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Sat, Apr. 24th, 2004, 10:28 pm
Dispatches, part 5

Dispatches from the Ice-Year 2
Part 5


The patient count went up to 3 by April 3rd, when the US Air Force C-141 finally landed at Pegasus Field on a perfectly clear, sunny day for Antarctica. The first was the original one who had severe dehydration. The second was the gentleman with the slight mental disorder, and a third one was someone else with a stomach disorder that would have stayed for treatment here but with a flight scheduled, he too was out of here.

Despite all the hard work by Fleet Ops and everyone else, there was a problem getting an aircraft down here. Originally it was to be a New Zealand C-130. But there were problems getting a back up aircraft and days passed before the Kiwis advised the USAP to ask the USAF for a plane. The USAF diverted a C-141 from Iraqi medivac service to fly down here to us, with the Kiwi C-130 serving as the back up aircraft.

Mid week we had a storm requiring clearing of the runway again. By Friday the plane was in Christchurch, taking on 3500 pounds of freshies (fruits and veggies) and whatever flat mail accumulated in Christchurch. There was still blowing snow out on the ice shelf and visibility was under the 1 ½ mile minimum and the ceiling was less than the minimum 3000 feet, but they were telling us all the flight was on for Saturday the 3rd. We all figured Sunday for sure, just to screw up another weekend.

But by Saturday the weather improved enough by the time the 141 reached the PSR (point of safe return) point that they pressed on to a 12:22 PM landing at Pegasus. Freshies were off loaded quickly and placed in a heated trailer while the medical staff loaded the patients. Despite the hasty off load, much of the produce packed next to the cold was frozen in the –32F cold. Herman-Nelson heaters were employed on all 4 engines and landing gear to keep the jet as warm as possible for takeoff.
Less than 30 minutes later, the C-141 was on its way back to Christchurch. Monday saw Pegasus Field come back apart as quickly as it came together and once again become a dozen utility poles at the end of a long white strip of ice road marked by only the flag markers. Back to the routine…

Black Island Traverse, or the Bacon Traverse.

The routine lasted only a few days as I was informed on Friday the 9th, that I would take part in the next Black Island traverse, which was scheduled to depart town on Tuesday the 13th. YAY, Lets Go!

Originally, I was not supposed to go on this one either, but on the next one in June. I was added at the last minute because it was determined the workload was going to be heavy for one mechanic to do in one full day on the island. Three Pisten Bullys were selected to make the traverse. We had to carry everything we needed including tools, parts, fluids, rags, and documentation. We also had to carry for ourselves, full ECW, fresh clothes, personal items, and plenty of film.

There were seven of us heading out. Matt Ogden and myself were from the Heavy Shop. Four from IT and Communications, Rex Cotton and Arnie Pietz doing road flagging, and Jay Cairns and our Kiwi Anthony Powell traverse leader. Also along was Phil Eves to perform work on the ventilation system. We got underway at 9:00 AM after locating almost everybody, loading up the Pisten Bullys, getting food from the Galley, survival bags from Berg Field Center, who supply all outdoor equipment for everyone, and radios and GPS receivers from the radio shop. Jay wound up chasing us around town because he was a little late meeting for our departure time, so we ran around doing errands until we decided to hunt him down, and only then found out he was running around behind us trying to catch up.

The Pisten Bullys comfortably seats one, the driver in a heated, suspended, fully adjustable, Recaro racing seat. The passengers’ seat is no way near as comfy as the driver, and one of us had to ride in the back with the supplies. That was to be the ride from hell! Jay drew the short straw in that one. I rode shotgun for Matt in the Heavy Shops ride with all our stuff in it. We knew we had a 6-hour trip ahead of us and I was just as glad to be a tourist.

The Pisten Bully is a tracked vehicle specifically designed to groom ski slopes. It has a large footprint that rides up on top of snow. Well, that is great but when it rides up on a snow drift and passes over it , it comes crashing down on the front of the tracks, jarring the heck out of everything in the rig including the passengers, and everything else. And you know everything is white so seeing the bumps was a real challenge. We could go 18 to 20 mph but had to go slower because of the bumps, so 9 to 10 mph was the norm.

It is a much different ride driving out in daylight. Last year we went out in total darkness and god was that a long ride. At least with the sun we had things to look at. Having a GPS was fun to play with. We always had 7 or 8 GPS satellites visible at all times and it was especially interesting to see our elevation above sea level change on different parts of the ice shelf.

Black Island sits 26 miles line of sight from McMurdo Station. The road to Black Island in total is 53 miles of ice from McMurdo to Black Island Telecommunications Facility (BITF). It passes south of the island then curves north and follows the length of the island until we get to the ice transition about a half-mile from the domed station. We can see the domes hours before we actually arrive. They take this circuitous route because the ice is more stabile here than it is closer to the edge of the seasonal ice front.

