Friday, February 23, 2018

Waiting for winter

I've failed in my mission to take lots more pictures, but I guess I don't need lots--just a few to tell you the story of the days since my last post. So here goes!

Through last weekend, life at McMurdo was continuing to feel way too busy and crazy for me. I think we were down to about 700 in terms of station population, but Gallagher's, one of the bars on base, still looked like this. (A couple of friends and I walked in...and then walked right back out.)

Summer people were very much wanting to leave, but planes kept breaking. (One of the C-17s, hilariously, broke in a way that apparently made it unable to fly from New Zealand to Antarctica, but allowed it to fly to Hawai'i to get fixed. Sure, Plane. You're very "broken" and you need to go to _Hawai'i_ to get fixed!) People with onward vacation plans were very sad. This humorous commentary went up in a common area where the flight manifests are posted. (P.P.E. = Personal Protective Equipment (or something like that)--a daily part of most trade jobs down here.)

The delays also meant that as the South Pole summer folks were being flown out before the station closed for the winter (which has now officially happened, with a winter crew of 41 down there for the long haul), they could not fly straight through to Christchurch as planned, and I got to see SOOOO many Polies over the course of a week or so. It was a joy for me, less so for them. This is a group of them feeling dejected in the computer kiosk in the main hallway of the primary building on base, wondering when they'll ever get to leave Antarctica.

Okay, enough dejection. Everyone did get to leave eventually, of course, if for no other reason than the program doesn't want to pay the contract workers indefinitely.

A couple of random things to wrap up this post:

As you have figured out from the penguins in my last post, there are ANIMALS around McMurdo. (Thanks to this base being on the coast.) This skua was hanging out in the common pool vehicle parking area like it had a vendetta to settle with someone.

I'm gonna just say it: One of my least favorite things about McMurdo so far is the volcanic dust. The past week has been pretty windy, and every time I've opened the dock door at the back of the store or just walked outside to go somewhere else, I've gotten hit in the face with a cloud of brown, gritty dust. It goes straight to the eyes, and they're irritated the rest of the day. It's everywhere, and it's gross.

The good news is that since I'm here for winter, that means colder temps, which means snow, which covers the brown dust. We already got a little bit of snowfall this week, and though it wasn't enough to really stick and fix the issue, I saw how it was already helping, and that made me look forward to the days--coming soon!--when McMurdo is completely blanketed in snow and my eyes are safe from the awful grit.

There was also a partial eclipse earlier this week! Of course, my camera on my phone didn't capture it, but I saw it through some eclipse glasses right after this, and that was fun. 

Finally, I think my weather screenshots during the winter at Pole were kind of a crowd favorite among my 2.7 readers, so I'll continue with that. And starting next week, I'll resume the tradition of taking a picture from the same spot at the same time every week and pair those with these weather snapshots, to give you an idea of how the weather and views change over the course of the winter. For now, let's just start with the weather report. As you can see, it's a mild day here temp-wise, and nice enough except for those gusting winds. Note the row of green "3"s on the right side of the snapshot. That's going to be the fun thing to watch. McMurdo has a weather "Condition" system--we're always Con-1, Con-2, or Con-3. Con-3, like today, means the weather's fine and personnel movement around the base is unrestricted. The other extreme is Con-1, which is severe storm conditions, like the kind where we're going to have to hang on to rope lines to get from the buildings we live in to the buildings we work and live in. Not sure what it says about me that I am sincerely hoping for and looking forward to experiencing at least one Con-1 episode during the coming 8 months....

That'll do it for now. As I type this, a C-17 carrying 100+ of the remaining summer people is hopefully taking off from Phoenix airfield to deliver them back to Christchurch. Once that plane is wheels-up, we're down to a station population of about 300. Tomorrow, the last C-17 of the summer is scheduled to take another 100+ people north for the winter. And then it really begins, with 200 of us left to hold down the fort here till October. Though, unlike at Pole, there are a handful of winter flights scheduled for McMurdo, with some personnel coming and going along the way. More on that when the time comes. For now, I'll just say that the next post should find us officially in wintertime!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Settling in

I have been SO BAD about taking pictures so far. It's been a chaotic first week at McMurdo, with the station still really really full of people (800+), most of whom really want to leave and keep getting delayed (and more and more stressed out about foiled vacation plans) as planes break and are delayed due to weather, etc. It's insanity, but at the same time, pretty much par for the course in Antarctica as far as I can tell.

I'm also not really feeling at all settled in since I'm in a temporary room with a (very sweet, quiet) roommate and have to wait another week+, till the station actually "closes" for winter (though it's not a true closing, as we're scheduled for three winter flights), when my permanent room in another building will be available for me to move into.

