The Russian icebreaker “Krasin” parked in Mactown. Observation Hill can be seen in the background.
In the foreground is the Discovery Hut built for Scott’s expedition in 1902. Behind the hut is the ice pier prepared for the arrival of supply ships.
Mary Sue inside Scott’s 1902 hut. (Mary Sue photo)
Back in Mactown!
January 16, 2006
Whew! It’s been a hectic time for the last few days! This is the first update I’ve had time to write since Beardmore, so below I will try to get you caught up on what’s been happening.
But first, let me answer the science question I posed in the last weblog entry (or “blog”). I asked why we used glacial ice as our source of water, rather than the various forms of snow we had available. I was thinking about this at Beardmore where we didn’t have glacial ice and had to melt snow for our water. It’s really a matter of “density” (not to be confused with “destiny”). Density has to do with how tightly packed the atoms or molecules of a material are. The glacial ice around our Miller Range camp started out as snow a very long time ago. Freshly fallen snow is not a very dense material. It is very light and fluffy because there is a lot of air between the snowflakes and because the frozen water molecules in the snowflakes are not very tightly packed together. As more and more snow piles up, air gets squeezed out from between the snowflakes. The deeper layers get compressed and became hard, “dense” snow as water molecules are pushed closer together. Once the snow gets very deep and turns into ice, most of the air has been squeezed out, and the water molecules are very tightly packed together. So our 5 gallon bucket of ice in Miller Range gave us a lot more water than our 5 gallon bucket of snow at Beardmore!
Oz and I continued to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the team. We arranged wooden pallets on top of the metal Herc pallets. We set up a few giant cardboard boxes, called “tri-walls,” in which our small Twin Otter cargo units would be packed for the Herc flight. Meanwhile, back in our old Miller Range site, the remaining team members were very busy breaking camp and getting the gear ready for travel.
This morning the Twin Otters began ferrying other team members from Miller Range. Jani and Marie arrived with the first planeload of gear. We helped them move their tent, food, and personal bags to our little, temporary camp. The round trip between Miller Range and Beardmore takes the Twin Otter about less than two hours, including loading/unloading time. (The pilots are all business and move very quickly in the field!) The plane only carries one ski-doo per trip, but can carry many smaller items as well. After getting Jani and Marie set up and somewhat settled in, we didn’t have long to wait for the plane to arrive again. The second flight included another ski-doo and a load of camp gear. A couple of hours later Joe and Shaun arrived on the third flight with the remaining equipment to be staged through Beardmore. The Twin Otter made one last flight to the Miller Range camp to pick up Ben and Mike R. They took their tent unit gear, the last snowmobile, and the meteorite boxes directly back to McMurdo Station when the plane returned to the base.
Now that we had a larger workforce in our Beardmore camp, we could take care of a number of chores simultaneously. Some of the items (ski-doo and stove fuel, toilet paper, etc.) from Miller Range were added to the Beardmore cache for future ANSMET teams to use. Equipment we didn’t need to use in our temporary location was stowed on pallets or in the tri-wall boxes for transport to Mactown. Late in the afternoon we turned our attention to sorting out the remaining food, and reorganizing our personal gear for the return to McMurdo the next day. Marie and Jani provided a spicy stir-fry of scallops and veggies for dinner, with the rest of helping to supply appetizers, drinks, and dessert. Because the weather was mild (sunny with temps in the teens) and the view was spectacular, we dined outside and enjoyed pleasant conversation well into the evening.
There are many 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel stored at Beardmore, which are used by the Twin Otters when need to refuel in that area. Many of these barrels were nearly buried in snow, like our snowmobile fuel was when we arrived. They were also sitting in three different places, and full and empty drums were mixed in each spot. As a service to the pilots and others who have to maintain the cache, we began digging out and rearranging the drums. We collected the full drums and placed them at the surface in a place to which the pilots could taxi to refuel. We placed 18 empty drums on a spare Herc pallet and strapped them down for shipment back to McMurdo. The remaining empty drums we rearranged and stored close to the runway so they could be retrieved easily in the future.
We broke down our camp, packed the remaining small gear into tri-walls and strapped as much as possible onto Herc pallets. Large and/or odd-shaped objects such as tents and our cargo sled had to be stacked up to go on the plane individually. Two snowmobiles, including the damaged one (nicknamed “USS Gimp”), were strapped to a final cargo pallet. That left 4 ski-doos to go on the plane as loose cargo. We were excited about this because there was good chance we would be able to drive our ski-doos right up the cargo ramp and into the back of the Hercules!
