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Tue, Feb. 15th, 2005, 12:44 pm

Hey everyone! sorry for the delay. This is the journal of my dad, Ernest Gray, who spends his winters at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. He deployed for a 3rd season on January 9th, reached 'the ice' Jan. 18th, and sent off his first update almost 2 weeks ago now. So here goes. ~~Emily

Dispatches from the Ice
Year 3, no 1

Hello All,

Well, I finally made it here on January 18th after a wonderful
extended stay in Christchurch New Zealand for 6 whole days. It is such a treat
to visit such a nice place after a New Hampshire winter, even if winter
at home wasn't so tough. Here's the skinny!


No problems traveling from home this year. Uneventful, on time flights
from Manchester, connect through Atlanta to Denver where Raytheon
travel office screwed up and gave me a first class ticket to Denver. In
Denver I had my annual, psych evaluation on that Saturday, killed off
Sunday at the Marriot watching football playoff games, then went back to the
office Monday the 10th for orientation and paperwork. Then dumped at
DIA for the LA leg.

I mananged aisle seats for all my flights which I really enjoy
especially on Auckland's 13 hour flight. We arrived in Auckland at 6:00 AM
Wednesday after again losing the hole day, Tuesday the 11th somewhere over
the Pacific where I spent the whole goddamn day on seat 47C, crossing
the dateline at something like 4 AM. The in-flight movies sucked, but as
usual the Qantas food was good for back of the bus class. (WHY, WHY
couldn't the travel office mess up and give me a first class seat to
AKL?????...a goal to shoot for!)

Auckland was of course warm, summery, breezey. With palm trees, birds
and flowers everywhere. The hop to Christchurch on the south island was
nice. And again my room at the YMCA was as it has been in the past,
right across from the botanical gardens.


We were told at the CDC when we were trying on our ECW clothing that
there has been many flight delays and in fact the ONLY C-141 was broken
and were awaiting new parts from New Jersey to be flown in. There was a
99% chance we would not be going on schedule on the 14th. Besides
antiquated aircraft delaying flights to the ice was mother nature herself.
November was excessively and unseasonably warm, melting the seasonal ice
runway carved out of the frozen sea ice near town weeks earlier than
normal. The permanent ice runway at Pegasus Feild is not brought up to
replace until January, not December. Equipment was suddenly traveling
through up to 3 feet of standing water at the sea-ice transistion to town.
The snow roads became so soft, trucks and vans could not pass over
them, just sink. Only tracked vehicles and fat-tired Deltas could negotiate
that terrain.

Trucks and vans that venture out of town, now have a problem with
contaminated fluids in the transmissions, transfer cases, and differentials
because water would seep in through the breather or vent holes. (All
vehicles have breathers, even those we drive everyday at home.) Because
of the soft snow conditions it became difficult to move all the
equipment to Pregasus from the ice runway. It uses the same equipment at both
sites. The first flight to Pegasus was scheduled for the 12th. The
people for that flight were cruising New Zealand since the 5th, and they
were told there would be a lenghty delay so many of them went off into the
countryside. WE could not, had to hang around town.

We were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment each and every day
during our extended stay in Christchurch. Some of the abuses were:
1.) Height of summer in a sub tropical climate.
2.) Bright sunshine, temps 80 to 90F daily.
3.) Not a drop of rain and few clouds.
4.) Lush vegatation, indescribable flower gardens, and swaying palm
5.) Great food from all corners of the Pacific
6.) Breakfast at Drexel's...every morning.
7.) Forced to travel to the travel office for our per-diem of $150 NZD
(4 days~$600)...every day! In addition to our wages which began on our
first full day in Christchurch.
8.) Meeting the gang at Bailie's Irish Bar in Cathedral Square where
drinks are cheap or free to program people. Yes, they serve Coke...a
different mixture though. Has a real tart bite to it.
9.) All day bus passes for $7.00, which is honored on all buses that
cover a 30 mile radius of Christchurch.
10.) A huge selection of single, georgous, freindly, scantily clad
ladies from all over the South Pacific region. And not neccesarily young
kids either.

Six days of this cruelity is about all we could take. We had to get
out of town. Each day at the airport, we ask about our flight, where's
the part, etc. On the 15th the Air Force sent down a C-17, appearantly
for a joyride, because the jet was empty and was turning around to go to
Hawaii the next day. Where's the part?? Don't you guys talk to one

An additional C-141 was tasked to the USAP and arrived on the 17th
WITH two parts, the one it needed and a spare. It was an actuator for the
elevator on the tail of the jet. Can't fly without it. We found out
Monday when we got our money our flight was on for 4 AM Tuesday morning.
It was installed Monday night and tested.

We arrived at the CDC next morning bleary eyed, hungry and coffee
deprived. We got dressed in our ECW gear, breifed by New Zealand customs
and the loadmaster for the US Air Force, passed through NZ customs,
boarded a bus to the aircraft, got our bag lunch (WHAT, no coffee!!!), and
boarded the C-141 Starlifter, seated interlocked knee to knee. Then the
pilot announced that we should enjoy this ride as it will be the last
in a C-141 as they are being mothballed after this Ice season, being
replaced full time with C-17 cargo jets. (We have heard that before, like
last season!)

One by one, the 4 huge jet engines were started, and the noise went
from loud to nearly unbearable in seconds, and that was only the first
engine! Just imagine the racket with all 4 burning!! Otherwise the flight
was uneventful, landing at the permanent ice runway at Pegasus Feild 5
hours and 16 minutes after lifting off from Christchurch.

Kneedeep in STUFF!!!

