Sunday, December 21, 2014


December 21st marks the middle of the season, where the sun is the highest above the horizon for the longest period of time.  I haven't seen proper night since I got here, but from here on the sun will start getting lower until it finally start dipping below the horizon in early March.

But life mostly continues as whatever passes for normal down here.  The majority of the snow has melted out, leaving behind pockets on the shaded hills around station. 

The climate here is so dry that it's mostly just dirt and dust, but on particularly warm days the runoff turns all the roads into mud that require re-grading every couple days.

"Warm" is very relitive.  While the dark dirt absorbs the sunlight and melts out much of the snow on bright days, the ambient air temperatures are only into the upper 20s, at best.  And some days are still what you'd expect of this continent, cold and blowing.

But that's not going to stop people from having fun in creative ways.  Near Thanksgiving was the "Turkey Trot", a 5k race around station that's traditionally done in the most inappropriate and silly clothing you can find.

Including Hot Dog Man, observing on the left

If running around outside in mud and snow doesn't sound like your cup of tea, there's plenty going on indoors on any given day.

But really, it's all just people trying to entertain themselves in whatever ways they can.  There have been numerous psychological and neurological studies done that have found when the brain is completely deprived of stimulation, it's need for input is so great that it will create it's own..  Supposedly, that's the point of the new-age-hippy practice of sensory deprivation tanks, to remove outside stimulation to see what your mind comes up with on it's own.

We don't have that here, but we do have the Stewards/Janitors writing helpful messages on the urinal filters and cafeteria trays.  Hey, anything to stay amused.

Instructions for the officially discouraged practice of using the cafeteria trays as impromptu sleds

From my perspective, work continues as normal.  We're in the middle of the high season where the bulk of science happens, and the station is a perpetual hive of activity.  Many departments are running 24 hours a day with two or three shifts, as there is so much to do and a tiny sliver of time in which to get it done.  Trucks, forklifts and loaders are perpetually carrying stuff all over the place, and helicoptors are slinging cargo out to remote field stations at all hours of the day.

And digging things out from under snowbanks

Many science projects are fully set up and underway by now, streaming large volumes of data to the outside world.  And I'm (one of) the people ensuring that the data gets where it needs to go.

Inside one of the Long Duration Balloon hangers, one of the more visually impressive projects going on down here.

 I'm still making sure all the blinky lights keep blinking, and the boxes are plugged in to the other boxes.

All joking aside, the job is awesome.  Intimidating and at times overwhelming, but awesome.  It's a completely different work experience than my seasons at Palmer; working on plumbing and buildings, you're dealing with things you can physically see, tactile things that give immediate results.  Networking is the polar (heh) opposite; it's almost purely conceptual and Cisco's cryptic command structure doesn't make it any easier.  You'll find yourself typing in a string of commands that if translated into English, seem to have no relevance to each other. 

The upside is that networking actually DOES look as impressive as Hollywood always makes "hacking" and anything technical on computers out to be.  While most Sysadmin and PC Tech work these days is done with mouse clicks and very bland-looking windows, much network configuration is still done at command line, leaving me pounding away at a keyboard while gibberish scrolls quickly past my screen.  Or screens.

Two of the monitors are actually TVs that were going to be junked as the actual TV connectors had been broken off, but  the connectors I need still worked fine.

 I could have six monitors and probably still want more. When you're troubleshooting or configuring equipment remotely, you're coordinating seven or eight different tasks at the same time.  Having the screen real estate is a godsend, although I'll usually also have at least one or two laptops also running on my desk as well, for various technical reasons that I assure you are very boring.

But the job is exactly what I wanted it to be.  It's fully a trial by fire and I've learned more about networking in the last three months than I have in the entirety of my prior IT career.  Like most of IT, a properly set up network is totally transparent to the users and most people can get by with a knowledge of "I plug the cable from the wall into my computer and then the internet happens!".  But the reality of how it all works is complicated that I'm surprised it works at all.

