A Fond Fairwell to Winter
Like a barbarian horde invading from the north, Winfly has descended on McMurdo Station. In total, four planes arrived and departed leaving in their wake waves of energetic invaders who made short work of ransacking our small, peaceful, winter-over community. The tan intruders pulled a shroud of fresh fruit and sunshine over our eyes to blind us from the destruction to our way of life that was going on all around us. They brought with them new and improved bugs that shocked our immune systems and set in motion a plague of sickness that has not been present here for nearly six months – The Crud, which is what residents of McMurdo affectionately call this sickness, has returned! The sacking of McMurdo took about a week and, of the 241 winter over crew, less than 100 of us survived the onslaught – The rest of them managed to escape the mêlée on the northbound planes and are now enjoying their freedom in the warmer regions of the world. The population on station is now about 441 people. The swing in population is most noticeable in the galley during meals, where the noise level has gone through the roof and the food lines wrap around the Earth – Now, the once barren tables are filled to capacity at dinner time. The formerly quiet Coffee House, which was my hangout and reading place during the winter, has been transformed into a standing room only club with a rowdy atmosphere – Gone are the quite evenings at the coffee house relaxing with a cup of tea and reading a good book. Also, the already overbearing rules are now being enforced with an iron fist – Saturday night we were denied permission to hike the Castle Rock Loop and we were told that it was because of a condition-2 wind-chill, but there was only a slight breeze and it was, in fact, nicer than any of the other six times we did the loop over the winter. I have now come to grips with the fact that winter is gone and I suppose it is nice having new people to talk to and the new activity around station is energizing.
Despite the gloomy picture I painted above, there has been a lot of fun and excitement here since I last wrote. We had a day with -112° F wind-chills and we were allowed to play in it! The station was at condition-1, but, unlike condition-1s due to wind speed or visibility, we were still allowed to move around the town as long as we covered all exposed skin. The End of Winter party and barbeque at Scott Base was great. We got to rope up with the SAR (Search and Rescue) team and take a walk through a crevasse field. We had the end of winter award ceremony. There have been several aurora sightings and a few more nacreous clouds in the sky. I have eaten some excellent salads and lots of fresh fruit, and I have seen the sun! The giant fireball in the sky has returned to us after a five-month absence and it was difficult not to stare at it!
The End of Winter party was held at the new Hillary Field Center at Scott Base. The field center is named after Sir Edmund Hillary who, along with Tensing Norgay, was the first person to summit Mt. Everest and was also a member of the New Zealand Antarctic Traverse in the ‘50s, which resulted in the building of Scott Base. The temperatures around station were too cold to prepare the hole in the sea ice safely, so the polar plunge was canceled. To make up for the cancellation of the plunge one of the Kiwi’s came up with the “Polar Plunge Challenge”, which was a vat of 4° C water with a copper wire, bent and kinked in several different directions, and a loop attached to a wooden handle around the wire. One pole of a battery was attached to the copper wire and the other pole went through a buzzer and was attached to the ring around the copper. The object of the challenge was to get the ring from one end of the bent wire to the other without touching the wire with the ring. If the ring touched the wire the circuit would be closed and the buzzer would sound – Kind of like the game Operation from when we were kids. I was the first American to be successful with the challenge – It was a lot harder than it looked and by the end of it my arm, which was submerged in the cold water, was freezing and numb. For the first few hours of the party the buzzer sounded repeatedly as people tried and failed the challenge. My friend Bill did the challenge several times (think double digits) before he was successful – There were many other people just like him who were determined to complete the challenge regardless of how many times they had to attempt it, so I was lucky that I got it on my first try and avoided the ‘challenge addiction’ that so many other people struggled with. Dinner was cooked on a gas grill that the Kiwi’s set up in one of the large rooms of the field center. They were serving grilled steak and chicken on a piece of flat bread with a very tasty salsa like sauce on it along with fresh coleslaw and, as usual, the meal was spectacular. The meal was followed by live music by one of McMurdo’s bands and a lot of socializing. The party was a lot of fun and, since the winter was ending and McMurdo’s population was doubling, I knew it would be the last gathering of its kind that I would be attending there – Thank you to everyone at Scott Base for being such great neighbors this winter! On the way back to McMurdo after the party, we stopped the shuttle at the top of the hill for a few minutes to watch some auroras dance across the sky – The night was a lot of fun.