Huge problems all around town this year starting with my own shop. The
big boss Bobby Werner was wrongly diagnosed with an intestinal disorder
descibed as Krone's Disease, and his status was changed to Not
Physically Qualified (NPQ) and sent home to Denver. After learning about the
misdiagnosis, Raytheon would not send him back so he resigned his
position and will leave the company effective Feb 26th. The person who stepped
up to his job is widely disliked all around town and resulted in 6
mechanics quitting over the course of the summer, leaving gaping holes and
lots of work not done at all. We have a inch thick stack of work orders

Flight delays have been touched on, but they are 20 flights behind for
the season and the season is winding down now. Problems with the aging
C-141, (Vietnam era cargo jet...40 years old), and the warm temps
causing an early ending of the ice runway, and the soft snow have all

The Galley ran out of food this summer for a few days and have gone
extended periods of time without freshies. The Galley actually rationed
food and served leftovers for those days until planes could get in. I
heard errors were made in ordering besides of flight problems. The
general concensus of the quality of the food this summer is dismal.

Mail delivery has been affected by the flight delays. Package mail
summer people sent when they deployed has not made it yet, as packages
become "space available" cargo as far as the Air Force is concerned. Flat
mail gets through though. Six 4 foot by 4 foot by 6 foot high pallets
of just package mail sits in Christchurch.

Bits and Peices...

This stuff gets easier every year. I got put in dorm 209 3rd floor,
the 'penthouse', the best dorm in town usually reserved for people with
more ice time than me. Some people were really put out by it, but I
don't get to pick my own room, I was assigned it. Get over it! My roommate
is cool, an older guy who works at the runways at Willy Feild
supporting C-130 operations. His name is Dave Berry and is also a ham.

I got stuck on night shift at work which is the same hours as day but
at night. 7:30PM to 5:30AM. I got adjusted to the time change at
Christchurch, so I had to readjust to this shift only to change to some other
shift in 2 weeks for ship offload. Then back to day shift after that in
3 weeks as everyone goes home leaving us winterovers behind. I did get
2 days off to help adjust but I figure I'll be messed up for a month!!
The first night was ok but I crashed right away after work until 2PM
when I woke up in time to see the Patriots win over the Pittsburg
Steelers to get into the Superbowl.

Working nights lets us have mid-rats in the galley. Mid-rats is Navy
slang for Midnight Rations to those who don't know. Which is a whole
fresh meal prepared for us who work night shift. Better food than regular
meals so far.

Busy today at the ice peir. The Russian icebreaker Kranski was working
the channel as was the Polar Star of the US Coast Guard. The research
ship, Nathaniel B. Palmer was tied up at the ice peir. The USN fuel
tanker John Buck is at the ice edge and the American Tern is approaching
Antarctic waters for a scheduled Febuary 6th docking. Took a few pix
today of all 3 in our harbor. The tanker is visable 7 miles out to the ice
edge if I climb up the hills for a view.

Saturday night/Sunday morning, just to stay awake for my first night,
I climbed up the hills for a 3 mile hike and a look aropund. I thought
I was walking on the moon!! Nothing but volcanic rocks, everywhere. And
the place is undisturbed by any vehicle traffic, just footprints. I did
find some indigenous lifeform though, my first. I found a meltwater
pool and settled in the bottom was a layer of bright green algae. I fo
course took a pix of it and it actually came out pretty good. Pix to

My first night was tough trying to get used to the new hours. I
managed to stay awake but crashed as soon as I hit the top af the stairs into
my dorm and slept like a rock to 2 PM. The next night wasn't as bad and
it is getting better. I'll be completely adjusted soon, then have to
change for a different shift for ship offload.

That's a wrap of Part 1.

Today is January 26th. Partly cloudy skies, 32 degrees F and light but
cold winds. The sun is 29 days from our first sunset and otherwise
burns 24 hours a day in the sky above. Neat going out at midnight for
mid-rats and needing sunglasses. I think it makes the shift transistion
easier too. Just so y'all know, TV hasn't changed much. The Iraqi news
channel is the same. Although the news of the weather home is talked about
on the major networks. 3 feet of snow and more on the way...cool. I'll
keep you guys in mind as my Antarctic tan deepens on my face, well, not
for long though.

One good thing of nights is I can see the Superbowl on Monday at
noontime local. My local time is 6 hours behind you guys tomorrow.

Over 1000 people in town now. Winterovers coming in, summer weenies
going out!

Ernie Gray
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Sun, May. 23rd, 2004, 12:52 pm
Dispatches, part 6

Dispatches from the Ice-Year 2
Part 6

Hello All,

HO-HUMM.....Routines exist everywhere.

Yes, just as last year, May and June were pretty dull for reporting
much in the way of excitement around town. The last installment about my
Black Island traverse wiped me out of typing for a while I guess, as I
haven't had the urge to sit down to compose another installment. I have
some good pictures to send off but haven't done that yet either! I'll
get to it soon.

Nearly a month has passed since sunset and it is mostly dark at
midday, the southern cross shining promenately directly overhead. It has been
cold, well into the -20's F with a low recently of -43F and a few wind
chills tripping -100F. When it gets that cold, diesel engines do not
start, tires go spontaniously flat, and rubber fan belts break when the
engines are first cranked over. I spent most of last week outside fixing
tires in the cold, which isn't really so bad, not hard just messy.

Hurricane season doesn't start at home for a couple of more weeks. I
am not aware if the southern hemisphere has a hurricane season, or a
typhoon season or whatever. But somebody forgot to tell the weather gods
down here. We were rocked by a hurricane force storm Sunday that did as
much damage as a hurricane at home does. There was two storms this past
weekend, one Saturday causing work closure for those who didn't get to
work before they called a condition 1 weather emergency. Myself and
four others were in the shop when the weather office announced it, so we
worked the morning. They reduced it to a condition 2 storm by mid
morning. By dinner time the weather was fine, nice warm at +9F and calm
winds. The weather office forcasted this storm and Sundays storm accurastely
for a change.


