McMurdo in October

Tuesday, 1 October 1996
So much for a little slack in the schedule. Mike Varney, the facility engineer is closing down the building because we're in a temperature inversion with no wind and sucking up our own boiler exhaust into the fresh air intakes. When the wind picks up a bit, we can come back into the building.

Wednesday, 2 October 1996
WinFly is over, Summer is here. From our vantage point in the library area of the lab, we watched the first C-141 of the season land at the ice runway It brought us 97 PAX, a little cargo and no mail :-( Along with several people returning to the Lab, we are welcoming a new addition to the staff: Robbie Score, formerly a beaker, now the new assistant lab supervisor. She was last here in 1988 when the Crary Lab was little more than a shell on a bare hillside. Prior to that, in 1984, she found a martian meteorite in the Allan Hills that has appears to contain evidence of primitive martian life.

Thursday, 3 October 1996
After a morning filled with the joy of configuring the local Novell settings on Windows 95 laptops, I ran up the hill to the Field Safety Training building for Sea Ice school. It was a small class - four students and Buck Tilley, the instructor. Bad weather was forcast for this afternoon, we headed out as early as we could. The first stop was right outside of town at Buck's Hut, no further from town than Arrival Heights. Inside, Buck covered various safety issues, frostbite, hypothermia, zero visibility, and the importance of getting on the radio and asking for help. We setup and lit the whisperlight stoves, talked about the nature of cracks in the sea ice and went outside to set up a tent. It wasn't easy setting it up in 30 knot winds, in fact, it took more than one try to get everything in the right places. I'm very glad it wasn't a survival situation. After we covered various types of tent anchors, we jumped in the Hägglund and headed for the Erebus Ice Tongue.

The ride north was bumpy, the view sparse. We slogged along the flagged route to Cape Evans until we came upon the only fork in the road for miles. The ice caves were only a few minutes ahead, but Buck had other plans. He wanted to search for new ice caves, especially one that had been found recently by the Kiwis. We drove on for fifteen or twenty minutes and parked near a promising fissure in the glacier.

The topography of the Erebus Ice Tongue is quite interesting. For starters, it's a floating glacier formed by the ice that drains from the slopes of Mt. Erebus. From above, it resembles a long, thin, bumpy tongue (thus the name). From the ground, those bumps give the glacier the appearance of a giant sideways washboard, the undulations hundreds of yards apart. The winds deposit snow at the base of the ice tongue, but not right up against it. There's a path all along the base with 30' of ice on one side and 8' of snow on the other, like walking down a long, desolate, winding canyon. We walked along and probed half-a-dozen openings, but no new caves.

On our way back to town, we heard over the radio that both flights had been cancelled for today. Before we even got back to Buck's hut, we went to Condition 2 for both airfields and the roads leading to them. Within half-an-hour of the forecast time, weather closed in on us. Visibility went from 25 flags (about a half-mile) to 4 flags (about 100 yards) in less than a minute; it's like driving inside a pillowcase. Between the flags that were visible and the GPS unit installed in the vehicle, we found our way home without difficulty. I didn't mind not getting stuck out on the sea ice; that kind of antarctic experience I don't need.

With the weather of the afternoon, nobody was surprised when the Scott Base shuttle was cancelled.

Friday, 4 October 1996
We've been in and out of Condition 2 for the past two days. It's been warm - the low temp was +3°F (-16°C) with winds up to 50 knots (56 mph). No planes today.

Saturday, 5 October 1996 (00:35)
I just received word that Weather is recommending that today's flights be delayed another day. It's Condition 2 in town and Condition 1 everywhere else.

Saturday, 5 October 1996
The winds have died down and the visibility has returned in town. The ice runway, shrouded for days, is finally visible from town. I heard from some fuelies that the fuel pits were buried; even if the planes landed right now, it'd take hours to clear the snow away enough to refuel them. Tomorrow looks promising.

Sunday, 6 October 1996
Still no planes. When I woke up for brunch, I checked channel 7 for an aircraft movement report and saw that things were on schedule for this afternoon - both the C-5 and the C-141 were due in, albeit 4 days late. By the time I got over to the Galley, things had changed. What didn't make the movement report was that both flights had been delayed four hours. By midday, that delay turned into two cancellations. No planes means no beakers, so I do get today off after all. I'm back to my original plan - show the Babylon 5 pilot movie, "The Gathering"

Monday, 7 October 1996
We finally got a plane in. The C-141 landed before lunch, the C-5 is due in minutes. I heard at lunch that there's a substantial amount of mail coming in today. Dinner should be better tonight, assuming we got any freshies.

