Friday, December 21, 2018

Antarctic adventures

I’ve been fortunate to take part in a number of outdoor adventures since I’ve been here.  A few weeks ago I got to tour the pressure ridges near Scott Base.  Pressure ridges are created when the fast or sea ice, which is thinner, meet a thicker ice sheet or land.  Some look like unbroken waves but others actually create ridges of ice.  This results is some amazing ice sculptures.

Pressure ridges near Scott Base with Mt. Erebus
in the background.
Walking through one of the cracks in the "ice sails".

The breaks in the ice are important for Weddell seals as they provide places for them to get in and out of the water.  These are important, particularly this is the time of year when they give birth to their pups.

A Weddell seal laying in among the pressure ridges.
One of the melts ponds.

The route we took weaved us in and out of the pressure ridges and close to melt pools.  We were near seals but never closer than 40 feet so as to not disturb them.  The route was well marked and we were accompanied by two guides.  We spent almost 90 minutes out among the pressure ridges.  It was cold (in the teens) and windy so my “big red” (down parka) and mittens felt good.  The seals must have darn good insulation in order to lay on the ice in the elements for what seems like days at time.  They almost look like they’re out there sunning themselves.   But sun or not, it’s cold! 

Beautiful natural ice sculptures.
Bundled up in my "big red" parka on the tour.
Not sure what was in my hand to create the glow.

Another cool thing I got to do was to go under the ice and not even get wet, thank goodness.  Out on the ice a short walk from McMurdo an observation tube, or "ob tube", was installed.  We visited the ob tube on Thanksgiving morning.

Standing around waiting our turn to go into the tube.
Windy and cold  but sunny on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s about 2 and a half feet in diameter and 15-20 feet long.  They drill a hole through the ice and install the tube.  Inside the tube there are metal (rebar) foot and hand steps to climb down.  The last 3-4 feet of the tube is glass which allow you to see out into the water.  Once at the bottom there is a stool to sit on and look out.  And so as to get the full affect, they close the wood hatch at the top.

I was really excited about going into the tube until I started thinking about it a bit more.  Being a bit claustrophobic I began to have second thoughts.  But I figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity so decided to take the plunge, so to speak.

Looking up from the bottom of the tube.

It was a bit eerie going down but once at the bottom and sitting on the stool I was fascinated in seeing the underside of the ice.  I didn’t see any seals but did see some very small fish.  Closing the lid enhanced the experience because the only light was coming through the ice.  There were beautiful shades of green and blue.  There are star fish, anemones, jelly fish, and other marine life in these waters.  Although I didn’t get to see them while in the tube, I did get to observe them in the “petting”aquarium at the science lab.    For some reason I thought the water would be devoid of marine life but obviously that’s not the case.

Small fish near the tube.
Beautiful colors below the ice.  The ice was
about 3-6 feet deep.

I spent about 10 minutes in the tube before making my way to the surface.  Glad I decided to push my comfort zone a bit.

Exiting the ob tube.
  • The population at the station is now a little under 800 people.  It's been as high as 905 since I've been here.
  • McMurdo Station is on Ross Island which is about 1000 square miles.  It's about twice the size of Lani, my favorite Hawaiian Island.  It is home to four volcanos, but Mt. Erebus is the only one that is active.
  • The closest point from Ross Island to the Antarctic continent is 40 miles.  

Lenticular clouds over Mt. Erebus, the tallest
volcano on Ross Island.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Never a lack of something to do

People have asked, “what is there to do at McMurdo?”  The short answer is, a lot!  As one of my fellow Shuttle drivers put it, there is just about any activity here you can think of.  

Aerobic equipment in the "Gerbil Gym".

There are four gyms; one has weight equipment, another has aerobic machines and light weights, a third is for yoga and other classes and the last one has a full sized gymnasium that can be used for basketball, tennis, pickle ball, volleyball, soccer, and other court sports.  It also has a climbing wall. The gymnasium was used for the Halloween Party, which was truly a sight to behold.

The climbing wall in the gymnasium.