Being away to Black Island and out of communication with my fellow
co-workers, I was DRAFTED to call bingo night, sponsore by the VMF at one
of the bars in town. I didn't have a say in it, couldn't complain about
it, really couldn't back out of it, so what the hell-go with it. Myself
and our general assistant, Traci Fisher (who volunteered me in my
absence), got dressed up in coveralls, scattered tools and crap all over the
tables. The prizes were a selection of gift certificates to
Christchurch bars and restaurants, things from the store, booze, and a $200 cash
final prize.

I cannot remember the last time I even played, never mind running the
game. We got a fast lesson from the recreation coordinator on how the
machine worked, and off we went. All in all it was a good time. There is
a certain rough persona that people here expect from the mechanics and
the Heavy Shop and filling that role made things easier. I did a lot of
yelling and screaming at everyone, pounding tools together to make
noise, threatened to shut people off from the bar and basically had a good
time with it. In the end everyone said they had a good time with the
'show' and want us to do it again. I dunno about that.

Sunday May 16th.

The winds came up about midnight howling past the window. I could see
a bright glow of the snow reflecting all the lights around town when I
answered the call to nature at 2:00AM. I checked the TV weather scroll
and it was set at Condition 2 for town and Condition 1 for all ice
areas (read: out of town). The winds were pelting the building with small
pebbles and rocks. I was woken by the wind again at 4:00 AM and decided
to get up and make a pot of coffee. I turned on my FT-817 ham
transceiver and tuned down to McMurdo channel 10 (143.725 Mc.) to listen for any
news. At 4:20 AM the weather office got on the air and announced a
Condition 1 for all areas. My window looks out at the dorm next tpo mine so
I couldn't really see much, so I walked down to the end of the hall to
see out across town to the galley. There was a solid wall of white.
Zero visibility. I couldn't see the duty line where they park trucks for
pople on call right outside the building nor could I see the dumpsters
right outside the door, not 20 feet away.

So, being trapped for awhile and all, I set out to do laundry, take a
shower, clean my room and turn on the Iraqi news channel just for
background noise, (well that's all AFN News has on!) There was a hockey game
scheduled for 7:00 Am my time so after a half hour of news, I turned
off Iraqi TV and fiddled around my room some more, listening to a CD. It
felt a little funny when the solid steel building I am living began to
sway in the wind. I went on line to find out just how windy it was from
automated weather stations whose data is posted on the McMurdo
homepage. but there are 2 stations run by NASA in town that are posted on the
web. One is at Crary Lab and it registered a 99 knot wind at 6:03 AM,
the other up on the side of Observation Hill, about a good golf swing
away and 400 feet higher in elevation, registered a 139 knot (160 mph)
wind. I later learned that the station out at Black Island recorded a 147
(180 mph) knot wind, which took out the TV satellite dish. The official
weather station is the one in Building 175 run by Aviation Technical
Services. Their data is not posted on the web, but is posted on the
weather scroll on TV channel 3 here.

I turned the TV back on at 7:00 AM for the eagerly anticipated hockey
game, (HEY live sports is as good as it gets here, and I am a hockey
fan, besides the Bruins), I discovered that our satellite TV dish out at
Black Island was damaged by the winds of the day, as we had only snow
on all three satllite channels.

Search and rescuer gets called out during severe weather to shuttle
essential personnel around, like Galley staff, power plant and water
plant. I heard them om the radio around 7:00 AM announcing they were going
to the dorms, and they arrived an hour later, refusing to proceed in
zero visibility. It is a 5 minute walk almost anywhere in town on a good

By mid morning more people were coming out and walking the halls,
looking out the window. Somebody got the idea to clean food out of our
rooms and put up breakfast in one of the lounges, as one had a waffle iron
and mix, another had a skillet, others had a few eggs, everyone had a
coffee pot, and we just brought all this stuff together and then woke
everyone else up and had a party in the lounge for the rest of the
morning. Somebody else had a boombox. It was cool.

The storm howled for the rest of the day. Nothing on TV, the satellite
was out and even the movie channels were off because the person who
programs those was stuck in my dorm building too. The only thing coming in
was streaming audio from National Public Radio (REAL Ho-hmm). But we
were online still, (EBay surfing all afternoon!). Dinner time came and
went and at 7:05 PM, the condition 1 was lifted. It was still blowing
hard but I went across to the galley for a bite of something. At that
time, the most interesting thing I saw was that the ground was blown
completely clean of any gravel, sand , dust, or rocks smaller than 1 inch in
diameter, just gone. It wasn't until next morning when all the juicy
stuff started showing up.

Monday May 17th.

I knew we had power lines down and some buildings had no power for
most of the day yeaterday. Here is the damage to town.

* My shop, the Vehicle Maintenance facility, one of the 20 X 20
overhead doors was blown in and we had snow piled up almost everywhere in the
shop, a foot deep in places.
* Building 140, Movement Control Center, lost 2 overhead doors.
* Building 127 up on Observation hill used for South Pole cargo storage
lost one overhead door and part of its roof
* Dorms 203 and 211 lost huge bits of siding and some windows. These
were already closed for the winter.
* A dorm room in 155 occupied by a galley worker lost a window which
landed on the steps of my dorm 208 several hundred feet away. He was away
to work all day and didn't know anything until he couldn't open his
door after his shift, because his room filled with snow.
* Of the Ford truck fleet, winter parked on Ob Hill, 12 trucks and vans
lost their windows.
* More than 2 dozen peices of heavy equipment lost windows.
* The Brand New Caterpillar Challenger (all $276,000 of it) for the
South Pole traverse next summer lost it's $10,000 (est) glass cab.
* Dumpsters were scattered everywhere and trash was blown everywhere
too. Shipping containers were blown over like dominoes.
* Power was out to one section of town.
* The helicopter hanger door sustained damage. No news on the Bell UH1N
helicopter stored next to the door within.
* AGE building had doors blown in and burst a water pipe losing 20,000
gallons of water. A new glacier on Antarctica.
* The ham radio station lost its antenna.
* A 500,000 gallon fuel tank now used for tire storage, had its door
blown in and the 40,000 pound stell roof lifted off it, and coming to
rest A few feet fom a new 1 million gallon tank full of JP-8 fuel.
* Black Island lost TV and radio downlink downlink.

