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Notes from the Field

The Alternate Reality

December 14th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 3 December McMurdo is one of those unique places on the planet where things are so different from anywhere else that it feels like an alternate reality. Perhaps the spookiest part of this uniqueness is that, regardless of how long I have been away (in this case, two years), once the transport from the ice runway rolls into town I get this creepy feeling that I never really left. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way because one of the dorms is nicknamed Hotel California (as the 1977 Eagles’ song goes: “you can check out, but you can never leave”).

McMurdo (or “MacTown” to locals) is best described as a frontier town. It’s built for purpose, not beauty. Heating pipes and power lines take the shortest routes. People are left to find their own shortcuts between buildings. It has been cleaned up a lot since the days when the Navy ran the town, but there’s only so much you can do when the ground is all volcanic cinders and the snow is nearly gone. Add warmer temperatures (it’s been just above freezing for the past few days) and there are little creeks running everywhere. It’s just not very pretty, but it’s not meant to be.

MacTown is where we organize our cargo. Some was shipped from the States and arrived days to weeks ago. Other items, like most of our camping gear (sleeping bags and tents), we are issued here and have to pack ourselves. This year it’s slightly different for me because PIG is a big project. Most people in town have heard about it and many are working on some aspect of it. I’m giving a town-wide lecture later next week.

PIG is on the Antarctic coast, 1,400 miles from McMurdo and notorious for heavy overcast, high winds and above average snowfall. For those of you geographically inclined, 75 degrees South latitude and 100 degrees West longitude brings you very close to the precise spot of our planned drilling camp. The bad weather led the logistics planners to deliver most of the equipment for the support camp being built near the ice shelf via an overland traverse. Finding the route and proving its safety were tasks accomplished in previous seasons. It’s being used this season to deliver additional supplies and helicopter fuel. The traverse was also supposed to deliver the parts of our equipment that could survive the bashing and crashing inherent to ice sheet traverses.

The first problem we encountered once we got our bearings in McMurdo was that much of our equipment we shipped down intended for the traverse was still here scattered throughout the town. The second problem was that the traverse had not departed yet—but it was leaving from Byrd station, quite a long way from McMurdo, so no new equipment could be added to the load. The third problem was that some of our equipment was unaccounted for (i.e., neither in McMurdo nor at Byrd). And the fourth problem was that the initial crew that was supposed to be flying to the helo camp location was still cooling their heels in MacTown. Welcome to McMurdo!

So for us, the primary task the last couple of days has been making sense of this apparent chaos. It has taken a lot of effort to unravel the whereabouts of each piece of gear, but we are pretty close to being there. Of course, what comes from this is a much-revised plan and timetable for getting everything and everybody necessary out to PIG. It’ll work if the weather cooperates. We are already a week behind schedule.

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