Monday, April 23, 2018

Arrival Heights

There are a whole bunch of places on and around Ross Island that I've long heard of but haven't gotten to visit yet. But thanks to a Research Assistant here, I (along with one of the stewards from the galley) got to take a ride on our day off a couple of Mondays ago to Arrival Heights.

I didn't even know exactly what was AT Arrival Heights, and it turns out it's where a lot of the science experiments going on here are based. In the summertime it's apparently hopping up there. In the winter, various members of the research team make near-daily trips a couple of miles up into the volcanic hills above station to check on the equipment, troubleshoot, etc. The RA who kindly took us up there, G, also very kindly spent well over an hour telling us about all of the experiments he's in charge of tracking, from geomagnetic signals to nuclear explosion detection to auroras to UV measurements.

As much as I loved getting a better sense of the science those of us who are support staff are supporting, I LOVED the views from Arrival Heights--which, as its name implies, is at a higher elevation than McMurdo itself, and has a view out to the sea (it's apparently where the intrepid explorers who used this area as a base would go to watch for ships arriving). There's also a view of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world, which is 20 miles from McMurdo and which I've only otherwise seen from the airfield on the sea ice. Soooooo beautiful.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Weekly snapshot #8

By next week's snapshot, we will officially be in polar winter, in the sense that the sun will have stopped rising at all (though I'm sure there will still be some light in the sky for a few more weeks). The view outside today at noon:

Still pretty mild temps, with an overall atmosphere that still feels way less like the planet is trying to kill us than it does at Pole.

The other big news of the week is that there was a plane! Nearly 60 people left, and a bit less than 20 arrived, and now we are a family of 133 for the next two+ months, till the June flight. Here is the cargo bay of the building where everyone had to check in for the outgoing flight. I'm standing at the doorway where the passengers are about to start filtering through, and I got to be part of the "hug line" you see here, a McMurdo tradition of those of us (pictured) who are staying behind, saying goodbye to the departing folks just before they climb on board transport to the airfield. A bittersweet experience, with so many people leaving whom I'm grateful to have gotten to know!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Goings on around town

Just some bits and pieces for you this week.

I'm still working on making my peace with the local bar (Gallagher's) being the epicenter of the social scene around here. I'm never going to be able to make myself go there to just hang out, but luckily some fun/interesting activities have been going on there. I joined a trivia team for a little friendly competition, I was recruited to play a role in a read-through of a play set in McMurdo (written by someone who washed dishes here one season; the organizer used random number generation to assign the roles, and I ended up playing Tom the maintenance man), and there was an open mic night full of friends and co-workers revealing their knacks for poetry, music and more. I was happily just an observer that evening, though if performing with the safety of being shielded from audience eyes by a sheet of fabric becomes generally acceptable, the idea of participating is less unappealing to me.

I also got to participate in a classic McMurdo tradition, the Skua Sorting Party. Which probably takes a bit of explanation. Skuas are the ever-present scavenging birds of the polar climes. And in their honor, the Antarctic version of Goodwill is called "Skua"--there are Skua bins in every dorm and a container set up that is Skua general--the place you can go to find a used article of clothing when your last pair of pants rip, or you need a half-used bottle of lotion, or you're wondering if anyone has ever brought purple stilettos to McMurdo (yes, they have) that you can use for a costume party. In the mass exodus of the end of summer, some of the hundreds of departing folks are not very conscientious about what they throw in the skua bin as they frantically clean out their rooms. The Wasties (those employed in the trash collecting and sorting business) faithfully collect the contents of all the Skua bins daily (if not more) during the end of summer rush, but there are those community members lacking in civility who have put their dirty galley dishes or outright trash in the skua bins along with everything else from their rooms, and there is no way the Wasties can sort it all. So one afternoon at the end of March, they invited everyone to come to the Waste Barn for a three-hour party to sort multiple triwalls of "Skua" into accurate bins: actual Skua (of course), or bedding/towels for Lodging, or landfill waste, or galley utensils, etc. And the bonus is, you also get to see all the really good stuff that comes through (like those purple stilettos) and keep it for yourself if you wanted.

So, here we have a still of the Skua Sorting Party in action, and then a video as a loader brings in a couple more triwalls for the crowd to attack.