Back to the Ho-hmm again.

Today is May 23rd, half way to the first flight of WinFly, when a lot
of us are going home. This is only Autmn here, winter doesn't start for
another month yet. Things settled down fast from the excitement from
the storm. A Black Island traverse is on for next week to repair damge to
the TV dish, and a few weeks after another traverse for maintenance to
the generators and fix any surpises found next week. Some first time
winterovers are freaking over the dark, I on the other hand am loving

TV is of course worse than I ever lamented about, now reduced to
stupid movies over and over...(they better fix the dish!). Food is worse
than last year in the galley. The rooads are icy fron\m the loaders
packing all this snow into glare ice everywhere and the soles of my boots
freeze to quickly now and it feels like I am wearing blocks of ice on my
feet as far as traction goes. My feet are plenty warm, just no traction.

Talk is already starting on New Zealand vacations, god, we still got
14 weeks to go. I am still trying for a summer job down here. With both
of you kids off to school and me being homeless and possibly
unemployed, I might just as well work down here for the summer. A possible job at
the power plant is promising. But maybe a job in a feild camp, keeping
my fingers crossed

Hope you all are enjoying spring back home.

Ernie Gray
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

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

Fri, Apr. 2nd, 2004, 10:52 pm
Part 4

Dispatches from the Ice-Year 2
Part 4

Hello All,

The thermometer seems to drop almost as fast as the receding sunshine. Old Sol peeks through the hills off to the north until late afternoon when it settles over the ice shelf. Its warmth cannot be felt as the ever-present winds cut through even the ripstop nylon fabric of our parkas necessitating another layer.

The last two weeks has not seen the temperature rise into +0F numbers and the lows range from –2F to –26F and wind chills from a –33F to –76F. Most of this period has been overcast and snowy as well. Just a taste of what’s coming I suppose.

Pegasus Airfield.

Winter tasking for Fleet Ops has begun on 26 March when the generator in the Smurf Shack (so called because it is purple/blue) was fired up. Shawn Walgren and myself went out to heat the 30KW generator with a Herman-Nelson heater. It took most of the day but finally the Detroit Diesel finally started and ran. We turned on the heaters in the shack and made sure the equipment, that has been frozen solid had its heaters plugged in so they will have a hope to start.

Fleet Ops keeps the snow from accumulating on the ice runway and pushes back snow that was cleared off the ice runway during the summer. I drove the length of the runway twice. I would guess snow is drifting a foot or so thick in places. This is the dense “styrosnow” that is blown and compacted by the wind. This is the type of snow you can drive over it, not crash through it. It causes quite a bump at 50 mph!

A truck may bounce off these drifts but the huge Caterpillar D8 bulldozers that Fleet Ops uses don’t even slow them down. Pushing snow for them is like brushing away mosquitoes for us. They have to be careful not to gouge the runway’s surface with their blades. Then they use snow blowers to propel the snow further back from the runway so a snow bank doesn’t form causing further drifting problems.

Power Plant Woes.

Our power plant here has had a run of bad luck lately. We have 6 900 kW diesel power generators powered by massive 16 cylinder, 1200 HP Caterpillar diesels. There are 3 running at all times, and they are cycled on and off line to balance the operating hours, and to allow for preventative maintenance to be performed. You cannot work on a running engine! The town needs 3 generators for it’s power requirements.

There are plans for new equipment to be delivered on next year’s vessel, but the crisis is now. The first engine, torn down last winter, sitting and waiting for parts (which came in on vessel this year), not being overhauled this summer, and not done yet. Another engine failed a month ago and is apart for an overhaul. A third engine lost a fuel pump on Tuesday morning and put us in the dark for 22 minutes, but the only reserve unit was switched on and all was well.

Before the third engine was finished, a fourth engine blew and swallowed a valve early Thursday morning and put the town in darkness for an hour and a half. Thank god it wasn’t windy, just cold! Most of us didn’t know of the outage until we woke up to flashing alarm clocks.

The fourth engine was restored to service Friday.

April 1st.

God, I do not remember so many April fools jokes from last year, running the gambit from ‘guess who’s pregnant’, to running out of fuel, food, to mail and freshies being airlifted in. Stand by!


April 2nd.

Friday morning. Rumors are flying regarding a medivac. Nobody seems to know anything about it first thing this morning, however an email went around at noontime informing the town of the flight, but no more details than that. There is a storm today, as it is windy and snowing across the region. It is a condition 2 in town and a condition 1 on the ice.

At 2 PM there was a meeting in the Heavy Shop with more details and a plan to provide people to support Fleet Ops and other departments to get Pegasus up and running.

Right now Pegasus is only a barren strip of bulldozed ice 10,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. The lights and markers are still in place but have to be reconnected and checked. Halfway down the runway is where the Smurf Shack is. There are only a dozen utility poles where the buildings go at the end of Pegasus Road, the flagged route across the ice from McMurdo Station.

