Saturday, December 30, 2006

Arrival at the South Pole!

The South Pole. At last, I have arrived. Ninety degrees south latitude. No further south to go. My means of travel were a far cry from the dogs and sleds that took Scott and Amundsen here almost a hundred years ago, but I am here, where they were, nonetheless. I boarded a C-130 this morning at Willy Field (where the ski-equipped planes land and take-off) with one other passenger. Being that there was only two of us, we were invited to make the flight in the cockpit with the pilots, engineer and navigator. Needless to say, I was quite excited and the crew did very well with my usual barrage of questions. Unfortunately, we were flying over clouds the whole time so I did not get to see the cross section of the continent from above. Perhaps another time.

Temperatures are -20 F, with a light wind. I still do not know where I’ll be working and have been told to check my email later on. I will be sleeping in a little curtained room in a Jamesway in an area called “Summer Camp” near the main station where all the summer residents live.

I am now at almost 10,000 feet elevation, with a physiological elevation of about 12,000 feet – this is due to the high latitude, among other things. Doing so in only a matter of hours does not let the body gradually acclimatize. But I’ve been hydrating like it’s my job and careful not to exert myself too much. It is fortunate that I have a few days off to acclimatize before the new year’s work begins. The McMurdo doctors highly recommend the medication Diamox to help speed up the acclimatization process, and though I took it in case I start to feel worse, I am choosing to tackle the altitude with water and rest. A friend of mine took it last month and now highly discourages it as his face was numb for three days. It was very interesting to speak with the McMurdo doctor about altitude illnesses before I left. Good knowledge for being on Denali this upcoming May.

There are about 245 people here right now and it feels strange to be a new guy again, after establishing myself in Mac Town. I like to see how stations work and this one feels like a big ship. I know a few people who are here on loan from Town and it has been very nice to see their friendly faces.

I’ve been told that there are ski expeditions arriving periodically last week and this week. I am interested in seeing these modern travelers.

All in all, I’m very happy to be here, hope to settle in quickly. I am also enjoying reading “The South Pole” by Roald Amundsen – the first human to ever set foot on this place – while I’m here. I’ve wanted to come here for many years, and it is unreal to think that I’m actually at the South Pole. The spin axis of the earth.

A note on time: We stay on the New Zealand daylight time that we were on in McMurdo but all time zones are roughly based on every 15 degrees of longitude. That usually works for everywhere on the globe, however, at the South Pole (and at the North Pole) all meridians of longitude converge on a single location. There is no daily high point of the sun, like there is everywhere else. It just circles and slowly climbs with the approach to the summer solstice (around the 21st of December) and then slowly descends afterwards. So a “day” with respect to the sun is 365 normal days long. Dawn comes on the spring equinox (21st of September for the Southern Hemisphere), noon is on the summer solstice, dusk is on the autumnal equinox (21st of March), and midnight is on the winter equinox (21st of June). Being just past the summer equinox, I’d say that makes it about 12:30pm

The geometry of the South Pole fascinates me to no end. The C-130 that flew me here is part of the only air unit that still regularly uses celestial navigation. Walking down the station earlier, trying to “get my bearings” I asked myself, “Where is north” only a second later to remember that everywhere is north. To make navigation easier, the polar convention is to use Grid North which is set on a line from the south pole towards Greenwich, England and the prime meridian. When facing grid north, 90 degrees to the right is grid east, to the left is grid west, and opposite is grid south – though they all, when at the geographic South Pole, point to the geographic North Pole.

Well that is that, I am here. Hope the geometry doesn’t bore folks. Pictures to come later. Hopefully my fascination will continue after the work really begins. A very happy new year to everyone wherever you are.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Antarctic Sun Subscription

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the woman singing on the front page is my boss, Barb Propst!

A White Christmas

Today is Christmas in McMurdo and we are in the midst of a luxurious two day weekend, and yes, we're having a white christmas. The festivities began on Saturday. The GA's spent all day decorating the VMF (Vehicle Maintenence Facility) with xmas decorations, a place to take pictures with Santa on a snowmobile, an area for a slide show, and in another corner, a spot for swing dancing. The party was a lot of fun - lots of dancing, carrolling, friends and good cheer.

