I've been at McMurdo Station on Ross Island for a week now. At the moment, it looks like I'll be here another eight or ten days before I head off to Pole. I'm not just sitting here waiting, though. I'm getting some training in before I head down.
My job at Pole is actually twofold: I work with the mechanics as I've described before, but I'm also working in the fuels department since there's a fairly lean support crew this year. The fuels crew is extremely important. Everything in Antarctica runs on fossil fuels, mostly AN-8 or JP-5. It is the job of the fuelies to make sure everything that needs fuel has it and doesn't run out. At Pole, the job is fairly simple since it's a small station. Planes fly in, and we take the excess fuel off them and transfer it to the station so there's enough to last the winter. We also put some of it into vehicles. Here at McMurdo, however, the job is much more complex. McMurdo Station is really more like a small mining town, and between the station and the outlying airfields there are hundreds of buildings. There are also dozens of large fuel storage tanks ranging in capacity from millions of gallons to hundreds. Connecting all these are miles of pipes and hoses with hundreds of valves to control the flow of fuel. The job of the McMurdo fuelie is to get fuel from one place to another and not spill any in the process. Oh yeah, and we're working outside in Antarctica, which means valves and hoses get buried under snow drifts much taller than I am and have to be shoveled out constantly. It's tons of fun, and I don't mean that sarcastically.
There are about a dozen of us working in fuels, and we all work a minimum nine-hour shift six days a week. We get Sunday off, unless there's a plane landing. Most days consist of running around town digging out valves so we can open and close them to get fuel from one of the large bulk tanks into a smaller tank, like the one for the power plant. Some days, we get to go out to the airfields and re-fuel there. It's wonderful when the weather is clear, as you can look across the Ross Shelf and see the mountains.
Yesterday was not one of those days. I was assigned to head out to the Pegasus Ice Runway, a gigantic airfield on the ice shelf about 14 miles from McMurdo. We drove Delta Scharen, which is a gigantic Canadian Foremost truck with a 2,000 gallon tank on the back. Delta Scharen is a wonderful truck. Some fun facts about Delta Scharen:
- The tires are 65" around, and 45" wide.
- There's so steering linkage (as such), so the whole truck gets bent in the middle by two gigantic hydraulic cylinders to steer.
- The steering wheel has about 12 turns lock to lock.
- It tops out around 15mph empty and on smooth ice.
- It can pump fuel into and out of the tank on the back.
Our job yesterday was to drive out to the ice runway, dump some fuel into a day tank there, and come back to fill a few other things up on the way. It's 14 miles from McMurdo to the runway along a snow road marked with flags. When we set out, it was a beautiful day. Around mile eight, we saw a front way off in the distance. And then suddenly, around mile 12, we hit a huge wall of blowing snow and suddenly wouldn't see more than a few hundred feet. We drove the rest of the way to the runway, at which point conditions had worsened further. We sheltered in a warming hut until conditions improved enough to safely work, at which point we got on with out business. But that's the thing about Antarctica. Conditions change, and it's very real here. There isn't always a safety net, and a bad judgement call can cost you. Fortunately, folks here have been around the block a few times and pass on what they know to us newbies so we don't have to learn the hard way.
On a lighter note, a lot of the pickups here have tracks. It's pretty freaking awesome.
Right now station population is around 750, and it's still increasing. I love it here, but I'm looking forward to getting down to the smaller station at Pole. I like meeting new people, but when you concentrate that experience too much it's just stressful. That being said, the people here are (with a few exceptions) pretty uniformly wonderful. I love it already.