Berm is a Four Letter Word

This season I’m working as a Materialsperson, which means basically I work with stuff—and we have a LOT of stuff here at South Pole, warehouses and stockrooms and berms and drawers and airplanes full of it. You can’t get rid of much because if you did, and then someone needed it, it would take two years and a lot of money to get it back. But seriously, a lot of it is junk.

South Pole station has a hoarding problem.

Anyway, we like to keep track of the stuff we have, and we do the best we can given the short season and the high volume of stuff being flown in and going out to work orders. My main project this season has been doing a deep inventory of the C-Berm (one of like 20 berms) which is home to most of the Heavy Shop and Power Plant stuff, as well as Fuels, IT and the greenhouse. To give you an idea of how screwy this berm is, our database, MAPCON, lists about 1000 different kinds of machine engines, CAT track shoes, bolts, cylinder heads, coaxial cable, fuel hoses and other things like that. After taking EVERYTHING off this berm, opening many and recounting all of the crates, researching their contents and shipping documents, putting everything back on, mapping and recording and crosschecking it, I discovered that we are missing 598 kinds of stuff (some of those stock numbers have hundreds of themselves listed in MAPCON but are nowhere to be found). That included three huge engine heaters, two whole snowmobiles and one $92,000 generator for the power plant. It’s not like people put this stuff in their suitcases and took it home, they just used it and didn’t write it down.

There are things that do not belong that we found on this berm, including dumbbells for weightlifting, science equipment and 200 pounds of Ramen Noodles from 2003.

To do this project, we first removed all of the crates and boxes, setting them aside so the heavy vehicle operators could reform and grade the berm, basically carving a neat, 3 foot tall platform that was fifteen feet wide and hundreds of feet long. I took away a lot of things that were obviously trash, and parts for vehicles that we no longer have. I opened lots of boxes that had dubious contents, counted, labeled or laughed at the stuff inside, and if we were keeping it, re-banded and crimped it.

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When it was time to start putting things back on the berm, I can use either a 277 or a 953 CAT loader. The 277 is a responsive, zippy little vehicle that is pretty fun to drive. It operates with a joystick and feels like a really big toy with a rollercoaster-like safety bar, and its name is Emma.

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The 953 is a huge loader (well, not huge in the world of loaders, but huge next to Emma) named Sundog, and Sundog is a huge, rickety loader that has two speeds: crawly and jumpy (also stabby, as in stabbing boxes with the forks, but that’s not really a speed).

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I used whichever loader was available, and sorted and stacked the things into categories as well as I could, leaving as little space as possible to prevent snow drifting, a major challenge when next year’s team (maybe including me) has to inventory the whole berm again, although not to quite the extent as this year. I learned a lot working out there by myself, about operating the loaders and the differences between the machines.

I put lots of track rollers on the berms…

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And dropped some of them, which was really frustrating…

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And put some things up really high…

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And then it was done! Now it’s all ready to get completely drifted in over the winter, and then we’ll shovel it out and recount everything next year, although hopefully it will be much, much easier.

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Strange Ice

These weird stacked snow boulders appeared out by the RF satellite buildings over a grave shift one night.

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They were big.

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Almost big enough to hide a loader, but not quite.

I can still see you.

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A Pickle Named Hysteria

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.

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Finally, the vehicles started up. The 955 never made it to the driving stage, unfortunately.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.