Back to the Ice

Ethan to Jasmine — 9/24/14

Note from Guy: Almost a month between the last message and this one. From the bit at the end I think there are some missing messages in that time period.

Hail O Callipygian One,

As you will read below they have let me back in (the fools) and we are restocking the mechanical/electronics workroom by day and well day is all we have. But I squeeze in a little time to Skype with Mai (prearranged time — I wonder how many times we’ll screw that up.), email to Tracy and now PM to you. I found several different copies of the message below and it just now took me precious minutes figuring out which was the last one. I need to be more organized.

What follows is a collection of notes and will probably read that way. Sorry.
Not sure how long it really is so this preamble stays brief.

— -

There are a lot of little travels to get where I am going. First you land at Christchurch. Catch a shuttle for an hour to a real bus. Three hours by bus to the gates of the base. This is immigration onto US soil and they treat it as such. Another stamp for the passport. I always wondered about the people that work at the base but live in NZ; they must go through passports very quickly.

Anyway from there you take another shuttle another hour to the USAP part of the base. Round one completed. [smile]

Not much exciting happens here. Medical and dental exam (I lost 52 pounds between leaving and returning!) all systems go. Didn’t have to pay for my own medicines this time around (Obamascare?) which saves me a significant chunk of unexpected change.

Nothing exciting in the NDAs I can discuss. The language has become even more vague and attempts at clarification lead only to greater befuddlement. I think they want to make you feel it is just safest never to say or do anything.

Then we came to the rules. Which came in its own folder with my name and picture on it. A few paragraphs of a hundred page document are highlighted and marked with with stick-on arrow tabs. A long one covers what is allowable on USAP equipment. And what isn’t. Using such equipment in anyway for copyright violation will not be tolerated. This was probably always in there, but who reads these whole things that largely remain the same year after year but change slightly here and there? Anyway their point is they have noticed, and in having me initial it, have noted that I know it. However as I interpret it I can watch what I have on me and the drive Bill has made for me, as long as I do so on my own laptop. No more sitting about the lounge or in comms watching my ill gotten booty. And no more using their internet for torrents. I plan to sign up for Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix and whatever else is out there, plus all the free ones (commercials, ugh — it’s been so long).

I notice the next paragraph talks about being conscious of bandwidth. There’s a real holdover from much early years. We have some of the best bandwidth on the planet.

The psych tests last nine hours and feel longer. I am ‘anti-social within acceptable limits.’ I can put it next to my ‘not yet insane’ trophy. Won’t mom be proud? I might want this on my tombstone. [laugh]

Three days and an hour and half shuttle to the Base airport and 5 hours later we are in McMurdo Air Force Base. I’m officially back on the seventh continent. And a Jeep ride from the landing strip to the base buildings.

And we haven’t even gotten through our opening checklist and things go sideways. My Ice Ready cert has expired. My three day refresher just became a full 11 day course. Not only will I not be there when the doors open (which I also missed while leaving due to being flown out unconscious a few days early.) but I am fairly nervous about being able to pass this thing. Very glad I lost the weight, but I seriously have no upper body strength any more. Maybe I’ll be back with the wife quickly after all.

A cert lasts 10 years. This time round the class is about 60 people. Only twelve for the Pole. The rest are going all over the place. Most are going to one station or another but a couple are planning on scaling one of the mountains, 16,000 ft, and they look more bored by this class than I do. BTW: while the Pole is 9,000 ft up (Denver and a half) it is not technically on a mountain. Earth’s rotation causes ice to build up at the Pole which it has slowly been doing since the last time the Pole flipped. The actual land is pretty much at sea level. When the ice builds up high enough some believe that the Poles will flip again. Some people believe a lot of things. [laugh]

The first day is the basics: “This is ice. It’s what happens to water when it gets too lazy.” That kind of thing. I can’t help noticing that the group is a lot of fit looking people in their 20s and 30s and me.

Two more days of classwork learning things like how to spot when we are about to pass out. Useful tips to be sure.

Day 4 we learn how to dress ourselves. Actually not a simple matter. Lots of layering, and you don’t want to forget anything. Surprisingly, sunscreen is important. In Thailand I largely ignored it. Here I don’t go out without it on my face. We are high up, usually have no cloud cover, we have almost no ozone layer (thanks US — although it is coming back, so thanks for that too.) and snow reflects everything everywhere.