After about 27 miles the road goes directly between Black Island to the north and White Island to the south, a pass of still 4 or 5 miles wide. Here the snow is swept away by the winds flowing straight from the south, off the Antarctic Plateau. Here the Ross Ice Shelf is expose mostly bare and is only 27 feet above sea level (according to the Garmin GPS receiver). I knew last year I was on bare ice but didn’t know the extent of it in the dark sitting 10 feet above the ground in the Foremost Delta.

From here the road curves gently towards the north, still over the ice shelf but over the next 5 or 6 miles, you are driving up the biggest snowdrift I ever saw. Some of this is fresh snow. We went from 27 feet to over 400 feet above sea level up a gentle white slope. At this point we are still on the flagged route, but Anthony knows rough ice is just ahead. This part of the ice is affected by melt water from the snow this past summer. The flagged road just melted away, while the flags are still standing, the packed roadbed is mostly gone and what is left of the road is 2 or 3 feet above the surface.

Anthony departs the flagged road and leads us through the ice field trying to pick a smoother path. Somewhere in all the safety lectures we had, it was drilled into us never to leave the flagged route and here we are randomly driving across Antarctica, over cracks and crevasses. I can walk much faster than we are moving in a motorize vehicle, just creeping along. We drive close to the coast of Black Island, close enough to see rocks and boulders that have tumbled off the steep slopes and roll down onto the ice. It is much smoother here and driving among the boulders is much easier than picking our way through the ice field. We round a point and follow the curve of the shoreline. Driving is still good, 10 mph or so in relatively soft snow.

We come up to an unusual geologic formation, and I would kill to have a picture of it but my cameras were out of reach and I wasn’t going to stop the traverse so I could rummage for a camera. It looked like one side of a perfect pyramid protruding from a round bowl. But the bowl had a huge lip to it. Sort of like a … Hell, I cannot even describe it the way I’d like to. Guess I got to go back for a picture. Oh, this rock is perhaps 900 feet or so high visibly shorter than the 1200 foot hill marked on the map nearby.

We round the next corner and head back towards the flagged road. Before long we are back into rough ice again picking our way along like before. We come upon a carcass of a juvenile Emperor Penguin frozen solid and just laying on top of the ice. Its feathers have been ablated off by the wind. Anthony speculates it got lost from its parents and probably died of starvation after the water froze. For most of us it is the only penguin we ever saw, so we just had to pose with it. We watered the bushes off the side and resumed our trek towards the domes.

At about 2 pm and the sun is shining on us, what there is for sun. The suns elevation above the horizon is about 3 degrees, and is peeking around the corner on the northern end of the island.
We pass over ‘pools’ of blue green frozen seawater. There was open water in places here this summer. You sure couldn’t tell now except for the pools. We chose to drive along the bare ice and cross over between pools. This water is frozen solid. So solid, that domes of ice thrust up forming small hills of cracked ice and between pools, pressure ridges form. Some domes barely a rise and others 2,3 or more feet high. It was very interesting and even pleasant to look at. Crossing between pools was a crapshoot. Some were hard as the ice around it and tossed the Pisten Bullys all over trying to cross. Some others were hollow beneath a thin layer of crusty ice, and the PBs would crash through them and fall hard on the frozen sea beneath. I took pleasure in seeing another natural color besides black and white. I was actually enjoying myself.

For nearly an hour we endured the sea ice field. As we approached the ice transition at Black Island, well… we knew where the dirt road was leading to the station, and in a sort of controlled crash made our way towards it. There was no clear ‘good’ way of getting to it. There were large blocks of ice everywhere, and patches of small melt water ponds between the ice blocks, similar to what we just drove over but on a smaller harsher scale. Flags all askew, some standing, some frozen into the water that was around them. An odd section of the old road with track marks still visible 3 feet above the ice. Patches of dirt and rocks in between. It was difficult to imagine I drove a wheeled vehicle over this road last winter, but I couldn’t imagine bringing a wheeled vehicle over this track again.

At nearly 4:30, 7 ½ hours and 53 miles after we started, we arrived on the ‘smoother’ terrain of Black Island. It was –22F here and the wind were pretty calm for this place. This place is a lot bigger than I saw last year. There are six 70-foot radio towers spread out with wire antennas on them for communicating with aircraft enroute to and from New Zealand. There is a VLF beacon array on site for aeronautical navigation. We pass several melt water ponds and the grey water pond from the living quarters at the station. The rocks are different than Ross Island, not being volcanic. It is easy to imagine looking at parts of planet Earth that perhaps, has never been trod upon.

Home Sweet Home.

