McMurdo in September

Friday, 1 September 1995
As things often do around here, the schedule has changed. I'll be installing a Ritron and an Optiphone system (full-duplex UHF telephones) along with the PC. I've got to get my gear packed today and be ready to go at ten minutes to nine in the morning.

Saturday, 2 September 1995 (from Marble Point)
I'm over at Marble Point. I'm logged into a Sun Sparcstation back at McMurdo over the Optiphone (Gotta love the 'net). We've got to head back early - the helo sprang a leak in one of the hydraulic systems. There is a backup system, but the crew wants to get back to town as soon as possible.

I called home (on my nickle) to test the phones; I got the machine. I finally make it to the continent itself and there's nobody at home to talk to.

Right now, we are waiting for the second helo to return with some of the PAX from the mornings flights. As soon as it gets here, we'll pack up and head out.

The ride over here was smooth as silk. I was pretty excited when we hopped over to Scott Base to pick up Tom and Jim. I'd never seen it from that angle.

Saturday, 2 September 1995 (from MacTown)
About half of the hydraulic fluid leaked out by the time we got back to town, but that didn't cause any handling problems for the pilot.

I had intended to write about this mornings activities from Marble Point, but the hasty departure forced me to dash off a few disjointed sentences and postpone the saga for another time. On the way out, I sat in the leftmost seat with a clear view of the mountains for the entire trip. I snapped a couple of shots of Scott Base right before we touched down, as well as a few pictures of the Royal Society Mountains. It was a 30 minute flight each way, booking along at about 100 knots. The refueling station at Marble Point is little more than a big bare patch of dirt at the foot of a huge glacier (the Wilson Piedmont Glacier). I looked at a map before leaving McMurdo - the glacier is over 2 km away, but it looks like a five minute walk. There are fuel bladders (kinda like waterbed mattresses, 30 feet on a side, filled with JP-8), a generator building and living quarters. Everybody out there lives in a 40 foot long building with a couple of bedrooms, a lounge area, a kitchen and a small office (where the computer ended up). It's not much more spacious than a large house trailer.

There wasn't a lot to look at in the middle of either trip. I did peer out the window at the sea ice, 500 feet below, noticing some changes in texture, depending on how far from shore we were. Most of the good stuff was located at either end of the flight. At one point, about ten minutes away from Marble, we passed over enormous cracks in the sea ice; the pilot figured they were at least 15 feet across. The only other interesting texture was when we passed over the channel cut by the icebreakers last January. Some of the other landmarks were the Taylor Valley (at the foot of the Kukri Hills, right by Marble Point), the Daley Islands, and Ford Rock and Cone Hill (prominent humps in Hut Point Peninsula, between Castle Rock and Mt. Erebus).

Monday, 4 September 1995
In a few minutes, we're going to go to Condition 1 because of the -114°F windchill. The ambient temp up here at B-133 is at least -41°F and the winds are over 35 knots. If I don't get back to my room in the next few minutes, I'll be stuck up here until the weather lifts.

There are currently a couple of groups out on the sea ice. They went out for a short trip, but that was Saturday. The weather has been ugly all weekend.

Wednesday, 6 September 1995
It looks like I'll get a second chance at Marble Point tomorrow if the power supply on the Ritron phone has been replaced. If not, who knows when I'll go back out.

Thursday, 7 September 1995 (from Marble Point)
I'm back. The flight over was much more placid... we flew out here at an altitude of 1500-2000 feet (compared with 500 feet on the last trip). As a result, even though we were barreling along at 100-120 knots, it felt like we were floating. With no landmarks, it looked like we were 100 feet off the ice, even though I could see the altimeter from where I sat. Everything looked so close in the sharp, clear air.

After a night of wrassling modems, I'm glad it all works. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to make a stop or two on the way home, but there's never a guarantee.

