One Last Glimpse of Erebus

This morning, instead of going to Phoenix Field in Ivan, we took the Cress. The Cress is like an 18-wheeler snow truck that has a passenger cabin as big as a train car. It moves a little faster than Ivan but not much and because you’re sitting in the back, it feels a little like you are in a roller coaster ride. I rode the Cress when I arrived in McMurdo in December. As it happens, the crew that brought me to McMurdo, is the same crew (an perhaps even the same plane) that will take me back to New Zealand.

I used the bathroom and did my due diligence to stretch my legs before being crammed into the C-130. I was the 2nd to the last on and had one of the end seats, which is one of the nicer ones because you’re supposed to have “more space”. I didn’t find this to be remotely true and found myself sitting on a seat where half of my right butt cheek was unsupported by anything. I wanted a workout and as it happens my core is aching from trying to sit up straight… what a balancing act.

Upon takeoff, we flew in a pattern that took us directly over the top of Mount Erebus and I was able to see down into the cone. I didn’t see any red-hot lava or anything but it was really a cool sight. I hadn’t seen anything other than the outside view of the volcano so it was an interesting change. The whole flight, I was lucky enough to be close enough to the flight deck that I could stand up and look out the window. It is with extreme melancholy that I leave behind the frozen wasteland that had become the winter wonderland of my heart. There is no place in the world where I heard more silence than in McMurdo. I am acutely aware of all the noise pollution that is around now… especially in the belly of a C-130.

I slept on an off for most of the flight. I had a book but it was too far into my bag to retrieve it. Talking on a C-130 is nearly impossible but it was nice to be able to have a reason to be alone with my thoughts. I can’t believe I had the opportunity to be a resident of McMurdo Station. I was there for nearly 2 months and though it seems like it lasted forever, it also now feels like it was simply a heartbeat in my lifetime. The people there are so wonderful. My greatest hope is that I am able to see them again and re-connect even though it may be years in my future.

I close this major chapter of my life with my return to the civilized, technology-filled world. This chapter of self-discovery and personal growth, the story of learning who I am and who I would like to become, the journey from self-induced matriculation to self-awareness. I am by no means perfect in literally any way. Still, there is this mixture of melancholy and also the greatest excitement of my life that I get to start a new journey with a partner, a soulmate who is the owner of the other half of my heart. I needed Antarctica. I needed to know that there were other people in this world who were just as nuts as I am about the most unusual of things. I am so grateful that a place like McMurdo exists for all of us misfit toys.

We arrived back in Christchurch at about 5pm. I am staying at the hotel that is across the street from the airport, the Sudima. I checked into my room and put on gym clothes and went to look for the gym… I had not heart for sweating though. I looked through my bags when I got back to my room and re-packed my carry on so I didn’t carry a few different pairs of clothes. I went to the supermarket and bought a salad… then went to an Indian restaurant to have actual seasoning in my food.

I my room, I have eaten all the things and feel like the most gluttonous person in the entire world. I love fresh fruits and vegetables. I didn’t know how much. I can tell you that never again will I take for granted romaine lettuce or avocados. I will eat an apple, orange, or banana every day of my life for the rest of my life (probably) and remember with certain clarity how completely depriving it was to not have anything that had the crunch of something still living and green.

Tonight is the first night I have seen in 43 days… a day lasting over 1,000 hours. I didn’t realize how much I missed the moon at night, or stars. I didn’t understand in any way how completely challenging it would be to miss darkness. I have never really considered myself a night owl, but the Man in the Moon has been my life-long companion and I missed him more than I can possibly say. Tomorrow I will depart Auckland after I am scheduled to arrive at home. Ahh the value of time travel. Will I be a day younger? I am concerned about this travel situation with the outbreak of the Corona Virus. No one had it in McMurdo that I know of… but I’m going to be on a plane for 14 hours. Wearing a face mask is a must. This has been an adventure of my lifetime so far. I am so grateful for it. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I love and miss you all and will see you again real soon.

Departure: Take 1

You know the feeling of getting up too quickly and kind of walking around in a haze… yeah, that was totally me this morning. I thought last night, “I have a 7-hour flight tomorrow that I can sleep on. I don’t need sleep tonight.” That, friends, was the wrong attitude to take. I got up, stripped my bed, put on my ECW, and made it to the MCC in under 20 minutes. I am kind of proud of myself.

We were taking “Ivan the Terra Bus” out to Phoenix Field. I had not yet ridden in Ivan but it’s a bus that is meant for the severe cold weather. Ivan travels at about 5 – 10 miles an hour. The 12-mile trip to Phoenix field took about an hour. I sat in the front seat. I kept by overly heavy carry on bags in my lap and by the time we got out to Phoenix Field my legs had fallen asleep.

We were told that we could go wait in the “passenger terminal” (which is just a trailer that is out of the wind” or use the bathroom. I chose to stay in Ivan. It’s not that Ivan is terribly comfortable; I was just not in a good place to get up and move around a lot. The wind was blowing snow sideways. The Kiwi crew was on the top of the plane with brooms sweeping off the snow from the wings because there is no measure of de-icing available in Antarctica… I can just imagine how the Treaty members would react to steaming glycol burning a hole in the Ross Ice Shelf.

I looked at the visibility marker flags and I could see visibility was getting close to 2 miles. The Kiwi’s have higher minimums that our Raven Ops crews and I called before we were even at the plane that we would have a 24-hour delay due to weather. The bus driver was not amused. I snoozed on the bus and by about 11:00am we were finally told that the flight was cancelled until tomorrow and
we made our way back to McMurdo. We were there right about 12:15pm in time for lunch.

I went to have a very quick lunch then back to the room and got by bedding and re-made my bed. It was 1pm and I laid down on the bed and meant to take a 20-minute nap that was more like 3 hours. Instead of going into the office, I didn’t even call over to fixed wing to make sure that everything was okay and I didn’t need to go in. When I got up, I called Matthew to make sure all was well at home and to update him about the situation of the delay. By 3:30pm, the skies were completely blue and we were good to fly, but the crew was timed out.