It is –22F outside so guess what, it is –22F inside too! The only heated areas are the battery room, generator room and electronics room. The rest of the station is shut down. We drag a Herman-Nelson heater out of the entryway and start it up. We link up the hoses and direct hot air into the living quarters and the heater in particular. Then set about unloading stuff from the Pisten Bullys, ECW bags, food, tools, and parts, everything we brought out. A few minutes with the Hermie and the furnace is running, but still leave it running for heat. I suddenly remembered the importance of claiming a bunk. I grab my bag and grab the first bottom bunk I come to before anyone else. I figure age has it privileges.

The heaters are started in the toilet room and a little glycol is poured down the urinal to make sure it is not frozen. Urinal froze last year and let me tell you that was not much fun. There is no running water this time of year, but there is when the station is populated in the summer.

For you newcomers, Black Island exists because Ross Island, where McMurdo Station is, cannot see the geostationary satellites that serve us. Mount Erebus is a 12,000-foot roadblock in the way. The satellites are only a few degrees above the horizon directly north and in the path of Erebus. So in order to access those satellites that bring us telephones, the Internet, data, teleconferencing, and television and radio, Black Island was built to access those satellites and relay the data back to town 26 miles away.

After an hour of heating, the place gets a little homier. Telephones are connected, a TV and VCR come out of hiding, and a computer is hooked up. The propane is turned on and the kitchen stove is turned on for dinner preparation. All three Pisten Bullys had the wrong AC power plug on the internal heaters that keeps the engines warm, and I had to kneel in the snow, ice and rocks to change the plugs to fit the outlets on the building.

We discovered after we unpack the food supplies, that a box apparently was missed when the food order was picked up at the galley. I do not know who plans the food we take. Basically we had 20 pounds of bacon and a case of frozen pizza to feed seven guys for 3 or 4 days. We had no eggs, milk, butter, cheese, meat, fruits or veggies (despite just getting in 3500 pounds of freshies), only 2 partial loaves of bread, nothing like cold cuts for lunches, one case of cheap juice boxes, one box of just cookies and potato chips. There was a lot of food already (like Bisquick) out there but nothing to make it into real meals. There was frozen in the deepfreeze (read: a simple plywood room exposed to the outdoors) some 7-11 type of frozen microwavable junk food like burritos, tacos, Swanson frozen dinners (more Mexican), pita pockets, etc…Far from a 5 star restaurant!

We all found it hugely entertaining to decide on meals. Breakfast: bacon on dry toast or dry toast with bacon. Or frozen pizza if you liked. Dinner: frozen pizza with or without bacon. Once some of us had 2 frozen pizzas with bacon piled between, compressed, and eaten like a sandwich. Some of us for breakfast dipped our toast into the bacon fat for a little lubrication!

It takes a good 12 hours or so to heat the facility to where you stop seeing your exhaled breath. Sitting in one of the easy chairs is 20 degrees colder that standing up (remember heat rises!) and the sleeping room is not above freezing when you turn in the first night. An advantage the first night is a top bunk, but after that the top bunk remains intolerably hot. Going to bed the first night included wearing thermal underwear, sweatpants, heavy wool socks, and my Bishop’s University hooded sweatshirt from Emily, plus all the bedding I could scare up.

Wednesday the 14th was the workday, and the work went good after our bacon, dry toast, and coffee breakfast. We did our PMs to the three 16kW diesel generators and changed out the coolant. We made one hell of a mess in the process not having the proper receptacles to catch the fluid, so we spent as much time cleaning up after ourselves as we did performing the work, and all the more harder without running water, even to wash our hands with. We did have good gritty waterless hand cleaner but was only able to rinse off in a 5-gallon bucket half filled with cold water. We took out sweet time and spent the whole day on this task.

Dinner was a choice of frozen pizza or frozen Mexican junk food, our 7-11 meal. And the ever-present bacon! For entertainment we had the same three AFRTS channels as town, or a choice of DVDs or VCR movies. Yawn!!! Off to bed for me. The sleeping room was quite warm by now and I was able to sleep in my normal attire. I did notice that the large bolts that hold this freezer unit together never shed its coating of ice and frost from its contact with the outside world where it was still a brisk –20F something.

Thursday the 15th about 5:00 AM found the winds begin blowing hard from the South Pole at 30 knots or so. Continental outflow they call it, when cold air dumped over the pole flows out towards the north and picking up speed as it descends in altitude over the Antarctic Plateau. This invisible force is not unlike the tides of the ocean in behavior, being a well-defined mass of air instead of water. As it rolls off the continent it falls onto Minne Bluff, a 4000-foot drop in elevation about 10 miles directly south from Black Island and picking up speed all the time as it rolls over Black Island and continues out onto the Ross Ice Shelf and the Ross Sea farther to the north. Because of the topography of Ross Island, McMurdo seems to be spared the brunt of these winds, although a strong southerly wind will still blow up our skirts.

