Midway Weather

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

unplugged [perhaps]

After five weeks of various logistical delays, it appears that we are headed to camp.  Possibly tomorrow.

The 'put-in' flight had a successful landing, despite some safety concerns.  The air field markers placed last year had been buried over the winter and blowing snow had piled sastrugi onto the runway.  Fortunately the overland traverse that had already arrived was able to groom out a safe area for landing.

Our plan for the season is constantly being modified.  Initially, the support staff was supposed to establish the 'main camp' starting in November.  Then in December the scientists would arrive, and using the main camp as a beach head, ferry supplies and people by helicopter to the drill camp out on the glacier.  Now it is being decided if there will be any science at all this season, or if we should just aim to get everything ready for an early/fast start to next season.

Because of the short season, many of the planned amenities have been cancelled.  That includes email/internet, bathing facilities and possibly electricity.  I'll likely be signing off for the next month or so, but plan to post some updates during my return to McMurdo.  In the mean time, the science group is venting on a daily basis from their website that has lots of good information.

Happy New Year

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Gondwana Christmas

On Christmas eve I went out for a stroll around Arrival Heights and Hut Point.  On the descent I noticed some unusual shadows out on the ice.  From a distance it was hard to discriminate what was casting the shadow, but since there aren't too many native fauna species - I was able to guess that these were the first penguins of the season.

They are usually only found around the edge of the sea ice shelf or along the sea shore.  Currently the ice shelf extends out about 20 miles from the station; but it is melting quick.  I found out how much the conditions have deteriorated when trying to get on the ice from the shore.  Crushing pressure has pulverized a section of ice that abuts the shore, causing me to have a very 'exciting' transition onto the solid ice.

When I finally made it out onto solid ice, I slowly started shuffling towards the lonely pair.  As soon as they spotted me, they took off at a clip and I figured my opportunity was lost.  Amazingly, they started coming right towards me; their curiosity was my salvation.

We enjoyed each others company for as long as my frost bitten feet would allow.  When I started heading back towards the shore they took off after me.  I began to hope they would follow be back to the barracks; perhaps make it a 'two penguin night'.

T'was the best Christmas present Mama Gaia could have given me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mountain culture on a flat continent

Last night was the accoustic holiday show at the Waste Barn.  It was some of the most fun I've had here.

The denizens came out in the their best down/fleece jackets.  Beers were kept in glove koozies to prevent frost bitten hands.  There was the occasional clatter of bottles kicked over on the metal floor.

It felt similar to the few truly wonderful evenings I've had in some mountain towns like Mammoth Lakes, Missoula and Juneau.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

solstice - a 2,880 hour day

The sun rose here at the end of October; it isn't due to set until 21FEB2012. That would make it a 2,880 hour day.

I remember going to the solstice party during my summer in Alaska and being so enthralled to see the sun dip behind the horizon for a few hours, then pop back up.  The experience seems so tame now, but then it was almost overwhelming.

Today I celebrated with another walk out to Castle Rock and was treated to a glorious blue-bird day with mild wind and an unobstructed view.  The sea ice is rapidly melting and the thin line of blue that was on the horizon has widened significantly since last time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I have seen The Light

View from my new room! A window!
For the last few weeks I've been stuck in 'transient housing', designed for anyone expected to be at McMurdo for 21 days or less.  It is comprised of windowless hovels that accommodate up to six people at a time.  In my 30 days I had a dozen roommates.

Scumbag roommate's bedside supply of junk food
The last roommate finally put me over the edge.  He was a morbidly obese plumber from the South Pole that had to be flown to New Zealand because of a back injury [likely related to the 200 lb gut hanging out in front of him].  His return trip was delayed at McMurdo and I had to suffer with him lying in bed all day [and night] watching TV, eating chips and slurping can after can of Mountain Dew.
I suffered with him leaving the TV on through the night for several days before finally unplugging the cable.
Fortunately management took pity on me and I have been moved to more luxurious accommodations.  The first night I had the room to myself!  That night I slept for 14 glorious, uninterrupted hours.
The only problem now is that I've got light streaming onto my bed 24 hours a day.  Last night I woke up at 11:30pm with the room fully lit; fortunately I quickly drifted off to sleep.  When I awoke later, it seemed time to get up and start the day- it was 1am.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

10 safe square miles in a sea of danger

Antarctica encompasses 5.5 million square miles [the entire North American continent is 3 million]. In all of that, there is only 10 square miles that is safe for travel; or so the administration seems to think.

