The lead-in to winter is a busy time for the mechanic team on station, as they winterise all of the machinery not required, and work to keep the required equipment that will be used over winter maintained to handle the conditions.
Temperatures around -60 C (without windchill) are not kind to machinary, as any rubber gasket, hose or rubber track becomes stiff and brittle, rather than its normal malleable self. This automatically excludes vehicles like the utes/pickups, vans and Cat tractors that use rubber tyres or tracks for traction. The utes/pickups and vans were put up on blocks, and stored with the bulk of the snow(im)mobiles and other machinery and in what looks a bit like a vehicle ghost town.
The more hardy vehicles include the big Caterpillar dozers, front end loaders and LMCs. These are the options reserved for the Heavy Equipment operator to use to clear drifts, refuel outlying science buildings, retrieve equipment from the berms, or stow boxes of our waste recycyling and rubbish, which all need to continue during the winter.
Drifting from the constant wind can be dramatic and walking around the station in darkening twilight in the weeks after the sun had set at times is a comically troublesome event. Without direct light, all white snow and ice loses its contours and perception of depth, and it is not uncommon to be walking beside some buildings, only to walk into a 2 foot high drift that you did not detect, resulting in you being facedown in the said drift, followed by a quick check to see who witnessed it and would report your clumsiness back to the crew for everyones humorous benefit.
The drifting is inevitable and in most locations, is not tackled over winter, as the battle is endless and trying to gain ascendancy puts too much demand on the machines in dubious conditions. Several places need to be kept clear, such as emergency exits, entrances to the mechanics workshop etc. The rest is left for nature to build its fort, ready for the tussle to continue once winter abates and temperatures warm.
The nine months of winter does provide a chance for the mechanic team to do annual maintenance on the equipment whilst use is at a minimal, to allow them to be used at times around the clock in the frantic three months of summer. JP, our lead mechanic has just finished a major overhall on ‘Mary-Lou’, a Caterpillar D-8 dozer. All of the machines have a name, from the practical sounding tracked LMC ‘Wrench’, the sci-fi movie inspired Skidsteer ‘Wall-E’, the cult-classic referenced Waste shredder ‘Fargo’ to the effeminite ‘Emma’ or dozer ‘Sherri Anne’, and the bizarre ‘Screaming Eagle’, ‘Bigfoot’, ‘Elephant Man’ or ‘Bald Guys’.
Mary-Lou’s work included a complete engine block change, hose replacement and other routine repairs. Our work at times takes us down to the ‘VMF’ (Vehicle Maintenance Facility), where we would see the guts of the big dozer disemboweled across the workshop floor, in various stages of reassembly. At lot of the heavy equipment we have here, is of a 1960s vintage. It may well be that some of it was the same equipment that my Dad worked on during his university holiday employment at the Goff, Goff and Hamer Cat dealership in Christchurch in the early 1970s, when problems that were not able to be sorted on the ice by the American program, were instead shipped to Christchurch for major repairs at the Cat dealership.
All the equipment used over winter is stored inside the warmed VMF in between use. Even with electric circuits that warm keep the engine block warmed, which is standard practice in Summer, this is not sufficient once the temperatures drop as the sun goes. Oil becomes more viscous, hoses become brittle and snap, and seals lose their patency. Some of the snowmobiles have been modified to allow for winter ops. If stored inside, and never turned off outside, they can be used to haul water and supplies to more distant outlying buildings when needed. Just don’t stop for too long, as the rubber tracks quickly freeze to the ground, and then you’re in big trouble!
One of the pre-winter tasks we had to do was to retrieve the skiway markers that designate to the Herc pilots where the groomed skiway lies, and give a sense of depth perception in the otherwise definitionless environment. Every 50 yards or so, lies 3 canvas panels sleeves on each side of the runway, on two bamboo stakes in the ground. With no flights for the nine months, the markers are removed to stop them getting damaged or buried by the drifting. Timing the task was a case of watching the weather so we could get out on ‘Wrench’, one of the tracked LMC vehicles, with it warm enough for the machine to tolerate the couple of mile trek to get the task done, but careful to not leave it too late as the light faded. Sitting on the back of the tracked vehicle, going out to the so-called ‘End of the World’, past the last remnants of our human interaction for over 1000kms and just looking out and thinking about what it would have taken for the explorers of the historic age to get there, with none of the technology we today have, is a humbling feeling of how lucky I am to be down here.