McMurdo in January

Monday, 1 January, 1996, New Year's Day
Icestock is today, not the best day for it. The skies are gray, it's 24°F (-5°C), but with 20 knots of wind making it feel like it's only -7°F (-22°C), it's too cold to be standing around in our summerweight gear.

Things were underway by noon; the crowd started small and built up as the day went on. The sun started to peek out of the clouds from time to time, encouraging the audience. People still came and went, trying to keep warm.

Since I was now bandless and still wanted to perform, I got my didjeridu and secured a couple of minutes on stage during the changeover between The Fuel Pit Pickers and Forrest (the third-to-the-last and second-to-the-last acts). When Forrest saw me with my didj, he suggested we pool our efforts and go on together. We played for a few minutes in the band room and decided it was going to work. We were scheduled for 16:30, but didn't come up in the rotation 'til 17:00. We played freeform rhythms, barked, chirped and just plain jammed for several minutes. The crowd went wild. We got up to leave and the audience called for an encore. Native Aussies and experienced tourists told us we sounded like the real thing, an amazing feat on PVC pipe

Tuesday, 2 January, 1996>
It snowed all day today. I haven't seen this much snow down here at once since October. The winds were light, so visibility wasn't too much of a problem, but I'm glad I wasn't flying today. Three flights did come in, one from Pole and two from ChCh (but no mail).

Thursday, 4 January, 1996
The Brine Suckers (S-027) threw a farewell party for Dan at Hut 10 tonight. (I helped Dan drill cores back in October before the rest of his group arrived). In addition to the usual array of munchies, there was a fantastic spread of freshies, including cucumbers, red bell peppers, bananas and watermelon.

After an hour or so, there was a little presentation for Dan. Those of us who didn't work with him on a daily basis learned a little about life with the Brine Suckers. Since I'd been coring, I understood why a big deal was being made about the size of the cores he was able to pull out of the ice. When we were out together, we typically extracted 90 cm samples. Dan managed to max it out at 99 cm, the longest sample possible. In honor of this achivement, he was awarded a scale model in ice (longer than my forearm) and a plaque. Another item at the presentation was a timeline of Dan's season, highlighting several (usually humorous) high and low points, from beating Joe the science tech at ping-pong night after night, to being delayed on the second sleigh-ride to the Pole day after day (unless it goes before Tuesday, he'll miss his chance).

After the party, I headed over to Crary to work on my Home Page and got the word there were penguins past the VXE-6 transition. I watched them for a while from the library through the telescope. There were over two dozen Adèlies, all but one asleep on the ice, looking very much like two-toned footballs. The lone upright bird appeared to be keeping watch, pacing and flapping in circles.

Eventually, I went to get my camera and my 135 mm lens, hoping to catch a picture or two (the penguins were so far off shore that even with a long lens, they'd be black dots in a sea of white). By the time I got down to the end of the road, the penguins had moved off. I stood by the edge of the sea ice, listening to it crack and groan as it pushed its way onto shore, one millimeter at a time. I shot about half-a-roll of B&W film and headed back inside. It was a great morning for pictures; the skies are clear for the first time in days. A couple more days of this would be great.

Friday, 5 January, 1996
At the party last night, several people mentioned that there was some coverage of Icestock on "Antarctic Update", a locally produced TV show. Apparently, Forrest and I playing didjeridu featured prominently. People are still walking up and saying how much they enjoyed our part of the show; what a gas!

Saturday, 6 January, 1996
I went on "One Day Snowcraft" training today, more popularly known as the "Room With a View" trip. It started out cloudy and we did not get much of a view nor did we actually get to the camp that the trip is nicknamed for. There were 11 of us, the instructor, Buck Tilly, and ten students. We took a hägglund to the Scott Base transition and loaded the survival bags onto two sleds. Buck had his own skidoo, towing the trailer with lunch and our personal bags, the rest of the group split up, two on each skidoo, three on each sled. I drove on the first leg, over to silver city, where we had some instruction on setting up tents, starting coleman and whisperlight stoves, and basic field first-aid. From there, we headed up the flagged route, past the Kiwi A-Frame and up onto Hut Point Peninsula; I steered our sled.

