Saturday, November 15, 2008
South Pole, Week One
So much has happened since arriving at the South Pole almost a week ago. It feels kind of like college, living in close quarters with a lot of other people, seeing friends at every meal, catching new gossip every day- but instead of going to class and studying, I spend nine hours every day working, and try to move as little as possible in the evenings. There are quite a few things I could write about, but since it takes up most of my time and I’ve gotten so many questions, I’ll start out with what I do at work.
Every morning, the six general assistants meet with our supervisor to get our assignment, which can be pretty much anything. Most days, it involves shoveling. We work for the FEMC (Facilities, Engineering, Materials and Construction) department, and each day we might be working on a different aspect of that.
My first day (Tuesday), I shoveled for Ice Cube on the berms, but we only worked probably four hours. Ice Cube is one of the research projects here. I’m a little unclear on what exactly they are doing, but I know it involves drilling deeps wells into the ice and studying the samples they pull up. Most of the Ice Cube staff just arrived this week, so they are just getting started for the season. Shoveling on Tuesday was exhausting, mostly because I was having a really hard time breathing. The station here is at over 10,000 feet of elevation, so the first few days everyone is very out of breath. The first hour of shoveling, I remember struggling to pace myself by inhale:scoop, exhale;toss, pause, repeat. I’ve already gotten much better at figuring out the most efficient way to shovel (mostly by kneeling down, so that I am working at my waist level or above) and figuring out what shoveling does and doesn’t need to be done.
The next day (Wednesday), four of us GAs got farmed out to the electricians. We spent all morning over at Ice Cube helping them to wire three different generators, in three different buildings, by unspooling and stretching out giant cables for them to connect. These cables are probably 4" in diameter, and weigh about 8 pounds per foot (the 150 foot spools weigh over 1000 pounds). When you cut a cross section of them (which we did later in the day) there are four separate thick bundles of copper cable. Anyway, it is incredibly strenuous to drag these cables around, and it was –70 with the windchill. The fun part was seeing how the different buildings linked up, and how logical it was. The not-fun part was being cold, not knowing what to do, and the fact that the electricians apparently don’t take a morning break! After lunch we went back to the electrical shop and found out that our assignment for the afternoon was to cut up the old cables that we had removed into 3’ lengths so they could go on a pallet for recycling. It was just the four of us GAs in the shop and we had a great time playing music, using the portable bandsaw, and appreciating how much easier it is to work in a heated shop.
The following day (Thursday) all of the GAs were assigned first thing in the morning to shovel out all the outdoor fire exit stairwells for the main station (there are 5). It was really fun, because the snow was so light- we joked that a broom would have been more appropriate than a shovel. After we finished that, we shoveled down below the elevated station. The heavy machinery crews were working on grooming the snow that had drifted between the columns over the winter into a smooth, tightly packed surface. They had us shovel out right around the columns, where they can’t drive the machines. That was pretty satisfying, since we could see results right away. After lunch, we went out to the berms and shoveled, uncovering the loads and loads of construction-related crap that it appears Raytheon has been storing for decades. After about an hour of that, Joe came over and asked me and Lauren to come help one of the electricians. She was un-wiring and scrapping all the pieces of a modular shed that I guess had previously been some kind of electrical transfer point- there was a transformer, a couple circuit breakers, a lot of the same cable from yesterday, and some other mysterious-to-me stuff inside. Lauren and I went to work with the bandsaw, the saws-all, and a couple screwdrivers taking things apart and cutting them down to scrappable size. After stripping all the copper parts out of the transformer, I got to put it back together (well, screw the sides and top back on), which was fun. I learned the names and uses of a bunch of new tools. Cara, the electrician we were helping, was really patient and great at explaining both the big picture of what we needed to do and the details. We were also out of the wind, right behind the science carp shop, which was nice because we got to chat a bit with the carpenters (who, incidentally, are almost all from NH).
On Friday, when we shoveled, shoveled, shoveled all day long.
On Saturday, I shoveled for a couple hours in the morning, spent an hour in the FEMC office cataloging a bunch of drills that were recalled by the manufacturer and need to be shipped back to the US, and then spent the afternoon in meetings and on a tour of the station with our supervisor. He took us down into the ice tunnels underneath the station, where it is always –65. We also got to see the power plant, the fuel tanks (if I remember right, they have storage space for 450,000 gallons of fuel, and they use jet fuel instead of diesel for pretty much everything because it has a lower freeze point), and some of the construction projects.
Last night was the first Saturday night of the summer season. Yesterday we all sat through a few lectures yesterday about making sure that nobody got themselves in trouble by drinking too much while our bodies are still adjusting to the altitude and climate. I took it easy, watched a few episodes of Arrested Development in the station, hung out with Lauren, and briefly stopped in at the party in the summer camp lounge, where it appeared that most people had not heeded the advice about overconsumption of alcohol. Today (Sunday), I’m planning to get this blog post up (the internet is only available from 5am until 2 pm every day), watch some more AD, do yoga, and generally relax and enjoy not having to work.
The pictures below are from the flight in to the pole. I haven't had time or energy to take pictures here yet, but I will.