New Harbor

Let's talk about inertia. Let's see if I can get started.

Ok. Twenty minutes to write that.

This is going a little faster. Now. Going on the fourth day here. Bad weather's stopped all helo traffic. We're out here, 50 miles from McMurdo.

Ok. Ten minutes to write that. Either my brain stops on its own, or I get interrupted. That was looking for wrenches to check the propane supply. Make sure it's not leaking.

Ok. Ten more minutes. That was a radio check. Most of the camp has gone up to Explorer's Cove to the remote jamesway there where the divers are planning another dive.

Ok. Five more minutes. Sam came in looking for tools. Been like this for a week and a half. No time to sit and write, but when I do, can’t think too well. Been kind of chilly for the past couple days. -1F with wind chills to -30F. Got chilly in the jamesway last night. Someone probably forgot to fill the preway (heater) with diesel.

Two days ago the wind blew just right, and the vane on the smoke stack didn’t pivot, and the whole tent filled with diesel fumes. Woke everyone up. Guess there’s plenty of ventilation so we don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. (That sentence interrupted for 2 minutes between “have” and “to” while Sam handed me a radio. He’s hiking out to the jamesway and wants to do a comms check when he gets there.)

Last night we watched “Danger Man” on DVD. Two episodes. I fell asleep during the second one. Henry Kaiser’s brought a slew of DVDs. We have “New Harbor” Theater on certain nights, and last night was one.

Eating well. There’s enough food here for a couple days. They didn’t expect there to be 9 people in this camp for so long, so once we’re done with the fresh stuff, we’re moving on to the frozen rations you don’t break into unless there’s nuclear war back in the northern hemisphere and nobody comes to get you at all.

Pepper soup, is what they broke into last year.

Followed the election down here. Lots of disappointed Kerry fans, a couple of happy Bush fans. Generally, though, being here is more mportant for the moment, so it was just a passing thing. Urgent notes from the north came and went. I can't say we're unaffected by it, but honestly, it seems so far away now that even though we know we're going home and back to people for whom it was a big deal, it feels at the moment it can't possibly matter.

Last night we had pizza. The night before Henry made us Thai food with the curry and fish sauce I horked down from the United States for him. It was great.

Temps here in the jamesway are hovering around 50F at waist level. Down around the feet it’s probably closer to 40. My feet are perpetually cold (unless I’m in my sleeping bag). I’m wearing a couple layers of poly pro all the time. Long underwear.

In contrast--the Alaskans among us think this is summer. Even Sam and Dug, two guys from Albany, New York, are wandering around in sweats. They’re not even putting on gloves. Another week and I’d probably be used to this.

Ok, another twenty minutes.

I doubt the helo’s are flying today. I can’t see Hjorth Hill and forget about Erebus. You gotta be able to see Erebus before the helos will fly. It’s a total white-out over the ocean. Blowing snow here. Air filled with ice fog.

Been losing my enthusiasm for taking pictures. Pumped a couple 10 gallons of glycol into a conduit last night. Got all over everything. Smells like fuel and doesn’t evaporate. Thick as pancake syrup in this temp. Need to fill the pipes so they don’t freeze and explode.

We were out till about midnight. Bright as day, of course, so only the position of the sun in the sky gave any indication of the hour.

Everyday I’m stuck out here the sched gets pushed back. Right now, my flight home is pushed back to the 20th of November from the 14th. I don’t want to miss Thanksgiving, not to mention my company probably will disavow all knowledge of me by the time I get back.

Once I get used to this, truth be told, this is really no big deal. It is a tad adventurous, compared to a trip to the mall to go XMAS shopping, but the danger factor is nearly nil. I'm just stuck near the frozen sea ice in Antarctica for a couple days. We got electricity via generator, computer network via satellite, and a pantry full of cookies and bagles and steaks. The people around me are very independent and interesting. Dennis here was a prison guard on Death Row in Nebraska. Now he's a driller in Antarctica. Dug (no-"o") was a Navy Seal. Heidi worked with the Canadian Department of the Interior up near Resolute. Sam works for the New York Department of Health, but studies foraminafera both there and here. And then there's me and Tony and Jeff, the not so interesting guys from California. Not so terrible for us, company-wise, but they've got to live with us.

No Call from helo ops yet. Maybe they're flying. But probably not. We don't get out today, we won't get out till day after tomorrow.

Here's what's happening to date. I wrote about the trench and the conduit. The divers. Etc. Let me reproduce that here. I was still thinking straight when I wrote this.

Dear everyone,

This week has been much crazier than most of my Antarctic weeks. It's been 12-15 hour days, every single day, including Sunday, which is the day off down here. We've had our entire schedule shot to hell. Our cam deployments down in the Taylor valley have been preempted by a DV visit (DV = distinguished visitor). So we've had our helo schedule totally invalidated, and now we have to figure out when the hell we can get our instruments down valley on some other day.

I'm here at New Harbor, which is literally on the shore of the McMurdo sound at a place called "Explorer's Cove". The cove itself is totally frozen. The sea ice is 14' thick, but it's heaved in places to pressure ridges of 12' or more when you have to climb over to get where you want to go. The sides of these pressure ridges are pretty steep, if not vertical. We wear things on our boots called "stabilicers" which basically give you spikes to climb the ice. The place we're working is about a mile from the camp, so we have to either hoof it back and forth a couple times a day, or if one's available, we take the SkiDoo (and go flying over the ridges). Our purpose for being here is to install the ROMEO underwater cam. The cam is going to live on the sea floor under the ice all summer long. It was an interesting day, starting with me working with Jeff to rewrite the microcontroller code for the cam itself. Then we went out to the dive hut.

Today we had an ice driller make us a 65' long hole in the ice, basically from the shore down into the sea to where the liquid ocean started. It took him 5 hours to bore through all the ice, and when he got to the sea, we inserted an stainless steel pipe into the hole. Doug, our diver (ex Navy Seal), went to the seafloor from the dive hut, and found where the pipe broke through. We fed him our fiber umbilical through the dive hole. Then he inserted our fiber optic umbilical into the conduit, and it came up the other side. We then sealed the pipe on both ends and pumped it full of glycol so it wouldn't freeze internally.

Then we connected the cam to the fiber in the dive hut, and a laptop to the other end, and proved we could see the ROMEO webcam though the umbilical. That process sounds easy, but it took about 8 hours--today. Previously, our GAs (general assistants: basically 20-year old kids who come to the ice to do odd jobs) dug a 100' long, 52" deep trench in SOLID ICE with a chain saw. It took them 4 days to get from the shore to the point at which we would start drilling. The conduit went in at the bottom of that trench.

Couple of interesting things about today--I spent about 3 hours debugging the cam code in real time in the jamesway doorway in -10F. Luckily, Jeff's laptop kept working (we powered it with a generator) but I got frozen from sitting there not moving, and so was pretty chilly for a while.

Our diver, Dug Coonts, was under the ice for 106 minutes putting fittings on the pipes and managing things from the ocean floor. That's a record. He was pretty frosty when he came up. I had to help pull him out of the dive hole because he was so cold his hands and arms didn't work anymore. We really pushed it with him in so long.

Everybody out here at this camp is a grade-A personality. Top flight people to work with. No whiners. Just doers. Proud to be among them.

November 6th, 2004. New Harbor Camp, Antarctica