Posts Tagged ‘camping’

A Field Scientist’s Work is Never Done

April 7, 2011

Original audio post.

Today’s science fell a bit flat, at least on my end. Ruschle and I went out to re-take some albedo measurements, but were frustrated by rapidly-changing cloud conditions that confused the instrument.



Ruschle covers the Sun so I can photograph the clouds around it, in an effort to compensate for their effects; eventually we just gave up.

Mel and Martin had better luck making snow measurements and taking samples. Right now, Martin is sitting behind me with his makeshift lab, pouring diethyl phthalate into snow samples to preserve them. We’ve been having a little trouble getting the stuff cold enough to set, but that’s another post, I think.

Anyway, I figured I’d talk a little more about the rhythms of life in camp. Life in any camp seems to be defined by its chores, so I’ll start with those. Thinking about chores, actually, I was surprised at how few I could come up with. Perhaps that’s because a lot of chores at normal camps involve cleaning things, and we happen to be living in a place with essentially zero dirt.

Responsibilities begin in the morning, when whoever slept with the satellite phone (it has to be kept warm, so it’ll work when it’s needed) calls McMurdo to let them know we’re still OK. Every field camp does this check-in. It’s a sort of failsafe, in case something disastrous happens and we aren’t able to contact anyone to call for help.

Whoever’s cooking breakfast–or sometimes whoever’s in the kitchen tent first–collects a bucket of snow from outside to melt for water. Melting snow is probably the most constant and time-consuming chore. All the water for cooking, drinking, dishwashing, and other miscellaneous uses must be melted in the big pot on the propane stove. Notably, bathing is not really on the list of uses. Living in unheated tents means that getting wet is more or less courting hypothermia, so we mostly do without. I’m sure there are ways to manage it [bathing], but for three weeks, in a place without dirt, we think we can get away with it.


The water-melting pot, which was in near-constant use when we were in the tent.

We hold an informal meeting after breakfast to decide, mostly based on the weather, what to do with the day. If we’re going out, we need to take the covers off the snow machines and inspect them before heading out to the field to do science. Coming back, we re-fuel and re-cover the snow machines. Without the covers, the engine compartments fill with drifted snow.



Snowmachines, neatly put away.

The cook for the day (tomorrow, that’s me) starts dinner while everyone else puts away the scientific instruments. (I’m thinking I might make some kind of Malaysian-style curry.) More snow is melted–again, usually by the Cook for the Day. Someone might sweep the kitchen, if it’s filled up with drifted snow again. Snow is kind of our equivalent of dirt, but it’s much less bothersome, since it generally evaporates if you leave it long enough. Still, when it accumulates in the kitchen, it becomes somewhat irritating.

[SATPHONE CUTS OUT UNEXPECTEDLY]
Supplementary audio post.

Hey, sorry–I think my last post got cut off when the satellite phone went out. Somewhere around where I was talking about how it’s irritating when the kitchen fills up with drifted snow. I’m actually rather surprised that the satphone hasn’t cut out mid-post before now. Unfortunately the WordPress voice-post function is a bit primitive; the only option is to call, leave a post, and hang up. You can’t really edit it afterwards. So, I won’t try to re-record the whole post this time, since I was mostly finished anyway. After dinner, pretty much all that’s left to be done is to wash the dishes and decide who’s going to sleep with the satphone. So, uh, it’s about time for bed here, so I will bid you all goodnight and talk to you soon. ‘Bye.

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Great Scott!

March 30, 2011

Original audio post.

I mentioned Scott tents yesterday, and, since this morning dawned with 25-knot winds, I spent a lot of time contemplating the interior of mine today, cozied up in my sleeping bag. So, I thought I’d say a bit more about them.



Our three Scott tents.

Scott tents look rather like a child’s drawing of a tent at first glance. It’s nothing like the complex geometric curves of the tents you see marketed to backpackers nowadays; it’s a simple pyramid, four triangular sides sloping steeply to a pointy top. And most of them–most of the tents, that is–are bright canary yellow. I don’t know if the original version of the tent actually used by Scott was this color. It would seem terribly incongruous with the tragedy of their polar journey, Scott and his men dying slowly in a cheerfully sunshine-yellow tent.

Anyway. The setup process for a Scott tent is likewise simple, at least in theory. The edges of the pyramid are supported by four legs, which are joined together at the top. To put up the tent, simply stand it up and pull the legs away from each other until the walls are taut, then stake down the edges and guylines. This process becomes somewhat more complicated in windy conditions, as the rest of my team found out.

Once you’ve managed to stop the tent from blowing over, you can weight the edges with snow and put in the floor.

Now comes the tricky business of actually getting into the tent. The Scott tents are double-walled, which helps with insulation and prevents the kind of condensation-based indoor rainstorms we’ve been having in our kitchen tent. The entrance consists of two fabric tubes, one attached to the outside wall and one to the inside. The ends of the tubes can be cinched closed with drawstrings to keep the wind [and, just as importantly, drifting snow] out.

So, to get in, you first find the toggle for the outer drawstring, pull it out over the snow-encrusted string, wrestle the end of the tube open, crawl in, get the edge of the tube caught on your hat, trip over your boots, find the drawstring for the inner fabric tube, repeat the whole process, and finally fall into the tent with the outer tube caught on your boot and the inner one still lovingly wrapped around your shoulders.

Mel and Martin insist that this process is simplicity itself, and I am making a fuss about nothing. I think perhaps they have some weird arcane bond with their tents that I just don’t understand.