There are literally thousands of individual things that need to happen in perfect harmony, in between your computer and another computer often on the other side of the planet, for you to successfully watch a video on Youtube of a kitten falling into a box. Tens of thousands, millions even, of individual packets of data leave a web server somewhere else, are broken up and sent through many different paths around the world, then all miraculously re-converge in the right order in your computer's network card.  I'm quite sure that if you'd described the internet on a technical level to even the most forward-thinking electrical engineer in the 1950s, they would have written the whole idea off as preposterous and unworkable. 

And on some days, I'm inclined to agree with them.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

MCI Drill - Mass Casualty Incident

McMurdo is huge by comparison to Palmer (~1,000 people vs 40) and as such has vastly more capable medical facilities.  However, we're still small by comparison to anything in the real world and while we do have a doctor and multiple other medical personnel on station year-round, our four-bed clinic is just that: a clinic.

Given how large our population is, and how much heavy equipment we have driving around, the possibility of a medical emergency that would completely overwhelm our facilities is very real.  So once a season, we have a Mass Casualty Incident drill; simulating an event with at least ten severely injured people that requires the entire medical and fire/rescue teams to run at full capacity.  We did similar drills like this at Palmer (where any more than a single injured person was considered a Mass Casualty Incident), but McMurdo has significantly more resources to make the drill more realistic.

This season's scenario was that during a party at one of the bars, there was a fire/explosion in the furnace room, resulting in multiple broken bones, lacerations, and lots of people generally running around and screaming.  And because I responded to the e-mail within ten seconds flat, I was one of the lucky people to get to act as an injured victim :D

We all gathered at the bar roughly half an hour before the drill was to start.  They already had the fog machine going at full tilt, to provide a nice hazy environment for the firefighters to have to search through.

"Yes, I would like one alcohol please!" "I'm sorry, you must rescue at least three victims before you get bar privileges."

But then we got to break out the actual MCI kit, full of fake blood and prosthesis.  Various gloves and sleeves you could slide over different body parts to simulate an injury, and enough powder to make liters of fake blood! :D

There were to be a total of 14 victims, and there were plastic cards that we could attach to ourselves to tell our rescuers what our vital signs were supposed to be, as well as describing what injuries we had.  I immediately grabbed the one that said "Unresponsive, found laying in a pool of blood with a head injury."  Because . . . pool of blood!  :D

We didn't have long to prepare ourselves before the drill started.  Most people grabbed whatever prosthesis their injury cards specified; quite a few broken arms, broken legs, broken wrists, lacerations here and there. I was sad to see that no one wanted to go through the trouble of hooking up the squeeze pumps to simulate a gushing blood injury; most people just got a couple drops of fake blood and smeared it around on their skin a bit.

But I . . . I went for a different approach.

I was bummed that we didn't have any skin putty or makeup to blend the head wound in better.
I mixed up a packet of fake blood powder that's supposed to make a full liter of blood into just a couple cups of water, making a thin paste that I smeared over most of my face.  This dried quickly, and then I dumped a full liter of normal fake blood all over my head and face to complete the effect.

I had planned ahead and raided Skua for clothes, so I didn't ruin my own

With the drill starting in a few minutes, we all scurried to get into position.  Perhaps because of my previous experience of being a UT, or just because they didn't want a pool of fake blood to get all over the nice bar floor, I was in the furnace room, behind the building.

The red tissue paper with a flashlight in it was supposed to simulate the fire.

Two things to know about the furnace room; For safety reasons they'd shut down the furnace about an hour beforehand, and that there was no other heat in there.  By the time I laid down, with a head and shirt soaking wet with fake blood, it was barely above freezing.

And there I lay . . . for forty-five minutes.