So now that we are able to recognize ice and know how to dress ourselves we finally come to the part I’ve been dreading — going outside. The next two days are about trekking and setting up a campsite (which hopefully I will never have to actually do.) Almost dawn, at sea level it is barely below freezing and we are dressed for -40 and lower. This one time I am grateful because my blood has been thinned by the year in the tropics and the weight loss. I’ve been cold since I got here and that was indoors. My normal resistance will return but it will take a couple of weeks. Then again we’ve got about 40 lbs of gear on our backs so I’m cold and sweating and hot all at once.

Then we learn the theory of climbing. For a whole day. We could have done this inside; at no point do we do anything that requires us to be in the environment. I think this every time I do a recert. I smile realizing for the first moment that I never have to do this again.

We split off into groups depending on our destination and then are broken down into subgroups of four. Cruelly we are picked like splitting up for a high school sports teams. And I can feel being not wanted and of course this is a group of geniuses so we all know mathematically who is going to get stuck with me. True to form I am picked last and I try to live up to my ‘antisocial within acceptable limits’ designation. We had camped a few minutes walk from a 15 meter wall of ice. Today we just get use to the equipment, never leaving more than a few feet off the ground. Practice hammering in anchors, using carabiners, threading ropes, digging in the climbing shoes, using the quickdraws with the climbing gloves on. Mai would love this.

Our ‘captain’ I’ll call Hercules because that is pretty much who he looks like. If you crossbred a fireman (which is what he turns out to be. Lots of heating equipment so by US regs we must have 4 fireman day and 3 night.) and bodybuilder… Anyway, I describe to him how I got up this wall 10 years ago. I call this maneuver the inch worm. I dig my feet in hard and reach as high as I can and hammer an anchor in there. Using a quickdraw as a wrist wraparound I dangle and pull my knees into my chest as much as possible and retrench my feet. Then stand up and repeat. It’s slow but requires almost no upper body strength and we aren’t be graded for time. Just for showing up at our next location.

Herc carries our camping gear and is very patient with my ascent.

<just ripped out a ton of really boring stuff about the remaining week of the recert. It all can be reduced to: a) passed, b) bonded with some peers and c) I survived.>

During all this the sun came up. Peaked out would be more accurate. It is a very early dawn. The main group has already left for the station. There are 30+ of us delayed for one reason or another leaving two days late (there will be stragglers still in the coming weeks and then people coming and going — not everyone is on a full cycle during the day. And the last thing is our clothing check (guess they didn’t want to waste the manufacture in case we crapped out.) We each have three full sets of outside clothes. They are designed to be tight but they stretch as most people tend to put on weight during the stay (we will get another three set just before night if we are staying.) My skin has become very lose from the fairly quick weight loss and it is making the neoprene a bitch to put on. [bitch][whine][moan] But I suit up and strip down checking out that everything is snug but not too snug. And not too short or too long anywhere. It’s more time consuming than it sounds and a few of the breathing layers (don’t want sweat trapped against your skin) do need adjustment.

As an engineer ‘the suit’ will need to be adjusted to me as well, but that is at the Pole as it is only needed at night. During the balmy -40 of day the clothing will do if you are only out for a few hours.

With barely enough time for the 3 Ss in the morning, I skip breakfast to get a long Skype in with Mai. Things are going to get busy when I hit the pole. Time to leave. One more very bumpy one hour ride by jumbojeeps and we are at the plane. I have no watch and everything I own is on the cargo trailer. I have absolutely no idea what time it is. The timelessness has begun.

The Herc is configured differently than I am used to. With the bulk of the passengers already shipped out, the central seats have been stripped out leaving only the seats mounted to the sides of the plane. The center and aft area are now full of cargo. They will be flying cargo flights pretty much nonstop for the next several weeks refilling all our depleted resources. Fuel and food will be the bulk of the next week alone — no fuel on flights with passengers so I assume we are mostly accompanied by crates of food. Hercs are loud. I once forgot my noise plugs — never again. I know from experience that the flight is usually a little over three hours long. With no watch it seems endless. I am excited and very bored at the same time.

Air thinness plus rotation makes flight at the ass end of the Earth very turbulent. I already knew not to bring a book. But the Skyping had distracted my routine just enough that I packed my iPod when I packed the iPad. Everything is in my duffle which is stored gods know where under gods know what. And it doesn’t matter because I’m not undoing this harness for anything — watched a man shoot straight up and slam into the ceiling one year when the air suddenly decided it didn’t feel like supporting us at that moment. Cracked his skull and someone on the waiting list got lucky. Can’t see the windows over my shoulder and cargo blocks the windows on the other side. So mostly I stare at the color coded crates in front of me. There are two crates, medium size, painted diagonally blue and white strips. That’s engineering. I know one is my third week’s work. I’ll bore you with that later.

