LETTERS FROM ANTARCTICA
My roommate here mentioned how this place reminds him a lot of college: meals in the dinning hall, work all day, party all night; but there is no homework. Well, I have homework even if he doesn't; I am reading a book every week and writing this letter and several others at the same time.
Monday, the balloonatics brought their experiment down due to an equipment malfunction. The chase plane brought them in from the VOSTOK station but I have not heard if they recovered the instrument package. The icebreaker is back, at least it was late last night. I went out for a walk to HUT POINT where she was widening the channel and making a place for the cargo ship to turn around. There were penguins all over the ice, mostly lying down, a few were standing with their beaks tucked into their breast feathers; I guess they were all sleeping. Someone said they were way over there away from the open water because a killer whale had been seen in the lead made by the icebreaker. I didn't see any whale. When the icebreaker got close you could hear the sea ice creaking and snapping as the ship pushed through. The penguins woke and all stood up and made a great chorus of honking and squeaking, all the while flapping their wings and holding their beaks high. Perhaps they were admonishing the ship for waking them. Or perhaps they were applauding it for chasing off their nemesis the whale. I took a few pictures and taped a bit of their chorus.
An airplane, a C-130 of the VXE-6 squadron, which has spent the past fifteen years buried in thirty feet of snow, landed at McMurdo after repair crews worked two years to dig it out. You might have seen this story in the news by now since it is pretty big news. When the plane was damaged during take-off at a remote site 750 miles away it was not worth the cost of repair. As the remaining aircraft in this fleet, specially equipped to land and take-off with skis, were used up the one preserved in the ice became more and more valuable.
That balloon that I mentioned earlier was launched Friday last from William's Field and carried a gamma-ray telescope to look at the supernova, and radios to send the data back here. The balloon was 600 feet tall and big enough around to park a 747 inside. A power failure occurred which caused the instrument package to separate from the balloon and parachute down. The chase plane followed it down but was unable to land at that time so they will try again to recover the package.
Today is Wednesday, Prince Spaghetti Day right? We had Mexican for supper. Burritos, tortillas, refried beans and turkey soup(?!); someone must have opened the wrong can I bet.
Saturday I worked on a telephone problem that was bothering one of my radios. That kept me busy for the morning, then after lunch I went to visit the icebreaker, POLAR STAR, which has tied up at the ice wharf which isn't really ice at all but dirt fill in a matrix of steel cable. My visit included a tour around the main deck and to the galley, laundry, ships store, hangar deck, and sick bay. Then we went up to the bridge and saw all the radars and wheels and levers that the captain uses to drive the ship against the ice. There were no postcards in the ship’s store so I didn't get anything there. Next on my list of things for Saturday was a walk out to HUT POINT to check on the penguins. There were several on a small ice berg near shore who were playing and fishing in the water then jumping out and sliding across the ice on their bellies. Then they would stand and look at us looking at them as if to say "well that's all of our tricks, now let us watch yours”. Well, I said right back, I might do that sort of sliding around on a warm summer morning on dew-wet grass or mossy covered rocks in my favorite swimming river but your icy ocean is TOOO! cold for me. So they went back to their water and I went back to my shop.
This morning I had early coffee with a few other New Hampshire people and we sat around reading the comics from Boston Globes two weeks old. It is a tough life here; the comics get worn thin going through so many hands and in another few weeks there won't be any at all till AIR-DROP. I guess we will read the old ones over, sort of like reruns on TV. Speaking of reruns, there are no commercials in STAR TREK.
One of the frequencies you might try on your short wave radio is 11.553 mHz USB. Between 0800 and 1100 McMurdo talks to each of the other stations to exchange schedules, requisitions etc. Some of the words to listen for are MAC RELAY, SOUTH POLE, SIPLE, CATCHMENT BASIN, DOWNSTREAM BRAVO, USARP CARGO, USARP REMOTE. I have talked to Little Jon, Albie and Mark on this channel and since you can hear Australia on 11.7 something or other you should be able to hear these stations though they may be very weak. The times given are MacTown Standard Time which is 17 hours ahead of Eastern Standard. You might want to set a clock to Mac Time. Let me know how you make out and if you can hear the stations from here.
This next to the last week of January is sort of the calm before the storm here at MacTown. The icebreaker has left off some medical supplies and whilst tied up at the ice wharf we all went to open house. Now it has gone back to breaking open the channel to Scott Base. In the meantime an ice-berg, almost as large as my dorm, has floated into the bay. The tanker is due in a few days to refuel the station and the ice breaker and shortly after that the cargo ship is due on the first of her two trips. In the meantime many of the summer camps and inland stations are closing for the winter and all those people are beginning to filter through McMurdo who, along with the summer support staff here, will all be flying out to New Zealand. All this to happen before the end of February. The mess hall has announced extended hours and the winter-over crew is getting ready to hide until the dust settles.
Today I started a two day snow and ice survival school. Mostly it is like a long weekend off work but designed to give us the knowledge to survive several days stranded out on the ice due to vehicle failure or accident or crevasse or weather. This evening we were fitted for slings and crampons and learned how to tie and use a prussic knot. Tomorrow it’s off to build an igloo and camp in the snow.
