McMurdo in September

Sunday, 1 September 1996
First thing after brunch, I grabbed the shuttle to Scott Base to do a little shopping. The new hats with the adjustable leather strap were already sold out; I settled for a standard ballcap with "Scott Base, N.Z.A.P" on the front. Other than that, I picked up a couple of NZAP pins, a collectors pack of Ross Island Dependency stamps and a New Zealand Telecom phone card (so I can call folks from the Telecom payphone in B-155. The most striking part of the trip was the view of the pressure ridges just off Pram Point. The ice shelf by the Willy Field transition is one giant washboard. The ice closer in, about 100 yards or so from the shoreline, is buckled up into huge ridges, half-a-mile long and at least 20 feet high.

After I got back, I went over to the Southern Exposure in time to watch it fill with Babylon 5 fans, eager for new episodes. The winter-overs have been watching my old tapes since I left in February. They've been eager to see new eps. I was asked if I brought more tapes with me, by at least a dozen folks. The crowd was good: 20 people, 3/4 of them winter-overs. It may not sound like many, but getting that many people together for anything (except chow) at this time of year is an accomplishment.

Monday, 2 September 1996
The first Monday in September might be Labor Day back home, but it's just another workday for us. What makes it especially bad is that we have to wait until our Wednesday until people back in the States are back at work. Unlike last year, it's Condition 3 in town. It's still snowing and blowing, but the windchills aren't much colder than -40°F (-40°C).

Tuesday, 3 September 1996
The storm finally broke. The weather's been great this morning. When I walked past the windbird, there wasn't even enough of a breeze to turn it. The guys in S-131 have been waiting for a break in the weather; they've only launched once in the past week. They got their chance after lunch.

The disk of the sun is finally visible from town. I had forgotten, but late in the afternoon, direct sunlight comes streaming into the windows of the spine between Phase I and Phase II.

Wednesday, 4 September 1996
Between last night and this morning, we've gone from calm to furiously windy, back to calm. There was a windchill notice on the scroll last night, but by 09:00, dead calm.

I found a great new place to view aurorae in town: behind B-156. After the coffee house closed, I went for a little jaunt to walk off my caffeine buzz (despite the -35°F (-37°C) windchill). I ended up standing in the shadow of B-156, sheltered from most of the wind and from most of the lights of town. I could see the ice shelf lit up for hundreds of yards off shore; I could see Hut Point, dark against the snow covered sea ice; I could see the lights out at the ice runway. Most importantly, the sky was crystal-clear; I could see the Milky Way and tendrils of aurorae over Hut Point. I watched for a while, then ran off to my room to grab wamer clothing, a tripod and my camera. By the time I returned, clouds were moving in. I watched in disappointment as the stars of the Southern Cross winked out one by one in the haze.

Thursday, 5 September 1996
On my way home from watching "Jumanji" at the coffee house, I spotted more aurorae and headed off to grab my ECW gear and my camera. On my way through the lab, I ran into Darin Toohey (of S-131) and told him about the light show; He showed up behind B-156 about 5 minutes after I got there. The weather was flawless - -7°F (-22°C) and virtually no wind. I was in my carhartts and bunny boots, snug and toasty warm.

We hung out for an hour, snaping some pictures of some fairly lame aurorae hanging over Pegasus, hoping some brighter ones would show (they didn't). On the bright side, Darin pointed out the Greater and Lesser Magellenic Clouds to me, two globular clusters I'd been wanting to see since I first got down here. They look like two wispy clouds, no bigger than a thumbnail on an outstretched hand, about a hand-span away from the Southern Cross. My picture taking was interrupted when the guys from Equipment Ops came in from Pegasus for midrats; I didn't want to have the shutter hanging open on a timed exposure with all those headlights and strobe lights driving by. Darin had already gone in at that point. I'm glad I stayed out; even though there were no more good aurorae, Bruno Nardi (also of S-131) fired up the LIDAR. I got a couple of long exposures, including one of the beam disappearing into the zenith. Finally, around 0:00, I headed in, my camera turning white with frost.