About mid afternoon we spotted a C-130 flying low in our direction – our flight back to Mactown! The plane mad a couple of low passes over the landing zone to check wind and snow conditions, and probably try to look at our cargo line. Once they landed and taxied to our location, our quiet, calm, temporary home became a noisy, windy flurry of activity. When a C-130 lands in a remote location, like Beardmore, they don’t shut down their engines. So while the plane was parked just a few tens of yards away from us and our cargo line, the four huge propellers kicked up a lot of loose snow and tended to blow off things like hats, sunglasses, and appendages that were not tightly fastened. The loadmaster got out of the plane and worked with Shaun to determine the order in which the cargo would be loaded.
The loaded Herc cargo pallets are too big and heavy to be pulled by anything short of a platoon of Marines, the New Zealand rugby team, or two commercial airline baggage handlers. This is because they form a layer of ice on the bottom when they sit in the sun, and stick to the snow. So we had to tow them to the cargo ramp at the rear of the C-130. From there the load crew could use a cable and winch to pull them on board. Although, it still involved a lot of shoving and grunting on the part of the crew and our team to get the job done.
Once the plane was loaded, the crew closed the ramp and secured the cargo. A few minutes later we grabbed our carry-on bags, had a last look around at the scenery, and boarded the plane. The flight back to McMurdo took us over and past stunning scenery – mountain ranges, huge glaciers, nunataks, moraines, and more. So the nearly two-hour flight went by very quickly.
After being out in the field so long it was a bit surreal to arrive back in McMurdo and suddenly be surrounded by lots of people, vehicles, and buildings. We stopped by our storage area, retrieved our “street” clothes, and headed for our dorm. Mike R. arranged for late dinners to be held for us. So after dumping our carry-on bags in our rooms, we had our first cafeteria meal in weeks. (Most of us agreed they didn’t use nearly enough butter when making it.) I think everybody enjoyed a nice, long, hot shower after eating, and then settled in to their rooms or relaxed for the evening.
No chance to be lazy yet. All of our field cargo had been delivered from the airfield, and we spent days unloading tri-walls and cargo pallets. We organized different types of gear indoors and out. We washed coolers, pots, pans, thermoses, and pee bottles. Garbage was sorted into categories (recyclables, food waste, burnables, etc.) and placed in appropriate bins. We trucked human waste, stove fuel, tools, communication gear and ski-doo parts to their respective buildings. Tents were opened indoors to dry out and await damage inspection and repair. We reassembled and turned in our kitchen boxes, packed and stacked ANSMET equipment in our storage area, and returned unused food. Gear that could survive the cold (such as wooden food boxes and coolers) was inventoried and repacked in tri-walls and strapped to wooden pallets. A very large forklift hauled them to a “winter-over” storage area until next year. Ralph and the guys on his Evaporites team were kind enough to leave us most of their gear to clean up and return or store in addition to our own. We were all very pleased to see find this additional stuff because it kept us from being bored.
The Recky Team returned on several Twin Otter flights on January 13, and it was great to be reunited with them! After their cargo arrived, we worked together on the gear from both teams. When we finally quit for the day we spent hours at night swapping stories from the field.
All but a few minor chores are done for most of the team, but a few people are doing some final chores. We now have a little time to wander around town before leaving Antarctica this week. McMurdo Station looks very different from when left for the field. Most of the snow is gone from town and the hillsides surrounding us. Instead, it has become very dry and dusty. It’s a constant game to dodge the dirty plumes kicked up by the heavy vehicles that frequently pass by. In drainage ditches there is flowing water, and along the shores of McMurdo Sound there are gaps in the sea ice.
A Russian icebreaker reached here and is keeping a channel “open” in the sea ice in preparation for the annual arrival of fuel and cargo ships. (Yes, the U.S. has a couple of polar class icebreakers, but they’re unavailable at the moment – it’s a saga too long for this weblog.) The channel isn’t showing open water, but is filled with large chunks of sea ice. It passes through the former location of the airstrip we used earlier in the season. (Flights are now conducted from 2 airstrips beyond Scott Base on the ice shelf.
We occasionally can even see animals (other than skuas) here now. A penguin was seen at Hut Point. Seals have been seen at Hut Point and at New Zealand’s Scott Base “next door.”
Some of us have been souvenir shopping at the store here in McMurdo, and at the one on Scott Base. Hair cuts are free here in McMurdo, and it’s a busy little salon, but some of us managed to get an appointment. I, for one, am beardless for the first time in many years.