December Journal

 

01/27/09

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01 Dec. Just as soon as we thought all the ice was going to melt away, it has been snowing for 2 days. I am estimating about 12 inches of snow but I'm not sure what the official measurement is.  It is nice warm and quiet. The temps have been fairly warm this week even with the storm.  Today has been between +28-+30 with a wind chill of about -10.  Not to bad.  Not quite shorts weather but a sweatshirt and hat do just fine.  The wind picked up over the night.  I could hear my dorm building creak a bit.   You can check out this cool Antarctic Weather Page.

02 Dec.  Woke today to a windy stormy day.  It had reached condition 2 overnight and the town was just about shut down.  I made it to breakfast and over to work and the storm kept increasing.  This kind of storm is affectionately called a Herbie short for hurricane blizzard.  The wind subsided a little around 1100 and allowed a few of us to make it to the Galley for lunch.  When we were just about done the storm picked up and they set condition 1.  That means no one leaves any building, stay put and wait it out.  So I had another cup of coffee and chilled out.  About an hour after they set condition 1 the storm disappeared!  The wind instantly died and it became very nice weather.  I headed back to the firehouse to see what the damages were.  The station was very drifted in so, got the troops down to shoveling out.  I also grabbed a pike pole and knocked down the deadly  icicles.

 

08 Dec.  Last couple of days have been interesting.  We got word around lunch on the 8th that we were expecting an un-invited guest to Mac town.  It seems that this Australian pilot was trying to fly his little single seat airplane from Invercargill to Argentina via the south pole.  He states that he had to much head wind so turned back from the south pole and landed in McMurdo after 26 hours in the air.  Well, the NSF (National Science Foundation) does not take kindly to non-approved surprises like this.  And in an effort to not set a precedence of being a tourist stop denied any assistance.  He was able to land on our ice runway at his own risk.  Fleet ops then had to tow him from the runway after he got stuck in the snow.  At this point he is stranded here and there is "no room at the inn".  The orders are no food or shelter.  Even the Scott base folks will not open their door for him.  Without pre-authorization you cannot just show up here and expect any assistance.  There have been other expeditions that have had to sleep in tents out on the ice when they come by here.  I guess he slept in the fuel pump house last night and I have no idea what will happen next.  I imagine there will be a lot of phone calls to various embassies to rectify this situation.  The one cool thing was that as I was driving out to the ice runway to take a look at this transient I saw my first real live Penguin! There had been reports of a few stray Emperor Penguins in and around the runway.  Our fire crews routinely have to go and herd them off of the active runways. 

 

09 Dec.  Took an opportunity to go out to Willy Field to tour the LDB (Long Duration Balloon facility).  Willy Field is our compacted snow airfield that is set up out on the Ross Ice Shelf, the permanent ice.  The field is about a 20 minute drive from McMurdo.  The airfield is not up an running quite yet but they are getting it together for a Dec 25 th move in.  At that time we will move the entire airfield operations in one day.  In the morning the C-130s sill leave for their daily flights and the moving crews will drag all the buildings over the ice and redeploy the airfield.  Should be quite a caravan.  At that time all the C-130s will come back to their new home.  The only permanent fixture at Willy field is the LDB.  I just went to one of the science lectures covering some of what they are studying with the balloons and my brain still hurts trying to digest all the information.  The topic tonight was about how they will launch balloons to measure the x-ray emissions of electrons that are caught in the magnetic field  striking the atmosphere.  This also has something to do with how the solar winds are deforming the magnetic fields.  One of the balloons they use inflates to the size of a football stadium!  More write-up soon.  I'm looking up some links and statistics for the experiments that I saw there.  Here are some of the pictures of the payloads.  Sorry I cannot remember much of what the payloads were other than they cost a few million each.  Here is a movie of a balloon launch

 

12 Dec.  Hate to say that not much is going on because I have been very busy.  Only problem I have been busy with just work stuff.  Boring old administrative stuff. I did manage to get out on a bit of a hike the other day.  Gil Nunez (the other fire Captain), Cory Benge (firefighter) and myself took a quick hike over to the Scott Discovery hut and then up the hill to go and look out over the sea ice.  We made a stop by Vinces Cross.  This cross was erected in 1902 to commemorate Seaman George Vince, first man to die in McMurdo sound.  Here is the quote from the hiking guide.  "One of a party of nine who got caught in a blizzard and decided to make their way back to the ship instead of lying low, Vince, unfortunately wearing fur-soled boots, with little traction, slid down what was later called Danger slopes and plunged off its cliff into the sound.  His body was never found." From the top we could just make out open water on the horizon.  the ice edge is only about 10 miles away!  The closest it has been in about 5 years.  The big iceberg has been blocking the current into McMurdo sound and hasn't allowed the sea ice to get flushed out.  The big berg has been breaking up a bit with the last few storms and the ice is actually moving.  We are hoping for another  good herbie to help clear out the remainder of the ice. 

16 Dec. Nice warm day in Antarctica.  I think the temp got all the way up to +30.  Sunscreen weather!  The sun feels quite hot when you are out in it (Ozone hole remember)  We have been having quite a few visitors out at the runway.  The seals and seal pups are moving around and are wandering out on to the runway and apron.  We have the task of herding them off the airfield when they get to close.  If they are stubborn and will not move we have to call the Crary Lab "experts" and they will come out and put them into a vehicle and take them over to one of the dive shacks that has an ice hole.  Unfortunately if the

pups don't get back to where their mom can find them I guess they wont survive.  We also have another visitor along the road to the runway.  An Adelie penguin has shown up and is hanging out with the emperor that has staked a claim to our road.  Here are some pictures of some baby seals and one showing the proper herding technique.

 

24 Dec. Today went on a most excellent adventure.  One of our Lieutenants, Geoff Jolley got all the proper permissions and logistics together for a department trip out to the historic huts north of here.  This is perfect timing because the sea ice roads are going to be closed soon due to the thawing of the ice.  We loaded up into 4 Pisten Bullys and headed out.  It started out to be  a rather calm day, overcast with a bit of snow.  Soon after we got out onto the sea ice the wind picked up and was blowing quite a bit of snow.  The visibility was still fairly good at first.  our first stop was at the Erebus Glacier tongue.  The glacier tongue is where the Mt Erebus glacier comes out to the sea and extends out like a slowly advancing peninsula.  The pressure from the advancing glacier pushes against the sea ice and forms big cracks in it.  To pass over the tracks we have to drill into the crack to find out the ice thickness and the width of the crack.  Check out Nov 26 entry on sea ice school.  The ice was still around 36-40 inches thick so we were safe to drive over it.  We continued on to the next to Cape Evans. 

 

Cape Evans is where Captain Robert Falcon Scott built his large hut for his 1910-1913 race to the pole.  Ernest Shackeltons Ross Sea party  also used this hut in their attempt a the Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914-1915.  The hut is mostly buried in the snow so it is hard to see from the outside.  We had checked out the key and went inside.  This hut is actually very spacious for a hut from the historic age of exploration.  There are many items left behind in the hut form the previous tenants.  being so cold and dry it is almost like they just left a week ago.  It looks like they just dropped everything and left.  There has been a lot of effort to preserve the items and only allow a finite amount of people into the huts.  Tons of supplies are still there and look like you could just open a can of food if you needed it.  I got a kick out of the ships anchor still in the ground.  I am guessing that it is from the Terra Nova, the ship that Scott used, but it could be from one of the other ships used in subsequent expeditions.  The hut is basically three rooms.  the main room is connected to the stables by a lobby type of foyer.   In the main room all the bunks, tables and a great deal of food stuffs are still there.  They even had Hinez 57 ketchup!  Bottle of ketchup with a cork.  In the Lobby area they had a box of penguin eggs and a huge pile of neatly stacked seal blubber.  The stalls still looked like you could keep small ponies in them.     There were so many artifacts in the hut that it was very tough to take it all in.  I tried to take as many pictures as possible.  In the back corner was the lab where they did some sort of analysis of the samples that they collected.  there was a dark room that still contained antique photographic equipment.  The medicine shelves still had a bunch of bandages and medicines on them including some morphine suppositories!  So much for a controlled substance huh?  Scott had brought three motor sledges.  Unfortunately the big one had crashed through the ice a few minutes after unloading so it became an instant artificial reef.  There still was some "motor spirits" in the inventory.  Over looking Scotts Cape Evans hut on wind vane hill is a memorial cross erected by the Ross Sea party of Shacketons Trans-Antarctic expedition.  The cross commemorates  three members of the party that died near there in 1916.

After some time spent at Scotts hut we headed north again to try to make it to Cape Royds.   On the way to Cape Royds we stopped at the foot of the Barne Glacier.  The Barne comes direct off of Mt Erebus into the sea ice.  We took this opportunity to get a few pictures and drill the ice again to check if it is safe to proceed.  The Ice here was about 40 inches so we again were good to go. 

