On Temperature Checks and Small Aircraft

The long awaited moment is here! My first blog post from the bottom of the planet! I safely arrived here at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station yesterday a bit after noon. Not gonna lie, I thought my weeks in the managed isolation would seem like a long time but they were nothing compared to spending a whole week in McMurdo without having a job to do. Our arrival at McMurdo put the station in to “Level Yellow” which is similar to what life back home is right now. Everyone has to socially distance and wear masks in public areas, as well as all of the bars only being open as lounges and no scheduled recreational activities taking place. So most of my days consisted of a bit of walking around, eating meals, often times a nap, and lots of looking for buildings where I had access to internet so I could keep in touch with family and friends back home.

One of the advantages of all the free time was being able to get to know some of my fellow polies in person. It was, however, a challenge getting used to the 24 hours of daylight. It’s a really weird feeling to be tired, look outside and think “Hey, it’s bright out, I shouldn’t be tired!” Then looking at your watch and discovering that it’s two in the morning. The biggest problem I had with the blurring of the days was the temperature checks. I managed not to miss any of them (it’s a really big deal if you do, they will track you down) but it was really hard keeping track of them. The best part of them was when I had my last one and didn’t have to remember to go in anymore.

The Wednesday after we arrived, we had to head to Building 140 which is the cargo building to do what’s called bag drag. This is the process of hauling your bags, tagging them for your flight, weighing them, and checking them in to be loaded on the plane. This is done the day before your scheduled flight but due to some of the craziness going on this year, none of the LC-130s are flying to Pole, instead they are flying much smaller planes called Baslers which are Douglas DC-3s (introduced in 1936) with more modern turbo-props and skis on the landing gear. Baslers have a much lower ACL (Allowable Cargo Load) than the LCs so you don’t get to have a boomerang bag, you’ve got to pack any clothes you might need in your carry on. This also means that each person was limited to one checked bag weighing no more than 50 lbs and our carry ons were limited to 25 lbs. When they told us this at bag drag is when I discovered that my carry on weighed 40 lbs so I had to do some shuffling of things to get down to weight. Not all Basler flights are this restricted on weight, ours was though since we were flying with 14 PAX (passengers) which is about the max that they’ll fly them with.

With bag drag done, our carry ons, ECW, and persons weighed, we then didn’t have much else to do than wait for our flight scheduled the next day. When you leave the station, one of the things you need to do is strip the bedding off your bed and stuff it back in the laundry sack it was delivered to you in, then you put it outside your door so the lodging office knows you left. One of my fellow polies suggested waiting until about 5 minutes before you have to leave because flight delays are very, very common. I learned the practicality of this when, after getting all my ECW on, our flight was cancelled meaning at least one more day in Mac Town. So we proceeded with another day of eating, napping, and finding internet. In the afternoon our flight was re-scheduled for the next day so same drill as before, wake up, put the TV on the channel that lists flight info, and see if we’re a go. We were not a go. So lather rinse and repeat. At this point we didn’t expect to be leaving McMurdo until Tuesday, the weather was looking iffy, there were logistical concerns (no flights on the weekend), etc. So we were a little surprised when we got re-scheduled for Saturday. Fingers crossed the third time would be the charm. I think we all know how that went given the first few sentences of the post…

Saturday morning came and we all anticipated our flight to be listed as cancelled, instead, the magic word ACTIVATED appeared below our flight info. We were actually going to fly, and hopefully we’d make it the whole way without boomeranging. We boarded Ivan the Terra Bus once more for the trip out to the airfield and our awaiting plane. Boarding a Basler is a bit different than any other plane I’ve been on, there were no stairs, just step stool type thing that mounts inside the door and gets pulled inside before closing it up. The Basler is also what you might call a taildragger. That means there’s the main landing gear and then a much smaller wheel at the rear so it doesn’t sit level when it’s not flying, this means you kinda have a noticeable incline you have to go up to get to your seat. I was particularly excited about flying on this plane because they aren’t flown as often typically so not as many people get to experience the flight. Why is the flight worth the experience? The Basler is not a pressurized airplane, this means that you can’t just go up to 30,000+ feet in order to fly over the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, you have to fly through them. Now THAT is an experience. I can honestly say that it is one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do. It’s kinda mind-blowing to look out the window and see mountains less than 300 feet away (ok, they might have been further, I didn’t have an actual way to measure it and I was awestruck).

Finally one of the crew came around and let everyone know we were 10 minutes out and needed to buckle our seatbelts up, not long after we had landed and were stepping out onto the Polar Plateau where we were quickly ushered inside the station. It was really cool seeing all of the people who came outside to watch us arrived, including Ryan Betters (our winter station manager) who came out to say hello. Once inside I even got to see my dentist Dr. Koff (awesome dentist by the way, I highly recommend him) as he was waiting to board the same plane I just arrived on to head back north. Then on to the big gym where a screen was set up for our welcome orientation and room assignments. The first thing I did was go to my room and take off my ECW, after that a spot of lunch, and then to the IT office to meet the guy who I’m taking over for and my boss Kevin. Due to being at sea level for a month and my body acclimatizing to being down there, I was advised to just take it easy for the first week but particularly on the first day. My awesome boss Kevin even carried my bags up to my room for me.

Not a whole lot has happened since arriving, did a bit of work but then mostly hanging out and getting settled (well as settled as I can with just one of my bags). Tomorrow will be my first full on day of work and I’m very excited and ready to get to it. I’ll be uploading a few pictures of the next few days but there are currently 80 people on station which is the highest it’s been since the start of COVID so I don’t want to be a bandwidth hog. As always, thanks for reading and feel free to reach out with any questions!

–Matt “head north is officially the least helpful thing to say when giving someone directions from here” Butcher

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