McMurdo in July

Saturday, 1 July 1995
I had to juggle Warren Herrick's New Zealand slide show and Corky Self's birthday party in Hut 10 last night. Warren came over to show slides of two of his treks across his country: one in 1980/1981 across the Southern Alps, the other in 1990 from the northern tip of the North Island all the way across the South Island to Stuart Island. The earlier of the two was the most rugged. He and a friend choose to traverse the Western side which is to all appearances the more difficult of the two. His party ranged from a minimum of 2 to a maximum of 6, varying throughout the 4 month journey. They climbed several peaks but were forced to pass by several others due to bad weather for days on end. Food was packed in or dropped off by others so that they only had to carry a two week supply. They even experimented with an Airdrop, but it was quite unsatisfactory - they spent hours combing through the rubble to salvage as much of the smashed victuals as possible. There were images of mountain peaks, alpine valleys, river valleys and of various campsites and deer-hunting huts they visited. Warren had to finish the journey alone; his one other constant companion through the trip went off on his own with only three days left to go.

The second set of slides was of a mountain bike trip that Warren and his wife made to commemmorate 1990, the sesquicentennial of the founding of New Zealand. They managed to secure a government grant to travel around the countryside for 150 days (one day for each year old the country was) and visit rural school children and bring to them the message of 1990. The closest thing to it that Americans can relate to is the hoopla surrounding the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976. Over the whole trip, they visited 44 schools on both islands, but due to the timing of the school year, most of those were in the North Island. One of the most striking things of the images of this trip was the difference between the poorer and more affluent areas of the North Island; in some cases, they were only a few hours apart by bicycle. Warren chose to portage his bike across some of the more arduous mountain passes (his wife sent her bike around and followed on foot). Warren even got the chance to meet up with his traveling companion from that previous trip, ten years to the day after the two of them had set out across the Southern Alps. Warren treated us to side-by-side photos of some of the places where he grew up, in the past and the present. One other neat thing: Warren picked up a seashell at the northern tip of North Island and had intended to throw it into the sea at the southern end of the journey. On Stuart Island, he and his wife ran into a trio who were walking from south to north. The topic of the seashell came up and the three pedestrians offered to return it to the beach from whence it came - a seashell that made it all the way down and back in the same year. Interestingly enough, it took that group the same amount of time, 150 days, to walk the length of the country as it did for Warren and his wife to bike the length of the country (due to vastly different routes). All in all, it was a wonderful presentation.

After the slides ended, I hightailed it over to Hut 10; Corky's birthday party was in full swing. The place was packed and the beer hadn't run out yet. Things continued on for a couple more hours. We drank beer (kiwi and home-brew), we chatted, we ate pizza and homemade flour tortilla chips and homemade salsa-'n-bean dip. I missed all the real fun, though, the "surprise". At the same time I was watching slides, the revelers got Corky paged. He's part of the Fire Crew and it was his night off. To him, that meant that something serious was going on, because they only call for the reinforcements when there's a real problem. He showed up at the Fire House, got dressed and headed out on the back of one of the fire trucks. He was virtually last in, so all he got to see was a wall of reflective tape in the middle of a darkened room, when the lights came on and everybody yelled, "surprise!" He couldn't stop talking about it the whole night; they really got him. Nearly everyone in town knew about it but him - no mean feat.

Sunday, 2 July 1995, Mid-winter Swim
What a rush! I caught the 14:30 shuttle over to Scott Base for the annual Mid-winter swim. The weather couldn't have been nicer. There was virtually no breeze and it was a crisp -31°F (-35°C). The still air made all the difference. The crew over there have spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks preparing the ice hole for the swim (also called the "Polar Plunge"); the ice was over 4 feet (1.3m) thick, largely because the ice breakers weren't able to clear as much ice out as in past years. I stopped off at the warming hut halfway between the building complex and the water's edge, and stripped down to a blanket and sneakers. It was well over 100 feet (33 m) down to the hole, where Tom and John (two kiwis) waited for us to arrive. They were there to rope up the swimmers and make certain that nobody stayed in the water too long. I ran down, doffed my warm covering, put on the sling and walked right out onto the plank. I don't think I stood there long enough for a whole thought to form in my head, but I remember looking down at the hole and watching chunks of ice floating where I was planning on jumping. I casually stepped off the plank and sank over my head in the +29°F (-1.8°C) salt water. My first thought was that it was warmer in the water than it had been standing around up top. My second thought was that my eyes were open (I didn't remember opening them) and that I could see the ladder. I must have scraped my arm and fingertips groping for the ladder, because I noticed later that they were quite raw. Meantime, I was up and out of the water in two bounds, grabbing for the blanket and my glasses before running pell mell up the "shore" to the warming hut. I spent a good long time drying off before heading inside to the bar for some hot tea.