Wednesday, 11 September 1996
The field trip to Crater Hill has been cancelled for tonight on account of weather. It's a little nippy in town, but winds are much stronger up there. Dan, the group leader, said to show up another night and they'd take two vehicles; I'm going to shoot for Friday night. In the absence of a trip out of town, I think I'll to the Erebus and play bingo.

Thursday, 12 September 1996
finny-us-gauge was up in the Erebus tonight. Scott Enlow, the drummer was also in Bandy-Boo, last winter. I like this winter's band much more. It was all straight Rock-n-Roll, no Country, it was a good mix of songs, and you could dance to it. By the middle of the first set, it was so hot on the dance floor, I had to step outside to cool down. It was about -12°F (-20°C) and dead calm. Ice crystals were hanging in the air. Every time I breathed out, my frosty breath hung over my head; steam rose from my bare arms. I was so overheated that I didn't start to feel the cold for over five minutes; when I did, I wandered back inside to jam until closing time.

Friday, 13 September 1996
Not that I put much stock in the significance of the date, but the excursion to Crater Hill was cancelled, yet again. Winds of a whopping 20 knots were forcast for later, so the trip got bagged. Summer people have such thin skins. Instead, Carey Collins and I walked out to Hut Point at sunset, not wanting to waste the effort we went to, getting dressed up to go out of town. The winds were calm, even by Scott's Hut; up by Vince's Cross, normally windy for lack of anything to stop it, it couldn't have been blowing much more than 3 or 4 knots. We took pictures of each other, marveled at the colors of the sky, watched a handful of wedell seals lie about, then, eventually, walked back to town, staring at the orangy-pink back-lit exhaust plumes from all the boilers in town.

Saturday, 14 September 1996
Today is flag-tying day; the goal is 7100. The party starts at 15:00 at B-64 and the band, the Southern Cross Blues Band, starts at 21:00. There's munchies, beer, pop and lots of flags. First, you cut a bundle of fifty bamboo poles from its wrappings, then apply reflective tape to the top. Next, you tie brightly colored dacron flags below the tape (red and green for trails, blue for buried fuel hoses, yellow for urine and black for crevasses and other hidden dangers), then bundle them back up and haul them out. Every year, new flags get set out on the roads to Black Island, Cape Evans, and Willy Field. Around town, new flags are always going up to replace the old, tattered ones.

Sunday, 15 September 1996
The band played 'til 00:30. I got to bed at such a decent hour that I went to Sunday brunch at my leisure. Between brunch and my usual Sunday appointment with Babylon 5, I stopped off at the lab to dump the pictures from last night out of the QuickTake 150 camera. I ended up helping Ann Hawthorne, W-006, do the same. In addition to her usual medium, 35mm film, she's taking digital pictures for the Discovery Channel with no real training on how to get them back out. I can understand her reluctance to use the QT150; it's not a good tool for the serious photographer. You don't look through the same lens as the electronics, leading to parallax error; you can't adjust any of the settings, enslaving you to the camera's best guess of the exposure; and when the batteries get cold (about three minutes), the camera stops working. I like the instant gratification factor, but I usually take a picture on film, too.