A well defined trail system is the only recreational hiking allowed on station.  Many of the trails require checking out with the fire department, obtaining a radio and going with a buddy.

Fortunately one of the safe areas is the Ob Hill hike.  I can go up whenever the weather is Condition 3 and don't have to check out or go with a partner.
It has sweeping views of ... town.

Yours truly, enjoying the [relative] solitude

Learning by osmosis

Crary Lab, where visiting scientists are given office and lab space

Tonight was an astrophysics lecture by the shuttle bus driver who is taking a hiatus from his PhD.

Last night was the movie showing of the first all women traverse to the South Pole; hosted by one of the four women, she works here in laundry.

SCUBA diver working under the ice shelf

Wednesday was a fascinating slide show at the monthly 'yacht club' meeting by a contract diver about his career as a commercial diver in Antarctica and the rest of the world.

Then there are all the science lectures held by the visiting and resident scientists.

weather delay [again]

Last week the put-in team was expected to land at the Pine Island Glacier field camp [see Google maps], but was unable to make a successful attempt since they couldn't find the runway.  It turns out that the overwinter snow accumulation had buried all the runway markers.

Without a marked runway, the Air Force requires several extra bureaucratic hurdles for an 'open field' landing.  They are already concerned about the condition of the runway, with possible soft snow that won't support the cargo planes.

To prepare for poor snow conditions, the first few planes are going in lightly loaded and are carrying JATO rockets to help with take-off

Friday, December 16, 2011

Local sights

Still stuck at McMurdo.  The only good news is that I have been able to take in the local sights and some of the recreational trips that are offered.  This week I got to take a ride over to the New Zealand base and walk among the 'pressure ridges'.
As the sea ice disintegrates, it is pushed up against the permanent ice sheet and begins to buckle.

Surface melt pond [refrozen], with Erebus and Castle Rock

Mount Erebus [active volcano] with pressure ridges in foreground

Castle Rock [see previous 'Peak Poachin' post] with pressure ridges

Sunday, December 11, 2011

all the amenities of home

Stuck back at McMurdo for a while and trying desperately to stay focused.  The sprawling industrial outpost serves as a striking contrast to the unspoiled landscape.
I recently had to use the ATM down here and was tickled to see that they had accurately put the location on the receipt.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Once more into the breach

After only a few days stationed at Byrd, I was directed back to McMurdo for the PIG camp put-in.  My 4pm flight ended up getting delayed on enough occasions that the LC-130 didn't end up touching down until 1:30am.

The crew appeared a bit more frantic than I was used to when off-loading one of the pieces of 'heavy equipment'.  Perhaps it had something to do with the rapidly deteriorating weather we had lied to them about.  The overland traverse had left the previous day with all the tracked equipment; due to the coming storm, camp management was eager to receive the shipment of a new 'tucker' snow machine.

After the uneventful evolution, the other passenger and I were shuffled over to the passenger entry door of the aircraft [with the props still spinning nearby] and told to buckle up as quickly as possible.  I asked the load-master if he was in a hurry because of some weather coming in. 'The weather is acceptable, its just that we're running out of fuel.'

Byrd Bath and Beyond

Despite being half a continent away from utilities, I was able to fill up a 5 gallon bucket of hot water and take a water-pump powered shower in the bathing tent, or 'byrd bath'.  some of the previous occupants had added some clever graffiti to the changing benches.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

CON1 [again]

Arrived in Byrd to another bout of <100 meter visibility, howling winds and -33F temperatures.  Due to the visibility, it was deemed CON1, causing a 'safety stand-down' for the day.

I put the time to good use by setting up my tent and trying out some of the gear in the field.  Particularly fantastic is the footed fleece [monogrammed] onsie that Melinda got for me just prior to leaving.  It's not as good as snuggling in bed with her, but I'll take it as a substitute for now.

Ice Haiku #8

Had the privilege and pleasure of meeting even more amazing people out at Byrd Camp.  One particularly awesome person, Abby, had a habit of putting pen to paper at the end of her day.  I particularly enjoyed:

Shoveling again
Drifts a lesson in patience
Job security

destination: Big White

No kidding, there I was ...

Sitting in the galley at McMurdo on Monday morning, just after 7AM, when the cargo coordinator ran up to me; cheeks flushed and sweat matting the hair around her face.  Apparently I was supposed to fly to Byrd a few minutes previously.