I think about 60 people in all took the plunge, most once, some twice; a few even had pictures taken. After a couple hours of this sort of foolishness, Scotty fired up the grill and began to prepare the feast. While this was happening, Bernie Sanchez was standing on the plank, taking his re-enlistment oath. He had wanted to make it a memorable affair and couldn't think of a more memorable experience than jumping into ice water after signing on for three more years. I missed it, but I heard it was quite the exhibition. Once everyone was through playing in the water, dinner was served. As usual, Scotty set an amazing table: grilled steaks, sausages, homemade french fries, and a table full of bread, cole slaw, cheese and other stuff to balance out the carniverous nature of the main course. To this day it astounds me how different the food tastes when he cooks. It's like no barbeque that I've ever had. There aren't a lot of hot or sweet or sticky sauces to cover up the taste of the food; it's all very good all by itself. After dinner, a few of us hung around for a little while before heading for home, one shuttle at a time.

Tuesday, 4 July 1995, Independence Day
While everybody back home has today off, it's a work day for us down here. Our holiday is this coming Saturday. As usual, the annual 4th of July party is at the Heavy Shop. There'll be a cookout (the Galley is taking the night off) and live music. The only thing missing is the fireworks.

I took it easy last night. About all I did was play bass for a couple of hours and watched "Grease". I tried to play along to a couple of the songs, but I didn't get much more than a few chords here and there.

Friday, 7 July 1995
When I asked for a ride up from B-165 up to B-133, I didn't expect to take the route that we did. My first clue was that instead of climbing into Rover, Bob and Kevin climbed into a spryte. I did get where I was going, but not until I gave them a hand recovering repeaters from Crater Hill. Because of the antenna farm at T-Site and the large number of exposed cables on the ground all over the area, it is very important to stick to the road when driving around. Except for a brief pause to unlock the cable that blocks the road up to the summit, we went straight to the repeater shelter. The repeater itself is in a green, barrel-shaped structure, big enough for all the equipment and two people to stand in. Bob told me that he helped build it when he was here with the Navy in 1993. After unbolting the door, I held the light while Bob and Kevin tried to lift the repeater over the lip of the so-called door. The repeater was heavy enough that it took a couple of tries to get a good grip on it without fear of dropping it. While they wrestled with the equipment, I put my back to the wind and took a look around. From the lip of the crater, you can see McMurdo, Scott Base, and Cosray. I'd love to come here when the sun is up. Quick as they could, Bob and Kevin pulled the repeater out of the shed and hiked it over to the spryte. I carried cables and lit the way so they wouldn't trip on any of the football-sized rocks that were littering the path. We got the repeater in the vehicle, the door screwed back on and headed back down the hill. Kevin sat in the back to keep the repeater from bouncing around, so I got to ride shotgun and aim the swivel lamp. I hadn't noticed how steep the hill was on the way up. Sitting in the front passenger seat, I certainly did notice on the way down; I've been on roller coasters with shallower drops. I'm certain that we were driving down a 45° slope, at least. We made a quick stop on our way home at B-184, the T-Site building itself, to pick up a second repeater. Even in the dark the view was great I wish I had my camera with me.

I finished my evening playing bass and watching more "Twin Peaks" over at Erik's. We were going to watch a second episode, but "The Breakfast Club" came on - it was completely butchered. In one scene, Bender tells Mr. Vernon to eat his shorts. What we heard was, "eat my socks!" Needless to say, if shorts eating was banned, so was a lot of the rest of the colorful dialog. It became a game to figure out what they actors really said. They even amputated the pot smoking scene. We may end up checking it out of the video library, just so we can watch the parts that we missed.

Saturday, 8 July 1995
The party at the Heavy Shop was great. They grilled a pig, some roast beef and chicken. It was a very vegetarian-unfriendly kinda meal; if you weren't in to the meat, there was little else to offer besides cole slaw, bread and potato salad. The place was scrubbed to within an inch of its life; there were banners, streamers and various other decorations to disguse the hall's regular purpose. Clusters of the long, thin balloons used by clowns and magicians to form animals were tied to pods of round balloons and to each other, in long strings that were hung from girder to girder over the dining area. The beer was in the corner, opposite the dunk tank, the biggest crowd draw until the music started. The tank collected over $300 in donations to be turned over to an orphanage in Christchurch. A ping-pong table was set up (and quite busy) as well as a couple of horseshoe pits.

