Sunday, December 16, 2012

Stuck on Mt. Erebus

Last week, I went for a space walk up on Mt. Erebus with my co-worker, Nick.  As we were launched upwards to around 11,000 feet, my co-worker and I looked outside, looked at each other and made faces to the effect of not really knowing what was in our futures.  From McMurdo, it looked like the top of the volcano was completely in the clouds.   It had been scouted, however, and there was a back entrance to our little spot on the side of shoulder that overlooks the peninsula 11,000 feet below.  We both had questions as to the weather but we were assured by our pilot, that the nearby clouds would burn off and the rest would be blown away…I was in need of a little adventure so, what the heck, out of the helo we went! 

In my spacesuit.
We were dropped off at a place called Cones Z.  It’s on a shoulder of Mt. Erebus and serves as a communications hub for science data coming from other parts of Mt. Erebus.  It’s a notoriously weathered place.  Two winters ago, both 40 foot towers came down.  Last winter, both wind turbines were rendered inoperable, either by throwing blades or by throwing tails…or both.  The assumed mode of failure is rime ice which then unbalances the “birds” and they then vibrate themselves to pieces sort of like a washing machine out of whack. 

Cones has a "rescue apple" complete with fold up chairs, sleeping bags, food, fuel, and most importantly it is a passive-thermally heated place.  Quite a nice spot to come in from the cold to.

Video Link: Into Space

We were there to replace two wind birds and we got to work after a rest in the apple.  That is the routine when coming from sea level to 11,000 feet in half an hour – rest…work…rest…work…The weather held for a bit, but then it became windy and the cloud enveloped us.  We were up the tower, hand warmers on both sides of my hands, double facemasks, harnessed in…we were astronauts doing our space walk.  I loved it.  The tower work at Cones is among my favorite of jobs here on Ross Island.  At some point in the afternoon, it was clear a helicopter would not be coming to pick us up that day.  So we eyed the contents of the apple and saw we would be okay.  The important things: a big cylinder of Oxygen and a Gamov bag (a portable mini-hyperbaric chamber), should one of us start suffering from altitude illness.  How long we could be stuck here we did not know.  Weather in McMurdo can shut down for days on end.  Weather at Erebus can shut down for days on end.  Who was to say…at last, a little Antarctic adventure.   A little unknown!  Where would we sleep, how would we get off the mountain?!  I knew we would sleep, and eventually get off the mountain but welcomed the unpredictability of it all and hoped we wouldn’t get altitude illness.  So we continued to work like spacemen, little tasks taking a long time: 

Video Link (nothing too exciting but gives a sense of what the job is sometimes like): 

Eventually we got one bird up and were starting on the second when out of the mist came two snowmobiles.  They informed us that they had spoken with "helo ops" who said they could no longer come to get us.  So we were going to have to spend the night on the mountain.  We cleaned up our gear as were then informed that more weather was coming in, and headed to the Lower Erebus Hut (still at 11,000 feet or so).  At "LEH" we had a cup of tea, as there was a strong british contingent of scientists and support workers at the little hut here, and then we headed three thousand feet down a Fang Gulley to Fang Camp where folks go to spend two nights to acclimatize to the altitude on their way up to LEH to do their volcanology studies on the upper mountain.  (As a side note, Upper Erebus Hut, was abandoned not too many years ago because lava bombs from the lava lake were ejecting out of the crater and landing near the hut.)

We made it down the gulley, which has rolled many a snowmobile, and finally our camp came into view.  Four "Scott Tents."  There was a mountaineer and an artist in residence here acclimatizing, so at least we had some extra company.

Our refuge: Scott tents.
 We were later told that a helo would try to get us in the morning and bring us back up to Cones to finish our work.  Unfortunately, the morning brought no break in the weather and McMurdo itself was socked in.  It was soon apparent that we would spend another night at Fang.  There is not much to do there, the weather too bad for hiking, we had brought no chess board or cards, we were going to start making them but instead hung out with the artist in residence.  Cutting out the frivolousness we cut to the chase and asked her to tell us her life story.  Quite fascinating it was, and quite complicated necessitating the use of props, and we later reciprocated our own life stories.  I like the crap that gets cut out in the field.  No idle chat, let's get down to business, who are you, tell us about your life.  I like it.

