There are ice caves that grow and disappear within the edges of the tongue that ruptures out from the Erebus Glacier. Every year they are different, and the mountaineers who work with the Field Safety department discover them and decide whether they are safe for entry.
We went out on snowmobiles, cold air and two-stroke motor exhaust trailing behind us, stopped in sudden silence at the base, stark and soft like bones in the desert. Ethereal rooms with smooth sculptors’ ridges on the walls, fuzzy stalactites of ice dripping from the ceiling. Turquoise to violet ice, moving air in the farthest secret recesses like the glacier breathing on your skin.
In November my department had the opportunity to take McMurdo’s sea ice training course, teaching vehicle operators how to profile cracks in the sea ice to determine if the surface could withstand the weight of the vehicle and whether it was safe to cross. We’d identify a crack, shovel a trench across it, drill into the ice until sea water gushed out, and drop a special measuring tape into the water.
There were Weddell seals along the road, not paying us any mind, dappled skin stretched across fatty heft, sighing and breathing across the frost—the holes they came out of a few feet away, littered with expelled bits of ice and blood.
Our teacher was awesome, taking us to see things nearby, profiling cracks along the way. We entered an ice amphitheater, a brilliant curved elbow hollow, pocked shining walls and gargantuan feathered veins running up 80 feet. We placed our hands on icebergs’ solemn, glistening faces, being present with bodies much older than ourselves.
Scott’s Hut on Cape Evans was a few miles away, a hundred year old building where the explorers spent three winters. Penguin carcasses, primitive ice cleat boots made of fur and canvas, crates of tea and potted meats. A darkroom full of tiny bottles, old spooky chemicals. A dog’s skeleton, still chained to the stable. It smelled like dust and hay and seal blubber, and written on one of the bunks in very light pencil, “Losses to date: Haywood, Mack, Smyth, Shak (?)” (I read later that Shackleton was missing at that point, his fate still uncertain).
It was an amazing day!
This happens to me every season on ice: it’s 6 weeks until the end of summer and I haven’t put up a blog post in approximately eight million years.
One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Antarctica is because it helps me to notice things, to write. And I have been writing, but mostly to myself; journaling and jotting notes on surfaces, my hands, scraps of paper, napkins.
It’s 2015, did you notice? Do you make resolutions? Here are two of my many: 1) I am going to start paying more attention to gratitude, which I will mostly keep to myself but it might leak in here every now and then and 2) I am going to try and post once a week here, even if it’s just a photo.
So let’s start small and then I will back up and catch you up with Antarctic 2014-2015 goings-on, how does that sound?
Here is something I am grateful for: for the sound of fluttering ocean current under porous, melting ice. For wind ripples on open water and the blue of the ice under that water, so crisp in the sun. For the unlikely steam rising off of lava soil, and for one little penguin, very far away amongst the seals.
Did you make resolutions? Care to share them?
The US has three stations in Antarctica, and this year I’m working in McMurdo, the largest station (and formerly just a transitional jumping point to me when I was trying to get on a flight to the South Pole). It’s on Ross Island, and we fly here on a C-17, Airbus, or LC-130 from New Zealand.
It’s a big station, around a thousand people in the height of summer (ie, now). There are dorms, admin buildings, a firehouse, power plant, water distillation plant, wharf, a store, three bars, three gyms, warehouses, and a ton of science (glaciology, marine biology, aeronomy and astrophysics, earth science, ocean and atmospheric studies). Three runways and a helicopter pad. And like a big old city there is above-ground water, sewer, telephone, and power lines.
It was pretty cold for a bit at the beginning of the season, though nothing compared to Pole. Lots of 50-knot winds, really poor visibility, and -30F.
It’s not too cold out right now, maybe 20F above zero. It smells like melt outside and there is milky mud water streaming down the hills toward the bay.
The photo below shows MacTown at 3am–the shadow across town, cast by Observation Hill, is all of the brief “sunset” we get these days.
In town, it’s kind of like living in a construction zone, loaders and pickup trucks driving everywhere, gravel roads, exposed fuel pipes and spools of cable. But the magical thing about being here is all the stuff outside of town–hikes and preserved huts from the old Antarctic explorers and ice caves.
Stay tuned for some of the icier stuff, coming soon!
Somehow leaving makes you love it more.
Late fall in the midwest: cold wind on tired oak trees. Sunday night dinner, soup and wine and chocolate.
The last year has been a flurry of daily airports, new jobs, big decisions. Weddings. Funerals. Moving out again, pulling up the tiny roots. Finding myself back in the MSP airport, getting ready for 30+ hours of travel, deploying to Antarctica via New Zealand.
It’s good to be back.
I’ve been getting a lot of requests for info on how to get hired for a position in Antarctica this coming season, and I have great news for you: Bill Spindler has very nicely compiled a page of links with all the subcontractors.
