Greetings From the Ice Man!

Matt Nelson

May 12, 1996
McMurdo, Antarctica

Dear Students:

Greetings from the crazy Ice Man! Crazy, in the sense that if I had any brains, I would probably be someplace warm, instead of wondering why I am here. First, congratulations to all of you who participated in the OM event, and good luck in Iowa. Thanks for your interest and questions on Antarctica.

Probably the main reason I chose to Winter-over here in Antarctica was for the adventure. I had never lived in such isolation and four months of darkness. I wanted to find out how I would endure under these conditions. Over the years, I had met many people that had Wintered- over, and most of them enjoyed being here, especially the first time. I guess in part, I felt that Wintering in Antarctica was an experience I wanted to have in my life.

Some people come here the first time for the adventure, and then after that, for the money. While making a decent wage is nice, it certainly isn't the most important thing. The beauty of the place is overwhelming, I have met some incredible people, the experience has been enriching, but I will be glad to go home to my family.

Both the South Pole and McMurdo stay on the current time in New Zealand. Right now, we are 18 hours ahead of Mountain Daylight Time. By following New Zealand time, our hours are just like any where else. In my case, I go to work at 8 AM, have lunch at noon, and if I am lucky, stop working at 4:30 PM. Dinner is at 5:30 to 7 PM.

Watching penguins and seeing the spectacular beauty - the mountains, glaciers, ice formations, especially at sunrise and sunset, are among my favorite things down here. The isolation, long darkness, and having no planes in-or-out are the negative things. Many of the 233 people here are quite comfortable with the things that I find disturbing. I am used to travelling quite often, and for me to be away from airplanes for several months is definitely a test of my endurance!

Cold fresh milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, ice cream, and good steaks are some of the items I miss. While work keeps me busy, and I don't read or write as much as I thought I would, I find that I have actually written more stories here than I did back home. Some of the advantages of being here are lack of crime, lack of "Honey-dos" (no lawn to mow), opportunities to meet fantastic people, and a chance to save money, because there isn't much to spend it on.

As I indicated, reading and writing give me pleasure. In my off-time, I usually stay in my room, but that is by choice, so I can write. During the first eleven weeks I was here, I worked an additional eight weeks of overtime. I work an average of 9 hours a day now. Since the end of April, the satellite tracking business has slacked off, so I am able to enjoy more free time. On Sunday's, I participate in the Chapel services, and then after Church, eat the best meal of the week at the Sunday Brunch. Photography has long been one of my hobbies, so that has given me another outlet. We keep up with what's happening back in the world with one channel of satellite TV, and of course we have the phone and e-mail.

Other people ski, paint, work on ceramics, take classes in welding, art, taekwondo, and aerobics. Some spend many hours drinking. About once a month there is a community party, with bar-b-que steaks. Tonight, (Sunday) the galley is serving lobster and rib-eye steaks. I like to paraphrase Charles Dickens: "These were the worst of steaks. These were the best of steaks." They are the best steaks because the are the only steaks, but in most cases, if I were served one of these at a restaurant in Wyoming, I would send it back.

Last week, the galley ran out of fresh, or at least whole, eggs. The last plane left on February 21st, and we had fresh fruit and vegetables for about another two months. There is a hydroponic greenhouse here that is wonderful to go in and see fresh green things growing. Sometimes, we have lettuce that is grown in the greenhouse. The galley staff does the best they can with the food that they have available. Chicken is served often, cooked in about as many ways as it is served. Most of the lunch and dinner menus have two choices of some kind of meat, plus a vegetarian entree. Hamburgers, lamb, pizza, fish, spaghetti, and Mexican food are some of the choices we have on a rotating basis. Potatoes and rice are served all of the time.

Powder milk is all we have, and tastes horrible. One of the cooks was hired as a baker. We have homemade bread and rolls, and more deserts than what any of us need. She does an excellent job of making pies and cakes; today she brought out hot raisin bread, fresh out of the oven, to the tables.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the historic Scott Hut, in the dark, to take flash photographs of the items inside. This prefabricated building on Hut Point was built in 1902, and used by Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their South Pole expeditions. Inside, there were tin cans of cocoa, Huntley-Palmer biscuits, sardines, mutton, and dog biscuits. A carcass of a Waddell seal was inside. The hut smelled like freshly smoked fish. If I were stranded, I certainly wouldn't have any qualms eating an eighty-old seal.

