Night ski to Scott Base on the frozen Ross Sea
One of the last sunsets a few weeks ago
Hi frozen ski fans,
The powers that control our fate in the frozen south determined recently that if the sea ice was thick enough to land a 600,000 pound plane that maybe it would be OK to allow people to ski on it. I met with my reliable hiking buddies, Mike and Paul after dinner a few nights ago, and we set off on the frozen Ross Sea for Scott Base, the New Zealand Station located 3 miles around the corner. Technically of course we were skiing on water that is about 1000 feet deep, but 6 feet of ice on the surface was covered with a nice layer of snow to make it a wonderful cross country jaunt for an hour and a half. Upon our arrival, we bellied up to the bar for a Kiwi beer, then retired to the ping pong table to have some fun before catching the late shuttle back to home base and bed.
The weather weenies down here that fill the TV channels with all sorts of predictions of cold and snow, which is a pretty safe bet year round, have noted on their corner of the web site that the next sunset is Feb 20th at 12:22 AM. That means “no more dark” as Lauren used to say when she was a little nipper and would wake up with a smile on her face. It’s nice not having to deal with issues of nighttime, and sleeping is easy with a double plywood window insert modified by my old carpenter roommate that allows light or dark in the room with a custom removable wooden framed plug.
I’m scheduled to drive the temperamental Delta truck this afternoon to pick up Happy Campers who have spent the night out, and plan to hand out cookies to soothe their frostbite and hunger pains as well as drum up a little business for the dental clinic. The first extraction on the ice for the season was performed on a lucky patient yesterday, and despite the physicians here itching to get their hands on some dental forceps I told them they could pull a tooth as soon as they let me get some appendectomy experience under my belt. Friends from Colorado have written that they looked out on the first snow of the season since it dropped down into the lower 30’s, which would be a new high for our neck of the woods.
Send some news from home and enjoy your sunsets.
Ready to drive the Piston Bully back from Castle Rock on the glacier
Navy Delta sitting on the sea ice
Ivan the Terra bus may be in my future!
You could take a nap in the wheel of the Kress
Tractors for snow removal
A get around town Ford Pick-up for the Search and Rescue Team
In my ever expanding efforts to diversify my driving skills I’ve offered to be a driver for a variety of the unusual vehicles here in hopes of visiting some of the outlying areas and fill in the gaps of time between the recent meager dental patients. My networking skills paid off a few days ago when my buddy, Jeff, who runs the Vehicle Maintenance Facility, aka VMF, asked me to join him on a test run for a repaired Piston Bully. It’s a “Lost in Space” type of tracked vehicle used for all sorts of snow and ice travel, so I joined him after dinner and we took an evening road trip out to Castle Rock to see how the repairs would hold up. It was a beautiful time to be out on the glacier without any traffic in sight, and when it was time to turn around and head for home, I jumped at the chance when Jeff asked if I would like to drive, like a teenager who is offered the keys to a muscle car. The Piston Bully bumps and grinds it’s way across the ice and snow, and the engineers had comfort in mind as much as the designers of women’s high heels. You can’t get in too much trouble cruising at 10 mph and back in town I pulled it in to it’s parking spot on the ice next to the VMF without running any lights or through any walls.
The very next morning I got a call to learn how to drive a Delta, which is a late 1970’s Navy half truck, half personnel carrier used for taking people out on the sea ice for a variety of reasons. Almost a third of the gauges still have some life to them, although it’s anyone’s guess if what they show is at all accurate, so driving a Delta is a combination of intuition and luck. My instructor and I made it out and back, so now it’s a matter of time before I’ll get a call as a shuttle driver to take some happy campers out for a two day survival course on the sea ice. I get to return home to a warm room and hot shower while they learn how to spend the night out in the elements, and then I’ll pick them up the next day with a new appreciation or all things indoor and unfrozen. I’ve also continued working in the galley and am sporting a white chef’s jacket under my apron which is the kitchen equivalent of earning a few stripes and bars, so there’s no telling how much value that adds to my resume. Hope your roads are clear and your tracks are unclogged.
