Moai on Easter Island

Moai on Easter Island

Monday, April 29, 2013

Antarctic Medevac Flight 2013

In the few months before coming down to Antarctica I was told by a surprising amount of people to throw all my logic out the window before I got here.  “Nothing there makes any sense,” they told me. I am still surprised every single day about how nothing at all makes sense, but somehow things still work.  Many of us joke about make sure we choose the most illogical solution to any problem just so we can stay with the status quo of the station.   Many of the people that are down here or have ever been down here has this same feeling or at least something close to it, but nothing every changes. Little that happens here makes any sense and I don’t understand why.  

Last week we had a medevac flight come down to evacuate a worker who needed further medical care.  It wasn’t that our medical staff couldn’t handle this person’s condition (they do amazing with the few resources they have); this person needed more advanced long-term care than could be provided here.  The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) has proven again, as it has in the past, that if something really is wrong they will get you out of here. 

This was by no means a good thing.  We’d be losing a valuable member of our already small community. It also meant thousands of man-hours of work to get the runway cleared of snow and get equipment up out of the cold and running to support a flight.  Most of this was done in the extreme cold and limited daylight of the winter.

It was also an opportunity for USAP to correct a few mistakes it had made and to maybe even get a little extra cargo down since major cargo flights won’t start until mid-october.

Instead an empty C-17 was sent to New Zealand from the US.  It was then loaded with a bag of mail, a few (but not all) of the CAT equipment parts that were needed, and some ducting and a secret box of fresh food for New Zealand’s Scott Base.  None of the much-needed medical supplies or fresh food for the Americans was brought down.  This 800-pound pallet was all that was shipped down-leaving 90,000lbs of unused cargo weight.  I also fully understand that the whole point of this flight was to evacuate someone and they wanted the plane on the ground for as little time as possible.  

The plane had more cargo going back to New Zealand than it did coming down here.   Besides the person that the medevac was for we lost four additional people—this included one third of the firefighters.  McMurdo now with its 139 people and 100+ buildings only has four firefighters for the next 4-5 months.  Rumor has it that two replacement firefighters were in LA about to board a plane to come down here when they got a call to go home because the C-17 was coming down a day earlier than planned.  Imagine quitting your job, packing and getting all the required medical checks in a matter of days to rush down to Antarctica two days before the last sunset.  Then being told right before you board a plane to go home. 

I won’t rant anymore because I don’t want it to overshadow what the people of McMurdo did to make this flight happen and to save a life.

By this point, much of the mechanical equipment and vehicles have been put to sleep for the winter.  This mean all the airfield fire trucks, fuel equipment, runway lights and all the other strange machines that it takes for a plane to land here had to be brought back to the land of living for this flight.  Untold hard and painful hours were spent out at the runway digging out the fuel pits and plowing snow off the ice runway.  I had a relative small and easy job in this process (simply bring supplies over to the clinic when they were running low on items) so I have a huge amount of respect for everyone who put in more countless hours in this. 

It is pretty amazing what people will do for another person.  For a few days many people didn't even know who they were building the runway for.  Things like this make me proud to be a part of this community.

Things are slowing back to normal now with the population now at 139.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Aurora Australis Time-lapse

This is my first attempt at a time-lapse video.  It shows 3 hours of Aurora Australis and meteors on April 14, 2013.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What if the Sun Never Came Up Again?

Just two months ago I watched the sun set for the first time in 2013.  The transition from 24 hour daylight to a real day and night cycle to the ensuing darkness has been a quick one.

Walking toward the last sunset
Having a real day and a real night has made me feel more like a real person.  I felt less like I was in a strange place at the bottom of the world.  I felt more at home with a normal cycle of light; even though I can usually feel at home almost anywhere (and nowhere at the same time). The 24 hours sunlight left nothing under the cover of darkness.  There was never a time that light prevented you from doing something.  I could always see where I was and on every clear day I could walk outside and be reminded of where on earth I was.  But now that is gone.  The night takes over my mornings, the alpenglow is taking over my lunchtime and the twilight clings to my walk home from work.  But all this is trending toward darkness for all.

The sun barely peaks out behind Mt. Erebus on April 23, 2013

Excitement over the last sunset
I know I'll be excited to see stars and everything the night has to offer every time I walk outside, but I didn't realize how great the real day/night cycle was until the sun finally set.  If I can't see the sea ice and the mountains it will be hard to fully feel where I am.  What else will the darkness bring?  Will my world really only exist within the small beams of the street lights and headlamps?