When I set out on today's flight, I had the 135mm lens on my camera (as opposed to the 55mm lens which usualy sits there). With the sulight raking sharply over the ice shelf, I got some great pictures at 1/1000 sec. If all went well, that's fast enough to eliminate jitter and vibration from the engines.

Thursday, 7 September 1995 (from MacTown)
As it turned out, I didn't get to go anywhere. The installation went smoothly and I had a few minutes to walk around in the direct sunlight, snapping photos. On the return flight, I was jammed into the helo with 4 carpenters (and their gear) who were returning from a week at Lake Bonnie in the Dry Valleys. I would gladly work as a carpenter's apprentice for a chance like that.

Friday, 8 September 1995
After a game of Trivial Pursuit at the Coffee House, a large group of us went down to B-82 to help Sharon Hauer launch a small, high-altitude balloon. After Sharon unpacked the balloon, we all went outside the building to fill it because it was too large to fill indoors and take outside safely. I ended up holding the helium fill hose and the balloon fill tube together (a process that involves tightly gripping a large, cast aluminum nozzle as it sucks the heat right out of your hands). Once filled, the balloon took on the appearance of a ten-foot gossamer jellyfish, pulsing and throbbing in the wind. After we got the instrument package tied on, six of us picked up the balloon and walked down the road, past the power plant so that the winds wouldn't drive the balloon into a building an destroy it. By this time, we'd been outside for at least 20 minutes and few of us were dressed for much more than walking between buildings. I was shocked that more than one person wasn't wearing gloves - it was no warmer than -30°F with a steady 15 knot wind.

Tuesday, 12 September 1995
Last night, I got to watch the launch of the "300k" balloon, so called because it expands out to 300,000 m³ before it pops. It took over an hour for the two science teams to decide if there were PSC's or not; the type of sonde that would be launched hung in the balance. In the end, it was decided to launch one of the larger packages; it contained a particle counter and an ozone pressure sensor in addition to the usual altitude, humidity and temperature hardware. Mark, Lyle, Bruno, Sharon, Guido, Dongjie and I made our way down to B-156, where they quickly unrolled and inflated the 30m long balloon. Unlike the balloon the other night, this one was firmer and much, much larger. It didn't pulse in the wind, but held its teardrop shape throughout the filling procedure. To protect the balloon, everything took place on large canvas tarps. The unfilled portion of the balloon remained carefully wrapped in a bright yellow plastic outer-wrap, giving the partially inflated balloon the appearance of a white sperm with a long yellow tail. Once filled, several people wrestled the balloon, raising it hand-over-hand, peeling the yellow wrapper off a few feet at a time. Thus freed, it dwarfed the building next to it, swaying gently in the light breeze. The payload consisted of three sections: a parachute to ensure safe recovery of the package; the package itself; and a brightly colored, flag covered construction of PVC pipe attached to a locator transponder and portable GPS unit. The package costs over $10,000, so it's important to be able to find it when it touches down. It took four people to safely handle the various components so that nothing would sustain any damage on takeoff. With little more than a "1, 2, 3", the balloon was airborne.

To keep the package from drifting out of the recovery zone (a 100 mile radius, the maximum safe range of the helos) the scientists attach a programmable release mechanism. They use a pressure chamber that is calibrated to 100 millibars back in the U.S. and attached to a timer. That way, the scientists can adjust when the package lets go of the balloon, in this particular case, 62 minutes after the balloon reached altitude.

Once it was clear that the ascent was going well, Mark and I headed out to Cosray, where the backup receiver was set up. I still had a camera full of fast film and was eager to go. I'm very glad I went: there were plenty of aurorae that were too faint to be seen from McMurdo. We called the other members of the balloon team, but they couldn't see anything past the town's lights. The most visible were long and thin and low to the horizon, stretching from behind Mt. Erebus around to past Mt. Discovery. At one point, the part of the line over Black Island crept upward and looked as if it were on fire; at another point, the line was joined by others above it and below it. I took many pictures, bracing myself as best as I could.

