McMurdo in January

Wednesday, 1 January 1997
The New Year's party at Scott Base last night was a blast, live music, different brands of Kiwi beer (I had Lion Red) and, for the munchies, a table mounded over with cheese and crackers and sausages and chips (french fries, for you Americans). The band played mostly 70's tunes, Van Morrison, Janice Joplin, generic blues. Even though the party wasn't widely advertised, there were still vanload after vanload of people coming over throughout the night. We took over their Heavy Shop (Garage); it was the only indoor place large enough to hold the crowd. At midnight, just like everywhere else, we gathered together in clumps, counted down the clock, and rang in the New Year with champaigne, hugs, singing and all. The dancing and music went on past 01:00.

This evening, while I was relaxing in my room, Jim Johnson, the computer supervisor, came to my room to tell me that Rusty Schweickart, the Apollo IX astronaut on the National Science Council's External Panel, was having problems reading his e-mail. I trundled over to Crary to fix him up. All he really needed was a working IP address; it took all of 2 minutes to make the changes and reboot him. That accomplished, I used the opportunity to fill him in on the problems I had this past summer, trying to purchase computers and supplies for the Lab. Hopefully, the Panel will recommend some ways to streamline the purchasing process so that we can get compatible parts in a timely fashion (instead of who-knows-what, who-knows-when). It's a real problem to be at the bottom of the Earth at the end of a multi-week (or multi-month) logistical pipeline and not know that you are going to get exactly what you ordered because of a random bid substitution.

Friday, 3 January 1997
Because we didn't get the 31st/1st off for New Year's, tonight is unofficially known as "December 34th". There are New Year's parties planned in several locations over town. Icestock is tomorrow. Dave Smith (Smitty) and I jammed on didjeridu in his room 'til we felt good about our performance.

Today, Mac McKeel gave a class on terminating external plant (outdoor) fiber optic cable. It's an involved process, full of lots of little tedious tasks, several of which are critical for success. Mac took us from a bare severed cable, through stripping, through insertion into buffer tubes, through epoxy and curing, and on to the final trim and polish. As boring as the actual process is, I still find fiber fascinating from the application end - a hunk of glass that moves bits better than a wire.

Saturday, 4 January 1997, Icestock '97
Amazingly enough, with all the parties, I still managed to squeeze in seven hours of sleep. Icestock is underway; it's a great day for it: +37°F (+3°C) with only a touch of wind. I go on at 16:30 (or so).

Later in the day, it got windy, enough to make it unpleasant. Various bands paraded up on stage with Bob Marley music playing between acts. When there wasn't live music, there were other activities - a dunk tank, the barbeque, even a homemade "he-man" strength tester, complete with oversized hammers and a bell. Not one in twenty who tried could get it to ring (I hit it as high as "Get A Bigger Hammer"). The music was good, the parking lot full of folks folks keeping warm and soaking up tunes and sun. I went on with Smitty around 16:00. It could have gone better; I was warmed up, my partner was not. My didj is PVC pipe with an RTV silicone mouthpiece, his is real Australian wood topped with wax. In the cold, the synthetics were a better choice. I tootled along for a few minutes, Dave tried to elicit something more than a raspberry. He almost got it a couple of times, but couldn't sustain it. Lesson for the future: keep your wax soft!

Icestock went until past dinner time. I ducked out for some chow and got back before it was over. Ken, our local Elvis impersonator, did an encore number with the last group, a short set and that was it. With an "Elvis has left the building" from Chris Williams, the sound man, Icestock '97 was history.

Sunday, 5 January 1997
Expecting a crowd, I got to Derelect Junction early for the shuttle to Scott Base; good thing, too. There were lots of people waiting by the time the 14:00 shuttle pulled up. This year, there were two warming huts, one for each gender, up by the parking lot, and a trail down the hill and across 50 yards of sea ice to the hole. I stripped down to sandals, a towel and my windbreaker, and trotted on down.

There was a line at the hole. In the winter, it was way too cold for a line; we just ran from the warming hut in batches and ran back as fast as physically possible. Plunging in the daylight months is a different experience entirely. It was sunny, warm and calm: over 36°F (+3°C) and with all that sunlight, quite pleasant. Rather than running screaming into the night, we waited our turns and chatted amiably, taking time to comment on the quality of the dives.