I was able grab my carry-on bags [that I've been living out of for the last week] and shuttle out to the ice runway, located an hour drive on the permanent ice shelf.  The 1,300km flight in the belly of the LC-130 was uneventful with nothing interesting seen out the few windows, since the continent was covered in thick/ low clouds.

Once on the ground, we were treated to a 'combat offload' of our gear.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

peak poachin'

Last night I took off on a late night 'poaching' session up through the back side of town.  My destination was Castle Rock, the highest and farthest accessible point from town.  Technically it requires two people, a radio and check-out with the fire department.  Oh and the summit is still closed due to poor snow conditions.  But I decided to solo it anyway.

The hike out was brisk, but pleasant.  No real difficulties encountered on the hard packed snow to speak of.  Fortunately the short summit route was well protected with fixed ropes and easy to surmount.  Once on top, I took shelter in the lee and soaked in Antarctica for quite some time.  It was the mental space I've been hoping to find down here; absolute quite and distances that are hard to comprehend.  The sweeping landscape makes even my deep wilderness adventures in Alaska seem tame by comparison.

View from Castle Rock at 1:30AM

 After some time, I stumbled down to the emergency shelter at the base of the outcropping and climbed into one of the sleeping bags for the best nights sleep I've had since arriving.

Urine Soaked Pants

Apparently this is such a significant issue that it requires it's own container ...

Friday, December 2, 2011

squeal like a pig

We had our in-brief today with the just arrived scientists that are heading out to PIG [above logo stolen from them].  It is an all-star cast of characters from: NASA, JPL, University of Alaska and several others that I can't remember.

The PI [primary investigator] informed us support folks that they have been down at McMurdo for the last couple years doing dry runs with their drilling gear so that they can go out this year and collect their data on the ice shelf.  I was amazed to learn that PIG is moving at a rate of 10 meters / day [over one foot per hour!] and is speculated to be 10% of current sea level rise.  As Dr Bindschadler told us today, 'This is the most exciting glacier to study on the continent, with some of the worst weather the continent has to offer.'


Beakers vs. Ray-bots

Since I've been here for a while now, I've been able to start 'people watching' when the busloads of new people get dropped off by Ivan at the galley.  There are only two types of people here at station: scientists and support staff.
The scientists [beakers] are easily identifiable; with their nylon cargo pants, complete with zip off legs. Most were purchased so recently that they still have a crease line in them.  They are also usually wearing brand new hiking boots with intact and unscathed leather uppers.
On the other hand, the support staff [hired by Raytheon => Ray-bots], are universally found to be wearing their standard issue insulated carhartt overalls and boots that should have been retired long ago.

Both are tremendous fun to work with and talk too.  The stories amazing, and the camaraderie here 'on the ice' especially tight.


Still stuck at McMurdo.  PIG camp needs 100,000 pounds of supplies to be delivered by overland traverse, but the tracked machines are broken and awaiting parts.  So here we sit; primed, ready to go and nothing to do.  I even had to 'check' my bags earlier this week when it was thought that I would fly.  So now I'm living out of my 'carry on' for the next week.

The bright side of things is that since we have nothing to do, management is farming us out to other departments in town that need help.  I have had a fantastic time working with, and talking to, many of the folks here in town. 

Yesterday I got to hang out at the BFC [yes, that Building Full of Chicks] and talk to one of the women that works there.  Last year she spent 5 months bicycling through Patagonia & Chile in her time off from Antarctica. 

The day before we were tasked with helping sort trash at the Waste Barn.  Every day, every single piece of trash is sorted by hand here at McMurdo.  It was a fun little side adventure, and I enjoyed talking with the supervisor who decided to come down here and sort trash after her stint as an AmericCorps volunteer.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

blubber lovin

Yesterday [since I DIDN'T fly to Byrd]  I took the shuttle over to the New Zealand base, then walked back on the ice.  It was a lovely 3 mile walk along a well marked trail.  Along the way, I ran into several of the local seals that were traveling across the sea ice.  They 'maintain' their air holes by biting away at the edges.
Usually they don't move very much or often [hard to tell if they are dead or not], but one was making pretty good progress across the ice and I was able to get the below video.  It was much closer and more exciting than the video lets on though.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

semper gumby [always flexible]

