Saturday, May 22, 2010

Almirante Brown Fire and SAR drill

Crazy Antarctica story of the week:

In 1984 the station doctor at the Peninsular Argentina station, Almirante Brown, lost it when faced with an imminent Antarctic winter. He set fire to several of the station's buildings as the last ship was leaving. The station had to be abandoned and was later rebuilt. (rebuilt Almirante Brown in photo above).

McMurdo has its own, less dramatic odd doctor story. Rumor has it the 2009 winterover doctor went a little loopy and started keeping to himself and designing spaceships. One of his plans is still making the rounds of the station!

We had a good SAR drill Thursday. After practicing variations on mechanical advantage systems indoors at Scott Base all morning, we headed outside to the Scott Base Road. For most the road's length there's a sharp dropoff on one side. About halfway between Scott Base and McMurdo on the right there is a steep valley into which a Kiwi truck went off the road in Con 1 conditions in recent years. It's a bad drop; fortunately the driver managed to self-extricate and crawl back up the hill.
In another recent Scott Road accident, a real short girl was driving a Nodwell. Nodwells are tracked vehicles that are steered by dual levers, one for each track. You brake by pulling back hard on both levers. This girl started down the hill to Scott Base, only to find that in order to drive she'd pulled her seat so far forward that she couldn't pull the levers back far enough to brake effectively. The Nodwell was heading for the roadside dropoff, and horror of horrors, she gave up trying to stop it and jumped out! The machine and it's compliment of passengers went over the edge and hung up on a pipeline halfway down the cliff. I believe there were some injuries.

Back to our drill. It was dark, naturally, and breezy with a windchill of around -60F. We were pretty motivated to make the drill go quickly. We tossed our dummy victim down the hill. He slid about 40'. Then we set about building a rope system.
We parked our Hagglunds and van 50' apart and built 2 anchors onto the Hagglunds (which was positioned above the victim) and one on the van. The backup line was led through a pulley and secured with a double prussik, then tied, along with the main, to the stokes basket with a double longtail bowline. The main line went through a break bar rack for the lower.
The cold was pretty bitter and I'm definitely still learning how to gear up optimally to be able to maintain dexterity in these conditions. I had chemical heaters, glove liners, and insulated leather gloves, but I still ended up with slow fingers and some good hot aches by the time we headed down the hill. Finally the stokes basket was ready to go, hypo kit and backboard all strapped in. (the hypo kit contains a harness and webbing to secure the pt to the stokes, and a moisture barrier, big down wrap, and tarp to keep them warm. The moisture barrier is actually one of several hundred body bags they ordered after the 1979 Erebus plane crash. Haha, aren't we resourceful?) Four litter attendants roped up with a) a purcell onto the stretcher and b) a purcell onto the main longtail. And down the hill we went.
It was pretty nice once we got over the edge. After 20' or so the wind cut off, and we were moving enough to be pleasantly warm. While we'd been setting up the system, the dummy went ahead and slid another 100' down. We all let the rope take most of our weight and hustled down there pretty quick. Maybe even a little quicker than we would have liked! We strapped up the dummy as the guys up top did a hot swap onto a raising system. I think they had a 3:1 set up between the 2 trucks.
I guess the slope was 65-75 degrees on real loose scree-including large boulders- and deep fluffy snow. The snow was interesting, since there's almost never deep, fluffy snow around McMurdo. It's mostly like rock, and you can saw it into blocks or dig real strong deadmen into pretty easily. But this was fluffy. Crampons are miraculously effective in most snow here, but they would have just been a hazard to the other attendants on this stuff. It would have been a nightmare to try and actually walk up the slope, especially while carrying the pt and eating rocks from the guy directly above you. But, to my delight, after a few feet I found a happy little balance between leaning back on the longtail, and leaning out while balancing my weight off the guy on the other side of the stokes. It was really a hell of a lot of fun, and I walked up the slope like it was nothing. The guys on the rope system, however, were working pretty hard. Every now and then one of the litter attendants would lose that sweet spot and fall, then crawl along unhappily on their knees for a few feet until the rope crew (out of sight on the road above us) stopped to reset the system. Before I knew it, we were over the edge and on the windy road again.
(disclaimer: this post- and this blog in general- is just chock full of real, genuine, Antarctic rumor. This is the one of very worst kinds of rumor and the reader should never fail to take any of it with a grain of salt.)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

