Sunday, October 30, 2005

happy halloween from antarctica!

this year I went as a bus driver. :)

in the photo, I am driving Ivan the Terra Bus out to the runway on the frozen ice shelf to pick up some passengers that had just arrived from the south pole. the seat is about ten feet off the ground, requiring me to climb up a metal ladder on the side of the vehicle and grab the steering wheel to haul myself in. the ice runway is in use from october through early december, when it thaws to the point that the ice becomes unstable and we're driving through ten-inch-deep puddles of water. at that time, air operations move to williams and pegasus fields, more permanent runways further out from mcmurdo. as shuttle drivers, we must learn to drive a variety of vehicles on a variety of frozen and thawing surfaces, and anytime we leave town we must carry our extreme cold-weather gear in an orange cargo bag, complete with snacks and foot- and hand-warmers. I am wearing my carhartt parka with fur-lined hood, leather work gloves (they come in handy when doing dirty work like checking fluid levels), a knit hat to conserve body heat and sunglasses to prevent snow blindness in the land of the midnight sun. oh, and a liberal slathering of 30+spf sunscreen -- we're under the hole in the ozone layer here.

here is a view from Observation ("Ob") Hill, taken by someone that is not myself. (the one time I attempted to scale the hill, the wind nearly blew me to new zealand. I will wait for warmer weather.) mcmurdo station consists of a bunch of metal buildings intersected by gravel roads and wires strung on poles. in condition one weather, 'lifelines' are strung between buildings to enable people to get to the dining hall or the dorms without wandering out into the storm and getting lost (and summarily frozen). it could be an outpost in greenland, or on the moon, populated by machines -- the huge stillness punctured by the sounds of loaders and forklifts beeping, helicopters buzzing and trucks gunning their diesel-fueled engines.

in addition to a number of dorms and the dining hall (still referred to sometimes as "berthing" and "the galley" as a throwback to the days when the navy ran the USAP program), there are buildings to house the vehicle maintenance facility, the heavy machinery shop, the carpentry shop, paint supplies, waste management, IT and communications, helicopter ops, and the power and water plants, as well as a chapel, a state-of-the-art laboratory, two gymnasiums (one with a bowling alley and climbing wall), a coffee house, two bars (smoking and non-smoking) and a greenhouse. we have a post office, so I guess that makes us our own little town. this is a town where all the inhabitants eat, work, sleep and play together around the clock, with a common lingo and a common purpose -- ostensibly, to further the research and understanding of terra australis incognita for the good of humankind. (personally, I think our large presence on the continent -- three year-round bases, including the only permanent south pole station -- is mainly a show of political power for the day when a war is fought over water rights and we are sitting on the continent that holds 90% of the world's fresh water. but science is pretty important too.)

well, my workday is almost over, so I'll sign off for now. happy halloween!


Sunday, October 23, 2005

all directions north

greetings from mcmurdo station, antarctica!

I've been on the seventh continent for almost two weeks now, and this has been my first chance to sit and jot down a few of my thoughts.

we flew in from christchurch on the 11th and went straight to work. between training sessions, driving duties, survival school, trying to squeeze in 8 hours of sleep and a run on the treadmill here and there, and the copious amounts of recreational activities that are seemingly shoved at us from every direction, I'm lucky to be able to eat, socialize and occasionally bathe.

I'm having a fabulous time. the food is surprisingly good, my roommates are cool, the extreme-weather gear they've issued us isn't too terribly ugly, the dining hall is in the first floor of my dorm so I don't need to 'gear up' to go to meals, my team is comprised of some pretty wonderful people, and -- most of all -- my job is the envy of almost the entire station. shuttle drivers have the best of both worlds: our jobs take us outdoors, where we can see the awesome beauty of our surroundings and meet folks coming to and leaving from the Ice, but we're sheltered in our vehicles from the punishing cold and wind. (today a 'condition one' was announced for a couple of hours at the station, which means that one of the following applied: visibility of less than 100 feet, wind chill of -100 degrees, or wind over 55 knots.)

apart from all of that, my biggest impression of mcmurdo station, antarctica, is that it looks and feels in many ways like baganuur township, mongolia. the dirty snow that doesn't melt for months; people wearing ridiculous amounts of clothing hurrying by with their faces turned away from the wind; the storm-scoured peaks and plains; and the coarsely built, corrugated-metal boxes and quonset huts that serve as offices, cargo bays, dormitories and storage. when it comes to surviving a harsh environment, both soviet and national science foundation architect-planners have it right: practicality over looks.

I've just returned from the ice runway tower, where I drove to pick up a weatherman before the conditions necessitated the closing of the road. before departing, I stocked my van with my ECW (extreme cold weather) gear, some snacks in case I got snowed in, a full water bottle, and a hand-held radio in addition to the dashboard radio. by the time I reached the runway, visibility was such that I couldn't see the next flag down the road -- 150 feet away. I radioed in my van number, my location, the number of souls on board, and my estimated time to arrival. the firehouse announced condition one just before I returned.

our duties mainly consist of answering taxi calls around 'town,' going out to the ice runway to pick up or drop off passengers or aircraft/ground crew, and providing regular shuttle service to the scott base (the new zealand station two miles away). our fleet consists of ford E-350 vans outfitted with monster-truck tires, a pickup truck, three 'airporter' type vans that seat 18, three deltas (huge orange vehicles consisting of a cab and passenger box connected by an articulated waist -- see photo), and Ivan the Terra Bus -- the pride of our operation -- a gargantuan bread box on ballon tires that seats 56 and has a turning radius of about a quarter mile. (there are only 7 terra buses in existence, the other 6 used in the canadian arctic.) they all have climate controlled interiors, and some even have stereos on which we can listen to the mcmurdo radio station. I seem to hear "brass in pocket" by the pretenders and "it's not unusual" by tom jones more often than any other songs.

I'm going to attempt to blog on a regular basis, but please be warned -- this is my first foray into the weblog world, and I'm busier than a fart in a frying pan down here. I am thinking of all of you and hoping this reaches you in good health and good spirits.

condition one love,