Nov. 27, 1998
Letter 3: Altitude and The First Day
Whenever I give a presentation on my Antarctic experience, I ask my audience if they would like to go to Antarctica. The responses are invariably, pardon the pun, polarized. No matter which response you may have, you must agree that stepping off the C130 on November second facing the 12 flags of the ceremonial south pole with the geographical south pole survey marker just beyond was a magical and awe inspiring experience. Imagine the contrast of brilliant sunshine, the white of the ice, and the chilling blue sky against the intense colors of the flags of the 12 original treaty nations and you will understand the beauty of that moment; of comprehending that I was privileged to have an experience that not many will have.
This is me (Sandi) at the Ceremonial South Pole with the Elevated Dorm in the background.
Photo by Les Kolb.
It's not entirely honest to imply that I simply stepped off the C130. I struggled off the C130 in huge cumbersome clothing, tugging at one large orange carry-on bag in one hand with the other on the round metal handrail while attempting to get each bunny boot to fit onto the not wide enough metal steps in blinding brightness and finally jolting to the ice in one piece. Along with the shock of the visual was the simultaneous shock of the temperature. It was -120 F wind chill. I cannot describe this coldness to you. We had arrived at the beginning of a storm that was to last several days. With engines running (they are not turned off here), our C130 off-loaded cargo and returned to McMurdo.
Les and I trudged in the direction of the more buried than ever dome fighting the bitter cold and already gasping for air through our polar fleece neck gaiters. Knowing that we would eventually have to carry our carry-on bags up out of the dome if we took them in, we left our two bags on the ice in the gusting wind at the top of Heartbreak Hill, the dozed out entrance to the dome. A few others followed our lead. Once inside the dome that protects the orange prefabricated buildings from the wind and drifting snow, we made our way to the Communications department to say hello to our supervisor, BK, and colleagues we knew from our last stint. After hugs all around, we went directly to the galley for our briefing. We were thrilled to recognize many faces of those we had worked with our previous austral summer. These brave souls had wintered-over during which time a minimal staff remains here unsupported during the long harsh night. Lots more hugs, glasses of juice and lots of water, bowls of beef or veggie stew and fresh bread welcomed us. Once we settled down, Dave, our Station Manager, and Karen, Sr. Administrative Coordinator, gave us a very cordial and welcoming briefing. They are proud of the ambiance of our station and intend to promote it. It is a quality aided by our remoteness and fairly small population.
For those of us working here just for the summer, housing is predominately heated Quonset tents (called Jamesways) or heated Quonset shaped prefabricated hypertats. The bathroom facilities, called head modules, are in prefabricated and heated buildings around 100-150 feet away depending upon tent location. They contain a mens and a womens with a shared washer and dryer. A rectangular two-story space age blue building with a satellite antenna covered roof and built up on criss-crossing steel girders to potentially prevent snow from drifting has formerly housed solely scientists. We were amazed and thrilled when Karen told us that we were assigned to this building officially called The Elevated Dorm and unofficially called The Blue Box or The Beaker Box (scientists are affectionately called "beakers" here). Bathrooms are shared and down the hall or upstairs, but they are inside! It also contains a small lounge with a kitchenette. Since we were on the early flight, many rooms were vacant and we could have our choice. We chose one of two of the smallest rooms that contained only two beds in what we thought would be the quietest location. Now, in retrospect, we do not believe there is such a thing as a quiet sleeping space for "night" workers on the station. Even though we have 24 hours of bright daylight and run a 24-hour station, the majority of people are on "day" shift.
The Jamesways at summer camp.
Photo by Les Kolb.
Les and I hung around the galley resting, drinking lots of water, and casually talking with people. An hour and half later I was already getting a bad headache and feeling like I was on a ship. After my last experience with high altitude, I was not going to be in a hurry to go anywhere. Eventually, we decided to make our way to our housing which normally would be a 6-8 minute walk from the dome. We found a banana sled (which looks like a banana with one side peeled) and Les piled on 2 boxes that were waiting for us that we had mailed to ourselves, and at the top of Heartbreak Hill our two solidly frozen carry-on bags. We had to stop frequently to catch our breath in spite of the stinging cold. Halfway to the Elevated Dorm my fingers began to tingle and then hurt. I motioned to Les that I was going ahead even though I was gasping for air. Before I made it to the dorm, my hands went numb. As I attempted to grasp the metal railing of the staircase to the dorm with hands that had lost feeling, I stumbled twice catching my huge boots and on the metal grates. Struggling to open the heavy freezer locker style door, I finally hooked my arm through the latch and pulled it open. Lunging for the lounge just beyond the double entry, I collapsed onto a chair with my head on the table. Luckily a man was working in the lounge and unknown to me at the time, Rich is the station Safety and Environmental Health Coordinator. The first words out of my mouth were "I think I'm going to throw-up." and the second were "My hands are numb." He whipped off my heavy leather fleece lined gloves and my polypropylene glove liners and began warming my hands in his. When Les arrived, he took over one hand while Rich warmed the other. I have never experienced such excruciating pain as the return of feeling in both of my hands. Eventually I went horizontal on the couch, bunny boots and all, before making my way to our room.
