmaker, the sculptor, an astronomer (and former ASTRO winterover), a photographer, and a second filmmaker.

A rare glimpse of Sophie without her giant video camera. Lots of people on our flight were carrying huge video cameras...kind of makes you feel like a celebrity.


Our reporting time for our McMurdo flight was friggin' 4 in the morning. While waiting for the 3:30am shuttle to take us to the CDC, I tried to enjoy my last night sky.

All dressed up in ECW gear and checking in at the terminal.

Me waiting for the safety video in the terminal. I feel way cooler with the Carhartts this year instead of the ugly wind pants I got last year. :-)

Exiting the terminal and boarding the bus that'll take us to our airplane...

We're flying in style today -- a huge C-17 instead of a tiny cramped Herc.

Everyone grabs a big sack lunch and hops on the airplane.

There's plenty of room inside. Half of the cargo being transported is beer. The pallet in the front is a close-packed cube of Speights.

A view of the interior. Only about half the space is filled with people seats this time, and much of the cargo space in the back is empty.

Goodbye, New Zealand.

Having only slept for a few hours the night before, I quickly fell asleep on the plane and woke up to find that we were already seeing ice in the water.

Some strange patterns in the snow.

What looks like a river of snow running through the mountains.

Flowing snow?

A closeup of the flow lines. Bizarre and beautiful.

A view of the cargo area.

I decided to bust out my sack lunch and eat "one yummy muffin."

After landing at McMurdo, the back hatch opens for cargo offloading.

Stepping onto the frozen continent at the Pegasus airstrip at McMurdo... It's absolutely fantastic to be back and to hear the crunch of snow under my feet again.

Carrying the cargo away. The plane is much bigger than the loader.

Paul and his video camera. He's staying at McMurdo to film a documentary of the launch of BLAST.

The plane and the snowy landscape.

Me and the plane. It's much too warm outside for the big red coat.

Ivan the terrabus whisks us away to the station. Although the vehicle is huge, the inside is crowded, especially with everyone wearing their giant red parkas.


While we were riding in the terrabus, two adelie penguins skittered past us -- the first I've ever seen on the continent! Alas I couldn't get my camera in time, but I assure you they were very cute. Both were waddling along, and one decided to flop on its belly and start sliding.

I'm recovering from a nasty bug I caught in Christchurch, so I crashed for the afternoon and didn't emerge until bag drag time. Here Steffen, our new winterover, is weighing about half of his THREE HUNDRED POUNDS of baggage.

After bag drag, we took a trip over to Scott base (the kiwi base that's next to McMurdo) to check out American Night. Tonight's main event was a "fund-razor" for cancer kids: people auctioned off the opportunity for someone else to shave their heads. This is victim number 2, sporting a fine head of hair and a lovely full beard.

Sold for about $60, I think. Let the shaving begin!

A brave long-haired woman facing a menacing pair of scissors. The final bid for her hair was a whopping $350.

The ponytail's off!

Lots of people in the crowd are intently watching and taking photos.

The rest of the crowd in the back of the pub.

The aftermath: an enormous pile of hair on the floor.

I think she just got a mouthful of hair...

...but she's taking it well. :-) We left soon afterwards to catch up on sleep before the early morning flight to the Pole.


Time to fly to Pole! After dragging my bags to Building 140, one last look at Building 155, the dorm I stayed at for the night. McMurdo is becoming brown and dusty now that the summer is settling in.

A gravelly hill in the distance. Melted snow and mud sloshes down the sides of the streets.

Beyond the ugly buildings, gravel filled roads, and clouds of dust, a beautiful alien landscape.

We're transported back to Pegasus, and the C-130 is waiting for us on the field.

A white mountain in the distance. We're waiting for the plane to finish refueling before we can board.

This picture's for mom. That's the urinal at the front of the plane. Just a thin curtain separating you from the rest of the world.

Our checked bags, bundled together in the back of the plane.

A view from the back. All our carry-on bags are strapped to the center of the plane, and we sit on the sides. There's plenty of room on this flight too, and lots of space to wander around in the back.