I got notice to get to the terminal building yesterday morning for a flight 'right now' to Byrd Camp.  That got postponed.  Then yesterday I was told that all flights were cancelled to next week since air operations were being relocated from the seasonal sea ice runway to the farther/permanent landing strip at Pegasus.  So I wouldn't be going to Byrd at all, but straight to PIG next week.  Now I am manifested for later today to Byrd.

oldest building in town

I was delighted to find the 'coffee shop' in town.  It is located in the oldest remaining structure here [pre-1960] in an old windowless quonset style building.  They serve $1 lattes, free tea and $3 glasses of wine.  Internet is free, but slow.  An attached wing is stocked with plush couches arranged towards the big screen TV that has weekly movie showings and is available for people to pop in DVDs.
It is SO MUCH FUN!  I got to chat with one of the New Zealand demo crew here this morning over a cappachino.  They were brought down to blow up a bunch of old buildings; and for that kiwis are perfect.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sunset tonight: FEB 21, 2012

Today was [hopefully] the end of 'field training' before deployment to field camp.  We went out onto the ice sheet for crevasse rescue training with the SAR team.  The ride in the Haggland was bumpy, but fun.  Once out on the ice, the view was utterly spectacular.  With the clear skies we were able to watch the off-gassing from Mt Erebus, which gurgles only 20 miles from town [background in picture].
While I was out on the ice sheet, I noticed that the sun didn't get anywhere near the horizon.  Back in town I checked the TV monitors for weather and saw that sunset tonight: FEB 2012.  What a different world.

more fun Antarctica signs

Evidence that the folks at the waste sorting barn are having too much fun

The 'unofficial' logo of the Berg Field Center [BFC] where all field gear is checked out.  Last week I got TWO -40' sleeping bags and several duffels worth of gear issued there.  Oh, and it totally IS staffed with a bunch of rockin mountain-mommas

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Historic walkabout

For Thanksgiving we were granted a 'long weekend' [Saturday and Sunday] here at McMurdo Station.  I put the time to good use and was able to take a tour of the Discovery Hut from Robert Scott's 1901 Expedition.  It was absolutely magical to be able to tour the 110 year old building that sits EXACTLY as it was last left [there was still seal blubber sitting in the frying pan].  What a treat!

antarctic signs

It is rather evident that people here have lots of free time [and energy] that they put to good use.  Below is some of the more entertaining signs I've found around town.

Antarctic 'Chrome Bimbo' mudflap

Saturday, November 26, 2011

International Athlete

Yesterday [Saturday] was the official Thanksgiving celebration here at McMurdo. Part of the festivities included an organized 5k Turkey Trot over to the New Zealand base and back.  Fortunately I didn't have to worry too much about overheating, something I usually have a hard time with in distance races.

Always Sunny in Antarctica [in November]

24 hour a day sunlight here on the ice and destined to stay that way for the next few months.  Still meeting fascinating people every day, though life in town is getting old quick.  It doesn't seem natural to be at the end of the world - stuck in a populated industrial outpost.
Just got word that I may ship to Byrd camp in a few days to staff the medical tent there before the PIG camp opens.  Can't wait to get into the field.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Condition One [CON1] is the strongest weather class on the continent.  It is defined as:
visibility < 100 ft
wind > 55 kts
windchill < -100F
During these conditions travel is prohibited, even between buildings.

This last Thursday and Friday I had the privilege of attending Snow Survival School [AKA Happy Camper].  It is a field course designed to give those going into the field the opportunity to learn how to camp and survive in the snow.  For most of the participants, it was their first time using a camping stove or setting up a tent.  For me, it was going to be a nice couple of days out of town.

On Thursday, while we were attempting to build a snow wall and kitchen, the weather deteriorated.  Just after the tents were put up, we noticed that the visibility was all but gone.  Our instructor had us gather in the 'kitchen' [hole in the snow] to discuss our situation.
We had stumbled into CON1 weather for our Happy Camper.  She mentioned that this was something they tried to avoid, but now we 'were going to get a unique experience.'  And indeed we did.
For the rest of the evening I got to listen to the other campers' stories; our guide just spent last summer as a mountain ranger on Denali.  Two of the campers were veteran contractor pilots that have flown the twin otters and DC-3s all over this continent and the rest of the world.  The researchers from Denmark, Germany and Sweden were happy to talk about their projects.
Eventually I wandered over to my 'survival trench' and tucked into the -40' sleeping bag for a blissful nights sleep.