Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Preparing for the South Pole

There are a surprising number of things that are involved in going to Antarctica, and the things you have to do can change based on what the purpose of your trip is and where you will be located.   There are a few things, however, that are similar for almost everyone.

The first hurdle that many people deal with is the medical tests.  The tests vary depending on where you are going to be based and for how long.  So someone spending a year at pole, like me, has to go through a number of blood tests and physical examinations and even a psychological evaluation.  If there is a problem with any given test, you may or may not be able to fix it.  The process also can be complicated by the large number of individuals all applying at near the same time.  There is really only one organization that handles the medical approval for all of the "big" US bases in Antarctica, and it can take a while to get all of your medical documents processed.  Suffice it to say that when everything is cleared and you are PQed (Physically Qualified), it is a bit of a relief.

Additionally, many people visiting the South Pole or other parts of Antarctica go through specialized training.  This can be anything from training on the work you will be doing to team building and fire and trauma training for those spending the winter.  My training started about a week and a half ago.  As I will be working on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, I have been training at the University of Wisconsin with many other scientists and engineers who work on the detector every day up here in the North to learn how to fix problems and do regular maintenance on the detector.  I have learned more about how all of the servers at the South Pole are laid out and interconnected and how all the hardware works. I did my PhD research using data from IceCube, but this training has given me a new perspective.  I am now able to "look under the hood" to see much more of the detail that goes into collecting that data.  In a couple weeks I will be starting my team building training in Denver.  I will update more about that after I am actually involved.

The last thing that immediately comes to mind is packing.  This can be a little tricky.  I'm sure most people think you have to go shopping for a bunch of warm clothes and find cold weather gear, but honestly the big things are provided for you.  There is still some cold weather clothing you need to get, but it's really not as much as you'd think.  The tricky part is trying to pack for a year away.  There aren't many shopping opportunities at pole.  You can actually buy things on Amazon and have them shipped down, at least until the end of the antarctic summer.  After that, planes don't land for about six months.  Though, I did hear an amusing story about this from a colleague who spent time at pole in the past.  He said that a few Amazon sellers would cancel orders because they thought they were fake!  For some reason they didn't actually believe there was a research station at the South Pole.  There is also a small store on station, but it doesn't have too much.  I went to the store on a short visit I took to the South Pole a few years ago, but I really don't remember too much of what they had beyond souvenirs.  All that being said, you have to pack with the understanding that it may be difficult if not impossible to get the items you need or want while you are there.  You have to pack clothes, toiletries, and even things to keep you entertained, though there will be more discussion about that in a later post.  It turns out there are some nice facilities at pole to help keep you from getting too bored. On top of all that, you have a baggage weight limit!  So you have to pack carefully.  This has been difficult, but as I said before, you can ship things down so that helps.

All in all, there is a great deal of preparation that goes into a big trip like this, and anyone looking to undergo a trip to the South Pole has some work to do ahead of time!
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