27th October 2005
Day Length:
    24 hours
Length of my Shadow:
Daily High:
Daily Low:

Outdoor Scenery

Castle Rock vista

Delbridge Islands from Hut Point Ridge

Royal Society Range and old nuclear power plant on Ob Hill

Bobby the bourbon hiding bulldog

Ha! A trick! This is from the window of the fire station

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:

  • Everyone lives in shared quarters, from the dining assistants to the station managers, unless they wind up somehow very lucky. The nicer housing is doled out partly based on what your job is, but mostly based on number of years on the ice. It is provided as part of our package, we don't pay rent separately.
  • We all eat in the same cafeteria, wait in the same lines and search for a seat at the same tables, and pay for none of it—that is part of the deal too. There's not really any choice of places to eat.
  • There is a clinic here where we can see a doctor, have an x-ray or lab test and get prescriptions for acute problems filled—without charge. There are even a physical therapist and dentist available.
  • Movies in the coffee house and videos from the 'rental' counter are free, but first- come first-serve, as are all the recreational activities. You get a spot or you don't based purely on timing and luck, there are no strings to be pulled.
  • Only members of the 'tradesman' and 'scientist' classes have cars. There are shuttle buses running regularly, and sometimes for a bribe you can check out a vehicle—for something work related.
  • The store stocks alcohol, the one mechanism the state…er, company…has to keep the masses in order, only one day a week. The day and time are well known and there is always a line longer than the stock available.

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.

The Wednesday liquor line. Pay no
attention to that man in the silly hat.
It is certainly no utopia though. This year resources are more limited than in the past; it's not just the water that is rationed. I mentioned the alcohol problem; one of the comrades last year didn't order enough. He's now doing time in a gulag in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains where he is bitten by seals and pecked by penguins. There's seldom a wait to see the doctor, but the barber does something like 800 heads a month so you have to sign up a few days in advance. You can usually find a seat in the cafeteria, but they constantly run out of glasses. The soft-serve ice cream machine is down to 3 days a week now, due to shortages, and hot fudge is even more limited.

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.

Drilling for valuable prizes
Every member of the Fire Department has to attend two outdoor trainings, Sea Ice Training and Basic Snowcraft I. Sea Ice school is a pretty simple, non-physically demanding one-day course where you learn about crack formation and recognition, how to navigate safely across the sea ice, and how to determine if a crack is safe to cross. You spend the morning in the classroom and afternoon on the ice and get to partake in one of the famous McMurdo bag lunches. There is also a box of extra 'survival' food, full of goodness like Cadbury dark chocolate bars. No one else seems to like then, so I came home with about ten. Everyone that works out on the ice is required to attend the class, but since they have cancelled most of the recreational trips this year they also award spots in the class as morale trips to folks in town.

Dug in for the coming onslought
Basic Snowcraft I, better known as Happy Camper School, is a much more demanding overnight survival course. The first morning is spent in the classroom going over the contents of the survival bags carried in every vehicle. Then everyone loads up in a delta and drives out to Snow Mound City, on the ice shelf. The afternoon is spent setting up camp, building a snow cave and snow wall (to block the wind), then the instructors leave to their cozy hut while the class cooks dinner and whiles away the evening sitting around a roaring fire singing camp songs of yore like "Frosty the Penguin" and the ever-popular "Walking Through the Hell Raytheon Wrought."

Walking in a summer wonderland
No, not really. One of the Holy Grails of the Antarctic experience is to ride out a condition one storm at happy camper school. My roommate had this experience. There looked to be a storm brewing while I was out there, but by dinnertime it had largely cleared out. By morning though, a new system had rolled in from the south and we woke to find ourselves in a real condition one whiteout. I had to follow the flagline to the outhouse, and could see only one flag ahead of me—about 15 feet.

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.

Back to the Table of Continents

Most of the images on this page are mine, but a few were liberated from the McMurdo community drive.