Monday, December 31, 2007

It's a Powder Day!!!!!!!

I'm writing this on four hours sleep. Beware.

Everyone at home might think that Antarctica is a perpetual winter land and they'd be right, but it isn't the same as Colorado. Our snow, when it falls, is the driest and fluffiest on Earth. Unfortunately, we only get 10-50" a year. Colorado can get 300-500". We stay a winter wonderland because once the snow gets here, it stays here.

Kelly and Carl at the top of Ob Hill on New Years Eve

Over the past week, reports of great Colorado snow have been pouring in and people like Julie, who I know went riding, have been making me miss Colorado winters. Luckily, we started to get dumped on two days ago. The quantity and type of snow remind me of back home. I went for a run in it and the snow was so deep from drifting that a downhill part of the run didn't even feel downhill because it required so much work. We had to turn around and look to make sure we were going down a hill. We also had incredibly low visibility - I'd guess a couple hundred yards. Somewhere in there, I started to get vertigo. I don't know if it was the lack of a horizon, having only four hours sleep, or not having enough sugar in my system. Either way, tough run.

Jami Thompson, masseuse extraordinaire and shuttle driver, on top of Ob Hill for New Years.

I spent New Year's Eve day hiking a few miles to a small area that the Kiwis (New Zealanders) have for skiing. They mark off one big area because they don't want people to choose their own hill and fall in a crevasse. The hill isn't that steep or long so it made it hard to go fast in the powder, but it did have snow which is all we really should need. We had lots of equipment malfunctions and ended up only taking a few runs because we were tired from walking out there and then up the hill, but it was so great to be riding a snowboard again, especially in powder.

Meg, Jami, Claire, and Kelly representing their new gang - the heart gang.

One person was learning to downhill ski. A couple others learned to Nordic ski on the way over. When they fell, they fell in soft snow. Same here, as I remembered what it is to ride. It's been over seven months (April 2007?) since I rode the Wall in A-Basin's last big snow. The one guy, who has been riding here for the past six months, said that it was the best snow that he has seen yet.

Meg Fitz-longname (or Megan Fitzmaurice) on Ob Hill for New Years. Go to Idaho and meet her when her and her boy are raft guides. One of the best people you'll ever meet.

People asked me if I would snowboard in Antarctica so that I could eventually say I had ridden in all seven continents. I told them no because there was no places to ride around here that compared to anything in Colorado (or even the East coast) and I didn't have a checklist. There is some great snowboarding in Antarctica, we just aren't allowed to go those parts. I ended up going because a running partner bailed on me and at the same time a good group of people was heading out. It didn't hurt that is only costs $5 to rent a board for a few days and the lift ticket is free.

Phillip on top of Ob Hill for New Year's Eve planning our winter over Magnum PI party

I know the question everyone wants to ask is what did we do for New Year's. The answer isn't that exciting. Most people had to work today, so the New Year's Eve festivities weren't too crazy. There were small hiking groups on each of the major trails, the bars were full, and lots of dorms had something going too. However, I'd say that a regular weekend night had more revelry going on. Boo for having to work on New Year's Day!!! Personally, I hiked Ob Hill and then went over to Hut Point.

Today, I imagine everyone reading this is getting ready for your own New Year's Eve celebrations. Actually, I hope you aren't reading this on New Year's Even day. You have the day off and should be doing something better than sitting on the computer reading my mindless drivel (yeah, for four hours of sleep). You have so much good stuff, and more importantly good friends, to choose from back there. I wish each of you the best. A big shout out to Cabrini in NYC where a lot of us will tune the TV in to to watch Dick Clark and the ball drop. Since we aren't in a vacuum, what will drop faster Dick Clark or the ball? Is Dick Clark even still hosting?

It is still snowing as I write this on New Year's Day! Yeah for Colorado wintery days in Antarctica during the summer!

Me up on Ob Hill for New Years Eve.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ob hill Up Hill

Making merry at Christmas with Merry Maker

Christmas day was a very quiet day at McMurdo. Since this is my first time down, I don't know if this was because everyone was thinking of home or if this was just an off year. It never really felt like Christmas day. It felt like any other weekend. Maybe, it is because we were tired from a 7 day work week.

A not so tired Ob Hill Up Hill participant decked out in elf costume

After I slowly rolled out of bed, I prepared for our annual Christmas day race, the Ob Hill Up Hill. The race would take us over a half mile and up about 750 feet. It wasn't that long, but it wasn't easy either. There were only 15 participants and about 10 spectators. Not that many people on base were even moving yet.

The Ob Hill Up Hill course

The race was so small compared to the the Turkey Trot that I wondered if we were even going to do it. However, the hard working event organizers got things underway and we headed to the start. The only rule was that we had to head up the road and pass a cairn. After the cairn, we could get up the hill anyway we wanted. Some stayed with the switchbacks, others tried to head straight up. Just past the area where we turned up the hill were two abandoned buildings. One of those buildings used to hold the U.S. Navy nuclear power plant, PM-3A, that has since been closed down.

