Here at McMurdo station, Polies are starting to be ready to leave. To get going, or to go home, in a way. I’ve been learning a lot while I’m here though, trainings and briefings and orientations and meetings.
After a first night spent pretty dehydrated and dizzy, we went right to work in the morning, doing a session on operating CAT loaders: an articulated 950, a 953 and a 277 skid steer, a sweet little loader that has a safety bar like a rollercoaster and operates with a joystick. After a lot of PowerPoint slides and an informal quiz, we got to it and headed out to Willy field, a few miles off Ross Island and onto the permanent sea ice. Past giant spool parking lots, elevated fuel hose lines, piles of fine grit for making tread on ice, pickup trucks and a hazardous waste yard that was fenced off and looking like it should be guarded by an icy bulldog. Up and down a huge hill and past New Zealand’s Scott base (aptly painted kiwi green), with built up pressure ridges, huge rippled ocean waves frozen in time. Onto the ice road we drove, past radome/satellite dish protective housings, odd little eight foot spheres on sleds with red and white siding, like a giant metal beach ball or, as Ed the fuelie put it, “strange fruit of science.”
We learned about doing walkaround checks, noting glycol and engine oil levels, hydraulic fluid dribbles that needed to be scooped up off the ice, and spending quite a while shoveling, sweeping and gently ice-picking solid packed snow out of the engine compartments, air vents, and in some cases, the cab of the machine. Some of the women in the group were total pros. They didn’t need to be trained, but it was awesome to watch them work.
Finally, the vehicles started up. The 955 never made it to the driving stage, unfortunately.
We practiced going up a hill. We practiced making a K-turn on top of the little plateau. We practiced picking up concrete blocks on the forks as well as chaining them to the boom (a really different feeling, as you have a huge, heavy pendulum on the front tip of the machine). We practiced moving around an outhouse that was out by the camp (happily frozen), and marshaling the driver since the vehicle had about 30% visibility with the latrine in front of the windshield.
We spent a good amount of time sorting through, unpacking, counting and labeling South Pole food that came in on the sea vessel last season (February 2011). To be outside in the sharp wind, labeling hundreds of individual packages of fennel and cumin and coriander, hauling and hoisting huge 50-lb sacks of oats and flour, or unpacking and counting and labeling and repacking 2,000 individual pounds of butter while the wind picked up our clipboards and literally threw them in our faces, seemed a little ridiculous. And on top of it, off in the distance our backdrop was mountains with glaciers sliding out between them and this stunning, icy beauty, helicopters and C17s landing on the runway, and later the black volcanic dirt under our feet steaming in the sun, melting the ice and releasing a slow-floating mist. A strange juxtaposition of cold and uncomfortable and weird and intense and frustrating and wonderful and lovely in this special recipe that defines nearly everything we do in Antarctica.
We used a vehicle called a Pickle to unload the crates from the milvans (milvans are metal storage units the size of trailer homes). It’s a crotchety little articulated, wheeled vehicle from the Korean war era, a military specific front end loader that is no longer made anywhere in the world because the visibility is terrible, but it’s perfect for what we use it for. And its name was Hysteria.
A few days later, the group attended a sea ice and survival lecture. The sea ice safety isn’t really pertinent to those of us going to Pole, since there is no sea ice around for thousands of miles, but it was still interesting. We watched a time-lapse video of still sea ice, dynamic in nature and shifting, heaving, breathing like a living thing, which I suppose it is in a way. The survival lecture was a review; I myself haven’t taken the class, nicknamed “happy camper,” but might get to this year. In the introductions attendees were encouraged to talk about any close calls they’d had, or times they had needed to use a survival bag. One woman, from Minnesota, was caught in a storm with her team while doing research in the mountains. Winds reached 150mph and picked up and threw around 800 pound snowmobiles like toys. Of the three Scott tents the team had, all five people had to squeeze into the single tent upwind of the camp while everything else was being destroyed.
I went with a coworker on our day off to the Observation Tube, a claustrophobia-inducing steel and glasslike windowed silo buried twenty feet into the ice.
Once in the tube, with the cover shut to keep out the town din and wind and equipment and helicopter noises, it was pretty intense. You could hear the ice above you creaking softly, and seal sonar—animal clicks, slides and coos, like pressing your ear to someone else’s tummy and listening to their stomach noises, except more amplified. There were hundreds of thousands of little tiny krill with angel wings floating suspended in the water like snow, and bitty jellyfish. The mint-blue sea ice underside had frosty florets crystallized in the foreground and crept into an ombre blue-black unknown sea. it was peaceful and humbling and awesome. At one point, all the krill shot off in the same direction, and a few moments later from the opposite direction came a seal, silent, graceful, hulking, quick. Unfortunately my camera lens was frosted over by then.
McMurdo has far better scenery than Pole, but I’m ready to go, to unpack my suitcase and sleep in “my own” bed, to not feel like a transient, in the way of daily business. We’re getting a lot done here, but we’ll get more done when we get there, settle down, get in our groove. I’m excited.