Steering a sled may sound easy, but you don't have a tiller, just a brake to slow the sled down and let the skidoo pull you back on a straight course. The only other resource you have is yourself; you throw your own weight around to keep the sled upright and facing front (when going downhill, it's not always easy, especially when the tow rope goes slack).

Erebus was shrouded in clouds, so we stopped our ascent about 2/3 of the way to the camp. We ran around to keep warm and looked offshore, watching the icebreaker plough its way through the ice south of Tent Island, about 10 miles from McMurdo. We posed for a round of hero shots on the back of the sleds, then turned around and headed for lunch at the Instructor's Hut; I steered the other sled, the one with no spikes on the brake.

Since it had no traction, I rode the brake most of the way down just to keep us facing the way we were driving. I dug in so hard, that at times the furrow I made with the brake board was throwing snow up to my knee. Once or twice we got a little out of control, but I made sure we never tipped.

After a lunch of juice and PB&J, we drove back to silver city for self-arrest training. For an hour, we climbed up the slopes below the crevasse-ridden ice falls and practiced sliding and stopping, feet-first, face up, then feet-first, face down, head-first, face down, and finally, head-first, face up, the hardest of all. The "graduation exercise" was a walk along the face of the slope into steeper and steeper terrain, and a slide down for a finish. I got over onto a nearly vertical spot, but with all the footprints in the icy snow below me, Buck told me to climb down, not slide down. That was fine with me, I was a good 40 or 50 feet up. Once everyone made their way down, we packed up our things and headed back to town.

Thursday, 11 January, 1996
The big news today is that it rained. It's the first rain officially recorded at McMurdo in twenty years.

Sunday, 14 January, 1996
Donal Manahan presented the Sunday science lecture tonight. He's the PI of S-301, the post-doc biology class, here to do Antarctic field biology. I saw his lecture last year on the heroic age of Antarctic exploration and was eager to see it again. It wasn't exactly the same lecture as before; this time, he focused on several key traverses to Hut Point upon which lives depended. In several cases over the first twenty years of this century, explorers lived or died on their ability to get back to Hut Point where there was food or shelter or a ship to take them home.

In most of the cases, the stories were happy ones. Shackleton made it back just in time to signal his ship, The Nimrod, before it sailed North for the Winter. He and all of his party were suffering so badly from scurvy that two men remained behind on the Ross Ice Shelf while Shackleton and one other made a mad dash to get help. The Nimrod was already heading for home, giving up the party as lost; Shackleton was too weak from scurvy to tie a flag to Vince's Cross so he burned down one of Scott's scientific huts next to Scott's Discovery Hut to attract attention to his plight. It worked, the crew of the Nimrod saw the smoke, returned to Hut Point and rescued all four men. Other parties weren't so lucky; not only did the Scott Expedition of 1913 suffer from delays which claimed the lives of all the remaining members, another expedition lost a man to scurvy because they couldn't return to Hut Point in time.

In addition to the great slides of original artwork and photos made by the men who were here 75 years ago, we saw several movies of the period, the oldest from 1909. We watched Scott's men hitch up the dogs for a run near Cape Evans, exercise the ponies, play the Southern-most football game and set up camp just like they did twice a day on the fateful trip to the Pole (Ponting, the photographer, only accompanied the party as far as the Beardmore Glacier). Motion pictures capture the harsh reality of Antarctic exploration much better in motion pictures than stills.

Monday, 15 January, 1996
I cooked another Thai dinner at Hut-10 tonight. The Galley was out of several items I requested, potatoes, cauliflower, water chestnuts, but did have cucumbers this time. Andy made Pad Thai and hot wings, I made Thai Cucumber salad and a very spicy red curry. After dinner, I wandered over to Crary to catch up on some work, and spotted the Nathaniel B. Palmer waiting just off the ice pier, a day early.

