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The Antarctica Diaries: week one

We live in a privileged time, when travel around the world is easy and cheap. It’s commonplace for Australians to see Times Square in New York, the Great Wall in China, or trek in Nepal. But one continent…

When you plan a six-week trip to Antarctica, the fun starts before you even arrive. Michael Ashley

We live in a privileged time, when travel around the world is easy and cheap. It’s commonplace for Australians to see Times Square in New York, the Great Wall in China, or trek in Nepal.

But one continent remains elusive. One continent contains vast areas where no human has ever set foot. One continent has a magnetic attraction for many people. One continent has more penguins than sheep.

Antarctica.

With my colleagues at the University of New South Wales, I am privileged to be involved in scientific research in this remote continent, roughly twice the size of Australia, with almost half of it above the altitude of Australia’s Mount Kosciusko.

Over the next six weeks or so in these “diaries” I will be giving you a taste of what it’s like to travel and work in the most beautiful and unusual location on Earth. I’ll be sending photos, noting interesting events, enlivened (hopefully) with an occasional touch of humour.

I’m travelling with three much younger team members: Yael Augarten, Campbell McLaren, and Luke Bycroft. This is my fifth trip to Antarctica over a 16 year period; for the others it’s their first, and their excitement is contagious.

Our scientific mission is to place a 0.6 metre aperture terahertz telescope at one of the most remote places on Earth: a place called Ridge A, some 850km from the South Pole itself, and at an elevation of 4,050 metres.

No-one has ever been to Ridge A. And no one will stay there to look after our telescope after we leave. It has to be able to operate for a year without anyone on site.

This is a high-risk experiment, containing several elements that have never been tried before. If all goes well the telescope will operate throughout 2012 and we will gain new insights into how stars are formed in our galaxy. But there are numerous things that can go wrong and thwart our plans.

I should point out that our project is in collaboration with Craig Kulesa from the University of Arizona, and is being funded from a combination of Australian and US government grants.

Almost at Antarctica, cloud prevented us seeing the ice. Michael Ashley

December 12 – Are you PQ-ed yet?

Before travelling to Antarctica, everyone on the team has to be PQ-ed, which stands for “Physically Qualified”. This involves a battery of medical and dental tests, including blood samples, chest and teeth X-rays, exercise stress tests, prostate probings, and so on. About 30 pages of documentation are needed, and we only achieved final clearance in the last week.

Contrary to rumour, we don’t have to have our appendixes removed. Nor are there any extensive psychological tests – which makes me nervously wonder which one of us will break down under the pressure and become an axe-wielding maniac (see John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, which is traditionally shown at South Pole Station in mid-February after the last flight out, when the remaining 50 people have no option but to stay until aircraft can return in October).

Teeth are one of the main health concerns, since there are only rudimentary dental facilities “on the ice”. Several colleagues from UNSW, on a previous trip, had to have their wisdom teeth removed to travel to Antarctica.

Our preparation has also involved a year’s work building the telescope and its supporting infrastructure. This culminated in a nightmarish three months of 14-18 hour days, seven days a week, while we struggled to meet the shipping deadlines.

On two occasions in the last month, our team didn’t sleep for 36 hours straight. I will miss my wife and two daughters for the six weeks I am in Antarctica – although, in reality, I haven’t seen much of them for three months.

It is a huge relief to have the construction phase of the project complete and to have an afternoon’s relaxation in Christchurch, New Zealand, the gateway for Operation Deep Freeze – the codename for the US Antarctic Program’s presence here.

Knowing that for the next six weeks I will be surrounded by ice, I decide to go walking in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens, which contains the most magnificent circular rose garden that can be imagined. I also enjoy the humidity and the occasional gentle rainfall – where we are going it hasn’t rained for 50 million years.

Central Rose Garden in Christchurch Michael Ashley

December 13 – ECW fit out

We are scheduled to fly to McMurdo Station in Antarctica tonight at 9pm. The sun doesn’t set before 9pm, and the aircraft travels fast enough that the sun won’t set during our trip to the ice. In fact, our next sunset is six weeks off.