· Fleet Ops has to drag all the buildings into position.
· Heavy Shop (us) has to get the generators running again after being drained and winterized until August for WinFly.
· Line Crew has to wire the power service to all the buildings.
· Electricians have to get each building operational.
· AGE (Airways and Ground Equipment) has to get aircraft support equipment in place for the flight.
· ATS (Aviation Technical Services) gets the weather station up and running and also TACAN (Tower Area Control And Navigation) for communications with the aircraft and aeronautical beacons.
· Fuels is running back and forth to town pumping JP-8 into the equipment and filling the tank for each buildings heating system.
· Furnace technicians has to get furnaces working.

These are only the personnel I heard listening Saturday to the Operations network on Channel 10 on the 2-way radio system. There may be others. This was supposed to be a 2-day weekend, but here I am at home typing away and listening to the radio. I have to work tomorrow, Sunday April 4, 2004 probably out at Pegasus too. And the weather is not good.

The patient, whose name has not been disclosed, has been diagnosed with severe dehydration, to the point where he cannot eat or drink anything without losing it. He is being fed through a tube, and is under constant care in medical. A decision was made Friday morning to medivac him out.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules is flying down on Tuesday April 6th to pick up the patient, and drop off freshies and flat mail.

Watch the news. These things usually make the news.

Ernie Gray
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Sat, Mar. 20th, 2004, 09:17 pm
Part Three

Dispatches from the Ice-Year 2
Part 3

Hello All,

Today is March 14th, and more time has passed relatively uneventful. The weather has been rather gloomy and not a lot of sun. Sun is a valuable commodity this time of year down here. There is not nearly enough of it and it recedes towards the northern horizon far too quickly. Yesterday, Saturday, finds the sun just clearing the hills to the north by a few degrees of elevation. Next week I am sure, the sun will begin to be eclipsed by those same hills. The sun’s warmth is already becoming a distant memory. Facing it finds no change in the temperature from the ambient air temperature.

This year, just for fun, I am graphing the weather records posted on the weather scroll on television. I am charting the low temperature (nobody cares about the high temp!); the strongest wind and lowest wind chill for the day. Over the past two weeks the average temperature was –7 degrees F, the winds were 23 mph and the coldest wind chill was –54 degrees F. I noticed over the last few days the difference between daily lows and highs is only a few degrees. The sun sets for good on April 24th at 1:16 pm until August 20th.

Black Island Traverse

There was a short traverse to Black Island this week. Readers from last year remember how enthralled I was going out there in the extreme darkness of July for generator maintenance. This week’s traverse was only to check the flagged route across the Ross Ice Shelf to B.I. The purpose was to put up new flags, repair old ones, and check ice conditions that may require Fleet Ops to groom the pressure ridges that occur when the ice moves with the tides and sea conditions.

For those who don’t know about Black Island, I’ll tell you. McMurdo Station sits on the southern tip of Ross Island. Sitting directly to our north is Mount Erebus, the only active volcano in a polar region, at 12,000 feet, 12 miles from town. It blocks our access to two geostationary satellites used for telecommunications and television just 2.3 degrees above our horizon. Black Island is 24 miles west of Ross Island and has an unobstructed view of these satellites, so the earth station built there downlinks all our data (including telephones, email, internet, teleconferencing, streaming NPR audio, and some things I probably do not know about), and television and radio services provided by American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS).

From Black Island there is a microwave link back to town where we receive all this stuff and distribute around town. AFRTS television is on our own cable TV network. AFRTS radio is broadcast on our own small FM radio transmitters, as is National Public Radio streaming audio from the Internet. Data goes to our big ass servers where we get email and Internet on NSF computers.

Sean Dwyer from the shop went on this little ride and spent the night at Black Island. He, like most of us, thought it was a cool place but only as far as being a place to go to get out of town. I spoke up for this traverse but much happier for the next traverse next month and I really wanted to go when it is still light out. I am not sure exactly how dark it gets then, but it will still be cool.

South Pole Slot

I have been talking to Dave Anderson, another mechanic in the Heavy Shop, who wintered at Pole the last few years but is wintering here this winter about working at Pole. He plans to go back next winter. There are two mechanic slots at Pole. I was thinking how cool it would be to go to Pole for anything, even a visit. There is a possibility of me getting the second mechanic slot at Pole for winter 2005 with Dave. He gave me contact people and offered a reference to help me out. That would be cool to winter at the South Pole. You think it’s cold here! Dave says a warm day at Pole in winter is –70 ambient!

The crew is a lot smaller and you have to be more self sufficient in doing your job. There is not a support structure to go to (i.e. to get your parts for a repair job). You live on top of everyone else, a lot of smaller, shared spaces. Food is better than McMurdo. You get a private room to yourself so you have a place to go to. The room is half the size of the dorm rooms in town. Community bathroom facilities (I’ve gotten used to that), 2 minute showers 3 times a week, water conservation. It costs money to make water at Pole. No satellite access 12 hours out of the day, so we are effectively cut off completely. I don’t know what they do for excitement, but I got a feeling it is the same past time as here-drinking. Station is closed for 8 months instead of 6 here, meaning no flights in or out. And everything at the pole is flown in, always has been. Does have an operational ham radio station, unlike the one here that is still down due to antenna problems.

Going to the South Pole is one of my goals while I still come down here. It would be real nice to go as far south as one can go.

Tid Bits.

Here are a few little things that need to be said but not worthy of a paragraph or two.

**Winter population is at 191 people. 126 men, 65 women.
**Many of the movies played locally on channels 9 and 10 are the same ones form last winter. (Arrrrrrrgggghhhhh!!!!!!)
**We are eating burgers that came in on vessel 2003! What we don’t eat gets turned into chili. What chili we don’t eat gets turned into burritos. After the burritos…
**When did kielbasa and whole deep fried potatoes become breakfast food?
**There is an operations directive that says using fines on walkways are counterproductive to road maintenance, and may be a violation of the treaty. Do they expect us to spend the entire winter slipping and falling on our collective asses?
**I got drafted as a stretcher-bearer for the annual mass casualty drill because I did it last year.
**I discovered I don’t really like writing on my laptop in my room with the laptop keyboard. I may need to acquire a keyboard.
**I got a red 2005 Ford Mustang as wallpaper on my laptop. Nice to dream isn’t it?
**I have spent no money since I have been here (6 weeks). I do not foresee spending any for a while yet. I still have toothpaste and soap for a while.
**I spend way, way, way too much time surfing eBay for cool cars to buy. Don’t worry Ronnie, I won’t bid on any…yet!
**Life and living here is so much easier this time around.

