Sunday, 27 January 2008

Hinge Zone 2: The Trouble with Trimbles

The bulk of my work is done, now. I've got five out of six of my devices working in the field, and the last one is sitting outside the window, ready to go at my leisure. This last device will be located at the Halley VI site, which is ridiculously easy to get to. The route between Halley V and the eventual location of Halley VI is a 12km groomed version of the M25/401/I75.

However, this week it was time to finish our dark business in the hinge zone. We had more great weather, so Rich and I geared up for another day of linked travel to make our measurements at the boringly-named "Site 6". That was the one that bad weather had cut short our last time.

It had been a long time since my last measurement, though, and I had to scrabble around the Simpson gathering and testing the Trimble GPS devices, some of which didn't work - memory card problems, bad cables, etc. (NB - Trimbles are great - but we jury-rig them a lot.) By the time I had them all working, it was 2pm. So a late start. I thought of this blog title while fixing them - if you get the reference, you're an old-school geek.

Anyhoo. The trip to Site 6 was loads better than the last time - perfect contrast, and much practice in linked travel meant we could go along at a decent speed. And Site 6, for all it's dull name, was surprisingly beautiful! In the Hinge, which is where the ice shelf meets the mainland, there is pressure in the ice that throws up crevasses, canyons, and generally "hilly" territory. Not expecting this, I didn't bring my camera - but Rich did, so I'll be getting some pictures soon. While we waited for the survey readings, we roped up and wandered in and out of some of the canyon-like features.

Meanwhile, back at base, this past week has seen some of the strain of overloading a base with too many people. Snowmobile petrol is getting scarce - when we got back from the hinge, we could only half-fill our tanks. Yesterday, one of the generators overheated and the power went out (and fire alarms went off). But the biggest strain is on the poor melt tank. It can't keep up. We throw snow and ice into it three or four times a day, and it doesn't have time to melt before it needs more. As a result, the tube gets jammed. Management is pleading for all of us to limit our showers. I think I'll start having sponge baths at the Simpson (we have our own melt tank that serves four of us).

Well, at least the Internet is still worki|¬~NO CARRIER

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Second stop on the Halley Tour: Laws Building

It's been a long time since my last stop on the Halley tour - the Simpson. But now it's time to look at the main building of Halley: the Laws. This is where I sleep, eat, drink, and recreate. If that last word may be used in verb format.

Anyway, the Laws is the biggest building here. It has one hallway:

When you walk in, you turn to the right and take off your boots in the aptly-named boot room. There, you can play the annoying game "Find your own boots/jacket among 25 other identical ones". It's rather empty at the moment:

And then, you're usually hungry, so you go to the dining room:

The kitchen is in behind it; if you're not at a scheduled meal time, then there's always loads of leftovers in the refrigerated counter by the window, there. Much like a certain household in Norfolk I frequented once, "counter food" is quite popular.

Care for a drink, or a game of pool? Wander across the hall to the bar:

The bar itself has a brass profile of Antarctica inlaid into the surface, a must for my own yet-to-be-built bar.

If you want peace and quiet, because the bar/dining room is too hot and sweaty, try the library:

I'm sitting in that green chair right now as I write, incidentally. Then, when you're tired of touring the Laws, you can go brush your teeth in the can...

...and then go to bed. Top bunk, for me.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Pluses, minuses, and penguins

Well, I'm getting down to about five weeks left. I've been meaning to list a series of things, in general, that I like and dislike about Antarctica. Let's start with the bad stuff first.

1) Light. I've never liked it bright. I use minimum lighting whenever I can, I don't like overhead lights, I don't like sunny days in general. Here, you can't get away from the light! 24 hours a day, and the sunglasses are never enough. After a day in the field, I look like I've been on a class A drug bender for a few weeks, with seriously bloodshot eyes and a dazed expression. I dream about my first starry night in Cape Town.