On Christmas Eve we had a wonderful dinner with everyone dressed up. And Christmas day began with the "Up Ob Hill," a race up Observation Hill. It was cold and windy out there this morning and my hands felt like blocks of ice on the way to the summit. Seven minutes and 44 seconds after the call had been given, I arrived at the summit cross, commemorating Scott's lost party. I was the first to arrive and shortly thereafter, GA Ragnar, who took, what now should be called the "Ragnar Direct" route, had arrived. The twenty or so of us all made it to the top and took a group picture. During the picture I was concerned that I was going to throw up and I had to concentrate very hard on the descent. I had not eaten anything, so that I would no thow up but I was feeling quite spent on the way down, and later in the shower, my legs had the shakes. I am fully recovered now, except for my lungs in that when I take a deep breath, I feel like a smoker. Just warming up for the marathon on January 21.

Yes, 26 miles on the ice shelf in one month. I have been training on the ice, cross training by skate skiing. Feeling fit. I've always wanted to do one and figure running on snow has to be better on the knees than pavement. We'll see if I'm ready by race time. Not committed yet, but I'm hoping I feel ready.

In other news, I am off to the Amundsen - Scott South Pole Station after the new year begins. I will be there for 2-3 weeks as they need an extra General Assistant. I am extremely, extremely excited to go to one spot on the plantet, where every direction points to North.

Among my after plans, an attempt of Denali, Mt. McKinely, the highest peak of North America is in the works for this May, with two other NOLS instructors. I am quite excited. Preparations are beginning, the adventures will continue.

I hope everyone has a wonderful christmas time, that the stress level is low and the family and friends are plentiful. All the best from McMurdo.

The Sludge Plant

Been back in town for a little over a week. One of my first assignments was at the Waste Water Treatment Plant. Yes, I would finally know what happens to the water, among other things here, that go down the drain. That's the "beauty" of being a GA - we really get to know how this station works.

My job was in the "Cake Room." To get there, we had to walk above all the waste water tanks. It is a somewhat smelly area with brown liquid in huge tanks all below me. Do not drop anything, I reminded myself, wondering if I should be wearing a respirator. Hoses were tied to the rails and spraying a mist that kept down the waste water foam building up on the tanks.

Into the machine room we go. The waste water "sludge" gets pumped to this machine, the water gets strained out, and then it gets further dehydrated by being mashed between two belts around huge roller bars. Then it gets scraped off the belts and falls into the room below it to be packaged in and shipped to California. My job: the packaging part.

Into the cake room. I built the "tri-wall" cardboard boxes, put metal strapping around them, double lined the things with huge black plastic bags, taped the edges and let the games begin. At this point the sludge has already been processed by all the organisims that break the bad stuff down, and the regulars there were handling the stuff with their bare hands. I still took precautions by wearing safety glasses and gloves to keep any flying debris off me. The boxes took about an hour to fill up, and periodically the pile would need to be evened out. In between, the levelling I had the luxury of time to read (Shackleton's The Heart of the Antarctic.)

Three boxes were made but then the machine started to not get all the water out, so more processing was aborted. After everything stopped the last thing I had to do was clean out all the solid debris from under the machine. Needless to say, I did laundry and took a long shower after finishing that job. Oh, the life of a General Assistant.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Lake Bonney, The Dry Valleys

I am currently at Lake Bonney, one of the dry valley camps. It is an established camp with such luxuries as wireless internet, albeit slow, a radio telephone, a microwave oven, and a big jamesway. I am one of two people here right now and will be here for a little more than a week. We we came by helicpoter last Thursday, and being only my second helicopter ride I've ever had, I was quite excited. The movement in the air is quite extraordinary and I loved it all. I had my camera in one hand and my video camera in the other hand. Felt like a tourist, but sometimes you have to do it.

I am here with a scientist who is involved with the studies of the water of Lake Bonney as well as what is known as Blood Falls, a rust-colored stain (and sometimes waterfall) that emerges out of the toe of the Taylor Glacier, which we are camped nearby. (It is neat to be have been on the Taylor Dome and now be at the toe of its glacier.)