Interestingly, when firefighters are presented with a room full of smoke and screaming people (including one girl who's explicit instructions were to run around hysterically and get in their way as much as possible), they get a bit preoccupied.  So much so that they forget to search the furnace room until the very end of the drill when their chief has to remind them that they haven't finished searching the building, or found the 14th victim, or found the source of the fire.

Twenty minutes into my wait I was getting borderline hypothermic, when I looked over and realized in the corner of the room was sitting little electric space heater, probably for use by the UTs when they're in there fixing stuff.  I dragged it over, turned in on full and curled up around it, which prevented the fingers from going completely numb until they finally found me almost half an hour later.

Now even though I knew I'd dumped a ton of fake blood on myself . . . I had no idea what I actually looked like.  It had all been done last minute, while sitting in the furnace room so I wouldn't get blood into places that people cared about.  So it was only when I was being carried out of the little room (and getting dropped twice.  Thanks, firefighters.  Apparently a scrawny 165lb guy is too much for a couple of firefighters to carry without scraping my back over gravel and ice) that I heard their initial radio reports back in of "We've found another victim . . . oh god . . . massive burns to face and neck, head trauma" that I began to suspect the makeup had been pretty effective.

I was transported via ambulance and wheeled into the clinic among shouts of "We have another code red here!  Out of the way people, code red!", and occasionally I could hear other commends of "Nice makeup, dude!" as I was presumably wheeled by people who were supposed to be more conscious than I.

They had simulated intubating me in the ambulance, and as I was wheeled into the triage area one of the nurses slapped a paper towel on me to simulate a bandage (it wouldn't make sense to use actual medical equipment for this large of a drill).

At which point the doctor came over to look at me, and as I'm laying there I hear her say:

"Well, if we have time we'll give -some medication that I can't remember- and treat for the trauma, but . . . I have to be honest, this guy isn't going to make it.  Presenting vitals like this, with massive frontal head trauma and likely brain injury, burns this severe to most of the head . . . if we were in a Level 4 trauma center, I'd give this guy maybe a 10% chance of survival, and likely never a full recovery.  He's a goner, he's a code Black. In this situation, when we have overstretched facilities with many other patients that we can save, we're not going to spend any resources on him.  We'll just keep him comfortable until he goes."

Through this whole thing, I had two primary thoughts:

1. Stay in character, you're unresponsive, unconscious, stay quiet, keep the drill fairly realistic . . .


For the first time in my life I managed to keep a straight face as they shuffled me off into the corner  of some office, basically leaving me there to die. 

An aid stayed with me (and we made out-of-character small talk) until the Chaplin arrived, at which point the aid went off to continue doing medical things as the Chaplin spoke about what he'd do in the situation.  Perform last rights, pray for me and my family, and basically make sure that if I did have to die down here, I didn't die alone.

Oddly, this was the first MCI drill that anyone could remember that they'd actually had a Code Black, a patient that died or was likely to die.  It sparked a lot of interesting conversation and debate during the de-brief, regarding the realities of triage and what people need to be mentally prepared for in a real MCI.  For the next few days I had many people commenting "Oh, YOU were the code black we heard over the radio!  We didn't know what they meant at first!  We had no idea what was going on until we heard them call for the Chaplin".

Once the drill was officially called and I was allowed to get up did I see people's reactions to my makeup.  And as many of them had been busy and hadn't seen me when I was wheeled in, the reaction on their faces when they laid eyes on me for the first time was PRICELESS.  The X-ray tech, who's also a sysadmin that I work with every day, said he didn't recognize me until I started talking.  Only once I found a mirror could I really appreciate my own handiwork . . . at which point I realized the only logical thing to do was run around rest of the station like a zombie.

And scare the bejeezus out of half the galley staff, who were only peripherally aware than the MCI drill was happening somewhere on station.   I would say I'm sorry . . . but that would be a lie.