2) 72-hour-a-week shifts. We've been on them for two months straight, and it really makes you tired and less inclined to engage in recreation at the end of each day. You may have noticed that my blogs entries have become shorter when they started in early December! All work and no play makes Ryan .... something something something ...

3) Absence of (sushi, ale, fresh fruit, etc.). Getting a bit prima donna here, but there are some delicacies that I really do need.

Bright side!

1) Absence of any type of bug. Obviously includes the mosquito/blackfly variety, but also the common cold, and viruses like that. Nothing! I'm giving my immune system a 4-month holiday (which probably means I'll get every sickness under the sun in Africa).

2) Water. Know those ads you see for beer commericals, Evian, Aquafina, and so on? Horse piss, when compared to the water in my toilet. The freshest, cleanest water in the world. Too bad we have to shovel it all.

3) Food (exceptions above notwithstanding). Roasts every other night. Desserts every night. All on the house. One of Bas' mantras is "the more you eat, the more you earn". Not the basis of a healthy diet, but true nonetheless.

4) People. Most people here are in the right frame of mind. Not really here for the money; more for the adventure.

5) The things you learn. How to drive large tracked vehicles. All the knots you need to get through life. Ice climbing skills. How to build a 40 million GBP facility in a wasteland on the bottom of the earth.

There are probably more! But all told, the good clearly outweighs the minor inconveniences above.

On another note, I had another penguin trip on Sunday; almost against my will, because I needed to share my field assistant Rich with some top brass. They wanted to see penguins, and I wanted to install a GPS site. So we did both.

When we got to the bay, some young penguins were waiting at the top for us:

I went down first, and waited while Rich gave instructions on descending to the sea ice. Meanwhile, the young penguins were making their own way down, mostly by falling end-over-end. Having some difficulty! I caught the tail end of some very amusing falls on video, but I can't upload them to this blog. Believe me, I tried.

While down there, I got a great picture of a flying skua, finally:

...and an Adele penguin, who was clearly an interloper among all the Emporers. Not sure what he was doing there!

The young penguins are also starting to shed their fur-like feathers, making them look like angst-ridden scruffy teenagers:

I imagine it's the penguin equivalent of a bad case of acne.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

If the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind...

...then I'm getting a whole lot of answers at the moment. She's a windy day here at Halley, so much so that they've stopped work for today. A Saturday off! Such luxury. I'm sitting in my bunk here, catching up on e-mails and eating some of the provisions that came in the mail from my sister, my parents, and the Ropps in St. Marys. Thank you all for that!

Of course, I could continue to work. And maybe I shall. Or I might just wander over to the Simpson and do some half-hearted work mixed in with some stock-picking. (It's a contrarian's dream out there, these days)

Or I could continue to plan my life for the next few months. This would include my trip to South Africa and Tanzania, my accommodations when I get back to Cambridge, my trip back to Canada, accommodations for the weddings I'm attending, a conference in April...

Or I could work on that journal paper I always meant to write.

Or I could learn about radio theory or glaciology. The latter would be helpful for a glaciologist, I reckon.

Or I could have a nap.


Sunday, 6 January 2008

Hooray for October Ryan...

I like October Ryan. I’ve been opening his boxes for the last few days and getting lots of surprises.

Before I left, I remember that October Ryan was a bit frazzled...he had just a few weeks to get familiar with the needs of the Antarctic and had to pack boxes and boxes full of stuff that January Ryan - that's me - would be needing or wanting.

First of all, there's the personal stuff. My cross-country skiis. Maple syrup. Chai tea. My travel quilt which my mother made for me (as opposed to the home quilt, which doesn't leave their house; and the ├╝ber-quilt, yet to be made, for when I have a real house and bed). My down pillow. However, October Ryan also sent a few things I didn't need - protein powder, for instance. Halley throws so much meat at you here that I will be having no protein deficiencies. A typical dinner will have fish, chicken, and beef all available if one chooses. Also, a few books arrived that aren't particularly necessary - the library here is fully stocked.

