The quest for physics can take us in strange directions. In the 1930s, cosmic-ray physicists crossed the globe, measuring the radiation intensity at different latitudes. They have climbed high mountains, flown U-2 former-spy planes and lofted balloons at extreme latitudes – all to further probe the mysterious rays. Neutrino astrophysicists are placing ever-larger detectors in gold, salt and zinc mines. The South Pole, too, is one of the stranger places to study astrophysics.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, a combined scientific station and frontier outpost, is one of the most remote places on Earth. Temperatures range from –30 °C in summer to –60 °C in winter. Six months of darkness follow six months of light. Everything, from food, fuel, equipment and people, must be flown in on LC-130 Hercules turboprops – aircraft with both wheels (for use on ice runways) and skis (for the packed snow at the pole).

Despite these difficulties, the South Pole has many attractions. Meteorologists, atmospheric scientists and glaciologists have obvious reasons to work there. Microwave and infrared astronomers are attracted by the ultra-dry atmosphere and small daily temperature variations. Neutrino astrophysicists are drawn to the extremely clear, 2800 m-deep ice sheet.

I was privileged to spend three weeks at the station in January/February 2006, to help commission the IceCube neutrino observatory (CERN Courier May 2006 p24). It was an amazing and rewarding experience. It all started in Christchurch, New Zealand, where we were issued with an array of extreme cold weather (ECW) gear – a parka, thermal underwear, boots, liners, goggles, etc. The next day, we boarded a US Air Force C-17 aircraft for the five-hour flight to McMurdo Sound, on the coast of Antarctica. This was definitely no commercial flight. The 35 or so passengers sparsely filled the wide-body jet and in‑flight service was a lunch bag given out as we boarded. On board, ECW gear was required dress and our luggage was piled in the back.

We landed at Pegasus Field, a set of runway markers on the Ross Ice Shelf, where the terminal building was a mere trailer. McMurdo base resembles an old mining station – a less-than-attractive collection of buildings set amid bare hills, snow and ice. The view was spectacular though, with Mt Erebus visible across the ice shelf.

The next day, 10 of us returned to the Ross Ice Shelf (to Williams Field, the "domestic airport") to board an LC-130 for the three-hour flight south. We flew over Antarctica’s coastal mountains and central continental plateau, landing at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole station. The station comprised a few large buildings – the almost-finished new station and the dome-covered old station (partly buried in snow) – and a "summer camp" of smaller wood and metal buildings to house the 250-strong summer population. Equipment is piled on long "berms" (ledges), to avoid burial in the drifting snow.

Leaving the aircraft was a shock. Besides the cold (about –20 °C when I arrived), the 2835 m altitude complicates walking and breathing, and it is common to experience some initial altitude sickness. Motorized transport was limited, and we often walked the 2 km or so to the IceCube site.

The metal sheathing made the new station seem like a spaceship. Going outside requires "suiting up" in an array of ECW gear, rather like putting on a spacesuit. The constant sunlight also took some adjustment, while other aspects of life at the pole were more congenial. The food – four meals a day – was very good. My room in the new station was small, but comfortable. Less fortunate colleagues ended up in the smaller, canvas-covered wooden buildings.

The physical emptiness of the location led to a certain psychological isolation. Together with being in confined quarters, this made for close working relationships and increased productivity. On the other hand, outside e‑mail (available via satellite for eight hours a day) often seemed of limited relevance.

The 2005/6 season was a good one for IceCube. We deployed 480 digital optical modules (DOMs) in eight 2500 m-deep holes in the ice. The holes are drilled using a 5000 gallon/minute stream of 90 °C water. It wasn’t very "physicist-y" work; IceCube employs drillers with oil-well experience. In fact, the relatively few scientists at the South Pole were outnumbered by heavy equipment operators such as "fuelies" and carpenters; logistics is necessarily king. Only essential work is done at the pole and all non-essential work is done elsewhere.

My own task – commissioning and testing DOMs – was necessary, but relatively mundane. It was satisfying that more than 98% of DOMs survived the enormous pressures and stresses of the re-freezing period. We all helped with other jobs such as pouring 20 kg sacks of Perlite insulation over the IceTop tanks, deploying strings and even cleaning bathrooms. Sadly, I missed the chance to help unearth an electrical junction box buried under 2.5 m of snow.

Several months after leaving, we are now eagerly anticipating the broad range of results on particle, nuclear and astro-physics that IceCube will provide. As a bonus, our measurements of dust layers in the ice – critical for understanding neutrino detection – have shed some light on the weather patterns over the past 200,000 years. It is the science that attracted us to the South Pole, and which will make the entire endeavour worthwhile.