Thursday, October 23, 2014

Not exactly a desk job

Current McMurdo weather at the time of writing: 8F ambient, -36F wind chill.  Blowing snow and 1/8th mile visibility.

The weather has been uncooperative for the last couple weeks; not necessarily worse than normal, but it's been bad for much longer periods of time. This has lead to a lot of logistical problems, primarily that we've still got people stuck in Christchurch waiting for the weather to clear long enough to fly them down.  But it's also caused problems in our department, because we can't get to any of the places we need to work on our equipment.

So two days ago the weather FINALLY broke for long enough that we could get up the hill to the "Beach Ball" to troubleshoot one of our long-range wireless links.

We're heading over to the other side of the far hill, where you can just see the wind turbines peaking over the ridge

Even on clear days, this is still a hostile and intense environment that can change quickly.  Always pack your ECW gear when heading off station, for any length of time.

The best vehicle we could get at the time was a standard pickup, not even one of the lifted big-wheel trucks or even better, a Mattrack.  This was going to limit how far we could drive, so a good chunk of this was going to be on foot.

Passing the various mix of heavy equipment and other Antarctic machinery on the road.

On the other side and heading up the hills, the wind turbines start to come into view.  The Kiwis built them a while ago and they mostly supply electricity to the nearby Scott Base, and we get whatever is left over.

That white and orange striped dome, the "Beach Ball" is our destination

T-site, the big antenna array on the top of the hill, is as far as we can go in the truck.  From here on, the snow drifts are too deep and treacherous for a normal wheeled vehicle; someone had actually gotten stuck here earlier in the day and a tractor had to pull them out. 

So here on out, we're on foot.

Where someone had gotten stuck earlier.  Snow like this can be extremely deceptive.
The station is mostly down in the wind shadow of this hill, but up here it's almost always brutal.  While it looks nice and sunny, the air was barely above 0F and the wind was nudging over 40mph. Hence, all the wind turbines.

A bit over a mile of hiking gets us to the beach ball, the main long-range link to the Black Island satellite unlink and mounting points for many other shorter-range wireless connections. 


Up to where the doohicky is that we need to work on!

Hrm, looks like it's pointing in the right direction...

We're shooting out to the one of the airfields, barely viewable as a disturbance way out there on the ice sheet.  But it was in the same place as last year, as is the antenna.  So let's go inside and see if we can figure out what's broken.

Ah ha, there's the problem!  The wrong blinky lights were blinking.  So a few keystrokes made the proper blinky lights blink, and everything was good again.  A long walk back to the truck (which we had left running) got us home by dinner.

If you are looking for an IT job where you get to sit in an office all day, I would suggest avoiding this continent.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


"Well it's not as much of a dump as I expected" - Some guy behind me on the bus

Going to Palmer Station sends you down through Chile for a week-long ride on the LMG, but going to McMurdo sends you through Christchurch in New Zealand, where you stay until the weather clears enough to fly down.  For my group this took the better part of a week, as the station was socked in with weather that prevented the planes from being able to land.

But it gave us plenty of time get all of our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear issued and sorted.  Due to the massively colder climate of McMurdo, they issue you far heavier duty gear than for traveling to the peninsula, including the infamous "Bunny Boots".

Nearly a week after getting to Christchurch (Chc, or "Cheech), we were finally loaded into a C-17 for the five-hour flight down.

First class luxury!
It's a massive head trip; you don't get the week of LMG ride to slowly acclimate yourself to the odd ice world, you just get off the C-17 after being in a modern city six hours ago, and it's big and white and cold and what the hell am I doing here?

The plane lands on a runway of compacted snow a few miles south of station, on the sea ice.  It's incredibly thick and strong, but I've heard from people on station that a C-17 is so heavy that on warmer days, they can't leave them parked in one spot for more than a few hours or they can start to bow the ice under them.

No time to waste, off to get into Ivan the Terra Bus for the 45-minute ride to station.

Ross Island with McMurdo station on the southern tip, way off in the distance

So here I am, oddly at the station that I initially dreamed about back in 2006 when I first started applying for the USAP.  But then Palmer happened, which was a strange and wonderful turn that was amazing. But now I'm here at McMurdo, the big city, doing a big-boy job (for big-boy money).  It's big and it's cold; there's ~600 people here now and at peak, we'll probably have around 900.  And while nighttime is long gone (it's light 24 hours and will be until March), the cold is still here in force and ambient air tempertures are barely poking above 0F, wind chills are deep into the -20s. 

Which is exactly what we all signed up for. :)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

And now for something completely different

And here we go again!

It's that time of year, time for us to stay making our ways through various airports to begin the journey south. And for me a very different experience than prior seasons. 

This year I've passed up the homey comforts of Palmer Station for a job in the big city; I'm heading to McMurdo this year, along with about a thousand other people. And I've traded my wrenches and hammers for a keyboard; while I've spent three seasons as a mechanic, my actual career is in IT and that's where I'm working now. I'll be spending the '14-'15 summer season as a Network Administrator; it's only metaphorical tubes I'm unclogging now, instead of literal ones. (And strangely, despite a vastly lower likelyhood of dealing with poop, they're paying me a lot more). 

So it all begins again; already I can spot other ice people in the airport, identifiable not just by our USAP luggage tags but by the unique style of dress that I've heard described as a cross between a hobo and construction worker. It's a few more days of airports for us, and then we'll get crammed into the back of a C-130 for a flight from Christchurch down to McMurdo. Down to a very different world, a very different lifestyle. Down to the ice. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Port Lockroy

We left station on Monday, March 31st, to begin the week long sail up the Antarctic Peninsula and back to Chile.  Yet my adventures for this season were not over yet; due to a combination of good planning and fortuitous weather, we got to make a tourist stop on the way north.

