Friday, June 30, 2017

Heavy Machinery at the South Pole

I'm sure the greatest comedic act in my life for my friends and family back home is the idea of me driving heavy machinery.  Well, here we are.  As a part of my job, I have been trained on a CAT 953c loader and 277b loader.  I've also been trained on driving an LMC (aka a snowcat) and the snowmobiles.  Inside the LO we have a small electric forklift that I am also required to operate as part of my work.

Each piece of machinery has its own regulations for how much weight that it can handle as well as temperatures that it can operate within.  The 953 can handle quite a bit of weight and is able to be operated for longer periods of time in the colder temperatures (sub -65F) than the smaller 277.  We use the 953 to retrieve large items like stacks of cement board from the outside berms, and the 277 is mostly used for small and light work - moving triwalls, retrieving insulation from the berms, etc.  The LMC is not a loader and rather just a snow equipped truck for lack of a better description.  It's used during emergencies and drills, to do reconnaissance at the berms, and transporting people to and from outside areas.  They technically can be used at all temperatures (emergencies), but you have to be cognizant of the tracks and hydraulics not freezing.  Finally the snowmobile is basically useless in the winter.  The tracks freeze way too quickly for us to use in these cold temps.

As a quick aside, let me discuss what the berms actually are.  One of our storage systems at the Pole is utilizing what are essentially long raised beds of snow behind the station.  These beds of snow have specific organizations and designations so that we can look items up in Maximo.  These are the berms.  They certainly come with their own issues, but it's what we've got right now.

So some issues that we encounter with driving in the cold and dark.  Our windshields can fog up pretty fast because of our body heat.  We try to avoid that by utilizing any cab heating within the machines and fans pointed at the windshields, but it's not perfect.  You have to learn to park the vehicles into the wind too to try to avoid having the exhaust freeze to the windshields.  Then there's the tracks and hydraulics freezing up, as I had already mentioned.  We keep things moving to avoid the track issue, and we operate within safe operating temperatures to try to avoid damaging the hydraulics too.  There are certain time limits that we have at the colder temps so the machines have to come in earlier.

We also can only use red lights because of sensitive science equipment mounted to the roof of the station.  The red lighting is definitely better than nothing, but it's also not perfect.  We can't see very far with just red lighting and, when you add wind to it, it can become a small nightmare.  It's easy to get turned around when away from station, stuck in the wind, and only have red lights.  In that situation, best to stop, turn around so the wind isn't obscuring your view anymore, and figure out where you are in relation to berms and red lights on buildings.  It takes some practice and knowledge of the maps we have for behind the station, but it works better than anything else.

Because of the temperature restrictions, when it's warm enough we make complete use of the vehicle time.  This week we had a few warm days where we could go and grab some plywood for the carpenters to use during their floor remodeling project.  Sometimes you need a spotter for the objects you're grabbing because of the snow masking the bottom of the pallet.  In those cases, Brett and I will hop in an LMC and direct Steve, who is in the 953, to the berms and help him there.  It's a group effort and a lot of fun to be able to get away from our daily work of inventory.  As always, biggest thing that bogs me down about it is the cold.  They say there's no such thing as being cold - just not wearing enough layers.  I call horseshit.  Those people have clearly never lived in a freezer.

Steve in the 953c bringing in a bundle of plywood for the carps.  I'm sitting on the crate in the back waiting to help put dunnage down.

Me driving Voltron, our electric forklift, to carry some cement board into the LO DNF.

A photo of the berms that Brett took back when we had daylight