Road Trip For Work

Down here at McMurdo we have a 9 mile recreational trail called the “Castle Rock Loop”.  The trail begins at the backside of McMurdo and goes about 3 miles towards Mt. Erebus.  Along the trail, there are 3 survival caches.  It’s a long trail, and Antarctica can get pretty cold pretty quick.  As the Berg Field Center, one of our work responsibilities is to check on those caches.  We went out in the end of March (I posted a time lapse of the journey here).

It’s a fairly gorgeous drive when the sun is still up.  You can see the flagged trail leading to Castle Rock and Mount Erebus is to the left, covered in clouds.
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It’s a great drive and, from a personal stand point, it’s a blast to drive the vehicle.

 

 

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The ol’ Pisten Bully

The Pisten Bully tops out at about 12 miles an hour on the smooth, flat snow.  When driving through town, on the gravel, we have to keep it down around 3-5 miles an hour.  That part is…..less fun.  The survival pods are called “Apples”  for obvious reasons.

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The Apples provide great shelter from the elements, but with our crazy storms down here, some snow still blows through the crack.  When we did our first run of the season, there was about 2 feet of snow drifted up inside the apples.  Our second time out, there were snow stalactites hanging off the ceiling.  Each apple is stocked with emergency gear including food supplies, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and extra clothing.

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Not very cozy, but it gets the job done.

After the second Apple, you arrive at Castle Rock.  
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During the summer, people from McMurdo are allowed to climb Castle Rock and get the views from the top.  Unfortunately, that’s not allowed during the winter.  Once you reach Castle Rock, the trail turns to the right and you get a great view of Mt. Erebus.IMG_8491

Not a bad day at the office.  The last trip we took in May was a little bit different of an experience.
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The only real views when driving are within the range of the headlights.  Usually there is a groomed trail to follow, but, during the dead of winter, you’ll get to drifted parts of the route and then it’s just a matter of following the flags
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The real bummer is when there is no visible trail, and you have wind blowing from behind you.  Then your windshield is covered by snow and exhaust.

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At times like that, there is nothing to do but slow down, creep forward, and strain your eyes scanning for the next flag.  At one point during this drive, we spotted the next flag, about 50 degrees to the left of center, if we had passed that flag and kept going, well, it’s hard to be relaxed when you know there are crevasses like this out there.
IMG_8492That said, it’s a beautiful continent and, when you stop at one of the Apples on a clear night and turn off the lights on the vehicle, you can get some great star views.IMG_8674

Plus, it’s hard not to feel cool when you’re driving a tracked skid steer vehicle across an Antarctic Ice Shelf.  I dig my job.IMG_8651

An Update…

Hello all!

It’s been almost 2 months since my last post, for that I apologize.  Sometimes you get into a groove down here and it’s tough to break out for one reason or another.  In any case, let me catch you up and we’ll hope this lapse doesn’t happen again.  Agreed?  Cool.  Moving on….

So, last time I wrote, we were working on inventory at the BFC.  Since then, we have moved on.  Waaaaaay on.  But, for the sake of continuity and being thorough, I’ll catch you up slowly.  After inventory, we started RFIing (ready for issue: making sure items are in good working order for field camps) Hurdy Gurdys.  No, not the insturment.  A hurdy gurdy is a hand cranked fuel pump.  Why are they called hurdy gurdys?  Because, like the instrument, they have a hand turn crank.  I don’t get it either.

Anyway, here’s what a bunch of them look like:

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Basically, in order to RFI these pumps, we would hook up a hose, drop the stem of the pump into some fuel, and pump.  If the fuel pumped without any problems or leaks, it was ziptied up and taped with “RFI” tape to signify that it was in working order.   If the pump DIDN’T work, it was stripped down, inspected, and rebuilt until it worked.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good shots of a stripped down hurdy gurdy, mostly because I usually only have my iPod at work to take pictures (sorry these are all terrible quality) but partly because my hands were covered in fuel and grime.