After making our beds with the sheets and 2 heavy gray wool blankets and feather comforter given to each bed and filling the humidifier we hand carried, we tried to get some rest. We napped fitfully due to the extreme dryness and lack of oxygen while continuing to take Diamox and drink water. Our headaches worsened in spite of the acetaminophen kept by the galley microwave that Will, the station doctor, told us to take when I called him from the galley. At one point I got out of bed and couldn't stand up. I rested on the floor panting for air before I was able to get back into bed. I fell asleep and when I woke up again, I was able to move slowly around the room. The storm continued to rage as the wind whipped the dry surface ice crystals through the air greatly impairing visibility. Neither of us wanted to walk to the dome. Les found a box of Ritz crackers that someone left in the lounge and discovered the enormous drinking water container had already been filled in preparation for station opening. We were well set. Finally, 14 hours after being in the dorm and motivated by hunger and the dinner hour as well as the need to show up for our first night's work, we got dressed for our walk back to the dome. As I searched my still frozen carry-on bag for my issued windbreaker mittens (warmer than gloves), I was glad that I took the issued pair of polypropylene glove liners even though they were too large. I still wear two pair of glove liners under my mittens.
Even though the dorm is a short distance from the dome, visibility was so poor we couldn't see it. I was thankful for the orange flagged marker poles to guide us from the cargo yard near the elevated dorm to the dome entrance. After a wonderfully delicious baked chicken dinner, Les and I felt much better. Even though I would occasionally feel like I was on a ship or have a headache days later, my little bout with the altitude was a piece of cake compared to the previous time I was here. Then I was in bio-med for 4 nights and 5 days before I ever found my "room" in the Jamesway. BK told us to stay only as long as we felt comfortable on our first night shift. We lasted until about 4 a.m., but from thereafter have worked our entire shift. It took awhile to switch over to day sleeping and our new eating schedule. A few days later the storm subsided and as summer is approaching, the temperatures are not nearly so severe.
At 9,450 feet, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, at the geographic South Pole, is on a polar plateau of 9,000 feet of ice that drifts approximately 33 feet each year. Due to barometric pressure changes, the actual physio-altitude varies greatly and can reach 11,000 to 13,000 feet. The average annual temperature is -56.9 F with the record minimum of -117.0 F in June 1982 and the record maximum of +7.5 F in December 1978. Precipitation is in the form of ice crystals at 9 inches average annually with the average annual liquid equivalent of 3.4 inches. Average wind speed is 10.8 knots.
Sandi Kolb in front of the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station dome.
Photo by Les Kolb.
Within our first week at the South Pole Station, Les and I each had a miserable cold. In fact, Les was rather sick and Will was watching him closely for pneumonia. Since then, we have both been great and are gradually adjusting to the altitude. We are sleeping better and are able to go up and down stairs and walk to the dome without stopping for air. All in all, it really was a much easier adjustment this second time around!
We had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with much food and conversation before beginning work tonight at 11:00 p.m. Yes, we had dinner for breakfast but saved the pie for lunch since due to the holiday, there was no midrats (midnight meal) tonight. Dinner was delicious even though we couldn't eat too much of it for breakfast. We trust your Thanksgiving was lovely, too.
Future topics include Extreme Cold Weather clothing, water, food, our jobs, and the science research projects here.
The weekly climatological summary prepared by the station meteorologists follows.
Date: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 03:38:52 +1200 Subject: SOUTH POLE WEEKLY CLIMATOLOGICAL SUMMARY Priority: normal 6 November 1998 through 12 November 1998 UTC Temperatures: Avg Temp...-42.7 (C) / -44.9 (F) Max Temp...-37.5 (C) / -35.5 (F) on day 12 Min Temp...-47.1 (C) / -52.8 (F) on day 10 Sky Cover: Avg Sky Cover (8ths)... 6 Days clear............. 1 Days partly cloudy..... 1 Days cloudy............ 5 Sunshine: Sunset on 21 March, Sunrise on 23 September Avg hours/day......... 17.0 Percent of possible... 70.9 Station Pressure (millibars): Avg pressure........ 675.2 mbs Highest pressure.... 678.6 mbs on day 8 Lowest pressure..... 670.6 mbs on day 10 Physio-altitude in feet and meters: Average physio-alt = 10810 ft / 3295 m Highest physio-alt = 10985 ft / 3348 m on day 10 Lowest physio-alt = 10681 ft / 3256 m on day 8 Visibility: 1 day with visibility of 1/4 mile or less. Wind: Avg wind speed............ 14.0 mph or 12.1 kts Max gust.................. 29 mph or 25 kts on days 6 and 8 Max gust direction........ from grid North Vectored wind direction... 021 degrees Vectored wind speed....... 11.0 kts Prevailing direction...... grid North Balloon flight data: Number of Soundings for the period... 14 Avg hgt of Soundings...... 124.0 mb Highest Sounding.......... 9.2 mb, or 30344 meters on day 6/12Z flight. 0 Soundings were missed. 8 Soundings were terminated due to balloon burst. 3 Soundings were terminated due to weak or fading signal. 1 Sounding was terminated due to ground equipment failure. 2 Soundings were terminated due to floating balloon. **RECORDS** No records were tied of broken during this period.