Another picture for mom. This is the toilet in the back of the plane, also just hidden by a thin plastic curtain. It's not as bad as it sounds.

We flew over the transantarctic mountains and saw some beautiful landscapes.

The propellers of the airplane...

Half of us are fast asleep, and the rest of us are wandering around, taking pictures of the mountains below.

The flight crew let us into the cockpit one at a time. I love the shiny buttons on the control panels.

Mountains in the distance, and crinkly snow below us. Maybe a large field of sastrugi?

Swirling patterns in the ice.

Flying this plane must be an awesome job. I can't imagine getting tired of the scenery.

The radar screen.

There was a massive amount of ice spilling over this moutain. You can't really tell in the photo, but chunks of blue ice were shining in the sun. An absolutely stunning sight.

After a short flight, I'm back home at the Pole! :-) I got lucky and was assigned a room in the elevated station again. There's no window in my room this year, but this is the view from the end of the hallway. I can't wait to go sledding on that hill. It's great to be back here and to see so many old (and new) faces.

A view of my room. The bed was never fully constructed and I'm lacking a desk, but maybe I'll have time for home improvement later in the season.

This picture's for Greg. Mr. Penguin made it here safe and sound too, and he's chilling with the dinosaurs on my bookshelf.

The combination of the altitude, lack of sleep, and recovering from being sick is really knocking me out. I'm definitely looking forward to a full night of sleep today. :-)


No pictures of the lab today, but Yuki's drawing tells everything about how lab life is going. We played Luck of the Draw after dinner, and this was his artistic interpretation of "spoiled." (That's Jamie working hard in DSL, while the four grad students slack off in the galley.)


On my way to the lab today, I ran into Yuki practicing his skiing.

He's pretty fast -- he already disappeared into the distance by the time I managed to pull out my camera.

Welcome to the Dark Sector, the industrial suburb of the South Pole. Lots of stuff is happening out here -- Ice Cube has their drill camp set up, and BICEP is now dwarfed by the South Pole Telescope (SPT), which is still under construction and will only continue to grow larger...

A closer view of DSL and the start of the SPT mount. The white tent in the background is where they're assembling their giant mirror.

The cryostat clinic. BICEP is acting a little funny and we're trying to find the problem(s). :-(

The helium vent line curls around the side of the cryostat.

Continuing the trend of bathroom photos for mom, here's a picture of our outhouse for the season. Compared to the one we had last year, this one's pretty classy.

That's the urinal side, complete with a poster of the Swedish bikini team.

And that's the toilet side. It lacks decorations.


I got to wear a superhero costume today! We opened the balcony gate in order to crane in some gas cylinders, so I had to put on a safety harness.

I'm tethered to the building...kind of makes it tempting to jump off.

After a long wait for the cryostat to warm up, we decided to cool back down today. All of us are excited that there's finally going to be some action in the lab. :-)

Kiwon's monitoring the emptying of the helium tank and the filling of the nitrogen tank.

Evan and the big red heat gun.

Yuki standing in the middle of the rats' nest. Cables and hoses are running everywhere.

We finally finish blowing all the liquid nitrogen out of the helium tank, and Steffen pours it into the storage dewar.

The galley restocked their cookie supply today, so we borrowed a few boxes after lunch to take to the lab. Yuki is responsible for the big can of peanuts. On a side note, Steffen made his very first peanut butter and jelly sandwich today (and it was a success).

After a cookie break, it's time to start transferring helium. The vent line's starting to get a little frosty.

Soon, air starts condensing on the vent line and dripping off. Yuki is collecting the drippings for a Feynman-like O-ring experiment. (The O-ring is visible on the end of the line.) Yuki, being his resourceful self, didn't want to waste "fresh" liquid nitrogen on his experiment.

Meanwhile, it's Steffen's turn to play with the big red heat gun.

Droplets of air falling from the vent line onto the upper surface of the cryostat.