Group photo of all the victims! (After they got me to stop hiding around corners and jumping out to scare people)

It took me three showers to get the fake blood out of my hair, nose, ears and got knows where else, after which the shower looked like a murder scene.  Something else I didn't realize was that the stuff actually stains the skin very effectively; my face was purple for three days after, and it still hasn't washed completely out of my hair two weeks later.  The sacrifices we make for art!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


informal noun
noun: boondoggle; plural noun: boondoggles

 Work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.

2. A trip off-station to accomplish work that while necessary, has absolutely nothing to do with your normal job and is just as much for moral as anything else.

Boondoggles are an Antarctic tradition that's been around for nearly as long as the stations themselves.  With so much of our population mostly stuck on station doing indoor work, the rare chances to get off McMurdo and see the rest of the continent are so highly prized that they're offered to work centers in a rotation.

Last week, my department was called and offered spots for three volunteers willing to be flown out into the middle of nowhere to do hard manual labor for many hours with no possibility of being indoors.  Strangely, I was the only one who jumped at the chance.

7am the next morning and the Delta shuttle picks us up for the ride out to Willy Field

What it lacks in creature comforts it makes up for in, um . . . something, I'm sure.

Getting out at the airfield.  I've been told these Deltas were never designed to carry people and the giant box bolted to the back was a modification done on the ice.

We got to the airfield a bit early, as the C-130s were being spooled up for the day.  We had to wait for them to clear the skiway before they could bring out transport out.

Technically LC-130s
This is a Basler, a DC-3 that has been extensively modified by Basler Turboprops in Wisconsin.  They add modern engines and avionics to an airframe that's been strengthen and lengthened, and the result is a beautifully classic and versatile machine. The aircraft that revolutionized commercial air transportation in the 1930s is still servicing the harshest parts of the planet today.

But we don't get the C-130, or even the Basler.  No, our transport today is in the smallest planes that regularly service this continent; the Twin Otter.

Oddly, this isn't nearly my first time flying in a Twin Otter, although it's one of my first times ever landing in one.  As a skydiver I've rode in many of these up to 14,000ft, only to open the door and hurl myself at the planet (which always seems like a good idea at the time).

It is my first time riding in one with skis, however.

Nice and cozy!
And away we go!

Willy Field, where we just took off from.

The permanent sea ice edge.  For just a couple months in high summer, open ocean will come up in on the left, up to that ice cliff.

McMurdo Station, home sweet home

Our destination was a Cape Reynolds, a fuel cache that's a bit over an hours flight to the north-west and on the continent proper (McMurdo is actually on Ross Island, not mainland Antarctica).  Flying north over the ocean gave us views of the open water that is slowly making its way south.

Cape Reynolds isn't a station or structure at all; just a bunch of 55 gallon drums of AvGas that are left here over the winter as a fuel cache to assist in any long-range operations, or for emergencies.  Over the winter they get drifted over and buried, and it's a yearly ritual to go dig them out and test the fuel to make sure it's still okay.

If we're lucky the barrels will still be close to the surface with a flag or two still sticking up.  If we're unlucky, we get out the GPS and say "Well, I guess we start digging here".

If you zoom in you can just make out the slight disturbance in the snow with a few flags still sticking out, slightly upper-right of center.

Luck was with us and the barrels were only just beneath the surface, meaning this was going to be a much easier task than we were anticipating.  After making a few scouting passes to observe the quality of the snow, the pilots touched down and parked us right next to the cache.

Hooray manual labor!

We had brought enough people to assume the worst, they they'd be 6 feet under the surface and would take all day to get out.  But just a few hours of chipping and shoveling got them free, leaving us time to enjoy whatever food we'd grabbed before we left.

If there's a situation where cold pizza isn't a good option, I haven't found it yet.

With the task over in just a few hours, back into the Otter we went for the flight back to McMurdo.  The pilots were nice enough to make most of the trip back at just a few thousand feet, rather than the customary 9,000 feet, to give us all a better view of this vast, desolate and strangely beautiful place we live in.

Hello little people doing science all the way down there!

Following the road back home