Well, the igloo is a disaster! Not really, but no one will sleep in it tonight. I think we'll use it for the lats instead. The walls went up OK but when we started to bring them in to close the top it became apparent that by the time we got to close it would be out of everyone’s reach. So we gave it up and had supper and moved in with the neighbors. I found a nice abandoned snow cave which is what I should have built in the first place. It was snug and warm and quiet and I had the best night’s sleep since I arrived here. Earlier this morning we learned about self arrest on a snow slope using an ice axe and also how to kick steps. Then we went on to learn about the Scott tent and a few other odds and ends of survival equipment like the signal flares and mirrors.
Wednesday morning was the third day in a row of sunny, warm, and calm. After breakfast in my snow cave I went with Dave Lasora, one of the two instructors, and three others of my class and we went up onto the CRYSTAL GLACIER. All roped up we were, with crampons and ice axe, using all the technique we had learned the previous day to climb on the icy snow through a field of deep crevasses which we had to find our way over or around. Last year two guys who hadn't been on this survival school got killed in a crevasse right near where we were playing. Dave showed us how to probe for the edge and judge if we would be able to cross safely and if one of us should fall in how to get out, alive. I learned a lot. At the top of the glacier we practiced this crevasse rescue where one of us would fall in and the other would arrest his fall and then help him out. Coo! It was scary! I was twenty feet down this crevasse, standing on a snow-bridge between the walls and taking a picture of a class-mate on the other rope a little ways over along the edge when the snow-bridge gave way and I fell for real and was hanging on my rope! What a rush! Then I climbed out using the prussic knot and we switched places. The other guy on my rope was a hundred pounds heavier than me; I had a tough time getting him out. After that, it all took a couple of hours, much longer than it takes to tell for sure, we went to another part of the ice-fall, at the front edge, where the Crystal Glacier meets the Ross Ice Shelf, where there is a seventy-five foot cliff of ice. Its like a whole bunch of jumbled ice-cubes, piled haphazard and with broken sharp, edges pointed every which way, and we went over the edge! and down, down, down by rappelling to the bottom. That was fun, once I got over the edge.
On the way back to McMurdo in the CF110 Nodwell, a Canadian Flextrack converted ambulance that is twice the size of a Spryte, Dave, who has a brother in Conway and specifies all course equipment to come from IME and Chuck Roast, talked about the how the face of the glacier is melting back at an artificially fast rate due to all the black volcanic dust thrown up from the traffic on the road to the ice shelf.
Well, that's really small potatoes compared to the melting by the greenhouse effect and the ozone hole. You may want to consider living on a hill-top. I understand that when the ice cap melts the water released will raise the level of the ocean by 200 feet.
Another thing we discussed was the largely artificial population of skuas that inhabit the area behind the mess hall. These birds are like the seagulls we are familiar with around New England except they are of a darker mottled appearance and cry with a different voice. They scavenge food from the dumpsters and long after their more wild cousins have migrated north for the winter the McMurdo population is hanging on because the food is so abundant.
The supernova balloon experiment is in the news again this week; the payload was recovered from a 13,000 foot plateau about 200 miles north of Vostok, a Russian research station. The gondola weighed about 1500 pounds and had to be lifted out of the snow onto a pallet and towed by snowmobile to the waiting C-130.
Every day I bring my camera along, carry it around in my small pack, (which is really taking a beating by the way, I may have to replace it before the year is up) as I go from place to place, on my rounds, to and from lunch. Today I did the same but only after some deliberation as I am down to the last roll of film, having taken many more pictures than I thought I ever would. Most of the morning at the shop was taken up with getting ready for tomorrow when I will be going out to Black Island again. When I went to lunch I left my camera behind. "I'll not be taking any pictures 'tween here and the mess hall", I said to my self. "Yes," my self said back to I, "but remember that one of the humongous fire truck you took yesterday. You'll miss something for sure." Well, I left my camera. After lunch this guy, Greg, (not the same Greg as from the mountain, nor the Greg in the wheelchair who's son went sledding with us) asked me if I would like to go to HUT POINT and look for whales. Now, I thought about my camera and wished (not for the last time) I had brought it, and went along in his truck. At the end of the road we left the truck and started up the short trail to the height of land that over-looks the bay where the icebreaker has broken all the ice. Only a little ways up, there! on the left! there was a nesting Adelie. WOW! She (presumably a she) has scooped out a nest in the rocky point and was lying in it. I don't know if she has an egg but I hope to be able to visit every few days. I will read up and find out how long they incubate.
Now, of course, you will remember, I didn't have my camera. I had to stand around whilst Greg took a bunch of pictures and then we looked for whales, but not for too long, then he took me back to my shop. I got my camera and found a truck and raced back out. Now it takes longer to get there 'cause last week someone put up a STOP SIGN at the only intersection in town. The Adelie was still there so I got some good close-ups; the closest I've been to a penguin. After that there wasn't much to do all afternoon but talk about it.
This letter is COPYRIGHT by Alfred J. Oxton, 1988-2009, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.
No portion may be reproduced by any means without my express written permission.
A.J.Oxton, OA, OO, OAE, k1oIq
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Copyright © 2009, A.J.Oxton, The Cat Drag'd Inn , 03813-0144.