At 6pm we receive our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing. This is a well-honed procedure whereby you send your measurements to the Clothing Distribution Centre (CDC) and they prepare an orange bag containing the sort of clothing (e.g., “Expedition Underdrawers”) that allows you to comfortably work outside at temperatures of -50C or below.

A sample of some of the Extreme Cold Weather clothing Michael Ashley

After we have our ECW, a customs official with a sniffer dog checks our bags for drugs, and we proceed to the pre-flight briefing.

Shortly after 8pm we’re loaded on to the US Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft for the five hour flight to McMurdo. There are some twenty passengers on the flight, with the bulk of the cavernous interior of the C-17 being taken up by cargo.

Boarding the C-17 Globemaster in Christchurch for the flight to Antarctica. Luke, Campbell and Yael are on the right. Michael Ashley

Military flights like these are quite different from commercial ones. For starters, the plane is very noisy, mandating ear plugs. Then there are the unusual safety features, such as:

  • the emergency exit that requires you to cut through a metal plate
  • the four large pods in the ceiling of the aircraft containing life rafts that, in the event of a water landing, are expelled by explosive bolts.

A crew member assures me that the airframe could survive a water landing, although it has never been tried.

December 14 – Arrival in Antarctica

Touchdown at McMurdo, Antarctica, -78 degrees south. Michael Ashley

Slightly less than five hours after leaving a beautiful warm New Zealand day, we touch down on the Pegasus ice runway, built on the permanent ice shelf covering the Ross Sea.

We emerge blinking into the alien Antarctic landscape, and our senses are assaulted by the entirely new environment. Overcast conditions block our view of Mount Erebus – altitude 3,794 metres – an active volcano some 38 km away.

Although McMurdo Station is only 12km distant, it is located on Ross Island, and we have to travel over 30km to guarantee we are always driving on the solid, permanent, ice that covers the Ross Sea.

The direct route would likely result in our vehicle, “Ivan the Tera Bus”, falling through the ice and plunging to the bottom of the Ross Sea. This has happened before to bulldozer drivers, and is an experience best avoided.

Ivan the Tera Bus – our transport from the airfield to McMurdo itself Michael Ashley

McMurdo is what I imagine a Canadian mining town would be like. There is dark brown volcanic dirt everywhere. Massive tanks contain a year’s supply of kerosene for heating, electricity generation, water desalination, and powering the vehicles and aircraft. Three wind turbines associated with New Zealand’s nearby Scott Base are a useful renewable energy source.

First port of call in McMurdo is breakfast in the Galley at 5am, followed by a introductory briefing at 6:30am in the Chalet. At 7:30am we have an hour-long briefing from the science support staff, and then another hour discussing the logistics of the deployment of our experiment at Ridge A. By this stage, having had no sleep for 24 hours, we are starting to lose concentration.

Luke, Campbell and I are sharing a small room in a warmly-heated dormitory building, Yael is in similar accommodation nearby.

After a couple of hours essential sleep, Luke and I climb up the nearby Observation Hill, a steep walk with an altitude gain of 230m, affording superb views in all directions. The massive slopes of Mount Erebus are visible, although the summit is hidden by a dramatic circle of clouds, providing an effect reminiscent of a scene from the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Dormitory accommodation at McMurdo, with Observatory Hill in the background. Michael Ashley

In the afternoon, we explore Discovery Hut, used by several Antarctic explorers in the early 1900s. There is a mummified seal carcass outside the hut dating from around 1912.

Near Hut Point, where the land meets the sea ice, we see four or five Weddell seals basking in the afternoon sun. They align themselves perpendicularly to the sun’s rays to gain the maximum warming effect.

We are perhaps 30 metres from the seals but can’t approach any closer since the protocol here is not to disturb the wildlife – if the animal reacts to your presence, you are too close.

Luke has heard there are large numbers of penguins where the sea ice meets the ocean, a line that is just visible from Observation Hill. We won’t see any penguins where we are though – the seals would make quick work of them.

Remarkably, today marks the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole. The Norwegian Prime Minister and twenty or so guests and dignitaries are at the US South Pole Station to celebrate the event. Apparently, around 100 Norwegian skiers are converging on the Pole as I write this.