Liz tries to catch the last of the sun
I've thought a lot about this while stepping along the crunchy snow in the dark hours after an alpine start to climbing a mountain.  Your world starts out so small: just the few feet that the headlamp illuminates.  The only other light around is what the stars shoot down and the only visible feature is the ominous silhouette of the mountains that surround you.  But, slowly over the hours of climbing a whole new world emerges.  The stars disappear as the sky turns to blue and orange and the mountains turn pink and white as the darkness rescinds into daylight. This happens in a matter of hours.  I'm going through the opposite of this in a matter of days to weeks.  This process will happen again...taking days and August.  It's all part of the adventure of living in this place I've chosen to call home for the year.

On April 23, 2013, a small group of McMurdo residents took an extended lunch to search for the second to last sunset.  The last sunset could only be seen from far out on the ice shelf.  Getting out of town was rejuvenating after long hours working in shaded McMurdo.  Everyone was super excited to really see the sun for the last time in months.  We spent about two hours staring at the sun and taking in the last rays it had to offer.  It felt like a new beginning with new friends that would endure the same darkness as I would.  Our eyes did burn for hours after we returned to town though.  As a child I was always told not to stare into the sun.  We stared into the sun for over an hour trying to burn that last image into our minds.  Two days later I blink and think I can see the last view of the sun burned into my imagination.

High winds decorate our last sunset. April 24, 2013. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Alpenglow for Lunch

Today the sun rose at 11:27 and set at 2:17.  I didn't see the sun itself because McMurdo is tucked in a little hole in the hills, but I did see the pink glow of meek sunlight on the surrounding mountains and Ob Hill.  The sun sets for the final time in two days.  I hope to see it just one last time before the darkness engulfs us.

I've walked out to Hut Point to take in the sunset quite a bit in the last few weeks and I've hoped to see a seal every time.  They were there almost every day this summer, but most of the seals have moved to other waters for the winter.  Luckily I caught the last straggler.

It feels super bizarre to walk outside at lunch to alpenglow on the surrounding mountains.  But it does feel like a normal Montana winter when I now go to work in the dark morning and finish work when the sun has already set.  It will feel strange again when it is still dark at lunchtime too.

The juxtaposition is interesting with the industrial looking town in the foreground.  I'm excited for the darkness, but I'm also excited for this same type of light to come back in August because it will be even more amazing after a few months of darkness.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I entered a photo contest...

I have a few photos from the last few months that I really like so I decided to pick a few and enter them in a photo contest.  It would be awesome if you have an extra minute to go and vote for them.  

Thanks for the help!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My First Aurora Australis

I wanted to wait a few more days to post more photos, but after last night I simply can't wait.

I was in a hurry to leave McMurdo and get out to a small hut on the McMurdo Ice Shelf called Square Frame.  Square Frame is a large insulated box with a few windows that sits on top of a man-made snow drift and contains a few beds, a couch, a heater, propane stove and card table.  It is maintained by the Kiwis, but is set aside for one weekend a month for the Americans to use.  The USAP used to have a hut near here called the A-Frame, but that blew away in a storm years ago and I think the Kiwis decided to mock us by putting up the Square Frame.  No one else signed up on Saturday night so we got the place to ourselves.   

Square Frame with Mt Erebus in the background

The sun set about an hour before we arrived at Square Frame, but the few clouds in the sky were still highlighted in orange.  The rumors of auroras and a meteor shower (and a clear night) left me eagerly anticipating the darkness.

One of my first Milky Way & aurora photos
It was great to be out of McMurdo and again enjoy the simplicity of no electricity or internet.  To pass through the twilight hours I beat Liz in a few games of cribbage and started watching the movie Encounters At the End of the World.  It's a movie about the people who work at USAP and about being down here.  After spending the last six and a half months down here I could only shake my head at what Werner Herzog (director & narrator) had to say about his little bit of time down here.  I would highly recommend watching the movie on mute with some great music in place of his negative tone and terribly accented dialog.

Just like a little kid, every few minutes I would get up and run to the window to see how dark it was outside and see how many stars were out or if the auroras were starting yet.  

New Zealand's Scott Base and the aurora 
Finally it came to the point that I decided it was either dark enough or I couldn't handle Herzog's voice anymore and it was time to go outside and take some photos.  It took some time to set our cameras and layers of clothing ready to go.  

