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December 6, 2001

Have you ever imagined what an exorcism ceremony at the South Pole would be like? I never would have imagined that... but now I have participated in one...

My flight from McMurdo station's sea ice airfield to Pole was a bit more arduous than your typical domestic flight within the USA. After a 3 hour flight to 90 degrees South in a C-130 Hercules military cargo plane, we circled Pole for 90 minutes; the weather was inimical to a safe landing. So, 3 hours flight, straight back to McMurdo. This is locally known as a boomerang flight. About an hour on the ground for refueling and back into the frigid air for a 3 hour trip back to the axis of our planet and a safe landing at Pole. Total transit time:11.5 hours. A long time to sit in the hold of a cargo plane, but many great opportunities to peer out the tiny porthole at amazing mountains and immense icescapes. The immensity of Antarctica - about 1.5 times the size of America - was evident to see.

After disembarking from the aircraft I was greeted by Katy Jensen, the Pole Station's capable, hardworking and beautiful station manager. Depositing my gear in my "Jamesway" tent dorm #5, I headed off for a rehearsal with the Pole rock band THUNDERJUG. The band is named for the "piss bottles", that are most folks' bed warmers in the toiletless Jamesway dorms. We ran through several numbers and looked forward to a Jamesway Lounge dance party on Saturday night.

Katy took me outside and showed me a fascinating piece of old but reliable technology: the Campbell-Stokes Sunshine Recorder, circa 1910 or so... most likely the same model that Robert Scott had on his exploration ships. It records daily intensity and duration of sunlight by burning a piece of paper with sunlight focused through a crystal globe. No moving parts, and operational after nearly a century. A piece of hardware that is both gorgeous and elegant.

Since there are about 10,000 feet of ice deposited upon the surface of the Earth at Pole, the altitude is 10,000 feet. But because the Earth's atmosphere is thinner at the poles, the equivalent altitude is more like 12,000 feet. It is completely dry: 0% humidity. And it is COLD. Around minus 30-40 for most of my visit. The community of about 200 lives in a base designed for 40 inhabitants. A new station is being constructed, but won't be complete until 2006. This is the toughest construction job in the world.

Besides being a place of climatic and geographical extremity, Pole is a place of multidimensional extremes of human achievement: past, present and future. This is the most inspiring place that I have ever visited. From the heroic age of Antarctic exploration; to the present population who work harder than anyone anywhere today; to the future of the new station and the visionary science projects that are accomplished here, this is human achievement writ large. In describing the science projects, I mean visionary in several senses. From Pole, scientists learn much about the rest of the earth. It is a unique and valuable place to view our planet from. It is also a one of the best places on Earth to view the rest of the Universe. John Carlstrom of the University of Chicago guided me up into his D.A.S.I. telescope where the quest for the origins of the Universe as well as dark matter and dark energy are carried out. Since the air is so clear here, and since there is little air, light or electromagnetic interference at Pole, this is a mecca and window on the cosmos for astronomers. We discussed the academic and government agency politics and processes of getting grants to do our work here. It has been a long and tenacious haul for both of us. We are both happy and excited to be able to do our work here and we are both confident in our work's value.

Saturday morning, I head out to the South Pole(s) in the brisk, minus 40 air. There are two South Poles: ceremonial and geographic. The ceremonial pole is the original pole that was found by the earliest explorers who reached the Pole. Since it bears the familiar candy stripe barber pole design with the mirror ball on top, of the North Pole, it was most likely placed here by Santa Claus, well before humans ever set foot on this continent. Surrounded by the flags of nations signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, it is the prime photo opportunity spot of Antarctica. Nearby, marching yearly across the surface of the ice cap, is the real geographic pole, which is precisely repositioned each year as the ice slides slowly over the Earth's crust. A line of old poles and flag makers, gradually sinking into the snowcap recedes off into the distance.