So Nick slept a lot, I read a bit about a sailing adventure, tried to raise someone on my little HAM radio, made little notes in my notebook about various things and tried to enjoy the arduous task of making water which took many trips out into the blowing snow to get another pot full of snow, all the while wondering if we were going to spend the week in that little tent.  

After two nights, salvation showed up and thankfully took us back to Cones so we could finish our work.  We were able to finish the work, thankfully and enjoyed a beautiful morning on Mt. Erebus.  

Helo at Cones.
Two birds up and running.
The towers and the crater rim.
A little closer to space.
Eventually we made it back to town, satisfied that our job was done.  Many people were happy to see us back, and word had made it around town a bit that we were stuck at Fang.  It was a nice Antarctic adventure into the unknown.  Life in McMurdo seems very sheltered and it was nice to have some activity and weather on the side of the mountain.  Change is good.  Space is awesome.  

In other news, I had dinner with an astronaut last week.  He is here on a team searching for meteorites.  I met him when I briefed him and his crew on our portable solar power units.  Fascinating to talk to him  about the application process.  His recommendations: 1. Keep applying 2. Do what you love.  Done and done!  He spoke very highly of Antarctic experience as well as NOLS experience... we shall see.  My application done and gone, NASA should announce the ones who beat me out this spring.  It'll be interesting to read their resumes.  For now, though, I have plenty to keep me busy.  If you're still reading, thanks!  I miss you all back in the unfrozen land and I'll be home in two months!  

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Scott's Hut at Cape Evans

On Thanksgiving, I went with some of the shop snow mobile mechanics to Cape Evans from which Robert Scott launched his ill-fated trip to the geographic South Pole.  I hadn't been there since 2006 and it was fantastic to see it again after seeing Shackleton's hut earlier the same month.  We had a wonderful ride out to the hut on a glorious Thanksgiving and stopped to explore some Erebus Ice Tongue caves.  The ice under the glacier was wild and I felt like I was about to see Luke Skywalker hanging from the ceiling.  I'll let the pictures say the rest.

This thing fascinated me to now end.  Imagining the slow creep of the glacier overhead slowly deforming this icicle into a hershey's kiss.

Now into Scott's hut.

This is where Capt. Scott slept and worked.

Below is one of the pics I can recall the most.  Very crazy to stand and look at the view above as it is now.

I'd love to know the story of this dog, still chained up.
Seal blubber.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Shackleton's Hut

Shacklton's hut as it stands today.
My Antarctic experience is now a little more complete.  Last Saturday, I went with Dale, who never had a brother, and whom I know call "Brother," went to Cape Royds to set up a solar system for the small hut there that is used by the Adelie penguins.  Dale does not get to fly as much as other folks as he is a snow mobile mechanic (and a damn good snow mobile rider) and I love flying with him because  he gets as excited to fly as I do.

Dale's my brother here, since I have never been able to get a real brother or sister down here.  He's the one to whom I sometimes say, "Nothing can get in my way..." or when standing in a door frame, triumphantly tell, "None shall pass..."  It gives the day a little good cheer as it's always good to have reminders of siblings back home.

So Brother and I were dropped off at Cape Royds and efficiently worked through our tasks of connecting and testing solar panels, batteries, inverter and charge controller that we might have a bit of time to visit Ernest Shackleton's hut built in 1908.  I had seen the hut a few times before but had never had the opportunity to go inside.  This time, I was armed with a key as a certified hut guide.  I had been in Scott's two huts at Hut Point and Cape Evans, but it was Shackleton's hut that I really wanted to walk inside, seeing what "Shacks" saw only a hundred and four years later.

When we got to the hut, there were some New Zealanders doing some conservation work, but they graciously allowed us to enter and look around.  The place is fascinating.  The boots, the coats, the books, the canned goods, the stove, the view from the window, all the little details including a signature on one of the crates by Ernest Shackleton himself.  Dale and I took pictures and tried to memorize all the details of this little hut.  It was incredible to imagine the men and man that I've read so much about standing where I stood, gazing out the window and seeing exactly what he saw.  It is a remarkable thing to step out of the door and have the surroundings be exactly the same as 100 years ago, the conditions, the cold, the rocks and the little ponds and penguins all the same.  I certainly haven't done what Shackleton has done, but to stand where he stood and see what he saw and experience the cold as he did, I feel connected to him through the brotherhood of the Antarctic.  It's as though we are both alive in the same time, for just a moment...a special one that I shall always remember.  I can now sleep a little easier.  Thanks, Shacks.

