Friday, January 26, 2007

The Last Laugh

Hurtling over the sea with sixty other men and women, all of us stuffed into our various unders and fleeces, plus Carhartts, wind pants, military field trousers; red parkas, Swedish Polar research dark blues, paler blue kiwi overalls, ears plugged with foam plugs, noise canceling headphones, or just not giving a damn about the auditory shredding provided by the four jet motors hung from the wings a few meters outside the fuselage, I sit facing sideways once again in the ritual commute South to the White Continent. The C-17 brighter, cleaner and more comfortable than a C-130 or -141. Weather in McMurdo foggy (reprieve from early departure, thank you very much, but loud, drunken kiwi youth carousing outside the hotel at 0545h ruling out more sleep), then clear, then foggy with no wind, then apparently clear enough to inject us all into the airspace between Christchurch and Antarctica. In three hours we will have either landed (my preference) or started our boomerang back north (my prediction). I haven't ever boomeranged before - quite lucky, actually: the record is seven boomerangs in a row for one sorry lot. If the weather deities have mercy on us we will have dinner and bag-drag (weigh-in for tomorrow's flight) in Mac Town this evening.

Of all the faces on the plane, there are a few I recognize from previous trips, whether from McMurdo or Pole I can't say. There are lots of jokers like myself who do this over and over again. Their reasons vary. I'm not sure of my own reasons; I guess there are many, but I suppose the foremost is simply that it is my job.

Best case scenario is to arrive at South Pole tomorrow, one day behind our scheduled date. Though last night's Thai food is still disagreeing with me enough that I'm not real excited about arriving at altitude, there is much to do now and any more days lost mean, well, that much more pressure when we arrive at Pole to fulfill our goals, which are many, and ambitious. The data acquisition system (pDAQ) is our responsibility, and while the building blocks are largely the same as last year, much of the glue that holds it all together is completely different (better, perhaps, but newer, and therefore probably rich in unexplored bugs). In addition to our group effort to finish, test, and fix pDAQ, I have to fix some low-level communications software, which alone will take hours or days (or possibly more). And we may have a deployment to do as well, plus the usual acclimatisation to the altitude, dryness, the spinning around upside-down on the Earth's very axis (when we finally arrive, I imagine that by turning slightly I will be able to point to each of you up there reading this, just by pointing at a slightly different arc of longitude passing through 90 South).

Last night after sketching along the river for awhile, and our adventure with the Thai food (which was very good at the time, before the late night's rain and the witching hour of stomach churn arrived), we wandered through the immense botanical garden and admired the trees, all of which were beautiful, enormous, and rather different from anything I've ever seen east of the Rockies, or anywhere in North America for that matter). As dusk approached, far away shouts and yells drifted through the garden, which we zeroed in on to find one acts of the Christchurch Buskers' Festival in progress. (Busker == theatrical comedian, I guess.) The performance was based on "The Great Books" i.e., literature, mostly western, and was hilarious, despite a meagre attendance of a few families scattered throughout the grass.

Now we are back once again in our own comedy of errors, courtesy of NYANG (New York Air National Guard) and the weather on the Ross Ice Shelf. Staring at sixty sleepy passengers, the loadmasters dressed in camouflage, several tons of cargo pallets, wondering who will get the last laugh. If the fog does, Sandy still has room at the Devon for us. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking until the station closes for winter.

Postscript: today's score is NYANG 1, weather 0: the weather took a bye this time - we landed in McMurdo after all. However, we're not flying to Pole until Monday. Looks like a weekend of penguins (with luck) and dirt (in any case) for me until then. The outdoor hiking safety lecture is tomorrow, and I have never been able to take that before; we may be able to do the famed castle rock walk afterwards.

There is liquid water running down the sides of McMurdo streets... how strange.


Sandy's World said...

It's so cool to read your posts, John. I'm glad you were able to fly into McMurdo & stay on track work-wise.
Water in the streets of McMurdo? Is this an effect of global warming?

John Jacobsen said...

Hi Sandy,

As with weather anywhere else, it's hard to say, but it does seem to have been a warm summer here on the Ice as far as I can tell...