Old South Pole Station: A Tunnel Runs Through It

by Dick Wolak

we too are living at the South Pole
Frost coats the mustaches, beards and hair of Dick Wolak (left) and George Murray at the South Pole. Photo by Malcolm Browne, New York Times, Sunday, December 29, 1974, page 2
"We are living at the South Pole," proclaimed the National Geographic magazine of July 1957. And so they were, at the new research station built for the start of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. And though the station was intended for only a few years' use, we were still living there 18 years later, 20 to 30 feet below the snow surface, and always wary of the stresses and strains evident throughout. Those of us who had read Paul Siple's 90 South, a narrative of that first winter at the South Pole, were thrilled at the opportunity to be a part of this historic facility, even if only for its last austral summer. Some of the events of that last season are recalled here, gathered from reports, journals, logs, letters and pictures recently pulled from their place in the attic.

An enthusiastic group of 30 had gathered at McMurdo Station in late October 1974, excited to be manifested on the opening flight to the South Pole. Included were the first-time-ever civilian winterover support crew, plus civilian and Navy summer support, science personnel and the lead group of Holmes & Narver's (H&N) construction force that would open the construction camp and complete the last phase of the new domed station. On November 1st, all hands were assured that a Pole flight would not be considered before 9 a.m. on the 3rd. Antarctic veterans were not too surprised, then, to be hustled out of breakfast on the 2nd with exhortations to muster hold baggage and clear McMurdo for a 1 p.m. launch for the Pole.

The final wintering party at the original station (soon to be referred to as "Old Pole") was made up of 13 Navy men and 8 civilian scientists. Their winter routines, which had shaped their existence since February 17th, disappeared in the annual madness that is station turnover. Station population on that first night jumped to 49 (two winterovers had departed on the opening flight). The station would be "left alone" by air operations for the next three days to allow the passing of as much operational fact and cultural lore as the two support crews could handle. Typically, by the afternoon of November 5, both groups were scanning the horizon for the second bird of summer and the liberation that it brought to all.

Once turnover was complete, November settled down some. Science personnel flooded in along with many more construction workers, materials, and equipment. The old station, no longer the object of structural or mechanical improvements, gamely carried on. It showed its years in the distortion of buildings, metal arches, and shoring timbers. Its generators were a constant problem, and often irregular in their output. The patchwork of devices used to heat buildings and provide water was notably inefficient
The Old Station showed its years in the distortion of buildings, metal arches, and shoring timbers.
in its use of costly diesel fuel. Fuel usage during the '74 winter had been 2,700 gallons per week. The larger, more comfortable new station running generators rated at 250 KW (rather than the old station's 150s) would use 2,000 per week during the '75 winter.

the slippery slope
The "Holy Stairs" from the bottom looking up toward the vestibule and the "real light" from the snow surface and beyond. Using these stairs was always an adventure. The frozen wood was slippery, and the movement of the surrounding snow and ice kept the stairs significantly "out of square." The altitude at Pole and burden of cold weather clothing made any stair climbing an effort. Dick Wolak, Jan. 1975
By mid-November, the annual parade of distinguished visitors got under way with the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (Admiral "Mickey" Weisner), followed by visits of the Under Secretary of the Air Force (J.W. Plummer), the U.S Ambassador to Australia (Marshall Green), a British Antarctic Survey Twin Otter, and the annual media group. Among this last group was the New York Times' Malcolm Browne, whose article on Sunday, December 29, would describe "tunnel life" at Old South Pole Station.

Visits by notables aside, the "events" of this summer all took on a theme of major change. At noon on November 15, the South Pole amateur radio call sign was changed from KC4USN to KC4AAA. In early December, the New Pole generators began testing and were soon considered reliable enough for Pole communications and a support crew of five to move into the new facility on December 14. The "photographic Pole" was moved shortly thereafter, and 1975 saw with the start of amateur radio operations in the Dome, a part of the New Year's celebration.

At that point, our activities took on a very specific focus. Dedication of the new station was scheduled for January 9th, and extensive preparations were needed. On January 3rd, the crashed remains of Hercules #917 (in close proximity to the station the past two years) were pushed by a Caterpillar LGP D-8 far off to the McMurdo end of the skiway. The following day, we celebrated our "last supper," a gala occasion that marked the end of food service in the old station's galley. Four more long days of completion lists and tidying up followed (to include the elaborate spreading of clean snow throughout the construction area). Dedication Day was the last hurrah for Old Pole. All of the visiting party, including representatives of Congress, the National Science Board, SCAR and NSF toured its tunnels. In my view, the most significant visit was that of Mrs. Ruth Siple to her late husband's former workspace.

