Wednesday, December 27, 2006


*An off base outing to a plane that crashed in the 70's
*Blue Balls
*Snow Hotel
We do get sports down here, and I just walked away from the TV in disgust, watching UCLA loose their bowl game to FSU. To some of you, you understand what I am talking about, and the others not. But little touches like watching our favorite sports teams down here help keep our sanity. That is of course if we can get past the incredibly propaganda-strewn commercials of the AFN (Armed forces network).

On an earlier post, I said that Antarctica comes from the Latin meaning No bears. Well, it may or may not come from a words meaning no bears, but not Latin. It may be Greek, but I don't have the interest to spend the time researching, because well, either way, THERE ARE NO BEARS here.

I have been keeping busy, trying to get off Base as much as possible. I have not been working on this Blog. Well, I have been writing, but I am hesitant to just transfer those words over to this Blog, a public forum. Big Brother likes to watch us down here, and I wouldn't want to say anything against the party line, as it has not boded well for others.

We had a big party for Christmas, and we also got two days off for it. It is really nice to have two days off in a row here, as six is a lot to work in a week. The party was lots of fun and the food was great. Each department made a decoration, and many said that ours (housing) was the best. Of course I had very little to do with it, but it was really good. It was a giant Candyland style board with many local landmarks represented. It even had actual game cards, so people could really play it.

I spent Christmas Eve doing a little volunteer shuttle driving over to the Kiwi base, and camping. Yes, thats right camping, in the snow. Many who know me probably think that's odd, as I am not known for liking cold weather. But hey, when in Antarctica do as the.........hmmm,.......there aren't really any Antarcticans to do as. Oh well. So there is a new outing club, and they had a trip scheduled to train some leaders (I got here to late for that) but they allowed 10 others to tag along. I decided I will have few other opportunities to camp in Antarctica on Christmas Eve, so I went. I did not see Santa that night, but I did finally see a penguin very close (of course my camera said "lens error" at the time) and a seal. Most of the 24 of us slept in dug out snow shelters, but they made me feel a bit claustrophobic, so I slept in tent, and opened my Christmas presents in it in the morning. I didn't sleep well, but not due to the cold. The sleeping bag I had was fine. It was more to do with the light, it never goes away out there. Well not for a few months yet, anyway.
I also got off base to be art. As well as science, the NSF (National Science Foundation) supports several art projects per season. One of them this year is by an artist named Lita Albuquerque. She set 99 Blue Balls of varying sizes out on the ice, to be filmed from above. They are set in the pattern of the southern night sky, the 99 brightest stars. About 75 of us walked around it in a spiral while a helicopter circled, and filmed. I am art, or part of art anyway.
Need some dinner, so am going to wrap it up, but will try to write more soon about Icestock (the New Years Eve concert celebration) and the arrival of the Swedish Icebreaker that should be here next week. The women are abuzz as a boat load of Swedish Sailors are about to show up. As if they need the odds to be tipped more in their favor.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


There are a lot of diversions down here to keep you busy. In fact most people are heard to complain that they are too busy. I mean we work 60 hours a week and then try to have a social life down here. Between dorm style living (which leads to a lot of random socializing) trying to see/do as much of Antarctica as possible and partaking in the activities that the Recreation department has planed, its hard to keep up. Speaking of what Rec has planned, I became a contestant in the beard growing contest. I entered the beard growing contest, because essentially what you have to do to participate is nothing. I excel at that. I figure that if I may get a prize for doing nothing, why not be involved. In fact there are only 9 contestants and there are supposedly 5 categories (including best overall, thickest heaviest-weighed to the gram, worst and something else) so my odds are pretty good. As I write this in fact, I am doing my darnedest to grow the beard, I only have six weeks left. I also need to start studying for the Geography Bee that Rec is putting on.

