Thursday, January 23, 2003
Thursday, 23 January 2003
With this diary entry I will hang up my gloves (and my parka, boots, etc).
I.m now in McMurdo, on the way home, and Christchurch is only 4 or 5
flying hours away by C-141.
Last night was spent tidying up some last-minute things, and flowed
smoothly into today via the usual path of midnight. A short time later I
was bidding farewell to all my friends and colleagues at Dome C, and
preparing to board the Twin Otter. Shortly before closing the doors the
co-pilot produced a full-sized sledgehammer from one of the hatches and
walked purposefully towards the front of the plane. I wondered if perhaps
the GPS or one of the radios needed some fine-tuning, and he'd been given
the same set of electronic tools we had to work with at Dome C. As it
turned out, he placed a block of wood against each ski in turn, set his
foot against it, and then gave the wood an almighty wallop with the
sledgehammer. This broke the ski free from the ice, where it had frozen
solid over the past few days.
The flight to McMurdo was about 5 hours in total, broken by a short stop
at "Mid-point Charlie" to refuel. Mid-point Charlie is nothing more than
a fuel bladder, some drums, a couple of flags and a patch of yellow snow.
It's actually quite eerie to set down in such an isolated location, and to
appreciate just how empty Antarctica is.
McMurdo, on the other hand, is a bustling metropolis after Dome C. Soon
after arriving I withdrew $60 from the Wells Fargo automatic teller
machine . not because I needed any money, but just because I could. I can
surf the net, ring up anyone I like, and have just looked in horror at the
720 emails that have gathered in my inbox on the UNSW computer.
At McMurdo I have been given the status of a "transient", in recognition
of the fact that I am just passing through. This gives me a bed in the
"bunk room", a medium-sized room packed to capacity with 15 double-bunks.
McMurdo probably has many fine features . I know that some folk like it a
lot. To me it's too big, and is always a bit of a rude shock after the
utopian social environment at South Pole or Dome C. I'm too busy
adjusting to the idea of locked doors and keys (and things you have to pay
for) to appreciate its finer points.
Having now been away from the real word for over a month, I've got quite a
bit of adjusting to do.
Farewell, dear reader, and please join me in wishing Jon and Tony every
success as they complete the preparation of the AASTINO to spend its first
year alone at Dome C.
John is leaving tonight to Mc Murdo. So as the French say: "Le roi est mort,
vive le roi!". In other terms, I am proclaming myself the new king of the
diaries. It was a simple thing to do since Jon is in the AASTINO working on
summit (at 11pm, mind you). Unfortunately for you readers that will mean
that the diaries will be a bit shorter. You have probably already compared
my style with John's on last year's diaries and the most obvious difference
is that mine are twice as short (but I prefer the term "to the point"). To
compensate, I will try to increase the amount of things to tell by throwing
myself from the top of the AASTINO or mixing some Jet-A1 into Jon's water
bottle (kids, do not try this at home!)
With John it's 1/3 of the work force gone and 3/4 of the experience. It will
be a tough job for the two kids that we are to get everything done on time.
We made a list of things left to do and it barely fitted on a sheet of
paper. We are however quite confident that we will succeed since John has
done all the jobs requiring an advanced knowledge of electronics. We are now
essentially left to get the 2 science instruments working and get a better
hold on the generators starting procedure (and mood).
Today the two J's mastered the Wakey-Wakey board. This job was mainly
composed of a speed competition to see who could get the fastest pulse from
a 9V battery. John won by a few tens of milliseconds which is not much in
any Olympic event, but a huge lead in this AASTINO event (The AASTINO games
include events such as solder iron jump, fire extinguisher throw and SODAR
short-circuiting race). The big problem with the Wakey-Wakey rather came
from the supervisor computer which is supposed to tell the Wakey that it is
still alive by sending this electrical pulse through the 5th pin of a
parrallel port. Not seeing any pulse, we digged into Michael Ashley's
software and concluded the " echo 'Ee' " line did not send a pulse to the
5th pin but to the 6th. We thought we were pretty clever to have figured
that out but unfortunately Michael shattered our egos by emailing us the
real fix which had nothing to do whit this 'Ee' line.
In the afternoon, while Jon was hand-wrestling with the Summit, I went down
the crypt. This place is the scariest place in Dome C (I take that back, the
top of Richard's 30m tower is scarier). It has a few features in common with
hell. For example, it is buried deep underground, it is hot and there is no
candy dispenser. It is also very uncomfortable since it is as high as my
shoulders. Once in the crypt I fully defended the Icecam from any alien
intrusion by surrounding the machine with red tape and many labels forbiding
anyone who speaks English to touch the holy instrument.
After this I did my daily weather balloon launch. I can't remember exactly
how much did john say about that, so let me explain what this is. I am
effectively in Dome C to work for our group and also for the University of
Nice. Both our Universities have the common goal to quantify the
astronomical properties of the atmosphere. So instead of staying in our
respective corners, we have decided to collaborate together. for this reason
I spent 2 months in Nice last Summer in order to be trained on weather
balloons that I am now launching every day on the behalf of my french
colleagues. The balloons are filled with helium and carry a sonde that
measures pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed. It sends the data
to a receiver tuned to the frequency emitted by the sonde, giving us
profiles of all these parameters up to about 20km. Today was a very
successfull launch. There was no wind so the balloon went straight up. It
showed that the ground temperature was -19.3 degrees Celcius, the warmest
temperature we have had so far. When you come to think about it, it is
actually warmer than what they have in the North-East of the USA (aren't we
In the late afternoon I played a bit with the web camera. Testing it and
fixing it to the bench in order to have a permanent centrered view of the
Concordia station (this is my cameraman side speaking here). In the mean
time Jon helped filling the 2 tanks with 200 litres of Jet-A1. This is only
a preliminary step to make sure there is no leak in the tanks before pouring
the whole 2,500 litres in them.
Once again the highlight of the day was the terrific dinner made by
Jean-Louis. This time, Civet de Lievre and Crepes au Grand-Marnier. If you
don't understand what it is, it is probably better since you won't know what
you are missing.
At midnight we accompanied John and the 4 other passenger to the Twin-Otter.
The farewell took forever because two of the passengers were journalists who
wanted to get the whole scene on tape. We had to shake hands about 10 times
before they were satisfied and got on board. Once the doors locked the plane
warmed up for about 10 minutes before taking off in the clouds of ice it
lifted off the ground with its propellers.
One down, two more to go. This situation is almost reminiscent of the
adventure shows we get on TV these days.
That's all for today.