News from the Pole
December 21, 2004
One of the most exciting things I’ve done since arriving in Antarctica could have taken place in the parking lot of any Lake Tahoe ski resort. It was pretty amazing to see my first wild penguin and exploring the hut abandoned by explorers in 1917 was interesting, but the most fun I’ve had so far was driving a bulldozer.
Sitting up in that cab, gripping controls in either hand, foot pressed on the decelerator, I laughed out loud as I shifted into second gear and pushed a cresting wave of ice and snow hundreds of feet up a low hill. My body shook as the massive steel treads of the beast clanked in the ice. I hooted and waved to the guy who showed me how.
Actually it wasn’t a low “hill” at all – it was a pile of snow scraped together on the Ross Ice Shelf, a convergence of glaciers which float, permanently frozen, on thousands of feet of ocean water next to Ross Island.
I was lucky to be out of the main camp of “Mactown” where I have been working as a dining attendant for two months. We DAs are each getting a week out at the Long-Duration Balloon launch facility about seven miles out. There, scientists create million-dollar payloads of research equipment to send up on 800-foot tall balloons. They rise 27 miles over Antarctica where a circum-polar wind takes them on a 10-day loop around the continent – after which they hopefully end up somewhere nearby to be retrieved.
One of the two balloons going up this year is the BESS experiment. The Balloon-Born Experiment with a Superconducting Spectrometer is a joint effort by Japanese and American researchers to find antimatter. During breaks from my job making salads and washing dishes in a Navy tent made in 1951, I asked about the search.
Hideyuki Fuke of Tokoyo explained that antimatter should be half the universe, only no one has ever seen a single particle. Before the Big Bang, he said, theorists suggest there were equal parts matter and antimatter. The two have settled into different domains and we happen to be in a matter domain. Anti-helium – which the team is searching for – should have the same mass as helium but the opposite charge. This seems to suggest there might be antimatter galaxies with antimatter planets – even antimatter creatures. We may never know.
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“When matter and antimatter meet, we call it annihilation,” said Fuke. “So you cannot meet anti-Karl or all of you disappear.”
The team is now testing their payload, which, including the solar panels hanging underneath, is almost as big as a small, two-story apartment. They will soon send up a smaller balloon with a GPS to see if the circum-polar winds are blowing correctly for the real balloon.
Many of my most exciting experiences here involve strange vehicles left by the Navy, which was replaced by contractors in the early ’90s. One of the most fun is the Delta truck. These babies are about 12 feet tall with 5-foot-tall wheels. A passenger cabin in the back is even higher. They are used for morale-boosting trips to Cape Evans where a hut built by the British Terra Nova expedition in 1911 remains. Inside are bunks still made up with leather sleeping bags, shelves of corked Heinz ketchup, canned mutton and all the original furniture.
In one bunk, you can see where a desperate man wrote in pencil, “RW Richards, august 14 1916, losses to date, Haywood, Mack, Smyth, Shack?” The last name was a reference to Ernest Shackelton who was at that time trying to make his way back to civilization after his ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sunk by ice. He and his group all survived, though it took them years to get north again in Endurance lifeboats.
Riding out to the hut recently, bouncing along the sea ice at about 30 mph, we spotted little, flat, shapes near a crack in the ice. They turned about to be Weddell seals, all lying about 80 feet from each other. Among them a little Adele penguin ran along the crack with his fins pulled back for balance. He’d fall on his white belly and scoot along using his clawed toes. He found a swimming hole and vanished.
Work at the dining hall is long and physical but it’s worth it. Some of our crew have been lucky enough to be sent to the South Pole Station for a few days to cover for workers there. When one returned, he said there was .03 percent moisture in the air.
“I had to drink like six Nalgenes (bottles) of water a day and if I didn’t I’d feel like I was hung-over,” he said.
We had a special guest in the McMurdo Dining hall last week. Sir Edmund Hillary – who with Tenzing Norgay was first to climb Mount Everest in 1953 – stopped by. A native of New Zealand, Hillary was visiting nearby Scott Base to mark the 25th anniversary of a New Zealand air disaster – the 1979 crash of Air New Zealand flight 901 which collided with Mount Erebus on a sight-seeing trip, killing all 257 aboard. Sight-seeing trips have since been discontinued.
During a presentation, Hillary talked about his helping create Scott Base and his 1957 tractor trip to the South Pole.
He described encountering Ernest Shackleton’s ghost – approaching with arms outstretched – in one of the abandoned huts.
“I’m not particularly inclined to have strange ideas,” he said. “But it was a really remarkable experience.”
He talked about how great adventures like climbing Everest are now done regularly.
“When Tenzing and I first stood on top, we were the only ones that had ever been there.”
Someone asked Hillary, now 85, what his next great adventure would be.
“Well, I have one problem, you see, and that’s that I’m 85 years old. There was some doubt as to whether I would survive the trip down here, but things seem to be going pretty well so far,” he said as the packed dining room erupted with laughter and cheers.
Our Thanksgiving was nice because of an army of volunteers. So many community members helped with the cooking and dishes that the galley staff each got an extra hour off to sit and enjoy time with friends. During our official galley dinner at 1:30 p.m. Dave Bresnahan and Jim Scott, heads of the National Science Foundation and Raytheon Polar Services, respectively, served our wine and desserts. Imagine – the dish washers getting waited on by the highest-ranking guys on station.
“Garcon? More wine!”
More than 130 people completed the 5K Turkey Trot over the weekend, which went from the gravel roads of town down on to the sea ice toward the runway where we all landed on our arrival. Soon the ice will melt and be too thin for the runway. It will be moved around December 18 to Willy Field by LDB on the Ross Ice Shelf. That change, along with the warmer weather, are signs that our season in Antarctica is half over.
Karl Horeis is on a leave of absence from the Nevada Appeal to work at McMurdo Station, the largest research facility on the Antarctic continent. Contact him at email@example.com.