We killed Thursday watching dumb TV and dumber movies, eating exquisite gourmet cuisine such as bacon and frozen pizzas drenched in bacon fat, or 7-11 fare. We could barely see beyond the windows with blowing snow, and the wind blowing at a sustained 59 to 63 knots through the towers and rocking the dome made an unworldly racket.

Friday the 16th was still blowing pretty hard but was clearing up considerably. Decision was made to sit out the morning and wait on the weather to improve. Ironically the weather back in McMurdo was clear, sunny and light winds blowing. Visibility was good even out on the ice. That was there, here was here. We didn’t share their good weather. Game 5 of the Bruins playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens came on live TV at 11:00 AM and I settled down to watch it. After the second period started, we decided the weather was good enough to go home.

We spent an hour cleaning up, packing up the Pisten Bullys, fueling the tanks and at 12:45 PM started off for home, with me driving. The trip home was the same in reverse as the trip out here. We took the same basic track, over the same ice fields, past the frozen penguin, and up towards the side of Black Island on freshly fallen and blown snow. After we left the rough ice it was a nice traverse along the new flagged route navigating by GPS only. It was still a 7-hour drive back at 9 to 10 mph at best.

We had to stop after an hour driving to retie the flags piled on top of one of the Pisten Bullys. We were stopped about a half hour and during that time we all help reload the flags and after walked around taking a multitude of pictures. It never fails to amaze me that there could be so many interesting things to see in the middle of a deeply frozen ice field. I took about 30 pictures of ice domes and ice formations and of the people and vehicles of the traverse.

The rest of the ride was merely driving. We got back to town at 8:15 PM, tired, beat up, hungry, and real tired of riding. We unloaded our bags at the dorms and drove up to the shop and parked the vehicles until morning when they would be unloaded, checked out and parked. We all went off for a fast bite of anything at the galley, then a shower and bed. I would spend most of the next day at work on post traverse stuff.

My Lifelong Love Affair with Coffee.

The two weeks before the traverse, I was real sick in the morning, with a severe pounding headache, nausea, fatigue, heartburn, unable to sleep through the night, and a bunch of other ills. I knew it was my addiction to caffeine. I knew if I didn’t get my evening cup of coffee I would pay for it the next morning. I always made sure that I had the means to make coffee no matter where I went. Up on the hill in Maine I had coffee. At flea markets I had coffee, no matter when or where. If I stayed in a hotel, it had a coffee pot in the room.
I have no concept of withdrawing from substance abuse, but decided to get off the coffee bean. When I quit drinking alcohol 15 years ago, I just stopped cold. A chat with medical gave me a direction to follow. Bet you didn’t know a cup of coffee contains 100 to 200 mg of caffeine. I had one cup a day, from 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM! Following medicals advice, I had a cup at breakfast. Then after that during the day, I held off drinking anymore until the withdrawal headache would begin. The headache would always precede the nausea. Then I was to drink ½ cup of coffee with no sugar. If the didn’t subside at that point, then have another ½ cup of coffee. Then I was to hold off as long as I could before I had more. Then have a cup before bed to prevent the withdrawal sickness during the night.
The first few days I had 4 or 5 cups. Then it tapered off to 3 or 4 cups spaced out during the day. The headaches became less bothersome but I could feel when they were about to come to life, and have a sip of coffee. Then the traverse happened. I couldn’t find any coffee out there at first, so I drank tea the first night. I really did not want to wake up there with a pounding headache. The next day I found the coffee stash. All was well.
After I got back to town, I got on my regiment again, but didn’t need so much. The headaches had ended and I spent my first night without having coffee, since the world was flat, this last Wednesday, and I awoke from a full night sleep and no headache!
NOW…me with the ever-present cup of coffee in my hand, as you ALL remember, is gone. I have two cups a day, one at breakfast and another at morning break. No more. I fell so much better without it. I am sleeping better, longer, my appetite is better, my blood pressure is down, and I am not so fatigued all the time from affected sleeping habits.

On April 27th…Happy Birthday Ma!

That’s a Wrap Before I hit page 11!!!

Today is April 25, 2004. Yesterday the 24th, the sunrise happened at 11:51 AM and the sunset was at 1:16 PM. Today there is no sunrise or sunset at 77 degrees south latitude. The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd was stormy with warm temperatures of +9F and fluffy snow piling up everywhere. By the end of the storm the wind came up some and blew away most of the accumulation on surfaces. The average low is still in the –20’s F and the wind chill is mostly –50’s/-60’s F. Some of the prettiest skies are coming up the next couple of weeks.

Ernie Gray
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Thu, May. 13th, 2004 02:12 am (UTC)

Hi. My name is Ellee. I hope you don't mind my adding you to my friend's list. Antarctica, especially health care there (I am an occupational therapist) is fascinating to me. I entertain thoughts of one day working out there just once in my field.