Old Pole was, of course, "old school" when it came to gender lines. It wasn't until 1969 that the station saw its first female visitors, and a number of other day visitors followed in subsequent summers. However, the total number of "female/overnights" during the station's lifespan was probably no more than 60.

A female reporter was the first to stay a night in 1971 when her media visit experienced an unplanned extension. Two years later, Dr. Harold Muchmore brought his wife, Donna, and Nan Scott with his biomedical program to Old Pole for a two-week stay. He returned with Nan Scott and Lura Ney on the 1974 opening flight to gather data from winterovers, and the group again lived temporarily at Old Pole. The only female support worker to live at the IGY station was McMurdo secretary Jan Boyd, during the first week of January 1975. Her short stay ended the very brief history of women residents at the original station. Two weeks later, the H&N construction secretary at McMurdo, Elena Marty, also worked at Pole, but she lived at the Construction Camp.

Ruth Siple at Pole
Mrs. Ruth Siple sits in the room that had been occupied by her late husband, Paul Siple, leader of the first winter-over party, 1956-57. Mrs. Siple was at the Pole for the dedication of the new South Pole Station. U. S. Navy (PH1 R. W. Milton, 1/9/75)
The pace during the time that remained stayed at a high level. Two Hercules aircraft were lost at Dome Charlie on January 15th with chilling effects throughout the program. South Pole would receive 50,000 gallons less fuel than planned and would close sooner. Still, the old station pushed on, and remained one of three primary berthing areas. When the core services of food and communications moved out of Old Pole, residents were free to relocate either to New Pole or the Construction Camp on a self-paced basis. As their work schedules allowed, individuals could stake out new living space and move their belongings piecemeal. The process would be complete when the mass of transported material favored residence in the new location, whereupon bedding and toothbrush sealed the deal.

On January 24, the population of Old Pole was still at 12, while 61 others at Pole lived at either the new station or the Construction Camp. A few days later, 3 of 17 men returning to McMurdo left from Old Pole, reducing the number of "tunnel rats" to 9. On the evening of January 30, I finished my fire and generator rounds at Old Pole and was surprised by an unexpected observation. As I prepared for bed, I recounted in my journal that "...movement has started out of the old station...had 8 of 9 move today...actually, I'm the last and only person left living here." I was briefly perplexed, and wondered if that was a
The lights at the Old Station finally did go out on February 3.
good idea; but it was late, I was dog tired, and the mile-long trudge (with bedding) to the new station had no appeal whatever.

When I became the last one out, I guess I was responsible to get the lights. But that didn't happen for several days, as we were moving massive quantities of equipment and supplies from Old Pole, and the heat and power were great benefits. The lights finally did go out on February 3rd. By then, I had moved to the Dome, but was still doing generator watch at the old power plant. At ten that evening, it seemed the time had come. I took a last walk through, lowered the flag at the Holy Stairs* entrance, and pulled the fuel cutoff on the generator.

Back at the new station, I informed the others, and a nostalgia party was declared. In retrospect, perhaps more should have been done in ceremony. But everyone was working at his limit preparing for station closing in less than ten days, and there seemed to be little energy for additional scheduled events. As it was, the original U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was toasted well into the night amidst music and movies of the 50's and 60's. It was a sincere and fitting tribute.

Author's Note: *The term "Holy Stairs" at Old Pole applied to the rather twisted, wooden stairway that connected the tunnel adjacent to the medical and communications buildings to the snow surface near the aircraft taxiway and photographic pole. The source of the name is obscure; it was common jargon at Pole in the early '70s. Speculation sometimes attributes the name's origin to the pictures, signs and flags attached to the entrance vestibule and to the use of this entrance by distinguished visitor groups during their day trips to Pole. However, at a station that also had a "Taj Mahal" (berthing building], I like to think the name has a loftier connection. For instance, the stairs' "holiness" might be related to their function of providing the subsurface denizens a means of ascent to the heavenly (and natural) light at the surface far above. Or, perhaps there were exactly 28 steps (very likely), and a devout carpenter recognized their similarity to the Holy Stairs monument in Rome. Those "stairs of Pilate" were moved to Rome from Jerusalem, and their hard marble steps are only climbed by the faithful on their knees. Our devout builder would likely have seen people brought to their knees on the hard, frozen surface of Old Pole's stairs as well! - Dick Wolak was South Pole Station Manager in 1974-75. He can be reached at richard.wolak @ uconn.edu


[This article and photos originally appeared in The Polar Times, Fall-Winter 2002, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 18-19; published by the American Polar Society. Reproduced by special permission of Jeff Rubin (Polar Times Antarctic editor) and the author...thanks!]