Setting a DAT recorder at the geographic pole, I take out my acoustic guitar (in this case an all-graphite Rain Song guitar that I have used for years as a boat guitar on dive trips. It will remain here as a gift to Pole Station) and I ready myself to attempt to play slide guitar, using the South Pole as my guitar slide. The night before, I sat out by the pole and searched for a slack key tuning that would right for this job. Finding one that I liked, I checked it with many station residents, all of whom approved. Messing around with the pole for an hour, I found that I could produce lots of sound effects and textures, but melody, groove, and harmony seemed quite elusive. I spent another 30 minutes trying to play melodies and licks, kneeling next to the pole, as my hands and knees became colder and colder. Gloves were on and off; finger picking became more and more problematical in the 40 below zero air. After 90 minutes, I was a little tired, so I stood up, put my gloves on again, inserted some chemical hand warmers and held the guitar's strings up against the pole. I stared off to the distant horizon, across the miles of whiteness, and I idly strummed the guitar with a gloved right hand as I slid the guitar's neck along the pole. After drifting into an empty-minded trance for a while, I returned to the mundane world to find myself strumming a peculiar rhythm pattern with my gloved right hand. What did it sound like? It seemed American Indian in cadence, not something that I had played before. It was quite enjoyable. Suddenly, I realized that the American flag next to me was flapping with exactly the same rhythm! The music had literally came to me OUT OF THE AIR. Next I tried fretting and sliding against the pole to find melody and chords. A riff jumped out at me. It was fun to play. Again, I drifted off into no-mind state for a while, as I continued to play. My thoughts returned to the pole and the RACE TO THE POLE that the heroes of the early age of Antarctic exploration had participated in. Hmmmm? This rhythm fit my idea of a SLOW race, as was the race to the pole. Suddenly I had a set of musical ideas for a piece about that historic race and I was instantly able to play it! I checked the frozen DAT machine, and it was still operational. I ran off 5 takes of the tune without many mistakes. This is the kind of inspiration that I had hoped for on the ice, and here it was, like some kind of miracle out of the air, when I least expected it.

The heart of Pole Station, the galley, sits under a larger geodesic dome, erected back in 1975. A foot or two of snow each year had nearly buried the dome. Orange living units with freezer doors fill the space under the dome. Other shelters are large, long metal arches that cover the machine shops and garages.

On Saturday, the cooking staff had a day off and the beakers (science staff) and others prepared the food, A colorful menu was posted on the wall. Dessert was Bear Paw Parfait, a dish that you don't often get to enjoy on a bear-less continent. It's funny how many folks back home seem to think that there are polar bears down here. The only big, fierce animal on this Southern continent is the Leopard Seal, who lives out on the ice edge, by the ocean. A very long ways from here.

That night we had a great dance party jam, running through some old standards: Cissy Strut, Dark Star, and Ode to Billy Joe, among the tunes. Cookie Jon, bass player in the band, remembers coming to see me at the Fillmore, more than 10 years ago, when the HK Band played these same tunes. As the notes spun out of my guitar through the many dancing polies, I remembered a scene from my pal Kim Stanley Robinson's novel: ANTARCTICA. Stan has traveled to Antarctica on the same National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists & Writers Program Grant that has brought me to the ice. A scene in that novel described a psychedelic guitar dance party at Pole. At the moment that I read it, I realized that it might be possible for a performing musician to apply for this grant, as opposed to the writers, painters, and photographers that have preceded me. Here I was, recreating a scene in the novel that had brought me here. Thank you KSR!

Pole is a close-knit and family-like community. The cramped living conditions, harsh and beautiful environment, and the tremendously tough work schedule mean that folks need to get along smoothly with each other. They all work together to make Pole a safe and productive place. They work harder than anyone that I have ever seen.

On Sunday I played 3 solo acoustic guitar shows in the gym at 1 PM, 7 PM and 9 PM, so that folks on different shifts would have a chance to enjoy a short show. I'M SO GLAD, SPECIAL RIDER BLUES, HARD TIME KILLIN' FLOOR BLUES, THE FLINTSTONES, DROPPED D and THE SKUNK'S TEARS were some of the pieces the emerged from my guitar. I imagined I felt Skip James' ghost hovering over the pole in the blue deepness of the Antarctic sky. I also spent a lot of time walking about shooting video around the station for my future reports for the National Geographic Today television show.