I went to dinner at about 5:30pm and then went to the gerbil gym one last time to try to burn off some excess energy. I am not sure how to feel about not going into work today. I was supposed to leave but because I didn’t, my conscience has nagged me that I should have immediately turned up at the office to see if they needed help. I wonder if this makes me a horrible person that I fell asleep instead of continued to try to be a diligent worker. I am supposed to be up at the MCC tomorrow morning at 6:30am, which is an hour later than today. I am happy for the hour delay but it doesn’t change the fact that I am turning in to go to bed super early tonight. Mara’s party was so fun. It felt like a going-away party for me even though it wasn’t. Still, I am worn out. I am not able to recover in the same way as I used to in younger years. So I am going to bed early with hope that tomorrow the flight will go off without a hitch. I love and miss you all.

One last hike, one last day, one last party... but one lifetime of lifelong friendships

This morning, I woke up really, really early at about 5:30am. I have so much to do but I also want to make sure that I am staying healthy. I have basically 24 hours before I am leaving and I have so much to do that there is literally no way that it will all get done before I have to return home. Editing is necessary. I went to gerbil and instead of working an hour, I decided that I would go climb Observation Hill.

This hike, I should not have left for the end. It is by far the shortest in town but also likely the most difficult for someone less ambulatory than the typical McMurdo resident. I started my climb at about 7:00am and it is slow going. Most people have climbed up to the top of Ob Hill many times. On Christmas, there was literally a race to the top. This was nuts to me because about half-way to the top of the “hill”, my lungs nearly fell out of my chest. So much for all this getting in shape business.

There is a memorial by the half-way point up Ob Hill dedicated to the closure of the nuclear power plant that was in use between 1960 and 1972. It was the only nuclear power plant to be operated on Antarctica and though there is little on the plaque about whether or not people were injured or made sick from radiation, I know that one of the reasons it shut down was because of the Antarctic Treaty. You can still see the foundation but the rest of the powerplant has been shut down.

The top of Ob Hill you can see nearly as far as you can on Hut Point Ridge Loop Trail. It wasn’t a very clear day and I couldn’t see over to the Royal Society Range but I could see out to the ocean and I was able to gauge the construction of the pier that was being put in by vessel. I really loved the fact that I was able to see so much. It made me think I should have done the hike several times but I was too lazy to do it before or after work on working days. Such a pity.

On my way down, I slipped on some of the loose gravel. It’s all volcanic rock and some of the gravel is really broken down. When you are walking down a 45⁰ slope and you don’t have solid footing, you can nearly fall down the mountain. This was not the first time I’d fallen on a hike but then again, I am probably one of the clumsiest people I know. Still, I’d taken my cellphone out of my back pocket (thank goodness) and when I hit the rocks, I could have sworn that I had torn my pants and that I was bleeding. Nope. Just a bad bruise. I wonder what it will look like when the deep bruise actually appears on my right butt cheek.

I got down to the dorm at 9:45 and took a shower… but as I was in the shower, the fire alarm went off. It wasn’t the normal fire alarm that most people think of as a “drill”; it just sounded like the pipes were squealing. It sounds like that at Granddaddy’s office when you turn on the shower and water has trouble getting up to the shower head through the old pipes. When I turned the water off and had dried off, I heard the radios. There were two other girls in the bathroom and they were whispering about the fire alarm. Instead of getting forced out of the building with wet hair in little more than a towel, I stayed with the girls and hid in the shower stalls. No one ever came in and checked the bathrooms but we were in there for like 20 minutes. Sheesh.

I got back to the room and began going through my things to put everything into my bags. I knew that I didn’t have bags that were “overweight” but I did know that volumetrically I was kind of screwed. I didn’t bring that much with me comparatively to most people I guess because I still had 22 pounds to play with on my checked bags. I did want to bring home souvenirs for people like magnets and I
got stuffed animals for my soon to be nephews and niece.

I spent literally 4 hours working on getting my stuff in bags and making sure that I had everything where it would fit so that I could get the room super clean for the inspection that was supposed to happen at 2pm. I missed lunch but I think it was okay. I am anxious about this whole leaving thing and trying to figure out all the things that I have to do is really a challenge. Instead of someone inspecting my room, Mara signed off that she would be willing to vouch for me when the room was needed to be inspected.

I then went to the office. I was supposed to have a meeting with Jackson about my evaluation for my time spent in Aviation Operations. Jackson wasn’t in the office but I looked through everything one more time. Shasta is still sick, poor girl. I looked over everything one more time and by the time Jackson got back into the office, I was ready to shut everything down for the last time. I met with both Jen and Jackson and they gave me perhaps the nicest review of my effort and work that I have ever had from any boss. After being on the ice for such a short time, I feel like I did make a positive impact. It is a challenge to make any difference when the learning curve is so high and really, I was part of one of the best teams I have ever known. I would be most fortunate to work with any of the Av Ops team again.

I went back to the dorm and went about getting my things finally ready for “bag drag”. I went to the galley as soon as I was able to get dinner because I hadn’t realized how incredibly hungry I really was. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with some of my friends here and people are just so wonderful. McMurdo is like a collection of weirdos that are all just like me: adventurous, willing to try new things, never knowing a stranger, and passionate about the strangest things. I know I have a lot of quirks but it is so cool that I was able to actually make good friends here.

Bag Drag is the process where you bring all your bags and really everything you are planning on taking with you from McMurdo up to the MCC. You weigh yourself and your carry-on as well as your checked bags so that they can get an accurate weight and balance. The MCC is at the bottom of the hill. My bags and all my ECW make me a solid 275pounds just getting lugged up the steps. Half-way up the tiny hill, one of the van drivers pulled over because he could see my face turning purple and he took me the remaining 200 feet up to the MCC. I arrived at about 7:30. I should have come a little later because I found myself completely bored for the half-hour wait.