This May we had what turned into the most interesting call of the year by far. At around 0930 Fleet Ops was working the ice with a bulldozer on the McMurdo Ice Road Transition. A little geography: McMurdo is on a little 10-mile longish spit that sticks out to the south from an island built of three massive volcanos. The permanent ice of the Ross Ice Shelf is hundreds of feet thick and stretches for hundreds of miles south of us. Gravity and ice fed in by glacial flows push the ice north towards the open sea at the rate of 5-10'/day. McMurdo's site was chosen by early explorers because it was the furthest point south on the continent with open water in summer. (although in modern times, for poorly understood reasons that may have to do with massive icebergs, temperature gradients between pole and lower latitudes, and current changes, the harbor doesn't open up naturally anymore). The Ross ice shelf also provided a convenient, relatively flat route deep into the continent towards the Pole. The thick permanent ice meets the thinner (12-20') seasonal ice at McMurdo. I've heard the edge of the permanent ice described as a towering blue wall elsewhere, but at McMurdo the two ice types just seem to flow together relatively seamlessly.
The ice shelf crunches into Ross Island on the Scott Base side of our little spit. On that side it buckles up into pressure ridges. These can be 10-20' high depending on the season. The summer road to Pegasus Airfield loops out around these ridges and runs along the permanent ice. On the McMurdo side of the spit, there seems to be sort of an eddy that creates a jumbled mess of cracked, broken, upheaved ice in front of town. The shorter spring road to Pegasus runs right through this and out over thinner ice. This spot has to be groomed and smoothed in preparation for summer use.
So Fleet Ops was out there with a dozer around 0930 Tuesday morning and they dropped one track into a big tidal crack. The rig was at about a 45degree angle with one track in the water and one in the air, so they had to call in a second machine to pull it out. As chance would have it, one of our firefighters was out on the road at that moment and he took pictures. The first pullout attempt was unsucessful when a cable broke and the dozer settled back into place.
At around 1030 the EOC (Emergency Operations Committee- station lead, NSF lead, fire captain, and other leaders) was activated. They went to their planning room in MacOps and took charge of the incident. Fleet Ops attempted a second pull-out but broke another cable. This time the dozer settled in much deeper and was now at a 65 degree angle with the track fully submerged.
By dinnertime ice profiling had been done and showed that the ice in the area ranged from 3-6'. 3' around the dozer. The decision was made to put someone in the dozer and attempt another extrication rather than leave it there to freeze in place until summer or later. Three tractors were hooked to the dozer with snatch blocks and pulled on it from solid ice. Another rig pushed against the blade of the trapped dozer.
The fire department and SAR were asked to standby to provide icewater rescue if necessary. Unfortunately neither the AFD or SAR are trained or equipped for ice rescue. This is odd since vehicles constantly travel on ice roads here, the station is surrounded by areas with open cracks, and major ship offload activities take place once a year in icewater. We ended up scrounging a couple drysuits left in the closed-up dive shack. Two of us that have had ice rescue training squeezed into those. I drew the short straw and ended up in some insulated foul-weather gear topped off with a harness. The crew put together an incredibly weird rope system and we stood by with fingers crossed. Fortunately the final pull got the tractor our sucessfully, and nobody got (too) wet.
Quiet day at the AFD. Lt is on kday, so we've knocked everything out quickly and are enjoying some down time. Three of the crew are online and the fourth is reading an American history book. I've asked the old-timers what everyone used to do down here in the winter in the days before internet. Apparently they all basked in warm incandescent light and played a lot of board and card games. That sounds a lot better than sitting through endless days of long silences broken only by the tapping of four sets of fingers on keyboards. That said, there is some liveliness and conversation today. Saturdays are usually good days. It seems like things have picked up some too over the last month; our recent hands-on drills might have helped.

The drills have made this sort of an odd month. We were busy with a lot of other things and didn't drill much, and call volume is low, so the crew has actually worked together very little until now. We've done a few full medical scenarios, including a cardiac patient, hazmat exposure, and traumatic injury. A lot of equipment shortcomings and unforeseen challenges came up. I'd like to get a reeves stretcher here, since nearly every building is accessible only by sets of slippery snowy metal stairs. Due to permafrost, everything is built on pilings set onto horizontal wooden beams. I'm surprised some of them stand up to the wind. Every winter some structure is done in by winds that get up to 200mph. Last year there were 3 days straight of Con 1 storms that brought all unessential work to a stop. The roof blew off one of the VIP housing trailers on the east side of town. A few years ago the entire roof blew off a million gallon storage tank during a storm. An old hand told me the other day that in 1984 or 1985 ( I forget which), 300 brand new mattresses blew away from "the ballpark" outdoor storage area. Scientists are still finding them out on the ice today.

I'm still waiting for some good storms this year. Unfortunately the historic worst portion of the year, fall, is pretty much over. During the time between last sunset at Pole and last sunset on the coast, there's a huge temperature gradient between here and there. All that dense, cold air flows down the slope from the central plateau of the highest continent and creates some of the world's worst winds by the time it reaches the coast. Now that the sun is gone, there's less daily heating and cooling and we're entering the intensely cold, calm part of the year. Yesterday the temperatures plummeted from the balmy 10F days we'd been enjoying to -20F. At winfly the winds will pick up again, and the bitter cold will treat us to some beautiful nacreous clouds.

Last night was quite entertaining. The upper floor of 155 was awash with the annual ungodly loud White Trash party. Couches filled the hall and beer cans and spilt cheetos coated the floor. Cleavage and butt crack abounded. There was a lot of flannel and one incongruous fellow in black leather and pink spandex. It was the 2nd most drunk night I've had here so far.

Friday, May 14, 2010

One Month of Antarctic Sunsets

26 April 2010
26 April 2010
26 April 2010
24 April 2010
23 April 2010
20 April 2010
18 April 2010
16 April 2010
14 April 2010
13 April 2010
13 April 2010
12 April 2010
11 April 2010
10 April 2010
8 April 2010
6 April 2010
4 April 2010
3 April 2010
2 April 2010
31 March 2010

30 March 2010

29 March 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Meanwhile, at a station that is not McMurdo...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Vogons are one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters. The best way to get a drink out of a Vogon is to stick your finger down his throat, and the best way to irritate him is to feed his grandmother to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. On no account should you allow a Vogon to read poetry at you.
Vogons are described as officiously bureaucratic, a line of work at which they perform so well that the entire galactic bureaucracy is run by them.
The Vogons' battle-cry, and counter-argument to dissent, is "resistance is useless!"

"Oh freddled gruntbuggly/thy micturations are to me/As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes. And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon, see if I don't!"

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oh nos- time for options