Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Season of Living and Working in Antarctica - Part II

This last winter, AAI Guide Alasdair Turner spent the winter working and living in Antarctica. This week our blog will feature a special three-part series on Alasdair's experiences...

Click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

Life at McMurdo is much like life on a small college campus, but rather than a whole bunch of kids who just left home for the first time, it is a whole bunch of adults who just left home for the first time since graduating college. Everyone works 9 hour days, 6 days a week. The station operates 24-hours so many people are working night shifts.

 There is a large cafeteria capable of serving over 1200 people food that has been buried in storage containers under the Kiwis rugby field in the MuMurdo Ice Shelf for the past several years. There is a gym, a weight room and a building I never entered that is purported to have treadmills and other exercise equipment that I refuse to use (Observation hill hike is much more mentally stimulating for me). In addition, the roads on the sea ice and ice shelf are continuously groomed so that we can drive wheeled vehicles on them. These make for a very convenient place for people to skate ski, and probably make for the most expensive skate ski trails in the world.

Two bars are conveniently located within 20 or so yards of the exercise building that I never entered. This is another reason I never entered as I am sure any attempt to step on a tread mill would have had me bored within ten minutes and playing foosball at the bar with a beer in my hand soon after. I will stick to quick hikes up the closest hill. A coffee shop is staffed by volunteers and has internet plugins (there is no wireless available for the support staff on station). There is also a church which as far as I can tell is only used for yoga. I stuck my head in once, but much like every other church in my life it was only to see if it was pretty inside(it's not). A library which is staffed by volunteers is open most nights of the week and video rental is available at the store. 

The store contains all manor of poorly designed gifts with either "McMurdo Station" or "Antarctica" printed on them. There is also a hefty amount of penguin gifts of course. Also available are some basic toiletries, but most people only use the store to buy beer or wine. Other entertainment available includes a craft room and a recreational gear checkout. There is a small hiking trail system on station and a slightly larger loop trail of about 8 miles that goes to Castle Rock and then down and across the McMurdo Ice Shelf back to Station. Since this loop trail is located on glaciated terrain it must be periodically checked for crevasses and wandering off trail could and has in the past led to fatal accidents. Checking for crevasses is done with a ground penetrating radar which is another one of the tools FSTP has to use.

Weekends consist of Saturday night and Sunday. Saturday night is a great time to socialize with the other folks on station. Sunday is a time to recover from the week and the things people do to themselves Saturday night. 

 There is an incredible number of talented musicians at McMurdo and luckily for those of us who enjoy music, they often play at one of the bars on Saturday nights. There are several fun events throughout the season. These are mostly music based and usually take place on typical holidays. 

Like most places of employment there is an awkward Christmas party that consists of standing around having forced conversations with people you would not normally feel comfortable drinking around. The party takes place in the heavy machinery repair shop which is cleaned up and decorated with a few random christmas decorations. On Christmas day, MAAG (McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery) consists of art projects and stage performances of all types from the support staff on station. This really was a fun night and I was really amazed by some of the talents of the people around station. Ice Stock is an all day live music festival and chili cook off that is the highlight of the local skua populations year. It is also one of the more fun events that takes place all season. It is held on New year's eve and music continues until sometime after the new year has been brought in. 

 I brought in the new year on my own atop Observation Hill where I was positioned perfectly to hear the Kiwi base bring in the new year on time 3 minutes before the US. Scott Base is the Kiwi Station located 2 miles from McMurdo. They have a well stocked bar and lots of very friendly people. Once a week the Kiwi bar is open for "American Night". American night is an opportunity for Americans to see other Americans in a different bar, since most of the Kiwis hide in there dorm rooms due to the mass of Americans crowding their bar. The Kiwis also have a ski hill complete with a rope tow. This is not available for Americans to use unless invited. 

My non-work time was mostly taken up by playing board games at the coffee shop, fooseball at the bar and wandering around the station with a camera. Many nights were spent reading or recovering from being outside all day in cold temps. 

