Saturday, January 23, 2005

I’m writing this from Littlerock, Arkansas, USA. It turned out that I was indeed needed back home, and I began arranging this epic journey on Monday afternoon, after I flew back out to Cape Royds in the morning to pick up our samples from Saturday with the Coast Guard crew in the Dolphin. Because of backed-up fixed wing operations, the Twin Otter flight for the rest of the crew to Mario Zucchelli Station was pushed back to Wednesday- first early in the morning, then to mid-day. I was added to the list of folks flying off the continent that afternoon on a C-141 that was due to arrive at 3:00 PM. After saying my good-byes to Steve, Jurek, and Stephen, I left the lab and lugged my hand-carry bag and laptop up to the Cargo hanger, and boarded the Delta for the drive out to the Pegasus ice runway at noon. It turned out that most of the group flying out this day were the Navy underwater welders that were brought down to repair the icebreaker Polar Star, which had been docked at the ice pier for the past two weeks. I heard a few more of the details: a major hydraulic leak at the propeller shafts had required the divers to remove the shaft housing- an arrangement held in place with 30 bolts torqued to 200 lbs. and each one spot-welded to prevent slippage. So their work required un-welding all the nuts, removing them to replace the seals, and then torquing them all back to specification and re-welding the nuts, all underwater. This meant half a dozen 8-hour days underwater for the divers, who use suits that circulate hot water around their bodies to stay warm in the Antarctic water temperatures. I chatted with their C.O. Mike, who usually stays in Washington, D.C. directing operations around the world, but goes on one mission a year that sounds interesting. This one won out this year. We ground our way slowly out to Pegasus, a one-hour drive, while hoping for clearing conditions at the runway. A small fog bank was nestled over the runway, and one of the airport workers who was with us in the Delta explained that the -141’s require visibility of two miles to land, and it currently was only around 200 meters. Still, since the Delta was still grinding away, we had hopes that the flight was still southbound.

However, this was not the case. When we reached the airfield, the Delta driver Dave just pulled a U-turn and started heading back to McMurdo. One of the Navy crew had a radio, and called forward to find out what was happening. It turned out the flight had boomeranged because of the fog, and we were being returned to McMurdo to be re-assigned rooms for the night. The worst part was the Delta ride- the passenger boxes on the backs of the big Delta flat-bed vehicles are pretty horrible but bearable for a one-hour one-way trip out to Pegasus. But a two-hour round-trip is pretty grim, and the roof vent on this particular vehicle was broken, so the inside grew more and more stuffy as time went by. Part way back in, we heard over the radio that our group would try again later that day as another C-141 was due in to drop off and pick up cargo. We immediately requested that we be returned to the airfield to wait, rather than suffer though another drive hour-long Delta ride, but were told by Operations that we had to come back in, as the situation was “complicated”. Groans of displeasure with McMurdo’s “need to know” command culture filled the back of the Delta. We dropped off the Kiwis we had picked up at Scott Base for the flight, and drove over the hill back to McMurdo. When we arrived we were told that the second flight was due in at 7:00 PM, and we would head back to Pegasus at 5:00. The biggest bright spot in the news was that we would ride in Ivan the Terra Bus this time, rather than in the horrible Delta. I had already surrendered my entry key to our lab in Crary, so I sat down at the 155 computer station to check my email and kill time for a couple of hours before we tried again.

After a hasty 4:30 dinner (just what I needed- more food!), we boarded Ivan for the trip back out to Pegasus. The fog had finally burned off, and we had a beautiful, clear view of Erebus with some scenic high clouds accenting the scene. The ride was much more comfortable and faster than in the Delta, so we arrived at the passenger terminal almost painlessly. The plane was due in an hour so we settled in to wait. The weather was mild and a few of the firefighters were tossing a Frisbee while they stood-by for the plane’s arrival, and the air was clear and calm and provided a clear view of McMurdo off in the distance. Soon the C-141 appeared as a smoke-trailing dot to the north, then flew passed us, banked around, and set down on the ice runway. Unloading cargo from a C-141 is a meticulous and time-consuming process, requiring slow and careful fork lift driving up to the cargo bay to remove pallets and loading them on the back of cargo Deltas or giant sledges. Unloading the flight took about an hour, then reloading the plane with a huge helium tank took about another hour, this time while we sat in a shuttle vehicle waiting to board. Finally, at about 8:45 we were driven over to board the plane. With only 19 of us going out tonight, I got to experience my first un-crowded ride in a C-141. Except for the large helium tank occupying the center of the hull, there was plenty of room to move around and stretch out for the ride.

