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In which it is very very cold

October 26, 2009

October 22, 2009 [I’ve written a few posts but haven’t gotten to upload them till now, so excuse the influx]

Life here is getting better and better, as I settle in more to the patterns of life here. Having my first day off last Sunday helped extraordinarily. Working six days a week for ten hours a day takes some getting used to – and especially after so much traveling and so much training, I really needed the time to relax a bit. And thank goodness I got it, because the week has been eventful, On Monday I was in Sea Ice training, where you go out with an instructor in a vehicle called a Haglund (or something like that; it’s Swedish), and drive out onto the ice shelf that surrounds Ross Island, where the station is. McMurdo is in a neat location, because right about where we are is the junction between the ice shelf and the sea ice. The ice shelf is a permanent extension of a glacier (at least 5 meters thick, and it never melts), whereas the annual sea ice melts and breaks up every season. Right now it’s only about 2 meters thick in most places. Right now, with the sea ice as thick as it is, all kinds of things happen on it. There’s a runway, there are field camps, vehicles drive and park on it – basically it’s an extension of land. Every year the size of the Antarctic continent doubles in size because of sea ice, and it reaches its peak size in October – so right now, there’s tons of it. Its minimum is in February, so over the course of the next few months it’ll shrink and shrink and get thinner and thinner until we have to pull all activity off of it. This course was about testing the thickness of the ice while you’re driving around to make sure that you don’t fall through. It was cool – basically every time you get to a crack in the ice you take out a huge drill, make holes across the crack, and measure the thickness. We had a beautiful day for it, so it felt like more of a field trip than anything else, and it was wild to see ocean bubbling up from beneath what seemed like solid ground. To top the day off, we got to stop in an ice cave. The pictures below don’t do it justice – you drop through a small hole into a beautiful, crystalline cave, with a deep blue light that fluctuates.

After that day of beautiful weather, I headed out on Tuesday into decidedly less hospitable conditions to do the somewhat ironically titled “Happy Camper” course, which is an overnight course designed to teach survival skills and field camp living to everyone who might be going off station for work. It actually was pretty fun, though we had an unusually cold day for it – with wind chill it was around -60 F (!!!!!!!), and there was very little visibility – maybe 200 feet or so We learned how to build snow walls (for the first time I understand igloos – the snow here is so dry and so hard that you can saw into it and pry out blocks) and how to build underground snow shelters, how to light stoves, and other basic survival skill stuff. Then the instructors left us for their heated hut, and we all had to boil water from snow to make our dehydrated dinners, which took several hours on the camp stoves. Then I put on enough layers so that I could barely move, and got into my sleeping bag. I was sleeping in a regular four-season backpacking tent – the yellow ones in the picture below. They are freeking cold. I did OK, with my 5 layers of fleece and long johns, hot water bottle, mittens, down booties (thanks Rose!), and the bag pulled all the way around my head, but it was not a warm night. Other people had a much worse time of it than I did, though, so I lucked out. The morning was when it got really intense – we woke up and it looked like a beautiful day, but about five minutes later a storm blew in, and for the first time I realized what Antarctica is really about. It was SO windy, and soon we were in a whiteout, which in addition to being a very bad recent movie starring Kate Beckensale, is also a condition where snow blows around you and you can’t see more than 4 feet in front of you. You can’t hear anything either, because the wind is so loud. It was incredibly disorienting. Everyone ran around, trying desperately to get tents down and on the sled, put away personal gear, and run back into the (sort of) heated instruction hut. It took an hour or two, and it was COLD. All of my gear – gloves, face mask, etc, had frozen solid overnight, so I was running around with my hands balled up in my mittens, my face icy, unable to wear goggles because they would immediately fog up and make the visibility even worse. It was true sensory deprivation, and there were a few overwhelming moments when the cold and the exertion of pushing against the wind, and the confusion of trying to get everything together got really scary. Once it was over, though, I was glad that we had been in conditions like that, because I at least know what it’s like now, and it was in a relatively controlled environment. At Happy Camper the instructors usually make everyone do a whiteout simulation drill where you put a bucket over your head and try to do a task as a group, but they didn’t make us do it because, as they said, we already had.

Today was far less exciting – putting away a food order in the galley and then an afternoon of shoveling, but the boring was a welcome relief from the previous day, so it was OK by me.

Here are some photos of Sea Ice and Happy Camper:

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One Comment leave one →
  1. jenny St. Runge permalink
    November 2, 2009 12:42 am

    Holy jesus! You are a beautiful ice princess!!

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