December 15 – Preparation for high altitude

Most people aren’t aware that the central areas of Antarctic are quite high. The South Pole itself is at an altitude of 2,835 metres, and sits on a 3km thickness of ice going down to bedrock. At this height, altitude sickness is a real possibility, particularly since the lower barometric pressure over Antarctica can raise the apparent altitude to 3,600 metres or more.

Where we are going, Ridge A, the apparent altitude (which is what the human body feels), can be as high at 5,600 metres, which is serious high-altitude territory.

To prepare for this we have to take a high altitude class, from 8am till 10am this morning. We learn all about the symptoms of altitude sickness and what to do about them. When mountaineering, the best approach is to lose altitude fast, but you don’t have this option on the Antarctic plateau since it is so flat: a slope of about 1 part in 1000 near Ridge A.

The alternative to retreating to a lower altitude is to use a Gamow bag, which is a portable sack into which a sick person can be zipped; the bag can then be pressurized to bring the patient down to a lower effective altitude. We will be carrying one of these bags on the trip to Ridge A.

We visit the cargo area and go through the checklist of items that have been set aside for us for our field camp. These include “Arctic Storm” sleeping bags rated to -45°C, a couple of “Scott” tents, kitchen kits, several stoves, a Hurdy Gurdy (a device for manually pumping fuel from drums), a personal locating beacon (SARSAT), and so on. Some items we need to collect later, including four two-person “deep field survival bags”.

The field camp supplies in the cargo building. Only about one-third of what you see is for us. Michael Ashley

After all the discussion of altitude sickness, Gamow and survival bags, I’m starting to feel slightly uneasy. I didn’t sign up for this when I became as astronomer!

In the afternoon I collect a medical kit from the McMurdo Hospital. The kit contains a variety of prescription drugs and strong pain-killers that we can use at the field camp, provided we first contact the doctors via Iridium satellite phone for medical approval.

At dinner I sit at a table with scientists studying ice cores. These people are doing fascinating work using isotope ratios in ice cores to learn about the history of the earth’s climate over the last 100,000 years or so.

At some special sites near McMurdo there is 50,000 year old ice close to the surface, and tonnes of it can be collected to make detailed isotope measurements that would not be possible with traditional ice cores.

The kitchen at McMurdo, which cooks for more than 1,000 people. Michael Ashley

One of the great rewards of visiting McMurdo is random encounters with other scientists and learning a little about the interesting work they are doing.

After dinner I return to Hut Point to take some photos of the seals with my long telephoto lens.

A close-up of a seal trying to soak up some sun. Michael Ashley

Tomorrow we will embark on a two-day “snow school” where we camp overnight on the ice some kilometres out of town. I hope the weather holds for our camp. Currently the wind is very low, and the temperature is well above zero. You can actually feel warmth from the sun.

December 16 – Happy Camper school

Setting up our telescope at Ridge A will involve installing about one tonne of equipment at this remote “deep field” site. We expect to have three fixed-wing aircraft flights over two-three days to bring in three of us, an experienced mountaineer, survival gear, our equipment and 800 litres of jet-fuel (to power the telescope for a year).

The aircraft will take us to Ridge A, and then stay for the couple of hours it will take for us to off-load the cargo. For safety, the pilots have to wait until we have set up a tent, got a stove going, and established radio communication. They will then make the four hour trip back to South Pole to pick up more equipment/fuel.

To prepare for the two-three days we expect to be at Ridge A, we have to take a two-day snow skills and survival course called “Happy Camper”. We wonder whether the word “Happy” is actually deeply ironic, but are assured by some people who have done the course that it is indeed enjoyable, although a lot depends on the weather.

There are ten of us on the course – six from our team and four others. The course starts with several hours of classroom instruction from Brian, our expert teacher. We learn all about hypothermia, risk management, situational awareness, and so on, all enlivened by stories of what has gone wrong in the past.

Brian teaching our Happy Camper class. Michael Ashley

Brian gives us some more instruction in a warm building close to the site, and then it’s another 200 metres walk to the campsite itself – a flat area on the permanent ice shelf covering the Ross Sea, surrounded by a dramatic landscape of mountains, the closest of which is the rather intimidatingly-named Mount Terror. The slopes of Mount Erebus are visible, but the mountain top itself is still obscured by clouds.