In the meantime, on the plus side, I have gotten lots of turn-over time with the summer store people and have gotten to ease into my job here very gradually, and the weather continues to be gorgeous. (Temps ranging between 10-25 degrees F these days.) On a walk to Hut Point the other night I even saw two penguins! (See second picture.) Seems like a good omen for the season. And man, but the view is amazing. Fun Fact: McMurdo Station is actually on an island just off the main continent, called Ross Island. These pictures are looking out over the Ross Sea, and the open water is only because it's the end of summer. We won't be seeing that for much longer, and definitely not again by the time I leave here in October, as the bay is completely frozen over most of the year.

Here's the view looking back at McMurdo from Hut Point (that's the corner of Scott's Hut in the right foreground). My home for the next 8+ months!

I love the landscapes, but I know some of you like a little more substance.
So I will share that....
-- South Pole Station officially closed for the winter today when they brought the last 11 summer folks out amid worsening weather. There is definitely a part of my heart that wishes I was at Pole for the winter again. But I also really like this store job (which doesn't exist at Pole in the winter as a full-time gig) and am excited for a new experience at a new station. But it does feel like I will have to return to Pole at some point, because thinking of it makes me so nostalgic! They have about a month more of sunshine (till the March equinox) before the sun starts setting and the long winter dark begins for them.
-- Here at McMurdo, the sun will dip a bit below the horizon next week--for the first time since late October. It will not completely set until late April.
-- Click here to access the Antarctic Sun, a periodical that will give you more info about the continent than you could possibly have time to absorb completely....

Okay, I'll do my best to start taking more pictures and I'll be back when I have a good batch for you.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Back to The Ice!

My third trip to Antarctica is somehow nearly as exciting as the first two. The thrill of this experience really is not wearing off yet!

I had a wonderful last couple weeks with my family in the frozen Midwest (Chicago and Lake Michigan looking harshly beautiful, I thought, from the air) before starting the long journey south.

Four flights over 30+ hours brought me, finally, to the now-familiar Antarctica staging ground of Christchurch, New Zealand. Which is kind of funny, because Christchurch is nothing like Antarctica. It's very green, and the late summer weather during the two nights I had there was GORGEOUS.

I went through the now-familiar process of watching all the orientation videos we have to watch at the US Antarctic Program offices, got all of my extreme cold weather gear issued, got a couple really great nights' sleep in a nice hotel (very effective in helping me get over my travel fatigue!), met a handful of my fellow winter-overs who were traveling south with me, and then right on schedule (which is a little bit of a one objects to a couple extra nights in beautiful Christchurch when there are weather delays on the Antarctica end) we got on a C-17 bound for McMurdo. The first views of the ice shelves made me feel giddy!

And we landed on a day that some people in town (McMurdo, that is) told me is one of the nicest days they've had all summer. The skies and snow at Phoenix Air Field were BRILLIANT.

I had a few minutes to run across the snow to where the passengers heading north were waiting to board the plane we'd just gotten off of, and was able to give quick hugs to a couple of Polies who were leaving after their summer season. And then, as has been the routine each time I've come down here, we got on the shuttle for the 40-minute ride into town. AKA McMurdo, the largest base on Antarctica. In the past McMurdo has just been the last way-station for me on the journey down to Pole. But this time, it's the end of my journey, as I'll be spending the next 8-9 months (the Antarctic winter) here, running the station store. If you're curious, you can learn muuuuch more about McMurdo by clicking here.

These first couple days have been a total blur of seeing so many familiar faces (more than I expected, and some of them will be here for the first couple months of the winter, and some of them are leaving soon but will be back for the last couple months I'm here), getting used to the (compared to the much smaller, quieter culture of Pole) very festive, bustling feeling of McMurdo, starting the turnover process for the store (got to get as much info as possible from the outgoing store people before they fly out this coming week), learning my way around town a little more each day, and attending a multitude of trainings.

Especially fun: Field Safety Training, where a pro mountain guide led us through setting up and doing basic maintenance on white gas stoves for field cooking and water-melting, emergency kit familiarity, pitching program tents (including tying really fun knots of various kinds that I really hope I can remember), and helicopter safety.

Of course, the hope is that none of this info will be needed on an emergency basis during our time here, and chances are slim that I'll get to actually use any of the helicopter or field camping skills I learned, but it was super-fun to learn them all the same.

I've not been great about taking pictures so far, and I'll try to do better on that. Should be lots of fun new things to talk about on this blog this winter since it's a new station and a totally new experience in many ways. It's off to a great start, though!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Wrapping up

Since I last wrote I've hung out for a few nights in the seaside town of Paracas, but never actually managed to do any of the touristy things there are to do there, and don't have any pictures of it worth posting. So I am just skipping to the end of the journey! Which is: Lima, again.