There are three bars; two with beer, wine, and hard liquor (Gallagher’s and Southern Exposure Pubs) and one with coffee, wine, and hard cider (The Coffee House).  The bars are staffed by local residents during their off hours.  The Coffee House had water damage over and the winter and the electrical panel caught on fire but it finally opened the first week of December.  I’ve had a couple of cappuccinos, which are real treats.

There is a craft room.  It has a number of sewing machines and other equipment and supplies to make just about any craft item you can think of.  Some industrious folks make crafts and sell at local craft fairs.  

A craft fair in the dinning hall.

Volunteers run a local radio station and the programming varies quite a bit.  Besides the libraries in each dorm with books, videos, and games, there is larger library with a wider selection of materials and a check out system.  Board and card games are popular.  A cribbage and pinochle tournament are in full swing.  Throw in a ping pong tournament for good measure.  There are a variety of groups and organizations which you can join.  I’ve met with other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers where we shared our experiences with each other.

Bikes with fat tires outside the Coffee House.

For outdoor enthusiasts there is equipment for cross country skiing, skating, biking, hiking, climbing  and other activities.  I see outdoor runners almost everyday, sometimes even along the snow road on the ice shelf.  Hardy souls for sure.  The Kiwis have a rope tow and ski hill near Scott Base and if you’re lucky enough you might be invited to go snow boarding or downhill skiing.

There are a number of running events each season.  So far there have been 5K and 10K runs, and a marathon is planned in January.  Costumes are always encouraged.  A recent Wall Street Journal article had a picture of one of our Shuttle drivers (runner 1770) in a Rocky costume.  

One of the race officials at the annual 5K Turkey Trot run.

Each week scientists give presentations on research they are doing and some of their findings.  Some are more technical than others but even those I am able to walk away with a few nuggets of information.

Needless to say, if you're bored it’s your own fault.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Hike up Observation Hill

A week ago I mustered enough energy to climb Observation Hill (also know as Ob Hill) which overlooks McMurdo Station. The elevation is only 754 ft and only a half mile long.  But it is a step climb, by my standards.

Hikers making their way to the top of Ob Hill a week earlier. 

It was a sunny day with the temperature in the low 20s, perfect for hiking.  There was some wind so I ended up wearing my neck gaiter to protect my face.  I also needed my sunglasses because of the sun.  With the gaiter my breath kept fogging up my glasses.  So it was either the gaiter or the glasses.  I chose the gaiter.

One of the webcams on the weather and webcam page is located about a third of the way up.  On this same level is a monument commemorating the site of the first and only nuclear power plant built in Antarctica.  It was constructed in the early 1960s and operational for 10 years, from 1962 to 1972.  It was decommissioned and the site released for use in 1979.

The plaque commemorating the site of the nuclear power plant.

From this level to the top, the grade of the trail steepened.  Snow covered part of the trail and made it difficult to follow.  But it’s heavily used and so I just followed the footsteps of others.  I hike like the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare story, slow but steady.  But even at a slow pace I had to periodically stop and catch my breath.  It reminded me of a hike I did in the Palm Springs area earlier this year with my friends John and Joan.  The name of that trail is the Bump and Grind, and it truly was.  The views from both trails are beautiful but polar to speak.
I didn’t break any land speed records but made it to the top just fine.  I had the place all to myself.  In fact, I only saw two people the whole time, one on my way up and the other  going down.  And both were near the bottom of the trail.

View from the top looking down on McMurdo.
It was well worth the trip.  The views were beautiful.  The cross on top is to commemorate Captain Robert Falcon Scott, a famous Antarctic explorer, and his crew who lost their lives on the return trip from the South Pole in 1912.  

The plaque close to the cross that commemorates
Captain Scott and his crew.
To the north is Mount Erebus (elevation 12,448 ft), the southern most active volcano in the world.  It is located  approximately 20 miles from McMurdo.  To the east is Mount Terror (elevation 10,702 ft).

Mt. Erebus in the clouds with Castle Rock in the foreground.
Note the smoke at the top of Erebus.

Mt. Terror to the right and Mt. Terra Nova to the left.  Windmills help
generate energy for McMurdo Station and Scott Base.

