McMurdo in November

Saturday, 4 November 1995
Mark Hervig and Bruno Nardi (S-131) finally made it out of here. The weather has been so bad this week that there have been no flights in or out. The same plane that took them North, brought us our first cargo and freshies of the week. There was finally some mail, all 17 lbs. (7 kg.) of it. I don't know why they bothered.

Monday, 6 November 1995
We finally got two pallets of package mail. I'm still waiting for a box or two from home, but two envelopes arrived from the photo developers. One was a return; I'd forgotten to completely fill out the order slip; that whole package was sent back down here, undeveloped. The other envelope had two boxes of Winter slides, my second trip to the crevasse, the LIDAR beam over Crary Lab, the sun trying to rise behind Arrival Heights, and my adventures at Marble Point.

Wednesday, 9 November 1995
After going to the Southern Exposure to lose at bingo, I made a late night of it by going back to work and successfully turning my mild-mannered Linux box into an NFS server for my Amiga and one of the Mac Quadra 950's upstairs. Now, I can keep all my stuff in one place and get at it from anywhere on station.

Thursday, 10 November 1995
Most of today was filled up with Dry Valley training. We didn't go any farther than the Field Safety building, between The BFC and the jamesways. Most of what we learned was review for me, how to avoid cold weather injuries and what to do when they happen, how to setup and operate an HF radio and how to fuel and operate White Gas cook stoves. What I did learn was how to set up a mountain tent in a rocky and snowfree area when you expect 50 knot winds; there are a couple of handy tricks of using rocks for anchors or for anchor anchors. Bill, the class instructor, tugged on our tent lines and only found one that gave way (the knot untied). None of the stakes pulled out and only one or two rock piles moved at all.

After dinner, I picked up today's flight's mail, the last of the slides I sent away, as well as the "stretch" format photos from my panoramic camera. The image quality isn't that good (only half of the standard 35mm film frame is exposed), but there's a certain grandeur that these pictures capture.

I'm very happy with how the photos turned out and even happier with how the slides turned out. I got several good shots of the interior of Shackelton's Hut at Cape Royds (from the day at Sea Ice school), a better shot of the LIDAR beam, McMurdo at night (from Radarsat), balloon launching at night, and, probably best of all, aurorae. On my fourth (and final) attempt of the season, I finally captured them on film; the trick was 1600 ASA Fuji film.

Flushed with success from my photographic exploits, I ended the evening with a few karaoke numbers at the Southern Exposure. Besides a couple of old standards, I tried out a couple of new numbers, "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Don't You Forget About Me", and "Candle in the Wind".

Friday, 10 November 1995
The snow outside is incredible. It started last night after dinner and is still coming down at lunch-time, 3" (7 cm) of accumulation so far. The wind is picking up, so visibility is extremely poor. We're not at Condition 1, but it's really close. Neighboring buildings continually fade in and out of view.

Saturday, 11 November 1995
The exciting weather continues. Yesterday afternoon, it looked as if the worst was over, but after dinner, the wind picked up enough that I was not able to see my dorm from the coffee house (50 yards). The wind howled and buffeted my building enough that I found it difficult to sleep. By morning, like yesterday afternoon, things settled down to just light winds, but I knew we weren't done yet: by mid-morning, the temperature rose to +21°F (-6°C). Starting after lunch, all hell broke loose. The gusts are approaching 60 knots and the visibility is below 50 meters at times. For much of the afternoon, looking out toward Mt. Discovery, it hasn't been possible to see B-156 and B-159 from the second-floor library area of Crary Lab.

There hasn't been much flying lately, for obvious reasons, but once this storm blows over, we're back to only C-130's. The last of the C-141's have come and gone. The Herc only has 6 palette positions to the Starlifter's 16, so for the rest of the season the shipping volume shuts way down and we get mail and freshies far less often.

Like someone opening the blinds, the whiteout just lifted. The sky is blue and partly cloudy and the winds are below 40 knots. From my vantage point in Crary, I can see how badly the past couple of days of wind have obliterated the road to the ice runway. The skies behind Hut Point are still gray and ominous and the mountains are barely visible; it almost looks like we're sitting in the eye of a hurricane.