After dinner and a quick stop at the coffee house, I dropped by the chapel and finally finished a project I've been working on for the past 10 days: tuning the piano. There are three pianos on this island, one in the Southern Exposure, one at Scott Base, and one in the chapel. I brought down some sheet music, but quickly abandoned any idea of playing when I struck my first chord. It's so dry down here that the wood in the soundboard shrinks and there's not enough friction on the pegs to keep the piano in tune. Undaunted, I dug out the tools, read a turn-of-the-century essay on piano tuning I found in the toolbox, and, most importantly, borrowed a BOSS TU-12 electronic tuner from Dave Smith at the FM shop. This thing is great, it has LEDs from C to B for displaying its best guess at a note, and a needle showing how sharp or flat that note is. I've probably spent a total of 10 to 12 hours on doing this, but I can play ragtime without wincing. Several of the pegs were giving me fits, so loose in their sockets you could watch them turn as you played. I ended up using an old piano-technician's trick - removing the peg (harder than it sounds) and wrapping a single layer of thin emery cloth on it, abrasive-side out, then replacing it (much harder than it sounds). Each one took over half-an-hour, mostly due to my inexperience. I've never tuned a piano before and no one will confuse me with a professional piano tuner, but the results are passable. I had no idea going into this, but there's a lot to tuning a piano. I mean, I watched the process at home when I was a kid, but never closely enough to really figure out what they were doing. If it hadn't been for lots of good advice from Gary Teetsel, whose ex-wife is a piano tuner, I'd've give up in frustration, days ago. You've got to isolate the middle strings of the middle octave with a felt strip and rubber wedges; tune it ever so carefully; tune the other 24 strings, eliminating all wavering so that each key sounds a single note, not a wavering cacaphony; then move down and up the scale, one octave at a time; going back from time to time to correct notes that changed when you weren't looking. There are 88 keys on a standard piano, some with one string, some with two, most with three. I forget the exact number, but there are over two hundred pegs to tweak and futz with. I was going to try to tune the other piano in town, but the soundboard has 14 individual cracks in it. It's a shame; it's a piano built in the key of A - I'd never heard of any such a thing before. My first clue was that the top and bottom of the keyboard didn't have the usual pattern of white and black keys. My next clue was that there are more than 88 keys. The kicker was when I hit middle-C; the note I heard was definitely an A. No mistaking it. If the soundboard wasn't cracked, I might have tried to tune it. Now, it's a lost cause. In the States, it's just an ornament. Here, a very determined winter-over might be able to do something with it, but I shudder at the thought of removing every single string, intact, undoing and redoing the joinery and restringing each and every wire. I don't think it could be accomplished in under 200 hours. Maybe there's a better way, but I doubt it. It's a lost cause.

Monday, 16 September 1996
It's been snowing all day. Visibility in town is pretty good, but the road to the ice runway vanishes into a white wall that hides the mountains. Ob Hill and Hut Point are barely visible through the curtain of blowing snow. The winds haven't been high, which is good; if they kick up, we'll go to Condition 2 for sure. It's been warm, 9°F (-13°C) at lunchtime, and so humid it's almost foggy: 50% at the ground, 100% just a few feet up, where the clouds start. I went to the trouble of looking up the weather data because we only get a few days like this a year. I knew the humidity was up there before I checked; I can just about taste it in the air.

Besides the weather, it's been an unremarkable day. I've spent most of it setting up computers for the impending crush of scientists. It's been blissfully quiet in the lab for the past few weeks. In fifteen days, the planes start rolling in, bringing in wave after wave of fresh, eager people, ready to make the most of their brief stay. Like last year, the second and fourth flights of mainbody are C-5's, the rest, '141's.

Tuesday, 17 September 1996
I decided to give "circuit training" a try today. The only thing I knew in advance was that it was at 18:15 in the Acey-Deucy, the aerobics gym, and that it involved working out on all the equipment in succession. I wasn't able to arrive exactly on time, but it wasn't important. The instructor stuck me on the first available machine, a treadmill, and I was off. There were about 15 people there as well, some on weight machines, some on bicycles and rowing machine, some just on mats and benches. After two minutes, the instructor called out, "Change", and, much like a Chinese firedrill, we swapped machines. I think my next stop was a stairmaster. There is enough equipment that you never end up where you started. I got as far as the Nautilus military press machine when it was time for the cooldown. We took five minutes to stretch before finishing, but the real cooldown was walking across the parking lot - I was in my parka and gym shorts. It wasn't as bad as it sounds, but I wouldn't have wanted to walk any further than I did.

Wednesday, 18 September 1996
I was supposed to meet with Larry in the second deck lounge, tonight, for our first Japanese practice, but, lacking a tape player, about all we managed to do was make plans to meet next week. Once there, I got sucked into watching Star Trek IV (usually called, "Save The Whales"). When that was over, I trotted on over to the coffee house and ran into the likes of Tony Marchetti and Al Oxton, two of the wine bar's most steadfast customers. I stayed 'til closing time, along with Rex Cotten and John Ethridge (the bartender).

