Tricks of the trade

Quite a lot has happened since my last post over a month ago. The sun has returned, we’ve had our strongest blizzard yet, and we’ve broken temperature records. Work has been busy and there has been lots happening around station. Aside from working through ongoing winter projects I’ve given some thought to next year. With a lot on my mind the time has been flying by so I’ll use this post to gather my thoughts. I’ll also be giving some tips about life on station and Antarctica, hence the title, Tricks of the trade.

Lots happening, the time flies by. Lake Druzhby ice, 14 July

Lots happening, the time flies by. Lake Druzhby ice, 14 July

Where to start? With the sunrise, I suppose. I believe the sun was supposed to return on the 9th of July, but if I didn’t see it on the 7th (it was very close, touching a distant bank of stratocumulus) I definitely saw it on the 8th. Old atmospheric refraction bending the rules again, this photo is from eight minutes before solar noon – by solar noon it had actually disappeared behind an iceberg.

Our first sunrise on 8th July, 1:37pm. Polar stratospheric cloud also visible

Our first sunrise on 8th July, 1:37pm. Polar stratospheric cloud also visible

I’ve seen quite a bit of polar stratospheric cloud this winter, which is associated with ozone depletion. With the sun slowly returning, this is the most important time of the year for ozone measurements and we have recommenced weekly ozone flights – I wrote all about it in the icy news. Talking about the stratosphere, I’ve been looking into sailplane gliding recently and there must be a few scientists who fly and look for ways to combine their hobby with their work. I’d never heard of the Perlan project to soar the Patagonian Andes literally into the stratosphere. In 2006 they achieved 50,000 feet (15460 metres) but they are looking to get to 90,000 feet.

If you’ve been reading this blog or even just looking at the pictures you’ve probably gathered that I am interested in weather and nature. I’m in the midst (mist might be a good weather pun, but I think I’ve hit quota) of an application with BOM to be a weather forecaster, mainly because I find it interesting. I like exploring things from both the theoretical side, and the practical side. Sailplane gliding appeals for the exposure to larger scale weather phenomena, flying say 1000km instead of 100km and using different sources of lift. It’s all interesting.

My interest in paragliding and particulary the European alps was once again stoked by watching this years X-ALPS (from 7 July), a non stop race through the biggest mountains from Salzburg to Monaco. If you can’t fly, you walk. Chrigel the Swiss eagle again dominated the race and it is just inspiring to see one understand and use natures energy in the way that he did. I’m also happy to report that the internet at Davis is at least good enough to get a great view of the live feed, three dimensional positions of 30 athletes flying or walking on a google earth backdrop, updated every second.

Lake Druzhby, 14 July. I never get bored of the multitude of fresh water ice formations.

Lake Druzhby, 14 July. I never get bored of the multitude of fresh water ice formations.

So I have competing priorities for next year. Since my Antarctica application was successful at the last minute, by accepting it I postponed plans I’ve had for quite some time to take a year off. While I am definitely interested in learning all about the weather with the Diploma of Meteorology, I would also like to experience it first hand. Yes I can still paraglide on the weekends… But there is only one week off in the intensive ten month course which doesn’t leave much time for learning gliding, sailing, or packrafting. It would however, save me the choice of which destination to choose (Central Asia / Pakistan? Brazil, Peru and Colombia? The Alps or eastern Europe? North America?) for northern summer. Yes, it’s a tough life, I know.

A closer look at the Sorsdal glacier

A closer look at the Sorsdal glacier

Finding a path. Broken sea ice, Crooked Fiord

Finding a path. Broken sea ice, Crooked Fiord

So this scrutiny of choices and trade offs and compatibilities and consequences for next year as been both advanced and prolonged by the extended application process for this job. In the meantime though I have made progress with some winter projects. The latest of these was sorting through Dad’s slide collection which we had digitised a few years ago. I often referred to his diary to confirm dates or figure out locations, and I was frequently distracted by funny anecdotes, or maybe we just have a similar sense of humour. My random outbursts of laughter were hopefully more amusing than annoying for Pat in the next room.

It was also interesting to see how many traits I’ve taken on from my parents and upbringing, and how some things never change.

Taking Mum flying has been great but it would have been great to take Dad, especially after reading, “I got involved with a paraglider accident on the Barnicoat Range on my return but it looks great, soaring off the hills in the yellow light of evening – tussock, island of the Inlet, mountains and sea. Something to consider.” 16/2/97

A passage on immigration (written over thirty years ago) also seemed pertinent with the ongoing boat people fiasco in the media.

