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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Winter Over

The winter season at the South Pole ended this week with the arrival of two planes carrying some of the people who will replace us and take care of the station for the next year. 
The end of the winter season was delayed by bad weather, which is the way it usually goes every year, although this year we seemed to have worse luck than before.  Nevertheless, we are now fully caught up and back on schedule; actually we are a little ahead of schedule.  A landing at the South Pole requires a combination of weather conditions that is hard to achieve this early in the season.  Three conditions must be met both in McMurdo (where the flights originate), and here at Pole.  Those conditions are wind, visibility, and temperature.  For a C-130 the wind needs to be less than 20 knots, temperature greater than -59 F (-50.5 C), and visibility more than 2 miles.  A Basler can operate under slightly less restrictive parameters, which is the reason why the Baslers are the first to arrive.  After the first two Baslers landed here on Oct 17 to refuel on their way across the continent from Rothera to McMurdo, it took a full week for those weather conditions to allow the next landing at Pole.  Then the weather closed again, putting us further and further behind in the station opening activities.  At the same time, people were piling up, sitting idle in McMurdo waiting for an opportunity to fly here.  So, a decision was made to substitute two Basler flights with a single C-130 flight (a Basler carries 16 people, while a C-130 can take 40), and we lucked out.  The first C-130 landed here yesterday, Oct 29, just hours before a storm would have prevented a landing for who knows how much longer.  So, with 40 more new people on station, we are now in full summer season.  The weather can only get better from now on, as the temperature is unlikely to be a limitation any more, and winds in McMurdo tend to be less strong as the season progresses.  The next C-130 is scheduled to get here on Tuesday.  It will carry my replacement.

As a result of these two flights, our population, in less than one week, has ballooned from 46 to 105 people.  We already knew most of the new people from having spent the last summer together here at Pole.  So, we are having a great time exchanging stories, hearing what they have been doing while we were wintering in isolation, and reciprocating with our winter stories.  We can feel the energy that all these new people are bringing with them, and it is shaking us up from our winter torpor.  It feels invigorating.  Today we had brunch, which is tradition for Sundays at the South Pole during the summer season. It felt like a big reunion with old friends.  It was also wonderful to have fresh bagels, salmon, cream cheese, omelets and, most of all, fresh fruit.  It was overwhelming, though, to walk into the galley and find it so full of people.  I had not seen 100 people all at once in more than 8 months.  Wow!  I had to stand in line to get my coffee.  I had not stood in a line in more than 8 months!  How many more things am I going to have to get used to again, now that I am about to return home!

A Basler landed at the South Pole on Oct 24 with the first new people who arrived to prepare the station for the summer season.  It also carried our mail and some freshies, including peaches and strawberries.  It was a cold but clear day.  The station is visible in the background.

The next plane to be able to land was a Hercules (C-130), on Oct 29.  The weather was just starting to deteriorate, with clouds moving in.  Within a few hours the visibility would drop to less than 1/2 mile.  It has not yet cleared as I am writing.

40 people arrived on the C-130, re-enacting a routine familiar to the summer season, when many people come and go on a regular basis.

Two twin otters arrived on Oct 29 as well, shortly after the Herc, on their way across the continent from Rothera to McMurdo.  They were supposed to just spend a night here and take off today, but 20-knot winds, with 30-knot gusts this morning, and no visibility, are forcing them to stay put here for a while.  Two twin otters had landed the day before, on Oct 28, the first such planes this season, and were able to take off for McMurdo before the storm.  It was nice to see Travis again, the Twin Otter pilot who took me to one of the Autonomous Geophysical Observatory (AGO) sites, in the middle of the continent, last summer.  He will spend another season ferrying people and cargo to the various field camps across the continent.  What a job!

Before the winter was over, on October 1, as tradition obliges, we all went out on the ice to take the winterover photo: the photo of all the people who wintered over together at the South Pole Station.  This year, in theme with the 100th anniversary of the first people reaching the Pole, we took the photo at the very South Pole, where we also had set up a tent, similar to the tent that the Amundsen party set up and left here 100 years ago, and made a photo composition to include the historical photo of the Amundsen party.  We also took the Norwegian and British flags, in honor of both the Amundsen (Norwegian) and the Scott (British) expeditions, who arrived at the Pole within days of each other 100 years ago.  Photo and composition by Robert.


  1. I first started researching the South Pole while suffering insomnia during long Wisconsin winter nights. Just ran across your blog today. Reading about the life and experience made me happy. I will never see Antarctica so thank you for sharing your studies and stories with us. Best to you and your research and I will be reading!

  2. Best of luck Marco and thank you for sharing your excellent adventure of a place I've always wanted to visit. Many blessings to you in the New Year!