The sky was so clear that I took the long way home, past the dorms on the Bay-side, using the buildings to block some of the light from town. I saw aurorae, long luminent slashes straight overhead. I ran back to my room, exchanged my jeans and sneakers for sturdier gear and took off for higher ground around B-133. The cresent moon hung low in the sky over the mountains, bright enough to cast shadows under the streetlights of town, bright enough to light up the slopes beneath Arrival Heights and Crater Hill. At least it was calm. I tried to take a picture or two, but between the hills around me and the twilight glow, I doubt if anything will come out. I waited around for over an hour, but the sky lightened steadily until I knew it was a lost cause. I packed it in with little to show for my efforts.

Thursday, 19 September 1996
I went over to Scott Base tonight, for my first Thursday evening of the season. I caught the shuttle in front of the dorms at 20:30. The light on Erebus was amazing. More amazing still was that for the first time ever, the mountain was cloudless. I could see every wrinkle from top to bottom as we drove down the hill. There wasn't even so much as a wisp of a plume up top.

Once in the bar, I spent most of the evening talking with Jeff from the Firehouse and David Hornstein, the Scott Base science technician. I sipped on my favorite Scott Base cocktail (Stone's Green Ginger Wine and ginger ale) and David, Jeff and I talked about computers, Australia and the States until it was almost time to go. Before we took off, Jeff made a fresh pot of Hawaiian Macadamia flavored coffee and we watched a video David took of his trip to Cape Evans last week. The clarity was superb. I offered to help him transfer a few frames to video on the AV Mac in Crary. Jeff and I grabbed the last shuttle of the night and I went straight to the lab to work on my ozone hole web page.

The night was so clear that I waited until midnight for the sun to go down as far as it was going to, then I went home and got dressed up in all my gear - expedition pants, carhartts, polar fleece balaclava and, of course, my Mongolian hat. I grabbed a tripod and my 35mm camera (loaded with ASA 1600 film) and I was off. Even though the aurorae I'd spotted were identical to the ones I'd seen last night, I decided to try a different perspective. My first destination was the road below the VXE-6 transition; there aren't many lights in the lower part of town. The moon was up again, and, unfortunately, so was the wind. I found the darkest point along the road, snapped a few shots of the brightest streaks overhead and decided on another change of venue. I hiked to the opposite end of town, by the fuel pits and the road to Hut Point.

There is an annoying light on the side of the power plant; I never really noticed just how bright it is. I was easily a quarter-mile away from it, but it threw shadows on the hills above the fuel pit, brighter than the quarter moon. I had to hide in the lee of a sign post for my pictures. There was more wind here, hampering my efforts. I drew further into my parka, aimed the tripod as best I could and snapped a dozen long exposures, counting heartbeats to time the shots. From my new vantage point, the aurorae were among the best I'd seen all season. There were a handful of fingers over the ice runway, vanishing into the pre-dawn glow behind the mountains, and that same long knife-slash overhead, cutting Alpha Centauri off from the Southern Cross. That main line provided the best action before it disappeared behind Arrival Heights. At times, it was a single rent from horizon to horizon, at other times, it was joined by a group of small slashes near the ground, looking like fingernail marks in the blackboard of the sky. Every once in a while, that main streak would undulate, crossing over itself in a single curlique, whipping side to side and smearing like wet paint in the rain. I tried to keep my back to the wind, my eyelashes stinging from the weight of the ice in them, but before the spectacle was finished, I was; the weather won out and I started the slow trek home.

Friday 20 September 1996
When I walked into the Gallery for lunch, I was halted in my tracks by the line: it stopped just inside the door to the E-Side. It was my first clue that today featured one of the most popular meals down here, Mexican Lunch. As tasty as it is, the line takes forever as we all take our time building our own tacos and fajitas. For not having any new freshies since the last flight of WinFly, the galley did a superb job. The salad bar featured the usual salsa, sour cream, guacamole, jalapeños, green chiles, etc., but we had plenty of fresh lettuce (still!). The only compromise I saw was rehydrated onions.

Weather has started moving in since lunchtime. A light snow is falling, it's not too windy yet, but I can't see the ice runway just a mile away.