My bags were under of course and I was one of the first people that was able to check-in, so I brought my carry-ons back to the room. You need to remember that they will keep your bags for the duration of the time you are in McMurdo. That means, if there is a delay and it is shorter than 3 days, you only have what you kept in your carry-on. Extra undies and socks are a must… or so I was told. This made my bags heavy but it’s whatever.

Mara had won the lotto to have a Hut 10 party. She had invited all her friends, which I find myself lucky to be a part of. I have 2 full, unopened bottles of Crown Royal, a half-filled bottle of Dewars, a half-filled single malt that I got in Christchurch, and a 6-pack of beer left from my expectation that Vessel would have arrived earlier. I brought all of this with me to the party. I only drank my single malt but I figured I’d donate to everyone else having a good time.

Mara’s party was an “I Just Had Sex” theme. Catherine played songs on the guitar that were hilarious. People here are so interesting. Mara painted a sign that was noting the weirdest places you’d had sex… the entries were… interesting. Mara was the perfect hostess. Not only had she gotten the hut, she organized all the food and did decorations. It was perfect. I had arrived late because I had to do bag-drag but I didn’t feel like I really missed anything.

I stayed until the end of the party. It was just barely midnight. I’d had only one very heavy pour of single malt but I worked hard not to get wasted because I knew I had to get up in the morning. I helped Mara get everything back up to the room. Because we had food at the party, no one went to the galley to get anything extra. The monitors told me that I am to be at the MCC for transport out to our plane at 5:30am tomorrow so I have to sleep fast. I love and miss you all.

Finishing up final tasks

I woke up as usual this morning and went to the gym. I am working on trying to stay focused. It is imperative that I am to complete the tasks that have been assigned to me before my departure. It is a challenge for me to do anything right now except for take the next hour and do with it the best I can. I was told I didn’t need to go into work. Still, It was important to me that I show up to do what I needed to do and when I got into the office, I found that Shasta wasn’t actually working because she’d gotten the McMurdo plague just like it seems like everyone else had.

I began not only doing the day’s daily pipeline entries but also completing the SOPs that were left undone. I worked diligently with Jen to try to make sure that I was getting information into the last SOP about the development of the PowerPoint presentation for the AOPB meeting. I don’t really mind formatting different things. I am not exceptional by any stretch of the imagination at writing formal, technical documents. However, I don’t mind helping when a format has been given and I am only to follow the format. I like following directions. It gives me the grounds for understanding my abilities within given parameters.

Since it is Wednesday, I worked specifically with Jen to put together the AOPB presentation and took notes for the SOP. I also went to the meeting after lunch and did the things that Shasta normally does. The office feels so empty without her in it and I didn’t realize how lonely our little closet could be even though we don’t always have long conversations because we are always independently working on our own things.

Jen and Jackson left at a decent hour this evening… but instead of leaving things undone, I decided it was really important to make sure I got the last of my given tasks as completed as possible. I went to the galley for dinner and went back to the office to put finishing touches on my work so that I was able to present something that I was actually proud of. It took me until nearly 10:30pm before I was completely done but since I am scheduled to not come in tomorrow because it is a normal day off and also because we’re schedule to pack our things, I just wanted to do a good job.

I think that somehow in the time I have been in McMurdo my work ethic has changed…. Or perhaps my opinion of work has been challenged. I think that regularly people complain about having to do jobs in the States that are mind-numbing and/or meaningless but here in McMurdo, it feels like every single human being contributes to making this mission an actually successful mission. When you are relying on not only yourself but everyone else around you for survival, it is easier to work harder than you have ever worked and think little of it.

Never before in my life have I worked harder to learn and to do a good job or worked longer hours because if I didn’t do the job, it was either shifted to someone else, or it was left undone. Even during my time as a teacher, my hours were shorter and my work somewhat less imperative than what I have done here. Sometimes, while I am laying in bed with the curtain drawn to block out the endless sunlight, I think about the day’s work and though some of it is repetitive in nature, it is all necessary not only to keep things going and to keep people safe, but it will help with the future planning of events and scientific missions down in Antarctica. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling kind of… a very tired, very worn out fuzzy feeling. But I think that I have done well here, at least I hope I have. I love and miss you all.

Room With A View

Today started really roughly. For very personal reasons that I cannot disclose, I found out today I have to return to the states. It was incredibly distressing but everyone here has been completely amazing and really supportive of me in my time of great need. I was in the office talking to Shasta when she offered to let me take her spot on Room with a View. I was supposed to go on this last week but Jen and I were on the cancelled flight to WAIS Divide… I asked if she was really really sure and she told me yes. So at about 5:30pm, I went up to my room to find Mara and Makie getting ready to go along on the adventure as well.

We all put on our ECW and headed over to the MEC. The classroom only had 11 people in it… 2 were guides… that means that Shasta and I both could have gone if I had thought about it. I didn’t have a partner but ended up getting paired with one of the stewies named Becca. She was so kind. She and I checked over the Skidoo for any major issues and found none. I asked her if she could drive first because I am unsure about a Skidoo and it made me nervous.

The Room with a View is about 40 miles away from McMurdo on a Skidoo trail. We’re not supposed to take the Skidoos over 45kph… yeah kilometers not miles. We staggered as we rode up there for safety except for one point where we went in single file over an area that was marked as having a crevasse. It was windy and very cold but there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The snow sparkled like glittered terrain as we drove past. I consistently had to adjust my gear to keep the wind from licking at my face the way that it could.

It took about an hour to get up to the Room with a View spot. It was basically a yellow tent with a floor made of snow… with some flags that surrounded it. We got off the bikes and took tons of pictures. We had a snowball fight with the powdery snow and made snow angels. Mara brought chocolate along with her as a treat for everyone. Then… at some point someone suggested we do a “moon with a view”… I’m pretty sure the last time I mooned someone I was like 10 and it was highly encouraged by my father. Instead, all the girls got in a line in our big red coats, promptly took our pants down and posed. The first shoot was a little ridiculous and we couldn’t get Mara to fall in line… but the next pictures were literally AWESOME. There was so much laughter that went on that I was removed from my going home even if only for a moment.