Oh yes, the exorcism ceremony! It turns out that El Gran Chingazo, the snow/ice tunneling machine that is used to carve tunnels 40 feet below the surface of South Pole Station has always been a problematical beast. A figure of 57% downtime was mentioned to me. The alternative to cutting tunnels with El Chingazo is hacking out the tunnels with a chain saw and pulling the snow/ice blocks out on a human-drawn sledge. This is tough work, especially since the tunnels remain at a constant minus 50 degrees temperature. Chingazo had recently become totally unresponsive and as a last resort the mining and heavy shop crews turned to exorcism to attempt to solve the problems. Big John and Bill invited me into the heavy shop and showed me the altar of offerings that they had constructed beside El Gran Chingazo. Richard M. Nixon's ghostly face peered out from Chingazo's cab. The fragrant incense of diesel and oil filled the air. I prepared my guitar and amp next to Frederick's electric MIDI violin rig, the lights were turned out and many Pole folks entered the shop, chanting and playing drums. A high exorcism, with much shouting and dancing, followed; under the leadership of Bill and Big John. I did my best to provide a crashing hybrid of Texas Blues Guitar and Korean Salpuri Exorcism Guitar, as the MIDI violin exploded with screams and shrieks. Suddenly the unmistakable sound of bagpipes was heard and a piper marched in and joined the ceremony. Pole culture certainly is special. Perhaps the exorcism has been my most memorable experience on the ice? Maybe I took it too seriously, but as a long time listener of different types of trance-inducing, exorcism and shamanistic musics, it was easy to drift off into some other kind of consciousness. Did the exorcism work? Time will tell. Back here at McMurdo Station, I await further word from Pole.

On my last morning I drop down into the snow/ice tunnels beneath the pole. 40 feet down, it is 50 degrees below zero, as promised. My guide is John Wright, the bagpiper of the exorcism. John is a master of cutting tunnels from the mining trade. He has come to the pole to cut the long ice tunnels that connect the base to the subterranean "bulbs" where the station's water supply is melted and the old bulbs where sewage is disposed of. The tunnels are an impressive feat of engineering and construction. John shows me how two tunnels, drilled into to meet, "golden spike" style, meet up within an 1/8 inch of perfect alignment. You can walk through about 1200 feet of tunnel and then it's necessary to step into a warming room to reheat your body. There is no bright and every present sunlight in the tunnels to warm your body in the extreme cold. I was impressed with John's deep concern for safety for his crew; which is so different from the concern for liability protection over safety that I see in so much of the today's world. Bill and Scotty of John's crew work with a chain saw and sledge to cut more tunnels through he cold, hard snow/ice. Dressed in heavy clothing and covered with ice dust from the chain saw, they look the part of workers in the farthest extreme of human habitation. Or perhaps like albino coal miners, mining albino coal. We are not in Kansas anymore, nor ON THE ICE; this is BELOW THE ICE.




When I arrive back at McMurdo, ready to go diving again in the much warmer, 28 degrees above zero, fluid space below the ice, I find a heart-touching e-mail poem from Pole's manager Katy Jensen in the inbox of my iBook. -HK


Erebus Blues

(partially borrowed from Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary)


So smoothly


pack and dance






pelagic magic




Slide Guitar Around the World




"The dark underworld region through which the dead must pass before they reach Hades!"


I can't imagine it

--a week on the edge of it--

after whirlwind days of









I also can't wait

to hear it

through your guitar.


Thanks for the smiles you brought us, Henry.



Bad news from Pole. Maybe the exorcism did not work and the spirits are angry?


"Still waiting for parts for El Gran but on Monday we had a bit o' a freak accident concerning the beast including a shattered punch and a sliced pinky finger tendon for Big John Penney"


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December 4, 2001

Can a Penguin find happiness on the ranch? That’s a good question.....

Out on the sea ice with Field Safety Operations Boss and Ice Guru, Ted Dettmar, we learned how to drill into the sea ice to measure its thickness. So that we could know if “Uncle Buck” could safely cross it. We also learned that Uncle Buck could cross a track in the sea ice of up to one-third of his tread length....

After class, we visited Dr. Paul Ponganis’ Penguin Ranch. Emperor Penguins are trapped more than 30 miles away, out on the sea ice edge. Then they are brought to the ranch, where there are only two diving/breathing holes in the ice. And no other holes for miles around; thusly none within range of the penguins’ breath-holding capacity. The penguins are equipped with remote telemetry, including a crittercam video transmitter. This is all in service of a study investigating the physiological mechanisms that allow penguins to make deep and long dives. Penguins do not suffer decompression injury during their dives, and they seem to use quite different mechanisms to accomplish this, as compared to diving mammals, like seals,whales and dolphins. Ponganis’ cutting-edge research is discovering the answers to these questions.

After their service at the ranch, the penguins are released back to their home territory on the sea ice edge. I expect it’s easier for them to find happiness there, unless a leopard seals’ powerful jaws find them first.....



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Created and maintained by Michael A. Piper, 1997-2001

Content by Henry Kaiser and Michael A. Piper, 1997-2001

Last updated: December 3, 2001

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NOTE: This page was archived from HK's Antarctic Journal which is no longer online--Bill