However, on the work side of things, October Ryan shone. Parts I didn't know I needed showed up, just as I needed them. I unpacked a huge antenna with the wrong connector on it, and grumbled to myself about it (and October Ryan) for a few days. But then, lo and behold, in another box, there was an adapter that made it all usable. Funny that October Ryan didn't tell me about that.

Anyway. January Ryan has been pretty busy here, visiting sites and getting ready for a field blitz to five different locations to install stuff. Yesterday, Rich and I were at one such site, which was relatively close to the Shackleton, which was leaving that day. So, we wandered by. And it was almost sad to see the sea ice location, formerly a hotbed of activity, now reverted back to a bleak and empty patch of sea ice. After the high winds this week, even the massive ramp from the shelf down to the sea was blown full of snow, which we had to dig a channel through to get down.

When we got to the ship, we helped with a last bit of cleanup, before the Shackleton cast off. Some of last year's winterers were leaving on this voyage, and it was a fairly poignant moment for these folks, who have been sharing the same toilet for 12 months, but will now not see each other for quite some time. So, a few tearful farewells.

Then, when all the departing people were on the ship, and the ship-group stood looking at the sea-ice-group, the inevitable happened: a snowball fight. I swear, it seems that any person who doesn't grow up with snow will take any opportunity to start a snowball fight. People who were - just a minute before - sharing a classic book-romantic departure scene like Sam Gamgee and Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings, are suddenly shouting threats at one another and drilling each other in the face with packed ice.

But that moment passed too, and the Shackleton finally left. I hope next year, or the year following, I get to take it down or back. It is a crucial part of the Antarctic trip, I think. At least I lived on it for a couple weeks!

Until then, I shall get back to work. Wouldn't want to let October Ryan down, after all the hard work he's done.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Back to Normality for 2008!

Ok! Here I am, back at Halley, my part in the Amderma relief - and all relief - has come a close for this season. Rich, my comrade-in-arms, continues to toil upon the ice shelf, hauling in stuff and soon hauling out our crap to the Shackleton, who will hang around for a few days. Meanwhile, the Amderma sails off into the blue.

A funny incident occurred on the weekend. We were just suiting up after lunch when we turned on our radios to hear "forward slash...s...h...underscore..."

Turns out that the captain of the Amderma wanted to see his ship on the Shackleton webcam, so he asked the Shackleton captain for the address. And there are no direct communications between the two ships, other than radio. Of course, they probably could have e-mailed it or skyped it (or Googled it). But, when sounding out the address over the radio proved cumbersome, they decided instead to write it on a piece of paper, give it to me, scoot me over on a skidoo, attach the paper to a 40 tonne crane, and crane the piece of paper up to the captain.

As a person sent to the Antarctic to set up a sophisticated high-speed solar-powered digital communication network, something in me died that day when I saw that web address paper affixed to the crane. Especially since it was probably faster than setting up Skype addresses on both machines.

Anyway! The call came in shortly afterwards - I was getting replaced on sea ice duty on Dec 31. So, I hopped on a German sledge and made my triumphant return to Halley. And I got back to a nice surprise! Rooms had been reshuffled and Vicky casually mentioned that I was out of the containers - that is, the Annex - and back into the Laws building. Hooray for me! My roommate is Lance, my roommate from Rothera, who I get along with just fine. So, all will be well on the accommodations front.

New Years itself was fairly uneventful. We replaced the flag at New Years, a break with Halley tradition. Usually, the old flag is lowered by the oldest winterer when the sun sets, sometime in April. A new flag is then raised by the youngest winterer, when dawn comes again (September?). However, this one was getting pretty ratty, so the ceremony was repeated for New Years. The controversy abounds among the veterans about the appropriateness of this act. However, there is going to be a lot of film footage this season, so I can see why a new flag is necessary.

And now, I'll be rummaging through all my boxes that have arrived. Some science, some personal. Stay tuned for what I may find!