Mel, master of the Scott tent tube entry. Photo by Ruschle.

Don’t get me wrong–I do like the Scott tent. My tent is a snug home, and it contains my wonderful two-foot-thick down sleeping bag. Indeed, I think I’ll head there now. So, ’til tomorrow, ciao!

Ruschle happy in her down sleeping bag. These bags are so thick and fluffy that it is difficult to tell whether someone is actually sleeping in one until you peer into the face port. Picture by Mel.

You can string a clothesline inside the tent for drying your wet clothes--useful and decorative! Photo by Mel.

Repost: Blue Ice Reconnaissance

February 3, 2011

Original post, called in on January 12, 2011. Click on the links beneath the photos for their accompanying Picasa albums. Thanks again to Jonathan Beall for the transcription!

“Hey folks. It’s been another beautiful, sunny day here in the Allan Hills. We mostly don’t seem to have any other sorts, although we did have a little cloud this evening. We also had some rain, a type of precipitation I did not expect to find out here. You see, melting snow for drinking water, cooking, and in fact just hanging around and breathing in our kitchen tent creates a lot of moisture which condenses on the ceiling and freezes. When the wind dies down, the sun warms up the tent and there’s a minor deluge.

From In the Endurance

Pouring melted snow into a thermos to keep it warm/liquid during the night. These thermoses are pretty excellent, actually--water poured in at 90C (the boiling point at this altitude) will still be hot the next morning. The orange color is not a filter or special effect, it's just what things look like inside the orange Endurance tent. Pictures look a little more natural in black and white, but I thought I should give you the full experience of being there and having your color sense altered.

Aside from that, it’s been a pretty exceptional day. We headed out on snowmobiles this morning to survey our field site. We covered about 30 kilometers all told, visiting several fields of blue ice and some rocky moraines sticking up above the ice field. (A moraine, for the non-glaciologists among you, is a pile of debris that a glacier plows up as it moves, pushing rock to its front and sides.)

It’s neat to be out here. You get the experience of being on the ice sheet, with snow and ice stretching out for miles, yet there’s still enough mountains and hills to make for interesting topography. The mountains are beautiful—in that stark, lifeless sort of way that Antarctic mountains are beautiful. The ice fields are mottled blue and white with patches of snow. Driving across them in the sunlight is kind of like driving across the cloud-flecked sky, except when you’re driving into the sun, when the whole thing turns to liquid silver stretching out to the horizon, with ripples like the ocean.

From First Day Out – Allan Hills

A little liquid silver on a small ice promontory. Also a good illustration of an Antarctic photographer's dilemma: how to tell your subjects apart? Fortunately Big Red comes with a nametag, so I can tell you (using the hi-res version of this photo) that Ruschle is on the left and Martin on the right.

I even stepped into a crevasse today. Too small to fall into, but large enough to be a good object lesson about the importance of watching where you step. So, that’s your moral for today.

From First Day Out – Allan Hills

The hole I made in the snow bridge over the crevasse.

Until tomorrow, signing off…”

Repost: First Days in the Field

January 31, 2011

Original post, Jan 11 2011. (Many thanks to Jonathan Beall for the transcription!)

“Hi, I’m calling WordPress on our satellite phone. So, if I cut out suddenly, or sound a little weird, that’s why.

Sorry to let you go so long without a post. Packing was a little bit of a scramble, and I found out at the last minute that the shuttle to our plane was rather earlier than I thought it would be. I never quite expected to make it out here on schedule, not after seeing friends get caught in the endless holding pattern of weather delay after weather delay. But yes, we arrived yesterday, right on time.

The Twin Otter that took us out to the Allan Hills.



Icefields near our camp.

The camp was already set up when we arrived. Mel, Ruschle, Steve, and Peter spent four days in forty-knot winds putting it together on their first trip out. The wind is a constant here. On the last trip the rest of the team only got one or two days of calm weather. Fifteen or twenty knots is more typical. The winds steal heat quickly, bare hands go numb within a minute, or at least mine do. None of the tents are heated, although the kitchen tent does have a heater that can be used in a pinch, so we do most of our living just below freezing. Fortunately, the constant wind makes indoors seem practically tropical. We keep warm with hot tea and lots of high calorie food.

My first glimpse of the camp.

Today it was a bit too windy to go out and do science, so we set up our equipment and went for a short hike to look at the blue ice near camp. This place is amazing and alien and desolate and beautiful, and I’m really looking forward to spending the next three weeks here.”

More photos of the flight and of camp.

Camping Happily

January 6, 2011

Since my mother wrote some awesome limericks for my previous posts, I thought I should add a couple of my own.

From Happy Camper

Patient Field Safety personnel strive
To keep each Happy Camper alive
With rigorous training
And lots of explaining
Hoping when crisis strikes, we’ll survive

From Happy Camper

For my happily camping cohort
No mere tent of the usual sort
With so much snow around
Each of us can be found
In a fabulous personal fort

From Happy Camper

A note: I realize this post-a-day experiment has been going on for a very short time, but I’m already realizing some significant problems with it. Firstly, it makes it difficult to get a good, solid science post done–there’s too much background to do in a day. And secondly, it’s distracting me from doing actual science, not to mention enjoying Antarctica while I’m here. So, while post-a-day would be a laudable goal, I am going to scale back a bit and aim for maybe twice or thrice weekly.