Double fisted spatulas on the grill in the galley
Ping pong in the gym with Weichun, my Chinese competition
Recently I rehabbed a beaten but not broken ping pong table located in a condemned building (no joke) called the paint barn, where it had sat for a number of years, neglected and forgotten. A vigilant ping pong scout located it and notified me, since I’ve become the POC, locally known as point of contact, and I went up to have a look and assess the condition of the table and decide of I should fill out a work order and wait until the polar ice melts or just fix it myself. I borrowed drills and hammers from the materials office, got screws, washers, nuts and bolts from the carpenter shop via my connections with my ex-roommate, and had some new angle iron cut and drilled by my buddy Harry from the metal shop, and within a few hours the table was resurrected to McMurdo standards, which is just a notch above scrap heap. The next day my friends at the recreation office secured a pick-up truck and four of us wrestled the new table into the truck and drove it down to the gym to join it’s sister table. The Air Force medic and I stayed behind to rig a new net and get the table in working order, and naturally had to play a little to make sure it was in proper tune like a baby grand.
Within a few minutes I suddenly started seeing double, as in 2 balls, 2 paddles, 2 of my opponent and just when I thought it might be time to take a break to decide if my brain was going to mush the world came back into normal focus and we finished our exercise and walked back to work. I casually mentioned my minor vision short circuit episode to the three doctors that were hanging around with nothing to do at the moment, and they decided it was a good excuse to swing into action and subjected me to a neurological and eye exam, EKG, glucose stick and blood draw plus an international consult back to the University in Texas to rule out everything from stroke to the Hanta virus strain found in young male lemurs in Madagascar. They lamented the fact that we don’t have an MRI machine here to allow them to scan my head and really see what’s going on in there, but wanted to once again blame my 9 lb peanut butter tub as the cause of the double vision. I sensed their disappointment when they couldn’t find a reason to pull out the gigli saw for a craniotomy to allow the demons to escape from my skull, but mentioned if I had a recurrence that I should let them do a spinal tap and some exploratory surgery so they could handle and visually confirm that all my vital organs were in their proper place, which I plan to schedule as soon as the sun burns out.
All the proof I needed that I was mentally healthy was that I won in Scrabble last night against the 2 friends who have been beating me like a dusty carpet, and I slept with a clear conscience until the alarm went off for another day at the rock pile. Hope your vision is clear and your eye on the ball.
I’ve had a number of requests for what our luxurious living arrangements look like which led to a photo shoot this afternoon of our humble surroundings. Pictured below are the dorm buildings, entrance, hallway and the room I share with my new roommate, who is a great guy from Michigan who only snores a little. It’s pretty spartan for a guy who’s used to five star hotels, concierges and assistants to pour his Perrier and Moet, so he sent me in his place. Note how the bathroom shower and toilet have that Feng Shui cell block C aura which I think was borrowed from the Russian gulag design of the Stalin era. But it’s clean, safe, might be warm by December, and if you look close at the picture of me on the bed you’ll see not one, but two desk lamps, thanks to my adding an unused lamp from work for our bedside reading pleasure. This is a huge upgrade and would classify our room as a platinum suite if the hotel grading system folks came though with a blindfold and were high on meth. We’re used to it by now, like you get used to the monkey house smell at the zoo and if I’m honest is really is more comfortable than an infected knife wound. It’s a place to call home and lay my head to sleep each night as the snow drifts through the window and the wind howls like a mortally wounded coyote.
My hopes for skiing this morning were quashed by weather condition two, which meant cold, blowing snow and visibility as far as an advanced cataract eye could see. Undeterred, my buddy and I went for an hour long hike in 60 mph winds and drifting snow, and it really felt invigorating to be in the great outdoors with the seals and penguins, who we never saw because they were probably holed up in ice caves to get out of the tornado like conditions. We made it back in time to feast on brunch and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around the station. Hope your weekend is pleasant and you appreciate your spacious living.