Sunday, 12 November 1995
It's been another day of Sunday Brunch and doing laundry and watching Babylon 5 at the coffee house. While at Brunch, I read something in the "Antarctica Sun Times" that shocked me: there is no MWR photo-lab this Summer. It seems that the Navy is displacing the only public darkroom from The Galley, because they are vacating their old darkroom in Hut 9, the only building remaining from "Operation Deep Freeze I", 1956-1957.

After dinner, I met David Smith and Ricky Sanchez for a jam session at the band room. I tried to keep up, but they play way louder and way better than I do. Dave likes that distorted Heavy Metal sound with the ultra-fast riffs, and is good enough to pull it off well. There was a box of earplugs in the practice room; they were medically necessary.

Wednesday, 15 November 1995
Someone recently asked me how the Federal budget battle is affecting us down here. The most immediate impact is that if money does not start flowing by Monday, all non-essential NSF folks will re-deploy. ASA is paying us out of monies already received, so we should be able to ride this storm out without too much trouble. It'll be a relief when the Feds finally figure it out and get back to work.

Thursday, 16 November 1995
Mike, Ken and I all got together for another practice session. We were asked by Doc Swartz (of "This Is Not An Exit") if our group would open for his group this Saturday night at the Erebus, but we aren't ready. We did practice a four song set ("Balinese", "Sweet Home Alabama", "Tuesday's Gone With the Wind" and "Gloria"), but without more practice, we are not ready to perform in public.

Friday, 17 November 1995
On the way to work, I saw the strangest thing: liquid water. By the time I went home, the +27°F (-3°C) temps and the cloudless sky conspired to muddy the town's streets. The worst was the main road, between B-140 and B-121; there was almost enough water to run down hill.

I happened to be on that path because I was hot on the trail of fresh packages at the mail room in B-140. I got my latest batch of Babylon 5 tapes from George and a package from Sharon Hauer (the balloon beaker from WinFly). In addition to a very funny card, she sent me a CD of the soundtrack to "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and a photo of Tom Delio (one of the NSFA) weather guys) and I, playing in the snow by the coffee house. All in all, a good mail day.

Saturday, 18 November 1995
It didn't matter that Ken, Mike and I weren't ready to play tonight: Doc Swartz isn't even on the ice. He had to accompany a medevac case to Christchurch. I don't know much more than what was in the local paper, that the patient is a beaker from Denmark who was out in the Dry Valleys when she needed medical assistance.

I spent most of the evening in the coffee house, chatting with folks, watching "Robin Hood" and playing Trivial Pursuit with people from work. Tom and Ray came by, dressed only in shorts and T-shirts; it's been warm, but not that warm. After the coffee house closed, a bunch of us went over to the 204 lounge and hung out 'til the wee hours, talking and admiring the view. The sky was cloudless, the winds light. Viewing conditions were excellent. The tiny hikers at the Shrine of the Snows (above Hut Point) were so clear, we could tell what color clothes they were wearing. The Transantarctics looked close enough to walk to (they are over 50 miles away). The sun is high enough in the sky, even at "night" that there are no spectacular colors, just whites and washed out shades of pale blues under a plain sky.

Sunday, 19 November 1995
It was typical Sunday afternoon (brunch, editing Web pages, Babylon 5 at the coffee house) with atypical weather. For the third straight day, it's been sunny under nearly cloudless skies, warm and calm. There wasn't the abundance of liquid water of Friday, so it must have been colder, but I didn't feel too much of a difference. I switched from my heavy parka to a light jacket for the first time since January.

I did come across one interesting item while surfing the Web for new material for my home page: Nasa maintains Gopher pages for all sorts of "Life From" projects, including "Live from Jupiter", ongoing coverage of the Galileo probe; "Live from the Hubble Space Telescope"; and, of course, "Live from Antarctica. Imagine my surprise when I found in the image archives, a picture of Chris Hanson at the 1994 Polar Plunge.

Monday, 20 November 1995
Jocelyn Turnbull (of S-005, Art DeVries' group) just invited me to go fishing. Their group studies antifreeze proteins in Antarctic fish that allow the fish to survive in -2°C (28°F) water that would kill more northernly fish. Since I didn't get to go to Lake Hoare today, it'll be a nice diversion.