The camp is great. I sleep in a tent and when I wake up, I know if it's a sunny day because my the temperature in my tent will have risen about 40 degrees in one hour (usually from 0600 to 0700.) Then on the way down to the jamesway, passing underneath the wind generator, I rotate the two big arrays of solar panels, then come in check in Mac Ops over the radio telephone. After a breakfast of microwaved quick oats, yes, my favorite, we load up the all terrained vehicle (ATV) four wheeler and we drive to blood falls - a 20 minute speed ride across the chopped up ice. I was told by the scientist, named Jill, during my first trick at the helm that I drove like a granny. I hold by my stance that it was out of concern for the precious samples. Nevertheless, I am up to good speed now having gotten my bearings on the ATV, the ice surface, and the required navigation skills. Upon return, I usually spend a few minutes chipping ice from the lake to melt for our drinking and hand washing water.

This valley, Taylor Valley, is incredible. There are large mountains on both sides and glaciers pour over the saddles from all directions, some almost reaching Lake Bonney. The toes and sides of the glaciers all seem to be about 20 meters high. They are incredible. Apart from the glaciers there is no snow and the day we got here I was wearing just a t-shirt outside. Since then it has been mostly cloudy and blustery. I have had some time to hike around the toes of the glaciers and seen all sorts of "ventifacts" or wind carved rocks that take on all sorts of shapes.

Every now and then I have to stop and remind myself that I'm in Antarctica. The sights are amazing. Dodgeball Championships are this Friday, and though I will still be here, I am hoping the team carries on in my absence.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Back in Town

Back in town. Had a wonderful thanksgiving dinner. All the normal things, and very good it was considering where we are. Earlier in the day was the Turkey Trot 5k race. It was lots of fun, and I somehow managed to come in 2nd, passing a few folks on the last hill.

My dodgeball team folded in my absence but has since risen from the dead to be 2-0 in the post-taylor dome era. One more game then the post season starts. And I now have video footage of our games. Outside of regulation games, we experimented by throwing with only our weak arms and then another game where the thrower had to spin three times before throwing. Very entertaining.

I made the SAR team and had an all day practice last week of "Industrial Crevasse Rescue"- everything done with a 10:1 safety factor. I suppose we must be prepared to haul out a snow machine or a litter (stretcher) with a patient and an attendant with it. Very interesting, it was.

Today, I went on a tour of the pressure ridges - where the sea ice meets the shelf ice. The sea ice hasn't gone out in seven years and each year the formations grow and become more pronounced. It was very neat to be among the twisted and jagged pressure ridges.

Later this week, I'm scheduled to go to Lake Bonney, in the dry valleys, to help a scientist for a week. People tell me I am very lucky to get an assignment like this. Needless to say, I am very excited to continue my exploration of the continent.

Sunday today. So nice to have a day off. Brunch with the HAM radio guys, like every Sunday. We're still trying to make contact with the U.S. but the eleven year sunspot cycle, on which radio propagation depends, is not too favorable right now. We shall continue to try though. Happy december to everyone at home!

Explorations and Departure

And so it begins...


Ever closer to the moon...

Below is Ragnar on our last morning at Taylor Dome.

And the team picture:

With that, it was time to leave. It was an amazing 16 days of excellent work, play and people. We flew back to McMurdo on a Twin Otter and had excellent views of the mountains. It is now comparitively warm and is sometimes even above freezing. The snow is melting and there are ditches everywhere to channel meltwater away from the buildings and cargo areas. Nice to have some "fresh" food and nice to be back with friends. Quite a contrast to Taylor Dome. The second team is scheduled to come back this week, having pulled everything out from the depths from all around camp. I am very proud to have been a part of the clean up project. In the picture below, you can see camp in the middle. We were at the old runway uncovering pallets of empty fuel drums. Quite an experience. That's all for now. Thanks for reading!

Tents, walks and sundials

Being outside of town and in the wilderness, I was very aware of the flattness of our surroundings. It was especially noticable in reference to the sun which circled around our heads in a strangely counter clockwise direction. (It is clockwise in the northern hemisphere.) It dipped a bit in the evening and so I decided it would be prudent to build a sun dial of flags. I loved the sundail that evolved and put my tent right next to it.