When it came my turn, I traded my coat and towel for a sling and stepped up to the hole. It wasn't a thing like the ice hole at the midwinter plunge. For a start, it was huge. Previously, the hole was straight-sided, about 5 feet (1.3m) square and filled with inky-black slush. This hole was at least 10 by 20 feet, slope-sided, blue and inviting. I'm sure the difference was the angle of the cut. Also, didn't stand over the hole on a plank, we just supposed to jump right in, aiming for the black square that marked the true bottom of the hole, and head toward the wooden ladder on the far side.

With a yell and a splash, I was in and out, up the ladder, heading for my towel doubletime. Once I dried off, it was a much more pleasant experience. I stayed around to heckle the next few jumpers. Ken Turner, the guy they call "Elvis" because of his regular job as an Elvis impersonator, had written on his chest, "Objects appear smaller than they are." That got a laugh. Not too much later, my toes got cold from the slush in my sandals. I walked back up hill, got dressed, paused to take a photo of a rare view of Mt. Erebus, completely cloudless, then hitched a lift with the next vehicle going home (which turned out to be a breezy ride in the bed of open pickup).

I didn't even brave the Galley for dinner; I went straight to the snack bar. I wasn't the only one: the order counter closed before 18:00 because they had already taken orders for the entire night's food supply.

After burgers and fries, I watched end of "Twister" at the Southern Exposure with Marc Pomeroy, and then went over to the Erebus for a beer where I met the three Kiwis sailors who came down on the Polar Sea. One of them, Jonas, invited Marc and I for tour of the boat tomorrow, before they head back to New Zealand at 11:00.

Monday, 6 January 1997
Toured icebreaker first thing in the morning. Took pictures, wandered around with Jonas.

Tea at Scott Base - chicken, real mashed potatoes, kumara, cabbage, salad. Took over the corner couch - me, Chris, Mike, Gordo, Rob and one other guy (comms W/O). Great crew... the more winter-overs I meet, the more I wish I were wintering. Invited them over for Thai food on the 21st (if I'm not at Pole).

Fog. Bad enough to CNX the evening's planned flight to AGO6. Ob Hill was completely obscured by 21:30. The pass was almost impassable.

Wednesday, 6 January 1997
We got snow today, lots of snow, more snow in a couple of hours than we've gotten in a couple of weeks.

Chris Cleavlin and other Polies in town on R&R. Got them into the Lab, watched the NBP come in, played cards 'til late.

Thursday, 9 January 1997
Saw Yon Lew who was giving a talk at CSEC. Went down to the NBP at the end of the day. Helped NASA Mike with his camera. Had dinner on the ship. Got back to my room in time to leave again to take pictures of Gil Gross, the CBS Radio personality, down here performing live broadcasts.

Went on DV tour of Scott's Hut. Took pictures in chapel. Missed most of the party for the vessel folks.

Friday, 10 January 1997
The Russian icebreaker/tourist vessel "Captain Klebnikov" is parked 200 yards off shore. It's one of six planned tours this summer. This particular trip, I'm told, is a circumnavigation of Antarctica; the berths run from $29,000 to $55,000. The tours begin this afternoon.

All afternoon, we were beset by tourists, they came in waves, twenty at a time. I would like to have given lab tours again this year, but I had too many irons in the fire to give up my afternoon. Instead, I watched the endless parade of wide-eyed, over-dressed people traipse by, staring in amazement, filming, photographing, and doing their best not to get lost in the succession of the nearly identical corridors. They were taken to see the Phase III aquarium with its otherworldly marine specimens, a working science lab with its impressive but enigmatic modern analytical equipment and the library with its normally picturesque view of the mountains across the sound (obscured today by more of the same crappy weather we've been having this week). It'll be interesting to see how many of this year's tourists put up a web page of their experiences.

