Midway Weather

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Right hand in a wrong world

At Melinda's recommendation, I've decided to take a few days and explore New Zealand before heading home.
For fun, I rented a manual transmission car - though it is much more difficult to operate than I had imagined since everything is on the opposite side.

Night skies and street lights, oh my

February 4th at 11:03PM local time, we stepped off the C17 at Christchurch airport. It was the first dark sky I'd seen since mid-November.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Recommended packing list for Antarctica

So you signed the contract, eh?  Think this is going to be a 'grand adventure'?  Perhaps I can change your mind ...

A 'nice' room in building 155

The first year 'on the ice' you'll likely be housed in building 155.  The small rooms only have SIX people in them, while some of the larger 'transient' rooms have up to 30.  Both my rooms in 155 were next to the bathroom [drunk kiwis banging the door and puking at 2AM] and one was directly underneath the lounge.

But if you REALLY want to go, let me at least help you with the packing

Recommended packing list for McMurdo, Antarctica:
-Bring lots of liquor [have some mailed and/or ship some more from Christchurch].  Only beer and wine is sold in town and liquor is a valuable bartering tool.  Take this to heart even if you don’t imbibe.
-Any over-the-counter medications, condiments or bathing/ body supplies you would normally use.  The store has very limited supply of all and it is usually sold out within a month of your arrival for the entire season.
-athletes foot powder or cream.  You’ll need it.
-stickers.  Every surface needs a few extra from your favorite coffee house or climbing shop.
-Costumes, lots of them.  Every weekend is a costume party at a different department.
-A fleece hat to make you stand out [and is comfortable/warm].  Otherwise everyone looks the same when they are wearing standard issue boots, pants and jacket.
-shower sandals and robe [nothing nastier than dudes walking the hallway in a towel. Disregard if you are a Guard-baby or beaker since they get their own bathrooms]
-dryer sheets [laundry detergent is provided free]
-domestic calling card [none are available for purchase in Antarctica.  All outgoing calls join the telephone network in Denver. If you’re smart, you could get a GoogleVoice number in Denver, then get FREE calls out of McMurdo]
-leather wax [good for boots, gloves and moustaches.  I prefer Obenoffs, but some folks get away with SnowSeal]
-a few small Tupperware to load up in the galley when freshies actually arrive
-Other than that, you’re set.  You just need to add your skinny jeans and a bunch of your lame t-shirts with sarcastic logos.  Consider that many people never venture outside building 155, except to make the 10 step saunter to either of the bars in town.

Recommended packing list for Dry Valleys:
-All of the above, plus … um, nothing.  Suck it up.  You’re only going to be out there for a week and it is just a half-hour helicopter ride back to town if your crap your pants.

Recommended deep field packing list:
-All of the above, plus
-Byrdcamp.com is the best site for an overview of what to expect.  WAIS is nicer than Byrd and PIG is more ‘rustic’
-good coffee
-Smart folks keep 3-4 baby wipes in a sandwich size ziplock bag inside their jacket.  This allows for a very pleasant cleaning experience after the outhouse with a warm wet wipe.
-Lots of podcasts [LOTS!!!], movies and TV series
-Tent attic and lots of 5-7mm cord to string up drying lines in your tent
-Down booties
-Noise cancelling ear buds [Sony makes a really nice pair]
-leather work gloves [the CDC issued gloves don’t last a week if you are actually working]  I’ve always used fleece lined leather work gloves with a couple layers of Obenoffs put on throughout the season.
-Gold Bond powder.  Keeps those undies & socks you’ve been wearing for a week fresh as roses
-pack towel
-lip balm [dermatone w/ zinc oxide] and sun block [30 SPF is PLENTY]
- short wave radio capable of receiving single side band [SSB] if you want to listen to: NPR, BBC Asian or south American stations
-LOTS of  smartwool socks, synthetic undies, long undies and fleece liner gloves [buy all these yourself, the ones from the CDC aren’t worth getting issued]
-Consider a roll up PV [solar power].  Some folks have ready access to powered structures; others have to fight like rabid dogs for the few available outlets in the galley.
-Ski goggles and sunglasses [polarized] w/ nose guard for sun protection.

God what an awful place

When Scott finally arrived at the South Pole [just over 100 years ago], he found a tent left behind by Amundsen with a note chastising him for not arriving first.  He looked around and yelled, 'God what an awful place'

And so too is town.

The annual fuel tanker is off-loading its millions of gallons of petrol fuels - used for transportation across the continent so scientists can study global warming.
Above town there are numerous explosions as the blasters create their annual supply of gravel for use on the icy roads over winter.
Another wave of people has come into town, just as the summer crowd started to thin.  They are the 'winter-overs'; folks who have chosen to live in town during the austal winter.  Temperatures get to -80 and the sun won't make an appearance for several months, but amazingly some people come back year after year for it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

back to civilization

Yesterday was my first shower in a month - it felt good even though I had to watch the water run brown for a while as it carried away the accumulated filth.  I stayed in long enough to read the entire Dr Bronners bottle.
Sleeping in a darkened room with other people is a disconcerting feeling.  I long to be back in the continually lighted confines of my igloo- alone in the stillness.

Friday, January 27, 2012


My prayer flag igloo remains for the winter [just above the 'mon'] in monastery]

The end came quickly.  Our Herc arrived several hours before it was due; forcing us to frantically pack the remaining tents.  Soon we were airborne for the 2,000km journey across the continent back to McMurdo.

my cockpit view of our final approach back to McMurdo aboard our LC-130 taxi


Still storm bound.  We have blue skies, but the 45 MPH winds have surface snow blowing with a fury.  Horizontal visibility can be 100’.  The forecast says we may get out in 48 hours [on Friday], otherwise we’ll be stuck until Monday since the Guard won’t fly on the weekend.
The igloo remodel went well.  I caved the flattening roof in and used the intact walls to build a new structure.  Soon into the project the weather went to crap, so I took a short cut and capped the room with a flattened cardboard box.  It has worked exceptionally well and the dark roof seems to be transmitting some solar radiation since it is now much warmer inside the igloo [up to -10c]!

We have word that chaos has ensued in town.  Every year at the end of January the NSF brings in an ice breaker to create a path for the tanker ship and container ship to access the floating ice pier.  They off-load a year worth of supplies for the facility and take back all the trash to the states. 
This year the ice pier never froze to a safe thickness, so the plan was to bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to build a temporary pontoon bridge for the offload.  Now we hear that the ice breaker is stuck in a South American port with unknown mechanical issues, the tanker ship is sitting at the ice edge several miles from McMurdo and the container ship is at Port Hueyneme with possibly disabling mechanical issues.


We’re still stuck in camp, now five days since we were supposed to have flown out.  The extended weather forecast is exceptionally poor. 
The weather has been quite variable with each system that comes through, some just windy while others are cold, foggy or bringing far too much snow.  In between have been gorgeous skies, reminiscent of our time in the ‘Big Sky’ country of Montana.


We’ve been tent bound since last week, but awoke to a blue bird day today.  My hopes for leaving were quickly dashed when we were reminded that the NY Giants are in a play-off game today [Sunday in the States].  Since our transportation is the NY Air National Guard, it is expected that our flight will be cancelled for ‘mechanical’ reasons so that they can stay back in their barracks and watch the game.
The forecast is abysmal.  If we get stuck today, it looks like we’ll be here for at least a few more days.
We’ve all done an excellent job of not going at each others throats over the last few days, even though we are all frustrated and living on top of each other in the remaining two small tents.  I’ve been able to find sanctuary in the quiet solitude of the igloo.   Unfortunately the snow blocks have been sublimating and since the roof was built too flat initially, it appears that a collapse in the next day is imminent.  I’ll try to use the nice weather today [that should be used to fly us back to McMurdo] to demo the roof and use the walls to rebuild.  If we are stuck here for a few more days, it will be worth having my own abode to retreat to.


CON1 again; fourth time this season.  Most all of camp is now packed up, only the two small communal tents and our personal tents remain for the 13 of us.
The weather is the worst we’ve had since getting here.


Half the crew flew out yesterday; tomorrow the remaining 13 are scheduled to pull up the stakes and close camp for the season.  There are still dozens of pallets to package and move, but we suspect it will be possible to get everything done before our flight scheduled for tomorrow morning.
Our biggest concern now is the weather.  When the weather observer called the HQ in Charleston SC for a forecast tomorrow all we got in response was laughter.  It seems there is a monster Antarctic storm heading our way with no foreseeable end in sight.  The high wind, biting maritime moisture and rudimentary facilities should make for a memorable last experience here in the deep field.


The last few nights in my new accommodations have been CHILLY.  Usually igloos and snow caves are able to trap a bit of heat in them and are actually quite cozy.  For some reason, the one I inherited from a previous tenant has been exceptionally cold [-18C].  This morning I woke up to find that some snow had remained unmelted between my sleeping bag and the fleece liner all night.


Packing up camp has come along quite well so far.  We’ve been able to package up much of the equipment and plan to leave it for next year.  Instead of flying everything back, it is possible to pile mounts of snow and place equipment on top [winter storage berms].  This prevents the blowing snow and winter storms from covering over all the equipment.
Within two days there will only be the two blue tents on the right remaining.


Since the season is coming to an end next week, we are packing up camp.  Part of the process involves packing back up my medical ‘rac-tent’ and moving back into a more temporary structure.  Soon I’ll be transported back to McMurdo- land of the flush toilet, showers, gossip, roommate politics and bars [yes there really are TWO bars in town].


A ‘boondoggle’ is the local term used to describe a trip to or around the continent that may be more for recreation than research. Many Senators and Congressman have been known to have an Antarctic Boondoggle.
Today the beakers were loading up the Twin Otter with GPS and seismometer stations to take out to the area where the drill camp was to have been setup this year.  While the engines were spooling up our camp manager came trotting over to where I was sorting trash and said, ‘your going on a boondoggle, go get your gear right now.’

And that’s how I ended up on a 50 mile Twin Otter flight from the flat plateau [elevation 3,000’] where Main Camp is located down to the floating ice tongue at sea level where science was expected to drill through the ice into the ocean below.

As we dropped down from the plateau a thin wisp of fog/ low clouds came up to greet us.  The first evidence of change within the ice sheet was the onset of HUGE [train eating] crevasses lined up in perfect series.

As we got closer to the landing site, our pilots slid lower to the ground.

Once the gradient of the ice sheet lessened, it became much more jumbled with the changing forces.

Blocks of ice, the size of freight cars stood on-end, sat precariously on ever changing ice.  The overwhelming beauty was balanced by the abject fear I felt just by the thought of trying to cross the area on foot.

Soon we were circling over the planned landing site.  This was my first ‘open field’ landing where a plane lands on unimproved ground without the support of runway markers, wind flags or [most importantly] benefit of knowing what the ground is like.  The only other landing was three years ago when it was so rough that the pilot said he would never land in the area again because of concern about damaging the aircraft.  Today conditions looked good enough for an attempt. 
The pilots were looking to use one of the series of large, flat, smooth valleys of ice that were interrupted in regular intervals by towering pressure ridges of ice.

It turns out that there was nothing to fear.  Our pilot is the Chief Pilot for Kenn Borak this year and his skill shone through on a smooth, perfect landing onto the firm snow.

One of the other camp staff and I helped the team put in various monitoring stations in the two hours we were on the ground.  Every once in a while I was able to take a quick break, stop and take it all in.
It was absolutely quiet and still, not even a breath of wind to stir the landscape.  I soaked in the serenity of it all; perhaps the most peaceful moment of my life.
In all directions the white surface gently undulated out to the horizon with a few distant peaks breaking the otherwise perfect circle where land meets sky.

Then the moment was lost; the project began to wrap up.  Our pilots began to spool up the engines while each beaker made final adjustments to the instrument sets.  We loaded the packaging, tools and remaining supplies back into the plane and took one last look around.

What followed was the most butt-puckering take off that I’ve yet endured; followed by yet another gorgeous flight home.
I’d like to thank all the tax payers out there for the best adventure of my life.  Thanks.


“Airplane camping” has been used to describe our situation out here.  It isn’t civilization by any stretch [limited generator power and melting water on stove top], but it’s a step above car camping; and we bring lots of gear.  Enough for a hot tub.


Today is the first scheduled day off since we’ve been here.  We had a lovely brunch that our GA whipped together so the chef could have the morning off.
The recent storm cancelled all Herc flights until after the ‘drop dead’ date for the helos, so science is essentially cancelled for the season.  Most of the beakers will be leaving on the next available flight.  Normally that would be Monday, but since there is a big football game [Sunday for the states], it is widely known that all Guard planes will be down for ‘mechanical failure’ whenever a big game is on TV. 
So the anticipated 10 week field season with a main and satellite camp has been turned into a 3 week trip out to the partial main camp.


Creativity runs thick on the icy continent.  There are witty stickers custom made for various shops and projects, rampant poetic graffiti and fantastic works of art sketched on random surfaces.  No where is this more pronounced than in the deep field camp outhouses.


Last night we hit CON1 [my third time this season].  The group pulled together well and actually had a really fun time huddling together in the few heated structures after an amazing dinner [the chefs were outside grilling in some of the most miserable weather imaginable!].

Everyone stayed up late into the night [though the sun never sets] huddled around the stoves; booze and enchanting stories flowed freely.  It was a magic experience, one I won’t soon forgot – perhaps never be able to replicate either.

It is a bipolar experience being here.  There is the amazement and joy of actually being here – out in the deep field of the seventh continent, with some of the most fascinating rough neck seasonal vagabonds imaginable.  And then there is the realization that this may be the high point in my itinerant/seasonal life that I used to dream of; is it all down-hill from here?  Is this a 31 year olds midlife crisis?

Shoveling out the vestibule helps provide focus.  It is the meditation most commonly practiced here on the ice.


Sure enough, the scientists arrived yesterday.  It was painful and comedic to watch them spill out of the aircraft with their camcorders and cameras snapping in all directions.  I was supposed to corral them in the galley until the camp manager could finish up with the cargo and give them a safety in briefing; though I would have had more success herding cats.
Weather is expected to move in tomorrow and make it miserable for the foreseeable future.  Getting the helos in before the new deadline is doubtful.

My rac-tent is finally up, though there is a still yet undiagnosed problem with the diesel heater stove that is making it difficult to keep the medications from freezing.  It is spacious, dry and wonderful though.
We will begin to batten down the hatches tomorrow for the coming storm.


Beakers are scheduled to arrive today.  Word from town is that they are getting restless.  They were supposed to be at drill camp three weeks ago, but are now far behind schedule.  Worse still is that NSF had an original deadline of DEC31 for getting the helicopters assembled here at camp, otherwise the science component of camp was to be scrapped for the season; now the deadline has been extended until JAN7.

When the project to drill on the ice sheet when being investigated several years ago, the principles were unsure how to get the team out to the undulating, crevassed piece of ice floating over Pine Island Bay.  There was a single experimental landing with a twin otter at the area of interest, but due to the ‘very hard landing’ the fixed wing contractor [Kenn Borak] said there would be no further landings at that site.

So instead it was conceived to setup a ‘main camp’ here on the solid glacier, some 50 miles from the project drill site.  The 6 mile runway was groomed for LC-130s to shuttle in gear, people, fuel and disassembled A-star helicopters.  A gantry has been setup in anticipation of hoisting the helos into the air and sliding their skids back underneath them.

If the beakers arrive, we expect chaos to ensue.  They will likely try to tear apart the cargo lines in an effort to find their equipment and will probably try to commandeer some of the heated rac-tents for their use.


The normal work week for RPSC is 9 hours a day, 6 days a week [54 hour weeks].  During the camp put-in, it is more like 12-16 hours per day, 7 days a week.  Fortunately our camp manager is realistic about expectations and decided to give everyone a bit of a reprieve for New Years.  We ended work mid afternoon and were told to sleep in until 10AM the next morning.  Most folks spent the time chatting to family on the Sat phone or doing repairs on personal gear.
We had an unexpected round of pleasant surprises to help us ring in the New Year: a pair of Skuas arrived at camp [the first and likely only wildlife we’ll see here], low on the horizon the new moon was barely visible and just before midnight someone was able to spot the LDB floating overhead at 120,000’.


DEC 30
First order of business upon arrival at camp is getting your personal tent setup.  I was given an ‘arctic oven’ tent, specially designed for cold temperatures and extreme environments; it is exceptionally comfortable and spacious [8’ x 8’].
During the planning of camp, I was told that the Medical Officer is the only person in camp who doesn’t sleep in a personal tent, but is instead housed in the large medical ‘rac tent’.  Unfortunately someone forgot to order/ship the parts for the medical tent, so for now I am a man without a [permanent] home.

Since we are working with 24 hour a day sunlight under the ozone hole, skin protection is paramount.  I have finally taken to using sunblock [for the first time in years] on the few bits of exposed face.  Most people fashion a nose shield from duct tape onto their glasses or goggles, but fortunately Melinda was able to send be a special care package composed of more appropriate PIG camp attire.


Yesterday I had to bag drag for the scheduled flight to PIG today.  After being tortured and stuck in town for the last five weeks, I was actually looking forward to being in McMurdo for the annual big outdoor ‘Icestock’ concert.

We headed out in the early morning hours for the 2 hour drive [14 mile] drive on the snow road out to Pegasus airfield.  It was impressive, if amazing, to see that a 4 inch fuel hose had been stretched the entire way from town to fuel the plane fleet at the airport.
Upon arrival we were directed to the double wide modular building that serves as galley and ‘passenger terminal’.  Inside I found tepid coffee and stale pastries that were trucked out from town the day before.  After an hour the pilot came to find us; he was waiting for the next weather report in an hour and a half, ‘but it doesn’t look promising and we probably won’t go today.’ 
He was also concerned that the MEDEVAC flight may need our airframe [a young guy with classic appendicitis that I had seen the day before at the clinic].  Of the three LC-130s stationed at McMurdo, one was unavailable since it was still on the 8 hour return flight from Christchurch that carried a MEDEVAC from yesterday that had us all sweating at the clinic. 
Usually the larger, faster, quieter C-17 makes the regular trips between Christchurch and McMurdo in 5 hours, but due to ground level fog and its stricter runway requirements, it had been unable to land at Pegasus for the last few days.  Instead, medical was forced to steal the LC-130s that are usually only used for shorter intra-continental flights in Antarctica.

With the long delay, and pending cancellation, of our flight I headed over to the bathroom module [a single wide trailer that belches smoke from the poop incinerator].  On my return walk to the galley I saw everyone outside the galley, frantically waving at me from a shuttle van.  Our flight was now suddenly on.
The loadmaster hustled us into the few canvas seats available in the front five feet of the fuselage; the remaining 100 feet aft was stacked to the ceiling with cargo for the camp, loaded and strapped for another combat offload.
Liftoff was interrupted by a quick idling of the engines and the appearance of the Engineer who scurried down from the cockpit to look out at the starboard side inboard engine.  I never found out what the concern was, but apparently all was well since we took off a short time later for the 6 hour [2,000 km] flight.

When we started out descent the copilot invited a couple of us up to the cockpit to watch the landing.  All I could see was flat white out to the horizon; for the first few minutes it seemed that we were still above the cloud bank, until I realized it was actually the ice sheet we were looking at. 

Because of a tight fuel budget, the pilot decided against a flyby [the usual practice at these deep field landing strips] and instead went straight in for an exceptionally smooth landing.

And suddenly there I was – on the ground at PIG camp.  After five weeks of delays.