The following day the SAR team was taking four groups of people out to see some of the crevasses near town. This trip surprised a lot of people due to the potential danger that crevasse fields present (some people even thought it was a joke, similar to a posting for submarine rides in previous years), but I am glad we were given the opportunity. We all put on harnesses before we climbed into the Hagglunds, which, as I have stated previously, are the coolest land vehicles ever made, and we were off. Our first stop was at an area where the Ross Ice Shelf meets the glaciers flowing off of Ross Island. The crevasses there are only a few hundred feet off of the Castle Rock Loop trail and they are large enough to fall into – It is also the area that a few sets of footprints and one set of vehicle tracks were found going right through the crevassed area this winter. When we got out of the Hagglunds, we split up into two rope teams and went over some basic rules – Keep just enough slack in the rope, don’t fall in… The rope teams went out one at a time and followed a pre-scouted route to the crevasses. The first one we came to was about a foot wide and was very deep – The SAR team dropped a light tied to a rope down into the crack to show us what the inside of the crevasse looked like and to demonstrate how easily it would be to fall a long way down into the ice (It did look quite cold!) We slowly maneuvered our way through the crevasse field as each of us took our turn looking down into the depths of the crack. There were cracks all around us, many of which could swallow us up with one icy gulp. At one point we got to step over a wide crevasse, which took some coordination with the other rope-team members – If there was too much slack someone could potentially fall in if they miss-stepped, but if there was not enough slack the person trying to step across could inadvertently be pulled into the crevasse when the line tightened up. We all made it over the crevasse without any mishaps and we headed back to the safety of the trail and the Hagglunds. Our group was riding in the Hagglunds named ‘Uncle Buck’, which was the same one I rode in going to happy camper school. The other USAP Hagglunds, called ‘Moon Raker’, passed us on the trail as we were loading back into Uncle Buck to head to the other crevasse that was part of the tour. That crevasse was the one that I had already looked in (the one on the Castle Rock Loop), but it was opened up a little more and a light was down inside it showing the seemingly bottomless nature of that giant crack. One by one we laid on the ice to peer down into the cavernous, frozen interior of the potentially man-eating crevasse – It would be a bumpy ride, but I think someone could easily fall fifty feet or more into depths of that monstrous crack. There was no need to rope up there because the crack’s boundaries were well defined and the loop trail passes right over it with a bridge of plywood, four-by-fours and snow. The SAR team members also pointed out a few different bridged crevasses to show that sometimes you can see them plainly and other times they are completely hidden, waiting to swallow any unsuspecting hikers who strayed too far from the flagged route. When we were done we loaded back up into the Hagglunds and we rode back into town, satisfied with the day’s enjoyable outing. I wish the program would do more trips like this to allow those of us who are interested in learning about and experiencing the true nature of this wild continent a chance to do so.
Two nights before the first plane arrived we had the winter award ceremony. The people who were wintering for the first time, myself included, received our congressionally mandated ‘Antarctic Service’ medal complete with the winter over clasp. We all also received a certificate, a hat and a t-shirt. The ceremony lasted a few hours culminating with a good-by toast to the winter and a slide show showcasing many of our greatest memories from McMurdo Station’s 50th winter. The first plane arrived nearly on time and winter was over. For dinner the first night, fresh bananas and oranges were set-aside for all of the remaining winter-overs and since then there has been a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables – Smelling a fresh orange for the first time in several months was surprising, but enjoyable. The next week was spent walking my bosses, who had come down for the week, through the job and explaining to the new people where we were with the project. Their attitude suggested that they were happy with the progress we had made on the project, despite our many difficulties. Now, the sun is shining on us for a large part of the day and the job is progressing quickly – The building is closed in and there is heat on inside making all of the crews happy. The science camps are starting to pop up and work on the ice runway is going on 24 hours a day. New life is flowing through the station now and that is a good change. The next few weeks should be quite busy around here with preparations for the main-body flights and the official start to the summer season. I am still remaining hopeful that I will get the opportunity to see some penguins and maybe get out to Cape Royds or Cape Evans before I get out of here – Who knows what will happen over the next month and a half? Perhaps I will even get the elusive emperor penguin sighting that I have been hoping for.