The whole way home I had this grin on my face that would not go away.  I got to drive back and it was so incredible. I made sure to wear heavier gear on the way down and the wind didn’t bother me. It was literally the most beautiful day that I have seen here in McMurdo since I arrived… and I got to drive a Skidoo to the base of Mount Erebus, the most southern active volcano, and just be alive. It was magical. It was literally the most fun I have had here and probably in the top 3 most fun things I’ve ever done…. Ever. It is a lottery so you have to be lucky about getting chosen… but Shasta gave me her trip and I will literally be forever in her debt.

When we got back to McMurdo, we dropped all our stuff off in the room and went down to the galley for pizza. I hadn’t eaten anything at all the whole day and so it made sense that I was ravenous. The pizza at McMurdo is edible and though I would prefer something healthier, it’s not too bad for what it is. We all sat around a table and talked and laughed as a group. Tonight was the last night there was a bar open because vessel is supposed to arrive tomorrow and so while we were in the galley, we saw all the bar-drunk people.

We chatted for a little while and then Mara and I went out to Hut Point. We were followed by this one dude who I gave about a shot and a half of whisky to for the walk out to Hut Point, which would also be closed in the morning. Just as we were walking up to the actual point, the guy with us stumbles and it becomes immediately apparent that he is not just wasted but fucking shit faced. Instead of standing to watch the whales in the distance, we sat down at Hut Point so dude didn’t fall into the ocean. We were there for about an hour before going back and escorting the guy, by holding onto his jacket so he didn’t fall down, back to his dorm room. Mara and I didn’t have enough to drink for it to be that great. In any case, it was a magical day. I can’t believe I was so lucky to have had this experience when I literally will be leaving on Friday. The people here are amazing people. I’m so lucky to have met every single one of their beautiful souls. I love and miss you all.

WAIS Divide final cut

This morning I woke up in a pretty standard way. I am trying to get healthy. It is kind of going well. I don’t know… it’s hard to gauge, I suppose. I went into the office at my regularly scheduled time and found out that I was listed for the WAIS Divide – Siple Dome trip. Jen and I had already been out to the airfield to do this but it never really got anywhere. Jen has been trying to send me out to WAIS Divide for nearly 2 weeks now and so I was skeptical at best about going.

At 3:30pm, I gathered all my things and went to get my ECW and made my way to the MCC. Jen had already arrived because she’d gotten her gear when she went to lunch but I hadn’t really thought about it much at all. We got in the van and drove out to Willy Field. We were dropped off at Willy Galley as the passenger waiting terminal. All the crew was there and they were all eating Willy Chili. Lots of people have talked to me about the Willy Chili but I was simply not interested in it whatsoever… the food in the galley isn’t bad, it’s just tasteless. I don’t really like meat anyway but the idea of a tasteless meat in a tasteless, or worse sweet, tomato sauce was kind of appalling. But I suffer from peer pressure with the best of them and so because everyone was eating it, I grabbed a bowl. I was surprised, to say the least, that the chili was not only edible but actually really good. The chef gave us some of his personal spicy sauce to add to it and it made it taste like home for a brief moment.

The plane was getting fueled and the Piston Bully was on the plane already. This sounded like really good news. We got out to the field and the plane was ready to go. We hopped on board and the flight crew gave us earplugs. I was filming things through the tiny windows of the aircraft when I was offered the ability to go sit with the crew in the flight deck. I did not bring aviation headphones so the trip up front was silent… or rather too loud to hear anyone who wasn’t talking to you through headphones. I got to look around and watch what all the crew members do. I align most closely with navigation, which I suppose would make sense since I am used to building routes and knowing about navigation in general from American.

I love that the pilots actually fly the planes. They are engaged 100% of the time. Though you would think this is how it is on every plane, most of the pilots I know rely heavily on autopilot and direction from ATC. There is little in the way of ATC here and the LC-130s are so old that I would guess they don’t have that upgrade in them. The flight engineer is the last one on the plane. What I know about flight engineers is they balance fuel. This is a function that was taken over by something called the FADEC. The flight engineers on these planes are more like systems guys. They really can fix nearly anything and it is impressive to watch them while they perform their task because it seems like they are always moving.

We flew straight across the Ross Ice Shelf. This mammoth piece of ice is as large as the state of Texas – or so everyone loves to say. It is a veritable waste land that is featureless from horizon to horizon other. Often you can’t even tell where the ground ends and where the sky begins. It’s like flying in a giant ping-pong ball. My first flight on the Twin Otter out to Allan Hills was gorgeous. This was long… colorless… boring, except for the crew. Jen came up to join me partially through the flight. She works so closely with the Raven Ops crews that they knows them personally and I would imagine that they share some measure of inside jokes. I even got to stay in the flight deck during descent and landing into WAIS Divide. It was such a cool experience and landing on skis felt totally different than landing on wheels.

When we got to WAIS Divide, we were met by the camp manager, James. I talk to James semi-regularly on the Iridium phone and often listen to myself talk more than him due to the echo. He was a wealth of information that continued to tell me things that I could barely believe even though they were right in front of my eyes. He took us around town in a sled that was connected to a Skidoo. They apparently call this the town taxi. He drove us up the berms and showed us the “town”. It was more like several tents and lots of pallets of cargo that was to be left there while the season wintered over.

Lots of people call the place the Great Flat White. I don’t find it to be particularly flat… though the berms are man-made they at least contour the horizon. The galley was more like a homey kitchen and while the camp only supports about 40 people, everyone gets to share things communally. They have washers and dryers AND showers that are powered by melted and heated snow (which they do by hand). This is a huge luxury as most tiny camps, people wipe off with wet wipes until they get back to someplace like McMurdo or South Pole. They showed us the freezer, which is just a hole in the ice that they have dug steps down to and covered so that nothing gets particularly warm. They even have real ice-cream… huge luxury that we don’t’ even get in McMurdo. Our tour was a little longer than most because we were unloading and re-loading a Piston Bully to take to Siple Dome Camp. I brought James 2 fresh oranges (“freshies”) an in turn he gave me stickers. They are like currency here.