The high point of the trip for me was the chance to go up on the flight deck of the C-141, a treat that is not possible when the plane is loaded with the typical 150 folks flying off the continent. I was hoping to get a chance to see how close the collision between Iceberg B15A and the Drygalski Ice Tongue was, but another researcher went up to the flight deck first, and got to sightsee for the first part of the flight. I got to go up just as we flew over the Italian base, and I got a great view of Mount Melbourne off the port side. As we headed north we flew inland from the Ross Sea and Victoria Land Coast, and I got to see some scenery I had not seen before. It took some time poring over the maps, but referencing from the obvious Tucker Glacier and Mount Murchison (11,483 ft.), I was able to figure out exactly what I was seeing. Off to the right Mount Herschel towers above the coastline north of Cape Hallet. The peak is even more impressive from this angle of view, and I can easily see why Sir Edmund Hillary would have been compelled to climb it in 1967. But I doubt whether it has seen a second ascent. Straight ahead I could see the bulk of the Admiralty Mountains, some of the highest peaks in this part of the continent. As we grew closer, the peaks became ever more spectacular, looking like something out of Alaska or the Himalaya but much harder to get to. Some later research informed me that the highest peak, Mount Minto (13,665 ft.) was climbed by an Australian expedition in 1988, recounted in the book “The Loneliest Mountain” by Hall and Chester. But I can’t find any first ascent information about the other spectacular peaks in the range: Mount Adam, Mount Royalist, Mount Ajax, or the Mount Everest-clone, Mount Black Prince. These peaks struck me as amazing mountaineering goals, although incredibly costly to reach. The crew of the C-141 greatly enjoys the view from the cockpit, and were friendly and informative, pointing out to me the elevations of peaks we were flying above as they read information from their impressive control panel (image 2). It takes a view from up high to really grasp what a wilderness of peaks, glaciers, and crevasses (image 2) that makes up almost all of Antarctica.

The rest of the trip was anticlimactic, consisting of long hours of waiting or flying on other, less interesting big airplanes. I jotted down some details of the trip:

Arrived Christchurch 2:00 AM, shuttled to CDC to return clothing, departed CDC 3:00 AM, arrived YMCA 3:30 AM for a few hours sleep. Had to be up to arrange airline tickets at 8:30 AM, departed for airport at 12:30 PM, departed for Auckland at 2:30 PM.”

“Arrived Auckland 3:50 PM, transferred to International Airport, departed Auckland at 7:40 PM. Flew across the International Dateline and arrived in LA at 10:30 AM on the same day I left. Transferred to Terminal 5, departed LAX at 1:55 PM. Arrived Dallas at 6:56, departed Dallas at 8:05 PM, arrived at Littlerock at 9:16 PM.”

The grand total was 42 hours 45 minutes spent traveling, with only a few hours break in Christchurch, and 25 total hours in the air. With the trip linked together continuously, Antarctica does seem really far away. After a couple days in Arkansas with family, I headed back to Salt Lake, flying in over the Wasatch Crest into the pea soup fog/smog of a typical winter-time inversion. I’ve now heard from the rest of the crew by email. They did indeed make it out to Cape Adare, only for a few hours, but it allowed Steve to sample a few mounds to date the colony and for them to visit Carsten E. Borchgrevink’s hut, the site of the first-ever winter-over in Antarctica in 1899-1900. They also returned to Edmonson Point and sampled a few more mounds, Inexpressible Island for more samples and to count and measure the elephant seal carcasses, and Cape Hickey and Prior Island for more samples. It is hard for me to grasp that they are still down there while I’m back at home. It is sounding as though Steve will finish up sampling the sites in the Ross Sea region this season, so I probably will never return to the Victoria Land Coast. Steve does have plan for a trip to East Antarctica next season, an expedition that is much more complicated and time-consuming than getting to the Ross Sea, so we’ll have to see if I can go. That about wraps it up for this season. Thanks for checking in.

Addendum: A couple of updates from earlier reports and errata- 1) the odd contraption in Shackleton’s Cape Royds hut is an acetylene generator. This gas is produced by a reaction between the chemical carbide and water, generating the gas which was piped to lanterns around the hut and burned for light, a process used in miner’s lights for at least 150 years. 2) The great iceberg collision hasn’t really taken place. It appears that B15A has run aground just short of the Drygalski Ice Tongue, and then rotated a bit to crush the sea ice on the southern part of the tongue, and now is drifting southward again. Check in with NASA ( to see what the latest news concerning this massive iceberg contains. 3) Wayne and Don (who we met in Christchurch on the way down) finally got out to measure orca with their high-tech camera, and got some great shots with their personal cameras, such as this one of an orca pod, and this one of another pod and youngster. 4) Jurek got this great shot of sea ice when we were at Beaufort Island.

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