Scott Base, the New Zealand Antarctic research station, is the only green thing you’ll see in this part of Antarctica.  It is so neat and tidy.  They house less than 100 people, so quite a bit smaller than McMurdo Station.  I went over to Scott Base for their American Night last week and visited their store and bar.  They were wonderful hosts.  Close to Scott Base are the pressure ridges which I visited last week, and the subject of my next post.

Scott Base with the pressure ridges in the background.

I stayed on top for about 45 minutes before I made my way down.  The trip down was more difficult than the trip up because of the scree or broken rocks.  My knees didn't like the slipping and sliding.  It wasn't particularly dangerous but by the time I made it down I decided it might be my first and last trip to the top.  However it was good exercise, the views magnificent and something to check off my to-do list.  There is a mid-slope trail around the hill called the Ob Hill Loop and it doesn't have much elevation gain.  That will be my next hike.  

The view from the top of Ob Hill looking east onto the Ross Ice Shelf.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Living in McMurdo

Many have asked “what is it like living in McMurdo”, in particular the food and accommodations.  Here’s my attempt to answer those questions.  To start with, room and board are provided.  Transportation to and from Antarctica is also covered.  

Front of my dorm, 203B

For those who lived in a college dorm, were in the military or attended summer camp, the experience is similar, sort of.   Our dorm is connected with two other dorms, each two stories high.  The rooms are about 12’ by 18’, have two single beds, two wardrobes, two night stands, two chairs, and a refrigerator, a lot to cram in a small space.  But it's plenty big enough for two.  The mattress I have is firm and comfortable.  Bedding is provided.  I was lamenting about not having brought flannel sheets with me but a fellow Shuttle driver found me a set left behind by a past resident so now I’m cozy and warm at night.

Small but cozy.  There is a window covering to block out the light.

There are both men’s and women’s restrooms on each floor.  I’m lucky because my dorm has heated floors in the restrooms.  Each dorm also has a laundry room.  The washers and driers are free as are the laundry detergent and fabric softeners.   

Dorm lounge with TV, chairs and a couch.  Trash and
recycling bins to the left

Each dorm has a lounge.  The furnishings differ from dorm to dorm but generally have a large flat screen TV, a variety of chairs, couches, coffee tables and desks and an assortment of books, games and movies.  Most lounges have a few ethernet cables for accessing the internet.  There is no WIFI for the general population.  And no cellular service, which is both a curse and a blessing.

Other side of the lounge, with a view overlooking
Ross Sound and the Ice Pier.

Each resident takes a turn in keeping the dorm clean.  Janitors clean the restrooms but residents vacuum, mop and sanitize the other public areas, as well as their rooms.  These “house mouse” duties, as they’re called, are assigned by the Resident Administrator or RA.  

Dining room early in the morning.  It's usually pretty crowded.

Meals are served at the galley (think cafeteria or mess hall).  It seats a little over 300 people.  Meals times are generally 2-3 hours in length, three or four times a day.  A midnight lunch meal was added a few weeks ago to accommodate those working the night shift.

Inside the galley.

There is a wide variety of food and plenty of it.  It is good, especially the breads and desserts.  You can make yourself a deli sandwich or panini, and pizza is available a good part of the day.  In the morning I usually have two eggs over easy or an omelette (made to order), yogurt with fruit, and a danish or turnover.  You can eat healthy, or not.  So far I’ve been good and have actually lost 4-5 pounds since I got here.  I guess that’s not normally the case.

The Glacier Deli and salad and dessert bars.

As many of you know, I enjoy coffee.  The coffee here is good which was a pleasant surprise.  When I was warned it might not be good I mailed myself a 5-cup coffee maker and six pounds of Peet’s French Roast (both decaf and regular).  Recently I’ve been making a pot in my room.   It’s a morning treat that gets me out of bed. And I've become an herbal tea drinker.  That's what I have with my lunch and dinner.