This time I stayed in the neighborhood of Barranco, which is LOVELY, and shifted my impression of Lima way more into positive territory. Lots of walks along the Pacific coast cliff that the city perches on. Oh, and before my travel buddy, D, headed home, we finally had ceviche in Peru, which we'd been meaning to do for almost a month.

I also ran into a couple of Germans I met in Ecuador six weeks ago--just happened to walk past them on a sidewalk--and got to have dinner with them on my last night in town. All in all, a nice way to wrap up the trip. After being skeptical at first, I have to concede that there is plenty to like about Lima!

Now I'm greatly looking forward to the holidays at home with my family, then gearing up for my February return to Antarctica. I'll be back in the new year from way down under, to chronicle another winter on ice. Till then!

Saturday, December 9, 2017


I had no idea before coming here how much of Peru is serious desert. Case in point: the dunes surrounding the strange oasis/tourist trap of Huacachina.

What you see in the picture is literally all there is to this little hamlet of restaurants and hotels/hostels surrounding a lagoon near the bigger city of Ica. It was a great place to chill for a couple of nights.

The thing to do in town is to take a dunebuggy trip out into the sands, which was fun and beautiful. I don't have pictures that demonstrate any of this, but we sandboarded (on our bellies) down a few enormous dunes, and the drivers of the dunebuggies are very skilled at driving crazy enough that everyone in the vehicle is screaming as if on a roller coaster but not so crazy that there's actually any crashing or flipping or anything. Since I don't have pictures of any of that, here's just a bunch of sand pictures for you.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


We ended up spending quite a few days in Arequipa, set in a desert-y landscape (that somehow really reminded me of southern Morocco) at about 7500 feet. Even though Arequipa is Peru's second-largest city, it has less than a tenth of the population of Lima and a COMPLETELY different feel than the capitol. It was a really chill and relaxing place to wander for the better part of a week, with volcano Misti watching over us.

The central market is an amazing, sprawling place.

Especially the juice bars.

It's nice to travel with a chef who likes to go out to fancy meals and can't finish everything herself. Thanks, J!

From here, back to Lima for the last 10 days of Peru way closer to the coast.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Colca Canyon

I had no idea until this week that the deepest and the second-deepest canyons in the world are here in Peru. D & J & I took a two-day organized tour to the second-deepest: Colca Canyon. The drive to the canyon took us through a national reserve where we spotted a bunch of free-ranging vicunas...

...some of them set against the backdrop of one of the seven volcanoes gracing the landscape in this high country.

The landscape was sparse and gorgeous and mostly abandoned-seeming.

The high point on our drive to Colca Canyon (before we started descending into the canyon) was at nearly 15,000 feet--the highest I have ever been--and had amazing views.

Finally heading down into the canyon, you can see the town of Chivay, where we spent a night, in the background of this picture.

Chivay was chill, both in temperature and in atmosphere, and I wouldn't have minded spending another night here.

But on we went, deeper into the canyon. It's wide enough that it's hard to appreciate its full depth (more than 6,000 feet between the top of the mountains that tower over it, down to the river bed).

One of the reasons people like to visit Colca is that Andean condors thrive in this region and can pretty reliably be seen from a viewpoint called Cruz del Condor. We only saw one of these incredible birds when we were at the viewpoint, but later on, on our way back out of the canyon at another viewpoint, a condor flew almost directly over our heads at extremely close range. It was a stunning sight--so stunning that I was too busy marveling to manage to take a picture before it soared away and was gone.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Puno / Lake Titicaca

I'm now on the road with TWO great friends from the States, D and J.

Our first stop together as a travelin' threesome was the city of Puno, due to it being situated on Lake Titicaca--the largest lake in South America and the highest (12,000ft+) navigable lake in the world.

Puno itself is a really relaxing town that I enjoyed wandering, even if I was huffing and puffing every time a street went uphill. The altitude!

The main purpose of going to Puno, though, was to get out on the lake for a day. And a gorgeous one it was. Our first stop was the floating reed islands of Los Uros.

The indigenous people who live here literally build the "ground" they live on out of reeds that grow in the lake, constantly laying down new layers of reed as the bottom, oldest layers rot away beneath them. They also make their boats out of reeds (and then paint them these really bright colors). It's pretty mind-blowing.

When you're standing on one of the islands, the ground feels really boggy and squishy beneath you, but people have houses like normal, except they're made of reed and just sitting on more reed.

We also stopped on the island of Taquile (actual land, this one) and climbed to the top of it, enjoying sweeping views over the lake.

I was trying to imagine what it would be like to grow up and live one's entire life in this very isolated place, no cars, in the middle of a lake so high in the sky. I can't really! But loved this little glimpse into that world.