Further down the vent line, air is dripping off in a constant stream...

...and splashing off the surfaces.

We tried collecting some of the liquid air in a coffee cup. You can't tell in this picture, but the liquid actually has a bluish tint from the oxygen.

Done transferring and time to go home. This monster 500-liter helium dewar was sitting outside when we came out of the lab.

A Steffen and a Yuki for scale.


Steffen's first helium transfer!

Kiwon is giving detailed instructions on when to unplug the solenoid valve.

I'm not the only one running around the lab with a camera...

Yuki and Steffen are zooming in on some interesting ice formations on the vent line.

The strange ice is paper-thin and flutters around.

A view of the ice peeling off the vent line.

A thick fog set in during the afternoon, almost completely obscuring the Ice Cube lab.

MAPO looks like a ghost ship in the distance, and the elevated station was completely hidden from view at DSL. Walking outside was like floating in the middle of a ping-pong ball.

Yuki is getting some quality playtime in the BICEP jungle gym...

...while Evan is doing hardcore analysis (you can tell by the hard hat).

Kiwon brought out a giant book of optical illusions, and Evan doesn't believe that the two circles are actually the same size.

We had story time with Uncle Kiwon for the rest of the afternoon while the fridge was cycling.

A strange sight in the bathroom... I walked in to find a girl using a hair dryer to heat a coat that was spread out on the floor and covered with large gelatinous clumps. Apparently Sara was storing a can of expandable insulation foam in her chest (to keep it warm, obviously), and had taken the cap off for easy access. When she leaned over a railing, the can accidentally got triggered, filling her coat with expando-foam...


Yuki is writing a goodbye message for Jamie in the snow.

Jamie, Yuki, and the completed "Bye Jamie!" snow signal.

Jamie waiting for the plane to finish refueling...

...and it's finally time to board.


We're preparing to load the cryostat into the mount tomorrow. After examining many photos from last year, we succeeded in attaching the cryostat to the chain hoists. (And here's another photo for posterity.) Steffen is pleased with the results.

We raised the lab stand, and now BICEP is perched at a scary height.

The cryostat is almost touching the ceiling and looks precariously balanced.

I think Yuki has taken up permanent residence in the boot. He spent almost the entire day sitting at the top of the telescope, only taking occasional breaks for peanuts and cookies. Kiwon finally had to drag him out for dinner. :-)


It's cryoloading day! Bill just arrived on station and we're already putting him to work.

Steffen and Kiwon attaching the chain hoists to the loader.

After the cryostat is strapped in, some minor adjustments to the cradle...

...and we're ready to start moving the cryostat upwards into the mount.

A view from the roof of the mount and cryostat below.

The brush seal, mount, and cryostat make nice nested circles.

Yuki below, ready for action.

BICEP is ready to move into the light.

How many scientists does it take to center a cryostat?

Steffen's and Bill's efforts pay off, and the cryostat is very well aligned with the mount.

The cryostat gets pulled upwards rather quickly, and after a short time, it's almost in place.

Evan's manning the come-along strap.

Near the top, we have to insert some precision shims in order to align the cryostat mounting holes with the threaded rods.

Kiwon's and Yuki's turn to man the chain hoists down below.

The cryostat finally engages with the mounting points, and Steffen and Bill start fixing the cryostat in place.

Almost finished...

A stairway to heaven.

After successfully loading the cryostat, time for a small picnic break on the roof of the building.

The warm air flowing upwards from the lab made it quite comfortable on the roof, and all of us spent about half an hour hanging out in the boot, eating mint oreos. :-)

The loading procedure was remarkably fast and painless. However, we didn't have so much luck in the helium transfer later in the afternoon.

The transfer wasn't working very well, so we tried hoisting up the dewar. (Kind of scary with it dangling from the ceiling.) We finally won at the end of a long day: BICEP is now back in one piece, and we're ready to start the next round of testing. :-)


BICEP quotes of the day:

  • "When I woke up this morning, I was ready to party." -- Yuki
  • "Why is today Speedo day?" -- Bill

A poll for all you people out there: what do you call the object on the left?
(a) Wrench
(b) Pliers
(c) Sensitive wrench
(d) Water pump pliers

If you have a strong opinion, send me an email. We're trying to determine which drawer in the tool chest this object should live in.