On my way to dinner, I passed through a cluster of people at the end of the hall by the cashier's window: the new Wells-Fargo automatic teller was being unveiled. I walked by right when they were loading the first batch of money into the machine. Carl Norris, the telco supervisor, was the first customer. Just like in the States, he stepped up, shoved his card in, punched in his PIN code and the ATM spat out the requested amount. We might as well be back home. Al Martin, this year's NSF Station Representative, looked on with mixed emotions. He's been coming down for over 14 years and remembers the days before the improvements that us newer folks largely take for granted, like e-mail, faxes, the Internet, the phones, live Armed Forces TV, modern dormitories. I even felt a twinge of nostalgia, and I've only been here for the past couple of years. Even so, after dinner, I tried out the new machine by getting my account balance. I can't help but wonder how instant access to our money at home is going to change the character of our lives down here.

Sunday, 12 January 1997
Today wasn't the most fun Sunday I've had down here. The Babylon 5 crowd got locked out of the Southern Exposure because the bartender overslept. I couldn't even stay to watch - I went to work to finish burning CD-ROMs for a grantee. If it had worked, I'd have been a lot happier. I don't know what the problem is, but it seems to be hardware.

After a frustrating day and a disappointing dinner, I spent most of the evening in the coffee house. I sat with Chris Cleavlin, Bob and Mark, some of the guys from Pole, still up here on R&R. I'm still hoping to spend some time there this season, population permitting.

Monday, 13 January 1997
There were whales off Hut Point this afternoon. Several of us were watching from the Crary library window when it just appeared. It's over 1/4 mile from the lab to Hut Point. At that distance, all I saw was a flash of back with a fin, but I did see a whale. My roommate Chris and I walked out to the point with cameras to no avail. Five minutes before we got there, it was swimming around (so we were told), but it missed it's next appointment for air. There were at least 20 of us standing in front of Vince's Cross waiting for a glimpse of a sea mammal, but all we saw was a solitary seal bob up once and swim away. Way off in the distance, almost to the former ice runway road, someone with binoculars spotted a lone penguin. I did see a moving black spot, in and out of the water; not much to get excited about. When it was obvious that the whale wasn't coming back, I walked home and crashed out.

Tuesday, 14 January 1997
I finally fixed the CD-ROM writer. It was one of those problems where you turn the computer off and on and it just works. No discernable cause, no obvious solution, it just works.

I split my early evening between Southern Exposure and the coffee house. At my first stop, up at the bar were a cluster of winter-overs from the past two years: Peter Lund who is leaving tomorrow for home and to winter at Palmer Station; Eileen Tams, who wintered with me in 1995 and is back for another year; and Jeff Cowman, a winter-over from 1995 and 1996, fresh in this week for another round. We talked about things mostly of interest to winter-overs - psych tests, polar plunges, people who should never winter but who are anyway; that kind of stuff. When that group broke up, I popped next door for a quick hot, caffinated drink (in preparation for my weekly radio show) and fell into a game of 301 with David, one of the summer comms techs. Doubling in early notwithstanding, I lost; I had time for one more game. It was even worse. David was almost down to doubling out when I finally doubled in. I proceeded to knock my score down one notch at a time (my worst throw was five points - one triple and two single ones). Eventually, I was down to 42 points and David was still on double one. I threw a fourteen, but mis-tallied my score to an 18. My first dart missed, my second hit double nine! When we went over my last turn, I realized that I screwed up and still had ten points to go. I said, "at least I've got one dart left," and threw. Double five! I took my well-earned victory bow and headed over to the radio station.

After my radio show, I was so wired I went to midrats. I sat with Art DeVries, Jocelyn and Renee, most of S-005. We talked about fishing, about the monitoring system in the aquarium and about Kiwi English vs. American English. On my way home from the Galley, I spotted my name on the package mail list. I detoured to the MCC to pick up my second bit of mail in as many days. Yesterday, it was pictures going back to August, tonight it was fresh film from home.

Thursday, 16 January 1997
It's been mostly warm, sunny and windy for the past two days. The wind has pushed the ice around in front of the station. We've got open water from Hut Point, to the ice pier, and all the way across to the former ice road to the ice runway. No more whales, though.

