Ice and Medicine at the end of the earth

Archive for November, 2010

Emergency Leave

It has been awhile since I last posted to our adventure blog.  I am posting from the ICU during a visit with T.J.’s dad.  We arrived back in Los Angeles seven days ago after hearing that T.J.’s dad, Gary, suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage (brain bleed).   T.J. shared the story of his Antarctic arrival in a prior post.

Like T.J., I was unable to sleep the night prior to his expected landing on the ice runway.  Mostly because I would finally see my husband after two months of being apart, but also because my twin sister was in the hospital in labor.  My pager went off at 530 AM with the news that I had a healthy niece.  I skipped breakfast so I could get to my computer to see photos and call home.  I spent a lot of time on the computer Friday morning looking for more baby photos.  Shortly after T.J.’s expected take off from Christchurch, I had an urgent message on facebook, from a family friend, to call home.  T.J.’s dad was in the ER with a brain bleed and would be admitted to the ICU for monitoring.  Despite the severity of his illness, everyone sounded optimistic.  Throughout my past two months in Antarctica, I have felt well connected to home; telephone, email and facebook always had a familiar face at the other end.  After hanging up the phone on Friday, I realized how far away I really was.  And, I was going to have to break the news to T.J.

By noon, I had received a call describing Gary’s worsening condition.  By this point, I knew I had to meet T.J. at the plane so he could decide what to do.  A friend arranged for a private shuttle to pick T.J. up when he arrived and  we returned to McMurdo clinic to call home.  We checked in frequently with friends and family as we tried to get T.J. checked in, find his room and move his luggage.  It was a whirlwind tour of McMurdo.  By evening, we knew we had to get T.J. home.  I never thought I would be able to join him.

Within two hours of making the decision, clinic staff, Denver Medical, Raytheon HR, NSF and I am sure many others arranged our flight off the ice and back to LA.  We were able to take a military C-130 ski plane from McMurdo to Christchurch, NZ.  If you recall my nice airbus arrival, picture the opposite.  Instead of a 4 hour flight in first class, we spent eight hours in an extremely loud jet, sitting in uncomfortable sling seats.  We were unable to talk over the noise and spent the 8 hours napping, reading and thinking.  Despite being uncomfortable, we were excited to be one step closer to home.  Raytheon (my employer) and NSF put us up in a hotel in Christchurch for the night.  We took the next flight available to Los Angeles, where the coach seats felt like luxury compared to the C-130.  If you would have told me on Friday morning (US Thursday) that I would be with Gary four days later, I would never have believed you.  We are still shocked at the number of people who came together to support us and Gary during this difficult time.

Gary remains in the ICU.  His recovery has been complicated by an infection of the shunt that was placed to drain CSF fluid that built up in his brain after the bleed.  We watched a gradual decline over the past four days as they were unable to control the infection with antibiotics alone.  He had his shunt replaced today and we are optimistic that the infection will resolve now that the infected tubing has been removed.  As Gary put it during one of his more lucid times, “we are guardedly optimistic.”

My two weeks of emergency family leave will end next Friday.  T.J. and I have decided that I should return to McMurdo.  He will hopefully follow in a couple of weeks if Gary’s condition improves.  I leave LA on Tuesday night and should arrive back at McMurdo next Friday (US Thursday).

We would like to extend a huge Thank You to everyone who helped get us home so quickly when we felt so far away.  And to everyone who is covering for us so we can spend time with family.  Thank you!

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A Day of Mixed Emotions – November 18/19

I woke up a little after midnight with a stomach ache and a little nausea.  I was in my hotel room in Christchurch, New Zealand, and scheduled to fly down to Antarctica in a few hours.  I couldn’t be sick – Jessie was waiting for me.  I pulled the garbage can from the bathroom next to my bed and prayed that it was just the lasagna from dinner.

When I woke again at 6AM, I was feeling good.  Crisis averted – I would see Jessie in about 8 hours.

Just like Jessie, I was lucky enough to fly down to Antarctica in a commercial jet.  First class seats and big windows.  The first 4 hours passed uneventfully, and then the views began.  Sea ice of all different types.  Glaciers flowing from rocky peaks. Snow-capped volcanoes.  I was seeing Antarctica. I felt like a kid in a candy store.

I would rush from the left side of the plane to the right side to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.  And most everybody else on the flight was doing the same.  We took pictures in the cockpit of the plane – just like we were 7 years old again.

While everyone on the plane was excited, I had to have been the most excited. Not only was I setting foot on Antarctica for the first time, I was seeing my wife for the first time in two months!

As I deboarded the plane,  I saw Jessie.  I broke into a big smile and started waving.  Trying to not trip in my big FDX boots, I rushed over to give her a big hug and kiss.  It was wonderful seeing her again. And in Antarctica no less.

I thought nothing of getting whisked into a private shuttle while the others boarded Ivan the Terrabus.  But after sitting down next to Jessie, I could tell something was wrong.

Jessie broke into tears, telling me that my dad was in the hospital with a brain bleed.  I didn’t know what to feel.  I was still ecstatic from seeing Jessie and Antarctica, but my dad was in the hospital.

Jessie and a colleague of hers brought me up to the medical building.  Only a few minutes after arriving, we were on the phone with one of the doctors in Newport Beach.  The report sounded encouraging. Dad was still quite cognizant and was being monitored hourly to make sure his mental state didn’t deteriorate.

The next few hours were a bit of whirl wind.  I was talking with my supervisor, getting checked in at McMurdo, discussing flight options back to New Zealand, and who knows what else.  In an hour or two, I was on the phone with my sister Austyn who had arrived from the Bay area.  The report on my dad was now much less rosy and his mental state was beginning to deteriorate.  My hope for his speedy recover and my staying in Antarctica was over.  It was time to start figuring out how to get off continent.