Bedside reading Bob
Soviet style inspired architecture for the dorm buildings
Sparkling dorm entrance with fake thermostat mounted on the wall
Dorm hallway with our suite 109 just off the sunroom for the pool and spa
My bed with NASA engineered sealed window (aluminum foil) and TWO desk lamps
Custom sink with spring loaded faucets and wardrobes complete the ensemble
Versace shower with curtain upgrade
Lid free toilet doubles as a humidifier
Enjoying the 9 lb bucket of crunchy peanut butter from Skua
Taking recycling to the next level
I discovered the true meaning of “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” when our medical staff did a field trip to Skua, the used goods building on the edge of town. Often when people are leaving Antarctica they jettison unwanted clothes, personal items and even food that just won’t fit in the suitcase home, and it gets sorted and shelved in a place named after a rather aggressive scavenger bird called a skua. I hit the jackpot when I came across an unopened 9 pound tub of crunchy peanut butter and claimed it before anyone else spotted it. It was only 5 months out of date, which is way more current than most of the medications in our pharmacy, and I dispelled any concerns our physician expressed about aflatoxin by eating a few spoonfuls and showing up to work still breathing the next day. It’s like town sanctioned dumpster diving, and some folks even come down with very little and plan to outfit themselves from the treasures of skua. I decided to draw the line at used piercings though, unlike the posting below that was offering top dollar for a resale on a nose ring.
The local culture here has some interesting sayings, and my favorite so far is from a woman’s perspective. There are far more men than women, and perhaps some of the women come down hoping to find a mate among the pickings, similar to the penguins who pair up by the millions. However since this place tends to attact an unusual breed of folks, the women have a saying that the odds are good, but the goods are odd. At the same time since there are so few women, I’ve heard some guys talk about how a woman who might rank a 4 out of 10 in the real world could be scored as a 7 at McMurdo, and probably a 9 at the South Pole where it’s even more isolated. I’m off the market of course and love talking to Pat every day who ranks a 10 globally in my book but it’s fun to watch it all like a fly on the wall.
Off to cook up some chicken for a birthday party at “Hut 10” that we’ve reserved for the evening. Hope your peanut butter is fresh and your ranking is high.
How about a nice 8 inch orange sea spider?
The control tower on the left next to the ice runway
Hi time travelers,
Now that we’re at 18 hours of daylight, and will be at 24 within a few weeks, the idea of changing the clocks to have the sun up longer in the day makes as much sense as an ice cream bar in Antarctica, which we had last night to compliment the usual 6000 calorie meal. We officially went on daylight savings time and moved the clock forward an hour because it’s spring down here and we stay in sync with New Zealand. In reality our darkness is disappearing at the rate of 20 minutes/day, so soon it will be sunglasses weather 24/7 and any reference to nighttime will seem out of place. It’s Sunday here, which means a well deserved day off for most of us, and I did a great hike with a few buddies before coming back for the gorge fest known as brunch. Today some fresh cinnamon buns and a cheese and mushroom omelet really hit the spot before I went to a science presentation at one of the research labs in town. We finished the tour at the touch tank and the orange sea spider that lives in the near frozen sea out the back door caught my attention, so I gave him a look at our world before setting him back in the tank before he had any thoughts of biting me with a yet to be discovered ice venom.
We toured the completed 10,000 foot ice runway earlier in the week and were told it is ready for the first flights we have seen in a month which are due to arrive tomorrow. They’ll bring new researchers and support personnel, but more importantly “freshies”, which are fruits and vegetables that have been sorely missed among the food choices. Within the next two weeks McMurdo will grow to nearly 1000 people and it marks the official start of summer, so we’ll be breaking out the shorts and Mai-Tais in no time, or not. The pasty skin toned winter folks will be departing as well, but many will return in February to start another winter season. Some even head north to work in the northern polar regions once they leave here, since apparently 8 months of cold and darkness just wasn’t enough to get them labeled as completely insane. Hope your sunshine is warm and enjoy the sunsets while you can.
Bob debuts in the Galley
Emperor penguins on the march!
Hi Kitchen helpers,
If you’ve ever dreamed about deboning 40 pounds of leftover chicken in the midst of a kitchen cacophony that serves 400 people you can imagine the thrill at having it all come true. I offered to help in the galley as it is known at McMurdo if my dental schedule lightened up, and my wish was granted this afternoon after I finished my last patient at 3:00 PM. The head chef, Rich, a charmingly antagonistic Chicago transplant dubbed me as chief chicken picker, and for an hour and a half I pulled cooked chicken off the bone for another days meal. I think it was a probationary test of endurance and fortitude, and from there I was offered a sharp knife and a Hyflex cut resistant glove to protect my fingers while slicing ribs for tomorrow night. As a reward for proving that I could complete a task and not draw any blood I got to keep the glove and a coveted galley hat and plan to return for more culinary lessons as my schedule permits.