When we loaded back onto the plane, we were joined by 6 people from out camps – all scientists working on the Thwaites Glacier. The only one that I talked to at all told me about how they are measuring how much the ocean is impacting and melting the glacier. This is something that I’m glad someone thought of… because I never would have. Instead of sitting in the flight deck, I sat with the regular passengers. Since there were only 9 of us apart from the crew, we got to spread out quite a bit.

It took 2 hours in the LC-130 to get from WAIS Divide to Siple Dome. When we got out at Siple Dome, we walked among the maybe 8 tents. It is a super tiny camp. Only 4 people live there for some atmospheric weather science or something and only 2 are actually scientists. They are really nice. I feel like I would feel completely isolated by living somewhere so remote for so long. They were very kind to us and even offered us camp brownies. It was cold there… like really really really cold. We laid down and made snow angels but though I had multiple layers on, I was uncomfortable at best.

It was 11pm by the time we were headed back to McMurdo and with a 3 hour flight time it put us back at 2am. I would have been happy to sleep but I couldn’t make myself relax enough. Not only have I been super lucky to literally LIVE down here, I have seen 3 camps, ridden in a flight deck of an LC-130, flown in a twin otter, hiked, seen penguins and whale in nature, and expanded my world view of what actually happens so far from home. I feel like I have gotten to do everything possible and that no one has ever been as lucky as I have but I don’t really want to brag. Life is good. I love and miss you all.

What is the definition of grand gesture?

My tasking today was to create SOPs for practices in the office in order to teach someone how to do my job when they are new like I was just a month ago. This was good because I woke up and went into the office at 8am to make sure that all the reports were created and sent before the 9am deadline and then went to the gym to try diligently to fight the hangover with some good old sweat. It was such a poor idea to drink last night. You think a girl would learn to stop taking poison when it makes her feel like death…

I think when you realize that though there is an alcohol policy here but literally the only alteration available (that I have seen) is alcohol, that is how people cope with everything: the cold, missing home, awkward new friendships, remembering no one’s name (sometimes not even your own), FOMO, endless work, and generally too little sleep. I am sure people cope with more but those are the things that I need help coping with and my coping mechanisms are really more like calling home to talk to a familiar voice on the other side who loves me.

I am so grateful for these days in the office when I have ONE task that, while enormous, is something that I can pace myself doing while I am here. It allows me to focus really diligently instead of feeling the chaos of a million different tasks and no reference point to tell me which is most important. I worked until brunch and then broke for a full hour to make sure that I enjoyed the morning cheat day meal. French toast and eclairs were the bane of my existence this morning and 100% worth knowing I will have to work a little harder at exercise over the course of the next few days just to make sure they aren’t effecting my waist size.

When I got back to the office the afternoon I was so involved with my project and trying to understand all the parts and pieces from Jen while she was here that I lost track of time and literally missed dinner… I walked into the galley at 7:12pm and all the food had been carried away. So I grabbed a slice of pizza and went back to the office. I kept working until nearly 8:30pm when I realized that I was missing Stewie Prom. I walked send a quick email to Matthew and coordinated with him and stood in front of the live-stream camera in front of the construction site here and made a poster for him.

I’d tried doing this before but somehow always failed to be actually in the frame. I’d made a sign about 3 days ago that was as big as a poster board using a BAM (big ass marker) that was so toxic that while I was holding my sign I could still smell the nauseating smell of the marker. This is kind of a funny place to be. Cell-phones do not work here. AT ALL. I use mine to listen to pod casts, take pictures, and be an alarm clock. Otherwise, it’s kind of useless. Essential staff (which is hilarious that I’m one of them) gets a pager: mine is a Motorola Advisor II. Welcome to 1992 folks. You can send text pages now because the prevalence of email to an email address and write a page in the subject line and it sends to you. So I walked out there, with my sign, and tried to position myself where I could be seen using pages from Matthew while he was waiting for the WebCam at McMurdo to refresh. The McMurdo webcam is a live stream (kind of). There are a few different cameras that show different things around McMurdo. You can see them here:

After looking kind of silly for about 15 minutes, I walked back to the dorm and called Matthew. We talk on the phone a lot. It’s kind of like a high school relationship. There are no cordless phones here and there’s really no privacy anywhere you go, especially when you have 4 roommates and usually one of us is always asleep in the room. Still, I try to call him daily, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. We had a lot to talk about and catch up on for various reasons. I didn’t even realize how late it had gotten when I hung up the phone and I went to the Stewie Prom and everyone was more than 3 sheets to the wind and I was stone cold sober.

Each department holds a town-sponsored party each season. Since I’ve been here I’ve gone to the following parties: The Hangar Party (helicopter department), Waste Barn Christmas Show (waste management), MAAG (fuels department), Skirt Party (Scott Base), and the Stewie Prom (galley – kitchen). I may be missing some… but basically everyone that is not actually working goes to these parties. This one was in Gallagher’s Pub. They cleared everything out and there was a DJ who played only fast music that was like top 90s jams. I didn’t hear a single “slow” song. It was like a dance party with more alcohol that any measure of spiked punch could provide. I walked in, looked around, and promptly walked out.

I think 2 nights in a row of getting to bed late and alcohol poisoning in one week is plenty. I stopped by the 155 lounge and found Makie and Sara playing ping pong. I stepped inside and amusingly watched people pass by who were stumbling drunk. Everyone here is a good sport about alcohol. I don’t really think anyone wants to see ANYONE get sent home for an alcohol-based violation and literally if I saw someone who was passed out in the stair well, I’d walk whoever it was back to their room so they didn’t get in trouble. This might have been one of those nights. There may have been lots of shenanigans going on that I didn’t see… there’s probably no maybe about it. Still, for a Sunday it was chill… it is a blessing to have an easy day every now and then. There is some measure of FOMO but I also don’t want to make myself sick from lack of sleep and/or excess alcohol. Life is good. Things are good. I’m good. I love and miss you all.

