Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Out of the frying pan and into the Freezer...

Sorry for the delay in the updates.  The Kiwis have little Internet and when they did it was wicked expensive. Antarctic Internet is free, however unavailable out in the field.  So I am back and plugged into the mothership as of an hour ago or so. 

Monday's flight down to "the ice" as everyone calls it was delayed for one of the odder reasons -- it was too warm to land in Antarctica.  Let me explain, it is summer here, there are no traditional (paved, earthen, prepared surface) runways either.  Mcmurdo station is on an Island (Ross Island) and it is surrounded by the Ross Sound which is frozen.  The sea ice provides a runway for the early summer (Oct-Dec) and then it is deemed not safe after as the  sea ice thins and weakens -- not suitable for 300,000 pound aircraft to pound into it. After December, the majority of flight ops happen from Pegasus Field.  It is what's called "shelf ice" which is basically glacial ice flow from the continent into the sea (which is frozen). 

So back to the story...When the temperature is around freezing, which it has been at the "high" for the day recently, a thin film of water puddles on the runway.  This greatly reduces what the C-17 aircraft can haul down on each flight.  So to mitigate this issue, my flight was delayed here by 12 hrs with a new planned takeoff of 11pm local which would get us here about 4:15am.  So another day wandering about Christchrurch to wonder what awaits in Antarctica.  We all showed up at our planned show time of 3 hrs prior, cleared customs and dressed up in our finest "extreme cold weather" gear which even in the evening's 60 degree air was "extremely hot" gear.
We received a few safety briefs and watched an arrival video which pretty much said "sit down and shut up" once aboard the cargo plane. 

The flight was fairly uneventful.  I grabbed a wall seat across from a pallet with a 20,000 snow cat on it. 

This was beginning to feel real now.  The 75 passengers around me were excited, nervous, some slept, some read, some conversed. 

Some had this look of "what the heck am I doing here?" on their faces.  I think I had a grip on my emotions.  I was excited with camera in hand talking to folks, asking what everyone is doing once they arrive. 

The majority of the folks were going about the "Palmer" which is an oceanographic research vessel for a month or so.  The remainder were a mix of smaller projects and support staffers. 
I awoke to the "two hours out" call signifying we were continuing to the continent and to start strapping on your survival gear if you had stripped down on the plane.  There are about 4-5 portals in the cargo area of the jet to look out and the seascape of white was everywhere.  Broken sea ice gave way to solid sea ice, shelf ice leading to glaciers and mountain peaks coming out through the sea of white. 

Finally we had to take our seats for landing. 

Once we taxied in, the unknown awaited.  "Everybody up", as we waddled to the door with all of our gear.  As we walked to the light of the door, the glare of the snow was already filling the cabin.

We hopped out to witness one of the single most spectacular landscapes I have ever seen.  It was breath taking.  A flat plain of white with peaks reaching skyward in every direction. 

Unfortunately my moment of zen was cut short as we had to load up onto a giant converted ice bus that had to take us from Pegasus field back to Mcmurdo station which was about 15km away, or 45 minutes. 

After settling in to the drive I started up a conversation with an Air National Guard pilot who flies the "ski"-130's (LC-130's with ski's for landing gear).  We chatted for a bit and then the driver stopped the vehicle to inform us of a greeting party, a family of 3 emperor penguins in the road.  How cool? They are huge as far as penguins go--about 3 - 3 1/2 feet tall.  We gave way and let them go on their way. The road continued along the shelf ice and where the shelf ice met with the sea ice was a transition that required some serious maneuvering between jagged 10-15 ft ice fractures where the tidal movement of the sea ice caused this natural obstruction. Once through the obstructions, we transitioned onto Ross Island, terra firma, where Mcmurdo station is located (See aerial photo in an early post of mine for reference).  The island is volcanic and is surrounded by various cones and a number of full volcanoes, one of which, Mount Erebus is 12,400'.  The ground for the most part is clear of snow and the "road" is volcanic soil and rock.  After another 500' up the switch backing road, and about 10 minutes driving we arrived into Mcmurdo Station or "Mactown".
We hopped of the giant bus (which was named "Ivan the Terra-bus" by the way), and went into one of the central buildings, the "Chalet" as its known. 

