BootsnAll Travel Network

Archive for November, 2006

« Home

This Blows

Saturday, November 18th, 2006

WAIS Arches

Our numbers did indeed double. At the beginning of the week two comms-guys and a GPS tech from UNAVCO arrived in camp. One of the comms-guys was an antenna rigger who is a friend of ours from town, Zim. He has taken up our laundry torch in the absence of my brother Jesse. From what I understand, Jesse is going to be at Pole a little longer than we all expected. Apparently polies have been dropping like flies with pulmonary edema from the effects of altitude and latitude. Luci and I think it is partially psychosomaticaly induced since the Company begins terrorizing people about the altitude at pole from very early in the hiring process.

This week has been tortuous. When our Meteorologist Technician called our observation in on Monday the weather forecasters were nice enough to tell us that we had some nasty weather coming our way. Just like last year, the small camp in the Fosdick mountains were getting pounded by gale force wind and there was rumor about them pulling their camp out. The storm hit hard on Tuesday and we were effectively holed up indoors while the worst of it blew over. The new arrivals tried their best to do the work they came out to do since they were scheduled for only a short visit. On Wednesday morning (the day of their flight out) it was still storming. Everyone assumed we wouldn’t be getting a plane. The morning was slow around camp with everyone kind of languidly sipping tea and coffee. The met-tech kept doing hourly observation in the off-chance that the plane might depart. The plane’s departure from McMurdo (with 7 construction workers) was delayed from 1700 to 1900 and we all expected the flight to soon be canceled outright.

Then, suddenly, right before dinner the sun came out. The wind kept up but not as strong and with the break in the white-out we could see all the drifting around camp. There were drifts six to eight feet high all over camp. In an attempt to mitigate drifting on our fuel bladders, I put up a snow fence to direct the drifting away from it. My plan failed miserably and we wound up with a massive drift right on the top of it.

After dinner we received work that the plane had taken off from McMurdo and would be arriving in three-and-a-half hours. Once everyone found out there was a lot of scrambling around getting ready for the unexpected plane. I worked on digging out the fuel pump and lines while other dug out heavy equipment and heater units to warm them up. Zim and the UNAVCO guy had a bunch of work to get done before they could leave. Zim had an antenna that was being hand carried by one of the arriving passengers that he would have to put up before he could get on the plane.

When the plane finally arrived overhead the weather had gone sour again. My prediction at breakfast was that the plane would either cancel outright in the morning or they would fly all the way out here and boomerang without landing. Neither scenario came true. By some miracle they landed after about an hour of circling. This meant that they had used all the fuel they were bringing us and my digging was in vain. So I helped Zim set up the HF antenna. It was tight. The plane was sitting on the taxiway burning an already limited amount of fuel, all the cargo and passengers were unloaded. The UNAVCO guy was already on board and Zim was still on the tower. I carry an air-ground radio when I’m working around the plane and I heard the captain give a ten minute ultimatum. But, we got Zim off the tower and I zipped him out to the plane on a ski-doo and they were off.

The seven arriving passengers are part of the Arch construction team. Last year they built the external structure and this year they are going to be excavating a trench inside where the ice-core drill will be assembled. By the time they finally arrived, disembarked and the plane took off it was well past 1am and the camp was a wreck. The next day was dedicated entirely to digging out. Because the carpenters who set up camp are still here finishing projects we are now 29 people total so there were a lot of shovels flying. Thank god, because it was going to be a monumental task.

By the end of the day Thursday most of the yard was leveled but the fuel pits were still under many feet of snow. Because we can’t operate machinery to excavate the snow over the bladders it all has to be done by hand. I prepped the fueling station to be moved by out track loader so we could level the surface with a groomer but I couldn’t find the energy to start digging on the bladder. Good thing because the wind picked up again Thursday night.

I spent a good part of the day tuning furnaces. Our drip feed burners act strange in winds over 20 knots so the draft has to be monitored and adjusted so they don’t soot up. And, since we now have a dozen of them it is a chore to keep up with them. We also had a generator failure. It turned out to be rather minor. The air filter clogged solid with blowing snow. We just pulled it off and thawed it out. Since we don’t have any dirt here it actually runs better. The little bit of moisture getting sucked into the system actually helps it burn more efficiently.

Yesterday the electricians got our big 40K generator hooked up this week and now all of the main buildings have power. We also got out GOES satellite dish up and now have a little network with decent internet for about 6 hours a day. Since we have more electricity we were able to put the two snow-melter units on-line which means we now have hot showers and running water. Seven volunteers spent the day digging out the bladders while I fueled vehicles, buildings and set up a new heater in one of the new buildings. Unfortunately, It blew all night again and has most likely filled up again. It reminds of a chapter from some cruel Greek myth like Tantalus, Sisyphus or Prometheus.

The wind is supposed to keep up for a few more days but the carpentry crew is building their palettes of supplies to go on the plane tomorrow according to schedule. We’ll see what the week brings.