Saturday, 21 September 1996
The snow kept up 'til midnight. It was one of those fluffy snows from home, not the ordinary fine-grained powder. We picked up almost an inch in the past day, real snowfall, not drifts blown in. It's been eerily calm and warm, threatening winds that never came. If we had had just a few knots of wind, it'd have been Condition 1 for hours. As it was, last night, it reminded everyone of Christmas back home.

Originally scheduled for 07:00, Darin's launch has been postponed 'til noon due to the weather. For days now, we've been directly under the boundary of the polar vortex - winds aloft have been as high as 200 knots (240 mph). In order for Darin's experiment to succeed, we must be inside the vortex in a region where the atmosphere measures less than 200 Dobson units of ozone (400 Dobson units is common at temperate latitudes). If we don't launch today, there will probably not be another chance.

Right at noon, the weather was flawless. Down at the helo pad, Lyle and Bruno unpacked the balloon while Darin hovered over the instrument, checking connections and verifying telemetry. There was a temporary snag when Joe Pettit couldn't get the datalogger in Crary to log. Jim and Darin had to head inside to fix it. About 20 minutes later, they returned and began to fill the envelope. Because this instrument is so heavy (100 lbs with all accessories), it requires the largest balloon they have this year - 160,000 cu ft., or as it's more commonly known, a "160k" balloon. Unlike the smaller ones, it's too heavy to hold down by hand. Bruno fastened a device around the bottom of the bubble that looked like two red portable compressed air cylinders sandwiching an extruded foam hourglass. The entire assembly was tied to a parallel metal bar that Bruno hung bags of weights from. Even with eight helium tanks on full open, filling the balloon was a half-hour job. I was dressed for a day inside - jeans, sneakers, no thermals. I snuck off to warm up in the helo pax terminal and waited for the launch.

By the time everything was prepared, a small crowd had gathered to watch and take pictures. Originally, Ann Hawthorne and I were the only photographers. At launch time, there were half-a-dozen. Andy (from Weather) and I got far enough away to take a good long shot then waited. Not everything had gone flawlessly for me, photographically speaking, the cold was affecting both cameras. The QuickTake didn't always turn on, and the mirror on my 35mm Konica was occasionally snapping shots on its own when I advanced the film. The zero hour arrived, Bruno pulled the release and a dozen shutters went off. I squeezed off a couple of 35mm shots, but the QuickTake was too cold to operate. With a rustle and a flap, the instrument took off, rising straight up into the calm air. Darin was the happiest guy on station.

Sunday, 22 September 1996
At brunch today, Buck Tilley told me that Stan Robinson wanted to hear from me. As soon as I got to the lab, I dashed off a letter. I wonder how far along the antarctic novel is (Stan was here last summer with the NSF Artists and Writers program).

Our weekly dose of Babylon 5 was imperiled today when I couldn't find the tape. When I got to the Southern Exposure, I shoved in an old tape about the making of the show and came into work to search for the missing episodes. Fortunately, a brief search turned them up on a shelf above my computer. I'm off to save the day.

New sign-up sheets for this week's crevasse trip got posted in the Galley, tonight. If the weather holds, I'm going tomorrow.

Monday, 23 September 1996
Before I went to dinner, I grabbed my ECW gear and my camera. There were about ten of us waiting, chomping at the bit for the chance to get out of town. Dan threw out a bag of climbing harnesses for us to put on. That took a lot of time, but, eventually, we were off. The Delta was so slow, the first stop, at Scott Base, was fifteen minutes away. We picked up two more guides and were finally on our way.

I was the last out of the back of the Delta. The windows were completely frosted over, so my first sight was a bit of a shock. I had seen some low clouds between us and the mountains, but I hadn't anticipated that we'd be driving into them, all the way on the other side of the peninsula. Visibility, per se, wasn't the problem; the lack of a horizon was. I could see the ice falls, the Delta, even Silver City, but facing the wrong way, the snow just blended up into a purplish-grey, featureless wall.

Without too much difficulty, we split up into two groups and roped up. I was on the end of the second rope; Steve, one of the Kiwi guides, clipped onto my harness on his own rope so the he could detach from the rest of us if any situations cropped up. The first line took off up the ice falls; we followed 40 feet behind. When we all got to the top, the first group headed into the crevasse while our group walked on to peer down a hole in a snow bridge over a different crevasse. When it was our turn, I got my chance to see what had changed since last July.