After getting an initial welcome brief, and what looked like a few not-applicable lectures, my counterpart Mark here came and found me to welcome me and apologize already for what I had to do next.  Although sleepless for about 22 hrs, he informed me if I wanted to get out into the deep field camps here (bases far inside the continent far from any support what-so-ever) I had a mandatory class to attend that started at 8am!  Its formally called "Snow School" but locally referred to as "Happy Camper".  Going to these deep camps where we fly into routinely is required for my job so, sleep or not, I said yes.  I grabbed my stuff, found my checked bags and Mark showed me off to my new "home".  He and I are roommates, so far so good. After a quick bite to eat, I ran off to class. 
In a nutshell this is an extreme cold weather survival school.  We are issued extreme cold weather gear and you never leave the confines of mcmurdo without your bag of gear.  Anything into the field requires an additional bag issue, a survival kit.  This course is to get me familiar with the gear and give the confidence to use it and give me the best chances for survival when it gets "really bad" here.  Weather here right now is not too bad, temps in the hi 20's.  The locals are shocked.  Those that have been here many seasons say it has never been like this before.  Regardless, the weather can change in an instance to 150 mph winds, zero visibility and -40 F in minutes, and is not uncommon.  We spent a bit of classroom time first and headed out to the field in a track vehicle which dumped us off about 20 minutes away in an shelf ice field.   We learned how to use the different tent types but spent a good portion of the afternoon creating wind walls and digging trenches, sometimes called "coffins" for survival situations. 

The shelf ice is formed from years of snow compacting upon itself and the top layers above the "blue" ice is thick packed snow.  We cut blocks out with snow saws and avalanche shovels--all gear we had in our survival packs.  So in the matter of an hour's work, we had 4 tents up, 4 trenches dug, a 25 foot long, 3 foot tall wind wall and a kitchen built--a 4 foot deep, 10'x10' hole, with shelves, a stove top, table, chairs and a 3 ft wind wall built all from ice. 

Very hard work, very rewarding...can I sleep yet? No, time to cook.  Wind had picked up to about 30 mph sustained and temps around 15-20 degrees.  After making water first from glacial ice we got it boiling and proceeded to fix some dehydrated rations and soups.  Now can I sleep?  It's been 38 hrs or so.   I needed it.  Yes. 

Now about that sun.  Its at about 20 degrees declination, all the time.  24 hrs of light.  Great sleeping weather.  I could have cared less.  I stripped down to my base layer and crawled in my -40 degree rated bag, drank about a liter of water, threw some Dave Matthews on my iPod and passed out for 8 hrs. 
I woke up this morning at 5:30am and threw my gear back on.  We made some more water, boiled it after an hour made some coffee and proceeded to break down the camp. 

The remainder of the morning was going through different survival scenarios. One was having a single person's survival kit with 10 people to share after a vehicular accident, approaching storm, injuries and 800 miles from any other camp.  Interesting.  The second was a search and rescue scenario in zero visibility after a member failed to return from a bathroom break.  Again, interesting and eye opening.  We wrapped up the field work and arranged our transport back to the base and debriefed. 

Wow.  What a class.  What an experience to kick things off.  Finally showered after a few days.  Getting my thoughts together, looking over pictures and realizing what a great job this is going to be.  Everyone I have met here is incredibly friendly and sharp.  People have great attitudes about life, nature, science, etc.  I am hoping these next few weeks of learning prove to be similarly enjoying.  Hopefully I can write down stuff in shorter bursts but this was such an experience I wanted to share it all.  Next up how to traverse sea ice class and Snow School /Mountaineering (part 2)! Talk to you all soon! Cheers from 80 degrees south!

1 comment:

m said...

what a cool story. glad it has been so positive so far. love the pics. enjoy.