Just past the entrance to the Neumayer Channel, we stopped to drop a couple Zodiacs in the water and pay a visit to Port Lockroy.

Dressed in the latest Antarctic fashions.

Port Lockroy, and the area around it, was initially used as a whaling site in the 1910s and 20s before the British Military established Port Lockroy Base during World War Two.  It continued to function as a scientific research establishment up until the mid 1960s, when it was abandoned due to lack of need.

In the mid 1990s the base was renovated by UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, and since then it functions as a museum and post office for the many cruise ships that ply the waters during the warm summer months.  The station is small; even during it's heyday it housed ~10 men, and currently during the three month summer tourist season there is a staff of just four.  Very little science is conducted here now; there is some continuous monitoring of the local penguin populations, but besides that it's all tourism and educational outreach.  There was a new hut built behind the station to house the summer crew, and the old station has been restored to mostly original condition, with genuine artifacts from the period still there, or brought in from other stations that were long ago torn down (To give extra authenticity, I suppose).

This late in the season the snows have started to fall again and the summer crew has long since left, as have most of the cruise ships.  But the building is open, for any visitors who are so inclined to land and go for a wander.

The building is unlocked, unheated and there's no power, as the generators are long shut down for the season.  There is, however, an inter-ship message board for use to pass notes off to other visitors in the future.

Once inside, you're free to wander about as you like.

Showers and baths, due to the huge amount of water required, were a rare luxury at the old Antarctic stations (And even at many of the new ones).  All members of the crew would take turns on the daily task of gathering clean snow to be melted for fresh water, and as a reward for doing the chore you were permitted to wash yourself.  With a ten man crew, this worked out to having a bath once every nine days.  The Hilton it was not; makes our life at Palmer seem absolutely luxurious by comparison.

But as small and remote as this station was, it was still British and that means a bar was mandatory.

I gather the lounge/dining room/bar area is the most frequently used by the tourists for stamping of passports and such.  It was the only one not winterized with sheets over everything, and had a small selection of information pamphlets and brochures.

I guess they didn't lack for reading material.  

That's, um, not the sort of women's magazine I would have expected to see here.  I wonder how much of the station has been "tactfully edited" to present a slightly more tourist-friendly veneer.

The head.  That's a bit more of what I would expect.

The rest of the station had been tidied up and closed down for the season, but the information plaques were still up and gave detailed information about the station's past and present.

The original crew's living quarters.  The modern summer tourist crew lived here as well, up until the early 2000s (I think) when the new berthing hut was built behind the old station.

Apparently these paintings were done by one of the founders in the 40s and covered up sometime in the 50s.  They were discovered and carefully restored during renovation work in the 90s.

Yum, who wants some tasty botulism?

Man, science was WAY more impressive looking in the olden days.

Ah, finally a place I can relate to.  The workshop, which is apparently still used semi-frequently by work crews doing general maintenance and upkeep to the station.  It's hard to tell the old-timey tools from the modern ones; the core tools of the trades haven't changed much in the last 50 years.  I'd have no second thoughts about grabbing most of these and going right to work.

What passed for the IT department back in the day.

Port Lockroy is funded completely by the tourist shop and post office that caters to all the cruise ship tourists passing through during the summer.  Oddly, this little place is one of (if not the) most frequently visited locations on the whole continent; during the high summer season, they'll see 2-3 ships visiting every day.  The income from the shop and the post office is enough to fund the station, as well as providing function for conservation work at other UK Antarctic Heritage sites.

Sadly, the store was closed and locked, and we didn't have an UK currency to send a card home with.  Besides, by now it wouldn't have gone out until the start of the next tourist season, in November.

And once we wander back outside the station, what do we find in huge numbers?


Penguins everywhere!


Port Lockroy and it's surrounding area is home to a very large Gentoo penguin colony.  As opposed to the Adelies that breed in the Palmer Station area, the Gentoos are a little bit larger and can be distinguished by their orange beaks and white eye patches.  For many people, a Gentoo is "the" stereotypical bird that most people imagine when they think of penguins.

They're a bit smarter, more aggressive, and a bit less skittish then the Adelies.  They don't even look at you until you're within arm's reach, and sometimes can be so directly underfoot that you almost trip on them if you're not paying attention to where you're going.


It is impossible to not be happy when a penguin waddles by.  How can you not smile at a creature so silly?!

It's either the attack of the giant penguins, or invasion of the tiny Melanies.  Not quite sure which.

Some of us tried to communicate with the penguins in their native language.  I don't think they noticed.

Gentoos breed and hatch a little bit later in the season than the Adelies.  While the penguins around Palmer all molted and fledged back in February, there's still quite a large number of them loosing their baby fluff here at the tail end of March.

DoJo, our station doctor who was with us on the trip north, has been here before when working on cruise ships in the middle of the season, and said the penguins are packed so densely you almost have to knee them out of the way to get to the museum.  I can't imagine what this place must smell like then, in the height of summer with the sun baking everything.  

After an hour or so of wandering around the station, we piled back into the zodiacs to make a quick trip over to one of the neighboring islands, where there had been a whaling station in the early part of the last century. 

It had been torn down long ago, but there were still some impressive whale bones laying around.

Penguins inserted for scale

Blah blah blah, history lesson over. You just want more pictures of penguins, don't you?

I think this photo, or the one directly below, is probably one of the best Gentoo pictures I've ever taken.

Eventually we couldn't delay any longer, and it was time to leave.  We made our way back over the island, back to the zodiacs to return to the LMG and continue our ride north.  What a place this is . . .

Port Lockroy in the background, with the new berthing building visible.

Yes . . . this planet is a good planet.  I think I will stay on it for a while.