About two-thirds through the Ob Hill Up Hill

The race wasn't too eventful once we got underway. Danny, the eventual winner, shot to the front immediately and gained steam the entire way up the mountain. The highlights of the day had to be Audrey heading up in elf costume and Carl stripping down to his underwear to run the race. No, it wasn't warm enough to run in underwear. I barely ran without a jacket.

Carl scaling Ob Hill with Jon O just behind him.

That is me near the last 20 yards of the race and exhausted.

On the way to the top, almost everyone had to stop and walk for a short stretch. To finish the race, you had to touch the cross at the top of the hill. Once everyone did, we sat down for a group photo and enjoyed the views. It was a clear day and the lighting was great. It might have been my best day on top of Ob Hill so far.

All the participants of the Ob Hill Up Hill

Name Time
Danny Uhl 6:51
Dave Zybowski 7:32
Brody 7:51
Carl Klent 8:44
Jon Owen 8:44
Jared 9:10
Jordan Murphy 10:42
Tom 11:07
Farah McDill 11:34
Graham 12:10
Audrey 12:35
Caesar 13:40
David Ireland 14:16
John Williams 15:44
Jared 15:51

A close up for mom who insists on having pictures of me.

The great view that we were all working for - the top of Ob Hill.

The organizers decided to go with a random drawing to see who would win prizes in the race instead of taking the top finishers. I think this might have been because of the controversy about awarding shirts to the top 50 finishers of the Turkey Trot, independent of sex, age, or choice to walk. Lucky enough, I was still able to get a prize. I won two movie tickets to Hoyt's Cinema. They expire in August 2008. I don't leave the ice until August of 2008. On the other hand, a theater by the same name was raided by 50 drunken Santas later that day. There may still be hope.

After the race, I walked around base and realized just how quiet things were. Tons of people were calling home and the rest just weren't to be found. It was a peaceful day and probably what I needed. I finished up my night with a cup of Oregon Chai in the Coffee House while watching 'The Christmas Story' for the first time. Now people can stop throwing up their arms when they ask if I have seen it. Somewhere in there, I took time to open some great presents from home. Highlights are probably Annie's Organic Mac & Cheese and a tripod to photograph the Aurora Australis this winter. Yeah for all the fun stuff that came though.

When the day closed out, it didn't feel as much like Christmas as I would have hoped, but that was alright. It was still good and the next day I got up at 4:30am so I could start calling home to hear from people on their own Christmas days. It was great to talk to so many people from home and hear Christmas morning excitement in their voice.

On to New Year's now . . .

Christmas at McMurdo

Just because we are spending Christmas on the harshest continent doesn't mean that we can't celebrate in style. After four days of Christmas festivities, we finally have returned to work. I'm definitely not ready to be at work yet.

Two story gingerbread houses make for good treats!!

My Christmas celebration unexpectedly started on Saturday night when the Housing department asked me to help them decorate for their party. Their theme was Christmas morning. They did a great job of getting everyone there in their pajamas and serving up a great Christmas morning breakfast. You can't buy presents for everyone, so they did a white elephant gift exchange where every ones gets a turn to pick a present from under the tree or steal an already opened one from someone else. Presents ranged from chocolate bars to hockey sticks to dancing penguins. Fun stuff. After the Christmas morning festivities, things changed into a more normal night at hut 10 - dancing and drinking. It was a school night though so it didn't run too late.

Christmas morning at Hut 10!

Sunday, every department was supposed to work their full day. Few did, including mine. We got off early enough that I wanted to do my distance run for the weekend on that afternoon instead of on a day off. I thought it would be a good idea so that I wouldn't be as tired on my days off. 25 miles in 4 hours and 10 minutes. Surprisingly enough, I spent the rest of the weekend with a slight limp and a lot of tired. Who would have guessed it? I even manged to spend enough time in the sun that someone called me out on having a farmer's tan!!!

Santa at the holiday party!

Christmas goodies that were sent out as door prizes at the VMF party.

Holiday decorations and Santa's sleigh.

After a failed attempt at napping, I was off to the holiday party. They emptied out the vehicle maintenance facility and did a great job decorating. It was like any other Christmas party - drinking, dancing, egg nog, etc. There were a couple cool differences. Santa rides a snow machine instead of a sleigh in Antarctica. We also had different pictures projecting on the wall of things we might be missing. Favorite themes were friends, family, dogs, greenery, and beaches.

The Abominable Snowman!

Pictures to give you a warm fuzzy on a potentially lonely holiday

A candy cane pole to help find a friend who can give you a warm fuzzy on a potentially lonely holiday

As I understand it, Santa may not have been able to work the entire night . . .