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Once all the Hurdy Gurdys were RFIed we loaded them into the truck and moved them across the street the Flams Van (a small building containing all the flammable “Flams” fuel cans, hoses, pumps, etc) where they will live until this summer when they are sent out across the continent to fulfill their destiny of supporting Antarctic Science.

And that catches us up to about April 11th.  Slow and steady, I’ll get us caught up.

Inventory at the BFC

For the first month of working here at the Berg Field Center in Antarctica, other than Mountain Tent Monday, we spent our time doing Inventory.  Inventory is exactly what it sounds like, going room by room through the building counting everything.  Let me tell you, there is a lot of stuff to count.

I started off in the Tool Room, where I spent a week or two counting rock hammers (129), work gloves (85), wrenches (587), sockets (1159), etc.  In addition to counting items in the room, I organized and cleaned up the area.  There are some items, like zipties, of which we have literal thousands.  Luckily for me, we have an official abbreviation to put in the book for things like that.  It’s “SL” which stands for “crap load”.

Once the Tool Room was done I moved to the Instrument Room where I checked over and counted things like compasses (68), binoculars (45), and windsocks (23).  The Instrument Room also has hundreds of GPS units, but those were set aside for later in the winter when we will take a week or so checking the batteries, deleting the old waypoints, and making sure they work properly.  

After the Instrument Room was accounted for, I moved to the Camping Room.  The most time consuming part of this room was checking batteries.  When batteries come back from the Field, they need to have their charge checked.  If the battery is drained at all, it gets into a bin and is only used here in the BFC for miscellaneous purposes.  We don’t want to sent people into the wilds of Antarctica with half-drained batteries.  So this process involved me sitting on a stool with a multimeter and then checking literally hundreds of batteries.  Then, according to their charge, they went back to the bin to be issued, into a bin for the BFC, or into a HAZ Waste bin for disposal.  Luckily, we had a fair amount of batteries that hadn’t been issued, so I didn’t have to test ALL the batteries.  Which is a good thing, because between AAA and 12V batteries, we have 2651.  1086 of those are AAA alone.  How do I know?  Because I counted them.  I counted all of them.

The other big job I tackled in the Camping Room was the backpacks.  There are over 200 Backpacks and Daypacks in the Camping Room (more next door in Science Cargo) and I had the great idea of pulling them all off the wall and reorganizing them.  Fun fun fun.

As you can probably tell, inventory was a little mind-numbing.  That said, in addition to getting us the proper counts on items, it was huge in getting me oriented to the building.  I came in here relatively fresh and didn’t know where to find things.  After a month of digging the back of shelves and picking up every item, I’m pretty well acquainted with the layout of a good portion of the building.

From now on, most of my job will be the repair and maintenance of Field Equipment, helping me live up to my job title: Field Equipment Specialist.

A Little Time Lapse

I just wanted to give you all a look at the view from my work.  That’s the Royal Society Mountain Range across the bay.  It’s part of the Trans-Antarctic Mountians.  You can also see the open water in the bay try to freeze over.  The first part is a time lapse that starts at about 7:30am and runs for 24 hours.  I cut out some of the overnight, because it’s just dark and boring.  The second half of the video runs from about 8:30am-12:30pm.  We had to drive out to check on some survival caches.  I’ll post a longer blog about that trip later on, but for now, here’s a time lapse of the trip!

 

Mountain Tent Monday

Every week at the BFC, we kick things off with “Mountain Tent Monday”.  We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 tents (I’m not ambitious enough to go count them all).  Over the course of the winter, we need to check all of those tents, take notes on their condition, and make sure they are all RFI (Ready for Issue) for the upcoming Antarctic Summer Season.

I’ll take you through a typical tent down here so you can see what an RFIed tent entails.