We spent much of the evening RF-taping the telescope before beginning our first stability measurements of the season. Bill has invented an optimal tape dispenser.

Steffen and Bill working hard at covering the electronics cage with tape.


We discovered during brunch that there's a hot air balloon basket on station, and we decided to go treasure hunting in the afternoon. But first, a quick visit up the secret ladder.

Kiwon, Yuki, Webster, and me exploring the dim roof area.

Ice spikes on one side of the roof...

...and on the other side.

Yuki stole one of the ice spikes that he thought looked like a penguin.

After digging around in the dome, we found the balloon basket and a satellite dish (bonus prize)!

We have grand plans to use the basket in the film festival later this season. A three-word synopsis: pirates vs. ninjas.

The dome has gone cold since last year, and the inside looks rather sad now. Some of the buildings have been completely removed, and the ones that are left have been gutted.

The roof structure is as beautiful as ever though.

In honor of Denis, we've declared December 17 to be International Speedo Day. Mysterious fliers appeared all over the station, calling Speedo-clad people to gather at the Pole at 3:00.

A small camera-carrying crowd appeared at the Pole at 3:00. I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of Speedos.

After the Pole festivities, a quick trip over to a snow sculpture that's recently appeared outside. A group of people carved this cool spiral in just two nights.

Webster likes the spiral too. Did I mention that she used to work as a pirate?

Pretty ice crystals on the sides of the snow blocks.

Back into the galley to thaw out. One of the people in the kitchen made this edible version of the dome.

We spent the afternoon watching Evan vs. Joel in a few chess games. Evan's not too happy about this game, but he made a comeback in the subsequent rounds.

December 18 update: I have received permission to release the hidden photos from Speedo Day. This is not for the faint of heart.


We decided to play with a big speaker today to probe BICEP's microphonic lines. Steffen is showing off Bill's precision mounting scheme.

Party on, BICEP. I was laughing too hard to hold the camera steady.

Bill's speaker mount in action. Note the liberal use of clamps and duct tape (he also added cable ties later). You can tell the speaker is good because it has frickin' FLAMES on the sides.

How many cameras can you identify in this photo?


I got a big box of goodies in the mail from Sherry today (thank you!!!) :-) :-) :-) (And thanks to Yuki for the photos!)

The bag of red bean cakes is on the verge of exploding from the pressure difference. We opened up one precious bean cake and split it five ways...


Kiwon and Evan are leaving us today. Kiwon's getting in some last-minute photo action.

Webster, Evan, Steffen, and Yuki waiting for the plane.

Kiwon, his bags, and a final glimpse of DSL in the distance.

Time to say goodbye...

Later in the evening, a C-17 flew through for an airdrop. Crowds of people are gathering around the RF dome to watch the action.

The first test pass of the C-17. Its capacity is far greater than a C-130, but it can't land at Pole...hence the airdrop.

On the third pass, the plane released 70,000 pounds of cargo (the dark spots on the left). The plane is visible in the upper right.

A closeup of the chutes opening.

After a short fall, the cargo begins to touch down. I hear the landings were almost perfect.

A collapsing parachute by the RF dome.

Looking out towards the dark sector from the observation deck at the end of the elevated station.


What better place to catch up on sleep than under a telescope? Yuki has moved out of the boot and is now getting up close and personal with the cable wrap.

How many BICEP people can you identify in this photo? Yuki spent about an hour lying underneath the mount today, watching the sector switch flip back and forth.


Death of a heat gun... After many wonderful years, our beloved red heat gun was severely injured in a fall from the telescope mount. We've tried to fix it with duct tape.

We spent the afternoon ripping out a fiber optic cable from the bowels of the telescope mount and feeding a couple new ones in. Bill is wrestling with one of the big cables (I was a split second too late with the camera and didn't capture him flicking off the cable).


