Thursday, February 10, 2011

Just what the heck is a "Nunatak"?

Okay, so I asked the same question when told that was where I was flying today.  I knew it something to do with glaciers and it wasn't English.  It's actually an Inuit term used to describe an exposed ridge or rock outcrop in an ice stream that diverts around the feature.  Today I flew down to Roadend Nunatak
Roadend Nunatak
It's a base camp for the final deep field camp, actually the LAST field camp to pull out for the summer.  They were studying the Byrd Glacier outlet and measuring flow rates and the glacier behavior for the past 5 months and comparing the results to similar outlet glaciers in Greenland.
Research at Byrd Glacier outlet
Either way, the science was pulled out earlier and I flew in with a handful of other folks to essentially cleanup and gather all their instrumentation, field gear, etc and toss it in the back of the second fixed wing type in our inventory here that I run.  It's an improvement on a classic Douglas DC-3 -- Yes I thought the classic Douglas DC-9 I fly is old, however this makes it look like a spring chicken.  The good thing is that a company came along and saw the value the airframe provided and improved it by re-winging, replaced the old radials with turboprops and upgraded the cockpit avionics to at least the 1970's from the 1940's. It's now known as a DC-3T, or Basler after the company that did the re-work.

VFR over the Cook Mountains en route to the Darwin Glacier

 It's really a great plane now.  A ton of power, flexible configuration, good range and can land and reach most anywhere on the continent without difficulty.  So we took off the skiway at Pegasus field and headed south along the Ross Ice Shelf parallel to the Trans-Antarctic Mountains for about an hour or so.  we figured out where the camp was from about 30 miles out as you can spot the nunatak smack in the middle of the glacier and it was quite easy to break out as the sun was helping the surface definition nicely.  As it gets overcast the definition decreases and the horizon merges with the ground which often makes landing impossible and generally forces missions to abort on these open glacier landings.  Even with favorable lighting the techniques and ability to spot the landing area without auguring in is challenging to say the least. 

After a single pass we circled back to land up the Darwin Glacier into sloping, rising terrain of about 6-7 degrees.  After touchdown we taxied up to the camp, shut down and grabbed our shovels.  Shovels are invaluable here.  You leave a camp, a fuel cache a tent alone for a day or so and the snow drifts.  Two days and its buried.  This stuff was out for under a week and buried. The technique is to mark your gear with flags if you are departing the area so you can find it again.  Simple yet effective (and necessary if you ever want to see your gear again).

We dug for about an hour and pulled about 25 empty fuel drums, 3-4 pallets of gear and an assortment of scientific equipment and loaded it back in the plane.  I now have an appreciation for tractors and forklifts-- you have none of that in the field so it's all by hand.  Fun.  Although -15 or so, you still sweat like a pig after an hour of hard labor.  You have to be careful to peel off your layers and cool down or else everything gets wet with sweat, causing hypothermia quickly and then freezes to you once you cool off.  We spent a couple hours here and then hopped back in and headed back to base camp.

After another uneventful landing at Pegasus on the ice runway there this time (versus a skiway--it's dug down to the blue ice for wheeled planes).  Ironically on final we passed right over the namesake of the runway--the wreckage of the Pegasus--a navy Super Constellation that crashed in 1970.  A vivid reminder to an unforgiving continent.  This is for another blog as I intend to hike out to the crash site (hopefully) before I head out.
A view across the Darwin Glacier at the Darwin Range

The mighty Basler atop Darwin Glacier with Roadend Nunatak in the background
 Anyhow, another fun day.  We're wrapping up business here.  Not much flying left for me here.  I am out of here on a C-17 back to the real "summer" of New Zealand on Monday.  Time to start packing again.  Can't wait to head home and see Tammy and the boys!  In the meanwhile, take care, see you soon!

I need a beer. 

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