The countdown to isolation

The weeks following our arrival was full of bustle, as the summer contingent worked frantically to finish projects in the relative ‘warmth’ that summer provided. The grantees running the science experiments overhauled their equipment and upgraded control units, the carpenters worked to finish the construction of a new Balloon Inflation Facility (BIF), the cargo team packaged up outgoing scientific cargo, waste and worn out equipment being retropackaged back to the US, and took inventory of the supplies coming in to last us the 9 months until the next sign of civilisation. The mechanics prepared to winterise a lot of the equipment that becomes unusable as the temperatures drop with the lowering angle of the sun in the sky.
In the medical department, we had a week and a half with Sarah, the outgoing summer doctor, trying to learn all the nuances of care at the worlds most southern health facility. Where were the supplies to treat Glycol ingestion, how did the video teleconference equipment work, who did we have to report to each week about developments on station, where were the cleaning supplies for the station, how did the lab and x-ray machines work. The multitude of equipment and procedures that we are responsible for is diverse, with many roles sitting outside of our normal medical duties back home, so whilst we are well versed in reading x-rays, actually taking them ourselves has been a learning curve.

The last week of scheduled flights from McMurdo to the Pole amped up, bringing in crucial cargo for science, life or maintenance. We had up to 3 flights a day for the last week. Part of that cargo included our supply of ‘freshies’ – the last fresh fruit and veges that we would see until November, other than that grown in the Greenhouse. As the pallets of freshies, package mail and beverages were brought up to below the station, all available sets of hands trundled out to make a ‘daisy chain’ ready to pass up the sacks of spuds, amazon purchases, cartons of Dr Pepper and boxes of swedes. Interestingly, none of the Americans had any idea what a Swede was, including the chefs. Mind you I had never eaten them until I went to University in the South Island. It seems that they only exist south of the Cook Strait, including down here.

The close of regular summer operations elsewhere on the continent meant that we had several smaller aircraft transiting through. Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian company, runs the majority of the Twin Otter and Basler aircraft on the continent. The Baslers are marvellous beasts. Modified DC-3s (C-47s), they have been stripped back, lengthened, and turboprop engines fitted, ready to serve Antarctica, much like the many civilian and military roles that they have faithfully served in the previous 75 years. The last Basler we had come through was an upgraded version of the same airframe used in Operation Market Garden, the 101st Airborne Division’s battle to take ‘The Bridge Too Far’ at Arnhem in 1943. These aircraft, many of which had been ferrying small research teams around the continent, transit through South Pole to refuel, rest the crew and get updated weather before heading onwards. Their next stop is normally either Union Glacier closer to the Weddell sea, or ‘Sky Blue’ – another refueling stop near the base of the Antarctic Peninsula. From there they head to Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey Base on the Antarctic peninsula, then on across the Drake Passage to Chile, then several more hops up the continent until they finally get home to Calgary, Canada, ready for the Northern summer season. They are fitted with transport fuel tanks taking up the bulk of the space inside, but even so, the range can be dicey if the conditions don’t play ball. We thought we had said goodbye to the last Basler and Twin-Otter, only for them to return that night after getting too low on fuel to make it to their destination due to strong head winds, and have trouble with wings icing up.

The impending close of contact with outside civilisation also meant a last chance to send mail that could be postmarked from the South Pole. The weather was disrupting the flights, so all of a sudden, the deadline to send postcards loomed, and I scoured the postshop for anything decent to send home. Unfortunately, the postcards seemed to be dated in the late 90s, with no up to date shots of life down here. Our mail is under the care of the American Army Post Office system (APO) which allows us to send mail as if we were in the States. Not as helpful when most of mine is destined to New Zealand, but instead goes to Christchurch, gets forwarded on to the States, then back to New Zealand a couple of weeks later.

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