I will let Jessie tell the story of how the military, the National Science Foundation and Raytheon helped us get back both quickly and easily. But I wanted to say how thankful I am for all of the different people who helped us, many of whom I don’t even know about.

We are both now in Newport Beach and able to help watch over my dad in the ICU.  He has shown improvement since a shunt was placed, and we are cautiously optimistic that he will make a full recovery.  He will in the ICU for a while longer to make sure no vascular spasms and re-bleeding occur.

Jessie will be headed back to Antarctica early next week. I hopefully will be able to return a little after that.

Mt. Erebus Ice Caves

The ice caves compete with the iceberg for the most amazing Antarctic scenery so far.  We traveled by Delta vehicle out to the Erebus Glacier Tongue, which is on the way to Cape Evans.  The snow was deep which made driving difficult.  Our fearless leaders avoided a couple of close calls and we made the entire trip without having to dig out the vehicles.  We walked to the ice caves in groups of six.  When I was not at the ice caves, I was looking for penguins.  No luck, but there is still time.

Mt. Erebus is to the left of the photo above.  You can see the first group walking toward the cave, which is marked by flags.  The caves are formed where the glacier flow off Mt. Erebus meets the sea ice.

We followed the flags to the hole above.  Which is actually the entrance to the ice cave.

You can start to see the crystal structures that make up the ceiling and walls of the cave.  They are very fragile, so we were careful not to touch them.  The blue color of the ice against the white of the crystals was gorgeous.  The glistened off of the snow.  As you can imagine, the photos do not capture the experience or the beauty.

The next photo is a view toward the back of the gave.  You can see the blue “glass” walls reflecting off white crystal ceiling. I walked to the back of the cave through the narrow passage.

A close up of the wall highlights the blue color and the contrast between smooth wall and crystal formation

From the back of the cave, other folks in the group were framed by the light entering through the doorway.

The following photos are close ups of the crystalline structures found in the cave.

Looking out over the sea ice from the cave

And finally, my first icicle sighting in Antarctica!

In other exciting news, T.J. has arrived in Christchurch, NZ and will take a C17 flight to McMurdo tomorrow!!

Where does all that waste go?

With 1300 people on base, there is a lot of waste to get rid of.  Last week, we toured the waste water treatment plant.  Until 2003, all of McMurdo sewage was dumped into the ocean.  The new waste water treatment plant is considered “green” and uses an Aerobic process to break down the sewage.  There is a great cartoon at the entrance to the plant that sums up the process.  The process is started with the “muffin monster” which grinds up all of the incoming sewage: The “Muffin Monster Masticator” is the green machine at the back of the picture.

The waste is ground up and transferred by pipes into large vats for separation.

A mixture of bacteria is raised and mixed in with the waste water to assist with break down of the organic material and the release nitrogen.

The bubbles are from the oil in the kitchen.  We do not have an oil filter for the kitchen waste.  The solids then separate from the water.

The sludge is pressed into “cake,” an inert substance that is packaged for shipment to a Los Angeles Landfill.  An interesting fact is that tomato plants often grow in the cake because humans and this process do not digest tomato seeds.

As you recall, the now clear water stayed at the top.  The water is run through UV to kill any remaining bugs.

The water is then released into the ocean where it mixes with the brine from our saltwater desalination plant. Pretty Amazing!

Back to the Sea

Shades of Blue and Gray

I went on a lovely ski today, but did not carry my camera on the trip so I do not have photos to share.  Every time I go outside, I am amazed by the lack of color.  There is endless white and brown.  There is more and more brown as the temperature warms and the snow melts.  There was an overcast day a couple of weeks ago that highlighted a brilliant green color of ice that I had not seen before.  I have shared the picture below.

I am signed up for an ice cave tour at the base of Mt. Erebus glacier tongue tomorrow, so I should have some more fun pics soon!

Castle Rock Loop Hike


We had gorgeous weather this weekend!  Two friends and I set out on a day hike of the Castle Rock loop.  The rock was named by Scott’s Discovery expedition (1901-1904).  The rock is open for scrambling later in the season.  We had sunshine, amazing views and warm temperatures.

There are three warming huts on the loop.  They are called “Apples” and provide emergency shelter in case of an unexpected storm.  They are stocked with food, fuel and survival bags.

The weather was too nice to spend time in the Apple.  On the way up the trail, we had views of Castle Rock and Mt. Erebus (Active Volcano on Ross Island).  The cloud cap over Erebus made for amazing views.

Like all other trails in the Ross Island trail system, the trail is marked  by flags.  At the rock, the trail turns to the right and drops steeply to the sea ice below.

Kelly and I hiked the loop.  Robert decided to carry a snowboard, despite the fact that he has never been on a snowboard before.  While Kelly and I enjoyed views of Erebus (above) and listened to incredible silence, Robert attempted snowboarding.  He quickly converted the snowboard to a sled which proved to be more energy efficient.

At the bottom of the trail, we were treated to more pressure ridges.

We finished the hike at the Scott base store and caught a shuttle back to McMurdo.  The hike was 7 miles and we covered it in about 3 hours (+ 1/2 hour of waiting for the snowboarder :)).  I am looking forward to repeating the loop on skis when T.J. arrives!


There is an iceberg frozen in the ice between McMurdo and Cape Evans.  It is massive.

I had fun walking around it and was in awe by its size and brilliant colors.  The experience was definitely another “I really am in Antarctica” moment!  The pictures tell the story best.