Thursday, February 22, 2007

Homeward Bound

Glacial flow seen en-route north to McMurdo

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Once again rattling north on the Tranz Scenic train from Christchurch to Picton. I have just a few days in New Zealand due to the restricted availability of flights out of Auckland (I had to choose to leave Friday or be stuck in NZ several more days). Across from me is colleague Dave reading in the Christchurch edition of The Press, about the exodus of Ice people flooding into town, and of New Zealand's upset victory against Australia in cricket last night, which we watched from our restaurant booth downtown. Colleague Mark, who had explained the finer points of US Super Bowl tactics at Pole to me at Pole, grew up in Scotland (somehow retaining not even the merest trace of an accent) and managed to acquire an uncanny skill at darts, pool, ping pong, lawn bowling, golf... seemingly any sport involving directing matter into targets of various sorts. Fitting, somehow, for a physicist. He gave us a detailed explanation of the rules of cricket, to the point where we not only could follow what was going on, but were on the edges of our seats at the end of the game when New Zealand prevailed in the last few pitches of the final over.

There are a nearly infinite number of things to do in New Zealand involving outdoor activities in incredible scenery (bungee jumping, hiking, swimming with dolphins, riding helicopters atop glaciers, filming adaptations of Tolkein stories, etc., etc.) but I keep returning to the train + ferry combination up to Wellington - a soothing way of passing a day sliding past a good chunk of typically gorgeous NZ landscape - mountains, farmlands, coastlines and open water. A sort of gradual Northwards decompression after the dry frenzy of seemingly endless effort and sleep deprivation on-station. Post-Ice, I always seem to become afflicted with a paradoxical combination of intense lethargy and buzzing creativity which I actually enjoy quite a bit. We'll see if it goes anywhere productive after I return home this weekend.

I wrote down some goals at the beginning of the trip and I do want to have a short reckoning of how things went. Work-wise the trip was a qualified success. We incorporated all 22 IceCube strings plus the IceTop surface array into the new DAQ. The software itself is limping along (requiring babysitting from the winter-overs and by the three of us as we gravitate Northwards) but it feels somehow more in hand than last year – we shall see. Team interactions were fruitful and good-natured and I feel there is a good foundation going forward for the next few months of troubleshooting.

Personally, the upside was that, a few headaches aside, I managed to stay healthy throughout the trip (possibly a first for me) and maintained a workout schedule throughout, getting my high-altitude mile time down to 8:43 and logging as many as five miles a day on the treadmill. Daily work with weights helped counter the punishing schedule at the keyboard. On the downside, meditation and drawing practices went down the tubes and stayed there. Oh well. Also failed to finish Gravity's Rainbow and to return it to its rightful place on the shelves of the station's Quiet Reading Room – but I'm still enjoying it so I have borrowed it for a second time. Perhaps I'll send it South when I'm done with it. I have until November before the mail starts up again.

The main thing, of course, is that everyone got in and out safely, something I do not take for granted. I expect it's fairly safe to travel on the Ice but I am mindful that I am carrying in my luggage pieces of an LC-130 that crashed at South Pole (with no serious injury or loss of life, I should add). When we were first scheduled for the Soft Close there was talk of taking us out in Twin Otter aircraft after the Air Guard stopped flying. That would have taken us to Patriot Hills and then up through Tierra del Fuego – how we would have gotten home after that I have no idea; there certainly would have been no stopover in Wellington on the way home (anyone for Panama City? Rio?). The Otters are small aircraft with a shorter range than the 130s, requiring stopovers at fuel depots along the way (thoughts of landing at unmanned stations literally in the middle of Antarctica appealed to my adventurous side but the obvious added risk did give me pause). In the end the nominal Soft Close bought us only an extra two hours spent nursing DAQ along and eating hot cinnamon buns from the galley (a last-minute contribution from the departing breakfast chef) before we were serenaded off by one of the winter crew members playing saxophone as we filed out of the station into -80F wind chills and piled into our Herc. A combination of rapid temperature drops, logistics and, undoubtedly, opaque and mysterious Ice politics got us out of there, in the end, earlier than expected – so here I am in a train being jostled soothingly, watching dolphins jump off shore, rather than banging away at the software with a few winter-overs hungry to be rid of us and to begin their long hunkering-down for the winter.

Scenes from the straight-through flight to Christchurch

Saxophone serenade - so long, Summer.

The last flight (ours!) to leave South Pole until October.

View en route to McMurdo.

Our ride from Pegasus field near McMurdo to Christchurch.

First sunset in three weeks

"Big Red," the familiar parka, is surprisingly comfortable to sleep in.

Schlepping ECW gear to passport control, customs, and check-in at CDC.

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