This afternoon, I carved up a mawsonii with Jocelyn. It was real straightforward - cut the skin along the spine and along the belly, grab the skin at the tail, cut a hole, stick a finger in the hole and peel the fish back to the fins, then start at the tail flesh with a fillet knife and cut a three foot hunk of fresh cod right off the side. I did both the main fillets, Art DeVries excised the cheek muscle for sashimi. After we rinsed the meat in salt water and bagged it for later, there was the rest of the fish to dispose of. Nothing goes to waste. Jocelyn and I carved up everything, from the tail to the head, into fist-sized chunks, and a GA (general assistant) put the pieces in cloth sacks and tied them up. These all went in the freezer for bait for next year. It was fun, in a gross sort of way. The best part is eating the fish later. The intention is to barbeque it on Saturday.

Saturday, 18 January 1997
We did indeed barbeque the fish today. Before leaving work, I sliced one and a half fillets into easy-to-grill cod steaks, the larger side weighing in around 6.5 lbs (3 kg). I went straight from the lab to the foldaway, also called the "carp shop" for all the carpenters who work there. When I arrived, the first hamburgers were coming off the grill. Most of the people already there, weren't there for the fish, so I grabbed a cheeseburger and let the fish marinate in soy sauce. We threw the cod on, one or two slabs at a time, just enough to keep it coming for a good two hours. We did have a couple of exciting moments when the runoff from the flesh caught fire (it's actually very oily, which is why we grill it right on the bare grill), but we just moved the fish aside and let the flames die down before going back to cooking.

The fish ran out long before the party started to die down, but the cooking was pretty much over by 20:30 or so. I took my leave to finally get home, get cleaned up and go out to the coffee house and to one of the other parties that's going on tonight.

Sunday, 19 January 1997
Right before brunch, the fuel tanker "Cobb" pulled in, escorted by the icebreaker. I heard that when it was docking, one of the mooring lines separated, knocking a crewman overboard between the ship and the ice pier. Luckily, he was able to swim out of the way and scramble up onto shore. It's not uncommon when a line snaps for it to kill or maim anyone in its path. He was doubly lucky that he landed in the water instead of on the ice or on the pier itself.

After Babylon 5, I skipped dinner in the Galley entirely, and went to the back deck of dorm 207 to borrow some grill space to cook up the cod cheeks while they were still good to eat (I didn't have time to prepare them raw earlier, and didn't want to risk it now, considering their age). Combined with some fries from the burger bar, dinner turned into impromptu fish and chips. The only thing missing was the malt vinegar.

Thursday, 23 January 1997
With the Southern Exposure closed for the season and karaoke not an option, I caught the 21:00 shuttle for Scott Base; good thing, too. It was the most crowded Thursday night I've seen all summer, an even mix of Kiwis and of crewmembers from the Polar Sea.

Friday, 24 January 1997
It looks like I'm going to Pole. I got a call at quarter-past five for a bagdrag in two hours. I leave first thing in the morning, and return on Monday.

Borg Ousland, the first man to reach both Poles alone and unaided, gave a talk tonight. He skiied into Willy Field earlier this week, completing his latest achievement, crossing Antarctica alone and unaided. I showed up for his presentation about half-an-hour early and got one of the last seats in the house. The Galley was full, full, full.

Saturday, 25 January 1997
After getting up two hours early and spending the morning sitting around, it turns out that I am not going to the Pole. We showed up at 06:30 for transportation to Pegasus, drove out there, then waited all morning for a flight that never left. The first plane, XD-06, had a hydraulic leak in the nose. We watched it take off and land over at Willy, the closest it got to us. After that aborted attempt, we heard over the radio that the cargo was being transferred to XD-07. Over an hour later, 07 was loaded and fueled and on its way over to pick us up (if they take off from Pegasus, they can use wheels instead of skiis, decreasing the drag and increasing the amount of cargo and PAX). The next sign we had was the plane buzzing us on its way past. It landed, and after an interminable wait, we drove up to it in the airporter and suffered another interminable wait. When they shut the engines down, my heart sank. That's never a good sign. After a little while, two crewmen inserted themselves in the left skiwell up to their waists, and another crewman told us the flight was CNXed and to come back Monday. The problem was that I only had a bed reserved for tonight and tomorrow. Coming back Monday means not going at all.

Sunday, 26 January 1997
Today was not a good day for the Scott Hut Run - windy and cold, well below 0°F (-17°C) with windchill. It's not that it was actually that cold; it's that compared to recent days, it was a dramatic shift downward. As I mentioned to someone while waiting for the race to start, it's a lot colder in the winter, but I dress better then. After watching the start, I went back in dorm 209 for Babylon 5 (we've been migrating from place to place lately, and with the race today and all, even the chapel isn't available to us).