God science is boring. I remember all over again how much I hated it in high school, and why I still hate it. It’s boring. I know we (the workers of this station) are here to support science, and I know that when I leave I will be asked by many what science was going on down here. So I try, I try to go to the lectures and be involved in the discussions, but Mr Fargus lost me in 9th grade when he broke out the periodic table and I don’t think I’m coming back. I do know that one of the main projects this year is by a company named Andrill that is taking ice cores from deep within the ice sheets. But I’m not sure what they are trying to discover or prove. I want to want to know, but I don’t care. At least not after I am tired from working so much. Maybe if I attended more lectures (and somehow successfully stayed awake) I could answer friends questions that come in via email. Friends questions like, “do you worry about the increased radiation leading to increased risk of skin cancer, and what do the scientists have to say?” Or comments like, “because of you I watched an interesting documentary the other day about Lake V…… (It starts with a V and was probably named by a Russian, but I can’t quite remember the name) are you anywhere near it. I did go to a science discussion tonight, but mainly because there was said to be a plate of soft cheeses there, and my friend John Jackson (who set the thing up) asked me a million times to come. In the end though, I had to leave early and join the gang in the lounge that watches Sex in the City every Tuesday night. Sex was always much more of interesting topic to me than science.

Before I came down here I was telling people I thought the whole experience would be like that old cliche they say about owning a boat. They say that the best days are the day you buy it and the day you sell it. Well being down here I figured the best days would be the day I arrive and the day I leave. The day I set foot on the continent was a great day, and I really do look forward to the day I leave. Its not that I hate it here, in fact I don’t. But my life is a little too much like the movie Ground Hog’s day. And being a janitor is less than glamorous. Most of us are struggling with motivation, I am not the only janitor in that boat. The novelty of being here has worn off, and we realize we clean up after people 60 hours a week. Morale in the janitorial department is low, and there is a bit of a divide between the Winfly people (winter flight-August arrivals) and the Main body folks (October arrival). All of this I’m sure causes dismay to our manager, an amazingly enthusiastic (about janitoring) woman named Amanda. The catch of course is that Amanda has been in the janitorial arts for 12 years, where as all of us just agreed to clean shit so we could come to Antarctica. By choice we would all do something else. That is not true of all workers on the base, but that’s the story in the janitors world. So we struggle with motivation every day.

We have ourselves one smart continent here. Depending on where you were educated, there are 5 to 7 continents on this planet, but either way, this is the smartest one. It has the highest education level per capita of all the continents. Bare minimum everyone has a high school diploma. But of course there are many more bachelors, masters and PHD’s on top of that. I heard that last year there were more advanced degrees in the dish room than there were on the science teams here. Educated people will do whatever they can to get here. When I was discussing this fact with Casey my roommate, I told him that I had a BA in Geography. He informed me that the average income for geography grads from University of North from the year 1984 is about a million bucks. Michael Jordan was a graduating Geography major that year. So he chose professional basketball, and I went with janitoring. But for all his money, I bet he’s never been to Antarctica
It sure was quite a weekend, there was a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. For starters, we had two days off in a row, which was amazing. I never knew how precious two day weekends were until I came here and they were gone. With only one day off you are torn between doing something fun or recreational and resting. Your body feels like resting, but your mind tells you that you came down here to do more than work, sleep, eat and shit (listed in order of the amount of time spent doing them) . Anyway with two days that dilemma is solved as you can go do something fun one day, and rest it off the next.
So what did I do that was fun? I hiked the longest recreational hike we have the option to do. I set out Saturday morning with Jesse and Travis (three janitors out to conquer the continent) on the 8.5 mile loop that takes us past Castle Rock and around to the Kiwi’s Scott base, then back to McMurdo. Until the day before we did the hike you were allowed to climb castle rock (which seems out of place, more like it should be in the SW of the US) as well, but they closed it until further notice. After all it was bringing folks some joy, so they had to nip that in the bud. Well actually it was probably a good idea, because I heard it was quite precarious to ascend, and many were surprised that it remained open so long. So in theory it will reopen after they secure the route to the top. But for now we had to just walk by the base of it.
The hardest part of the hike is not officially part of the hike as it is the steep hill out the back of town to get to the trail head. But before we left we had to go to the computer kiosk and file an e-foot plan. That is the way they keep track of us, so we don’t go wandering off into the big white, never to be seen again. We are supposed to log the hike we plan to do, who is going, and how long we suspect it will take us. If we are even 5 minutes late they start the process of looking for us. Of course we do have to carry a radio (from the firehouse) so if we are going to be late we have to call to extend our ETA. It is actually a good thing, and keeps us all safe. You don’t have to file a foot plan or carry a radio for some of the shorter hikes, but for this one you do. When you hit the trail head it is then a 3 mile gradual ascent to Castle Rock, marked by flags. Red and Green mark the trail and black mean danger, don’t come near, probably a crevase. Of course that is one of the major fears of walking on snow/ice/glacier is that you will walk over a crevase and fall in. So we stick to routes that have been already explored and flagged.

