Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nacreous Winfly

We are well into Winfly now. We have had four flights come down, raising our population from 153 to over 500. It feels very crowded and crazy now, though I have to keep in mind that the McMurdo population can top 1200 in the summer. Yikes.

If it weren't for the freshies, it would be tough. We've had fresh salads, pineapple, bananas, and kiwi fruit. I've been gorging on it after seven months of frozen yuck food. I feel healthier already.

Along with the "orange people" (winterovers' term for the loud, tanned invaders) and freshies, we've been having some nice nacreous clouds lately. I took these on a trip back to Mac Town from Pegasus, where I was installing a new antenna on one of the air traffic control buildings. It was -47F out there at the time, and a little breezy. I ended up having to fiddle with some cold metal hardware for a long time, and I got really cold. It took me hours to thaw out. I froze some more today-- NOAA is having problems with some of their satellite equipment, and I had to go up on top of a building to check it out. It was -20F and HOWLING wind. I got an "ice cream headache" just from the wind on my forehead. I have about five weeks left on the ice, and I'm hoping I don't have to get that cold again.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sun and Freshies!

Yesterday I went out to Pegasus to finish up some work on a radio antenna. Day before yesterday was the official first sunrise, but it was very overcast on that day, so nobody saw the sun. Yesterday I didn't get out to the runway until after 2, and I didn't even bring a camera. I didn't think I'd get to see the sun that late. Turns out it was still up, and I got to see it again-- the first time in four months. I got these pictures from Chad Carpenter, an electrician working on the power plant project. Awesome.

The flight, after being delayed for two days due to weather, got here at 12:36 today. I scored three bananas and an apple! After months and months of every day being the same, we now have some new inhabitants. Ten people left on the flight today, and about 130 new ones came in. It's going to take some getting used to. We joke about the "invasion of the orange people", but in reality it is nice to see some new faces. I lucked out and didn't get a roommate yet. That's going to be the biggest bummer after having a single room all winter. Six more weeks, and I'll be flying the friendly skies again!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Black Island, Winfly

It has been a very eventful week. Last Monday I got to go on a traverse to Black Island. The BITF (Black Island Telecommunications Facility) is our satellite earth station-- our link back to the real world. McMurdo isn't a great place for a satellite station, due to Mount Erebus blocking our view. BI has two "golf balls"-- big kevlar geodesic enclosures for the satellite dishes. There are a few small interconnected buildings, including a bunk house, kitchen, equipment room, and generator room. I had never been there, so it was a nice road trip. I went with my coworker, Antz Powell (, a mechanic, and the safety guy. We took off from McMurdo about 9AM in two Pistenbullys.

Black Island is only about 20 miles away as the crow flies, but it is a six hour journey in a Pistenbully. The ice shelf is badly melted out on the "front side" (facing north, toward McMurdo), and is unpassable. We had to go between Black and White islands, around the back of Black Island and up to the station over land. Pistenbullys are designed for grooming ski areas, and are not at all suitable for long trips over rough ground. The driver's seat has a shock absorber, but (my) passenger seat is rigidly mounted. Riding in one is rather like falling down the stairs for six hours. Ouch.

On our trip around BI, we turned into the sun, and were driving into one of the most incredible sunsets I've ever seen, for hours. This time of year we basically have six hours of sunrise, six hours of sunset, and twelve hours of darkness. As of this trip, the sun hadn't broken the horizon yet. There is a phenomenon called Fata Morgana, caused by atmospheric layers on the ice. Objects are stretched and distorted vertically, so that an island might look like a mesa in Monument Valley. The Fata Morgana I saw during that long sunset were incredible. Islands on the horizon were stretched into mesas, then into rabbits and dragons, geysers and clouds. (No, I haven't lost my mind yet-- it really is that wild.)

BI is one of the windiest places on Earth. We have a monitor in our shop in McMurdo that displays environmental data and various measurements of the equipment there. The station is unmanned in the winter, so we need to be able to keep a close eye on the empty station to make sure everything is functioning properly. I frequently look up at the monitor to see that the winds are over 100MPH there. Luckily, the weather was good for our trip. When we arrived it was about -20F and calm outside, and about -30F inside the bunkhouse. Antz lit the Preway (heater) and we had the place reasonably warm in a few hours.

Once we got the place warm, it was a nice cozy spot. Both of the nights we spent out there, I slept great. I was just out there as more of less a 'safety buddy'-- I didn't have much work to do there. I haven't been reading much here in Mac Town, but I took that opportunity to get caught up. I devoured a thriller/mystery book called Oblivion by Peter Abrahams. A gripping read.