The station celebrated Christmas a day early. A big crowd of people is gathered in the hallway to munch on snacks before the big dinner at 5:30.

James Brown, the genius behind Christmas dinner. He doesn't like to be photographed by himself.

He doesn't mind being photographed with other people though. Now I have photo evidence of him looking all spiffed up.

More people in the hallway...

Yuki and Webster. Yuki hurt his foot today while sledding down the steepest side of the snow hill, but he still managed to make it to dinner.

Time for food! The wine servers (all sporting mohawks) greet us as we enter the galley.

Ladies and gentlemen, a historic moment: Yuki is drinking wine!!

James and BK make a few speeches to start off the festivities. BK proposed a toast to a "Christmas without malls and traffic," and it brought down the house.

...and Yuki is capturing it all on film.

...and so are lots of other people at our table.

The beef wellington is back this year, and it's as awesome as ever.

A long line of people waiting for food.

My dinner plate. I got the special Kiwon fork. :-) This was way too much food.

Yuki lost major Yuki-points tonight by spilling his glass of wine. I think it was a deliberate action so that he wouldn't have to drink the whole glass.

The other people at our dinner table.

It's Misty!

Yuki made himself a special lobster-wine cocktail.

Steffen spent most of the time making pirate faces and yarr-ing.

The aftermath. We BICEPers are clearly slobs.

After dinner, we watched the classy East German musical Heisser Sommer. It was the most brilliant piece of cinema I've ever seen.

Putting the conference room to good use.

There was some sort of craziness going on in the galley afterwards.


Merry Christmas! The day started off with the annual race around the world. A snowmobile contestant is pulling up to the gathering point.

Rose is ready to go. (She won first place among the women -- congratulations!)

Santa emerges from his quarters...

Eventually, everyone is gathered at the starting line.

And they're off!

The runners and walkers zip off into the distance.

Circling behind the Pole...

...and coming around again.

This was impressive. That's a fully functional shower unit being pulled by a mini-bulldozer. Apparently the shower was packed full of naked Swedish men.

Some of the snowmobiles have finished the race course.

The snowmobiles are soon joined by people who finished running.

Bob Spotz, resident machinist and badass. :-)

None of the BICEPers ran this year, but it pays to slack off -- we beat the crowd for brunch in the galley. James Brown is making his famous omlettes again.

Bill is showing off his perfect waffle technique.

The waffle soon grew a pair of eyes. Kind of cute, although its face is dripping off.

And then it grew a mouth.

That's the line we didn't have to wait through because we didn't run. :-)

Steffen, not to be outdone, also made a waffle face. His looks more smirky than Bill's, and it has an antenna on its head.

Steffen is very hungry. Yes, this is normal.

A massive brunch wasn't enough to satisfy the bottomless BICEP stomachs, so we went over to DSL to make this beaker treat.

Bill's in charge of the cooking. Instructions: lay out graham crackers, apply heat gun to chocolate, spread choco-goo over crackers, smash up candy canes with mallet from the desperate measures tool drawer, sprinkle candy cane bits over chocolate, and put outside for 5 minutes.

Steffen's being creative with the...widgets...that are piled up next door in the SPT lab.

He proceeds to terrorize Katie...

...and my camera.


An alarm sounded in the power plant this morning. There have been rumors of a mass casualty drill floating around for awhile, so I assumed that that was the reason for the alarm. When I walked into the bathroom, the lights suddenly dimmed and an announcement was made, asking everyone to gather in the galley. We were told that the power plant had failed in a spectacular and catastrophic way, dumping glycol all over the generator. The glycol vaporized, filling the power plant with smoke and fumes, setting off the CO2 system, and landing two people in the medical center. Begin extreme power conservation and an interesting day...

Yuki is on the trauma team, and he and Amanda are guarding the medical center.

All four of us are desperately trying to find the MSDS for ethylene glycol.