Those early explorers had it tough, at much colder temperatures than the -10 degrees F. inside Scott's Hut. I was there about an hour, dressed in my cold-weather gear, but my fingers still felt cold. Our average temperature now is about -5 F., with the highs of about +11 F., and the lows about -35 F., without the wind chill. The wind chill has taken the temperatures down to -80 F. During the worse of the Winter, the winds may be over 100 knots, but most of the time they are less than 25 knots. When the wind is not blowing, -10 F. is not uncomfortable if one is dressed for it. The night I was in the hut I could have had warmer gloves on, but they would have impeded my photography. Some early films of the explorers showed them crawling into frozen sleeping bags at night.

I don't have to sleep in a frozen sleeping bag. My room is in a dormitory, and I am fortunate to have a window that overlooks McMurdo Sound. Matthew A. Nelson, the great Antarctic Explorer, uses an electric blanket at night. Heat magically appears in my room through forced air ducts. I keep much warmer than those guys in the early days who struggled with survival nightly in frozen sleeping bags, many times under Condition 1 whiteouts. During Condition 1, the worst of the three weather conditions here, we are not supposed to go outside except to go to the galley. So far, there have been only a couple of times that it was Condition 1.

The most snow we have had at any one time is about 6 inches. We have fresh snow about twice a week. As in Wyoming, the wind blows much of it away. Often, the blowing wind causes whiteout conditions. (Not much different from Wyoming).

I don't have to use an outhouse with the wind blowing through the boards. In the dormitory, every two rooms share a bathroom. We each have a sink and a refrigerator in our rooms, and most people have TV and stereos. I have lived in worse places. There are about 90 rooms inside the three-story dorms. I like to say that I live in a house with 45 bathrooms.

Our heat is electric; the electricity is generated using diesel fuel, which is brought in once a year on a tanker ship. The diesel fuel is also used to fuel the airplanes which fly in the summer, which is the August - February time frame. During the summer, the LC-130 airplanes fly fuel to the South Pole. Since they use the same fuel, they just fill up their wing tanks, and offload some of it at the South Pole.

It takes about eight hours to fly from New Zealand on the LC-130 airplanes, operated by the US Navy. These are almost standard C-130 cargo planes - the "L" means that they are ski-equipped for landing on the ice. We fly commercial airlines to Christchurch, New Zealand, and then the military planes to the Ice. Sometimes in October, the airplanes are C-141's or the C-5A, flown by the US Air Force, but these planes are not ski-equipped. They land on the sea-ice, which is good for landing planes using wheels until the ice breaks up, usually in January. After that, the LC- 130's land on the permanent ice shelf.

The Ross Ice Shelf goes South for several hundred miles. I have been on the Ice Shelf, but only within 5 or 6 miles from McMurdo. While I would love to go to the Dry Valley's, I have never been there. From what I have been told, they are beautiful. Once the Summer opens up, the helicopters fly the scientists there.

Our last sunset was at 1:18 PM on April 24th. August 19th will be the next sunrise. Near the end of August, the first planes come in, at what is called WinFly. About 150 facilities-maintenance personnel come then. I have been told that my relief may come then. The people who come in at WinFly usually stay until February. In October, Main Body starts arriving, with the visiting scientists, journalists, etc.

Since there is no mid-winter air drop of mail this year, which should occur in June, our first mail will be at WinFly. The 28 people who are at the South Pole now have to wait until at least October to receive mail, unless special provisions are made to fly them mail at WinFly.

Total darkness will not occur until sometime in June, and it will last for about six weeks. We have an hour or so of dark dusk, near noon. Today, I could distinguish the glaciers on the Royal Society Mountains, and the boundary between the snow-covered sea ice and the open water.

When the sea ice is open, forced open by gale-force winds blowing 50 knots or higher, or broken up by the ice breaker during the summer months, one can often see emperor or Adelie penguins at Hut Point. In addition to the penguins, I have seen Waddell seals, and Orca and Minke whales from Hut Point. The only other animal I have seen here in Antarctica is the skua, a gray seagull that is a scavenger. No pets are allowed here, although I heard once of somebody having some goldfish. At the New Zealand Scott Base, two miles from McMurdo, there used to be dogs for driving dogsleds, but they left the Ice about 1987.

The next paragraph on waste management is courtesy of Beth Sheid: "The garbage that is produced here in McMurdo is segregated into different categories and packaged to be shipped back to the US for recycling and disposal. We segregate it into topics like burnable, plastic, cardboard, light metal, heavy metal, construction debris. Then, the waste management people pack it up into large cardboard boxes and when the ship comes in, in January, it will be transported to the state of Washington. This state has one of the highest percentages for recycled items. If it is cloths or usable items, they go into the "Skua Pile". There is at least one in every dorm, and this is where we do our "free shopping - if you like it, it's yours"."

Hope this helps in answering the questions. Have a good summer, everyone!

Matt Nelson, the crazy Ice Man in Antarctica

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