Finally, if you're curious about what happens to the stuff that is actually trash and not Skua at McMurdo (and at Pole--as Pole trash is brought out to McMurdo and combined with what McMurdo produces), check out this article.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Weekly snapshot #7

I saw some impressive stars and also some auroras on Tuesday night, even from the center of town here in McMurdo, where there is always a lot of ambient light (there are streetlights here, for pete's sake!). So that was exciting and made it definitely feel like winter is here. Though we still have some daylight. Here's today at noon:

I'm glad the mountains on the other side of the bay are doing the glowing pink thing they've been doing most of the time lately and it's showing in this pic. It's beautiful. And as the sun is barely getting over the horizon even at midday now, the temps are dropping a bit accordingly. (But still nothing like Pole, where it's currently -82F.) It's no fun out when the wind is whipping. I might have to bring out my full face mask soon!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Scott Base

Blog trollers with very long and very detail-oriented memories may recall that on my way to South Pole in October 2015, I had the opportunity to visit New Zealand's Scott Base, which is just a few miles from McMurdo and by far our closest neighbor.

Scott base only has 12 winter-over residents, so they are as eager to interact/socialize with us over here at McMurdo as we are eager to up our coolness factor by hanging out with Kiwis. Every Thursday night at Scott Base is "American night," wherein they open their bar and bravely issue a blanket invite to everyone at McMurdo to come over to visit. (McMurdo runs shuttles back and forth for those not wanting to walk several miles in the sub-zero temps.)

So a couple weeks ago, I went to Scott Base with a couple of friends from the galley. Honestly, the most amazing part of it was how unbelievably gorgeous the night was. Here is a panoramic video looking out over the sea ice as the NSF shuttle van that dropped us at the Kiwi base was pulling away. Note the many seals hanging out on the ice.

And then a couple of stills. You can see in the second one that the sun was actually making the glaciers on the surrounding mountains glow pink. And then a Maori totem in the foreground makes for a pretty weird but lovely pic, I think.

I might have spent quite a bit of time outside enjoying the scenery before I bolstered myself up to head inside into the craziness. Not only was it American night, but the Kiwis really did it up with a St. Patty's Day theme. One of them even played the bagpipes for us!

In the end, though, it was still a party at a bar, and for me one of the joys of getting older is that there is less and less expectation of me to hang out at bars, which I've never enjoyed and always avoided. After an hour of this particular adventure, I had to leave because I was losing my voice from having to yell to be heard while trying to chit-chat with people. So instead, I've volunteered to be a shuttle driver for American night, and some Thursday evenings for the rest of the winter, I'll be driving a USAP van back and forth between McMurdo and Scott Base, refueling it under the Auroras, enjoying the night sky and the winter quiet along the way, etc. And then picking up a rowdy bunch of these folks to drive back home.

Weird or not, that sounds way more fun to me than actually being at the bar. Maybe there will be a post about that driving gig down the line, we'll see...

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Weekly snapshot #6

It's happening! McMurdo at high noon currently looks more like dusk. Time to start saying goodbyes to the sun.

It's been really nice out, though. Yesterday felt cold, and when I checked the temp, it was -13F, which I think is the coldest I've seen since I've been here. But at the same time, there was almost no wind, and with how dry it is here, that temp doesn't even feel that bad. And look, today is practically balmy!

Also, a couple extras for you in this week's snapshot. I should have sent this earlier, but there is on-line access to two live-feed cameras pointed at McMurdo from different directions, so that you can see town activity, the skies, and the weather. Check them out (the Ob Hill cam and the Arrival Heights cam) by clicking here.

Finally, I was walking from the building where I work across the street to my dorm last week, and was struck by how still and gorgeous it was out, with a beautiful sunset. Another winter-over (who, coincidentally, is the only person here this winter who I know from summering with at South Pole) had the same thought and was heading to the edge of town to try to get a picture of the sunset without all the power lines in it. And when we got there, a third person had had the same idea as well and was setting up a time-lapse camera behind the "Welcome to McMurdo" sign there, where it would be blocked from the wind. Once we got out to that viewpoint, of course, the wind totally kicked up and I was not at all dressed for that so I fled back inside right after a quick picture. But it actually turned out to be a great shot. Enjoy!

