Monday, October 12, 2009

Driest, Windiest, Highest, Coldest, Most Isolated Continent on Earth

Antarctica, the 7th continent, the last frontier...

The continent of Antarctica ignites a curiosity and interest in most and, in some, a slightly crazed desire to see it for themselves! I am one of those crazy people. It is a snow and ice covered continent of land on the bottom of the planet. There are terrestrial mammals (no polar bears or indigenous people). There is plentiful sea life in the surrounding Southern Ocean, including everyone's favorite sea bird, the penguin and seals who both spend time on the land in costal Antarctica. It is summer here in the Southern Hemishpere, so our temperture (without wind chill) varies, in Oct-Feb, from-45 and +45 F. We have been as cold as -25 and as warm as +7 so far. I am stationed right now, in McMurdo Station (USA). McMurdo is a tight-knit, diverse, and welcoming little community on the ice.

A little bit about my life here in McMurdo. Our views are otherworldly, expansive, and they are constantly capturing my attention and distracting me. I wake every morning in my dorm, with my awesome roommate who works in cargo and will be at the South Pole once they can get down there, and we head over to our main building (155) that houses the cafeteria, store, laundry, dorms, Rec Office, and much more! Food in Antarctica is served, for free, cafeteria style. My favorite part of every meal so far has been the bread and dessert! Which coincidentally all sit at the same station! The bread is baked here, obviously, and its fresh and always different and insanely delicious. The food and clean up crews, including cooks and dish washers work no-stop to provide three meals, and midnight rations and clean up after the soon to be 1000+ McMurdo summer residents. Its people like this that keep McMurdo running.

The walk over to Building 155 provides views out to the airfields, and ice roads and runways being built on the frozen Ross Sea. The great expanse of ice surrounding us in an unbelievable sight. I look out to the Chapel of the Snows and just beyond it, or so it seems, are a horizon of snow covered mountains, known as the Royal Society Range, as well as many glaciers, hills, bluffs and other peaks like Mt. Discovery, Mt. Warning, Mt. Terror, Mt. Erebus and the Black and White Islands - which I talked about in an earlier post. The depth perception here is difficult to get a handle on, in between the Chapel and the mountains is a vast expanse of the Ross Sea frozen over through December.

Chapel of the Snows at Sunset

The Antarctic Sunset...

When I wake up in the morning and walk toward 155 from my dorm the sun is just behind the building, low in the sky as usual. The sun spends all day low in the sky (imagine what it looks like at 9am) and it circles from behind Building 155 (W generally) and then circles to the south and then east, again in general, just about everything is north from here! It is perpetually bright out.

Since it is still early in the season, the sun sets at night, very slowly behind the mountains (Mt. Discovery, Black and White Island, and the Royal Society Range), out to sea beyond the Chapel of the Snows. An Antarctic sunset should be considered one of the Natural Wonders of the World. It takes forever to set, 8+ hours of setting and rising sun! It starts to lower below the horizon around 9pm and slowly moves across the horizon behind the mountains and dips lower and lower each hour. It starts by coloring the sky blue, white and yellow, then a layer of orange gets painted over the scene and by the time I have to walk away from it around 11pm, because of the late hour and the cold, the mountains look like erupting volcanoes with a fiery pink sky striped with dark purple clouds above them.

Antarctica is cold, sunny and windy, those are the most prevalent physical things you feel as you walk around outside. McMurdo is still covered in snow from the winter, which I am told will all be gone in November. So the constant sunlight reflects off all surfaces, making it very bright and making sunglasses a constant necessity. Unlike the Midwest winters I am used to the weather does not vary much from day to day. Some days are windier and colder than others. But I always have to wear my gear, boots, and big red parka, and without fail the cold always hits me right when I get outside. However, in the past week here the weather has gotten somewhat milder, usually hovering around zero all day, with the wind bringing it down to about -20. When we arrived it was -10 to -20 out not yet counting the bitter wind chill. Winfly (August flights down very early in the season) and winter-over people have horror stories of the chilly temperatures of only a few weeks back. We have a display of the South Poles temps as well, and it is -58F down on the bottom of the planet today! My roommate works at South Pole and she confirms the extreme conditions and constant cold temperatures I have heard about. She says reaching zero down there is a reason to celebrate! I couldn't imagine a place that much colder than here!