Right now there are plenty of fresh veggies and fruit but that will end in the next week or so when the C-17s stop flying between Christchurch and McMurdo.  The C-17s, based at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State, are the work horses because of the large payloads they can handle.  I’ve been warned to enjoy the “freshies” while I can because the C-17s flights won’t begin again until January.  This will also affects mail delivery.

C-17 at Phoenix Airfield.  Photo by Colin Harnish.

All in all, I’m very happy with life here in McMurdo.  That’s not to say I don’t miss my little house on Frazer Lane and all my friends and family.  But compared to the early Antarctic explorers, I have it quite nice.  

  • As of November 25 there are 895 people in McMurdo.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Working at McMurdo Station

I know there are long delays between posts.  It seems I have little time for anything but eating, sleeping and working.  The first two plus weeks I worked 6 9-hour days, with Sundays off.  But on Monday, November 5th I started a new schedule.  I’m now working 5 11-hour days with Fridays and Sundays off.  Even though the work days are longer, it’s nice to have two days off each week. I’ll try to be a little more regular with my posts.

McMurdo Station from the Hut Point Loop Trail.

In Shuttles we have day and night shifts Monday thru Saturday.  The shifts are generally 0600 to 1800 and 1800 to 0600 the next day.  I’m working days.  Shift times can vary a little in order to cover all our scheduled runs and to accommodate changes, particularly the arrival and departures of aircrafts.  I’ve started as early as 0515 in order to do a 0530 run.  

Just a note about the times.  As you can see, we use the 24 hour format.  In order to get used to it I’ve changed my phone and my Fitbit (which I use as my watch) to that format.  It’s taking a while to get used to the change.  Afternoons seems to be the hardest for me.

Delta Gale at Phoenix Airfield.

So what do I do?  As the name implies, in Shuttles we transport people around McMurdo Station and the surrounding area.  Many of our shuttle runs involve transporting passengers and workers to and from the two airfields.  The vehicle we use depends on the number of passengers.  I have mostly been driving our vans which seat 7-14 people.  But I’ll also be driving a Delta, which seats 14-17 people.  There are also two large vehicles, the Kress and Ivan the Terror Bus (pictured in my last post), which seat 72 and 56 passengers, respectively.  

Before each shift, each vehicle is inspected before being put into service.  The vehicles are serviced based on the number of hours instead of miles.  Many of the vehicles are plugged in when not in use to keep the engines warm.  The vehicles are exposed to the elements all year round.  It’s a tough life for vehicles here on the Ice.  My car doesn’t realize how good it has it sitting in the garage.

My friend Shuttle Bill with the Kress.

What about the roads?  On Ross Island, which is where McMurdo is located, the roads are carved out of volcanic rock.  Once you leave the island and on to the ice shelf, the roads are a mixture of ice and snow.  The snow roads, as they’re called, are continually being groomed.  The road maintenance crews do a pretty good job of keeping them in good driving shape.  But changing weather conditions, like snow, wind and sunshine, makes it a challenge to keep the surfaces compacted.

Shuttle Rex in front of one of the vans.

Besides driving, each person in Shuttles takes a turn at dispatching.  It can get pretty hectic taking phones calls for rides and vehicle requests, monitoring two channels on the radio system, updating the vehicle status and aircraft status boards and numerous other tasks.  There are a lot of moving pieces and I’m impressed with the seasoned folks who can juggles all these tasks with ease.  I’m still working to get there.

I’m including a few pictures from a recent hike.  In a couple of months I’ll take some photos of the same area once the ice has melted.  Right now there are Weddell seals laying on the ice in front of Ross Island giving birth to their pups.  Penguins probably won’t show up for another month or so, if at all.  I hope to see both the Emperor and Adelie penguins, so stay tuned.  A few people have seen skuas, a gull like bird.  They are bigger than the sea gulls we see in the States but similar in they are both scavengers.

The Ross Island coast line to the west of McMurdo Station.

  • It’s continuously light until the next sunset which will be February 20, 2019. 
  • A couple of new weather terms I’ve not heard before.  Today our weather was “gloomy” and there are a couple of frontal systems “conspiring together” as they head towards McMurdo.  Actually, very descriptive terms.
  • There are currently 850 people at McMurdo Station.
  • I posted a link to the Nova series on McMurdo Station.  They are here right now filming. It will give you additional information on life at McMurdo and some of the ongoing research. 

