Herald Journal, Dec. 26, 2005
Howard Lake woman gets to work at South Pole
By Liz Hellmann
Like many Minnesotans, Christine Schwab of Howard Lake decided to go south for the winter, only she didn’t stop until she reached the bottom of the world, literally.
Filled with dangerous blizzards, planes catching on fire, potential people-swallowing holes in the earth, called crevasses, and hungry orcas, Schwab’s trip to the South Pole was far from a vacation.
“It’s very dangerous. You don’t just go there as a tourist to have fun,” Schwab said. “It’s not regularily accessible to the everyday person.”
Schwab’s adventure began Nov. 14, and she arrived home Dec. 6.
A member of the 133rd Airlift Wing of the Minnesota National Guard, it was Schwab’s skill as a avionics technician that granted her the opportunity to fulfill her dream to visit the South Pole.
“I wanted to go for the past three years, but because of our commitment in the Middle East and hurricane relief, I couldn’t,” Schwab said.
She finally got her chance when she was recommended by her supervisor to be an augmentee, or fill a temporary position, needed by the 109th Airlift Wing in New York.
The 109th Airlift Wing is dedicated solely to provided support to the National Science Foundation research taking place on the South Pole, by providing equipment and supplies.
After being approved for the mission, enduring 29 hours of air travel, and several plane changes, Schwab found herself ready to go to work.
Servicing half a continent
Schwab’s job was to service planes landing in the American base, McMurdo. The mission runs annually, and is aptly named Operation Deep Freeze.
“It was the most intense thing I’ve ever done,” Schwab said. “And I’ve been to the Middle East.”
Schwab’s job was to work on the communication and navigation equipment in the planes.
Sometimes, the extreme conditions actually helped her do her job.
In one incident, a plane was waiting to be serviced when the radar equipment stored in the nose of the plane overheated and started an electrical fire.
Schwab and her coworkers rushed over, tore off the cover from the nose, pulled out the sparking radar, and threw it in the snowbank.
Schwab and her coworkers were required to take care of the planes that served the portion of Antarctica from McMurdo to the South Pole.
The planes continually flew a route that would be comparable to a round trip from Minnesota to Texas in distance.
Schwab spent her time working on the same type of planes she serviced back home, C130s, only these were LC130s, which were equipped with skis.
Skis were necessary because the planes didn’t land on runways, at least not the traditional runway.
“The planes landed on ice, because that’s the smoothest surface there is,” Schwab said.
Construction contractors would lay out lights on the ice in the begginning of the season so the planes could see where to land.
Because of the cold weather, planes could not sit idle for long; in fact at the South Pole they could only land for about 30 to 40 minutes before taking off. Otherwise, they ran the risk of freezing up.
To help unload cargo faster, the planes are equipped with a ramp door that opens down into a slide. When the plane lands, the door opens and the cargo rolls out.
“Typically the only other place you unload like that is in wartime,” Schwab said.
Planes weren’t alone in having to make adjustments for the weather. Several of Schwab’s coworkers found it difficult to work in the below-freezing temperatures.
“It was so cold out at the South Pole, you wanted to run from one place to the other, but the air is so thin, you would suffer the bends if you ran,” Schwab said.
Schwab had a little bit of an advantage, having worked through Minnesota winters.
Life in a snowglobe
Although Schwab landed in the Antarctica in November, it was the middle of the spring season there.
Spring being a relative term, with temperatures ranging between 2 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
“You literally cannot tell where the snow ends and the sky begins at the South Pole. It’s like being in a snowglobe,” Schwab said.
Just as the planes required skies to land, vehicles in the South Pole were equipped with big tires and even tracks (like one would expect to see on an army tank) to make it across the snow and ice.
“To me, it was like a big red-neck dream with the all-terrain vehicles,” Schwab said.
As expected, when Schwab arrived, she was equipped with cold-weather gear and briefed about hypothermia, but she was also handed sunscreen.
From October to February, the sun stays up all day in Antarctica. Combine that with the thin ozone layer and the rays reflecting off the snow, and the chance for skin and retinal damage increases.
“It’s kind of weird because everyone is putting on parkas, but they smell like suntan lotion,” Schwab said.
Her welcome to the continent also included a briefing on the danger that the frosty island held.
Because of freezing and melting patterns, shifts had caused holes, called crevasses, in the ground, which would become covered in snow, and the unobservant hiker could fall into them. If help didn’t arrive soon, another shift could occur, crushing the person.
However, there were flags to guide anyone out on a trek, which were color coded to mark the safety of the area.
“Green is good, red is bad, and black means imminent danger,” Schwab said, with laugh.
She explained that flags would mark trails for people to hike along, always in groups. The flags were also placed only several feet apart in case a blizzard would suddenly strike.
“The poles were so close because sometimes a person couldn’t see more than two feet in front of them, and they’d have to walk pole-to-pole,” Schwab said.
The orcas were a little easier to avoid. Schwab was warned not to walk down by the bay, because the ice was beginning to thaw, and whales might lunge out of holes in the ice at her, thinking she was a seal.
As for other wildlife, Schwab saw plenty, but no penguins, which disappointed her seven-year-old daughter, Sadie.
“She wanted me to bring home a penguin for Christmas,” Schwab said.
That might have been an expensive gift, considering it is a $25,000 fine to even touch a penguin, Schwab said.
Finding the South Pole
Schwab’s temporary home, the McMurdo base, was made up of about 500 people, most of whom worked 12 hour days, six days a week.
Sleep was a low priority for many, including Schwab, who said three to four hours a night was typical. The fresh, cold air and constant sunshine made it easy to stay awake.
There was plenty to do, including live entertainment at the local bar, movies at the coffee shop, a gym, library, and presentations made by scientists working at the South Pole.
“You just get to meet everyone and it’s very educational,” Schwab said.
Schwab did take a break from her busy schedule long enough to find the literal bottom point of the earth.
Although, Schwab, herself didn’t actually have to find the South Pole point, it does have to be relocated each year due to glacier shifts.
There is a ceremonial South Pole marker, which is surrounded by flags representing all the countries that support the South Pole Station, or have a base in Antarctica. The pole used to mark the actual South Pole, until scientists discovered it moved slightly.
Another sign denotes the actual South Pole point, which moves around a little bit each year.
A heaven for scientists
The environment in the Antarctic is a paradise for scientists looking to find preserved links to the past.
Because of the atmosphere, low humidity, and cold temperatures, fossils are preserved quiet well underground, and above ground.
Schwab visited the cabin that once housed famous explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The cabin was left exactly as it was by Scott and his research team in the early 1900s, who left and never made it back.
“There was still food sitting out,” Schwab said.
Everything was amazingly preserved, just as it had been, including a seal that had died and still had the blubber attached to it.
This world below the world attracts a host of scientists, including marine biologists, astronomers, microbiolgists, and dozens more.
Some scientists even stay behind to tough out the winter season, in which the sun never rises, winds can reach 100 mph and temperatures drop below negative 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
They stay in the South Pole Station building, which is just a small L-shaped building, Schwab said.
Flights don’t fly during the winter season either, so there is no chance to come home mid-winter.
“Basically, when the sun goes down in February, if you’re not on that last plane, you’re staying until October,” Schwab said.
Although she wouldn’t like to stick it out during the winter months, Schwab said she would love to go back sometime. But, first, maybe she will go the other direction.
“I’m looking to go on a mission to Greenland so I can say I’ve been to both poles,” Schwab said.