When the balloon reached a pressure of 4.7 millibars, the timer ran out and the release did its job. For a little while, in the rareified atmosphere of 31,000 meters, the packaged plummeted at over 100 m/s (220 mph). Once the air was dense enough to fill the chute, it slowed to 10 m/s. I later found out that the package landed 90 miles away, nearly too far to recover.

Sunday, 17 September 1995
It's been snowing a lot lately. Last night, the winds kicked up and drove that snow off the Ice Shelf and into town. The Weather department doesn't know how fast the winds were because the anemometer couldn't keep up - the impeller was torn loose and vanished into the night. The last known windspeeds were in the 70 knot range. I almost couldn't open the door to dorm 210 when it was time to go home. Despite the weather, things were hopping all night. After I caught the tail end of "Four Weddings and a Funeral", Guido, Francesco, Bruno, Ulf, Suzanne and I played Liar's Poker 'til The Erebus closed. From there, a herd of us fought our way across the parking lot to a party in dorm 206. We had to count the lights to make certain we were heading to the right building. After an hour or so, a smaller herd broke from the crowd to hang out in dorm 210 and chat into the wee hours.

The trips to the Ice Caves have been canceled, yet again. I really want to get out there so I can finish off the roll of ASA1600 slide film that's still in my camera. I've got a deadline to beat: Guido wants to use some of my slides of the balloon launch if they come out. His group's lecture is coming up this week or next.

Monday, 18 September 1995
We haven't had a day as nice as this in weeks. It's +14°F (-10°C) with 12 knot winds. There's even a trace of humidity that adds a Springlike tinge to the air. The breeze feels almost warm; I think the difference is that it lacks that stabbing pain the wind down here normally brings to exposed flesh.

Wednesday, 20 September 1995
Jim McKensie invited a few of us over to Scott Base for dinner. It was the usual (for them) fare: roast meat, kumara, potatoes, braised greens and a sumptuous dessert. We hung around in the galley and chatted 'til after 9. On our way in, I mentioned how tattered and faded the N.Z. flag was; Jim wryly commented that the base had been demoted from a four-star establishment to two-star.

I returned home straight to the Coffee House for a gathering held by the incoming Crary Lab staff for the Winter-Overs; except for us, the place was deserted because of bingo at The Erebus.

Thursday, 21 September 1995
The Scott Base open bar night is getting more and more difficult to attend; people start queing for the 19:00 shuttle van at 18:30. For the past three weeks, there were more people waiting than the van could carry. Once there, I took the opportunity to ask the Kiwis (from both bases) where in N.Z. they lived and what local activities they recommended. Jim McKensie dug out some maps and travel magazines. I'm considering a three-day tramp in the area around Nelson.

Friday, 22 September 1995, The Vernal Equinox
The first day of Spring was more like the first day of Summer. It was at least +10°F (-14°C) and sunny the whole day; after a quick breakfast and a stop off at work, I spent the rest of it at sea ice training.

Sunday, 24 September 1995
I got up this morning at 07:30, as I have every Sunday for the past three weeks, only to find that it's Condition 2, again. The weather has been bad so many successive Sundays that it's becoming a tired joke. I have been waiting to go to the ice caves for a month and there have been no trips.

Babylon 5 went well at the Coffee House, once I got the projector and the audio set up. There was an accoustic night on Saturday; the people who cleaned up this morning, took the audio cable for the projector with them.

The music last night really packed 'em in. Various people got up and played a few songs each, about 15 to 30 minutes. Barb Propst, John McKintyre, Val Carroll and Bobby Lozano came up as a group and did some of the same songs that they did at the The Scott Base acoustic night, other people got up solo or in pairs, including John Booth, one of the other computer techs.