After the food was finished, the music started. The band played a couple of sets, lots of people got up and danced, but when the beer ran out, so did the crowd. It was all over before 11 p.m. Most people finished out the evening at the Erebus.

Sunday, 9 July 1995
For my day off, it was nonstop from the get-go. Before going down to brunch, I got my ECW Gear together: mycarhartt overalls, neck gaitor, extra pairs of gloves, goggles, and my bunny boots. After finishing a quick slice of veggie breakfast pizza, I climbed on board the shuttle van and headed out to the crevasse. There were five of us: Andrew Crowley, Barb Martin, Jeff Pickering, Chris Jung and myself. We met up with Joe Ford (from Scott Base), Gail Noton and Tom Vinson, all on the SAR Team, at Silver City. We strapped on climbing harnesses and crampons, roped up and headed for the ice fall.

We paused several times on the way up the slope. There was a heavy ice fog all around, heavy enough to partially hide Mt. Erebus from view. The gibbous moon was rising over Black Island, surrounded by a full ring and flanked by the brightest moon dogs I've ever seen. When the conditions are right (proper viewing angle and sufficient amounts of ice in the air), the ring that can frequently be seen around the sun or moon sports two very bright spots, one to the left and one to the right, in a line parallel to the ground. These were so bright, the entire spectrum from red to violet was very apparent. If my hand was steady and my film was fast enough, I should have a picture or two to show for it.

We didn't take the same path as we did in snow school, instead, we turned left much lower down on the slope and walked right into the midst of the towering blocks of ice and snow. It was almost like walking down a dark city street, except the "buildings" were white and featureless. We made a hairpin turn into what looked like a small cavity in the ice and descended a 20' (6m) ramp into a subsurface hole large enough to drive a car through. We paused at the first chamber so that the group could stay together. Once inside, we looked around a bit. The ceiling was quite low, so we had to duck and weave around the low spots. About 50' (15m) from the entrance, the roof opened up to a vaulted cathedral ceiling and the floor sloped away quickly. There was a rope staked to the wall right above where the floor made its transition from level to a 60 slope. Right above the anchor point was a huge rectangular slot in the roof, like a skylight, starting just above head level and rising most of the way up the wall. It was so square and so well proportioned that we thought it was man-made. It was not. We clipped on to the descent rope, one by one, and headed down into the main chamber. I had one hand firmly on the rope and the other, more firmly on my ice axe. I needed the axe to keep myself from slipping as I changed my grip on the rope. After about a 30' (9m) drop, the floor leveled out.

The main chamber was impressive. It had to be at least 40' (12m) tall, and 150' (46m) by 20' (6m) before it began to narrow at the back. We were clipped onto a guide rope, attached firmly to the left wall. The bottom anchor was about in the middle of the room, giving us a great view fore and aft. The people who climbed down first, set up a Coleman lantern a little bit uphill from us. Between it and the one at the top, there was plenty of light, enough to see details.

From our vantage point, we could look down on the walls on the right side of the cavern. They sported huge fissures that ran from floor to ceiling, large enough to see openings beyond. When I flashed a spotlight in that direction and the light caught the cracks just right, the wall lit up with a soft blue glow. Looking back up at our starting point, it struck me that the size and pitch of the forward half of the room would be just about right for sledding, were not for the false floor and the additional 20' (6m) drop that would be inevitable.

Almost everywhere, the solid ice of the roof and walls were covered with thick, fluffy ice crystals. Just where we were, they were at least 3" (8cm) deep. On a wide patch of wall right next to us was a chute of lightly scratched glare ice, topped by a single piton. During a previous visit, the SAR Team had scaled the wall right there in order to knock some of the more dangerous chunks of ice from the ceiling, lest they fall on some unsuspecting tourist. Even so, we had to keep the noise level down to prevent further bits from dropping on us.

We marveled, we took photos and we milled around for over 20 minutes, and then it was time to go. One by one, we walked back up the steep floor, clipping and unclipping from the various rope sections, 'til we got back to the steep part. Tom carved some snow steps, so it was a little easier going up than it had been coming down. I paused before starting the descent back to Silver City, so that I could take a last couple of photos of the moondogs and a single photo of the lavender sky behind Castle Rock.

I had just gotten back when Andrew came by and told me that there was a Scrabble game starting up at Erik's. We played until dinner. I started off the game strong, with a 6 letter word, but in the end, I lost; I was left holding the 'Q', an additional 10 points of punishment. After dinner, Erik, Yvonne and I went to the freshly renovated coffee house for a game of hearts. We closed the place down.