Monday, April 2, 2018


Unlike at Pole, the craft room in McMurdo is a locked space that you can only enter when a volunteer attendant opens it, or if you are yourself a volunteer attendant. So of course I've become a volunteer attendant! Once per week I get the key from the fire house (lots of keys to common rooms kept there for sign-out because the fire-house always has someone on-duty) and roll out the sign and then sit in there and knit, chatting with anyone else who wanders in. 

P.S. The sunsets make for some beautiful skies around here. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Weekly snapshot #5

I think this week's pic is pretty much identical to last week's, except that you can tell that at noon the sun is now not making it too far above the horizon each day. But the weather remains mild (for comparison, it's -57F at Pole today), and while it definitely feels like things are changing in the skies, that mostly takes place hours before and after these noontime shots. And all in all, the weather is beautiful as winter is slowly but surely closes in!

A little bonus for you today: Kiwi Anthony Powell, who has spent seasons at McMurdo as well as at New Zealand's Scott Base, 4 miles from us, is the filmmaker of the documentary "A Year On Ice." If you haven't seen that, I'd really recommend it for an idea of the culture on station here in the winter. (Also, you can see on camera the woman who was my predecessor at the South Pole store and helped me get the job there, starting me on this store-running path.) In the meantime, Powell has released this video, from footage taken on an underwater camera near said Kiwi base down the road, of a minke whale--beautiful!

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Store

I don't want to jinx anything, but I pretty much LOVE my job at McMurdo this winter so far. Never in my life did I think that running a retail store in Antarctica (which, in the winter, mostly entails selling cigarettes and alcohol, and then putting price tags on thousands of items that arrived on this year's vessel to sell here and at South Pole over the coming year) would be something that would make me so happy. But:

1) It's a great blend of manual labor (when we do our weekly beverage pulls and bi-weekly retail pulls from storage areas in other buildings, plus all the day-to-day stocking and tidying up) and computer work. So I'm not exhausted at the end of the day, nor am I stiff from sitting in a desk chair for hours on end.

2) It's a perfect (for me) blend of socializing (when the store is open, which is generally an hour at lunchtime and two hours at dinnertime) and independent work.

3) There is ALWAYS something to do here, so that I am never bored, but the things to do are almost never urgent, so I'm also never stressed out. Perfect!

So, all that said: Here's my realm this winter.

First, my office space, which is great:

Then the store itself:

One friend has requested a picture of me behind the cash register, doing my job. But I haven't been able to bring myself to ask anyone to take that picture (yet?). Instead, here's a bonus shot of one of my favorite things about the store: the loitering that happens here when we're open. We even have a designated spot for it. And our two-hour evening opening is the perfect amount of time to show a movie each night. I wouldn't blame you for not believing me, but this crowd is gathered to watch "Ice Castles." Which just cracked me up, because if you haven't seen "Ice Castles" (ever, or recently), I have to strongly suggest that you don't, because it has NOT aged well in the past 40 years. The groaning and mocking that was going on was the actual evening's entertainment.

Finally, I HATE seeing myself on camera, but I'm doing this for you all: one of the other winter-overs is doing a video blog and recently published a video about the store in which he briefly interviewed me. You can see that video here. And can follow his vlog in general here.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Weekly snapshot #4

It's a pretty nice day out; not too windy, not too cold, the sun breaking through a bit this afternoon...

At Pole right now it's a balmy (for them) -30F, windchill -53F. And for them, the sun is starting to set. Those of you who were following along when I was there two years ago might remember that that is a three-week process; only one sunset per year down there.

Up here at McMurdo, we're having daily sunsets right now, which is very beautiful. And kind of odd to have a "normal" feeling day cycle at the moment--it's light half the day and dark half the day. This is the first time I've ever experienced that in Antarctica! It won't last long. At the beginning of this month, we had more than 17 hours of daytime in each 24-hour period. But each "day" is about 20 minutes shorter than the previous one, so that by the end of the month, we'll be down to less than 10 hours of time each day when the sun is above the horizon. We're headed toward our own (shorter than Pole's) several months of total darkness. If you want to follow along with saying goodbye to the Antarctic sun, here's an interesting website: If you switch forward to April, you'll see that our "Polar Night" will have begun by the end of next month (though I think it will take awhile after the sun stops making it above the horizon before we have no light in the sky mid-day; my weekly snapshots will be interesting around that time, hopefully).