It took us about four hours to do the loop around to Scott Base, and it is probably the longest period in my life that I have been out in that sort of weather. It was about 30 F, but probably around 10 with the wind chill. So relatively warm for here, but still really really cold for a California boy that doesn’t really like wearing too many clothes. Actually that is tough and makes hiking seem harder to me. I prefer to hike in the SW of the US in 85 degree heat with Tevas, shorts and no shirt, and hop in a lake or river to top it off. But being all bundled up in big red, goggles, balaclava, neck warmer, gloves, insulated overalls, long johns, boots and thick socks is very cumbersome. Especially because the goggles often fog up, and it limits your visibility even more, and increases the clastrophobic feeling that is odd, considering the wide expanse of nothingness you are in. But the goggles have to stay on, for fear of snow blindness, which is similar to sunburning of the eyes I am told, not fun.

So we almost made the whole loop back to Scott base. In fact flagged down a shuttle about 300 yards from Scott base, but we were tired (8.5 uphill (seemed like both ways) in the snow is tiring) and had Thanksgiving dinner on the brain. We were lucky to flag down a ride actually because although the last 1.5 miles to Mcmurdo from Scott base is a road, it is still quite hilly. The driver teased us that we had not completed the loop, because we were a few 100 yards short, but the three of us were satisfied.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My first Blog

I have a Blog, I can't believe it. Still no cell phone though, thank god. So I am still experimenting with it, so bere with me. The pictures don't yet correnspond with the writing, and as I said before, I am writing jsut for myself mostly, not re-reading yet, and then posting it. So again, bare with it, and disregard the mispellings and what doesn't make sense.
The pictures so far are of me entering the beard growing contest by becoming cleam shaven, Jesse passing out drunk and have Bisquick dumped on him, the greenhouse, Mt Erebus(volcano) and The wastewater treatment plant (where incidently a girl got electricuted tonight-she is mostly fine, but still in medical)

I left the base today, and I saw a penguin yesterday. These are the reasons I clean toilets, because these toilets are in Antarctica and it is a beautiful place. I finally made it to the main excursion that everyone is after, Cape Evans. It only took me 4 attempts. The first time the trip was canceled due to weather, the second time I volunteered to give up my spot for a guy that could only go that day, and the third time I was sick. So finally on the fourth attempt I left the base today, for the first time since I have been here. Well that is if you count Scott base, Ob Hill and the ice runways really as just extensions of this base-don’t tell the Kiwi’s (New Zealanders) I said that.

Cape Evans is about 25 miles or so from here by road, across the sea ice. The trip can only be made for a few more weeks, because then the ice will not be safe to drive on then. The vehicles we go in (called Deltas) are huge, and need some thick ice to drive on. They are 25 year old vehicles, that seem older, that belong to the navy, and have a pax compartment in the back for 18 people, and a large cab that can hold 4 people. Cape Evans is at the foot of Mt Erebus, which often has a little tuft of smoke coming out of the top, and has blown a few times this century (CHECK facts). On a side note, an evacuation scenario if that thing ever has a major eruption, does not include getting us all out of here on time. I’m sure janitors are low on that list for spots on the plane. There is also a hut at Cape Evans that was built by Scott and later used by Shacklton ( throw in facts) The hut is still filled with lots of orginal equipment, bedding, clothing, gear canned food, seal blubber strips and a dead penguin. No that is not the one I refered to seeing yesterday, I will get to that story soon enough. As well as going in the historic hut, we went in a fish hut that has a hole drilled into it through to the sea. Of course I had to stick a hand and a foot in. Not at the same time though I am not that limber. We also found an little frozen lake where Brent, Kelly, Charley (a girl) and I had sliding competitions. It was a great day for it, not a cloud in the sky (there usually isn’t) but more amazingly no wind which means it was just 15 degrees, not 15 with an insanly cold wind chill as is often the case. It I have acclimated enough to think that 15 is warm, or down right tropical, amazing. So today s why I clean toilets, and it was a good day.