Ice quarrying and wall making. Michael Ashley

The wind is moderately brisk, and the first job is to build a wind break out of snow blocks. This involves sawing blocks of snow out of a “quarry” that we establish, and stacking them in a curved wall about a metre high and 15 metres long. This is enough to protect the entire camp from the prevailing wind, and the expected direction of any incoming storms.

The snow quarrying is energetic work with a saw and shovel, but with ten of us pitching in we make good progress.

We then erect five tents – one Scott tent and four expedition tents – and dig out a nice kitchen area with seating for everyone and a counter-top out of snow for boiling water and making freeze-dried meals.

The camp kitchen is dug into the snow, with wind-breaks made of snow blocks. Michael Ashley

A group of us start energetically making snow survival trenches. These are made by digging a trench about 0.5 metres wide, 1.6 metres deep, and several metres long. The sides of the trench are then enlarged under the ice to make areas large enough for people to sleep in.

Finally, blocks of snow are added on top to cover the trench. The end result is a very sheltered and satisfactory location for sleeping and/or waiting out blizzards.

Luke and Campbell’s luxurious snow trench. Michael Ashley

Rehydrated freeze-dried food made a welcome dinner, along with cups of hot cocoa, and handfuls of “gorp” (which Australians and kiwis call “scroggin” – basically a trail mix of nuts and chocolate).

Staying hydrated is an important thing to watch for in Antarctica. The air is so dry that you lose a lot of water through breathing. Also, it’s easy to use 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day just walking around with the heavy ECW gear and boots, digging trenches, etcetera. It’s recommended that you drink at least three to four litres of water a day.

In the end, six of us sleep in the trenches that night, one of whom had to retreat to a tent during the night when the roof of the trench collapsed slightly. Of course, when I say “night” you need to remember that the sun is up 24 hours a day here, so it is fairly arbitrary what timezone you use.

I sleep in the Scott tent, which is very cosy. Fortunately there was almost no wind during the night, so it was easy to have an uninterrupted sleep – apart from having to get up twice during the night due to my over-enthusiastic hydration.

December 17 – Happy Camper day 2, and pressure-ridge tour

A 7am start reveals overcast conditions, and essentially zero wind, which makes packing up the camp quite straightforward. By 8:30am the tents are all down, the trenches filled in, and we are ready to head over to the warm hut for some more instruction.

Brian leads us through the use of the various VHF (“very-high frequency”) and HF (“high frequency”) radios, and we examine each component in a two-person three-day “survival bag”. We then practise a couple of scenarios so we can learn what to do in an emergency.

The first scenario is that we are flying to a deep-field site when the airplane develops a mechanical failure which results in a crash landing. The pilot breaks his leg, the plane bursts into flames, and we have to respond appropriately.

Abram Young, one of our team from the University of Arizona, plays the role of the pilot, and the other nine of us set to work unpacking a survival bag and stabilising Abram inside a sleeping bag in a tent, making some warm food, and so on. Abram made a convincing patient. At about two metres in height, he only just fitted inside the tent diagonally.

Abram, our “injured pilot” is now inside the expedition tent. Michael Ashley

We set up the HF radio and Craig used it to make actual contact with the US South Pole Station. They tell us that the temperature at South Pole is -40°C – much colder than our relatively warm -7°C.

Brian appears quite impressed with how well we performed. We were certainly helped by the fact we had Kelly in our group – one of the two medical doctors here at McMurdo.

The second scenario started back in the warm hut, and we had to imagine that the weather was “Condition 1” (the worst), where visibility was limited to a metre or less. The situation was that one of the team was missing, believed to have been using the bathroom 30 metres away when Condition 1 struck. What should we do?

First we contact (not for real this time) McMurdo by VHF radio and let them know our status. We then discuss how we are going to locate the bathroom in the white-out conditions.

Luke is confident he can find it, so we send him outside with a rope tied around him and a bucket on his head (to simulate the white-out). Luke, true to his word, carefully walks directly to the bathroom (Brian later tells us that this is the first time anyone has managed to do this), and avoids falling into the 0.5 metre deep wind-scoured trench around it.