That’s a wrap.

Today is March 21st. Despite the recent snowstorm, hope spring has finally sprung at home and things are warming up nicely. Miss the spring season, but spring in New Zealand isn’t so awful either. It is cold and partly cloudy today. I had signed up to go on a skidoo trip to room with a view on the slopes of Mt. Erebus, but it was cancelled, so here I sit. Heading down to the galley for Sunday Brunch when I post this. May go up to the ham shack and look at the antenna, or I may go make one up. Hmmmm…


Ernie Gray
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Sat, Mar. 6th, 2004, 04:07 pm
Part 1 - Prologue

Emily's Note: Okay, found part 1 buried in my inbox. So here it is...i know now it's out of order but...meh...

Dispatches from the Ice-Season 2

Here I go again! Off for another tour at McMurdo Station.
I can hardly believe how things have worked out for me this
year. Couldn’t have been better in some respects. Dispatches will
go on for another deployment. I would like to welcome back those
who enjoyed the first edition and welcome new recipients from
SIGArms. Again the disclaimer warning those there may be entries
targeted for family or friends who know what I am talking about, but
others may not know exactly what I am referring to. Enjoy it for
what it is, just a simple communiqué from one person living and
working at the bottom of the world.

Hello All,

December 25th, 2003. Rainy, warm and 46 degrees. Good of a time to start as any. Christmas morning. Nothing else to do so I thought I would begin my next tour to Antarctica today. Much has already happened in preparation of my next deployment.

Well, boys and girls. Here we go again. The first year of Dispatches was so warmly received by all those who was on the mailing list, I just have to keep going with this “little diatribe” a bit longer. I know diatribe is not the correct term, so anyone with a better grasp of the English tongue than I can just BITE ME!

I must have been asked a million times the following questions since August 26th when I departed New Zealand. Is it cold? (If you call –49.6 degrees F cold, then no.) Is it sunny all the time? (No, dark.) See any penguins? (AHHH those cursed penguins!) See any polar bears? (Duh-wrong pole!) What do you do there? (Worked a lot.) How do you get there? (Fly.) Can I go? (No…Well, yes.)…And the list could go on. But won’t.

I think the biggest and easiest to answer questions are, Are you going back? (YES!) Quickly followed by Why? Why is a little harder to define, and the final answer didn’t come to me as quickly as any other answer. Yeah, I stumbled through an assortment of lame reasons why I want to return, but risking plagiarism, the writers of one of the first episodes of the West Wing provided the best answer to the why question.

Flying home from New Zealand I realized I did something really cool. There was a certain feeling every time I thought about it, a buzzing in my scrawny brain keeping me up at night and making me aware of its existence at all times. Every time I was queried about what I did, where I went, or I get a spare moment to think, it was always there. It is there right now as I type these words on Christmas morning. Here is the canned answer I give everyone now.

“It is great to be home. See the kids, family, and friends.
Play radio in Maine in September. Go back to work
at SIGArms and making great money. Buy a new car. Have
a great holiday with the family. Having a wonderful
time as a whole. BUT. BUT.”
“That feeling doesn’t go away-EVER.”

So, there it is. It is the best summary of why I got to do what I got to do. I did a good job, got a nice bonus. Got a nicer raise to do it again. Things will be different this time for sure. I know what I am to do. This first installment will chronicle the road back to McMurdo Station.

November 7th. At long last, and after too many phone calls and emails, I finally got my 2004 offer letter from Raytheon. They claimed it got sent on October 14th, but I never got anything, seeing I was watching for that in particular. I signed the letter accepting the terms of the 2004 contract, scanned it into my computer and emailed back to waiting hands in Denver. They sent out the medical package right away and I made the appointments and filled out all the paperwork. It was nice to see I was not required to have another stress test, EKG, or X-rays. But the remainder was the same as last year.

November 17th. Had my physical at the same facility as last year. Extracted all my blood and as I find out later, again screwed up the lab documents. At least they are consistent.

November 19th. Dental exam. All OK except for a couple of small repairs to old fillings. Return all paperwork to Denver.

December 15th. Informed by Denver medical that lab screwed up again. Had to retake my HIV & TSH test. Somebody is incompetent. All I know is I have to get stuck again with a needle! Retook the test December 22nd.

December 22nd. After I got stuck again, I went to the United Airlines ticket agent at the airport and verified my travel bookings to Denver and arrange for aisle seats on all my flights. I learned about the advantages of aisle seating the last time I flew.

January 2nd. Off to Denver for my psychological evaluation. Had a lot of fun this time. Out of 21 in this group, 17 were guys I wintered with last year. Sort of like old home day. Went out a lot, ate a lot, talked about the Ice a lot. One restaurant near the hotel, a joint called the Trail Dust, who offered up a 50 oz. Porterhouse steak and cooked over freshly burnt mesquite coals. That is over 3 pounds of artery jammin’ cholesterol, that I couldn’t pass up for $18.95 including salad, potato, veggie, and $2.50 Coors NA.

I have decided I like flying but hate air travel! Weather delays, long lines, security, etc… Sunday coming home, Chicago O’Hare was closed for snow, so everything from the west was being routed through Denver. There must have been 600 people waiting at check in, and another herd backing up security. I made my flight just before they closed the door. Then we sat there so the airline could fill the last seat!