Tuesday, 8 October 1996
I checked. Mail is in, but no packages for me. What we did get a lot of is people, lots of people. Well over 100 on today's flight with another hundred expected tomorrow.

Wednesday, 9 October 1996
The second C-5 came in today, and just like the first, my view of it was from inside a window in the Crary Lab. I almost missed it entirely; I was working in Phase II, pulling equipment out of storage for the scientists and just happened to enter a room with windows just as the plane was touching down.

Thursday, 10 October 1996
I finally got a package from home! It only took three weeks to get here. I'm still waiting for two packages I sent to myself from Chch before I came down.

Sunday, 13 October 1996
What a week. Every day brought new planes with fresh grantees and pallet after pallet of cargo. We've been so busy with requests for help that the new supplies are stacking up outside my office. One of the major time consumers has been the myriad of laptops that people brought down with them that need to be hooked up the network. It seems that no two are alike, what with the variety of combinations of Windows 95, Windows 3.1, MacOS and parallel port adapters, PCMCIA cards and SCSI adapters. It doesn't help that Windows 95 is very new to the continent, and not well tested on our network. I'm working on satisfying the initial rush so that I can get to work on equipment bound for Lake Hoare which opens this coming week.

My Saturday afternoon was taken over by a training class for the new helo procedures. Last summer was the final season for VXE-6 to fly helos down here. This year, Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. (PHI) will be flying us around, but we've dropped from six UN-1H Twin "Hueys" to one civilian Huey and three "A-Stars" ("Squirrels"). The A-Stars are so much smaller than the Hueys that there's only enough room in the cabin for me, the pilot and two computers. I can't use the outboard basket because the equipment will freeze.

Wednesday, 16 October 1996
After three days of "Condition 4" (too nice to work), we are once again reminded that this is the antarctic. Right now it's -20°F (-29°C) with 27 knots of wind, the wind chill is -80°F (-62°C) and forcast to get worse before it gets better. We went to Condition 2 just after dinner, but it's been ugly all day; today's flight turned around because of the wind. The scuttlebutt in the coffee house is that tomorrow is more of today with little chance of a plane.

One bit of excitement today was the discovery that a crate of Macintoshes destined for the lab has been sitting outside below 0°F since it arrived in town several days ago, because it wasn't marked DNF. After uncrating the frosty components on the loading dock, we wheeled them into an "environment room", essentially a walk-in freezer, used for running long experiments at specific temperatures. Thawing them out, slowly, over the next day or two should prevent any real damage, but we'll have to wait and see.

Friday, 18 October 1996
Jim Johnson, the computer manager, broke the news to me today that even though I was scheduled for a trip out to Lake Hoare next Tuesday, there are so few helo hours available that I might not get to go. Of the four birds, only two of the A-Stars are operating. The Huey is down with a surging problem in one engine (a replacement is on the way and due next week) and one A-Star has a manufacturing defect in its 40 hour-old engine (a replacement for it is also on the way and due next week). I'm more than a little disappointed. I've been looking forward to this trip all year, especially since I didn't get to go back to pull the equipment out of the field in January (but since I was getting ready to go to Pole, I wasn't complaining). I hope they get those other helos back in service, pronto.

The other big deal this week is getting ready for the Rocky Mountain Internet Expo video-conference. There's going to be a T1 line installed to the convention floor and live video from here and from Palmer Station. What will make it cool is that we're trying out color CU-SeeMe for the first time from the lab, not that there's that much color outside. It should be quite a treat for the convention goers. People up North never seem to get enough of looking out our windows from the safety and comfort of home.

