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Sunday, October 31, 2010


We got up at 5 AM this morning to try and make it to the Pole, but at 3 PM we are still in McMurdo.  Of the four flights scheduled today to Pole, three have been cancelled.  The one I am on has been delayed all day long, and is currently scheduled to try at 5 PM.  The reason for the delays and cancellations is bad visibility at the Pole.  A wind of 20 knots is blowing snow at Pole and has reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile.  Yet, we are having the nicest day here in McMurdo since we arrived, with temperature of 18 F (-8 C), and no wind.  So I took the opportunity to shoot some photos around town and document some of the impressive, interesting, or unusual transportation equipment that we have here in McMurdo.

The Terra Bus is used to transport people to and from the sea ice runway, located about 1 mile from town.  It can transport 50 people.  We spent more than one hour in it today, on the runway, waiting in vain for our flight.  Each tire is about 3 ft wide and 6 fr tall. 

This monstrous piece of equipment (compare it to the size of the people) is used here as a snow plow.  Its price tag: $140k.

The Pisten Bully can be configured to transport small cargo, or people (up to 6), or, in this case, as a snoplow.

The Delta can also be configured to transport cargo or people (as shown).  Its big fat tires are meant to drive on the sea ice.

And, finally, one of the five National Science Foundation helicopters on station, which transports people and cargo to the nearby camps.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


It is the technical term for a flight that takes off but then turns around mid-air and goes back to the starting point.  This is what happened to us yesterday on the way to the Pole.  We took off at 12:45 PM, but only 20 minutes into the flight one of the 4 propellers on our Hercules LC-130 broke, so the mission was aborted and we went back to McMurdo. 
We spent two hours on the runway waiting for take off, so I was able to take a few photos.

Two Baslers (ski-equipped DC3s) on the McMurdo runway.  The Baslers are now serving the camps and no longer going to the South Pole.

The sea ice runway in McMurdo.  Mt. Erebus in the background.

Boarding our Hercules headed to the South Pole.  The propeller on the far right in this picture will experience a hydraulic failure 20 minutes into the flight and we will be coming back to McMurdo on three engines.

Inside the Hercules.

Our next chance for a flight will be on Monday.  The weather is holding on pretty well: blue skies, temperature of 3 F (-16 C) and 10 knots of wind.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mt. Erebus

I could not leave McMurdo without a picture of Mt. Erebus.  At 12,448 ft of elevation (3,794 mt), it is the southernmost active volcano in the world, only one of a few with a liquid lava lake in its caldera, and the subject of many scientific and geographic exploration.  It has been continuously active for the past 38 years.
The mountain has been elusive ever since I arrived in McMurdo 10 days ago, hidden by low hanging clouds and fog, but yesterday the sky turned blue and terse.  So I walked 16 miles on different trails throughout the day to find the best view.  I found it around 10 PM, where the Ross Ice Shelf meets the sea ice of McMurdo sound, not far from Scott base, and 20 miles away from the fuming summit.

Mt. Erebus (12,448 ft) - the whitest mountain I have ever seen.

Today is another very nice day, temperature 1 F (-17 C) and 13 knots of wind so, short of a mechanical problem, we are flying to the South Pole at 8 AM on a Hercules LC-130.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Red Parka

Several people have been asking how we can survive one hour out in 10 F (-15 C) temperature, sitting on the beach and reading a book.  The answer is simple: the red parka.  It is part of the Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear that we were issued in ChristChurch before flying to Antarctica.  The ECW for us winterovers consists of three large bags full of socks, longjohns, heavy top and bottom fleeces, gloves, mittens, hats, windpants, boots, etc.  of which the red parka is by far the warmest.  The coldest temperature I have experienced so far has been -10 F (-23 C) this morning, and I felt warm with just two layers of clothing and my red parka on top ... we'll see how it does when the temperature drops to -100 F (-75 C) at the Pole in the winter.  The biggest challenge about reading a book in ECW gear is turning the pages with thick leather gloves.
Wearing my red parka near the top of Ob Hill in McMurdo

The National Science Foundation/USAP logo on the red parka

Now, going for a run is a different story, because it would be cumbersome to run in the red parka, and probably way too warm, even in subzero temperatures.  So I brought my own running clothes and have been experimenting to find the right balance of warmth and agility.  I was out running for 1 hr yesterday in -2 F (-19 C) temperature, and felt comfortable with just a single layer on my legs, just a pair of socks, and a long sleeve undershirt under my regular running T-shirt.  The only necessary addition is the balaclava. a combination head, neck, mouth and nose cover (part of the ECW gear) to prevent freezing the chin, nose, cheeks, and ears.  There is a breathing mesh in the balaclava, and it is important to breath through the mesh, otherwise the exhalation condenses and freezes on the goggles instantly, rendering the goggles useless.  Another challenge is keeping my watch running (the battery runs out of steam at cold temperatures and the watch stops running).  My MP3 player has been working well down to these temperatures, although the earphone wire becomes so rigid that it feels like it should snap any time.

Running outfit tested at -2 F (-19 C)

Our flight to the South Pole has been delayed again.  Now we are scheduled to leave on Saturday, so I will enjoy one more day of warm temperatures and outdoor activities here in McMurdo before plunging in the -40 F (-40 C) temperatures at pole.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Antarctica on two wheels

I found a bicycle yesterday here in McMurdo outside of Building 155.  It turned out to be a community bicycle, meaning that everyone is welcome to borrow it and return it to the same location.  It was in great shape: breaks and gears in perfect working conditions.
With 0 F (-18 C), low hanging fog banks, and light snowing, it was not your typical "nice day for a ride", but at least there was no wind, so I figured it would be as good a day for a ride as it is going to get around here, so I hopped onto the seat and headed towards Scott Base and the Willy Field Road, a 5-mile ride with 1,000 ft of elevation climb. 