The pace quickens.

Having decided to move from my apartment this time, I was starting to think about a nice orderly pace to finish this move, pack for the ice, and deploy sometime in early February. Well, that idea was all blown to hell when Raytheon, on February 9th, sent me an email with my itinerary detailed, and moved up my deployment date 2 and a half weeks, which is fine with me but hell on everything else. Here I was again, going into work and quitting my job prematurely.

Lesson learned-be prepared to deploy on the date of the psych eval!!!!!

January 9th. Now that I know when I am leaving, I sent off a care package to myself. It will take over a month to ship the box down through the Air Post Office in San Francisco. I sent down my new coffee maker, 3 pounds of coffee, $43 worth of toiletries, books and projects to do. I was going to include some snacks. But forgot them. The box weighed in at 23 pounds and cost $46.50 to ship. I just might send down a second box of goodies and pray it makes last flight.

NOTE: The second box followed by a couple of days containing the real important items. CDs, DVDs, tapes, my headphones and cables, Ritz crackers (2), Better Cheddars, 3 cans of squirt cheese, 2 packages of pepperoni, 2 bags of Oreos. You know the real important stuff!!

January 12th. My last day of work at SIGArms. Everyone seemed grateful that I was “available” and could start right away and help out. I hope I made a contribution, fixed a few things there. Made a new group of friends to add to the Dispatches distribution list. Maybe go back after I get home next September. Certainly fortuitous for both parties being here making guns again.

The move actually went pretty good thanks to friends and family. This dump is 99% empty after only 5 days of thrashing and dumpster filling. I got a 10 x 15-foot storage area nearby, and it is ¾ filled. The dumpster is full! My last week here hopefully will be a little more relaxed with last minute box filling, cleaning, and packing for the Ice.

During all this, I have been fretting over getting a ham radio station down to the ice for an activity we have been working on since I got home. I finally got all the pieces gathered at one place on January 16th. Now I got to repackage it and get it off ASAP and do some more praying for a safe and speedy passage! I fear any package sent this late may be delayed enough to miss last flight and get held in Christchurch NZ until I get off the Ice in August. Lots of postage for nothing.

Last week. Just as I thought, pretty relaxed, even boring at times. Cleaning up lots of loose ends, carrying a few light loads to the storage area. Spending money on essentials for deployment. Changed the oil in the PT Cruiser and even bathed it. Kickin’ back some. Friday and Saturday will be finishing up and packing. Then driving to Ronnie’s to drop off the car for safe keeping and a ride to Manchester Airport.

I will end this installment with the same format as I end all installments of Dispatches. This one encompasses the last month I am home. Usually they span a two-week period from picking up where the previous one stopped.

Today is January 23rd, A bright sunny day in New Hampshire. I am organized for the last little push out the door. Things going to the Ice in one pile and a second pile with stuff heading for storage and a third targeted for the dumpster. The computer is coming apart right now and the computer desk follows as it is going to Dennis’s so this first installment is a few days early. That’s ok.

See you all from Antarctica.

Ernie Gray
Epping, NH


Tue, Mar. 2nd, 2004, 04:18 pm
Part 2

Note from Emily: I can't find Part 1...if and when I do, i'll post it here, but for now...Part 2.

Dispatches from then Ice-Year 2

Part 2

Today is February 15, 2004 and Dispatches part 1 just hit cyberspace. I hope everyone enjoyed it. Things are winding down for the winter season and station closing is just around the corner. Can’t come soon enough for us winterovers.

First off I just scored a VCR bound for the Skua shack. It is a brand new Phillips that someone apparently bought in New Zealand because it has a New Zealand power plug on it, but didn’t realize it can work from 115 volts AC that we all have. Somebody didn’t read the tag on the bottom of the cabinet. All I got to do is change the cord.

Ice pier.

The ice pier is exactly what it sounds like. The pier is about 750 feet by 300 feet and it is made here from scratch every few years using frozen seawater. It is anchored to land by a series of interlaced one-inch cables frozen within the ice. Stanchions are place in the ice to moor the vessel. Then holes are bored into the ice and seawater is pumped up from below and is allowed to freeze on the surface of the pier. Several layers are applied then a layer of fines (remember, fines are simply crushed stone here) is spread on top of it all to provide traction to wheeled vehicles and foot traffic.

Marine activities.

The annual oil tanker has already come and gone and dropped off 7 million gallons of fuels for the station. They also stopped off Marble Point and dropped off 100,000 gallons there as well. Marble point is the jumping off point for scientist to go to the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This year they had no problems sailing right up to the pier here in town. The Coast Guard Ice breakers kept the channel open for traffic. There have been 2 Russian cruise ships dock at our pier as well letting tourist walk around our little town and spend their money. The Russian tour ships are converted old Russian icebreakers and the cheapest fare that I heard is fifteen thousand dollars US for the cruise that starts in New Zealand.

One tour boat that docked here offered a cruise that, in a 6-week period circumnavigated the entire Antarctic continent for $25,000 USD!

After the tour boat we had both USCG icebreakers, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea tied up. Then the American Tern finally found her way through he ice

Ship offload/reload.

The US flagged “American Tern”, a 556-foot long container ship tied up at McMurdo’s ice pier midday February 5th.

Just as important as the tanker is the cargo vessel. This years supply vessel delivered and removed 20 million pounds of materiel for the McMurdo station and the South Pole station. After new materiel is offloaded then the ship is reloaded with everything to go back to the states or other places for disposal. Over 400 shipping containers, called cans, were offloaded.

It takes all the trash of all descriptions including hazardous waste, used oil, food waste (refrigerated), scrap metal, scrap wood and building materials, even solid waste filtered from the waste water at the waste water treatment plant (called pressings). Everything is containerized, that can be, and loaded aboard the vessel.