Tuesday, 26 September 1995
Last night was my first night to set pins in the bowling alley. The pinsetting rig is semi-automatic, so a human has to crawl around behind the lanes, scooping up pins, heaving balls into the return chute and pulling the string that drops the pin caddy. Two people work the bowling alley, one at the cash register, the other setting pins, trading jobs from game to game. It's pretty demanding work. In between dodging balls, the pinsetter has to keep up with the game, to know if a particular lane needs reset. The rig isn't in the best of shape (it's older than I am) and requires a tweek here and a steadying hand there, just to do its job. If I got three chances to sit down and take a drink of water, I'd be surprised. After it was all over, I dropped by The Erebus for a 7-Up and a couple of games of pool. I won both games, but only because my opponents sunk the 8-ball out of sequence.

Wednesday, 27 September 1995
The old Coffee House (B-76) reopened tonight. I'd been in a couple of times this week, hooking up a VCR to the big screen TV so that I'll have a venue for Babylon 5 over the Summer. It's built from a series of interconnecting Jamesways, paneled with stained and varnished planking. The whole atmosphere is like a hunting lodge built in a quonset hut. The usual Coffee House crowd was there (lots of NSFA folks, plus Connie, Sharon and myself. We got two games of Trivial Pursuit in; I came in second place, both times. The final game ran past 22:00, so we had a sudden death quiz-off. I had to answer geography questions and Tom had to answer history questions. He won with the answer to, "In what year did Adolf Hitler become Chancellor of Germany?" (1933).

Thursday, 28 September 1995
On the way to work today, I noticed that the town smelled like Winter. That usually means that the humidity is up and we're in for some snow. Normally, it's so dry here that the town smells like nothing (or like diesel fumes). Christchurch is going to be a big shock after 10 months down here.

Friday, 29 September 1995
I didn't get over to Scott Base last night. Francesco Cairo (one of the Italians running the LIDAR experiment) cooked pasta carbonara for a group of us at Hut 10. I would have to call it one of the three best meals I've had down here (right up there with my birthday dinner and the Diesel and Drummi party). There were quite a few people there, some for dinner, some for a quick visit, but Ulf, Suzanne, Francesco, Guido, Carrie, and Diamond Western were all there for the evening. Dongjie Cheng and Bob DeZafra had to keep popping out to monitor an experiment, but even they managed to stick around for most of the fun. Lyle and Mark came by after dinner and drinks at Scott Base. To hear them tell it, it was an exceedingly festive evening. After a few rounds of cards, I toddled off to bed at 23:30, the party still in full swing.

Tonight is the InfoSys party at Hut 10. It's a beach party with Mexican food (go figure). The main dishes are marinated, grilled chicken and grilled steaks. The Summer crew is throwing a send-off for us Winter folks.

The weather has been pretty consistent the past few days - consistently bad. It's not the cold (+0°F (-17°C)), it's the clouds and the snow and the wind. We've been in and out of Condition 2 at the Ice Runway and pretty close to it in town. There's a helo that's been stuck out at Marble Point since Thursday. The visibility went to Hell out there first; in town, it's been coming and going in waves for the past 24 hours. It's no better out there and they're still not home. Stan, the ASA Station Manager, tells me that this sort of thing happens every year.

Saturday, 30 September 1995
I just got back from my second trip to the Ice Runway this week. I've been out there trying to locate computers which were left in runway modules over the Winter by mistake. So far, I've found two older computers, one untested, the other tested and working fine. The trick is to warm them slowly (less than 2 degrees per hour).

The Ice Runway itself is located on annual ice (now three years old), about a five minute drive across the Ice Shelf, South of McMurdo. It's closer to town than Willy Field, but only gets used during October, November and December. Unlike the airstrip at Willy, wheeled aircraft can take off and land from the Ice Runway, so it's where the C-5's and C-141's come in.

There's not much out there but a few buildings clustered in rows and a lot of White. Just a few yards away from the mobile structures, the terrain is featureless. The view of Ross Island is pretty good, though; Mt. Erebus, shrouded in clouds, sits low and squat behind Ob Hill and Mactown.

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