In May 2017, I accepted a job offer at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics
Center (WIPAC) in Madison - a job that will send me to the bottom of Earth.
IceCube is a giant Neutrino detector at South Pole, and it will be my job to keep its
computers running, together with my workmate and friend Johannes. For an entire
year (November 2017 to December 2018) I will live and work at the Amundson-Scott
South Pole Station in Antarctica.
Being an IceCube "Winterover" has been my dream job for years -
und now the dream is real. This page is my journal of this once-in-a-lifetime
Most of the content will be in English, but I will also drop some stuff in German
occasionally. The journal entries are sorted by date (latest first).
ICL, the IceCube Lab, is located about a kilometer North from
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - which is quite a walk, considering
you have to wear your whole ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear, you are
walking on snow, and icy wind might be blowing in your face
depending on which direction you walk. So yeah, this is very much not a
walk in the park, especially when you are being an idiot - like myself -
and take off your outer-layer-mittens in -60 °C windchill for a few seconds to adjust your
neck gaiter. Once your hands are cold, in this environment there is no
way of getting them warm again with pure blood circulation. I had to
walk back the whole way from ICL thinking my hands would gonna fall off
(which is a legit reason for NPQ btw). The bad thing: It hurts even more
once you're back on station and they start getting warm again.
Seriously, that's incredibly painful. Luckily it turned out to not be a
real frostbite quite yet. Lesson learned.
Despite this frosty experience, I have been very much enjoying every
minute of life on Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station so far, even though
I was not able to sleep yet, most likely because of my altitude symptoms
and because I am just too excited to be here. This is so very much the
right place on earth for me that I am already considering coming back.
The station is all neat and clean, the food is amazing, and I feel very
much at home. They assigned me a windowless room at first which I
was quite unhappy about, but luckily one of my co-Winterovers
switched rooms with me - apparently there are people who do not like
24 hours of sunlight in their room ;).
Martin and James, the last season's IceCube Winterovers, are turning
their duties over to us during the next two weeks. We are taking it easy
though while we are still adjusting to the elevation. So there is some
free time to kill, which I sometimes spend helping out my new friend
Grant in the dishpit - I like it there, and the community very much
appreciates people who pitch in, which gives me my daily dose of
Winterover facts #4 ECW
ECWG stands for Extreme Cold Weather Gear and includes all kinds of
cloths to protect you from South Pole's harsh environment. The most
important ECW item is the "Big Red": The red Canada goose parka which
does a perfect job to shield you from the wind and cold, has a
trizillian pockets to store (and loose) all your stuff in, and even has
your name printed on it so that people know who you are when they meet
you outside and are not yet familiarized with the way you walk ;)
Then, of course, there are the "Bunny Boots": Big white boots made out
of rubber to keep the warm air inside and isolate your feet from the
icy ground they are walking on.
All your ECW comes in big orange bags which further contain three kinds
of mittens, a neck gaiter, a hat, goggles, wind-shield pants, and a
bunch of other stuff. Everything that's in there has to be returned
upon your re-deployment to the real world.
South Pole. I made it to South Pole. The dream is real! This is the
happiest day of my life. I can not find enough words to describe how
breathtakingly beautiful this place is. I am still overwhelmed by
happieness, astonishment and all the new impressions that are flooding
my brain right now, it almost feels like flying. ... Or, well, I could
still be suffering from altitude sickness which has about the same
effect; I feel about 20 lbs lighter and the station seems to move around
a little like on a boat. I felt it very heavy the first day, and of
course you are supposed to take it seriously, but I actually kinda liked
The temperature at Pole is a negative 45 °C right now (that's kinda chilly).
The sun is high up in the sky as it will be for the next months. The
picture you can see above is taken around 10 pm. Settling in on station, being
handed over my new job and processing all
the amazing stuff that is happening on top of that keeps me very busy,
but you will hear from me shortly!
"IC to Team Alpha: Report your situation!"
"Team Alpha to -bbrrzzz IC: Large fire ... second floor of B building
- brrzzzzzzz zz of smoke ... one person missing. I repeat: One person
missing. Requesting backup. Over -brrzzzzz."
"IC copies. Sending in Team Bravo."
But there's no time waiting for Team Bravo. The visibility is literally
zero, black smoke everywhere. With one hand I feel the ground
in front of me, my other hand is sliding the wall; slowly crawling
forward inch by inch. My team mate is crawling behind me,
carefully following the dim glow of my oxygen tank.