Unfortunately, when he gets there he doesn’t know which side the door is on or how it is latched. Some quick instructions sent by VHF radio fill him in (“bucket-head this is ice-hut, do you read me, over?”), and he verifies that our lost team member is not inside. Luke then returns to the hut by following the rope.

Luke having found the toilet with a bucket on his head, now trying to find the way in. Michael Ashley

After regrouping, we decide we should send another person out to check on a nearby gear-storage hut. Campbell volunteers, and is soon heading off into the snow with a bucket on his head. Campbell finds a flag-line, but becomes a little disorientated (very understandably) and ends up falling over a skidoo.

Fortunately he didn’t injure himself and is able to return to the hut. It is certainly a valuable lesson in realising how difficult it is to find things in the snow with zero visibility.

Another hour of classroom instruction on snow survival and helicopter procedures, followed by cleaning our equipment, brings Happy Camper to a close at 4pm. We are all tired but certainly more knowledgeable.

At 4:30pm we meet with John Loomis, aka “Loomy”, the mountaineer who will be going with us to Ridge A. Loomy is a very impressive fellow, with 28 years of back-country snow camping experience.

In a quick-fire 45 minute meeting he expertly leads us through all the questions he needs answering in order to plan the camp. With Loomy on the team, and with the Happy Camper experience behind us, I am feeling somewhat more confident that our goal is achievable.

(During one of our class-room sessions, we are told about conditions under which we should not be “driving”. Abram mishears this as “deriving” and wonders why these conditions should affect our ability to work on mathematical equations. A true nerd.)

At 5:30pm I have dinner, and am fortunate to accidentally bump into Shelley and Vito, two guides who will be leading a two-hour tour of the pressure-ridges this evening at 6:30pm.

Pressure-ridges are areas of broken and jumbled-up ice where the temporary sea-ice near McMurdo meets the immovable solid rock of the island itself.

Seals are able to surface through the cracks in the ice made by the pressure-ridges, and then enjoy basking in the relatively warm air.

The pressure ridges near Scott Base allow the seals to reach the surface. Michael Ashley

Having spent the last two days walking around in heavy Antarctic boots, when I put normal shoes on I feel that I could set a record for a 100 metre sprint.

This evening is the 17th annual Women’s Soiree at McMurdo, where a number of women on station perform various musical and assorted entertainment. The Galley is packed with several hundred people. I didn’t stay for more than the introduction since I was tired from Happy Camper, so I can’t tell you how it went.

December 18 – Crary Lab tour

Sunday is a slow day, but not for Craig and Abram, who are working hard on the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO), a balloon-based experiment that is due to launch from near McMurdo in the next week.

STO should ascend to an altitude of about 35km, where it encounters the stratospheric winds that sweep it west and then around the Pole in about 10 days. With luck it will pass close to McMurdo. With even more luck it could make two or three passes around Antarctica before it is finally given the command to parachute the equipment down to the ice.

It is then the job of a recovery team to fly out to the site and try to bring back the equipment. The scientific data will have been sent back in real-time during the mission.

The Galley served a delicious brunch from 10am-12pm.

At 2pm, Campbell, Luke and I go on a tour of the Crary Lab, which is the premier laboratory for biology and geology in Antarctica. We saw real-time webcam video from the lava lake inside the Mount Erebus caldera, about 38 km from McMurdo.

Apparently Erebus is one of only two volcanoes with an active convecting lava lake; the other is Mount Kenya and, interestingly, is not as accessible as Erebus.

The Crary tour includes a “touch tank” where you can closely examine, and even hold, samples of all sorts of Antarctic sea creatures.

The “touch tank” in the Crary Lab. The larger tanks in the background are for science projects. Michael Ashley

To wrap up the day, we attend an astronomy lecture in the Galley given by Chris Walker. Chris is collaborating with Craig on the STO balloon-borne telescope experiment mentioned earlier.

Further instalments in Michael Ashley’s Antarctica Diaries will appear on The Conversation in the coming weeks.

Follow the links below to read the other instalments: