Sunday, October 29, 2006

Halloween and Cape Evans

Saturday's job was GPS mapping of the shelf ice roadways - in the area of Happy Camper School. Got a picture of the bucket head exercise.

Once again, it was a beautfil day, and we sacrificed all breaks for the fun of driving the tracked Pisten Bulley around while plugging in GPS way points.

Saturday night was the big Halloween celebration, perhaps the biggest celebration and party of the summer and therefore the year. I lived the dream, as they say, as a classic 80's rock star. In the picture, my roomate Greg, is moving so fast as the black ninja, that the camera is barely able to capture his presence. The party was fun, and the dancing went into Sunday. It is still strange to have a noon-like sun out at midnight.

This morning, I went to Cape Evans to see Capt. Robert Scott's hut from the early 1900's. We rode for an hour and a half across the sea ice in a vehicle known as a Delta.

Along the way, we had great views of Mt. Erebus and we were lucky enough to see a seal! Not sure what kind it was, but it seemed very content basking in the sun, hardly acknowledging our presence a short distance away.

The hut itself was very interesting. It was strange to be walking around the very same hut that all those antarctic explorers did over a 100 years ago. Because of the lack of humidity, the place was very much like it was when they left. For instacne, the science table:

Where a few of the crew slept:

Such a beautful and historic place, I felt lucky I was able to visit the hut and the area before the sea ice melts in december.

And finally, to top the day off, we saw PENGUINS! Yes, we've all seen them in the movies, but to see them walk and slide on their bellies for real, was extremely entertaining. They are quite interesting characters and I do hope to see more while I'm here.

That's all for the weekend. Another busy week starts up tomorrow.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Urmston Conquers The Ross Ice Shelf ... 100 Times"

Out to Willy's Field to flag one lane of the road. Coming over the hill by the New Zealand Scott Base, there was the morning sun reflecting a path below on the ice all the way to the horizon. It was the first time that between me and the horizon was only ice. It was also strange, still, to have the morning sun in the north east. So beautiful it was. It reminded me of all those wonderful days on Crazy Horse sailing the ocean blue.

Being too far away from "town" to go back and forth for lunch, we had lunch out at the field. Eating in what's called a Jamesway, we had lunch with all the plowers and other workers who were out there. The other two GA's and I enjoyed good food and a nice hour and a half lunch break. We are normally scheduled to start work at 7:30, finishing at 5:30pm with an hour for lunch (12:00 - 1:00) and a 15 minute break in the morning (at 10:00) and the afternoon (3:00). As it's not so convienient to take breaks out on the ice shelf, they add the breaks onto the lunch break.

Flagging is one of my favorite assignments. No supervision, a straightforward task, we get to "get out of town", and the engineering part of my mind gets to figure out the most effiecient three person process to get the old flags out and the new flags in. I also love the act of planting the flag, as i suppose all explorers do. Though someday, I would like to plant a flag that actually stands for something and is somthing other than a bamboo pole with green fabric and reflective tape on it. I suppose though, I have to start somewhere.

Time is strange here. It is always daytime, we work six days a week and therefore it seems like we're always working. Though this doesn't bother me too much, as I love the job so far. The job is what I came down here to do. I'm used to the Outward Bound and NOLS courses were the job is your life for that week or month. And here it is the same. Being outside all day, under the smoking volcano, Mt. Erebus, getting paid (less than $7.00 per hour - and that's before taxes!), but nonetheless, actually getting paid! while also driving big trucks with tracks instead of wheels is absolutely something else. With every flag I planted today I explored the poles, the moon and the mountains.

To infinity...and...beyond!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Iceberg B-15

Science Time!

I went to a science lecture tonight and it was fascinating. I will do my best to recap it. Iceberg B-15 had collided with one the eastern end of Ross Island (McMurdo Station is on the south-west tip). This iceberg was so large that it interferred with the normal annual ice breakup and for five years or so, McMurdo sound did not clear out of ice. In fact, the pressure caused by the berg's pressence created large crevasses in the ice that emperor penguins could not pass through. For anyone who has seen March of the Penguins, (and everyone should see it) the penguins could not complete their march as they could not cross the large crevasses, could not get out of them once they were in, and could not find a way through the jumble of ice thrown up into large pressure ridges.

However, in the fall of 2004, the berg somehow dislodged itself, and was broken apart. The reason was unknown until a group of scientist began looking into it. They had a siesmometer on the berg and through the instruments measurements, they were able to determine that the breakup was due to wave impact vibrations. They were also able to determine the origin of the waves. Turned out it was more than 13,000 km away. With another station, relatively nearby, they determined that the waves originated, again, more than 13,000 km away. They plotted they made two circles from the stations at the appropriate distances and the circles crossed at two points. One in the Himalyan mountains (no waves start there) and the other in the Gulf of Alaska. They then checked out weather data for that time and found a storm with greater than 14 meter high waves at the center. Fascinating detective work. So the biggest iceberg in the world, B-15, was broken up by a storm in Alaska.

I have to get to bed now. On flagging duty tomorrow. We're flagging the route to the Ice Shelf runway which will be used when the currently used sea ice runway is no longer think enough to support the heavy C-17 airplanes. Goodnight!

TV, Food, Work and Play

Many questions to answer this evening. First, the other half of the room. See below. For any of you who watched our home television (perhaps our first color tv) from around 1985 - 2000, you'll be happy to know we have nearly the same model (though this one still has the volume lever so I can adjust it with my finger instead of reaching in with my finger nail. The tv scrolls McMurdo weather, some news networks, and some movies. It is all part of some armed forces television network. I don't watch it much, though I do like seeing the ESPN top ten sport highlights of the week.

Moving right along. What and where do I eat. Why in the "galley" of course. Just like a ship. Not to shabby. Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat with raisons, a few oranges, orange juice, some melon if it's available and of course, my staple, hot water for breakfast. Lunch is a deli sandwich made to order like at subway, and dinner is a standard buffett style with vegitarian options, which I often partake in. The fruit comes and goes, with bannanas being the hottest fruit commodity.

Now back to the work. Below you will see a fine entrance way to one of the dorms. It was a team effort, and I finished it off. Shovelling the dorms is a typical assignment. Other jobs have included organizing the Search And Resuce locker as well as the Field Safety and Training Program outdoor lockers. I am now known to some of my fellow GAs as something along the lines of "knot tier and efficient organizer." I'm really finding my niche.

New extracurriculars...peer counsling meeting on friday, ham radio meeting on sunday, going to one of Robert Scott's hut at Cape Evans on Sunday as well. This is the one he never made it back to. Soccer and dodgeball leagues are about to start. I am also on a list to help out scientists if they need it but so far, I've not been on any seal studying ventures. In fact I haven't seen an animal since I've been here. Soon, hopefully.

Lots of people here, waiting to get a flight to the pole. They can't land the plane if it's below -50 degrees there and for the last number of day, it's been colder. Our GA supervisor told us this morning that two of us (it wasn't me) are first in line for a south pole rotation of GA's. No garantee that I'll eventually make the rotation, but I hope to.

That's all from "Mac Town". If anyone wants to leave a comment, they can do so by clicking the mail sybol at the bottom of the post. I'll do my best to answer any questions. Thanks!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Day in the Life of an Operations GA (that's me)

Some of you may wonder.. what is a typical day at McMurdo Station like... Well, here is a day for a lowly GA:

Saturday's work schedule:
7:30 Meet with supervisor and other GA's for stretching and the day's plan.
8:00 Make a set of snow stairs.
9:00 Snowmobile operation and troubleshooting training.
10:30 To the waste barn to help sort trash (We have a recycling rate of greater than 60%) 2:00pm Computer work - making forms for the scientist arrivals (the scientists are known as "grantees")
4:30pm Meeting to discuss logistics for the Taylor Dome excursion.

the extracurriculars activities:
5:45pm weight lifting
6:30pm GA meeting/diner to discuss the First Annual Shov-olympics (shovel olympics) that we now have planned for "Ice Stock" which happens every Jan. 1st.
7:30pm Antartic yacht club meeting
8:30pm Banff Mountain Film Festival (First Antarctic showing!)

Today (Sunday) is my one day off. I slept in, which is easy to do in a room with no windows. After brunch and some computer work I climbed Observation Hill, which has a cross commemorating Robert F. Scotts perishing on the return trip from the South Pole. Part of McMurdo can be seen below it.

After the short hike it was time for the second swing dance class. These are one of the highlights of my week. Got lots to practice. And to try to remember. That's the news form the Ice. -13 F yesterday. I walked between buildings with googles on.

And a picture of me in my work clothes in my room. The lower bunk is mine. I have three roomates: a janitor, another operations GA and a carptenter GA. Goodnight.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Road Flagging

The days job was to flag some roads near Happy Camper School. So out onto the shelf ice three of us GA's went to drill some holes and plant some flags. It took most of the day and I flet like an explorer planting the stars and stripes at the south pole or some newly discovered mountain. However the flags were green and there were south poles and mountain peaks every 75 feet. It was fun to be out there on our own. For safety sake we were required to check out and then check back in over the VHF radio, so for any of you that are concerned, "Mac Ops", short for McMurdo Operations, knew where we were, how many of us were there, what vehicle we were driving, and when we were expecting to return. Safety systems are everywhere here so we are well taken care of.

The day before was a spectacularly clear day, and gave us a great unrestricted view of the Royal Society Mountains across the sea ice to the west. Absolutely beautiful.

Hope you are all well.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sea Ice Training

Next came Sea Ice Training. To learn how to safely travel on the sea ice. McMurdo Station sits on the end of a peninsula of Ross Island. Currently, on the west side is is sea ice, and on the east side is shelf ice. The shelf ice is immensly thick and is ice that comes of the glaciated regions of the continent. The shelf ice is permanent. The sea, however, is only a few meters think, and sometimes clears out during the austral summer. Therefore, it can have cracks and weak spots in it that might not be able to support the weight of some of the work vehicles. Therefore, we underwent some training in order to safely drive the vehicles on the ice.

The main points were that if we drill through the ice, with a hand or power drill, and find a thinkness of greater than 30 inches, we can consider the ice to be more than strong enough. Less than 30 inches, and we are to consider there to be no ice at all. If we are under the minimums, we can cross the crack as long as the crack width is less than 1/3 the distance of the track (or wheel) footprint. We dug some practice cores that turned out to be over three meters thick and saw some beautiful mountains and pressure ridges.

The weather was such that it was at times very hard to see the horizon. Ice, snow and sky, melted into one and it sometimes seemed like we were back with a white bucket around our vehicle. It was cold and windy and our vehicle had some good ice on one side of it.

All in all, it was very fun, and I felt like an antarctic sailor learning everything I needed to know to take a sailing vessel into the ice. Maybe someday!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Happy Camper School

Snow School I, as it is formally called. I've been told I have the best job on the continent. And so I get sent to snow school right away. Soon we were out on the ice shelf putting up mountain tents, Scott tents (the tall pyramidal ones) making snow walls with wood saws and then making a quinzee, which eventually turns out to be an above ground snow cave. Twenty of us, all dressed in red.

The quinzee was made rapid-style by piling all of our bags under a tarp, then we all shovelled snow on it for a half hour or so, then we packed it down with the underside of our shovels, then let it settle, and finally I made the entrance with another guy while someone else went in on the opposite side to retrieve all the bags. When I went to sleep it was -10 F outside and it stayed above zero in the quinzee...not above freezing, but above zero.

Today, for part two of snow school, we did scenarios. The first, after splitting into groups of ten, was to find a lost person in a whiteout - who supposedly went out the outhouse and was overdue. So after our five minutes organizing ourselves and coming up with a plan, we put white buckets over our heads to simulate the whiteout. We tied one end of a rope to the building then went out holding each other's hands as well as the rope and began to trace an arc across the front side of the building. Thankfully we (by "we" I mean "my feet") were able to find the "person" which was a huge bag stuffed with a sleeping bag among other things.

The second scenario told us that our Piston Bulley caught fire thus taking away our VHF radio, while a storm was coming in. Our tasks were to get a tent set up, build a snow wall, get water on the stove, and communicate with "Mac Ops" (McMurdo Operations) with the HF radio. I, of course, went to the radio with a few others. We set up the antenna, similar to the one that hangs in our backyard in Sherborn - and that I hope to transmit to later this "summer," then plugged in all the cords, then made contact. It was quite fun.

That's all for now. Day off tomorrow, Sunday. Found out today that in early November I will be going to the Taylor Dome on the Polar Plateau! I'm going for a few weeks to help dig out buried fuel caches. After two weeks, me and another GA will be repaced by two more GA's. It is supposed to be cold and windy there!

Thanks for reading! And don't forget that I am still interesting in what's going on with all of your lives!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Day 1 at McMurdo

Started Day One with a tour around the station. Soon my chin was quite cold and I am now encouraging the hairs on my chin to grow like they have never grown before. The day was spent in, yet again, more briefings and information pertinent to life in Antarctica. We learned to drive two types of vehicles - one is called a Mattrack and the other is a Piston Bulley:

Then...some more briefings...then...finally...some shoveling. I volunteered to shovel some steps up a slippery slope between buildings and then shovelled out some doorways to the fire building.

This evening was spent at the gym playing hard matches of 3 vs. 3 indoor soccer. I held my own with two solid goals and am making my presence known before the regular season begins in November. Though after more than 30 hourse of airplane travel in the last week with only scant exercise between flights, my lungs are taking some time to recover after the many soccer sprints. I still have much to learn about life at McMurdo, but my mission right now is to meet as many people as I can - as quickly as I can.

Tomorrow, I am so happy to say, the GA's get sent out for "Happy Camper" school. We are heading out for field training and will spend the night out in a Scott tent or in a snow shelter. Needless to say I am very excited. Even more exciting is that the weather is supposed to deteriorate with an incoming southern storm. The temperature is forecasted to be +1 degrees F, but with a SSE breeze of 12 - 20 miles per hour, there is an expected wind chill of -47 degrees.

That is the plan for now, with Sea Ice training next week to learn how to drive on the sea ice without getting into trouble. Life sure is exciting out here. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

McMurdo Station!

Almost a second boomerang...the pilots kept going and soon we were over the continent of Antarctica.

Big white mountains poking up through the glaciers of Victoria Land. An endless expanse of pristine white. It was beautiful and my eyes stayed glued out one of three windows in the cargo area of the C-17.

An announcement came that things looked good for landing and this caused a hustle and bustle as everyone put on their big boots and got their huge parkas ready. Soon we were on the ground, though actually it was the ice that we landed on - the annual sea ice runway on McMurdo sound. Stepping out of the plane was like stepping onto the moon. My world has changed.

The rest of the day was more briefings, dinner, and unpacking. I love the cold, though I am not used to it and sometimes the low temperature makes it hard to breath. I have three roomates, one a huge Dispatch fan, and live in the main dorm that also conveniently has the dinning room in it. So life is good. I'm on the steep learning curve. The two other GA's that I flew down with and I are the first GA's on the station. I had thought we would be the last, but I was delighted to know that soon we'll be the old veterans in a relative sense. That's the news for the day. I'm going to sleep as there is lots to do tomorrow. Though I first need to poke my head outside to see what the 10pm sky looks like. Goodnight to you all! And happy birthday to sister Far and brother Will!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Boomerang, Tumerang, Sumerang!

Too bad Lady Elaine Fairchild wasn't on the flight, she would have loved it!
Got to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) at 0600 this morning. We were given a bag lunch and a set of earplugs on the way out to the plane and then we got on the huge C-17 at about 0800 with the full compliment of ECW gear - the the long johns, the fleece pants, the carheart bibs, the three layers of long underwear tops, the big white bunny boots, and tucked beneath my arm was the big red jacket.

The outside and therefore the inside of the plane were huge. (Notice the mechanic in the actual engine checking the turbine blades.) Rows of five facing forward in the middle and then a single row of fabric seats on each side facing inwards. Inside was fascinating from an engineering standpoint. Unlike a commercial carrier, every bit was exposed. Wire bundles going every direction made me feel like I was on a spacecraft.

I could even look up the stairway up into the cockpit on the second level. I later asked if I could go up during the flight and was politely refused on the expectation that if everyone saw me go up, they would all want to go. (On a side note, one guy now knows me as "Cockpit Ben" as he overheard me excitedly talking about my 747-400 post landing cockpit visit.)

South we flew for three and a half hours. Every now and then I would get up so I could look outside. Anytime that I could see the ocean, it looked stormy. White water everywhere. The "screaming 50s" (a reference to the story 50-60 degrees of South latitude) seemed like it was living up to its name.

I was standing up talking to the Load Master air force guy, when he motioned me that he had to listen to his headset. From the look on his face, I knew he'd heard the news. And shortly we were in a shallow bank to east. At that point we were about two hours away and over the pack ice. It was an amazing view.

On the C-17, I happily found out that the PSR is at McMurdo station. So theoretically we could get all the way to the Ice and then turn around if the weather wasn't cooperating. They need three miles of visibility and a cloud ceiling of at least 1500 feet. At the time we turned around, the wind was gusting to 40 knots, with a 28 knot crosswind, and only half a mile of visibility. The pilot also told me that even if the wind stopped before we got there, it normally takes about an hour for all the blown snow to settle out of the air.

So back we came, a total time in the air of 6.5 hours. I'm tired and a bit dehydrated despite my best efforts to hydrate. Dinner soon after a shower and then do it all over again tomorrow, hopefully with a landing at McMurdo. I am quite happy overall though. The experience wouldn't be quite the same had we not gotten the full experience of boomeranging. I also got more time to check out the C-17 cockpit once we landed back in Christchurch.

Well that's all for now. Thanks for your comments and we'll see what happens tomorrow!

For more National Science Foundation archived pictures check out:

Monday, October 09, 2006

Christchurch, New Zealand

The day and a half of orientations, safety meetings and paperwork completed in Denver, I have now excitedly endured a 12 hour, L.A. to New Zealand, 747-400 aircraft voyage as perhaps only I might. At a cruise altitude of 38,000 feet, I don't know if I have been higher. The clouds were spectacularly lit by a full moon and I was moving at almost 600 miles per hour over the Pacific Ocean. And I didn't even have to pay money for this!

Looking down I could not help but think of the many passages and night watches served sailing on Crazy Horse. We never did get to sail her into the Pacific, though if no one ever buys her maybe we'll have to. Crossing the equator in an airplane passenger seat was anti-climactic for someone who wanted to be behind the yoke of the plane himself or the wheel of a sailing vessel. There wasn't even an announcement as most folks were asleep. So into the Southern Hemisphere I went for the first time. Immediately I could feel my bodily fluids start to cycle in a counter clockwise direction.

The flight from Auckland to Christchurch was beautiful. I scouted the mountains I'd love to climb after returning from the ice.

Now I have been in Christchurch on the South Island for a few two days. Yesterday I spent hourse in the beatiful botanical gardens, enjoying the sound of the wind through the trees, the songs of the birds and just the sight of beatufil living and colorful plants - the likes of which I shall not see for some number of months.

Our departure is planned for 9am tomorrow morning. We got issued our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear today and it was quite fun to try everything on.

I could not help but get excited putting on a full set of Carheart insulated work clothes, work mittens, the HUGE white bunny boots, among 40 other Ice folks all trying their stuff on. I got the luggage weight down to 75 lbs and am told to be back at the airport by 0600 tomorrow morning.

The flight on the C-17 should take about 5 hours and everyone is hopeful we don't "boomerang." This means to turn around half way there (over the cold southern ocean) because of unfavorable landing weather at McMurdo Station. We were told today the record is 7 boomerangs before a succesful landing. The C-17 acutally has the fuel endurance to fly all the way to the station, then decide it's a no-go, then turn around and fly all the way back to Christchurch. An interesting way to spend 10 hours.

So now I prepare for sleep, feeling like I am heading toward the moon tomorrow. The two groups of explorers I know best are the Apollo moon astronauts and the Antarctic explorers of the early 1900s. And tomorrow I am heading to a place where half of my heros have lived. Mawson, Shackleton, Scott (who is definately not my hero) and my most favorite of them all, Norweigan Roald Amundsen, the first man to the South Pole. (Amundsen made it there a month before Scott and made it back with supplies and energy to spare while Scott perished on the return journey. The Last Place on Earth chronicles the expeditions and is also my favorite book.)

I love the New Zealand so far, beautiful mountains and wonderful people. Tomorrow, toward the ICE!

If anyone is interested in McMurdo Station weather forecasts, try:
Note that there is always light and that actual day (when the sun is above the horizon) gets longer by 17 minutes per day.