Suddenly my hand runs into something that feels like a human foot - the
missing person is unconsciously leaning against the wall in front of me!
Screaming our encounter over the coms system, I make a desperate attempt
to tie my rope around the victim's chest, in pitch black darkness and
with heavy fire fighter's gloves on my hands. Icecold sweat runs down my
face as the regulator on my SCBA mask starts vibrating - an indicator
for my tank being almost empty.
"I am low on air - let's get him the f*ck out of here!"
When we finally close the door of the smoky corridor in building B
behind us, both my team mate and me rip off our SCBA masks to inhale a
chunk of fresh air. Sean, the fire chief of the Aurora Public Safety
Training Center, declares the scenario successful - what a relief!
As we check on the victim, he is not breathing - which is probably
because he does not have a head. And is made out of lead and plastic.
He's also not wearing cloths, but that's a whole different story.
You're wondering what is going on? Fire fighter training in Denver, CO is going on!
Since there will be no professional fire fighters on South Pole station
during winter, a certain amount of people has to be trained accordingly; to
become the southernmost fire brigade on earth! Juan, Sean and Jessie
are the three professional fire fighters who's lucky job it is to get us
in shape - us, a mixed bunch of scientists, technicians, cooks, plumbers,
electricians, machinists. We all met each other just this week, and now
we are supposed to fight fires together. Exciting!
Becoming a fire fighter is tough. The full gear, including helmet, hood,
coat, pants, boots, gloves and air pack, weighs almost 30 kg. They make
us crawl through mazes, fully bunkered up, in complete darkness and
while breathing off a tank. I am actually pretty good at the maze because
I am tiny, with a record time of 5:15 minutes! What I am not good at is
dragging unconscious people around, let alone up a flight of stairs. I
have a hard enough time carrying my own extra weight of gear! Every night
I get home with sore muscles, dirty cloths and outright utterly exhausted.
At this point I want to acknowledge my sister Claudia, who happens to be an
actual professional fire fighter: You are my hero! :)
Despite the physical inconveniences the fire training might bring along,
I am having the time of my life right now. If you ever get the chance to
winter at Pole, sign up for fire training - trust me, that's what you
want. Not only because the lieutenant is really cute.
One last thing: It never gets old to see people in full gear wiggling
their butts to prevent their fire-fighter-is-not-moving-alarm-device
from going off all the time... :D
For my German-speaking friends:
Herzliche Einladung zum Astroseminar der Uni Münster! Als alter
Winterover-Hase wird mein Kumpel Emanuel dieses Jahr einen Vortrag
mit dem Titel "Von Neutrinos und Erdbeeren am Südpol"
über sein Jahr in der Eiswüste halten. Dazu gibt es wie immer jede
Menge andere spannende Vorträge rund um das Thema Astrophysik; eingeladen
ist jeder, der Bock drauf hat (kein Physik-Vorwissen erforderlich).
The most important lesson I learned in the last couple of months: NEVER
provoke your own luck at the airport with a carelessly spoken jings. "I
never lost a bag at the airport before" is NOT a smart thing to say when
baggage claim is about to start.
So yeah, my vacation started with a couple of hours of unintended idle
time at the airport, in which I was waiting for my luggage that
apparently decided to board a different plane than myself. Anyway, in
the end I was happily reunited with my bag, my boyfriend Simon and my
parents at exit 5 of Düsseldorf airport, ready for my 10-days of home
These 10 days unfortunately went by in notime. I tried to spend as much
quality time with Simon and my friends as possible, visit all my
favorite Münster bars and restaurants, have a little coffee party
with the guys from AG Kappes - my workgroup at the Münster physics
department - and I even had another little going-away party just for my
family! I have not yet fully realized I won't be seeing those
folks for over a year. I am afraid that's about to hit me very soon...
Luckily Simon made me the most awesome going-away present: A virtual
360° panorama tour of all my favorite places in the "real world".
This is where I will be going when I become homesick.
Winterover facts #3 Packing for Pole
So how does a Winterover's packing list look like?
First of all, you need a year's supply of EVERYTHING. This is more
difficult than it sounds - or do you know exactly how much toothpaste
you use up in 13 months? Or what kind of medication you might need? You
can not just pack everything "just in case", since every Winterover has
a total baggage allowance of 46 kg.
