A South Pole New Year

Trip Start Dec 18, 2008
Trip End Feb 17, 2009

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Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Flag of Antarctica  ,
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year has always been my favorite holiday.  Since there are no expectations of blissful familial harmony, nobody is disappointed.  Unless of course if you are expecting that dreamy new year's kiss, and not a sloppy one on the cheek from the swaying alcoholic who happened to be next to you at that crucial moment.  

South Pole New Year did not disappoint.  Though I was still seeing the station through starry eyes, most Polies had long since settled into the daily grind of ten hour work days and off-work time-wasting.  There was a party planned in the gym with a list of entertainment acts. My supervising dishwasher Travis had choreographed willing volunteers into into a rather impressive hip hop routine to the sounds of Timbaland.  There were a lot of musicians at the bottom of the world, and a few bands had sprung up and prepared sets.  McMurdo has a full on music festival with outdoor stage which they call "Ice Stock,"  but at less than 300 constant members, Pole is a bit small to pull of anything as extensive.  

As it happened, I didn't get to see any of the festivities... at least the day of (I'd seen the hip hop routine many times over from the Drago/Rocky IV-style gym overlooking the basketball courts.)  As I scrubbed ancient canned goods of baking trays during the day, I became aware of another event taking place.  It appeared the IceCube workers, whose headquarters sat across the runway, had been busy planning their own New Year's event.

IceCube is a separately funded project from the main station, though most of its funding is from the same benefactor, the National Science Foundation.  They also have funding from Sweden and Germany.  Neutrino research is really best explained by the pros themselves, and if you're interested you can visit http://icecube.wisc.edu/.  If that's a bit thick for you I can tell you that mostly what they do is drill holes deep into the ice--really, more than 2.5km deep.  The process is accomplished with something called a firn drill, and a lot of hot water. 

The workers had taken a break that day, and two shifts had spent their time building a National Science Foundation sanctioned, sixty-person open air hot tub in the middle of Antarctica.  Scott is probably turning over in his ice grave at this, but it seems the custom of the modern man to erect a hot tub in any place he has inhabited more than a few months. 

Side note:  Robert F. Scott died after losing the Race to the Pole to Amundsen in 1912, and his body, along with fellow explorers Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers were left in their tent with a marker.  According to the bio by Robert Phillips at http://www.findagrave.com/, they lie "at approximately 178 degrees east, 79 degrees 50 min. south. As the ice shelf is moving slowly northward, it is estimated their bodies, encased in ice, will return to the Ross Sea in about 200 years."

Returning again to modern Pole culture, IceCube had dug about 4 feet into the ice and lined it with heavy tarps, right in the center of their compound.  Hot water was continuously being pumped in at 105˚F, and an ice water slide had been erected at the far side of the pool, where two people could hurl themselves giggling down into the water creating a satisfying spray. 

I arrived on the back of snowmobile (snowmobile access come with position, and I really was lowest of the low in ice time and job.)  "How did you know to bring a swimsuit?" someone asked me (I hadn't really received the orientation most employees had.)  "Always pack a swimsuit!  And a towel..." I add, pleased at myself for working a Hitchiker's guide reference into normal confersation."  

 We were given hard hats, since we were in a work zone, and ran quickly into the water, where mist was rising off the surface like a vat of dry ice.  It was so thick you couldn't see more than a few feet in front of you, and wet faces appeared out of the mist like laughing ghosts.  Someone had made ingenious floating drink trays out of Styrofoam, and some drunk Swedish IceCuber had claimed them for his country with strategic use of toothpick flags.

I never made it back to the station, but stayed until near 4am (which looks suspiciously like high noon in mid-summer Antarctica) enjoying the bizarre setting.  I suppose this is where I really met Austin, and quickly hit it off.  We dragged ourselves out of the water only when they began to drain the tub to discover that someone had taken Austin's pants.  This is sort of a mean joke in Antarctica, because depending upon where you are, it can render you immobile.  Luckily the pants-thief had forgotten his own pants, and we were able to trudge across the air strip and back to station with no more damage than icicles for hair.

I didn't get that new year's kiss (though there were plenty of lonely bearded candidates) but that isn't really what New Year's is about, is it?  It marks new beginnings, letting go of old bits wearing you down, and promises hope of things to come.  I passed out full of cookies in the reading room with two hours 'till my shift, but incredibly happy.
Happy New Year!
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