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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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