People of all kinds become a family here at McMurdo

Did you know that drinking any amount of alcohol on a Monday night of a 6-day work week is a really shitty idea? It is. I mean you can experiment with that on your own, but I really don’t recommend it. I don’t have to be at work until 10:00am… so I slept until about 9:40am this morning… and felt super luxurious about it even though I missed my gerbil time. There’s a ton of Army guys here. It’s kind of weird actually because all of a sudden the base feels really crowded and too much like a party atmosphere (not that it wasn’t before… but still). But with the Army, the gerbil gym is packed… guess I’m going to have to change my workout routine for the next 2 weeks.

Work today was quiet comparatively. It’s supposed to be a big meeting day but there was an accident at one of the camps and everyone was waiting to hear about how that went. So even though we were prepared for the meeting, it was delayed… so we ate lunch at the office for nothing. I’m not complaining. I think me eating lunch in the office means that I don’t get to go back for seconds ever… and there are not cookies that are freshly baked just calling my name…

The afternoon went by quickly. Flights stopped at WAIS Divide after about 3:00pm and then we had the AOPB. The schedule was easily done for tomorrow since it’s Sunday. The planes are starting to de-mobilize and leave the continent for the long winter. I suppose there’s no reason for my job to even function when our team re-deploys because really all the camps close at the end of the Austral Summer.

So I should take a moment to say that the community here is like a force of nature… literally. About 2 weeks ago, one of the Raven Ops guys, George, who was only 37, died of natural causes related to a heart attack. People die every day but somehow, when someone dies in a community of only 800 people, it is felt in waves across the community. He was sent back to his family the next morning but this community really hasn’t had the chance to mourn the loss of one of its own.  I didn’t know George well but I had met him in passing several times. He was always kind to me… I can only imagine his wife and 2 young children at this time. Pray for them if you pray. Vibe for them if you vibe. They need it I am almost sure. This evening at 7:30pm, we had a memorial service in our tiny Chapel of the Snows. The capacity of the chapel is only 100 but the fire department was there and people were holding the doors open and hugging each other with tears. Of course not everyone came… but it was the most touching moment that I have been here… the impact of one felt by hundreds at the bottom of this world is tremendous.

When I left the Chapel of the Snows, I went to Derelict Junction (DJ) to catch a shuttle to Scott Base. I didn’t really know anything about “Skirt Party” but it is the ONLY party that the Kiwi’s hold that Americans are invited to. We piled into the van and made the very windy drive over to the base and found ourselves walking into a bar with the ugliest of drag queens I have ever seen. Literally, EVERY. SINGLE. MAN. (except 4 dudes) put on dresses that they’d borrowed from one of the girls on station or found in skua. They all donned 1980s style robin’s egg blue eyeshadow and red lipstick smudged on their cheeks, with some amount of glitter everywhere. The Kiwi ladies braided their hair into fake beards and wore suits. It was super interesting.

The history of the “Skirt Party” is that apparently in early days of exploration, people among Scott’s party (who were all male at the time) would entertain themselves in the very desolate place by cross-dressing and dancing.  The whole party was based on this drag show with these ugly queens and you got to see the “girls” walk a runway and pose and then answer questions. Then a bidding war started to have a “moonlight dance”. The “girls” were auctioned off with all proceeds benefiting the Australian Bush Fire Relief. You had to have cash. They accepted both American and Kiwi currency. The bar in Scott Base has actually really good alcohol. I have made some friends with the Parson’s construction guys and they make amazing money here (I think they may be the only ones). They kept buying 2 beers at a time and giving one away… I don’t even remember how many I drank before midnight but I guarantee, it was far too many.I’d planned my “exercise” to walk back from Scott Base but the 7 people left at Scott Base were me and 6 guys in drag and the guys would not let me walk back alone and they were literally in skirts and heels… So I rode in the van on the way home, busting my exercise streak for the first time in nearly a month.

We got back to McMurdo and the Parson’s people had won the Hut 10 Lottery and were hosting a party. I was too intoxicated to realize that I really, really should have gone back to the room, drank a gallon of water, and went to bed. Instead, I went to Hut 10 where I was pulled into country western swing dancing and plied with more alcohol that I should not have been drinking. I have found that not all guys, but many here are really fiercely protective of the fact that I am very standoffish and do not want any physical interaction with any man (or woman) while I am on the ice because I love Matthew and all I do is talk about him. One of the fire fighters was being particularly predatory while I was in Hut 10 and one of my gallant protectors nearly went into fisty-cuffs to protect my honor. It was kind of cute.

I really am bothered by some of the social things that happen here. I get the why. I am not being judgmental of others, just declining to participate in activities that make me uncomfortable. I think that this is one of the reasons I don’t really feel that social here and haven’t made the kinds of close friends that I typically make on these adventures. Still, I want to make sure that I experience all the things that are important events here and see all the nature/wildlife and go all the places so that when I leave , I will feel like I didn’t just live and work in Antarctica, I lived. I love and miss you all.

Room With a View or WAIS Divide?

It is Friday – but it is my Monday. I determined I would wake up earlier in order to make sure that I am getting enough exercise and start my week off well but it is no less difficult to get out of bed with my alarm. I am envious of people who are able to hear an alarm and just hop out of bed like it’s nothing. I like the morning but it is very hard to get out of bed… I wonder if this will ever change for me.
When I got into the office, I opened up my email and found that I’d won the lottery drawing for Room with a View. This is where you go with Rec on snowmobiles (Skidoos) on a path up Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano. They only take about 400 people a year – so about half the base, at best, gets to go. Lots of people have signed up for this but many haven’t gotten luck and I was drawn on the first round! I hadn’t done the snowmobile training but I went in and talked to Jen and Jackson about it and they approved letting me go to snowmobile training over lunch.