McMurdo Station. Dorms are in the lower right of the photo, machinery shops in the lower left. The big blue building is the cafeteria and to the right and behind that are the bars, a NASA building and some communications buildings, with the Helicopter hanger behind that. In the top left are many fuel storage tanks and the road to Scott Base. 

The Chalet where station management are located. Observation hill is located behind.

Antarctic polar bear at MAAG. I knew there were polar bears in Antarctica. 
 Now if only I would have seen an eskimo.

MAAG art project and some antics.

The Kiwi Ski hill on a powder day(5cm of new).

Skua enjoying the music at Icestock while occasionally dive 
bombing unsuspecting concert goers with food in their hands.

Bringing in the new year atop Observation Hill. Out of view to the left is a memorial cross to Robert Scott and his men who perished on their return from the south pole several hundred miles behind me.

Pressure Ridges

There is a recreation department in McMurdo. Their full time job is to attempt to keep the general public from going insane because they can't just leave base whenever they choose (mostly for their own safety). Recreational outings this year were very limited due to sea ice conditions not allowing some of the larger vehicles to travel across some large cracks. In normal years the outings could include trips to Cape Royds(Shackleton's hut and penguin colony), Cape Evans (Scott's Terra Nova Hut), or a visit to ice caves that form in the Erebus Glacier Tongue. This year none of that was possible. There are however pressure ridges that form each year near just outside Scott Base. These ridges are formed by the movement of the McMurdo Ice Shelf crushing the sea ice into the land causing it to crack and deform. Tours of the ridges are performed by volunteer staff who take groups out on a previously flagged trail through the ridges.

Scott Base pressure ridges.

Scott Base pressure ridges.

Ice thrust into the air in the Scott Base pressure ridges.

Melt pool with Mount Erebus in the background.

Ice in the pressure ridges.

Another recreational outing is the room with a view. Participants take a snow mobile across the ice shelf and up a hill to the base of Mt. Erebus. From this spot there are amazing views across McMurdo Sound to the glaciers that block the views of the dry valleys.

Mount Erebus from the Room With A View.

Returning to McMurdo. Mt. Discovery in the distance.

One question many people have asked is how is the food. My best answer to that question is that the baked goods are amazing. Bakery items are made fresh each day by some very talented bakers. Fresh fruit and vegetables are flown in on daily flights early in the season while the C-17 is still flying back and fourth from New Zealand. After that flight stops however everything except the baked items is from the freezer. Yes there are actually freezers in the Antarctic. Meals are fairly varied and can be pretty hit or miss. Early in the season the head of the kitchen (who was soon fired) decided that anyone who did not eat red meat was pretty much an after though. He also gave the staff no flexibility to be creative which made for some incredibly bad non meat options and left me eating bread and butter, really good bread, and butter. Later in the season, with a new head chef at the helm, and the kitchen staff free to come up with their own ideas, dinners got better. Over all given the fact we are in Antarctica they do a pretty good job. As you might imagine complaints about food is always a staff favorite. Lunches were always good due to a very creative person who was very good at her job making the sandwiches. If only there had been sandwiches for every meal.

If you ask the people who go back year after year why they do it, the most common answer seems to be that they like the people down there. McMurdo is an amazing community of talented and adventurous people all of whom have a story worth sharing. It is possibly the most over educated community in the world. Amoung the support staff everyone seems to have some sort of college degree that they no longer use and even if they don't have one they are so well traveled that you can talk to them about almost anything. Of course there is also the scientists who are the reason that we are all there in the first place. The large number of scientists also makes cafeteria conversations enjoyable and interesting. Where else in the world can you sit at a table with one of the most respected scientists in their field, a mountain guide, an equipment mechanic, a carpenter, a cook and janitor for example. Assumptions about anyones background at McMurdo are a huge mistake, because just about anyone could have a Phd in physics or any other subject. People are there for the experience or the ability to have the summers off to travel or any number of other reasons that assumptions would get wrong.

Jen modeling her favorite part of the meal.

Ned in his typical Antarctic outdoor wear.

Alasdair Turner, Instructor and Guide

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