Check out the whole post here: http://www.southpolestation.com/trivia/ncs/jobs.html
If you’ve read anything at all about the hiring, you probably understand that Lockheed Martin is the main contractor, and there are a bunch of subcontractors for different departments. What that means is that there isn’t a streamlined collection of all jobs on one webpage; this is not necessarily a step down though. If you applied through Raytheon during the last contract, you will remember that their webpage kind of sucked. And by “kind of sucked,” I mean that it made you want to gouge out your eyes with a shovel.
I can’t speak to how the application process is on most of these sites: the one I applied through was pretty easy. If you’ve already applied, let us know how the experience was for you in the comments section.
Here is the abbreviated link list, with companies hiring for on-ice positions. If you have any confusion about what to do or how to apply after you get to a website or why you would even want to go to Antarctica in the first place, just back up a minute and go to Bill Spindler’s website.
Lockheed Martin: Program Management and Integration, Site Management, Functional Area Leadership, Technical Management & Administration (TM&A), Science and Technical Project Services (S&TPS), Information Technology and Communications (IT&C), Infrastructure and Operations (I&O) and Transportation and Logistics (T&L)
PAE: Infrastructure and Operations (I&O), Transportation and Logistics (T&L).
GHG: On-site Information Technology and Communications (IT&C).
University of Texas Medical Branch: Medical Services
Best Recycling: Waste
Gana-A’Yoo: Food Services, Housing & Janitorial Services, Retail & Postal Services.
Deven is behind the lens again–check out these stunning photos from the end of the summer season and vessel offload.
The icebreaker vessel comes in at the end of the summer and is the main way cargo for all departments gets onto the continent. The lovely ship is full of all kinds of incoming cargo, from ramen noodles, beer and condoms to turbochargers and hydraulic hoses. The logistics folks (Cargo and Materials) are responsible for offloading and basically warehousing the cargo; at the beginning of the next summer, South Pole’s cargo gets packed up and sent in. This means the supply chain is really long: it takes a year or two for normal cargo to arrive at Pole.
The thing I love about these photos is how well they illustrate the different personalities of the sea ice: marbled and fractured and chunky and smooth.
If you want to see some amazing aurora photos from the same photographer, check out this post.
I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who prays, but if you are, maybe say one for these folks.
Three Canadians are missing on a Twin Otter flight that was going from South Pole to Terra Nova Bay, an Italian base on the coast. Their plane went down and the emergency locator beacon has been activated but bad weather is making the rescue search difficult.
Living in a heated station in Antarctica makes it easy sometimes to forget that it is still a pretty dangerous place to be. I hope these guys are safe.
The wreckage of this flight has been located, and memorials are being held around the continent. Rachel, one of my very best friends from Pole, wrote some poignant words about the tragedy:
Such sad news for the Antarctic family…it might be hard for many people to understand, but the continent is like one big family. I often feel like the world could truly learn a lot from Antarctica. All the stations seem to experience the same things…to get to station is always a long flight or a long boat ride, we all live in cramped quarters, we all have to deal with extreme temperatures and learning to work in the cold, we conserve water and recycle everything, eat three year old expired food, we are all here for research, which is often shared amongst nations, most research being performed at any one station is usually a collaborated effort among many, most stations medical and fire is volunteer, and during the winter we share a film festival were we can relate to each video, because they always represent the many similarities that we all go thru instead of the differences.
We are connected in so many great ways that I won’t be able to do it justice, but one of the other ways we are connected is in sadness. When a helicopter went down a couple years ago at another base, an American C-17 was just departing McM and immediately diverted to search for survivors. There was no “bureaucracy” to figure out who would pay for it, or if it was allowed. It just happened. When a fire broke out at a base on the Antarctic peninsula, research ships from other nations immediately came to get the survivors. When the fire happened last year, I was in the midst of fire school before heading to Palmer. We were all stunned. The reality that that could be “us” was overwhelming. While at Palmer I was on the fire team. In that fire the two people that died were on their fire team that had gone back into the fire to try and shut stuff off to prevent further damage to the station. When this plane went missing two days ago, it again reminds me how we are all connected. Kenn Borek Air flys twin otters and baslers for many countries here on the continent. Their pilots are the last people we see at Pole before winter starts and the first ones we see to start summer. I don’t know if I have ever met them personally, but it doesn’t matter…they were part of the Antarctic family and their loss will be felt across the continent. The pilots at KBA have flown to some if not the most remote places in the world. They have landed in places never touched before by humans…they have rescued people from the South Pole where the temps were so cold their skis froze to the ground, and they bring us freshies. On their first flight to Pole each spring, they always bring freshies. I don’t even like most freshies, but it is such a kind gesture when they know it has been about 8 months since we last tasted a banana.
So keep their families in your thoughts tonight…I’m sure most “Antarcticans” will do the same.