The training was about 45 minutes, where we tried on helmets and learned he very basics of checking the Skidoo for maintenance issues as well as how to drive it, theoretically. Both Jackson and Shasta came along with me and there was an air of excitement in the whole group that we were going to get to take Skidoos off base and see and active volcano. However, when I got back into the office, it wasn’t 15 minutes before Jen came in and said, “Do you want to go on Room with a View or do you want to go to WAIS Divide?” What a freaking impossible decision. Will there be more of both? Probably. I thought about it for a long time and talked to others about it and without question, everyone advised me to go to WAIS. It is a temporary camp. I will be there for another decade then fall below the snow-capped glacier. It is a better choice for me professionally and experientially… but also, I wanted to ride on Skidoos.

So I decided that I would go with Jen on the LC-130 to WAIS. The departure time was at 2000LCL and so we had to get transport out to Willy Field at 1830LCL. So I left the office at about 1800, went to grab a really fast dinner, put on my ECW, and grabbed my bag with some goodies for the camp manager out at WAIS Divide. I went to the MEC instead of the MCC and ended up getting to the MCC just barely on time after running up hill in my extreme cold weather gear… I was breathing like one of the big girls in Richard Simmon’s old pony videos. It was not cute.

We got to ride out to Willy and it was really interesting getting to sit and talk to Jen about her experiences down here for all the seasons she’s been coming to McMurdo, or just Antarctica in general. I was generally just excited to see the human side of her since she’s seen so much more than just the human side of me… it’s a little intimidating to be near someone who is so exceedingly proficient in their job and also so completely kind. She has the patience of a Saint. We got to Willy Field and were dropped off at Willy Galley. I had some coffee and then we were invited to go see the penguin.

I am not one to say no to a penguin and when we walked outside, we found a large emperor penguin molting near a snow berm. Everyone began walking closer and closer to it – but it completely ignored us. We stopped and took pictures of it from about 30 feet away. He looked so uncomfortable with feathers sticking out from all directions. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to molt. Itching with nothing but your penguin feet and beak?  I’m itchy all over just thinking about it! There were feathers everywhere. They are very small and though a penguin doesn’t look like its got feathers there are tons of them really close together to keep them warm in the winter weather.

I stood out there for probably 30 minutes, giddily watching the penguin and taking pictures and videos. The military also came out and did the same. It was so cool to get to see one that is wild closer than I’ve ever seen one in a zoo. He ended up wandering onto Willy Field and the fire department tried to shoo him away, even though people aren’t supposed to interact with wildlife down here. As an LC-130 landed, it squawked and waved it’s arms as if to direct the plane and it was adorable. We were all ushered back into the galley where we took refuge with coffee. At 9:00pm, a new TAF came out forecasting fog and so the flight was cancelled… so I missed Room with a View and I didn’t get to go on an LC-130… but I did get to see a penguin up close and personal and that was pretty wicked.

Jen gave me the last seat back on the transport van, so I went back into town and decided that I should go to Gallagher’s to see the “Last of the Season’s Karaoke”. I got there too late to sign up but walked in to see the guy singing “Tequila”. I immediately giggled to myself at the thought of Alisa ranting about how bullshit it is to sing that song in karaoke… but everyone had a great time. People were already very intoxicated and singing along and we were all crammed in there like sardines. I am starting to feel more comfortable with talking to the not so strange strangers here and learning about people in general.

I ended up talking with one of the sweet Stewie girls, Courtney, who was literally the life of the party. She drug me around and introduced me to all the people she knew and so I ended up talking to a whole bunch of people. As karaoke ended, I found myself talking aviation with some of the guys and was invited to go to the 208 dorm lounge for after karaoke drinks. You’re only young once, right? Turns out I’m the mother hen here. Apparently it’s gotten around that I dispense pretty good personal advice about relationships even though mine aren’t always perfect… and people also seem to think I’m a pretty good, nonjudgmental listener… So I ended up in a dorm with some people who were trying to combat difficult life decisions and me just telling them to chillax. Did you know you can make a pretty awesome Old Fashioned with whiskey, an orange slice, tonic water, and a cherry Starburst? Guess there is some use for the red Starburst candies other than the garbage can. I love and miss you all.

Be adventurous... but always bring a friend

Again my day off… again very cold and unforgiving. I woke up at 5AM because there was a British UAS (drone) test that needed to be done at Scott Base and I was invited to go. I find that if I say yes to everything, even if it’s not the most incredible thing I’ve ever done, it allows me to participate in things I would have never thought would be interesting before. It was so chilly that I wore my ECW. We met the guy by the Crary Labs. I haven’t really be in the Crary that regularly and it seems a place that is off limits to anyone other than the super-genius scientists on base.

We got in the van and drove to Scott Base. The drive is barely 2 miles but when the wind is cutting through you like a knife, you are happy to have the protection of a vehicle. We walked into Scott Base in the locker room and found one of the administrators who helped to show us where we could do the drone tests. Matthew has a Mavic drone. I’m not completely uninterested but I’m not really a gadget girl. Still, when the guy took out the GPS receptor and set up the drone, he explained that he was using infrared and ultraviolet cameras to measure algae blossoms in the ground in the dry valleys. It made watching the very elaborate drone operation much more interesting. With 5 different cameras taking pictures of the ground, he was able to use the images to render topography. I think this is so cool.

But it was cold. It was -16°C before the windchill. I remember being cold like that a few times in my life but my toes got so cold that they felt like little needles were poking into my feet and it was painful. I think people think that freezing to death is an easy way to die… but I can tell you, as you realize that your body temperature is dropping and you start feeling the tingles of frostbite, I’d rather be hot than cold I think… or at least cold like this. When we returned to McMurdo it was barely 7:45AM. Too late for breakfast but also too early for me to have any desire to go on a hike. So I went back upstairs and went back to bed because it’s a day off and I needed to crawl into bed to warm up.

