ON THE ICE IN ANTARCTICA

A CRYSTAL DESERT JOURNAL

by

Frosty Wooldridge


A typical day at McMurdo Station, Antarctic is not typical. The sun hasn't set since October and it won't until February 18, 1998. It rotates in an elliptical pattern above the village. No matter what time we go to bed, the sun shines brightly. When we wake up, it's still high in the sky. We cover our windows with dark blankets to blacken the room for sleeping purposes. Most of us have one roomate in shoebox sized rooms, 9'x15'x 8', in buildings that resemble college residence halls. However, no grass, flowers or trees may be found around any buildings at McMurdo. We wake up by alarm clock and walk down the hall to our showers. This is the first year where residents may take a shower every day. A reverse osmosis fresh water extraction plant pumps salt water from the sea and makes it fresh. After a shower, we bundle into our Extreme Cold Weather gear and head toward the Galley in the middle of McMurdo. To get a feel of the size of the village, it takes less than ten minutes to walk end to end. With it's 80 drab metal buildings, it resembles a dreary mining town (Blackhawk before the casinos) built on a black/brown volcanic rock pile. As we walk to the Galley, a freezing wind usually sears our faces. To our South, across McMurdo Sound, Mount Discovery rises into the sky nearly 13,000 feet. Scanning the horizon, the Royal Society Mountain Range, with glaciers pouring into the sound, offers spectacular views much like Colorado's Gore Range. Big difference however! Not one tree exists on the continent. Everything is painted aspirin white. Behind us ten miles away, Mount Erebus at 13,400 feet, features smoke rising from its crater. Because of unbelievably frigid temperatures, buildings set three to five feet above the ground on concrete blocks. Each building has a double door system to keep out cold. All water and sewage lines run through heated, corrugated pipes (12" in diameter) that stand a foot above ground on cement blocks and are heated by being wrapped with electrical wires--much like an electric blanket. With those pipes running all over town, they can't be walked over. Wooden bridges have been constructed for people to cross them. Brown, green, sand, silver and black buildings sport metal sidings and roofs. A few Quanset huts stand from the 1950s when men lived in primitive conditions and froze their fannies off in limited quarters. Every building has a specific purpose to provide support for science projects. The carpenter shop builds frames while the heavy metal shop constructs equipment needed for repairs or parts. The maintenance shed maintains and repairs vehicles in the fleet. All vehicles are hooked up to electrical warming devices. A supply building stores needed parts and a refrigeration building stores enough food for residents for two years. The Crary Science Laboratory houses offices for everyone who works on Antarctic projects. One Quanset houses a gym and another features weights, bicycle and running machines. Employees enjoy ceramics, dance classes, Spanish, and stitching classes as well as a library. Alongside most buildings is a row of colored metal bins marked: cardboard, construction debris, glass, aluminum, skua, hazardous waste, plastic, food waste, bio waste, and dorm products. Everyone is responsible for sorting their own waste and placing it into the proper receptacles. More than five million tons of trash and recycling material is shipped out of McMurdo each year. At 70%, McMurdo boasts the highest recycling rate in the world. Antarctica Support Services may take a bow. However, it makes me curious why Boulder with one of the highest college educated populations in the country has a pathetic 17% recycling rate. As my daddy said, "Actions speak louder than words." While walking toward the Galley for breakfast, we hear the whine of five diesel engines in a building on the edge of town. They run 24 hours per day and provide electricity. However, a fuel tank sets outside each building to provide oil for heating furnaces. We walk on black volcanic gravel and ice all over town. With most buildings on blocks, we must climb metal stairways to enter. The Galley stands in the center of town where everyone eats breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's much like a Furr's Cafeteria. No smoking is allowed in any buildings which makes it nice for the 80 percent of us who don't care to catch lung cancer. Additionally, the large contingent of vegetarians enjoys tasty meals from exceptional veggie chefs. I'm a rabbit food eater too! After breakfast, everyone walks to their job sites. For those on the ice runway, our airport on the ice, four wheel drive trucks transport workers. They follow a line of green flags four miles to the landing strip. On the ice is a flight tower along with fueling tanks, cafeteria, bulldozers, snowplows, snowblowers, forklifts, power plant, bathrooms and portable engine heaters. Equipment is on metal ski runners for quick placement or removal. C-130 Hercules turbo propeller planes transport scientists and support equipment to various sights around Antarctica. Twin engine planes take men and women to smaller projects on the continent. Everyday, someone is flying in or out (depending on weather) from Christchurch, New Zealand with supplies or people needed to complete scientific projects during the summer season. On the edge of town is a helicopter landing pad and hangar. Small groups are taken out on short range missions and returned the same day. McMurdo is a miniature city. More than 280 different jobs are filled by 1,200 people. Plumbers work on water systems and carpenters custom design needed changes in buildings while painters brush on the finishing touches. Utility personnel repair every 'trouble call' handed into Mac Ops (operations). A search and rescue unit is on call 24 hours per day and anyone who leaves the village must carry a radio and check in often. The fire department maintains two trucks that can answer any distress call within five minutes. Everyone works nine hours per day, six days per week. Many work at very hard jobs and freeze their butts off daily, while others sit at desk jobs and stare into a computer. They hail from 50 states. Just as a typical day at McMurdo is not typical, many people working there are not your ordinary couch potato. Many are exceptionally interesting. Most are adventure seekers--nearly half are women. Everyone has a story.


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