The old flagged road to Royds now has been carried away by the breakup of the sea ice.  So a new road has been flagged along the coast in a sound that is protected by the Cape proper.  Lots of tidal cracks and seal holes so we had to be careful to stick to the flagged route and keep our eyes open.  A short hike up and over the hill and we were there.  Cape Royds is the home of a huge Adelie penguin rookery and Shackeltons hut.  This hut was built in 1908.  This hut was the home of the first Shacketon expedition to the south pole.  This hut is much smaller than Scotts Cape Evans hut.  This hut is one room and looks like it was cramped quarters.  The actual dining table was hung from hooks in the ceiling so that is could be raised out of the way.  A lot of the original furnishings are gone. As I have been told that subsequent expeditions used this hut for little "vacations" from Cape Evans or to study the penguin rookery.  The hut also had a stable along side and some accoutrements for the sled dogs.   Again this hut had a huge cache of food, clothing and gear all around. The canned rations were of particular interest.  I wonder how good they are after 90-some years.  One cool thing is what they used for light.  Shackeltons expedition used a carbide  generator to produce acetylene.  The acetylene was run trough pipes to gas lamps for light.

 

Shackeltons hut was placed right next to a huge Adelie penguin rookery.  hundreds of small waddling birds that actually make quite a ruckus.  We walked up the hill to get a good eye on the rookery.  I also was treated to the sight of the open ocean again!  It had been to long since I had seen the open sea.  This really makes me pine for a ship again!  The penguins were quite active.  a few of them even climbed the hill to come check us out.  There was a lot of activity in the rookery.  Quite a few slap fights that looked like they were getting brutal.  Hell hath no fury like a penguin scorned...or horny in mating season.  Unfortunately the only good spot to watch the rookery was down wind.  Whhoooot those guys  stink...  to much fish in that bird do-do.

With all that fun had and the day getting late we had to head back. It was a long drive since we had already done all the sight seeing.  The weather turned a bit on us and we drove back in a near white-out ground blizzard.  This was a whole lot of  fun.  I kept trying to imagine being outside trying to navigate and drive a dog sled instead of driving a nice heated tracked Pisten Bully.  I was hoping that the visibility would decrease to the point that I could really practice my GPS driving skills!

28 Dec. With a long string of exciting adventures I have again topped my own expectations.  In my mental list of some of the cool things that I want to do in my life this last trip was not even vaguely listed.  Yesterday I got the distinct pleasure of taking my first snowmobile trip.  "Snowmobile trip?", you may be asking yourself.  Have I been setting my sights a bit low nowadays.  Well what make this one kind of out of the ordinary was the terrain.  Not only is it here in the Antarctic but also riding up the side of an active volcano!  Ross Island where McMurdo is located is a volcanic island.  Mt Erebus and Mt Terror are the two volcanoes that have formed this lovely little place we call home.   To top it off , Mt Erebus is the southern most active volcano in the world!

 

 

 

In an effort to recon the ground route up to the top a portion of Mt Erebus the Search and Rescue team got to participate in the effort.  We loaded up 8 snowmobiles and had a team of 8 persons.  5 Americans and 3 Kiwis.  We got an early start and got all the sleds loaded up by around 0800 and were off on the trail.  The first leg of the trip took the same route as my 24 Dec. Royds trip.  We made it to Cape Royds in record time.  Here at Royds we refueled and cashed the fuel drum that we brought.  From Royds we headed uphill to the north side of the mountain.  The initial ride was quite easy getting off the sea ice onto the plain.  It was a gradual up hill and fairly smooth.  The scenery was awesome!  I got a great look at the open water and the sea ice.  It is much more impressive when you can lookout over the ocean with a bit of altitude.

 

Soon we made it to the base of the Fang Glacier.   Since is is late in the season the route was not easy to scout.  The normal GPS route was not passable due to the lack of surface snow after the warm summer weather.  So we were forced to find another path.  We were able to skirt the side of the actual Fang Glacier and manage to stay out of the crevasses.  At the top of the glacier is Fang Camp. 

 

Fang Camp is an acclimatization camp for the scientists studying the volcano.  The research teams will spend a few days camped out here as they acclimate to the altitude.  The altitude of Fang Camp is about 8-9000 feet.  Here we stopped for lunch and and to do a bit of maintenance on the snowmobiles.  At the higher altitude the snowmobiles need a bit of a carburetor adjustment.  We all learned how to change the carburetor jets in our respective machines. 

