Sunday, September 24, 2006

we walk by sound, not by sight.

mcmurdo had a pretty good blizzard this past week.

on tuesday, a low pressure system moved into the area, resulting in high winds and blowing snow all over town. the airstrip was completely obscured from view, and drifts were piling up in doorways and alleys.

on wednesday morning at around 1030, mac weather (the weather observers and forecasters) called the chalet and told us that the storm was pretty bad, and set to worsen within a few hours. they recommended that we contact all work centers and have managers account for all their personnel. everyone working outside or on the runway was brought into a building where, if a condition I was called, they would be warm, comfortable, and have access to food and drink. (during a condition I, no one is allowed to leave whatever building they happen to be in at the time. if you must leave, you need to call the firehouse for an escort. if the condition I encompasses a mealtime, you can get to the dining hall by following a 'lifeline' set up by the JSART - the Joint Search and Rescue Team.)

the wind picked up. visibility was for jack. I spent the final hour of the morning calling departmental directors, asking them to account for all their workers. 'non-essential' personnel were sent home from work at around lunchtime. we ate lunch in the galley, looking out the large glass picture windows at the swirling white outside. ob hill was completely obscured. we could barely see the medical building, a hundred feet away.

a bunch of us decided to watch a movie in one of the dorm lounges that afternoon. someone suggested National Treasure, the nicholas cage movie from a couple of years ago. I had been curious to see the movie because a number of friends had mentioned these snow-tracked vehicles in it and had wondered if I drove something similar during my stint as a shuttle operator last season. the movie was cheesy fluff, of course. I grow weary of post-Leaving Las Vegas nicholas cage. (it seems to me, upon seeing 8 Below and now National Treasure, both Disney films, that Disney feels the need to include a goofy male character in all their films, someone who provides comic relief in tense situations and makes the male lead seem even more attractive to the female lead because he doesn't, unlike the goofy male character, live with his parents, make rude noises with his body, have crushes on unattainable foreign women, fall down helplessly when sled dogs lick his face, and so forth.) all this to say, however, that during the viewing, we actually felt the building shake. like someone was running into it with a bulldozer. winds outside were 50+ knots. and the snow vehicles in the film? yeah, we have something similar, called Tucker Terras. the ones in the movie were shinier, though.

the following morning, the winds had not yet abated, but condition I had not been called, so everyone reported to work at 0730 as usual. I left the dining hall and set out for the chalet, a couple of hundred yards away across a large open space near the crary laboratory and the science support center. as I got closer to the large open space, the wind got stronger. I had trouble standing up straight, much less walking, and was actively leaning forward somewhere between 60 and 75 degrees. my hood was acting as a sail, so I had to hold onto the furry edge of it and draw it down over my face, both to keep blowing snow from going down my collar and to prevent me from falling over backward. I tried to keep my chin tucked into my neck gaiter, and that helped, but my cheeks were going numb.

neck gaiters, by the way, are my favorite piece of antarctic clothing, the perfect jeans of extreme-cold-weather gear. they're nothing more than a little tube of polar fleece or something else warm and fuzzy, and they cover you from chin to collar, which works WONDERS in keeping your whole body warm. when your neck gets hot, you can move it up and wear it as a sort of topless hat. I've knitted a few for people as well. last season I made one out of this nubby gray-and-brown yarn my parents bought me in japan, and when I wear it on my head, it makes me look like a nuclear cooling tower or perhaps a furry lampshade.

I couldn't see anything more than a couple of feet in front of me. everything was white. I knew that the chalet was roughly straight ahead, but off to the right side of it was an incline that would take me downhill toward the helicopter pad, where I decidedly did NOT want to go.

under the sound of the wind howling down the pass was another, more staccato sound. it was familiar, and seemed to get louder as I walked. I realized what it was. there is a flagpole on the chalet deck, on the south side of the building. there's an american flag on it. that's what I was hearing -- the flag flapping madly in the wind. I followed it all the way to the front steps.

here's a photo of rhoda, one of the mechanics on the AGE (airfield ground equipment) team, after the wednesday storm. she got a little surprise when she opened the back door.

every sunday night, a grantee gives a presentation to the wider mcmurdo community about whatever he or she is researching. talks range from glaciers to penguins to atmospheric balloons to volcanoes to icebergs. tonight, the presentation is a film, and the grantee is a filmmaker. her name is anne aghion, and she makes documentaries. she's here as part of the NSF's artists & writers program to make a film about the people who come to work in antarctica. (werner herzog, another filmmaker whose latest work in the theatres was Grizzly Man, will be here later in the season as part of the same program. according to his proposal, he wants to capture the 'ecstatic truth' of the continent. yes, he actually used that phrase. very cool.)