Monday, 10 July 1995
When I walked out of the Galley this morning, I figured it was around -5°F (-21°C). Boy was I wrong. It's -23°F (-31°C) in town and -28°F (-33°C) up here at B-133. The air is dead still again. The exhaust from the furnaces blankets the town like a fog.

As often happens, the morning's weather has little to do with the afternoon's. The temperature hasn't changed much, but the 25 knot winds are pushing a lot of loose snow around. It's been Condition 2 since just after lunch.

Tuesday, 11 July 1995
The network has been inaccessible from here all morning. The UPS on the router in B-133 was showing a fault condition, so Bob Palko and I had to go get a replacement from B-120, the Info Sys warehouse. It's warming up right now and everything should be back online in a few minutes.

Wednesday, 12 July 1995
For all the effort, I only got one good picture. I went to the darkroom last night to try developing that roll of Ektachrome 400HC slide film I shot in the crevasse. Glen McPhail broke out an ancient "Hobby Kit", we mixed up the chemistry and got down to business. Color is a lot more sensitive to temperature changes than black and white, so we had to store our chemicals in a heated water bath to keep them all warm enough. We poured, we agitated, we tapped, we rinsed through all four stages: first developer, color developer, bleach/fix and stabilizer; it took about half-an-hour. One thing that made the whole process very exciting was the lack of instructions in the box of chemicals. In the end, the process and the chemistry turned out to be right on the money, but, nearly every shot was underexposed to start with. I have virtually no experience with flash photography; clearly, I need to work on it. It's not a total loss. There is some detail visible on a few of the slides. The one that came out perfectly was of a large crack in the wall of the crevasse. If there's an open seat on a future trip, I'm going to try again another Sunday.

Friday, 14 July 1995, Bastille Day
Warren Herrick came over to the coffee house for another slide show. This one wasn't merely a lecture, it was a quiz show. We all had answer sheets which we filled out as he changed slides and uncovered the questions. Some questions were about New Zealand geography, some were about his Citröen 2CV club, others were just silly. It didn't really matter because at the end of the show, Warren had us wad up our answer sheets and throw them in a bin for a random drawing (the correct answer was always "D"). Various people won various prizes, including small bottles of Benedictine & Brandy, French wine, 2CV advertisements and the grand prize: dinner for two at the Cafe de Paris in New Zealand. It was a good show, with lots of new slides and only a few repeats from the show of two weeks ago.

Saturday, 15 July 1995
There's an acoustic music show (and party) at Scott Base tonight. I've heard most of the performers before, so I'm looking forward to a good show.

Monday, 17 July 1995, 50th Anniversary of atomic test at Trinity
Back in the States, it's July 16th. 50 years ago today, in the desert sands of the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the U.S. military detonated the first atomic bomb. Half a century later, we're still here. It hasn't been that long since the odds were against us being here to celebrate. Perhaps we'll make it 50 more.

The music fest at Scott Base was terrific. Their galley was converted to a combination seating area and stage, with enough room for four performers. At the show's height, it was standing room only. Barb Propst, Val Carroll, John McIntyre and Bobby Lozano started off the evening with strong vocals and folksy music. Yvonne made her (well received) public debut with a three-song solo act, a bit of Shawn Colvin and Tom Waits. Marcello put on a five-song "Black Grunge" set, all songs with the word "black" in the title. During an intermission, I stepped out in the -43°F (-42°C) night to photograph the gibbous moon hanging low over the base, and to stare up at the first really clear sky I've seen in what seems like weeks. A little while later, Val picked up a guitar and got up with Mark Lopus and Scott Enlow (two of the guys in Bandyboo) for a couple of numbers. Bobby came back up, this time with a tune of his own that reminded me of some of Pink Floyd's acoustical numbers. J.B. Freeman finished off the evening with a story about his grandfather who fought at Gallipolis in World War I, and the song, "The Band Played ''Waltzing Mathilda''", about what the British Colonials from New Zealand and Australia endured. The night ended on a somewhat somber note.

I spent most of Sunday in the Coffee House, showing the tapes of Babylon 5 that I received at airdrop. I did manage to workout and transcribe a bass lick from a song on the tape Marcello gave me last month.