The first thing you need to check is the tent poles.  These need to be checked for any scrapes or burrs that would rip and tear the tent fabric.  Then, they are looked over for straightness.  Here’s the set of poles that I pulled out of a bag yesterday.

 

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As I go through the poles, I mark obvious bends or burrs with the blue tape.

Now, ONE of those poles is supposed to have a 145 degree angle in it, but the other three are supposed to be straight and there are supposed to be four of them.  For most of the poles, it’s not an entire length that is bad, but rather one or two (or four) of the individual segments that is bent.  So, I bring the poles back to our “Tent Pole Workbench” and start taking them apart.

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We have a pretty sizeable supply of spare tent poles and segments, so it’s simply a matter of finding the correct length and diameter for the replacements.  If you have a pole that has more than half of the segments broken, or you are just missing the whole pole, there is a stock of prebuilt poles.  In that case, all you have to do is check a reference book to find the correct length required for your pole (for this tent that was 160″) and then find that length pole in the stock.

All the scrap poles get put in a Non-Ferrous metal bin and are sent to the Waste Department to be bundled and sent off continent for recycling.  We throw out A LOT of bent poles.  Here is my stack of trash poles from just this one tent.

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Some of the poles, like the one on top are truly bowed and it’s easy to tell from a glance.  There are other poles in the pile that simply have a bent sleeve at one end.  It’s hard to tell when it’s just lying on a counter, but if you put those subtle bends into a 160 inch pole, it becomes REALLY obvious and creates stress points.  A bent sleeve can turn into a cracked pole.  If a scientist gets a cracked pole 600 miles away from station, I’m not doing my job.  But now look how straight the tent poles are!

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I took this 30 hours ago and looking at this picture is still immensely satisfying.

 

Once the poles have been approved, I’ll set the tent up, paying attention to possible rips or stresses at the seams and pole attachment points.

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This particular tent is a Sierra Designs Sphere Expedition. I think it entered field service in 1995.

The beauty of free standing tents is that, once set up, you can lean in the door and pick the tent up around you.  This way, you are standing straight up with your feet on the floor, the door of the tent around your feet, and the body of the tent surrounding you.  In this position, it’s easy to look for small holes and tears in the tent, visible as little pricks of light in the floor and walls.  For most of these small holes, we just put a small dap of urethane rubber compound over the hole, let it dry, then move on.  Bigger holes and tears call for either a patch of ripstop tape with urethane around the edges, or a sewn on patch.  Luckily, this tent didn’t have any new holes, so I was able to move on to the next part of the process.

We have a light table here in the BFC which we use to check the tent fly for holes.  It’s a similar concept as checking the tent body, just shine light behind the fly and look for pinholes of light.

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The tent fly on the light table

This is probably my least favorite part of the process as the light table is only about 2′ x 3.5′, meaning that you have to move the fly back and forth and around in circles in order to get a look at all of it.  As a super dry climate, you get a lot of static here in Antarctica and wrestling with a tent fly is a great way to make your hair stand on end.

For this fly, I had one small hole to fix, so I marked it with Sharpie and then put the fly on the tent body, checking all the webbing and grommet attachments.  Also, all the tents have many 12′ guylines attached.  And sometimes when people are in a hurry, they don’t have time to rewrap those lines.  So I open a tent bag that looks like this.

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Sorry about the Blur, it was a cell phone picture kind of day.

 

All the grommet points on this tent were a-okay (on a different tent, I had to pull out a piece of torn webbing and create a new grommeted, ladderlock attachment point for the tent.  Exciting stuff.).  The last thing to check is the tent bag.  This one had a couple holes so I sewed a rough path over some of them, then got out the urethane compound and patched the rest.  After the tent bag was all glued up, I used the leftover mixed compound to fix that small hole that I found in the fly (you thought I forgot, didn’t you?).