Time is not wasted during this evolution. As the ship is docked the Coast Guard icebreakers keep the shipping channel open so the ship can depart. The seawater can freeze a couple of feet a day. The entire town goes to shift work providing 24-hour coverage in support of the offload. We up at the VMF went to three eight-hour shifts because we have the most personnel on station. I was on first shift 7am to 3:30pm with a half hour lunch. (HEY that sounds like normal hours.)

The US Navy NAVCHAPS I flew in with finally went to work with offload. They actually handle the containers and cargo off the ship and place it on our trucks, trailers, or loaders. Then handle our stuff heading north for the reload. 5 ½ days later, the American Tern was untied and departed the station. The supply ship only comes once a year. All other shipments are by air from New Zealand. ALL shipment to the South Pole is by LC-130 cargo planes only. Everything pole gets is flown in. So even though the boat is gone, there is a heavy load for the Air Force to fly down to Pole before Pole closes.

Frantic Movements, End of summer.

No sooner had the ship sailed from McMurdo Sound, flights were lined up to send everyone home, who was going. Remember, the population swelled to 1100 people when my flight arrived. Well, 900 have to leave. Station closing was scheduled for February 21st and station closing for South Pole was scheduled for February 15th. There was a C-141 flight on for just about every day, carrying no fewer than 130 people per flight out and bringing in the last of the winterovers. Also on every flight manifest were crates of fresh fruits and veggies (freshies), and mail for the winter crew.

The Post Office closed on February 18th, except for incoming mail. Anyone mailing stuff out had until then to get it done. The Coast Guard departed with their icebreakers and helicopters. After South Pole closed, Williams Field closed. Willy Field is named for the first Navy aviator who was lost his life in Antarctic service, and is the airfield where the LC-130 ski planes fly back and forth to Pole or field camps up on the Antarctic Plateau. Willy also supports the smaller Twin Otter ski planes that fly into closer field camps.

Everyday, fewer people were in town. This was especially noticeable at the galley, but not so much wandering around town when everyone had to be in work.

There was one flight delay for mechanical problems on February 16th, which shook everyone up who was leaving town. It also messes up the Air Forces flight schedule, which got back inline a coupled days later. However, last flight was delayed for weather at Pegasus Field for 2 days. Everyone was getting real tweaked up by the delay. The Galley didn’t plan to feed the extra 130 people, housing didn’t plan to house 130 people as some winter people already moved into their winter rooms, work centers had former workers drifting around and kinda being a pain in the ass. Departments like those who were in direct support of flight operations who were supposed to close down couldn’t, they too were waiting too. We at the Heavy shop was also waiting for Pegasus to shut down so we could get equipment back to town, and we also had vehicles to winterize that still needed to be used. Just a mess all around. The flight finally got in February 23rd and picked up the last of those departing.

VCR from Skua.

Oh that VCR from Skua, not so great at all. Besides having the wrong power cord attached to it, it also has wrong coax connectors to connect to the cable and television. It has what the industry calls F-81 connectors where in the US and here on station have our standard F-59 connector. Those whom didn’t know the cable TV connector has a specification, well it is known as an F-59 connector. So…from the Skua shack to the construction material scrap dumpster it goes. I got a 13 inch TV with a built in VCR anyways, that works fine.

Palmer at the Dock.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer docked at the ice pier after the American Tern sailed off and another visit from the Polar Star. The Nattie B. is a research vessel operated by the National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs, and is picking up a scientific party for a cruise around the Antarctic continent. The scientists are coming in on last flight, which we all are waiting for.

They offered up tours of the research vessel on Sunday February 22nd for anyone who showed up at the appointed hour. It was quite interesting to tour the 308 foot ship as I have never been on an ocean going vessel before, much less a research ship. We were shown the labs, displays of the science they were doing, living quarters, the bridge, and all the usual stuff I suppose. Some of us wanted to see the inner workings of the ship but were denied.

My own room.

I suffered through my first roommate here and when I got rid of him, had the room to myself in dorm 203. This dorm has a communal, bathroom, which meant I had to traipse down the hall at night or find a pee bottle! Well, I couldn’t find a pee bottle so I traipsed down the hall. I was only there for 3 days when my winter room opened up dorm 208. I immediately moved in (stole a van from the shop!) that night after work. It is great. This week I got my computer working from my room on the network so I can do THIS nonsense from the comfort of my own room now. Cool!

Last Flight.

February 23rd at 4:00pm we were let out of work to watch the last flight depart Pegasus and over fly town on the way north to Christchurch. It was something to see a C-141 buzz town at about 1000 feet up, and bank north and disappear over the horizon.

There is no doubt a certain feeling of isolation that comes over you knowing no other human being is going to come into town until WinFly at the end of August. Wildlife is gone since the sea ice sealed itself to the cold after the ship sailed. Commercial aviation don’t fly this far south, so you won’t even catch the lights from a high altitude jet passing overhead unheard. We can see polar orbiting satellites pass as a distant white speck in the darkness of the 24-hour night soon to come.

First sunset came on February 19th for 11 minutes around midnight. Now we race towards March 21 and the equinox, losing 24 minutes of daylight everyday, not the 2 or 3 minutes we hardly notice at home. Darkness is still a ways off though. The sun skirts the southern horizon and it stays pretty bright until mid March. I will let you know when the stars begin to shine.


TODAY is February 29, 2004. A cold wind is ripping through town but the sun is shining brightly through a few high wispy clouds. The wind has dropped the wind chill to –45F at noontime. Brrrrrr! I have my name in for the first Black Island traverse coming up. Want to get out there while it is still somewhat light and go back in the extreme darkness. That was so cool!! Until Next Time…

Ernie Gray

McMurdo Station, Antarctica