Wednesday, 19 July 1995, one month 'til WinFly
I'm glad it's a warm and breezy night (-14°F (-25°C), 5 to 15 knot winds); if it were colder or windier out, my eyes and cheeks would be stinging quite a bit more than they already are. I've been standing out in the ballpark behind B-133 for the better part of a half-hour, trying to hide from the numerous streetlights, watching the best display of aurora australis that I have ever seen. At the dimmest, it's like watching slow spotlights sweep along and faintly illuminate low gauzy clouds. At the brightest, pulsing, shimmering curtains of bright light, barely tinged with green, sweep across segments of the sky wider than an armspan. The occasional roundel swells and fades, like a spotlight at the circus lighting up a cloud bank. The entire sky from T-Site to Arrival Heights is so brightly illuminated that only the brightest stars can be seen through the glow. The occasional meteor punches through the haze like an ember escaping a raging fire. I'm wearing blue jeans, not wind pants, so my legs are very cold. I watch the fireworks anyway; it's worth it. At the windiest moments, I huddle in the lee of a six-foot cargo crate, looking up at the Milky Way with Navy binoculars. The Southern Cross is nearly straight overhead, naturally, with Alpha Centauri next to it. I study the star I've wanted to see all my life and wait for the wind to die down enough to face the lights to my North. After a time, the lights fade and the clouds blow in, bringing the curtain down on the whole show.

Thursday, 20 July 1995
On my way down from the greenhouse, the clouds moved off a bit, unveiling act two of the cosmic light show. Some of the curtains were longer and a little brighter, but they weren't as undulating or convoluted. There were still lights over Arrival Heights, but the best ones were straight overhead, or in a long line between T-Site and Ob Hill. I watched until the curtains faded into an even backlight, and walked home.

Saturday, 22 July 1995
About 30 fans of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" packed themselves into the coffee house tonight. The crowd was properly armed with rice, toast, water pistols, newspapers, etc; the physical humor went very well, it was the callbacks that fell down. I must have uttered at least 80% of the running commentary throughout the movie. Erik Larson helped out, as did a couple of others, but for the most part, I was a lone voice in the wilderness. Afterwards, several people complimented my efforts and the audience did laugh, so it wasn't all for naught.

Monday, 24 July 1995
Sunday was another non-stop day off. I went on my second trip to the crevasse, hoping to replace the pictures that didn't come out the first time. The group was about twice as large, so we had three lines instead of two. It was a moonless morning, but Castle Rock and Mt. Erebus were starkly silhouetted against the lightening sky. Since I knew what to expect, some of the grandeur of my first trip was diminished, but it was still a lot of fun. I shot about half-a-roll with varying exposure and flash settings. The cold didn't do my batteries any good, so I had to wait a couple of minutes between shots to let my flash recharge. We stopped at Hut Point on the way home to look at the colors in the air. One special treat: we saw what looked like nacreous clouds, a variety that is rare, due to the precise atmospheric conditions needed for proper formation. They only occur in extremely cold air, amidst certain amounts of sunlight, like around sunrise. I hear they get larger and more pearlescent as Spring approaches.

On my way to show "Babylon 5" at the coffee house (thanks again for the tapes, George), I stopped off at Hut 10 for a Navy party - several members of NSFA have re-enlisted while down here. This party was for the latest two. Bernie Sanchez marinated the chicken to perfection.

After dinner, I went back to the coffee house, but to watch something completely different: "Farewell, my Concubine", the story of two Chinese Opera actors who meet as boys and perform together throughout their lives, over 50 years, from before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, through the Nationalist Revolution, and on into the Cultural Revolution. It wasn't a large audience, but that didn't matter. The people who showed up for it, liked it.

Wednesday, 26 July 1995
It's starting to get light out at lunchtime. I can now see some detail (and some of the obstacles) on the dark, gravel road between B-133 and the Galley. Ob_Hill stands out in black and white against the midnight blue of the sky.

Saturday, 29 July 1995
After lunch, we get our only chance of the season to turn in any excess ECW Gear. Even though August is typically the coldest month, some people are turning in everything they can, short of the minimums required to board the plane. I expect to take advantage of every excursion offered (like the Ice Cave trip next month), so I'm planning on hanging on to a lot of my gear.

There's enough light to see silhouettes of clouds now. At local "noon" (when the sun is highest in the sky), it's almost officially twlight. According to the sunrise/sunset/twilight chart I've got, if the sun is no lower than 6° below the horizon, it's called "civil twilight", -6° to -12°, is called "nautical twilight", -12° to -18° is "astronomical twilight", and anything below -18° is officially dark. Where we are, even in the depths of Winter, we experienced several hours of nautical twilight each day. Sunrise is August 21st.

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