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!

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