Tuesday, 16 January, 1996
The Tuesday travel lecture tonight was on Mongolia. Charles Cockell was one of three Brits on a biological sampling expedition in 1990. His slides were excellent. They drove all over the central part of the country, across the Gobi Desert and farther South than any previous Western expedition. Charles told of great hospitality, an inquisitive people and of many interesting dining experiences. One of the most interesting, "Lucky Goat Dip", involves slitting a goat's belly, packing the interior with hot stones and placing the goat in a barrel and letting the kids roll it around in the yard for a couple of hours to cook and grind the internal organs until debatably edible. Each person reaches in the barrel and whatever they pull out, they eat. From his description of the food, it became quickly clear that Mongolia should not be at the top of the list of places for vegitarians to visit. I've eaten similar things in Greece; but when I find myself in Mongolia, I think I will have to bring along some less carnivorous foodstuffs to balance out my diet.

Wednesday, 17 January, 1996
Kris, my boss, and I went down to the ship to check out a couple of minor problems that needed fixing up on the computers in the lab. I re-met some people I first met a year ago in Denver and we mostly just scoped out the situation and set up an appointment to return tomorrow.

My late nights in Crary this week caught up to me tonight: I got home from dinner and crashed until a phone call woke me up a few hours later. I tried to go back to sleep, but to no avail, so it was back to the Lab until I finally got tired enough to hit the sack. At least it was productive; I've been learning lots about internetworking Windows and non-Windows systems.

Thursday, 18 January, 1996, My On-Ice Anniversary
It's been one year since I stepped off the Herc into a now familiar alien landscape. I've only got one more month in this place where climate drives the pace of life and carelessness is rewarded with death. I've made every effort to get out and experience the raw wilderness; each time, it's been more than worth it. Antarctica is harsh, but inspiring; attractive, yet perilous; stark, but beautiful. I'm very happy to have had this opportunity, to live through a complete cycle of the seasons. Some people come down here feeling that they are putting their lives on hold and "giving up" a year of their life. I prefer to think that I've spent a year doing the things that makes life worth living.

The Kapt. Klebnikov pulled into Winter Quarters Bay this morning. It's a Russian icebreaker cum Antarctic cruise ship packed with people willing to spend extravagant sums of money to see the wonders of the bottom of the Earth. It's also the first batch of tourists we've seen this season. Because there is no open water by the ice pier, the cruise company couldn't send visitors ashore in zodiacs; they had to fly them over by helo. The invasion proceeded at a steady rate all day. Groups of well-to-do travelers wandered around various parts of the station including Crary Lab. The Lab staff took turns escorting tour groups around Phase I, into working labs, up to the library with its panoramic view of the cloud enshrouded mountains and (time permitting) down to Phase III, the -2°C (+29°F) sea water aquarium. I took a turn at leading a tour after lunch.

After work I went down to the Nathanial B. Palmer to be a tourist myself. We went all the places we went on last year's tour save one: this year we got to see one of the winch control rooms. It wasn't actually that exciting, but it was something new. Also, since this year, our group didn't get chased out of the engine room, we got to walk all the way aft on the bottom deck instead of just to the bottom of the stairs.

The shuttle van that picked me up also picked up a full load of people going to Scott Base. I decided to go along for the ride; it was the first time I've been to the Scott Base Bar this season. Unlike in the Winter, there were almost no kiwis there. I chatted with folks, sipped Stone's Ginger Wine (on the rocks with Ginger Ale) and took a few pictures before going home when the bar closed at 22:00.

Searching for Kevin and Paul and Andy to see if there was a late-night movie in the works, I came across a bunch of the S-301 biology students playing pool in the 208 lounge. Most of the ones there were from the UK, but Sweden and Germany were represented as well. When someone mused aloud about how harsh Winter must be, I got the chance to drag out a story or two about my winter-over experience. The crowd was divided on the question of whether they'd like to winter-over or not, but all stood and shook their heads in disbelief when I told them the tales of the weather on Labor Day or the night of the End of Winter party when we had to count the lights on the buildings to make sure we were heading for the right one. It was less than a week 'til MainBody and you'd have thought it was the depths of Winter.

It did get a little chilly this afternoon when a massive fog bank rolled off Hut Point Peninsula behind Arrival Heights and blanketed Ob Hill and McMurdo both, the worst weather the biology students have seen so far. Except for lots of cloudy days and the occasional fog bank passing through town, the weather has been pretty idyllic for most of the past month (New Year's Day aside). When it has snowed, it's been a few thick snowflakes, like the ones back home, not the fine, dry powdery snow I've gotten used to.

