Friday, November 18, 2011

Byrd Glacier Rescue

 Have you ever broken down on the side of the road in what appears to be the middle of nowhere?  How about in the middle of a flowing glacial ice stream 200 miles from the nearest service station?  No?  Well that's what happened 2 nights ago here.

We got a call from one of our helo's out in the deep field supporting a project on Byrd Glacier studying the flow rate of this outlet glacier which flows from the polar plateau, through the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and exits to the Ross Ice Shelf.  The helicopters are flying to numerous stations across the expanse of the glacier installing GPS recorders that will be recovered at the end of the summer in February.  [Checkout a post I wrote with more detail from last season here.] While on its final stop for the day and shutdown one of the starter-generators on board failed.

So we gathered up a maintenance crew, some parts, tools, survival gear and a helo--so off we went, and went and went and went.  I remembered one of the MANY reasons why I like flying jets.  Speed.  The mighty Bell 212 was not gifted in that regime of flight.  So off we went at 90 knots across the flat white expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf in search of a little red dot on the ice.
Flying through a pass along the Merrick Glacier
After about 90 minutes you come upon the mountain range that borders the ice shelf and things get beautiful quickly.  Passing 10,000' peaks and glaciers named after historic people and expeditions from Antarctica's past is awe inspiring. 
A view up the Devries Glacier
Passing between numerous peaks and over ridgelines, we popped out high above the twisted earth below known as the Byrd Glacier.  25 miles across and 100 miles+ long this is no place I'd want to look for a place to land.  However that's what our pilots are doing daily all in the name of science. 100' deep crevasses, peaks, valleys, all slick with blue ice--nothing flat--No thanks.  
Looking for a landing zone. Yes we landed here. 
Further up near the source of the stream, was where the aircraft was broken.  The GPS recorders are placed up here allowing them to flow down stream over the next 3 months and recovered further down the outlet end of the glacier.  Fortunately the ice wasn't as bad at the source, still riddled with crevasses however not nearly as broken apart yet. We had about a 100'x15' area to safely land 2 helos on.
Green flags placed by our mountaineer marking a large hidden or "bridged" over crevasse
Thankfully our mechanics were good, found the problem and whacked the problem area with a 20 ounce hammer helping motivate the ceased up part loose, starting right away--all within 45 seconds of stepping out of the aircraft. Classic maintenance fix.  All in a days work!   
Wait! Don't leave us--we're not fixed yet!

Grabbing gas at the nearby Darwin Glacier fuel cache with our friends 
Flying home through some barren desert like terrain.
 So an uneventful low-level transit home through some more great terrain.  I love the views from this office!

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