anne's two previous films are about the mass killings in rwanda in 1994, and the country's struggle to live in the aftermath of these killings. a few weeks ago, she showed her first film, Gacaca: Living Together Again?, and tonight's film is called In Rwanda We Say: The Family that Does Not Speak Dies. it won an Emmy award.

anne is interviewing people down here to use as possible footage for her next film, and she interviewed me on thursday. I have no idea whether I'll end up in the finished product, but who knows?

you can read more about anne's work at

last weekend, there was a party at Scott Base, the kiwi base down the road from us. the theme was the letter 'P' -- and so your costume had to be something that starts with the letter P. there were the usual prostitutes, pimps, priests and prisoners, but also some admirably creative costumes -- a planet, a proctologist (complete with a rubber glove smeared with something brown and unspeakable), a black-eyed pea, the phantom of the opera, a parisian girl, a pyromaniac, and a pee flag (the yellow flag that marks the place in the snow where you should pee). here I am with my friends barry, michael and amber. we are -- respectively -- a plumber (which was boring on barry's part because he IS a plumber in real life), a panda (I tried coloring my nose black with eyeliner, but it just ended up looking creepy so I took it off), psilocybin (the chemical compound in magic mushrooms), and a pohnpeian woman (pohnpei is an island in micronesia, where amber lived for seven years). it's amazing what sorts of props and things you can come up with eight thousand miles from home.

happy happy weekend! sunday for me, saturday for you.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Two weeks of information overload.

Greetings all!

It's Saturday, 9 September 2006 at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. I'm sitting in the computer lounge. It's 4:45 pm. And I really could use a drink.

I've made it through the first two weeks of my new job. My brain hurts. I learn, on average, about eight thousand new things every day. And if I'm lucky, I retain about two hundred of them. Sometimes three hundred if I've had coffee.

What is this fantastically taxing new job, you ask? Well, I alluded to certain aspects of it in my last posting. Now that I have a better handle (somewhat) on the detailed implications of my awesome responsibilities, I can go a little more in-depth.

The United States Antarctic Program is funded by the National Science Foundation to support science on and around the continent of Antarctica. Raytheon Polar Services Company is the largest component of the USAP, as it hires most of the support staff that come down here on seasonal contracts. Forklift operators, janitors, cooks, IT help desk personnel, office staff, and so forth are all hired by Raytheon. The Air National Guard provides support in the form of aircraft to get us both on and around the continent. There are other, smaller agencies as well -- like Petroleum Helicopters International (the helicopter contractor), NANA (which supplies the head chefs in the kitchen), and SPAWAR Office of Polar Programs (our air-traffic controllers and weather observers).

My job, the Senior Administrative Coordinator position, supports not only the Station Manager hired by Raytheon, but also the functions of all the different and disparate agencies that make up the USAP. For example, I take minutes at the weekly Supervisor's Meeting, which is attended by representatives of all agencies on station. I also oversee and manage the Morale Trip Program, which gets lucky folks off-station for short trips, either to sightsee or to work. I update the Key Contacts list, which contains phone and pager numbers for all the strategic positions on station, and send it out whenever there's a change. And I gather a weekly set of reports called the SITREP (situational report), edit them for formatting and style, and send the whole thing directly to the NSF. And about a million other things, some of which I thankfully have not yet been exposed to.

It's a much higher-altitude bird's-eye view than I had as a shuttle driver last season, but I feel my time as a driver prepared me well for this job because I was able to interact with folks from so many different departments as part of my daily routine. On any given day, I would provide rides, and scintillating conversation for Air Guardsmen, mechanics, painters, dining attendants, fuelies and many other types of employees. Chatting with them on the half-hour drive out to Williams Field gave me a good preliminary view of their roles on station and how they all fit together to support the program.

Dawn, the outgoing Senior Admin, has been in this position for three seasons and in Antarctica for thirteen. All I can say is thank God I have five weeks to turn over with her. I came in on August 26, the last flight of WINFLY (winter fly-in), and she is leaving on October 10. That gave us a good chunk of time for my training, and I really can't imagine what would have happened if we had less. Undoubtedly the station would go up in flames or scores of penguins would needlessly perish because of some spreadsheet I forgot to update or some meeting I neglected to attend.

