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Monday, August 15th, 2005

Feragosto 2005.jpg

Buon Feragosto! Today, on the big European holiday of the Assumption, when most Italians try their best to splayed out in the sun on the beach, we woke to 20cm of snow here at the hut. We have had many lonely Feragosti here at Boccalatte but this is the first one when there has actually been snow. Yesterday morning started with nice sunny skies. They were tinted with a bit of haze, though. By midday, the haze was beginning win the battle and by early afternoon it was raining. The first climbers to return from the summit of the Grandes Jorasses, a group from the Swiss Mountaineering Club who had stayed with us the night before, arrived by lunchtime just before the rain started. By the time the whole group of 9 arrived at the hut, it had gone from partly sunny to rainy to snowing. They beat a quick retreat to the valley after a round of beer before the weather got worse. Climbing teams continued to trickle back to the hut, each more bedraggled than the next. The last group to arrive was a pair of Florentines who had summated but managed to get caught in the worst of the storm in the lower part of the glacier. They arrived accumulated with snow and seeking soup. After ďa long consultationĒ they made the unexpected decision to continue to the valley leaving us with only one unlucky soul for the evening.

Massimo is a Sicilian which, in a way is the root of his unluckiness. Unable to satisfy his appetite for climbing on the sunny island of his birth, he came to the Alps in search for action and adventure. Afflicted with a passion for the mountains, he left the sun, beaches and hordes of sand seekers of his native Ragusa to make an attempt on the Grande Jorasses; solo. Unfortunately for him, he also arrived at the hut just as it was beginning to snow. Difficult enough when the conditions are prime, the climb solo after a substantial snowfall is suicide. So instead of lounging on the beach with his friends, he gets to spend his Feragosto with us here at BoccalatteÖin the snow.

Busy Summer

Saturday, August 13th, 2005

Pink Paradiso.jpg

This has easily been our most busy season so far here at Boccalatte. Every summer we have a few more guests than the year before, but this year we have already exceeded our total from all of last year and August is not even half over. True, that after the 15th of August (the Assumption of Mary), Europeís big summer holiday, the numbers always drop off. Usually by this time of the season the climbing conditions have past their prime. We have already lost all the snow in our reservoir from which we capture melt-water for the hut. For only the second time in five years, I had to run the long 150m pipe up to the glacier to capture its run-off. Despite the fact that there is very little snow to cover the glacier and a dusting of snow on the rock parts of the climb, the people who go up are satisfied with the conditions. It has also remained cold which is key to good climbing on the Grandes Jorasses. If the conditions stay good we may continue to be busy throughout August. Nonetheless, we plan on closing on the 31st.

Last week we paid for our tickets to New Zealand for our eventual deployment to Antarctica. I think it was the most money I ever dropped at one time outside of paying off my college loans. Lucky for us, it will be reimbursed by [insert name of large government contractor here] after we arrive in Antarctica. This year we were approved for deployment from Italy and allotted X amount of money with which to purchase tickets. The catch is that we had to buy from an American carrier or code-share. Not easy when initiating travel from Italy. We decided to just go to the AA office in Milan and see what would be possible within our financial parameters. It was a tiny un marked office on the 8th floor of a non-descript building in the center of the city. In fact, we never stepped foot in the office; a woman came out and talked to us in the hall. She suggested a Round-the-World ticket which would include flights on other airlines within the One World Alliance but would be ticketed as an American Airlines ticket. But they didnít do bookings there so they gave us a phone number. This was back in June and we have been trying to sort out the details until last week. Quite a challenge. Differed booking agents kept telling us different things and every time we called, thinking it was all sorted out, we would have to start again from the top. We finally got the itinerary that we liked and then we waited for the euro-dollar exchange to be favorable before making the purchase.

The tickets are really great. You pay by continent and have up to six stops on each continent. You can get a full refund up to the day of travel; date changes are free and adding, removing or changing stops cost only $75. That is, $75 each re-issue which means we could change the whole ticket at once and incur only the flat fee. We were originally planning to go to South America after the Ice but discovered that flying from Europe to Oceania we had an obligatory stop in Asia which, even if only as a stopover, would count as a continent in the price of the ticket. Doing both would have pushed us over our limit. It was obvious that we would have to make a stop in Asia for at least a week to take advantage of the tariff; but where? Luci has always wanted to go to Japan but in the end we decided that staying for a week and not having any friends there to show us around might be shooting ourselves in the foot. In the end we decided spend 10 days on the beach in Thailand followed by a weekend in Hong Kong shopping for knock-off brands like Mouth Face Equipment or Polex watches.

Which brings me to a topic which I would like to take a moment to rant about: the Italian postal system. Being perpetual travelers, Luci and I like to travel light. Which means that we end up mailing a lot of our stuff around the world rather than toting it around with us and waiting for it in the carousel at airports. From and to Antartica it is especially convenient considering the amount and size of clothing that one needs there. At the end of last season we mailed 5 boxes from McMurdo: 1 full of winter gear for snowboarding to Colorado, 2 of odds and ends to Maine, and 2 of books and clothes to Italy (old, used, not for resale clothes). Then, while in Australia, I bought a didgeridoo (an Aboriginal instrument) which included free shipping and had it shipped to Italy. When we arrived in Milan (almost three months later) none of the boxes had arrived. They were insured so I began to look into making a claim. Just when I was about to make a claim they started to arrive. I half-expected to have to pay duty on the didgeridoo, which in fact I did: 20%. But then, we had to pay duty on the boxes of personal items, too; 20% on the amount that we had them insured for. We should have learned our lesson then. But, of course we didnít.