Earlier in the day the medical clinic was unexpectedly closed for 45 minutes when a penguin alert went out over the internal communication system, and we all rushed out to get our first glimpse of a group of Emperor penguins on a leisurely stroll along the sea ice. They squawked and argued about which direction to go, with the males refusing to ask for advice and the females nagging all the way, just like in other species that shall remain nameless. It was a real high to see them at ease in their natural habitat as we froze our tootsies off, and we soon reopened the medical center to take care of more mundane tasks.
Hope your chicken is tender and your penguin sightings are plentiful.
Ski hop on the glacier
The ski pile at Gear Issue
Skis in place with a warning sign
Greetings ice skiers,
Last Sunday the weather looked promising, which means it was warmer than -60, so a few friends and I ventured out on cross country skis for a few hours to take in the scenery and get some exercise. It was a great morning to be out and about, and gave us an even better reason to chow down at brunch on all the goodies the galley crew puts out. The kick and glide works pretty well on the nearby glacier until you hit the raw ice that has all the snow blown off, and then it’s a real test of your knees and thighs as you scrape along, but no one had to visit the emergency clinic so it was a total success.
Since my dental schedule was pretty light this morning, as in no one wanted to see me or my drill, I volunteered to tackle the tangle of skis that were available from the gear issue store, where you can borrow all sorts on sports gear, musical instruments, or even props for shows or pranks. Mike, the head of recreation warned me that efforts to keep the skis in order have failed in the past, but he gave me the key and wished me “good luck!” I sorted and organized for 3 hours and when I was done I hung up a little sign to try and convince those that live by the chaos theory that they might think twice before throwing the skis around, so we’ll see if threats and humor carry any weight among the frozen few, the proud, the McMurdians.
Hope you’re sliding into a pool and not a crevasse.
Ski Shooshing Bob
Hyperbaric chamber at McMurdo station
Russian dollhouse hyperbaric chamber
Mt. Erebus, an active volcano, smoking in the distance
Hola altitude sticklers,
My last email waxed poetic about the class I took on altitude related illnesses, and a few astute readers sent me a query about the need for any kind of hyperbaric treatment since I’m working at a station that is at sea level. The implication behind the question was that perhaps in an unusual departure from it’s usual fiscal approach to spending taxpayer money in a wise and responsible fashion, the US government is squandering hard earned greenbacks on wasteful purchases like portable decompression chambers. Let me clear the record by stating that not only do we have numerous portable Gamow bags, but we also have a state of the art two person hyperbaric chamber with all the bells and whistles that would be the envy of any sophisticated diving operation. We could of course, take a lesson from our dysfunctional ally, the super power wanna-be Russians, and save a few rubles by having a decompression chamber with only enough room for a grown man in a cramped fetal position, which is shown above. I believe the design concept of the Russian pod was to take your mind off the pain and discomfort of the bends or altitude sickness by channeling your anxiety towards total panic because you are stuffed inside a metal capsule the size of a beach ball with Russian technology providing your life support system.
Anyway, it turns out that there is a lot of elevation as you head inland, and in fact Antarctica is the continent that has the highest average elevation on the planet. The ice is the main reason, and in some places it approaches a thickness of 3 miles. The South Pole research station sits on top of 9400 feet of ice and overall the average thickness of the cold, hard white stuff is over a mile. There are also notable mountains, from the highest point known as Mt. Vinson, at over 16,000 feet, as well as 12,400 foot Mt. Erebus, which is just 20 miles away from our base at McMurdo and is a boiling, bubbling, rock spewing volcano that appears smoking in the distance on a clear day. As a result, there are many opportunities to suffer from altitude related problems. And if that isn’t enough reason to put stock in hyperbarics, there are a number of scuba diving operations going on at any given time, since there seems to be no shortage of people with a hankering for diving under the ice in 28 degree water to mingle with the seals, penguins and sea creatures that often have ethylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze coursing through their blood vessels.
So that’s today’s science lesson, which could be summarized by stating that you don’t want to get an altitude related sickness anywhere near the Russian base without a few liters of Vodka to prepare yourself for their dollhouse version of a treatment chamber.