Amazingly there was no wind and the temperature felt fairly warm (for Antarctica) so it was pleasant to stand around outside for awhile.  I imagined some of the photos that could be taken, but I had no idea what would actually show up in my camera after that first shot.  I've always drooled over photos of the Milky Way and auroras.  After recently doing some research I had an idea of how to capture them.  But what appeared on the cold, tiny LCD screen blew me away.  I wanted to keep taking the same photos over and over again just to prove to myself that these photos were real.  

I went back in to warm up and finish the movie and prepared to head out again.  I wanted to take photos throughout the night, but wanted to get some sleep also.  I hooked up a remote and put that in a mitten filled with hand warmers.  I also put hand and toe warmers all over the camera (concentrated around the battery) and wrapped the whole set up in a Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket, MicroPuff Jacket, DAS Parka and a pair of puffy pants.  I set the camera to take 30 second exposures with 30 seconds in between for 180 shots.  I didn't think the batteries would last that long.  This worked!  I'll put together a time lapse movie of what happened and post it soon.

One of the photos that my camera captured while I was asleep.
If this is just a glimpse of what the winter has to offer I'm even more excited about the darkness and trying to hone my star and aurora photography skills.

This was a learning experience.  I think I know how to do it better next time!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Antarctic Sunsets Part 5

The days have dragged on and on this week.  For most of the week I couldn't figure out why the days suddenly seemed so much longer.  I didn't know what suddenly changed....

Last weekend we "fell back an hour" to end daylight savings time.  Between this, and the days becoming so much shorter, the sun now rises after I go to work and sets before I get off work.  I look out the window in the early afternoon and see evening light which makes me feel like I should be getting off work soon.  But hours later the sun finally goes down and hours after that I finally get off work.  

Scott's Discovery Hut & McMurdo (the unwatermarked version of this one goes on the McMurdo Station report to Washington D.C. next week)
A storm approaching from the south.

 I guess I'll be able to take a few more sunset photos next week AT LUNCH!  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Antarctica Sunsets Part 4

Sun dips behind Hut Point and Scott's Hut on 4/3/13

There are only 18 sunsets left.  I know those 18 days are going to fly by and many of them will be obscured by bad weather, but I already wish the sun was set.  We're losing 16 minutes of daylight each day and it seems like such a long drawn out teaser for the darkness.

The sea ice breaks out of McMurdo Sound with Mt. Discovery in the distance.

 I feel pressured by no one but myself to take as many sunset photos as I can right now because soon it'll be so dark that I won't know where I am.   

I keep forgetting that I am in Antarctica, but when it's too dark to see that I am in Antarctica where will I feel that I am?  Strange to think about not seeing where you are in the world.

The ghosts from Scott's Expedition are emerging this winter

Monday, April 1, 2013

6 Months in Antarctica

I walked outside after tonight’s SAR training feeling overwhelmed by the need to organize so much training for the winter SAR team in the next few weeks.  I stopped in my tracks because something was different.  Yes, it was dark out, but it’s been getting dark at night for a few weeks now.  The wind wasn’t blowing a hard as usual so I was able to take off my hood and stand still for a moment without immediately freezing.  There were a few dozen stars in the moonlit sky and a slight orange glow highlighted the mountains to the West.  This scene calmed my overwhelming thoughts and the rest of my walk home was full of excitement about a few months of darkness.

I landed in Antarctica 6 months and 10 hours ago.  This has been the longest I’ve stayed in one place since high school.  My college semesters didn’t even last this long.  Part of me feels trapped here, but the other part is relieved to know where I am sleeping every night and know that I have a paycheck every two weeks and do not have to worry about catching the next plane to somewhere in the world.

Windy Sunset
I don’t know how much has changed about me since I got here.  But I have adapted to be content with where on earth I am and what my life is right now.  I have watched everything change around me.  The sunlight and sea ice have gone from being ever-present in my life to disappearing and reappearing on a daily basis—all trending toward disappearing all together.  This cycle will reverse itself before I know it.   The faces of the people around me have changed and now the few faces that I see will get paler and paler, except for the bright red moments when one enters a building from the biting wind and cold.

I’m pretty excited about what the next six months in Antarctica have to bring.

Easter/Beaster/Beerster in McMurdo

Decorated beers instead of eggs.