The portraits are of the king and queen.

Boots in a box.

Still there are biscuits inside!

The real men at work.  Shackleton is in the back, second from the left.
It was this Nimrod expedition that Shackleton claimed the furthest south, turning back 100 miles from attaining the pole, giving up the heroism of getting there first in order to get himself and his companions back alive, where Scott risked everything and eventually sacrificed himself and his companions.  For that, and for getting all his men back alive from the Endurance expedition, Shackleton gets my respect and awe.  One of the most famous Antarctic quotes goes: "Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."

It was a blustery day and so Dale and I called on the radio to say we were ready for our helicopter pick up.  We were told 30-45 minutes before our helo would arrive so I went for a little hike to a nearby rise to see the open water that always does wonderful things for my soul.  A ran there, being carried with the wind and upon descending the little hill could lean down the slope (and into the wind) like I never have before.  As I ran down I had the exact same feeling as when you hold two opposing magnets near each other to feel the repelling force between them.  I was a human magnet in opposition to the wind.  It was very cool.  I've never been a magnet before...

Here's a little bit of the wind:
Cape Royds Wind

That's it for now.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dry Valleys Opening


To the valleys!  

The sun has just a few more times to dip behind the mountains, the summer is upon us, and scientists are gearing up to head to their sites to do their thing.  But, thankfully, science waits for renewable energy!  So off we go across the sound in a helicopter to the valleys to open 4 camps in some of the most spectacular spots on the continent...and I think in the world!

Below, the camps at Lake Hoare and Lake Fryxell.

Lake Bonney panels.
Our general routine: helicopter flight in the morning to the next camp in the sequence, turn on the diesel heater, chip ice from the lake to start melting water, check the state of the batteries, connect the batteries, pull the solar panels out of storage, mount them on their pole mounts, test the panels, wire in the panels, inspect a the wind turbine tower if there was one, climb the tower, inspect the turbine body and tail, reattach the blades, back down the tower, turn on and check the solar charge controller, turn on  and check the inverter, confirm the right voltage is going to the camp outlets, load the system with a space heater to see what the solar and wind are capable of covering, then check and record all the charging settings.  Then monitor the system to make sure all is working as it should.  That's the deal.  Some sites take longer than others, there's always more to learn about and investigate and parts of the system to tweak.  It's good work, sometimes cold work, but flying in the valleys is fantastic.  

The "wind bird" at Lake Fryxell and the inverter at F6.

Here's a link to a video of the blades going onto the body of the wind turbine from a new helmet cam!  To give you a visual taste of the tower work:  Working Aloft  

Just a bit of "good" ice near the shore.
While waiting Vito to finish the diesel generator work, I had a little time off and used it to lace up my hockey skates and take a lap around Lake Fryxell.  It was adventure skating if there is such a thing.  Big cracks, I had to watch out for to not twist an ankle, cold winds when opposing the direction of travel, sometimes bumpy, sometimes smooth, sometimes snow.  But how wonderful to be skating on "the ice."

So we flew to and then opened: Lake Hoare, Lake Fryxell, Lake Bonney and F6, spending three nights in the valleys, forever grateful for the opportunity to go and work there.  Going to sleep each night in my -40 degree sleeping bag, I felt a little like being in a spaceship.  Some of the spots feel like a different planet.  And when there's a little time for a hike, I can't help but feel like I'm an astronaut exploring Mars without a space suit.  And then I think I can breath the air, swim in the seas, and just a matter of hours to the north in an airplane brings trees, animals, all the wilds of the world.  What a world we live in!

Now we are back in town and preparing in town energy supplies for scientists and looking forward to our next camp to set up.  I wasn't quite ready to come back to town but town is not so bad.  Lots of good people and tons of ping pong!  That's all for now!

Our ride: the Bell 212 underbelly.
Snow mobile tracks to infinity and beyond!
While doing a little of solar outfitting one of the local fish huts that live on the ice near McMurdo, we had a visitor.  At first the seal just poked his nose up out of the water as if checking to see if we had a friendly scent.  He did this many times, until we began to talk to him.  Then, as if our words smelled amicable, he came up to say hello and sat there floating in the dive/fish hole looking up at us with his big brown eyes.  Very cool.

If you're interested, check out the McMurdo Webcam link I just added to the right side of the blog under the LINKS section.  Enjoy!