Tuesday afternoon Antz and I took a Pistenbully down to the 'front side transition'. That's where there is a road that comes straight from McMurdo to BI. It is so extremely windy near the island that gravel is stripped away, blowing out onto the ice shelf. In the summer the sun heats the dirt and gravel, causing huge melt pools. There are holes four or five feet deep, and ice blobs that are as big as twenty feet high.

The Pistenbully ride down to the front side transition was brutal. It was only about three or four miles, but the road is bad, and the Pistenbully transmits every pebble right up your spine. I took a few pictures down at the transition, and hiked back up to the base, leaving Antz to drive back alone. It was about -30F out, but I was hiking hard, so I was toasty warm. My glasses frosted up at one point, so I took them off. The plastic frames were so cold that they snapped in two. Thank God for some Super Glue back at the BI station, or I would have been in fuzzyland for the rest of the trip.

We had an uneventful trip back, except for six more hours of spinal compression. Yesterday was supposed to be Winfly, the first flight into McMurdo for six months. The flight had a 24 hour delay, and was delayed again today. We've lived without fresh veggies and mail for that long, so a lot of people are looking forward to the flight. There also is a lot of dread of the massive influx of folks were are getting. It's a hard adjustment from living with 153 people you know well, to 550 tanned, talkative newcomers. Stay away from my coat hook!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Final Radio Darts

Sunday now, getting caught up on my blogging. Friday was the final night of Radio Darts for the season. It's a tradition that goes back a ways, from what I understand. The idea is, a crew of us yanks heads over the hill to Scott Base every Friday, playing darts with the Kiwis. The South Pole station plays us, and gives us their scores over HF radio. The Pole folks haven't shown up for darts this year, so we've just been playing the Kiwis.

I'm a mediocre dart player at best, but I still have a good time. Now that Winfly is almost here, we're putting an end to darts for the season. It'll leave an empty place on Friday nights, but I'm sure there will be other things to do. I'm never at a loss for things to do here.

Final Trivia Night

Thursday was the final trivia night of the year. Trivia has been a high point of my season here-- it's always a hoot. My coworker, Keith "Grump" Roberts (in the blue Hawaiian shirt) is the mastermind behind the trivia questions, and is the emcee of the proceedings. My team squeaked out a win this time-- there is a lot of tough competition.

My team is called 32W, because there are 32 winter seasons between the six of us. My parters in crime are Antz and Christine Powell, Lisa Welfare, Sean Halsey and Shandra Cordovano. We have a good mix of music, movie, history, and geography knowledge between us, so we usually do okay. It also helps that Antz is a long time coworker of Grump's, and is sharp at spotting trivia questions that have been asked before.

We've been having a huge push of work lately. Just four days until the first plane of Winfly arrives (weather permitting). There has been a lot of prep work needed to make sure we're ready for the huge influx of population we expect over the next week. I spent a good chunk of last night and today breaking down my room to get ready for an (ack!) roommate. I had it quite pimped out, with a king sized bed with four mattresses, and was living in style all winter. No more. Now it's a dorm room for two. Oh well, at least we'll get freshies.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Well, I just passed the six month mark in my season. Two more months to go! It has been rapidly getting lighter out-- the first sunrise will be in nine days. The activity level has really been ramping up, too. Have to get all the radios and wireless data networks up for the massive influx of people. Our population is going to go from 153, to over 500 over a couple of days. There is a lot of anticipation of the freshies that are coming down, but a considerable amount of dread, too. Lots of tanned and talkative tourists about to descend on us poor, pale, trembling wretches.

A lot of my work over the last few days has been getting the Pegasus airfield up and running. Several of the buildings there have wireless internet, which is all removed over the winter when the runway is disassembled and stored. This picture of me was taken by coworker Dave Benson who was helping me fix an antenna mast that had snapped off when the building was moved from the storage berm to be repositioned.

We've been having killer nacreous clouds lately. They are irridescent, pearly stratospheric ice clouds that are only seen near the poles. I haven't been able to get any good pics yet, but I'll try. To me, the PSCs are quite a bit more spectacular than the auroras. On a good day, the whole sky looks like it's on fire. It looks a lot like mother of pearl, or abalone shell, except the colors are bright orange, pink, blue and white. The picture of Mac Town was taken about 11 AM from the Pegasus shortcut road, about a mile out. The huge hulk you see behind the town is Mt Erebus, a 12,000 foot active volcano. It's hard to spot in that pic, but there is a plume of smoking coming out of the top.