Sure I’m a dreamer at heart but I believe the USA is ‘The Land of Hope and Glory’. They have the greatest resource on Earth – their people. And their generosity. This year they hope (if the USSR lets the emigres go) to receive 50,000 Russian emigres, mainly Jews. So far they have absorbed 200,000 Indochinese refugees. Yes truly it is a magnificent investment in the future of America – to invest in people – people who have determination, courage and skill to reach its shores will show the same virtues in their new homeland.

A windblown shell miles from the beach. Fitting for a random subject change

A windblown shell miles from the beach (27/7, Crooked Fiord). Fitting for a random subject change

A random subject change? I seem to have completely lost my train of thought…

A quick read of my introductory paragraph, and we’re back on track. The blizzard. Our strongest gust for the season, 84 knots, on 23 July. It deposited a Mont Blanc of snow behind our living quarters, but left the nice one foot thick platform to the Met building steps that had only appeared a week earlier. This was the day I helped Bob check a few of his science experiments on quad bikes (nice day Bob??), and the wind direction must have been unusual because normally in that windy gap the blowing snow isn’t stopping for anybody.

The following photographs are from a long weekend trip based at Watts hut (as were the previous three).

Returning from Watts hut, on Obs I noted that the wind vane had been stuck the whole time I’d been gone. After the blizzard had chocked it full of snow it had eventually jammed. We had quite a dump of snow without the wind that usually follows it. In a window of gorgeous weather (literally calm at times) I unblocked it, before more crap weather, until we returned to calm yet again. With stagnant surface air (no mixing with warmer air above) and a good layer of snow to insulate the (relatively) warm rocks and ocean beneath the sea ice, temperatures dropped and dropped.

Clearing the snow from the wind vane

Clearing the snow from the wind vane

The following weekend we recorded two record August minimums in a row (-40.2C, -41.3C), and only missed out on the all time coldest Davis temperature by less than a degree.

A good covering of snow, 30 July

A good covering of snow, 30 July

An already temperamental Hogen then began complaining of the cold! Our Hogen is the machine that generates the hydrogen for our balloons, so I give it the most delicate care and my utmost attention, and never say anything disparaging in its presence. While I aim to please I  also avoid tinkering, so it’s a little ironic that I’ve subsequently found at least one small part of my problems was due to something I may have, er, adjusted. I guess I should move on to the tricks of the trade part as I seem to have promised….

1. Avoid tinkering, don’t be overzealous. For sure I am pretty uptight about a lot of things (attention to detail is a nice way of putting it?), but there often is a reason for things being the way they are. (I’m saying this partly so those pesky new arrivals don’t get here and wonder what the hell we’ve been doing all year!) Take a little extra time to feel things out and understand them before acting.

Leaky plumbing given away by steam, 30/7

Leaky plumbing given away by steam, 30/7

2. Don’t take my word for it. These rules may not apply. The training, while useful and important, is often as irrelevant as advice from previous expeditioners. The reality, every year, may be different to what you have heard.

3. Being mindful of point 2, there is plenty of coffee here! You may miss one or two things but there is plenty of food – I know as we threw out boxes of it (some best before technicality…). I won’t say how much we threw out as I know my mother reads this. On a similar note, bring some winter projects, sure, but know that there is plenty to do down here and you probably won’t have as much time as you think.

4. Be patient and tolerant. If you get through the application process you’ll probably be fine! But it’s a long year and there’s a lot of procedural stuff you have to deal with. Look out the window. Make a difference where you can, then have a laugh.

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Gear tips

1. My personal down vest. We didn’t get issued one of these but they are worth having. The great thing about a vest is it keeps your core warm. If you’re not cold the blood will flow more readily through your exposed extremities which will help the vest keep you at a perfect temperature.

2. In light of the above, summer shorts. While regrettably it’s been a while since I’ve regularly worn shorts outside, the sun is coming back and I feel a return to this great custom is imminent. I’ve even had a short (short? brief?) outside tanning session in the past week.

The hot water trick in -37C (always works better with the shirt off) - photo Mark K, 2/8/13

The hot water trick in -37C (always works better with the shirt off) – photo Mark K, 2/8/13

3. A winter down jacket. When you’re not posing for cameras or working on your tan, a big bulky winter down jacket is often all you need to keep you toasty warm. If you’re just transiting between buildings you can even ignore gloves and just put your hands in your pockets.

4. Slip on boots. Adjust your boots so you can slip one on and slip another off. You will do this hundreds of times over the course of the year, and nothing says you’re on holidays more than not having to do up your laces. It’s the little things.