Next to toiletries and all that everyday stuff, you need things that
keep you entertained. I packed a shitload of yarn - maybe by the end of
winter everybody on station will have a silly handmade sweater they
didn't ask for! :D
The more nostalgic Winterovers also should pack a buncha' photographs
of their loved ones - there's no seeing them in a looooong time.
The most expensive and spacially demanding items in a Winterover's bag:
Warm cloths. Lot's of it. That includes heavy socks, hats, scarfs,
balaclavas and long underwear. And of course you want the fancy Merino
stuff, so plan on spending quite some money (for what I know it's worth
every penny though; I got to try some of it during some cold Madison
days already). And that's only the base layer of what you will be wearing
at Pole. The ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear will luckily be issued to you
right before you go - you have to give it back upon re-deployment when
your year is over though.
The good thing is: During the austral summer, people can send you stuff.
So if you forgot to pack your underpants, it's not the end of the world
- at least not if you notice before the end of summer ;)
The electric screwdriver utters a tiny bzzzzzzzd, as I affix the
last bolt into the heavy lid of the IceCube cargo crate. I am now
sitting on top of two metric tons of shit-expensive technical IceCube
gear! Packing up all that stuff was a lot of fun - unpacking it at Pole
in freezing -30 °C at an elevation of almost 3000 m: Probably not so much.
The crate will leave for Pole this week, but will arrive about three
weeks later than ourselves 'round the end of November.
While we've been busy packing up the crate, summer has returned to the
city of Madison. As we step outside, we get struck by 30 °C and the
mid-Wisconsin typical oppressive humidity. Time for a swim in lake
Mendota! The water is pleasantly cool and so crystal clear that I can
see the giant carps swimming around my feet. I close my eyes for a
second to enjoy the moment... until suddenly someone nearby fires up a
lawn mower the size of a pickup truck. Besides the fact you can't buy
decent bread here, the one thing that bugs me about Madison is the
CONSTANT NOISE. The lawn around the Capitol gets mowed daily (no
kidding), and as soon as the mowers are gone, leaf blowers shovel fallen
foliage from one pile to another and back again for several hours. There
are always truck engines running everywhere, and the few seconds in
between all of this are filled with the sirens of an ambulance.
But yeah, this really is complaining at the highest possible level - but
sometimes I forget how privileged I get to be for the awesome job I have in
this amazing city, and for the kickass company of my WO buddy Johannes.
Although Winterover training has been getting tougher since the focus
shifted from hardware to software, there still is enough time to explore
the wild Midwest of America. The wildest thing we encountered so far is
the "original Chicago deep dish pizza" - a 2 mm thin pizza crust topped
with marinara sauce and 4 cm (!) of cheese. Yes, really. There are no
The sun does not always shine over Madison. In fact, it has been
getting quite autumnal around here lately. A perfect opportunity to to
get a little exercise in handling my new camera! Trust me though, for a
fully-trained perfectionist like me it's not easy to pick up a new
hobby just like that. But with a little help from all-time photography
expert Johannes, I do manage to take a not-so-bad picture from time to
time. My new favorite Madison photograph is also quite a luckshot I
Winterover facts #2 WO training
Here's to all the people who keep asking me: "Are you getting locked in
freezers a lot for Winterover training?"
The answer is: No. We have giant freezers here, but those are for DOM (Digital Optical
Module) testing rather than for Winterover natural selection. But
luckily, deep-freezing Winterover trainees still SEEMS to have a certain
fascination on some WIPAC scientists, so I get to try the freezers out
from time to time - and -40 °C is really not as bad as I thought. Until
the cold starts creeping up your pants and sleeves. Then it's bad.
So what AM I doing all day? There is a lot of things Winterover-to-bes
have to learn before being released to the ice. They have to know the
IT infrastructure of IceCube like the back of their hands - every
single server and switch, all the power supplies, each cable. Ralf has
us stripping down each machine to its pieces and putting it back
together again - not in the actual IceCube data center obviously, but at
the SPTS, the South Pole Test System. That means most of our time we
spend between SPTS server racks. It's noisy, but also full of exciting
sophisticated technical Schnickschnack! :)
Another Winterover trainee task is to load the big IceCube cargo crate,
which leaves for South Pole mid September. So far, we packed it up with
roughly 1.5 metric tons of UPS batteries and spare hard drives - almost
good to go!
Life as a Winterover trainee is no walk
in the park - except when it is.