The view of the Royal Society mountain range from the office and my dorm.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

I finally made it

I know it’s been a while since I last posted an update.  Why, you ask?  Well, the short answer is that I’ve been busy settling in and learning my new job as a shuttle driver.  And adjusting.  I’ll attempt to bring everyone up to speed.

I made it to McMurdo on Thursday, October 18 after having spent sixteen days in Christchurch, NZ.  As much as I loved Christchurch I was ready to head to my new home on the continent of Antarctica (the Ice).  There are still stories and pictures I want to share about my time in New Zealand but I’ll save those for later.

After putting on our Extreme Cold Weather clothing, going through customs and checking in our luggage at the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) Passenger Terminal in Christchurch, we boarded our flight to the Ice.  I flew on a chartered plane, an Airbus, that was very comfortable with lots of windows.  Once the captain turned off the seat belt sign we were able to spread out in large empty areas on the plane.  I even laid down and snoozed for a while.  

All ready for the Ice.

Normally USAP participants are transported via US Air Force C-17s but because of the weather delays chartered flights were used to supplement the C-17s.  The C-17s can handle roughly 150 passengers and cargo whereas the Airbus hold about 60 passengers.  Because of the weight limits on the Airbus, I was limited to 30 pounds and a carry-on.  The remainder of my luggage arrived two days later.

It was an amazing trip.  It took five and a half hours to travel the 2300 miles.  About two thirds of the way there we started seeing sheets of ice. Once we got closer to land we started seeing mountains and glaciers.  Everything was white or either shades of gray.

A sea of ice.
Land ho!

The runways at McMurdo are on the Ross Ice Shelf.  Landing on ice was way cool and very smooth.  The Australian flight crew knew what they were doing.  We traveled the nine miles to McMurdo on Ivan the Terra Bus.  After dinner and a welcome briefing, we got our room and roommate assignments.  

Phoenix runway near McMurdo with Royal Society mountains
in the background.  Photo by Colin Harnish.
My ride into McMurdo.

One of the other shuttle drivers asked me while we were in Christchurch if I’d be interested in rooming together.  Since we seemed compatible, I said yes.  His name is Eric and is from Colorado.  He has worked two other seasons as a shuttle driver, and after taking last year off, is returning for his third season.  It’s great having him around because of his knowledge and experience.

Our first room was in a dorm centrally located (near work and the dinning hall) which was convenient.  Our room did not have a thermostat so we were at the mercy of whatever the temperature was set for our quarter of the dorm.  At times the room was sweltering, other times freezing. The fan ran constantly and the air coming through the vent was very loud.  My sinuses were not at all happy and I developed a sinus infection.  The noise made it difficult to sleep.  In fact, I slept with my noise cancelling headphones on for the first week and a half.  

But I’m happy to report that we have since moved.  The lodging folks were very understanding (thank you!) and we’re now in a dorm room where we can control the temperature and the vent is much quieter.   Last night was the best I’ve slept since I’ve been here.  So things are looking up.

Weather wise, it’s been up and down.  Some days are sunny and calm, while others are cloudy and windy.  I’m finding that 0 degrees doesn’t seem all that cold as long as you are dressed appropriately, and there isn’t any wind.  I think it’s been as low as -8 degrees and as high as 20 degrees since I’ve been here.  The wind chill has been a low as -30 degrees. We’ve had steady winds up to 20-30 mph.  Thank goodness it’s spring!  The weather will continue to moderate over the next three months with temperatures in December and January in the 30s.

My next post will be about the work I’m doing and what life is like on the Ice.  But in closing, they say Antarctica is the driest, coldest, windiest and most isolated continent in the world.  All of that is true, but it is also very beautiful.  On a clear day the views are stunning and take my breath away.

The cross at Hut Point near McMurdo.  Photo by local resident.

One last Antarctic Adventure

I promise this will the be the last post.  But I wanted to share with you one of the most powerful experiences I had while on the Ice. ...