Sunday, 20 October 1996
One of the last sunsets of the year is lighting up the hills above town with a beautiful orangy-pink glow. For months, I've wanted to take a picture of Mt. Erebus bathed in pinks and lavenders and it's this week or not at all. The next time the light'll be right is March and I'll be in New Zealand. I've already got the shot planned out - go to Scott Base, walk down the ice road to the iceberg, far enough for Erebus to dominate the shot, but close enough to shore to frame the image with the pressure ridges. It's a classic shot, but gorgeous. There's a narrow window to get it. Tonight, the sunset was especially spectacular at quarter-to-midnight, because the sun is now high enough to peek behind Mt. Discovery and light up Ross Island with the lowest angle possible. I probably should have been out last week or the week before, when it was technically night, but Erebus would still have been lit up, since it's tall enough to catch the alpenglow. The actual sunset is at 00:14, Monday, followed by sunrise at 03:00, then, if I can get out to shoot it, sunset at 00:36, Tuesday.

Spectaular sunsets aside, today was a Sunday like most others. It was overcast, windy and generally pretty miserable outside. The temps have been hovering just below +0°F (-18°C) with 20 knot winds. It's a little better than the several days of Condition 2 windchills we had last week, but still not particularly pleasant. What's been worse than the weather is the wait in the Galley. For lunch on Saturday and brunch the past two weeks, we've had to suffer with half-hour waits to get our food. To top things off, more than once this week, they've run out of food before the dinner hour was over. This is the first season for a new food service contractor, IAP, and they're learning a few lessons the hard way, first and foremost, it's cold outside and people eat more than they do at home. We've got about 800 people on station this week, they prepared food for 1200 and didn't compensate for the antarctic appetite. It wasn't bad at WinFly, but when the winter-over management left and the population topped 700, things just started to go wrong. Plus, with the lead cook breaking his leg slipping on the ice, you've got hundreds of irate people standing in line for food that's not worth the wait. At least today, they opened up both serving lines at brunch. I got lucky and walked in as they were setting things up. I only had a ten minute wait instead of the 45 minutes it would have been in the other line.

After lingering at brunch and hearing about party escapades at a party I missed last night, I stopped by the lab to put some time in on un-hosing a messed up Linux box before dispensing the town's weekly dose of Babylon 5. By next week, I'll be halfway through the first season. By the time any new tapes arrive (around Thanksgiving), I should be on the second season. I've peeked ahead on the "Lurker's Guide" and can't wait to see what's unfolding now, back in the States.

After dinner, I stopped by the Southern Exposure, there were only two patrons and the bartender. I wasn't looking for a rowdy night out, but that was too tame. I went to the coffee house, which was quite busy for a Sunday night. I threw some darts, watched a hot game of Trivial Pursuit and finished out the evening around a table with a bunch of the other computer types who had just come from a lecture on comparative religion at the Chapel. Amazingly enough for this crowd, we didn't talk about work. We did talk about helos and helo safety, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", traveling in Eastern Europe and the whole Galley situation. The closest thing to a work discussion was what computer games people brought down with them. When the place finally closed down, we wandered home, caught the sun's dying rays painting the hills and called it a day.

Monday, 21 October 1996
I couldn't let the last of the sunsets go by without a picture. All day, I tried to find someone to walk with me to the pressure ridges just off shore from Scott Base, but nobody wanted to go out walking that late at night. Chris Liljenstolpe, the new network engineer, was the only taker. We got bundled up in our ECW, checked out at the Fire House and hit the road at 22:45. I'd never walked all the way to Scott Base before; I've gotten close and I've walked all the way back, but every time I tried the walk over, someone would stop, usually near Cosray, the halfway point, and give me a lift. There being no shuttle and little traffic, Chris and I did walk the entire way, stopping for pictures and to warm up at Cosray.

Because of the topography, from town, we get a spectacular view for only about a 160° arc to the South. Hut Point and Ob Hill are the only features of Ross Island we can see. The road to Scott Base goes uphill through The Pass (between Ob Hill and T-Site), opens up and levels out by Cosray, then turns right and heads sharply downhill, forking at Scott Base on the right before taking a hairpin turn, down and to the left, ending at the transition to the snow road to Willy Field. When Mt. Terror started to peek around the side of the hill, Chris was astounded with the colors on the snow. I told him to hold his awe 'til we rounded the corner. About five minutes later, when a totally pink Mt. Erebus was in full view, I asked him if this was worth the walk; "Too cool," was the reply.