Because of our work environments, we get pro-deals on outdoor clothing and gear from various companies including P[insert overpriced clothing company here]. Luciís adores their clothing and we calculated that even paying the 20% tax we would still be getting a bargain. So we placed the order and in a week or so we checked on the USPS website for confirmation that the box had been delivered to Italy; it had. We waited and waited and still no box of goodies. We went to Greece and returned still no box. Luci started to get concerned and began to make phone calls. As it turns out the postal service was no help at all because they sub-contract another company to deliver their packages. The other company said that the box didnít show up in their system and to talk to Customs. Customs said the box wasnít in their system and to talk to the courier. A the same time there were all kinds of reports on the news about cargo being stolen from Malpensa; one of Milanís airports where, of course, our box arrived in the country. When we talked P they told us the box had not been insured. Great! By now it was time to open the hut and we didnít have the time to mess around on hold with various agencies anymore so we let it rest, assuming that the box had been stolen.

About the end of July we remembered that this stupid box hadnít arrived yet and figured that if we didnít get to the bottom of it we wouldnít know anything until September (anything bureaucratic ceases to function in August on account of the beach). So Luci started all over with the phone calls. She eventually found someone who hadnít gone on vacation yet and was willing to do the foot work to find the box. He said heíd call us back with in the week. A week and a half later he still hadnít called back so we made the afternoon long round of phone calls to find him and discovered that the box was being held by Customs.

We had been hearing in the news about new European tariffs on clothing from China. We didnít think about it because our order originated from the States. But, as it turns out, it was this tariff that was causing us grief. To get our box, Customs sends out an announcement that said box is being held by them (in our case, after more than two months of sitting in their warehouse). Upon receipt of this announcement, one is supposed to fill out a form and send an invoice of the exact contents of the package. Because we were at the hut, this was impossible if we wanted our winter clothes before the snows start blowing. The nice man on the other end of the phone was nice enough to offer to fill out the form, forge Luciís signature and bring the invoice we had e-mailed to him to customs (downstairs) personally. It was looking like we might finally get our goods. The only sticky point was the duty to be paid. The nice guy on the other end of the phone line could only guess at the amount.

Luciís parentís live in a condominium with a door keeper. Because they were leaving on vacation, we asked them to leave a little more than 20% of the cost of the boxís content with the door keeper so he could pay when the package eventually arrived. Another week passes. Luciís parents are in Greece so we call the door man to see if the package has arrived. Finally! The goods are in our hands (or at least those of our representative)! The problemÖthe duty was a good 70 Euros, almost $100, more than expected. This deserved a call from us to the Customs Office. As it turns out, the nice lady on the other end of the line informed us, in addition to the to 20% sales tax there is the 12.5% ďanti-dumpingĒ tariff tacked on: picking our pockets with a smile.

Did we learn our lesson? Of course not! You see, I have this great little laptop. It is a Sony PictureBook. A tiny little thing that can fit in the side pocket of a pair of cargo pants. Perfect for us. It is terribly slow, though. But it has a slot to expand its RAM making it work faster. The cards to fit in the expansion slot are relatively expensive hard to findÖin Europe. But, I got on line and found it in two minutes and in two more it was in the mail to my parents in Maine. Owing to my previous experience, I wanted to sit on it for a bit and figure out the best strategy for getting it to Europe. My father suggested sending it to Antractica APO or with my brother who is going down in August (which in retrospect would have been the best way). But, because there is potential for complications while installing this card and I wanted to have a fast internet connection to troubleshoot or download patches which I will not have at Siple. So, I decided to have it sent to Italy. The sooner the better, that way I would have it before leaving for the Ice. My father sent it DHL and insured which assured that it arrived in a timely manner even though it cost a sizable fraction of the chipís price to mail it. Well, as it turns out this ďanti dumpingĒ tariff applies to computer components, too because, BOOM, 32.5% Tax upon delivery. But, it doesnít stop there: last week my father received a bill for the same amount the doorman had already paid making the tax, insurance and shipping more costly than the item itself.

Lesson to be learned here: donít send ANYTHING to Italy!

Well, than ďmomentĒ went on a little longer than expected. Back to Antarctica. After stocking up on cheap knock-of goods in Hong Kong to sell in Antarctica (to try to make back some of what we lost in tariffs) we fly to Christchurch, NZ. We arrive 3 days before we are scheduled to be there for training and various safety based brainwashing activities. Usually, [the company] tries to get people in and out of Christchurch as quickly as possible so they donít have enough time to realized what theyíll be missing on the Ice for the next 4 months or so. Plus, more time in NZ, adventure tourism capital of the world, means more time to engage in potentially un-safe activities which is highly frowned upon by [the company]. In past seasons, I have tried to cram a quick snowboard trip up to nearby Mt Hutt between safety lectures and clothing fittings. This year there will be no need to cram. We should be able to fit in a trip up to the mountain to snowboard as well as various other safe recreation options in Christchurch in the three days we have to ourselves.

On the 8th of October we fly to McMurdo from Christchurch. Weíll be in McMurdo for about two weeks getting more training on how to be a safe [company] employee (OK, Iíll stop now) and putting our camp into boxes to be loaded onto a C130 Hercules. Siple Dome is about 2 Ĺ hrs fly time from McMurdo. There has been a camp of varying size at Siple for many years. More recently it has been quite small. We will be only three camp staff this year and I am not sure how many scientists. I am not going to go into what we will be doing there because I am sure Iíll have a much better idea once we get there. We will have very limited internet access if at all. Hopefully Iíll be able to keep this updated with text at least.

Almost full tonight at Boccalatte. It has been steady enough that we havenít had too much free time. I have to go put the bread in the oven.