I'm back from fishing. First, Jocelyn and I hopped in "Dr. Cool" (the only yellow spryte on station) and made for the old aquarium. It was my first visit. As would be expected, the place is full of fish tanks, large and small. One of the tanks was much larger than the average hot tub, holding two fish that are larger than the average dog. Ugly, too; 100 lbs of ugly. It resembled a cross between a giant carp and a catfish. In another tank, Jocelyn showed me an example of what we were trying to catch. I forget the name, but it's a little understood fish, elusive and rare (nuenesi?). We picked up the rest of our supplies and headed out for the fish hut.

Our destination was a short hop around the peninsula, just off Cape Armitage near Scott Base, a small green shack -- N.Z. Fish Hut 2. It only took a moment to drag the gear inside and get set up. The hut is the size of a small house trailer with a trapdoor in the middle of the floor, straddling a one meter wide hole in the ice. When Joce skimmed the slush from the surface, I was startled by the view. 50 feet (16m) down to the bottom and I could see starfish and sponges, even individual rocks, as clearly as in a shallow tidewater pool, framed in a perfectly circular tunnel that started off white and grew bluer and bluer. After I took a couple of pictures, we got down to some serious fishing.

The equipment was simple: a cyalume light stick on a string as a lure, a pair of children's fishing poles (Joce called them "sophisticated scientific instruments" :-) and an insulated water container with a battery powered aquarium bubbler. The "bait" was a simple neon-green rubber squid that was visible all the way to the bottom. We plunked our hooks in the water and waited.

I was the first one to catch anything. It was the wrong thing, mind you, but I was happy because I caught something. All the times I went fishing at my grandparents' cottage, I think I only ever caught one fish.

Every once in a while as we chatted and fished, we heard a noise that I first took to be an emergency siren, reedy and high pitched, drifting lower slowly. It turned out to be the mating call of the Weddell seal (when we first arrived, Joce spotted a seal nosing out of an old fishing hole next to the fish hut; the ongoing calls seemed to indicate that he was prowling around, protecting his territory). We'd been in the hut for a couple of hours when I saw a seal in the water below our fishing hole. I was so startled that it took me a second or two to connect the fact that it was heading straight for us. By the time I could think of anything to say, it had already surfaced and caught Jocelyn unawares too. After that, the prospects for fishing seemed pretty slim, so we packed up the gear and took the fish to the aquarium.

With the fish tucked into their icewater beds, we stopped to fill up "Dr. Cool" and a couple of jerry cans then went back to Crary and called it a day. All told, between the two of us, we reeled in 5 bernaccii and another variety of fish, not a single specimen of the kind we were after.

Monday, 20 November 1995
Joe Petit mentioned to me at breakfast that S-042 might not need any more help this week and that the next chance was the first week in December. I asked him how likely this was and he said that I'd better not forget to sign up for Thanksgiving dinner this Saturday.

Thursday, 23 November 1995
It's 01:12; I've just returned from a traverse to Cape Evans and the Ice Caves. I wish words could do justice to the scene outside my office window right now. The sun is shining brightly through a large gap in the layers of clouds. Mt. Discovery is completely obscured in a cloudbank that stretches across the entire view to the South. There is an ocean of drifting snow flowing across the Ross Ice Shelf from the Ice Runway to the Ice Runway road. There, the mist stops, unable to flow out of the basin formed by the bare ice and the berms of the road.

The trip last night was great. I signed up as an alternate for the 19:00 run and got the last slot available. Like the last trip, we piled into the back of the Delta and headed out over the sea ice. We had decent weather, cloudy but warm (31°F (-1°C)). It wasn't too windy in town when we left, but at the other end of the hour-long Delta ride it was a different story.

We pulled up to Cape Evans, parked next to the Delta from the 18:30 trip and piled out of the vehicle to find brisk winds and sea ice that was almost devoid of snow. The winds were so strong that people were holding open their coats to see if they would be propelled across the ice like a windsurfer at the beach. Nobody got blown out to sea, but there are a couple of hats (and almost a camera) that were last seen heading for New Zealand.