Lunch was not spectacular but I feel like just as I have started to make social connections here, I am going to be leaving. This is kind of sad to me. The people here that I have met are really, really nice. I feel like everyone here is super intelligent from the waste management people and the galley staff to the Crary Lab scientists. Everyone has interesting perspectives. Most people are super into travel and have been to some amazing places with fascinating stories that make me want to create new adventure bucket lists.

After lunch, Catherine and I took a shuttle over to Scott Base to go shopping at their little store. I had done this just a week before but I did not have anything else that seemed worthy of my time and it was nearly too cold to be outside. So we went over to Scott Base and spent almost 45 minutes in the tiny store. I bought a few things more because I’m not sure who I need to have a souvenir for and Catherine did a lot of her shopping. As we were waiting for transport back to McMurdo, in one of the pools by the pressure ridges in front of the base, we saw a whale peek out of the pools. I had already seen one but it was so cool to see another one. The temperature had gotten a little warmer with the clearing clouds and though I was not in any shape to walk back to McMurdo from Scott Base, I decided that when I returned to the dorm, I would go on a hike.

After some phone calls home, I determinedly went out in search of the McMurdo Webcam. There are people who stand in front of the webcam with big signs and I thought it would be cool to do this… but after trying to get into position for nearly an hour, I gave up. If you’re looking for interesting looks into what this station looks like, the live webcam feed is:

The clouds had blown by and I was convinced that I really needed to go on a hike. I still hadn’t done the Hut Point Ridge Loop Trail or the Observation Hill hikes. The ice-breaker was in Winter Quarters Bay. I walked down to Hut Point and watched the ice-breaker move out of the bay and go back out to sea. No one was out and about. I figured it was because the wind was pretty cutting… but there were also no animals around Hut Point which seemed a little strange to me. Instead of lingering, I started to climb the ridge.

I made it up to Roll Cage Mary and watched the ship turn around and start back for the ocean. There is a skua nest up by Mary. I say “nest” loosely as there are no twigs or sticks of any kind with which to make a nest. But… amongst the dirt and volcanic rocks, apparently there is a baby skua. I have been told that if there is more than one skua chick hatched, they eat all but one of their young. This is not something that seems extremely maternal to me but I guess I shouldn’t judge? So this fluff ball, baby skua was somewhere by Mary, and the skua that was up there was not having it. Skua are typically nearly silent. This skua cawed at me and nearly pecked at me for getting to close to her baby, which I never saw. It is as close to panic as I’ve been in for the duration of this trip to Antarctica.

I continued up the hill and continued to watch the ice-breaker make its way out to sea. The trail is steep. I would say probably a 30 degree variant but sometimes as high as 55 degrees. It was a tough hike at best… but it was nice to get out of town, away from people, and have a moment alone with my thoughts. At the top of the ridge, there is a formation of rocks that very nearly looks like a crude throne. I sat down and gazed into the distance where everything that I saw was to the north. The rocks blocked the wind and with the sun out to heat up my Big Red it was nearly too hot.

I continued along the ridge. It took me out of sight of town, which I knew was what was supposed to happen but I didn’t think that I would move so far away from the better part of civilization. There are a few structures at the top of Arrival Heights, around that Hut Point Ridge Loop trail that appear like golf balls, like the wonderful world of Disney Epcot meets frozen tundra. I am not sure what they are scientifically measuring but since you can see them from town, I figured I couldn’t be too far off course. I continued walking and the ceiling began to drop. Suddenly I found myself in a blowing storm of icy clouds. Gusts of wind threatened my foot hold and I leaned into the wind, terrified that it would push me off the ridge into the rocks and ice below.

I lost track of the path and realized I did not know where the path actually led. I looked for a yellow flagged marker to show me where the foot path was supposed to be. I was dismayed to find that in order for me to make it from one post to the next, I would have to cross about 50 meters of snow that showed no rocks to show the actual snow depth. I have never been afraid of snow. I spent some years of my very early youth just outside of Denver, Colorado and have always been comfortable on skis. This is different though. I was up on the trail, completely alone, and between me and the next section of trail there is a mass of snow. I know not what lies beneath… nor do I have any gauge of the depth. I can’t imagine that it is snow that could consist of any crevassing but I don’t know. Though we are told not to vary from the marked paths, I went a wide girth around the snow bank and tried to stay on as many rocks as possible. At one point, while crossing the bank I went up to my mid-thigh in deep snow. There is a level of panic that you feel when you can’t touch the ground when you are expecting to.

When I finally found a road, I thought to myself, “terrific! I’m safe.” But as I walked along the road it became clear to me that this could perhaps NOT be a road and I saw no people or vehicles of any kind. I finally came to what appeared to be a crossroad and there were some tractors but the signs all read, “Danger! Explosives in use!” and “Authorized personnel only.” This is not the kind of sign you want to read when you can see where you want to be and the only obvious way to get there is through an explosives area.

There weren’t people in the tractors but there was a hut with the number 10 on the outside. Because I failed to bring a radio, I went to the hut, sure that there must be some kind of communication available… but it was locked. At this point, I sat down on the steps and with complete exhaustion and desperation cried ugly tears for about 5 minutes. This was likely the dumbest thing I could have done in my whole time in Antarctica. Though I was not required to bring a hiking buddy, I should have. I did not know the marked trail well enough to venture on it my first time completely alone… and I was relatively lost and only my roommates had known I was on the trail… so I pulled up  my big girl panties and walked down the road toward what was surely and explosive blast zone but also town.

I arrived after climbing down a very steep Arrival Heights road and made it back to the dorm around 5pm. I went to the gerbil gym to work off some of the nervous energy that had built up for literal fear for my life then I went to dinner. It was “American Night” over at Scott Base but instead of going back, I am relaxing in the dorm. I am not cut out for this adventuring by myself. I no longer feel as though I am invincible as I once did in younger days. Life is good and I feel like I had a very productive day off considering I have but 2 weeks left in McMurdo. I love and miss you all.