The Sunday Science Lecture tonight was not to be missed - Sir Edmund Hillary came over from Scott Base to give a talk about his adventures. Learning from my recent experience, I arrived almost an hour early and still got one of the last seats. They even upped the capacity of the room by trading the tables for more chairs and still barely managed to squeeze people in.

Sir Edmund, now 77, is still in fine form. He spoke a little of his adventures climbing Everest, more on helping scout out a location for Scott Base, and even more about the charitable work he's been doing for the past 40 years in Nepal.

After the talk, we were told that Sir Edmund was up to a half-hour signing session. I was in the aisle and out the door as quick as possible, but ended up so far back in the line that everyone around me was sure that we wouldn't get in before the allotted time was up. It was an unfounded concern, the line moved quickly, and as far as I could tell, all those who stuck out the wait, got something signed. Books and postcards were common items, but the most treasured was an autographed New Zealand $5 note (because his picture appears on it). Some of the Kiwis expressed some displeasure at the concept, but I think it especially appeals to Americans because we only have dead guys on our money. It's quite novel for us to actually meet a person who rides around in your wallet every day. I got my bill signed, and a handshake and "thank you" later, I was down the hall and off to the coffee house for some darts (I won with a double six).

Tuesday, 28 January 1997
Great news: I just got an e-mail calling for names of those who want to go on a trip to the ice edge on the ice breaker. Chris and I are tentatively slotted in for tomorrow night. If we go, we depart right after dinner.

On the way home from the coffee house, the sun was backlighting some astounding, towering clouds to the south (obscuring Herbie Alley, a sure sign of dramatic weather on the way).

Wednesday, 29 January 1997
Today was a good day. It started out with lots of snow (Mactown always looks better under a fresh, white blanket). It started around 04:00 and went on 'til lunch. The next good thing was finding my name on the manifest for tonight's morale cruise on the Polar Sea. Finally, at the end of the day, I got a call about redeploying on the M/V Greenwave, the container ship. I have enough time on the ice to qualify, I might even have enough to actually go (it's all based on senority).

Thursday, 30 January 1997
The cruise was most excellent. There were 140 of us on the manifest; we had to report to the ice pier at 18:15 for a 19:00 launch. After everyone was aboard and we had a quick lecture on where we could go on the ship and what the alarms sounded like, we were free to wander. I stayed on deck to watch us pull out past Hut Point, then I went below to the Ship's Store for a T-shirt and a hat, and came back up on deck via a different route that took me by the starboard rail about ten feet above the ice. We were cutting through three feet of unblemished sea ice like it was warm butter, the chips from the edge knocking together with the sound of a dozen bowling balls tumbling past. I followed the rail to the bow for a better look.

The bow itself was roomy, but every available inch of the rail was covered by someone trying to spot any evidence of wildlife. From this higher, more central vantage point, I could see where we were going and how were were getting there. We were paralleling the original channel, less than an eighth of a mile inland from it. Ross Island was on our starboard side, the Transantarctic Mountains to port. Our course provided a moment of excitement for the first local resident we happened past - a penguin, probably a lone Adelie, that had the misfortune to be right at the edge of the original channel as we steamed past. I say misfortune because he was in a quandry. For the longest time, he just stood there, even though we were bearing down on him. An orca lurked nearby. I could just imagine what was going through this penguin's mind as he stood, paralyzed between a predator and an icebreaker - "black whale... red whale... black whale... red whale...". When we were nearly on top of him, a crack ran from the bow of the ship at an odd angle, ending in the channel, calving a chunk off, setting the pengin adrift. With a flap of his flippers (and probably a squawk of indignation as well), he waddled across the floe and popped into the water. I don't know if the orca got him or not.

Friday, 31 January 1997
Tonight was MWR's last night on the job. Starting tommorrow, ASA will run the Ship's Store, the clubs, the band room

{-- Previous month's journal  | Following month's journal  --}

To Ethan's Home Page

Valid HTML 2.0! Last modified: 23 December 2009
© Copyright 1996-2009, Ethan Dicks <>. All rights reserved.