Inspired by Calvin & Hobbes?

Fireside on Christmas morning

After some of the more basic holiday events happened at the party, it was back down to the usual shenanigans. Drinking, dancing, and revelry. The holiday party is famous for being the second party of the year where people find someone to hook up with because by this time a lot of the Halloween inspired relationships have fallen apart.

Dave and me at the holiday party

Martin from the help desk gets down!

Usual shenanigans.

After being up way too late at the party, I got myself into bed. Christmas eve day came way too soon. I went for a run to get the ache out of my legs. It helped a little bit, but exhaustion was definitely the theme of the day. After a long day of lounging, I worked in the kitchen to let a dining assistant (DA) be off work for an hour. Even though most of the base is off, they aren't. They may have the toughest job on base. When I was done washing dishes to the Temptations with Meg, it was off to get prettied up for dinner. Some people ate in the galley. Others do more private affairs in converted work areas.

Christmas dinner in the galley.

The kitchen crew who makes it all possible

There were four separate dinners that the kitchen staff had to prepare. When the final day dinner was wrapping up, the evening festivities were winding up. There was a dance party in one bar and live band karaoke in one of the departments meetings room. I'm continually amazed at how they can transform a work space into a play area. At live band karaoke, they don't have the usual music or videos. The singers have to know the words or download them off the Internet and sometimes the band has to download tablature too. It worked really well.

Sky singing at live band karaoke.

Christmas day still to come . . .

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Last week was a big work week for us. While most of you were probably doing less and less because people were disappearing for vacation, everyone down here was getting signed up for a seven day work week. Normally, we have a six day work week, but they wanted to give us a two day weekend that included actually having Christmas off. Instead of having our usual Sunday off, we had Monday and Tuesday. I didn't have to work all seven days though. I was offered a boondoggle on Wednesday.

A boondoggle is a slang term for a morale trip. I believe it is a left over from when they Navy ran base. A morale trip is basically any trip that takes you outside of your normal job. My one co-worker manned a dive hole. Someone else secured a rare trip to go to the Cape Royds penguin colony. Others even made it onto helicopters. It reminds us of the beautiful place we are in.

My boondoggle was a working trip. I was told I'd be going out to Cape Evans to pull up the flagged route in a pisten bully. A pisten bully is a cramped tracked vehicle which moves pretty slow. It would also be one of the last trips out onto the sea ice since it was closing up, hence taking out all the flags that mark the safe routes. I'd been out to Cape Evans a couple times already so I almost passed up the trip so someone else could go. Since morale trips are so uncommon (maybe one a season), I decided not to hold out and hope for a better one in the future and that turned out to be one my best decisions for the week.

Instead of taking out a pisten bully, we took out snow machines. That is snowmobiles for those of you, like me, who though snow machines are for making snow. According to my Alaskan friends, snowmobiles is the 'tourist' term. I've never driven a snow machine, let alone ridden one. After a couple hours getting ready in the morning, we took a shuttle over to the snow machines. We had to fuel them up which includes someone turning a crank while someone else tries to look in the dark hole and see how full the tank is. I ended up spilling because I couldn't see a thing down the hole.

Sean and Becky fueling up a snow machine.

The other five people on the trip had gone to snow machine and sea ice training classes. I hadn't been to either. I'm pretty sure I shouldn't have been allowed to go on the trip, but I wasn't going to ask questions. After a quick lesson, I was allowed to drive the snow machine. It was definitely similar to a teenager learning to drive. Too heavy on the gas and jilting with the brake. I got the hang of it on the way to our first destination.

The first flags we had to pull were in front of our own base. On our way over, we passed my first penguin, an Adelie. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera out and was only able to get this shot of it in the distance. It is there, honest. It's the little dot between where the two mountains meet. Very cute. Their arms flap while they walk so it looks like they are always late for a very important date.

My first penguin, an Adelie.

The biggest problem we would face all day was melt pools. A melt pool is formed when the ice on top melts, but can't drain out into the ocean. It just collects into a pool. We'd be driving across it, walking through it, and trying not to get stuck in it. We got to see heavy machinery working in some of the melt pools, but that didn't alleviate my fears any when I had to walk over to flags where the snow machines couldn't go and saw the top layers of ice cracking beneath my feet. The most my foot ever sank was up to the ankle and there was 3 more feet of ice below where it finally stopped, but still very freaky.

Heavy machinery crossing a melt pool.

Flag pulling!

We worked in two groups - each with two snow machines. One would pull the flag out of the ice or cut it out if it was stuck and then throw it into a sled the other snow machine was towing. Repeat for six hours in the sunshine without wind and you have for a beautiful day.

A beautiful day!

