We are in the home stretch of the summer season. There are 12 days until official station close, and everyone on station seems to be looking forward to it. The summer people are ready to leave and start vacationing in New Zealand and elsewhere, and us winterovers are ready to have a smaller crew, to stretch out a bit and settle into a winter routine.
I just returned from McMurdo Station, the large US station located on the coast of Antarctica on the Ross Ice Shelf. I deployed through there in October, some of you may remember the "Pro Leisure Tour". That continued in full force last week as I enjoyed a week of rnr (Rest and Recreation, aka vacation). I was scheduled to fly to MacTown on Wednesday last week but my flight was delayed a day due to poor weather on their end. I had carefully metered my energy to last until Tuesday night and was a bit non-plussed about working Wednesday. We left on time Thursday morning, however.
I find I really like flying in the C130s. They are incredibly noisy (we get handed earplugs as we board), but I don't really mind that. The web seating continues to seem comfortable to me, far more so than normal airline seats where I bump my neighbors elbow, and find my knees bump into the seat in front of me. On the 130s I can sprawl out, and its easier to nap--if you shove the hood of your jacket into the webbing it will hold you upright and provide a little nest for your head.
Six of the winter crew travelled to McMurdo (also known as McTurdo and McDirto) together, the last of the group to take our rnr. Three more were originally manifested to come with, but two opted to stay at pole and just take the days off of work, and the third was delayed for work reasons until the weekend. Friday morning most of us reported for "Happy Camper School", a two day field safety course required for people going to field camps, and generally seen as a "boondoggle", or a fun outing for people on rnr. Meghan, my friend and one of the wintering meteorologists, was feeling under the weather and decided not to go. I also wasn't feeling very well but I went anyway, which turned out to be a mistake! A funny side note about Meghan--since her childhood she has been called Fred or Freddy. As some of you know this was also my long time nickname! A strange coincidence!!
School started with a few hours in the classroom, learning about cold weather injuries like frostbite and snowblindness (the pole doctor, Ron, was miffed to learn I had had snowblindness and hadn't gone to see him!). Then we got in a large tracked vehicle called a "nod well" and rode the few miles out to the field location out on the Ross Ice Shelf, near Williams (Willie) and Pegasus Air fields, the summer "airports". We learned how to clean and light small field stoves (I nearly set myself on fire by spilling fuel all over and then lighting the match!), then started in on the work of setting up camp. First we set up a couple of different tents, and then cut dozens of blocks of snow (very hard, not quite ice) out to make a protective wall against the wind. We used saws to cut up the snow. We also attempted to make an igloo, but the snow was a bit soft for it, so we could only get the wall about 5 feet high. We were outside working for about 6 hours. It was very warm--about +30F, and its much more humid on the coast, so the snow is wetter. The warm temps also mean that if one kneels in the snow, it will melt onto one's clothes, a problem I hadn't anticipated. (The snow at pole is very dry and after kneeling on it for hours I get up and merely brush it off like sand or dirt.)
After about 4 hours, I was soaked through and very tired, and it suddenly occurred to me that this was like work, which isn't what I wanted to do on my vacation. Perhaps if I had a desk job this would have been more fun, but I'd just spent the previous three weeks setting up a radar, which involved a lot of standing around outside in the cold moving snow and metal. After dinner I crawled into my sleeping bag inside one of the tents while the others played volleyball. My boots and carhartt overalls were soaked, and the guide had suggested keeping them in the sleeping bag so they would dry as I slept. I tried this, and instead would up soaking my sleeping bag liner. I finally threw the pants and boots out and slept. When I got up, it took me over ten minutes to get dressed--my clothes had frozen stiff. The carhartts were fairly easy to get on, the boots harder. I had to stick my foot in partway and leave it there for several minutes until the boot thawed enough that I could jam my foot in all the way. The plan for the day was a bit more work, then walk up a hill and be lowered into a crevasse, and return to base around 5pm. I was tired, cold, I missed Meg, and I was not enjoying my vacation, so I bailed. I talked to the instructor and explained, and he directed me to the shuttle a half mile away that ran between Willie and McMurdo so I trudged over there and took the bus back to the station.
I found Meghan in the galley and we were both happy I was back. We spent the day sitting around, drinking coffee, eating soft serve ice cream, and talking, which was exactly how I wanted to spend my vacation! We took the bus to Scott Base (the New Zealand base, on the other side of a hill from McMurdo, and overlooking the airfields) a few times to buy things. We also met a guy who offered to drive us out to Pegasus airfield to look for penguins, as he often saw them out there when he was at work. No luck there--we never saw a penguin the whole week!
The rest of my week was very low key. I made a lot of phone calls, read a couple books, and sat around with Meg. We were both ready to come back to pole by Wednesday, when we came back. I was very happy to get back here. I got off the plane and dropped my bags off in my room, then went back to the "pax terminal" (the area near the airplane where passengers (pax) stand around waiting to get on the plane) to say goodbye to 19 summer people who were leaving. I made my way to the galley and when I walked in it was like the tv show Cheers--people started hollering my name from all over the galley. It was a great homecoming!!
6 triwalls of package mail has showed up in the last two days (perhaps 2000 pounds of mail), including two packages that I had been waiting for since December, and had feared had gone missing. I was very happy to get them, and am fully ready for the station to close.
I find that I truly have everything I need here--food, shelter, and many friends around me. Everyone I spoke with on the phone couldn't get over how happy I sound. Its a great feeling to be satisfied with ones surroundings, to feel all ones needs are taken care of. Of course I miss my family and friends. The small community here definitely feels like a family to me.
I'm sure many of you have been watching the interviews with Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the station doc here two years ago. We haven't heard much of that publicity here, as we don't have television. There are several people here who wintered with her, so its interesting to get their perspective.
copyright 2001 Andrea Grant
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