After the glue was dry, I took the tent and put it all back in the bag with a repair kit, just in case, despite my best efforts, something goes wrong in the field.  Then the bag was tagged with it’s rating.  We have 3 tent ratings: Excellent, Good, DV (Dry Valleys).  The Dry Valleys are located about 60 miles away from McMurdo, so if someone gets a crappy tent out there, they are well within reach of a replacement if it gets trashed.  This tent had significant sun damage to the fly and quite a few previous repairs on the body.  Plus, it had been a DV tent the previous year, so it retained it status.  Then the tent was taped up with an RFI label, and put back on the shelf.

Sometimes, a tent is beyond repair and it is taken out of commission.  Yesterday, I had a different Sphere Dome tent and, after 10 years of service to the US Antarctic Program, it was done.  Before they are thrown away though, the tent is stripped of it’s good parts.  It’s fly was still in DV condition, so it was given to a different tent with a missing fly.  Then, I cut all it’s grommets and webbing off so they could be used to fix a different tent.

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Ready to be used to save another tent!

Each tent, depending on it’s condition can take as little as 45 minutes to as long as 2 to 4 hours.  Of course, on each tent that needs glue, it needs a couple hours just to dry.  Because of that, on Mtn. Tent Monday, it’s not uncommon, by mid afternoon for the 3 of us working to have 6 tents set up in the room, with a couple more draped over chairs or hanging from the ceiling to dry.  First thing Tuesday morning is to take down all the drying tents from the night before, now totally fixed and dry, and pack them up.  After that, we are tent-free for the next 6 days until Mtn. Tent Monday comes around again.

Just another Monday at the BFC

Just another Monday at the BFC

 

Working in the BFC

My first two winters in Antarctica saw me working as a Dining Attendant in the Galley here at McMurdo.  This year, I was able to snag a “Field Equipment Specialist” position.  It’s not so much a “step up” as it is a “step across and up”.  Because of the multiple sub-contractors working down here, switching departments, like I just did, can mean starting at square one in a lot of ways.  A new timecard reporting system, a new HR department to submit paperwork to, and a little bit of networking lost.  All that said, so far it’s been TOTALLY worth it.

In previous years, I’ve had the fortune (or curse) of working in the same building that I lived in.  That meant a 20 second indoor commute to work.  This year, I’m working in the Berg Field Center (BFC).  This means that my 20 second indoor commute is now a 3-4 minute walk across station, the last 100 yards uphill, into the wind.  And as much as it’s a bummer to have to put on a parka everyday for work, it makes for a nice separation between work time and off time.  Once I’m done for the day, I’m done.

Berg Field Center

The Berg Field Center

The BFC is named after Thomas Berg, a geologist who died in a helicopter crash on continent in 1969. The BFC’s main function is to provide supplies for Deep and Near Field Camps.  However, during the winter, we have no Field Camps.  So our job is simply counting and making sure equipment is “Ready For Issue” (RFI).  For some things, like hammers and screwdrivers, this is as simple as checking for rust, straightness, and dents.  For other things, like tents and fuel pumps, this involves an entire breakdown.  Taking items apart, piece by piece, checking them over, and replacing and fixing what’s broke.  Once an item is ready to go, the drawstring, buckle, or ziptie holding it all together is taped and labeled: RFI 3/14 (month/year).

When an item is taken to field camp and used, the tape seal is broken so that when it comes back to the BFC, we can see that it has been used and it re-enters the RFI process.  Occasionally, while cleaning, you will stumble upon old RFI tags.  Earlier this month, I found a box of soldering irons.  A ziptie was holding the power cords in check and on the ziptie was a piece of tape labeled: RFI Winter 96.  After a couple emails with some of the higher ups, I got permission to get rid of the soldering irons and save some space.

And that’s the bare bones of what I do 6 days a week.  I have a goal to post once a day this week, most of them revolving around a more in depth at what I do on a day to day basis.  Even if it’s just a picture or a video clip.  So look forward to that!  Also, I have no intention of doing an April Fool’s Day post, so just forget about that right now.

