|27th October 2005
Length of my Shadow:
The Longest Day Ever
It's snowing outside now. That's not normal, really, and it does something odd when it snows—it gets warmer. Just like hurricanes, all the good storms here are powered by heat. Cold air gets its due too; there are a lot of windstorms that come from the south off the continent caused by cold air settling down—by gravity, remember that cold air sinks—from the continent, where there are thousands of miles of open space and the wind has plenty of time pick up some speed. But precipitation can only come from air warm enough to pick up moisture, so when the snow comes, so does some warmth.
Behind today's snow, which will certainly blow though quickly as it always does, the last sunrise of the year dawns. This is the morning of the longest day, a day where the sun will circle us in a lazy, tilted ellipse until the middle of summer when it will begin its equally dramatic sunrise.
It never snows hard here and obviously doesn't rain, not this time of year at least. Antarctica is a large desert, by definition, an "arid barren tract incapable of supporting any considerable population without an artificial water supply." Arid, certainly. This ice has had bazillions of years to accumulate, and doesn't build quickly. The average annual snowfall of St Louis is much higher than that of McMurdo. Barren, well, there aren't any plants, so you decide. Artificial water supply…let me tell you a story:
McMurdo is in full swing now, reaching more-or-less full capacity a few days ago. During Winfly we were warned that the water plant could barely keep up with capacity then, and that we should expect water rationing in the form of short showers and reduced laundry availability. Fortunately the water plant was able to increase production and the drinking fountains—"bubblers," if you're from Wisconsin—kept flowing.
The rationing of water illustrates something I'd like to talk about this time: the way that resources are distributed here. I mentioned last time that McMurdo could be viewed as a big socialist experiment. You decide:
It's pretty fair, really, we all work equally hard around here. Except maybe for the tradespeople who are generally just on call to fix things (motto: "hide and seek for a grand a week"). Creating an elitist class in such a small community would cause trouble.
So there are upsides and downsides. We're certainly no Potemkin village or anything, and I'm kind of glad that things are subsidized a bit…I'm sure if I had to pay free-market prices for toothpaste here I'd be visiting the free dentist much more often.
On to more pleasant things…
The Great Outdoors
As Antarctica is a somewhat harsh continent, opportunities for enjoying the great white outdoors are a bit limited, but the Central Committee does allow us a few opportunities to venture away from the dirty confines of the McMurdo commune now and then.
But the best was yet to begin. The instructors returned on foot about 15 minutes late to confess that they had gotten the delta stuck in the snow…a long ways off the flagged road. We had to pack up camp and haul our equipment by hand and on sled a half-mile or so up the road to the instructor hut. Fleet Ops couldn't send out any heavy equipment to pull out the delta since it was condition one, so we spent several hours there until the Search and Rescue team could come pick us up. That's what made my experience unique.
I decided to try out for the search and rescue team as well. Tryouts for the secondary team, which during the summer augments the primary team composed mostly of the outdoor education staff, are an all-day affair consisting of several short training exercises covering the use of ice axes, construction of anchors, how to climb up and down a snow slope and walk safely across a crevasse-riddled area. At the end of the day there is a crevasse rescue scenario to demonstrate everything you've learned. They make the final selections for the team based on how well you can regurgitate what you've learned and how you function as part of a team.
It was a very nice excuse to get out of town for a day, on a Monday when I would have had to work normally (Monday is pull everything off the trucks to clean out the compartments day, so this was a major score). At the end of the day I was exhausted and sun burnt. I wasn't sure that I'd make the team, and didn't really care if I did or not. It was plenty to me just to have the opportunity to get out of town and play with some ropes.
(I didn't make the team. They took only 12 out of 30 applicants, with heavy preference toward winter-overs. But seriously, I don't care.)
There are a handful of hikes that we can take independently. The most challenging is the Castle Rock Loop, a 7-mile trek along the spine of Hut Point Peninsula to a volcanic formation a bit like Devils Tower. Aaron, Jen and I walked it on a sunny afternoon a few weeks back. The most amazing part of this route is the view one gets of the Royal Society Mountains. They are so far away yet still so massive that the atmosphere plays tricks on your eyes and makes them look like a painting. Just past Castle Rock there is a long hill where we tried to slide down like penguins, after getting a running start of course. My chest was black and blue the next day, and I think it caused my brain to swell, although the brain swelling might have come from learning so much in the science lectures here. The pictures along the left this time are from some of the hikes we can take here.
I've gotten terribly behind on these things. I also fear that they aren't very funny, but Antarctica isn't a very funny place. Except in shake your head in disbelief at the dysfunctional way things work here, which really isn't funny unless you're here to experience it firsthand. Next time I'll tell you about the ice runway and the cargo operation that is McMurdo's real purpose for being, which also aren't very funny.