Biking in Antarctica

The snow here in McMurdo is very dry, making it quite easy to ride on two wheels.  In addition, the designated roads have been groomed by heay equipment travelling to the camps, turning the roads into a heaven for bicycles.  I love the crunching sound of the snow under the wheels.  In the picture you can see the beginning of the Willy Field Road marked with flags.  On the left are the volcanic cliffs of Ross Island; on the right the sea ice.
We are now scheduled to fly to the South Pole tomorrow (Friday).  That leaves me one more day to try and get the most out of McMurdo before plunging into the -40 F (-40 C) temperatures at Pole.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A day at the beach

Our flight on the legendary DC3 to the South Pole has now been cancelled.  Too bad, because I was looking forward to the low altitude flight through the Tansantarctic Mountains in the unpressurized cabin.  It now looks like we will be flying one of the Hercules (the monstrous ski-equipped LC-130) on Thursday or Friday.

The white beach in McMurdo sound

So I took advantage of this extended stay in McMurdo to spend some time at the beach, one of my last chances to see the ocean for the next 12 months.  We have a beautiful white snow beach here in McMurdo.  You can even see waves in the ocean, but they are frozen, and they are not really waves, but rather undulations produced by stress in the sea ice.  I sat down for an hour on a rocky outcrop wearing my big red parka and reading my book in 10 F (-15 C) temperature, enjoying the view and reminiscing my last trip to the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, California, only two weeks ago.  I am reading K2, a book by Ed Viestours on the climbing history of K2, and yesterday I was on the chapter about the 1909 Italian expedition of Luigi Amedeo of Savoia, the duke of the Abruzzi.  It was 13 years ago that I was staring at the Abruzzi ridge from K2 base camp, high on the Baltoro glacier, and now here I am, close to the bottom of the earth, immersed in a different but equally enchanting frozen landscape.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

White Paradise

We've been stuck in McMurdo for five days, now.  Three flights have made it to the South Pole this season.  I am scheduled on the fourth, so I should be next to go.  However, the plane that went to Pole yesterday has not come back, so it is unlikely we will go today.  Maybe tomorrow.

I have taken advantage of this prolonged stay to do some hiking, running, and helping out the fuel people dig out fuel tanks from the winter snow accumulation.

Yesterday the temperatures dropped to 0 F (-18 C) and the wind picked up, making it feel a lot colder, so I skipped my run and instead went on a walk with my camera on the same road.  I wanted to take some photos of the mountains before going to the flatness of the South Pole, and to document the white paradise that surrounds us.

My running path to Scott Base follows the fuel line at the base of this mountain

The road keeps following the fuel line up and to the left 
The road goes up the hill and then to the far right 
The crack in the sea ice behind Scott base is a pressure ridge formed by colliding ice sheets.  It reaches 30 ft (10 m) in height.

White all over

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On the Ice

We made it to the ice a couple of days ago on a spectacular C17 flight.
The weather has been getting worse ever since we got here, so all flights to the South Pole have been cancelled, and no more flights from New Zealand have been coming in.  Temperatures have been hovering around 10 F (-10 C) and a very thin snow has been coming down steadily.
That has not prevented Yens and me from walking all the way up Observation Hill (~750 ft elevation) after lunch yesterday, and then walking to Scott base (the New Zealand base - located 2 miles from McMurdo) after dinner.  In between our walks we found the time to stop by the Crary Lab, where Karen gave us a tour of the marine science lab and showed us some incredible Antarctic rocks and fossils.

On the C17 flight from ChristChurch to McMurdo.

View of Antactica from the C17.  We are around 70 degrees latitude South.

Landing on the sea ice of McMurdo sound.

McMurdo seen from the top of Observation Hill.

A sea anemone at the Crary Marine Science Laboratory.

Scott Base - the New Zealand station 2 miles from McMurdo

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

ChristChurch, NZ

I always thought that California is the most beautiful place in the world outside of the European Alps ... until I landed in New Zealand yesterday.  And I always thought that Santa Cruz in California is the best town to live in ... until I saw ChristChurch.

We arrived in ChristChurch yesterday afternoon after 17 hours of flying and 30 hours of travel (my longest ever).  The most important thing is that my bicycle made it to its final destination in one piece in spite of 1 train trip, 5 plane rides, 2 shuttle transfers, and 2 customs inspections.  It is now being stored at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in ChristChurch, waiting for me to pick it up when I come out of the ice next year.  Today we went to the CDC and we were given 3 big bags of warm clothes, including the very famous red parka with the Antarctic logo.

Yesterday and today I tried to soak in the grass, the flowers, the water, and the ducks at the botanical garden, before those views are taken away for the next thirteen months.  I took loads of pictures, so I will have something to look at in case I become nostalgic in the middle of the Antarctic night.  I also enjoyed two wonderful runs in the large and beautiful city parks.

Tomorrow morning we need to check-in at 6:30 AM for the C17 flight to McMurdo.

The Botanical garden in ChristChurch

Good Bye rivers, flowers, animals

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Free man

Off I am.

I spent the last two weeks packing all my possessions into a 10' x 20' garage; disconnecting my life from world inconveniences such as cell phone, car, utilities, insurances, subscriptions, even a place to live; trying to complete my work commitments; and saying good-byes to my friends ... and off I went, with just a backpack and my bicycle packed into a cardboard box.

I came back to Denver for two more days of training with the Antarctica crew, and now we are finally back at the Denver airport waiting for the plane that will eventually take us to New Zealand, our gateway to the white continent.

Good Bye Bay Area - San Francisco from the air