My Own Private Military Plane

So, after I signed my new contract for this Antarctic season, I had a week to pack, buy some last minute supplies, mail some boxes and then it was time to head to the airport for my flight.

When you travel internationally, most countries require you to have a return ticket in order to enter the country.  For these flights to New Zealand, to be going to Ice, it’s a one way ticket.  As a result, I get called to the desk at every airport to get my travel documents checked.  My answer is a letter from the Antarctic Support Contract that explains the situation.  In Detroit, this letter is thoroughly examined and causes the desk agent to be quite impressed and fascinated at my job.  When you hit the later airports, like Los Angeles, the letter is barely looked at.  The LAX-SYD flight is used by 99% of people who go to the Ice and, as a result, the desk agents have seen hundreds of these letters and know exactly what’s going on.

I had a fair amount of time to kill in the Sydney Airport,  a place that I’m pretty familiar with after 4 arrivals and 3 departures in the last 2 years.  I spent a lot of my time just walking around the terminal.  As I was walking, I saw a guy in a Philadelphia Flyers shirt, in fact, it looks like one I used to have. I say, “Nice shirt” as he passes, then I notice a US Antarctic Program tag on his bag.

It turns out that just left the Ice within the last week.  After talking for a little while longer, we realized that not only did his shirt look like my old shirt, but it WAS my old shirt!  I had left it in “Skua”, the Antarctic Goodwill, at the end of last season and he had picked it up.  It’s not every day that you run into someone in the Sydney Airport wearing your old clothing.  Then again, when working on the Ice, stuff like this tends to happen.

After a relatively short flight (after 13 hours across the Pacific, anything seems short) to Christchurch, I was checked into the hotel around 8 pm with directions to report to the Clothing Distribution Center at 6 am the next morning.  I met up with another Antarctic traveler in the hotel.  He was also heading down the next morning and was staying for the winter.  As a relatively seasoned Antarctican, I was able to answer questions that he, a first timer, had about McMurdo and winter in Antarctica.

The next morning, we headed to the CDC and watched the obligatory orientation videos.  In the interest of brevity, efficiency and comparison, you can read about the CDC in my posts from the last 2 seasons here and here.  The big difference this year was that there were only two of us on the flight.  So, once we were issued our ECW, instead of going to the passenger terminal and passing through security, we just hoped into a van and were taken over the RNZAF hanger.  In the van, our driver asked, “Do you have any dangerous liquids or flamethrowers in your bag?”  And that was our security checkpoint.

We still had yet another orientation video to watch, which our driver cued up on his work computer for us to watch.  After that was done, we were pretty much given free range of the hanger lounge area until they were ready for us on the plane.

When the time came, we were loaded up into an LC-130 (a ski-equipped variant of the 130).  In previous years, I’ve flown on C-17s or A319s to and from the Ice.  Usually these planes have 30+ people and/or large cargo pallets on them.  This trip was unique because it was just the two of us as passengers (the Air Guard had a 5 man crew on board) and the only cargo was ours and the Air Guard’s little piles of luggage.  I felt like a VIP being flown around in my own military aircraft.

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The bummer about the LC-130 as compared to the C-17 is that that 130, as a prop plane, not a jet, takes about 2.5 more hours to get to McMurdo.  The end result being a 7.5 hour flight.

Once we landed on the snow and ice at Pegasus Airfield, myself and my fellow passenger were told to stay seated with our seatbelts fastened.  As se sat there, the plane turned and brought the engines back up to full.  We roared down the runway, lifting the nose ski off the ice.  I thought we were going to start doing touch and goes for practice, but soon, the engines were brought back down.  It turns out that we were just doing a high speed taxi from one end of the runway back to the other.  I guess after spending 8 hours on a plane, the pilots were just as anxious as I was to deplane.  Why waste time taxiing?

We found a penguin by the side of the road on our ride back to town, so we quick jumped out for a picture.

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Welcome home!  Thanks little penguin.