Saturday, 20 January, 1996
I've been working on the NBP most of today and yesterday. One of the Mac IIci's hasn't been behaving lately, so Kris offered my services to the folks on the ship. It's a very interesting environment, much different than working here. For months at a time throughout the year, the ship has to be completely self-contained; here, it's for six months out of twelve. We get supplied constantly over the summer, but the Palmer only gets resupplied when making a port call. We have buildings to go between, wind to endure, they have decks, sea swells, pack ice. I wouldn't want to spend a year on the ship, but I think I would enjoy working on a standard multi-week cruise.

Thursday, 25 January, 1996
I finally got a chance to meet John Kolokowski, the Navy photographer down here for Stars & Stripes. He's got an amazing digital camera, Mac PowerBook and docking station included, that was designed by AP for photojournalists on assignment to be able to send printable pictures back to the home office. I had originally heard that he was having problems FTPing pictures back to his office in Washington, but problem turned out to be a subborn router in B-155 that wouldn't pass EtherTalk packets. The workaround was to bring his rig over to Crary Lab and FTP from here.

Friday, 26 January, 1996
It looks like the Marco Polo won't be pulling into McMurdo for this year's tour due to the heavy ice between here and the ice edge. It was the same story last year. In fact, the Captain Klebnikov (a converted Russian icebreaker) is the only tourist vessel to visit since 1994, when there was open water as far back as Scott Base and the iceberg drifted in and stayed. The real bummer is that no open water means no visible wildlife. All the real action is where the ice meets the sea. There are Minke whales, penguins, seals and orca, all living and feeding in the same space.

Saturday, 27 January, 1996 (at the Instructor's Hut)
Tonight's the sound-check and practice jam for the official jam session tomorrow. On my way back to the dorm after dinner, I passed a crew waiting for transportation to do the initial set-up. I found out that there would be people driving out later this evening. I got my gear together and headed out to the Field Safety building. I showed up much too early; I could have gotten there an hour-and-a-half later and still not missed my ride. It was almost 22:00 when we piled gear in the back of the Hagglund, seven people in the front, and headed out. When we got past the transition and onto good ice, half the crew bailed and skiied the rest of the way. When we arrived, the joint was already rocking. I grabbed a seat by the door and listened for nearly an hour before I jumped into the fray on my didj.

Around 23:00, the wind picked up something fierce. It was strong enough that people broke out the kite and used it to propel a skiier across the Ice at an amazing rate. In her long skirt, she looked like Mary Poppins flying away. The wind didn't last long; right now, it's warm and calm.

Sunday, 28 January, 1996 (at the Instructor's Hut)
It's 03:00. We've gone through several musicians, but the music is still going strong. The evening started out heavy on the Blues, owing to the singer at the time, then shifted to soft rock with Laura Homokay on vocals, and finally to two-chord instrumental rock. I've been playing didjeridu, washtub and electric bass. I have no callouses; my fingers are killing me.

Sunday, 28 January, 1996 (back in Mactown)
I went for a walk around 04:00 and crashed around 05:00. The music died down while I was out. I spent the night in a Scott Tent at the edge of the encampment. I woke up around 11:00, wandered back to the Instructor's Hut and fixed some breakfast. Most everybody was up and functioning when the audience showed up from town. The gig itself was a pale shadow of the night before, but we managed to put on a good show for a few hours. It was all over and done by dinner time.

Wednesday, 31 January, 1996
I just got an email telling me to show up at the MCC at 18:00 for bagdrag to the Pole. I'll be at the Pole 'til Monday, re-installing UNIX on the science tech's workstation. Transportation for the flight is at 06:00, with an off-deck time of 08:00; we should land right after lunch. In the meantime, I've got a hundred things to do to get ready, including collecting software off the Internet to load onto this machine once I get it back up and running. With a low-speed link that's only active for a few hours a day (due to limited satellite visibility windows), it's just not possible to download a multi-megabyte .tar file; you either have to break it into pieces or bring it down on a tape.
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