The approach had filled in a little and wasn't as steep. The entrance was flanked by pillars of blue ice, stalactites that probably grew last summer when it was warm enough to melt. The low crawl seemed lower. I was barely able to crouch far enough over to work my way in without dropping to my hands and knees. The most significant change was the ceiling fall in the main chamber. Last year, there was a ledge down below and a guide rope screwed to the left wall. We wore helmets and headlamps for protection and visibility. This year, the crevasse was still bridged at the top, but the loose stuff had come down in a crashing jumble all over where we had once walked. I was disappointed that we wouldn't be going down, but when I saw the condition of the floor, I wasn't too eager to try it. We lingered, took pictures, then headed back out and down to the Delta and on to home.

Wednesday, 25 September 1996
B-76 opened back up tonight. It's the summer-time coffee house that was once the officers club. It didn't draw a huge crowd on opening night, only six or seven when I walked in around 21:30. Business was so slow, in fact, that it closed a half-hour early.

Friday, 27 September 1996
I'm glad I went on the crevasse trip on Monday - the weather turned to crap and today's trip was canceled. The winds started howling last night, the snow started a few hours later (the local weather channel reported winds of 37 knots and a wind chill of -89°F (-67°C)). We stayed in Condition 3 all day, barely. The forecast tonight is ambient temp of -13°F (-25°C) with 28 knot winds, bringing the wind chill down to -62°F (-52°C).

Furnishing LAN drops in lab 219 occupied most of my morning. Bob Palko came over with a Synoptics concentrator and we went down to Phase II to connect it. Of all the work areas in the lab, this particular lab is the problem child: it has only one fiber pair and no 10Base-T connections. Last year, we only installed a single computer in the room and used a simple 10Base-FL transceiver; this year, the requirement is for two computers. Normally, this would be a simple matter of attaching the transceiver to the concentrator and then the concentrator to all the computers, but when we plugged everything in and turned it on, nothing. The only lit indicator was for power. Bob and I trundled back and forth from one end of Phase II to the other to trace the fiber pair from the distribution panel behind the concentrator rack to the distribution panel above the ceiling in the hallway outside room 219. If everything had been clearly labeled, it would have been a straightforward job. In the end, we resorted to shining a flashlight down various sets of fibers and reporting the results to each other by phone. The problem ended up being a split pair; the blue fiber of the orange/blue pair was actually from a different orange/blue pair. It was fixed five seconds after it was discovered with a simple twist, swap, twist. The actual process of hooking up the new equipment was a five minute job. The other two hours were spent clearing away dead, unlabled cables from previous seasons and tracking down the split pair.

Even though there was a great selection of movies on channel 13 tonight (Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Princess Bride, and Demolition Man), I went to the coffee house for Acoustic Night. When I walked in, Brian, the NSFA shrink, was behind the mike, singing excellent renditions of Paul Simon songs with a voice that sounded like Paul Simon. If I hadn't seen him on the stool at the end of the tube, I'd have sworn that a CD was playing. After his set, another couple of people took a turn with Mark Eisinger closing out the evening. One of Mark's last numbers was in honor of David Hornstein, the Scott Base winter-over science tech, a transplanted Aussie living in New Zealand - "Waltzing Mathilda". When it was over, David explained that the song is about a bum (ragman) who steals a sheep () and drowns in the creek (billabong) trying to evade the law. All these years, I had no idea. For the last songs of the night, Mark had all the guitar players and a few of the audience up to play and sing along. We finished with "Teach Your Children", by Crosby, Stills and Nash; and "Amie", by "Pure Prarie League".

Monday, 30 September 1996
We just got word that mainbody will be delayed (probably for 24 hours) because the C-141 was late getting to Chch. I can certainly use another day to get things ready. Today is "lab cleanup day"; we're all scurrying around with last minute tasks, preparing for the first new arrivals since I got here five weeks ago.

{-- Previous month's journal  | Following month's journal  --}

To Ethan's Home Page

Valid HTML 2.0! Last modified: 30 December 1998
© Copyright 1996-1998, Ethan Dicks <>. All rights reserved.