5. Microspikes (try a google image search). Well aren’t these just fantastic. They work great even on steep hard ice (¡before the safety alarm bells outside the station leaders office ring, they don’t have front points so obviously the slope is moderate enough to use french technique!). So convenient.

The obvious advantages is that they are far more practical to transport (crampons are so awkward), lighter, much easier to use and versatile between boot types as well (I’ve even heard of them being used with Tevas!). I have a scar on my shoulder (ok, hadn’t seen it in several years but I just checked and it is still there) from crampons – but these you can carabiner to your waist strap without worrying about losing your leg.

Are they still clearing snow? Note the steam in the cold air. 2/8/13

Are they still clearing snow? Note the steam in the cold air. 2/8/13

6. A versatile camera. These days compact digital cameras are great, and until this trip that’s all I’ve used, but then again you’ve come a long way and I can understand if you want to get a digital SLR. By all means go for it but make sure you also consider a GoPro action camera (or similar, the Drift Ghost seems good), and even a small handheld as a backup.

But remembering usability, I went for a single lens, a Tamron 18-270mm, with Nikon3200 body, not that there’s anything wrong with Canon. On our coldest day I went out to get some footage for our 48hr Antarctic film festival effort, and with a new warm battery loaded a minute was still too much for it at -38C and I was unable to get the footage! I’d hate to miss out on the photos I managed to get simply because I was mucking around changing lenses.

The coldest day (between two record breaking August minimum temps) 3/8

The coldest day (between two record breaking August minimum temps) 3/8

Keeping the camera warm is an important consideration. I’ve got a case but when it’s cold it’s better to tuck it inside my winter down jacket. I’ve taken some aurora shots but haven’t equipped myself for set and forget all night time lapse like some of the guys here. It’s degenerative laziness yes but to get really good pictures a full frame sensor and slow lens is what you want, and despite spending more money on this SLR than any other camera I’ve had, there are better ones out there. Certainly I could work on this, but for now I’m happy with the easy 80%.

A simple plastic bag is very handy to have when you bring in your cold camera inside, to prevent condensation forming on or in the camera itself. Another reason to avoid changing lenses!

Most of the winter I’ve used a UV filter to protect the lens proper from accidental scratching. Having said that I take it off for aurora shots due to the apparent possibility of ghosting, which if you have keen eyes may have noted on my 3:54pm sunset photo above on this page.

When the sun gets higher and things brighten up I’ll screw the polarising lens back on, this is an amazing filter to use for reducing the contrast between a bright sky and relatively dull foreground, when shooting at right angles to the sun. It also is handy to bring out contrast to clouds. I love the affect and have to be careful not to overdo it. Along with other physical and optical properties, “will that polarise” (polarised light such as sky at right angles will, diffuse light such as snow and clouds won’t) is always on my mind when looking for photos.

Finally remember that a SLR, while capable of getting better pictures, is a bit like a race car – it has a specific design purpose and isn’t much good if you don’t know how to use it. The specialisation often makes them less versatile than a simple compact digital, and there are dozens of more things you can screw up when taking a photo with an SLR. So be prepared to invest the time into learning how to use it.

The other vital point about cameras is remembering that there will be plenty of other cameras on station. You can always take the “I’ll share that on facebook, thank you very much” approach. It has been pointed out that the camera population in Antarctica is probably the highest per capita of anywhere in the world.

This came in handy for our station entry in the 48 hour Antarctic film festival, an McMurdo base idea that is widely participated in and unleashes waves of creativity and spring cobweb dusting across the continent. As Davis was one of the five winners last year we contributed one of the essential elements which must appear in the short film, to help ensure it is authentically spontaneous and add to the randomness. We were all quite happy with our entry, it’s gets a laugh out of us (winterers are perhaps an odd bunch?) anyway.


2 thoughts on “Tricks of the trade

  1. Greg and Paola

    Hi Nick Greg and I have seen a movie about over-wintering and the T3 effect. Saw some great shots of the ozone burning off as well as seeing some of the day-to day routines of the staff. Saw about the movie competitions. All very illuminating. We were inspired to go to the movie to get “a feel” of what life might be like for you down there.
    I guess you will now have a lot more staff on base and hopefully you feel like mixing with the new crew ( in the movie the over-wintering staff didn’t want to mix initially )

    Well, stay out of trouble. Look forward to seeing your cheery face when you are next up our way.


    Paola and Greg

    1. sharemyjoys Post author

      Nice – not sure what you mean about T3 and ozone burning off?
      We just watched the Antarctic film festival films, last night and monday night. Very entertaining, and we think the quality was a step up from last year. Will definitely be taking copies with me to show people…


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