Last week, Johannes and I were roaming the State Capitol front yard,
when suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of the Madison Outreach
Pride Parade. Shiny cloths, rainbow flags, candy-coloured wigs and lots
of exposed skin everywhere. Once we made our way through the
marching bands and dancing people, we decided to get some pizza and
enjoy the show from a distance - equipped with our cameras. I
managed to catch the scenery in my favorite Madison-photograph so far -
I decided to go with monochrome for this one, because the vivid colours
would blind you for the true beauty of this moment.
For my 27th birthday, we enjoyed a couple of beers at the Union Terrace with
Sarah and Khan, two other researchers from Germany we met in our VISA
orientation class. We went to something called "Dane Dances" - and holy
cannoli, when it comes to open air disco, the Madison folks are ON FIRE!
Speaking of beers, Madison has quite a selection of local brews. Take a
look at the picture below, maybe you can figure out why we chose that
particular one ;)
The first two weeks of Winterover Training have gone by in notime, and I
have been very much enjoying every little piece of it so far. Well
that's not entirely true, there were some organisational issues to get
over with (like getting an American bank account, American Health
insurance, a VISA orientation class, all of which came with a load
full of paperwork. And let me tell you, getting an American Social
Security Number is particularly nasty ;)). But apart from that, it's a
lot of fun. Everyone here at WIPAC (Wisconsin Particle Astrophysics
Center) is excited to work with us, which makes me feel at home already.
Besides, Johannes and I get along great, and I have no doubt we will
make a good Winterover team.
Having used the words "IceCube" and "Winterover" a lot already, I
figured this second entry of my journal might be a good opportunity to
explain a little:
IceCube facts #1 The detector
The IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory is a huge particle
detector burried in the almost 3000 m thick Antarctic ice sheet at South
Pole. IceCube is looking for ultra-high-energy neutrinos. Upon colliding
with the atoms of the ice, these tiny particles produce a little flash
of blue light. This is called the "Cherenkov effect". The light can be
seen by IceCube's thousands of optical sensors, which have been deployed
on long chains by drilling deep holes in the ice. The data collected by
these sensors is sent to the surface, where it is recorded and forwarded
to the Northern hemisphere for analysis.
To get a better idea of IceCube, you can have a look at the picture
below (courtesy of the IceCube collaboration) or visit
Winterover facts #1 South Pole seasons
South Pole works a little differently than what we are used to. There
only is one long day (the austral summer) in which the sun never sets,
and one long night (the austral winter) in which it never rises. Most
people at South Pole only work there in the summer. However, there are a
handful of crazy people called Winterovers, who stay at South Pole station
all year long. This is a demanding and also dangerous job for many
reasons. During the long Antarctic night, there is no way of leaving
Pole (because the weather is too bad and too cold for planes to land).
There is limited internet and NO FREAKIN SUNLIGHT.
Every year, IceCube sends two winterovers who stay at Pole for 13
months. Their job is to keep the detector running at all time.
I will try to drop an IceCube or Winterover fact every once in a while
throughout my journal, so if you think I'm boring you might at least
learn something ;).
"Passengers BUSSE and WERTHEBACH, please report to the Delta personnel
at gate A75!"
The announcement echoes from the marble walls of the airport toilet.
I rush outside, where Johannes, my workmate for the upcoming 16 months,
is waiting for me, already having grabbed our bags to follow the tinny
instructions. It's not late at all, so what could they possibly want
from us? Could they have mistaken the electronics kit in my luggage for
a dangerous device? Am I being arrested??
"Congratulations, Ms. Busse, Mr. Werthebach. You have been upgraded to
our Delta Business Class!" says the lady at the Delta desk to us,
smiling over both ears.
Phew. Not what I had expected. Well I call that a fabulous start to my
After having enjoyed the comforts of a nine-hour overbooked flight to
the very fullest (including a bed, free socks, cocktails and a gourmet
lunch), we set foot to the lobby area of Madison Wisconsin airport, slightly
hungover. Our supervisor Ralf is waiting for us. Both Johannes and
I have been here before, when we were being interviewed in April for the
very job we will start tomorrow. So Ralf's baseball cap already looks
quite familiar to us, which makes him easy to spot in the crowd.
After grabbing some dinner in the "Great Dane", Ralf drops us off at our
hotel. I am tired despite my ridiculously comfortable flight experience,
so I drop into bed right away. The nightly glow of the State Capitol
falls into my hotel room window, making sure everybody gets their well