Building Camp

Saturday, November 11th, 2006

Downtown WAIS Divide Camp

Now that our put-in is nearly over and we have slid into the standard Antarctic work schedule (six days of work; Sunday off) I can keep updated more regularly. The Carps are still here but have finished putting up structures. We now have twelve structures in the camp. Most of them are RAC tents. They are arched tents that replace the Korean War surplus Jamesway that we used at Siple Dome. Both styles are made up of standard size sections of frame covered by insulated blankets. Thus, the size of a tent is determined by its length an amount of “sections”.

Going down the line: there is the generator building that houses our 40K generator which at the moment is not operational because of a faulty injector maladjusted valve. Next is the Mechanic shop where Dave, our mechanic not only works but lives. Both are hard-walled structures. These are followed by the “science tent” which is an eight-section RAC where the grantees will set up their work stations when they get here. In the meantime one of our equipment operators and a carpenter are squatting there because they can’t handle the sub-zero temps in their tents. The carpenters have their own meeting tent set up in the middle of camp which with come down when they leave in a couple of weeks. It is a Polarchief (or simply “the Chief” which is essentially a type of Yurt.

At the moment I am writing in the communications tent; a little five-section RAC where my little office shelf is. My informal role as the hazardous cargo handler (I got a US military certification back at McMurdo) demands a certain amount of paperwork from me and gives me the perfect excuse to have a sort of office of my own.

The massive eighteen-section RAC tent and hard-walled module hybrid that constituted the dining room/galley building is next. This is where Luci and John spend most of their day. John, the other cook, is also from Downeast Maine and works at the Jordan Pond House in Acadia NP. Put-in for the cooks can be a daunting task. In the first couple of days they have to improvise a kitchen from racks of frozen goods and equipment. Most of their time is occupied by gathering and melting snow for water. They have spent the week organizing all our foodstuffs and putting up shelving inside and out to house it. Next to the Galley is the washroom/recreation tent. With a similar setup as the galley, this hybrid’s RAC tent extension has only eight sections. These two buildings will be equipped with snow-melting devices once the 40K generator gets put on-line. In the meantime, the Rec RAC is still a work in progress. One of the Carps has recently reconnected the shower outfalls and we put a big pot on the heater to melt snow for showers from a solar-shower bag (just like at Rifugio Boccalatte).

The five-section Medical RAC tent is next. Our “Medic” is a former Texas republican spin-doctor turn Wilderness Medicine Instructor. Considering the current size of the camp, a dedicated medic seems a bit of overkill to me but “safety first”, you know. In theory, when there aren’t people bleeding profusely or suffering a cardiac arrest he is supposed to do weather observations. But we also have a person whose sole responsibility is to do weather obs so the medic’s job becomes doubly redundant.

The last three tents in the row are berthing tents (not to be confused with birthing tents which would be a violation of USAP policy). The first is a Weatherhaven. Very similar to the Polarhaven we had at Siple (only twice the size) and serves the same purpose; to house the Twin Otter crews when they are working out of WAIS. The other two are grantee berthing and are both eight section Jamesways, identical to the one at Siple right down to the year of manufacture, 1951.

The last structure is the most important and the sole reason for the existence of this camp, the Arch. This is where the gigantic ice-core drilling apparatus will be housed. Architecturally, this structure is very similar to the tents but their walls are made of steel and therefore rigid. Next week, a crew of construction workers are coming out to finish work on the Arch. Since the drill is being put on the re-supply vessel that won’t make it to McMurdo until January, the drill won’t be installed and put into operation until next year some time.

All but three of these buildings (the generator shack, the shop, and the Arches) are heated but semi-archaic drip-fuel stoves that we run on the same jet fuel that runs the heavy equipment and all the aircraft: AN-8. My primary role is to keep all these buildings and the equipment fueled. We have two 10K bladders with a central pumping station that can either fuel or take fuel from a variety of aircraft. Because the pump has to be warmed ahead of time, I organize the heavy equipment operators so that I can fuel all of them once every-other-day. At the same time I fill up out “day-tank” which is an 170-gallon tank on a sled which I tow around to all the buildings to fuel them on a regular basis. In addition to the AN-8 fueling infrastructure we also have little hand pump (hurdy-gurdy) stations to fuel Herman Nelsons (aerospace heaters) and snowmobiles from drums of gasoline and pre-mix.

Next week our numbers are slated to double with the arrival of electricians (to set up the power to the buildings) an antenna rigger (to set up our sat-coms) and the Arch construction crew who will be excavating a hole under the Arch to make room for the drill. Things are changing everyday out here.

West Antarctica…

Monday, November 6th, 2006

Bassler very, cold. The average temperature has been around -30C with a dip to -45C one day. Celsius and Fahrenheit meet at -40 so the temperatures are about the same down here.

The Bassler flight ... [Continue reading this entry]