As we got farther out to Cape Evans, we had to break off onto side roads to pick up other flags. This took me on to terrain I hadn't been on before and thinner ice. The one area we entered had to be drilled to check the thickness of the sea ice (stuff you learn in sea ice training). They used a gas powered drill.

Checking the sea ice depth.

After the sea ice was determined safe, we headed out to pick up the flags. Along the way, we got pretty close to some sunbathing seals. Every other time I've seen seals down here, they just lay there. These ones actually wiggled a little bit!

Basking seals in front of Mt. Erebus
Another basking Weddell seal.

Towards the end of the day, we were running out of time so we didn't get all the way out to Cape Evans. It didn't bother me though because I had already been there. Also, that meant another trip would have to go out and allow others to go on a boondoggle. On the way back in, we didn't have any flags to pick up so we floored it. I went at least 80 km/50 miles per hour. It was weird to be going that fast on a snow machine. The machine shakes a little bit, but you get used to it.

An island I can't remember the name of . . .
Mt. Erebus with some great cloud formations.

We ate lunch out on the ice and all took turns switching in and out of the various jobs. We moved quickly, but didn't rush. It was simply a great day. It let me get on a snow machine for the first time, showed me my first penguin, and reminded me of why I was down here. I didn't think my morale was down, but it certainly showed me how to pick it up. Yeah for play dates and Merry Christmas to everyone reading this on 25th. I'm already at work on the 26th!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sea Ice

The sea ice in McMurdo Sound freezes each year. During the summer, it usually melts all the way up to base. McMurdo's site was originally chosen because it is the furthest point South that a ship can navigate when that sea ice melts. If the ice melted more they could go farther.

A Bassler plane on the sea ice runway.

We use the sea ice for roads and as a runway. Each year, those roads and runway are reestablished. We have another runway on the glacier for after the sea ice melts. We don't use it all the time because it is much farther away and therefore more costly to operate.

Mt. Erebus in the background. The sea ice runway road in the foreground.

Annual sea-ice thickness varies seasonally between 8 and 11 feet by the end of the growth period. Thinning by bottom melting starts about mid-December and continues until breakout in late January or early February. We usually move the sea ice runway out to Williams Field as soon as the melting starts.

A radar bubble on the sea ice runway.

While the sea ice is being used as a runway, the minimum thickness is 70 inches for a C-17 to land on it. The minimum length of the runway is 10,000 feet. There is a 69 page document that goes on and on about the smallest details of what needs to be done. It is more complicated than you'd ever guess. The maximum parking load is 600,000 lbs for 1 hour or 490,000 lbs for 3.2 hours. The most important thing we are monitoring is sea ice temperature because as the temperatures increase the weight of the aircraft is adjusted lower. They also have a surveyor measuring how much the sea ice bends every time a plane lands on it. If it bends too much, they'll decrease the weight on the next plane or close the entire runway.

More buildings that make up part of the sea ice runway facility

What other numbers do I have for you ... The average water temperature is -1.9 degrees Celsius or 28.58 degrees Fahrenheit.

The sea ice runway closed three weeks ago. However, until this week we were still using the sea ice as a road network out to field camps. This map shows our surrounding area and details about the sea ice thickness in early December when we were closing the runway.

Sea ice thickness map.

So I wanted to write about this to convey just how amazing and strong the sea ice is. I'm not sure if I did that, so just think about it again 600,000lbs of plane on eight feet of sea ice equates to 187.5 2008 Toyota Tacomas!!

Next blog should be about my trip out onto the closed sea ice!!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Under the sea

The seaweed is always greener
In somebody else's lake
You dream about going up there
But that is a big mistake
Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more is you lookin' for?
('Under the Sea' from the Little Mermaid)

First up, I want to thank Bruce Miller for posting all of his underwater photos. Every photo in today's blog is compliments of him. It's a treat to see photos of a place that so few of us ever get to go. I bet more people have been to the South Pole (about 7,000 I think) than have ever been diving under the sea ice in Antarctica. I tried to limit the number of photos, but there were so many great ones I kept more than I deleted.

These creatures live under the sea ice year round. They don't migrate for the winter. I have no idea how much light can penetrate eight feet of snow covered sea ice, but I can't imagine it is too much. Yet, so much still thrives. I've heard that once the ice starts to melt the plant life begins to bloom and visibility drops from 500 ft (?) down to 10 ft so winter is actually the best time to explore the sea floor.

I, unfortunately, don't know what most of these creatures are so I am mostly just posting pictures. Enjoy!!


Octopus. I'm not sure if the other two legs are underneath it or not.

Weddell seal coming down from a hole in the sea ice.

Lots of life here. There must be a source of nutrients under that pile.

Two starfish doing the Unstuck.

Underwater pill bug?

Big Brother seal is watching you.

Sea fairy?

The end of a riveting game of hide and go seek.

0xygen meter and underwater note taking

It was THIS big!

This is how you make fish lips.