For now I’ll just bore you with my boredom. [smile] Between the plugs in our ears and the ‘hum’ from the engines made from the finest technology the 1970s had to offer, conversing with my neighbors is impossible. I study the ones I can see. I don’t remember being this conscious of age before. I think it might be my time in Thailand where a big part of your relative status is derived from your age. But I keep noticing how young everyone is here. And mentally I’m going back through the past few crews. With only a handful of exceptions I’m pretty sure I’ve got 10–35 years on everyone. In the back of my mind my mental image is in its mid 20s. Suddenly I really feel old. And now ominousness and a touch of self pity get added to the excitement and steadily increasing boredom.

Someone once joked, “Meditation is just like giving a bullhorn to all the thoughts in my mind I quieted with television.” I don’t idle well. As strange as that might seem all things given, it is true. I don’t need much but I need something. For a little bit the motion of the plane made one of the cargo straps sway in an interesting pattern. For that little slice of eternity I was fine. There were lots of little moments like that. But there was also a whole lot of nothing. Most people seemed to be sleeping or listening to music or more likely audio books. Clearly we had been in the air for several days by this point. So I started working on this part of the message. Not just writing it but searing it into my brain through endless repetition. Then I relived Mai’s and my time in Pattaya in 2008. Then I relived University. I was, gods help me, contemplating reliving high school when the endless trip abruptly ended. And stimuli was reintroduced to my senses.

No jeep trip this time. We are only a few yards from the loading ramp and an easy walk to the personnel entrance. You could tell the newbies from the returnees by who takes their earplugs out leaving the plane. A Herc is even louder idling down and then there are the forklifts and moving equipment.

Coming around from the side of the building it gets me every time. Each night there is a trick of the mind as the year drags on that the place feels smaller and smaller. And each time arriving I’m struck anew by how huge this place is. And that’s just the part you can see. My revelry is cut short by someone that thought I’d stopped because I didn’t know where to go. Just as well, I realize again how cold I am. -40ish I’d guess.

The loading ramp goes into the underground storage hangers so there is a slope as you round the building to the front. Then the whole structure is on pillars (so that the snow that slowly buries everything including the three previous stations will pass underneath it) so there is a stairwell up to the front door. I’m wheezing a bit less than last time I think. The other Greg is waiting at the door — Scottish beard and huge grin as inviting as ever.

My bag won’t be unloaded and taken to my room for hours yet so we go to the galley under the pretense of planning but mostly its gossiping and catching up. And coffee. Hot hot coffee. There are about 50 people in the galley. I’m still the oldest. I have Greg pull up the crew list on his pad. Two particle physicists in their 60s (top of your field gets you around forced retirement) a storage supervisor at 56 and me. Fourth oldest. Two IT guys are 18. Worse yet, Pod 5 personnel, radio telemetry and the BICEP people have all been moved into the radio telemetry building. No offense to Bill, Mia and Greg but these are the really interesting people. And admittedly they pretty much work and sleep at their stations anyway, but it was still possible to get conversations going. Not to mention that RT and BICEP have pretty much the only Non-US people here. So the main building is cast by the CW and then there is me. Don’t get me wrong, only one other place I’d rather be. [smile]

So, I’m not sure I will. Seems rather pointless.

That’s certainly the way you make it sound. I wonder what the complaint pages of other gyms look like?

No date yet, but André did give me his number on Wednesday. I will call him sometime tomorrow and we’ll see where it leads.

Did this ever get all straightened out? Was it a really good explanation? I’m sure Mai has already taken your list to the elders so it can be worked into the voodoo.

No, but I do have some very basic qualifications.

*sniff* I fit so very few of those categories *sniff*

Hmmm, I’m a specific order.

1a) Crazy — by which I really mean unpredictable (in its true sense) and unconventional.
1b) Very smart but easily entertained [smile]
3) As hypocritical as it is — thin.

And while I don’t consciously think of them as categories I do take note that every partner (other than Stacy) has been significantly younger than me and under 5' 4". So those would probably be the non deal breakers.

I generally only work short hours during the beginning of the week, so I feel guilty taking away from work when I’m only here for a few hours

I like when a small piece of information tumbles neatly into place.

Excellent! Where from?

A wonderful British film called ‘A Shock to the System.’ 1990, I think. I adore Michael Caine. 150+ films and still going strong. Had one of my favorite lines of all time although it is mostly in the delivery:
Lieutenant Laker: “He was your superior, wasn’t he?”
Graham Marshall: “No, he was my boss.”

Almost had me in tears, beautiful.

I agree, Guns N’ Roses — Sweet Child of Mine

</Bitch Moan Mode>

— -
“There are times when verbal ingenuity is not enough.”

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?