One of the goals of coming to this place has partially been met today. I can now confirm that small black specks in the distance do exisit on this continent. Of course these specks are known by another name that is more common, but harder to actually see, and that is Emperor Penguin. Six of them turned up down by the ice runway today waddeling along. I had a rare Saturday off (am working Sunday instead) and when I was checking the menu in the galley a shuttle driver friend of mine came in and said the news had gone out on the radio about the six visitiors. He was headed out there, so I went along for the ride. Of course he only had a truck and there were four of us, so I spent the ten minute trip in the back of a truck in 10 degree weather. By the time we got out there though, the were already being escorted, or ushered, or corralled really off the other side of the runway by the fire department. The Antarctic treaty says we are not allowed to disturb the wildlife, but exceptions are made when they are on the runway, and a plane is about to land. In fact the plane that landed today, had the passengers getting off and immediately seeing six penguins walking by. Essentially they could have gotten right back on the plane and flown back to Christchurch, two of the main Antarctic goals accomplished. Penguin seen, check, set foot on Antarctica, check, cold experienced, check, lets go. So unfortnatly when I arrived on the scene the little guys were on the otherside of the runway. Peons, AKA janitors without authorization are not allowed to walk across the runway. Firemen, Airforce personnel and just about everyone else seem to be able to, so I decided to go for it. I asked a lot of people around who I needed to get clearance form, and after a lot of I don’t knows, I decided to chance it (they said no plane was coming in) as I came 1000’s of miles to see theses little creatures, and did not want to stop half a mile short. But alas, by the time I reached the otherside of the runway (and then could not physically go further due to unsafe terrain) the fire men had already done there “duty” (another reason to be jealous of the firemen and their easy gig here) and I only got about 300 feet from them. Some shuttle drivers that were on the scene early have pictures from about 15 feet. But I have seen them, more than once. And its not really important how close, as Jesse says. He doesn’t really actually want to see one for seeing ones sake. He wants to see one (but hasn’t yet) because he wants to avoid this conversation at home:

“Wow Antarctica, that’s great”


“Did you see any penguins?”

“well, no”

“Well did you see any Polar bears?”

“Actually, no the don’t exist on the continent , in fact Antarctica is from Latin meaning no bears. “

“Oh…………..hmmmm, so you were just cleaning toilets, and no penguins and no polar bears ehh? So why did you go down there?

So go educate your friends, no polar bears down here. But tiny black specks in the distance, there are, I can now confirm that.

One can survive here on very little money. My roommate has been here for 5 weeks and has spent 20 dollars. Of course he doesn’t drink. I suppose I would be at about fifty dollars for four weeks, before drinks. They are not that expensive though, and I really am to tired to get up to too much serious trouble. I have been partaking a bit on Thursday night when we (The Americans) have our standing invite to the Kiwi base, ad of course Saturday night, with no need to get up Sunday morning. You just have to be careful you don’t get caught in the party till the sun goes down (In Feb) routine. But this was supposed to be about spending, not drinking. A lot of what people have to spend money on at home, we get for free. For instance,

Laundry-with soap
Taxi/shuttle-not that we go very far
Work clothes
Computer courses
video rentals
cable TV (limited)
Movies in the makeshift cinema
Gym access
No ATM fees at the Wells Fargo ATM (unless our bank charges us, mine does not for 6 withdrawls a month, I love credit unions.)

All these things are provided for us, and of course save A LOT of money, especially the rent thing. It’s sad to say really but if you factor all that in, I am being compensated for more to be a janitor than I was as an assistant manager for Trek America.

There are of course places we can spend money here, but unless you are a huge suvinior junkie or a raging alcoholic, it won’t be to much.

The places we can spend our money are:

Bowling 2 dollars a game one for shoes, plus tip for the volunteer pin jockies (that’s right no machine to reset them) By the way Pin Jockey was Homer Simpsons dream job.

Burger bar three times a week if we want a change from the cafeteria-$5

Bingo, every other week I think $5 entry

The bars-varies, but beers cost $2, wine $3-5 liquor $3-5,

Weekly poker games, although officially gambling is not allowed here.

The store, which mainly sells junk food, souveniers, alcohol and soda and toiletries.

Gear issue. They generally have outdoor gear (like skis), costumes (for the many parties we have here, CD and some other misc. stuff. Lots of stuff is free here, with only a refundable deposit required, and if it does cost it is nominal. For instance my roommate got a snowboard for a week and paid $10, plus a $20 refundable deposit.

The internet, mail order. A big problem for some, but it does not interest me really.
And that’s it really. So our money is safe, tucked away in our bank accounts, where it arrives by direct deposit twice a month, until we go on a drinking bender an blow it all. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go to the bar.

Mt Erebus

Waste building