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Ditching work

November 8, 2009

Tomorrow and the next day and the next, I will dig a ditch. A long ditch. A 130 foot ditch. In normal life, that would be bad news. But for me it is probably some of the best news I’ll get all season, because my ditch digging will mean ditching McMurdo for Lake Fryxell.  You dig?

Lake Fryxell is in a region of Antarctica called the Dry Valleys. And that means that A – I’m going to get on a helicopter for the first time! B – I’ll be camping on a frozen lake next to glaciers and mountains and C – I’ll be in one of the most beautiful and unique ecosystems on the continent.
The Dry Valleys form the largest portion of the continent that’s not covered in ice – because cold winds are drawn down the surrounding peaks quickly enough to evaporate almost all moisture. There are microscopic organisms living in the rocky ground there, which is rare in this part of the world. The Dry Valleys are considered the closest thing we get on earth to the environment on Mars. All of these factors mean that it’s a great place for science, and around here, where there’s science, there are ditches that need digging. And that’s where I come in.
It’s supposed to be a 2-3 day trip, if the weather permits us to fly back as soon as we’re done, so I promise many amazing photographs later in the week.
You can see Taylor Valley, where the lake is, in relation to McMurdo Station on this map.

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Sunday Hike

November 1, 2009

Another Sunday day off, much needed. It was a long week of work in freezers, ironically enough. Monday I was cleaning out those freezer compressor rooms, Tuesday I was working in a small freezer shipping containers moving frozen food from one to another, Wednesday I was in the galley for their weekly food delivery, when they pull the weeks worth of food out of warehouses. The station is overpopulated now – about 1,200 people, because they haven’t been able to get out flight to the South Pole or any of the deep field camps on account of bad weather. That means a whole bunch of people just waiting around in temporary housing, and it means that the galley is going crazy – we probably moved about 12-15 1,000 pound pallets of frozen food alone. The freezer is kept at -20, so it was actually colder in the freezer than outside. Then on Thursday I was inside organizing DVDs in the morning and shoveling outside in the afternoon, Friday I was doing inventory of huge pieces of metal outside town, and yesterday in the morning my job was decorating the gym for the Halloween party and in the afternoon more shoveling and labeling parts in the carpenter’s supply shop. Last night was the Halloween party – one of the biggest events of the year. It was a good show – it felt like everybody at the station was there, and the costumes were amazing. Today was awesome. Woke up late, went brunch, which is the best meal of the week – fresh fruit, eggs to order, breads, potatoes, and the best part is that there’s nowhere to be, so you can sit for hours and chat with people and drink coffee. Then I went for a hike this afternoon – just a three mile loop above town, but it was beautiful, and it was nice to go for a walk. There are some good trails around that station – and you can also check out cross country skis, which I think is my plan for next weekend. Here are some pictures from the hike:

My day as Catherine Zeta Jones

October 26, 2009

10/26/2009

So… who remembers Entrapment, that stroke of cinematic genius that’s completely forgettable except for the scene where Ms. Zeta Jones weaves her way through a series of lasers in a tight cat suit, giving way to the famous butt shot?
That’s exactly what my day was like today! Except instead of lasers it was pipes and fans in the compression room for a bunch of refrigerators and freezers. And instead of a sexy cat suit, it was lined Carhartts and safety goggles. And instead of hot makeup it was tears and snot from the dust. And instead of stealing a diamond I was dusting the pipes.
But it actually was kind of fun – I like seeing the strange rooms around town that most people don’t get to, and it was satisfying to leave that room much, much cleaner than it was this morning, and there was that whole bonus about how secretly I’m Catherine Zeta Jones…

A beautiful day

October 26, 2009

October 23, 2009

It was such a beautiful day today! Two of the other GA’s (General Assistants, my official job title, and a perfect one for a shiftless liberal arts major like myself, I think) and I were tasked with taking a Pisten Bully (another fun snow vehicle, this one German) on the Castle Rock Loop to repair the flagging. The Castle Rock Loop is a nine mile loop, mostly just for recreation, that goes up the hill behind the station, across a plateau, towards a volcano (Erebus, whose smoke plume you can see in pictures below), to a big beautiful outcropping of volcanic rock that reminds me of Devil’s Tower, down a steep steep hill to the ice shelf, and then back to the station. All of the roads around here are marked with bamboo poles that have different colored flags on them, to mark where the roads are, signify conditions, and help people travel if they get caught in a whiteout. We were to go out and replace any that were missing or tattered beyond recognition.
The morning was a bit of a farce. (We went to pick up the vehicle. We got the key, but when we went outside it wasn’t there. They sent us to the repair shop. They told us it was outside, but it wasn’t there either. We finally found it, only to have it drive away right before our eyes. It felt a little like the children’s book Are You My Mother? only it was Are You My Somewhat Dangerous German Snow Vehicle?. Then the head of the repair shop literally ran down the thing, only to find two renegade scientists who had mistakenly taken the wrong one. So we went back to the original office and they gave us another one, which didn’t have fuel, etc etc etc.) Anyway, we finally got out of town, and it was BEAUTIFUL. Balmy (around -3 to -10 Fahrenheit, I think, which I never thought of as balmy before), clear blue skies, and gorgeous views.
Enough talk, here are a few pictures.

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:

October 16, 2009

This morning Geoff and I sat in a cozy room with our new boss, going over rules and expectations and anecdotes about our jobs. After a lunch of tacos, we spent an hour or so driving around the station in the huge pickup trucks (the tires come up to my waist) used for getting around town. Then we were sent over to the Berg Field Center, where there is a food distribution center for people who are “going into the field” – i.e. traveling out to one of the non-permanent science outposts deep in the continent. We spent three hours making gorp, bagging nuts, and carrying cardboard. Around 3pm Geoff turned to me and said the most mind blowing thing.
“We are bagging mixed nuts in Antarctica,” he said, with a look of bemusement.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s hard to describe exactly the palpable absurdity of being down here. Maybe everything starts to feel normal after a while, but for the moment I’m continually jolted by the strange juxtaposition of seemingly normal things with the strangeness of this location. It’s like the surrealists works of art that are just normal objects displayed in an unexpected setting. There are so many very normal things here – a dining hall, tons of books, pictures, couches, TVs, phones, pencils, weird plastic doohickeys – pretty much anything you could want. And the tasks are seemingly normal – filing, repairing machines, shoveling, eating, going to yoga, bagging mixed nuts. But then you look out the window and catch a glimpse of a 14,000 foot mountain towering over sea ice, or you step outside and the wind whips at you, and suddenly normal things seem very very strange.

In any event, that’s just a brief overview of how life down here has been so far. I’ve fallen too far behind to do anything in too much detail, so instead I’ll just post some pictures. I promise to post more regularly now that I have some semblance of a schedule and am beginning to find my way around.