After the snowmobiles were fixed and lunch was completed it was time to attack the steepest portion of the climb.  The route from fang camp to the lower huts is quite steep and long.  The only advice that was given was to keep on the throttle and don't stop until you get to a good size flat spot.  If you were to loose traction or slow down to much the snowmobile would not have enough power to get going again.  It is very tough to try to turn one of these things around on a steep hill with out it tumbling down to the bottom in a huge yard-sale of various machine parts.  So with that said I hit the throttle and went flat out up, up and away.  Once actually on the hill with a good head of steam I had a great time.  It was fairly easy but I know the snowmobile sure was working hard.  I cant imagine what it was like for the guys that were pulling a trailer. 

Up at the Erebus camp we found a deserted camp.  The science staff had left for the season so we were the only souls there.  We waited a bit for the rest of the crew to make it up the steep section then we headed up as far as we could with the sleds.  From this point we had to hike up to the craters edge.  The top of Erebus is about 3800 meters or 12,400 feet.  This altitude makes hiking a bit slow.  The work was well worth the effort!  Upon arriving at the craters edge we were treated to a sight that not many people get to see.  The crater is usually quite full of volcanic steam so that the crater floor and the lava pool are obscured.  Today the steam was light and the lava pool was quite visible.  The crater is about 250 meters wide by 100 meters deep with rocky snow covered walls.  We took this opportunity to get our pictures and stare down into this marvel.  Unfortunately all good things must end and we headed back down to the Erebus camp to go see the helicopter wreck and the fumaroles.  

 

 

 

 

 

The Erebus camp is set on a plateau at about 10,000 feet or so.  Just outside of the camp is an old Coast Guard helicopter that had crashed.  The chopper is an old H-2.  I'm not sure of the history of this wreck but I will be researching it shortly.  It doesn't look like a very traumatic crash.  More than likely it lost lift and tilted over.  I cant imagine that from the damage I saw that anyone was seriously hurt. 

 

Around the camp are fumaroles or volcanic vents.  This is where the heated steam is forced out of the side of the volcano.  The snow and wind then make wonderful  icy sculptures around these vents.  We picked one near the helicopter wreck and got out the ropes to go take a look.  Well, the first guy in found out that it was only about 10 feet deep and actually had an aluminum ladder frozen into the entranceway.  Most of us clambered in and had a look.  Inside it was almost like diving under the ice there was a firm rocky bottom and a smooth sloping ice/snow roof.  I imagine this would be a rather good place to hide out in a storm.  It was warm and a bit steamy so our cameras took a bit of time to warm up until we could get some pictures.  The sunlight coming through the snowy roof really made for some spectacular blue colors.  The humid air also formed delicate ice stalactites from the surface of the ceiling.  I got a couple of the most amazing pictures that I have ever taken.

 

After all the fun we had to descend the mountain.  This posed one of the most difficult if not the most dangerous think to do.  The steep stuff that we came up now had to be descended.  Since it is late season there is a lot of ice and not to much snow.  It is very difficult to slow down on the steep icy slopes.  We managed by not mashing on the brakes and only braking in the snowy areas to avoid sliding to much.  By the time we were down my left hand was starting to cramp from all the braking.  A short time spent at Fang Camp again to change the jets back in the carburetors and we were back on the road.  We managed to take a bit more direct route back down. 

The weather was incredible.  Actually warm.  The warm air on my face and the exquisite view afforded by the altitude made for one of the most impressive outings.  The pictures do absolutely no justice of course.  We basically bee lined back to McMurdo stopping when we got onto the sea ice to refuel from the drum we had left.  After the refill it was full throttle back to town.  We got back at about 2100 and had everything packed up and put away by 2230.  Long tiring day and boy am I going to be sore...

 

31 Dec. Attended the Snowcraft 2 class today.  Basic glacier travel, self arrest and crevasse rescue.  Very fun.  I have read a lot about falling down a snow covered mountain and how to arrest your fall with an ice axe.  I have never been able to put it in practice.  We first learned how to basically walk the most efficient way and to use our ice axes for support.  Then we went up the hill and actually practiced falling down and stopping our fall.  This turned out to be quite a workout!  Sliding down and climbing back up, over and over.  We then went out to the flat area and learned how to safely travel in a team around crevasses in the glaciers.  We roped up into teams of  3 each and walked around getting used to hiking around while being tied to your buddies.  Then came the crevasse rescue.  We each took turns falling into a crevasse.  Your buddies had to be able to arrest your fall and build an anchor system so that you could climb your way out of the crevasse using your prussic ascenders. 

 

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