We leave on scattered Helo (helicopter) trips to the Dry Valleys this week. I go down on Monday Oct, 19th. So these 9days here have been a hectic rush to get everything ready. Allow me to recap our introductions, trainings, and preparations of the first week:

Day 1 and 2

We flew in, as you have read, and then had an initial welcome meeting, got our dorms, and sheets. We had a group dinner and I went to bed early that night, from exhaustion! The next day was much of the same, got Light Vehicle training and had more meetings to attend. We got a tour of our state of the art labs here, Crary Lab, to get acquainted with staff and the surroundings. The Crary staff are so friendly and helpful, and the Antarctic aquarium was of course the highlight of the tour for me! They had a touch tank, just like Shedd Aquariums! (Aw, I miss all my Shedd family and all our exhibits and animals!)

Day 3

Jim, Loralee, and I spent the day taking inventory of all our gear for camp. It all has to be weighed properly and packaged to be shipped to camp. But that night was American night at Scott Base, the New Zealand base. So when it was time to load on to the shuttles, we waited at Derelict Junction (our shuttle Bus Stop!). After about a half an hour, no shuttle had come. So Maciek suggests walking the 20min walk. Along with Chris, Jim, Maciek, and Jason and Chris (the firefighters), I started a very cold and very beautiful walk over to Scott Base. Scott Base was so much fun. All their buildings are a bright green. The Kiwis (New Zealanders) were very welcoming and there base was a whole new perspective on bases in Antarctica! We just hung out at the bar there, which had a bunch of windows with views out to the sea ice, yielding beautiful views the long sunset all night.

Day 4, 5, 6

These days were more inventory, packing, and weighing all of our gear so it could go to Helo-Ops (Helicopter Operations) and be shipped to Lake Bonney. We had to pack 5 large white boxes (helo shipping boxes) full of all our gear. These boxes get towed by the helicopter, underneath it, so it is a very study box. The Helo needs to know the weight of the box as well. The box is 120lbs and we had to add in all our stuff so it would be at least 300lbs to be flown! An interesting Helo fact I learned, was that if a load they are pulling (which just means its hanging from the bottom of the helicopter) starts to spin, they immediately drop it, no matter where they are, how high, or what it is. They do this for safety, they do not risk the whole helicopter spinning out of control and them going with it.

I had my first meeting with Peggy from the Food Room, who was super helpful in sorting out all the food, to be pulled out and shipped the next day. By this time I had realized my sniffles had turned into full blown "McMurdo Crud", a variety of viruses that travel around base, since we live in such close quarters. So I was not sure how the rest of the week would play out, but I started to drink even more water. The next evening we played a game called "Settlers of Catan". It won a German board game award and I was told be all it was a lot of fun. What they meant by fun, exactly, is difficult to determine. What it really was, was long, boring, difficult, and full of strategy I could not figure out. It is basically a game of strategically building houses and cities and gaining resources to do so. After the game, filled with high fives, long boring stretches, and some tense competitive bargaining, I swore I would never play again. I was, however assured, it was just a bad go, and it would be better next time. So I will try to Settle Catan again... we will see how that goes.

Our first week was an amazing time for team bonding and we already feel like a family. We spend all meals laughing and being the loudest group there! It has been the best week! I love all my team members, were bonding, being silly, and laughing until we cry at all our Shenanigans and inside jokes!

Day 7, 8

Since I was sick, Loralee and Jim helped me pull food and I went back to my dorm to rest. Then Loralee and Jim left on their adventure in Snow School, a required 2-day outdoor Antarctic Survival school, lovingly referred to as "Happy Camper School". The rest of the Stone Aerospace Team arrived that night and the dinner table was full of buzzing excitement for me to meet everyone and for them to all be together again ( we missed Jim and Loralee so our team wasn't complete). The whole team is excited for the season ahead, but the Stone Aerospacers were itching to get a look Endurance, the robot they built and had not seen since they left it stored here for the long Antarctic winter at the end of last season! It was also Maciek's birthday, so we let him sleep til noon (he never sleeps!!) and we sang to him at dinner! All and all my first week in Antarctica was busy, cold, insanely beautiful, a challenge and a surprise around every corner! McMurdo has become like home, and my team like family.

Many more Antarctic adventures lie ahead of me, my time here has only just begun! So keep checking back for more posts on my life in the coldest, driest, windiest, highest, most isolated and most beautiful continent on Earth.

Stay warm!




  1. WOW! Have you seen any crevasses? Have you seen any birds? Remember the lisense plate game?
    Write down each state you see? Could you keep a list of countries? When you meet someone from a new country=write the name of that country down.
    I would play it if I were there. Happy Birthday to Maciek!

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