We reached the ice shelf right at sunset. After taking a few spectacular shots of Erebus looming over Scott Base, Chris and I took turns posing for hero shots. By the time we'd each gotten a dozen photos, both digital and on 35mm film, the cameras were so frozen that we couldn't see through them to frame the shots. With only an hour to go before check-in time, we opted to head back the way we came, rather than on to the iceberg and home via the ice runway.

The hike back up the first hill convinced us that we weren't going to get back to town before our check-in time expired. We picked up the pace and headed for the emergency phone at Cosray. We got there with ten minutes to spare and extended our trip another 45 minutes. The rest of the walk was pleasant, the wind at our backs, this time. I checked in from my room with ten minutes to spare, exhausted but happy.

Tuesday, 22 October 1996
After the adventures of last night, I crashed and burned right after dinner. I did wake up around 22:30, remembered that tonight was the last sunset of the year, and went promptly back to sleep.

Thursday, 24 October 1996
The volunteer DJ meeting was tonight in the Galley. AFAN, the local FM radio station (104.5) plays a feed from the States most of the time, but in the evenings and on weekends, volunteers host their own shows, using the extensive Navy CD and LP collection that AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) sends to all military radio facilities. Most of the meeting was reading the rules of conduct (no profanity, no commercialism, no references to alcohol, etc.) and parcelling out the time slots. I didn't sign up for my own show. Instead, I offered my services as a sub for a couple of two-man shows, because I didn't think I had the time nor the energy to do my own every week. Before leaving, I signed up for training on Saturday afternoon.

Friday, 25 October 1996
Oh, what a difference the wind makes. It's +0°F (-17°C) out, but calm. I haven't needed to zip up my jacket to walk to and from my room, but just five knots of wind puts and end to that notion.

One of the last planeloads of winter-overs was supposed to leave today. Presumably, the C-141 turned back because of weather. I heard last night that a recent flight to Christchurch had to deviate to Auckland because the winds were so strong in Chch that the airport was closed. Terry Robb, a kiwi computer tech on loan from the Christchurch office, confirmed for me that there were some pretty strong winds last week, strong enough to tear fences out of the ground and fling them down the road.

Monday, 28 October 1996
I stopped by the greenhouse at lunch to take the readings, just like I did all last winter, but Lenore had already taken them for today. In lieu of actual work, I walked around and looked at the plants, especially the jalapeño bushes. I was surprised at the variety this year. In the cold room, system two isn't just lettuce; there's rhubarb, spring onions, chives and snap peas, none of which we grew last year. The herb system is lacking in dill, but the cilantro and basil both look good.

On my way back to work, I decided to visit B-133 before it gets torn down and retro'ed. I walked in the door closest to the greenhouse, the one I used every day last year, and passed empty room after empty room. The only people still working in there are the antenna riggers, and that's only because their new home isn't finished yet. When I got to the computer tech area, I was hit by that feeling you get when you're moving and you're taking that last look at your now-empty home. Before, there was equipment and furniture everywhere, now, only an empty shelf and a bare workbench remain, in the space that my Amiga called home for the winter. It seems like it's been years since I've been here, years since I wintered.

After dinner, I headed to the coffee house to see who was around. I fell in with a crowd of folks waiting to go to Pole. Their flight was canc'ed for today, I heard, due to broken planes. I knew about half the people at the table, some from Pole, some from here. We talked, played cards and generally just hung out until closing time, then headed home in various directions, calling it a night.

Tuesday, 29 October 1996
Dave Fisher caught up with me today, he manages South Pole and is a former resident of Columbus. I finally got my dates for my Pole trip: 5 November through 11 November. Coincidentally, that's the at the same time I'm supposed to be changing rooms. It makes for an exciting weekend.

Tonight, however, the excitement was all down at the coffee house. Around 22:30, as I was walking from the serving area to watch a ping-pong game, the fire alarm went off two feet from my ear. Beverage in hand, I grabbed my coat (which was right there, fortunately) and was the third person out the front door. It was a busy night, at least 25 people waited for the Fire Department to show up. The lack of smoke of any kind, inside or outside was reassuring. Within 10 minutes of arriving, the Fire Department gave the all-clear. The false alarm was caused by water, from melting condensation, seeping into the heat detectors. Fortunately, it was only a false alarm. A small fire and a small breeze would take that building out in no time at all.

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