With two full loads of tourists, there was a line to enter Scott's Hut. I headed straight up the hill to the large wooden cross (this place is full of monuments to dead guys from the "Heroic Age"). The view was fantastic. The mountains were hidden in a thick blanket of clouds, as was Erebus, but there were large streaks of clear sky overhead. The Barne Glacier stood out dramatically, icy blue against the grey horizon to the north.

On my way down to Scott's Hut, I chanced by something I'd been hoping to see: the remains of a dog, still chained to its stake. I had heard about this particular relic after my last trip. Things got so bad for Scott and his men during that last winter that they left the dog where he died.

On this trip, I remembered that Scott built stables up against the outside of the hut, for the horses he expected would drag his supplies to the Pole. He had no clue that the Antarctic was no place for such large herbivores; they required immense amounts very bulky food and were too large to effectively keep warm. In the end, each and every horse was slaughtered for food. The stables, however, remained. It was dark there, lit only by two small windows, one at either end of the stalls. Straw was still piled up under the far window and tack was still hanging by each stall.

Now that my eyes were adjusted to the dim light, on my way back to the front door to the hut, I identified the source of an off smell that I noticed on my way in. Under the window at the entrance to the stables was a waterbed-sized pile of eighty-year-old slabs of seal blubber, yellowing at the edges as it decayed at a glacial pace I read recently that Scott's men never could bring themselves to eat the blubber, but they did use it as fuel in the cookstoves.

The inside of the hut was exactly as I rembered it, the cramped cots, the piles of supplies, especially the long dining room table in the middle of the room. This time I succumbed to the temptation and asked someone to take a picture of me at the head of the table. Leif had a camera with a flash, and obliged. I hung around for a little while longer, taking more pictures of the stacked supplies at the front of the hut 'til it was time to go. We'd spent an hour there, but it only seemed like a few minutes.

The light was still good and the winds were still strong as we made our way from the Hut back to the Delta. The ride to the ice caves was particularly uneventful; the sidelight was too dim for good pictures, and there was no wildlife to be found, not even a seal. When we arrived, I paused to change lenses and ended up being the last out of the Delta yet again. The first group was boarding their Delta as I walked past, but I hung back, waiting for the crush at the entrance to clear.

I took a different route this time. There's the main passageway, to the left, steep enough that there's a knotted rope staked out for a handhold; then to the right is a small hole I haven't tried before. Just past a short crawl, the hole opens up to a tall, narrow slot, narrow enough that I had to move my camera out of the way to squeeze through. The slot ended in another hole, sticking knee-height out of the wall of one of the larger chambers. The whole cave was much slipperier than last time, the natural consequence of warmer air and weeks of tourist erosion; I slipped several times and gave myself a pretty good whack on the knee. I finally made my way back to main entrance, down the knotted rope, and emerged into bright light and grey skies. The Delta trip back was bumpy but uneventful; no penguins, no seals.

Leif, Karen and I ended up going to midrats right from the Delta. We ate leftovers of dubious age while Leif told us stories of the small acting he attended in northwestern Missouri. After eating, I was still so wired from the trip that I decided to wrap around and stay up the rest of the night and work on my Home Page.

Friday, 24 November 1995
The McMurdo Beach Party - not finished yet.

Saturday, 25 November 1995
Thanksgiving Dinner - not finished yet.

Sunday, 26 November 1995
Because I wanted to have everything ready to go in the morning, I spent the entire night getting prepared. The thing that took the longest was setting up the PowerBook 170 with the software to download pictures from the QuickTake 150 and convert them from JPEG compressed PICT files to plain old JPEG files. If I couldn't make it work, I'd be limited to 16 pictures for my entire trip. After five hours of fiddling with the laptop, I finally got it into a useable state. By this point, it was time for breakfast, so I dashed off, grabbed a quick bagel and glass of juice, and got back to work to pack everything up. At 07:35, I learned that my scheduled helo departure time was 08:30. Karen Joyce and Paul Sullivan boxed up the computer and I was on my way.

Monday, 27 November 1995
Lake Hoare trip - not finished yet. The pictures are available, however.

Thursday, 30 November 1995
I hung out in the coffee house tonight, playing cribbage with Lori. She stomped me the first game and I returned the favor on the second. The highlight of the game for me was a crib that scored 20 points.

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