Despite the Christmas decorations, this is no party. Everyone was asked to gather in the galley, and people were chased out of the jamesways. I think the guy at the front table must be on the night shift.

A stretcher sitting in the hallway that was moved moments later to bring up another person who had fallen sick from the glycol fumes.

Sometime around here, another alarm sounded in Pod B1, level 1, the location of the emergency power plant. For awhile, we thought that the emergency plant had caught fire and that we were completely without power or heat. Comms and the announcement system also went dead around this point.

A second stretcher sitting ready by the door. Further down the hallway, all the red lockers containing the fire equipment are open and empty.

On the other side of the hallway, the spillover crowd from the galley.

Bruce, the station doctor, is explaining that drinking booze is the proper antidote to glycol poisoning (ingestion). No joke.

There's not much to do except wait for news and updates, so Bill decides to take a nap.

After awhile, people were asked to help mop up the glycol in the power plant, so we headed over to the old gym. The fire team is crammed in there already, and it's a bit chaotic.

(Frozen) respirators were handed out to everyone. Some people got to wear cool looking bunny suits.

Bill's got his hero costume on.

These things are pretty uncomfortable.

Steffen's on the fire team and gets to wear a superhero costume.

Into the power plant... Glycol is squidging all over the floor. It's a mess, and dangerously slippery as well.

After a 20 minute mopping shift, time to change hands. It's Yuki's turn to put on a hero costume.

Rose looks exhausted. The bunny suit can't possibly be comfortable.

A view of the smoke-filled hall near the entrance to the power plant.

Soon after the mopping was finished, we were all shooed out of the power plant as they prepared to bring the generator back up. I left just as the fire team was suiting up again. Bill left a bit later, just in time to catch someone asking, "Are we completely f*cking sure that we want to do this?" It all turned out well though -- the failed power plant is up and running again, and nobody got evacuated for medical reasons. We even managed to revive BICEP in the afternoon. :-)


It looks like the SPT mirror is about to get flown onto the mount soon.

The mirror is big and impressive.

Calibration time... Yuki is teaching Bill and Steffen proper Yukical technique.

The dodgy calibration mast that's still working like a champ.

Yuki's ankle still isn't feeling well, so Bill decided to haul him back to the station in a sled.

Despite dragging a heavy sled and a Yuki, Bill manages to outrun me.

Eventually he gave up though (and a shuttle van pulled up next to us), so we abandoned the sled by the skiway and sent Yuki off in the van.

The platypus that visited last year must have laid an egg. This little guy appeared on the road today.

During lunch time, the auction for this original piece of James Brown art ended, and BICEP had the winning bid ($1.25)!

The James Brown art has joined the Big Bang painting on the BICEP wall of fame.

Bill and Steffen preparing the dodgy mast for this afternoon's measurements. It looks like Bill's hand froze to the calibration source and broke off.


Bill got a vibrating bear in one of his Christmas packages. Hours of entertainment (which naturally spiraled down the gutter).

He also got a miniature bear trap. Really. It's a bit bent out of shape, and Yuki is trying to set it.

He finally succeeds, although we failed to catch the stuffed bear with it.

Happy birthday, Katie!

Steffen is enjoying the birthday cake.

Later in the evening, people start dressing up for the new year's party. Tony is riding an inflatable ostrich.

A natural cowboy (ostrichboy?)

Amanda's straw glasses are just as entertaining. She says it's quite difficult to drink out of them.

This year's party is in the new gym. The old (Boomerang) parachute has reappeared, but there was no cage this year!

The first local band, Snow Blind, played a bunch of bluegrass music.

It's still early in the evening, so most people are clustered in the back where the food is.

It's Yuki, wearing a rainbow wig and flogging Bill. (Obviously.)

This explains the previous picture.

The crowd in the back is growing...

The second band, Frozen Chosen, starts playing, and the crowd goes insane.

A short break for the band and the party crowd.

Even after the band stops playing, the dancing continues for a long time...

Happy new year! Gelukkig nieuwjaar!

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