Back in McMurdo Station

The Antarctic field team returns to humanity, showers, and hot breakfasts.

Guest Blogger
April 09, 2019

By Jennifer Lamp

This blog post was originally drafted on January 13, but couldn’t be posted until now because the Antarctic fieldwork site lacked an internet connection, and other challenges. Read the team’s previous blog posts here.

helicopter with sling
While flying over McMurdo Sound, we passed the helicopter carrying our double sling of gear out of the field. The long, narrow portion is a sling containing our tents, and the bottom netting contains heavy items to weigh down the tents and keep the entire double sling stable. Photo: Jen Lamp

In preparation for our camp pull-out, we spent Saturday, Dec. 22nd weighing all of our gear and assembling the helicopter sling loads. McMurdo Helicopter Operations (“HeloOps”) needs accurate weights of all of our cargo so that they can gauge how many helicopters to send, and how much fuel each can carry. The weather was touch-and-go on Sunday morning, but by 11:30 the clouds cleared enough for two helicopters to make it into Beacon Valley. A small A-Star helicopter picked up our Scott tent sling load, and a larger Bell 212 grabbed the three of us and about 600 pounds of cargo. Half of our gear will remain in Beacon Valley until a third helicopter is able to pick it up later in the week. It was a long day, but we made it back to McMurdo in time to shower before dinner service in the galley, for which everyone — especially those sitting near us — was thankful. We settled into our dorm rooms, did laundry, and got in touch with our families to let them know we made it back safely.

On the 24th, McMurdo hosted a holiday dinner service, where Missy, Kate, and I joined the rest of the station in singing Christmas carols and gorging on seafood and chocolate truffles. I was plagued by some vertigo-esque dizziness that lasted a few days after our helicopter ride out of Beacon Valley — prompting my first ever visit to the McMurdo clinic — so besides the holiday dinner and scrubbing our tents clean, I took it easy for our first couple of days back.

inside the berg field center
A rare empty day in the tent-lined main walkway of the Berg Field Center. The BFC provides us with the majority of our camp and field gear. Photo: Jen Lamp

A helicopter was able to make it back to Beacon Valley on the 26th to pick up our last sling load. We were therefore able to clean and return the bulk of our field gear that afternoon. Missy left the ice on Dec. 27th, and Kate made it onto a flight on Dec. 29th, leaving me as the sole G-055-er in Antarctica. I enjoyed a low-key New Year as I slowly adjusted to being back in the midst of humanity, and waded through emails from the last month. Indoor plumbing is always the best part of returning to “normal life” after a field season for me, but breakfast food that isn’t instant oatmeal is a close second.

The plan for my remaining time in McMurdo is to conduct trips every 7-10 days back to Beacon Valley to check on the equipment. I’ll download the data, check that all of the instrumentation is functioning well, and perform any maintenance that is needed. During the first trip, I’ll also need to stop by the old helicopter landing site in Mullins Valley where some of our heavy rock samples are still cached.

jen checking solar panels
Checking the solar power system during the second day trip to Beacon Valley. Photo: Krista Koehn

There are two types of helicopter support requests for day trips: “close support” where the helicopter remains at the site, and “ground time” where the helicopter drops you off with a survival bag and leaves for other work. The survival bag contains items like a small mountain tent, a WhisperLite stove, and emergency food rations in the event that a helicopter is unable to pick you up (usually because bad weather comes in). No one is allowed to be dropped off for a ground time trip alone, so I rode out to Beacon Valley for my first day trip on Jan. 2nd with our project implementor, Bija, who is also in charge of the Berg Field Center (BFC) at McMurdo. (In fact, for all of my ground time trips I ended up taking along a field-savvy person from the BFC in case we had to break into the survival bag.)

Bija and I we were given ~4 hours on the ground in Beacon Valley. The instrumentation was running well, except for one datalogger on the meteorological station that needed to be replaced. I changed a few of the settings in our acoustic emission (AE) system software, and Bija helped to further rebuild the area surrounding the study site by placing large rocks around our four boulders to better mimic the wind break made by the natural terrain.

A Bell 212 helicopter then picked us up in Beacon Valley, and flew us to Mullins Valley to pick up the rock samples that we left during the field season. However, we quickly ran into a problem: we could not find the samples! We couldn’t see them from the air, and landed for a few minutes to hike around the coordinates, but to no avail. I was concerned, but hoped that the presence of snow on the ground was the culprit — I couldn’t see the helipad, and the white rock bags containing the samples blended in with the snowy backdrop.

samples in boxes
The samples in wooden rock boxes, palletized, and ready for the long trip back to the US. Photo: Jen Lamp

I was able to get back to Beacon Valley on January 12th, after ice conditions there kept the helicopter from flying earlier in the week. This time I went to the site with BFC-er Krista. Again, all of our equipment was running smoothly, and I made some further tweaks to the AE system software. I requested a smaller, A-Star helicopter for the Mullins Valley portion of this trip so that we could fly closer to the ground and hopefully spot the rock samples. And, success! Most of the snow had sublimated, and I spotted the sample cache as soon as it came into view. We were able to quickly load the samples into rock boxes and on to the helicopter.

In between these trips I’ve been trying to catch up on other work. This is made difficult by the fact that internet is very slow at McMurdo, and some days I can’t even load my email, let alone try to open an attachment or download a paper. I’ve started hiking on some of the trails around station to break up the day. It’s been difficult for me to keep a consistent sleeping schedule with 24 hours of sunlight and no set working hours.

skua in antarctica
One of the many skuas that has become a frequent sight around McMurdo Station in January. Disturbing the local wildlife is a federal offense, so I relied on my camera’s 40x zoom lens for this photo. Photo: Jen Lamp

In other exciting Ross Island news, the icebreaker has been spotted in McMurdo Sound! The USCGC Polar Star is one of the United States’ two polar-class icebreakers, operated by the Coast Guard. The Polar Star will traverse McMurdo sound to make a path for the resupply vessel to reach the ice pier at McMurdo Station. The resupply vessel will deliver almost all of the items (including fuel) needed to operate the station for the next year. All of McMurdo is excited to welcome and celebrate the crew of the Polar Star when they dock for a few days later this month.