I slept in the polar haven for the first few days before we put out tents up. After I put my tents up, I spent a few night in it, then went back to the haven for some better sleeping. But when the storms would come, I had to be outside for the experience...Others followed, inspired. By the end of the 16 days, I had switched tents to a design I prefered and spent all the remainder there. Quite warm in my -50 down sleeping bag.

It was fun to be reading about Antarctic explores camped in tents on the plateau while I was doing the same. One stormy "night" I was in my tent reading about Robert Scott perishing in his tent with his companions on the return from the pole. It was strangly errie and I was happy to not have followed his fate.

During the bigger storms, I had to follow the line of flags to my tent, which seemed to hover in the whiteness.

But once inside, so cozy, and when it was nice outside, it offered a splendid view.

At some point during the stay, three of us decided to walk into the distance far enough so that we would not be able to see camp. We headed out with a radio, a GPS and took note of the wind direction and angle to the sun. Me, the leader of the project, Kevin, and Eric who is now known by the viking name of his creation, Ragnar Bloodaxe. The wind was blowing in our faces and it was a most beautiful sight to see the blown snow fly past our boots like we were in a huge wind tunnel. The lovely movement reminded me of the movements of the waves upon the land. I loved it. I very much wanted to keep on walking. Towards the pole, towards a destination. An ocean of white beconning for me to navigate across it. Perhaps another time...

Life in Polar Haven

The cook tent: This is where we spent all our meals and all our breaks. Fitting seven of us into this space was no easy task, even with fold up plastic chairs. Each day we rotated cooks and though some of us liked the inside "day off" inside more than others, it was an important job that had to be done. A better description would be to say that it was a "day in" that consisted of waking up before everyone else, boiling water for all the thermoses to last for the day, boiling water for coffee and tea, and much to the amusement of my companions, my morning cup of "hot water." In the morning one hoped for a large pot of water on the Preway diesel heater, where we melted snow, but often after breakfast drinks, the snow collection would have to be started - and continued - to last the day and the following morning. (A 10 x 10 foot square was flagged away from camp and we collected the snow to be melted from within the flags hoping it was not contaminated with footprints or diesel exhaust.)

Breakfast was either organized (cold and hot cereals) or, for those more ambitious, prepared (eggs, french toast, pancakes, etc) on two 2-burner propane stoves. We met for breakfast at 0730 and suited up for work at about 0830. On went the extra layer, the radio chest pack, radio turned on and checked, big red, liner gloves, leather mittens, long underwear hoods, hat, neckwarmer, second neckwarmer, and finally, googles. A sigh of relief ushered by the cook as he or she had the place to themselves in which to begin the daily chores. There was always snow to collect for the hot and cold water pots, the dishes had to be done, the haven needed to be tidied, and lunch and dinner needed to be planned, pulled (from the outside cargo line behind the snow wall) and, if necessary, thawed.

Out to work, the workers went, usually to get the snow machines running, then start shoveling out the various projects. Eventually we uncovered the fuel bladders and found various other things including a pallet of bamboo flags, a radio antenna box, compressed gas canisters, coleman stove fuel, and a few other things. Once the bladders were cleared we transfered the fuel in them to some empty fuel drums we had found at the camp. We were all very happy to complete the bladder project as none of us wanted to be responsible for putting a shovel or probe through a bladder that was holding 500 gallons of diesel fuel.

Unfortunately, the flaggs and the bladders were both on pallets that were supported by empty drums that had to be dug out. Though digging out empty fuel drums was a lot better than digging down another four feet to get to the bladders had they not been raised in order to make the recovery process easier.

Back to the haven for a morning break, than lunch, usually around 1 or 2pm, then work until 6:30 or so when we would quit for dinner. Every few days though, we would work until 9 or 10pm in preparations for incoming cargo flights. Long days, but fun, physical days. A restful dinner was usually had, sometimes with an ipod playing through my $8 speakers, often with much book reading, journal reading, picture reviewing, and even some dancing. We stumbled off to our respective sleeping spots and hit the sack usually somewhere between 10pm and midnight.

The next day, we would rise again to do more archeology work. We worked off an old hand drawn map that had the locations of barrels and other items. But rarely did we find the right numbers of barrels in the right places. But in our 16 days there, about a hundred barrels were found, put on pallets and flown back to town.