Thankfully, Dawn is one of the more organized people I've met, and she's laid a lot of the groundwork for me -- all I'll need to do is jump in and take over where she left off. A lot of this will consist of talking to the right people, knowing where to access the right resources, and remembering the emergency bottle of tequila in the bottom left-hand drawer.

Really, though, I'm having a great time. Everything I'm learning is pretty fascinating, and I'm looking forward to a really good second season. And if any of you are hosting a party next summer for your in-laws and need someone to spout endless, dreadfully boring facts about the USAP to keep them occupied, please let me know.

Life in general is going very well down here. WINFLY is a sort of quiet time on station, when the first couple of hundred summer people arrive to prep for the summer season. Those crazy people who survived a dark and isolated winter are easily identifiable -- the men sport lush, Amishy beards, and everyone is a bit on the pasty side. There are a few parties, and some events organized by the Rec Department, but mostly everyone goes about their daily business and regards the month-long sunrise with appreciation and wonder. Here's a photo of a snowblaster clearing snow out on the sea ice runway, in preparation for the first C-17s of Mainbody to arrive.

In other news.

After almost eight years of living in the Pacific Northwest, I am finally worthy of being called a true Seattleite -- I learned to snowboard last Sunday.

Some friends and I checked out snowboards from Gear Issue (an office on station where you can borrow Halloween costumes, musical instruments, rock-climbing shoes and other sporting equipment) and headed off to Castle Rock for a strenuous hike and a ride down the hill. The trail itself is over seven miles long, and starts up the hill from McMurdo, heads north toward its eponymous volcanic outcropping. (See us in photo above, looking quite wee from the trailhead. I put in an arrow for easy location.) From the Rock itself, one can ski, snowboard or hike down the hill to the transition (the point where the continent meets the Ross Ice Shelf) and then walk all the way back to McMurdo via Scott Base (the New Zealand station). When we left after brunch, the weather was quite fine -- about -17F and clear. The days are getting longer and longer by ten minutes each at sunrise and sunset -- so today is twenty minutes longer than yesterday. In a few weeks, it'll be up for good and won't go down until February.

We hiked to Castle Rock and strapped on our bindings. Having never skiied, snowboarded or even surfed in my life, I felt a little strange attached to a slick-bottomed board with nothing but my wits and my muscles to keep me from ending up headfirst in a snowbank. The rest of our little party was much more experienced at snowboarding, so I was a bit of a liability, but they offered great advice and hid their amusement as I proceeded to shove off and summarily wipe out about thirty-seven times in a two-hour period.

Sometime during that period, the sun went away, the wind kicked up, and all of a sudden visibility was for absolute shite. Our goggles froze over and our hands and feet started to hurt. We reached the bottom of the hill and dusted ourselves off and made for home. Walking up the Scott Base Hill (the last mile and a half to McMurdo), the wind was buffeting us and our snowboards (which of course acted as sails), giving three people in our party minor frostbite and basically making us want to lay down and die. We later learned that the wind chill factor had been around -35F that evening.

We're going back out tomorrow. Gotta get up on the horse again, you know. Although I'm bruised and sore in places I never knew existed, it was the most exhilarating fun I've had in a long time (other than watching that seagull eat a starfish in Bellingham).

Coming back for a second season has been great. You see a lot of familiar friendly faces around town, and there's a lot of hugging and catching up. The new folks are pretty fun too. Here's a photo of me and new friend Amber, who lives across the hall. Amber used to live and work on Kwajalein, an island in the South Pacific (a surprising number of McMurdoites have done that) and is married to a cute Fijian man. She's a trainer in the Environmental Health & Safety department on station, so a large part of her job consists of telling people not to operate heavy equipment while drunk or fall from great heights. Raytheon is very good with the common sense like that. Safety first. Anyway, Amber and I (and Drew and Michael, who crashed the photo) were all at a Beach Party thrown by the Rec Department at Gallagher's, the non-smoking pub. Fake leis, pareos, little umbrellas in the drinks, and good music. And the perfect finishing touch was that I spotted some of the little fabric-and-wire flowers made for me last season by my best friend Cathy and her co-workers. A few of the girls were wearing them. So, Cathy, rest assured that your labor was not in vain -- almost a year later, the flowers are still bringing tropical cheer to a frozen corner of the world.

Here's today's weather report. Surprise - it's cold.