The Antarctica Diaries: week two

Professor Michael Ashley is currently in Antarctica to deploy a telescope to one of the most remote locations on Earth – a place known as Ridge A, some 850km from the South Pole. This is the second instalment…

When you’re trying to fly to the South Pole, weather-related delays are a frustrating reality. Michael Ashley

Professor Michael Ashley is currently in Antarctica to deploy a telescope to one of the most remote locations on Earth – a place known as Ridge A, some 850km from the South Pole.

This is the second instalment in Professor Ashley’s Antarctica Diaries. To read the previous instalments, follow the links at the bottom of this article.

December 19 – Final checks before leaving McMurdo

Today is our last chance to meet with various critical support people in McMurdo Station before heading to the South Pole. At 9am we meet with the fixed-wing coordinator and discuss how the three Twin Otter flights from the South Pole to Ridge A will be scheduled, how much cargo we can carry, and so on.

Our flights are scheduled during the week beginning January 16 2012. We discover that the 800 litres of Jet-A1 fuel we need has already been air-dropped at a place called AGAP-South – about 200km from Ridge A.

At 10am we meet with MacOps, the McMurdo communication hub, and discuss our communication needs (Iridium satellite phones, high frequency (HF) radio) and protocols for “comms”.

When we’re at Ridge A we have to check-in with MacOps by Iridium phone every morning at 8am. If we miss the check-in, they will try to contact us, and if they are not successful within one hour, a full-scale emergency response is initiated.

We don’t want to accidentally trigger that, but it is reassuring to have the considerable resources of the US Antarctic Program behind our project.

Our meeting with MacOps to discuss communication. Michael Ashley

There are currently about 200 people at remote sites around the continent, in about 30 field camps. MacOps keeps photographs of all the team members on a noticeboard so they can put a face to the name when one calls in. Our field camp will be the highest and most remote.

Just before lunch we have another meeting with Loomy (the mountaineer who’s accompanying us to Ridge A) to finalise our clothing and survival gear inventory.

In the afternoon we did a 4.6km loop walk to Gray Dome, on the opposite side of McMurdo to Observation Hill. This afforded sweeping panoramic views, of which the following photo is an example.

A view of Mount Erebus from Gray Dome. The “cloud” at the summit is coming from the caldera. Michael Ashley

Coming over one ridge I was met by a surprising sight: a very familiar green-and-gold coloured hut. This was the AASTO – the Automated Astrophysical Site Test Observatory, a project our team at UNSW started way back in 1997. The AASTO spent a few years collecting data at the South Pole, and was originally designed to be taken to Dome A by LC-130.

The AASTO, UNSW’s first-generation remote observatory, now performing a new role running a radio experiment just outside McMurdo. Michael Ashley

December 20 – Bumped by a day

Late yesterday we discovered we’d been bumped from today’s flight to the Pole, and will go tomorrow instead.

Interestingly, the three-letter airport code for the South Pole skiway is NPX. The “N” stands for “Navy” and comes from the fact that the South Pole Station was originally established by the US Navy.

I’ve been reading an interesting book (Deep Freeze by Dian Olson Belanger) that details how the US bases were established in Antarctica back in the late 1950s for the International Geophysical Year (1957/58).

It certainly makes you appreciate the work of all those early pioneers. The first flights from Christchurch to McMurdo used to take 14 hours (as opposed to five now), which was at the upper limit of the possible range at the time. Four ships were stationed at 400km intervals towards the end of the flight, to give the crew some hope of survival if an aircraft had to ditch in to the sea.

By virtue of being New Zealanders, Campbell and Luke – younger members of my research team – have a special affinity with nearby Scott Base, and have visited it a couple of times during our stay in McMurdo. Each year from about 1957 there has been a rugby match between the two stations, and I am told the Americans have yet to score a point.

The Americans, despite calling themselves the Mount Terror Rugby Club (after the nearby mountain), can’t quite match the blood curdling haka from New Zealand’s formidable Maori players.

Later when I see the rugby field on the road to the Pegasus runway, I discover that it only has one set of goal posts. Perhaps this has something to do with the lack of American success?

A Caterpillar D8 bulldozer shifting some of the 30cm of snow that fell on the airfield. Michael Ashley

Today is a beautiful blue-sky day with no clouds and no wind, so I take the opportunity for another hike up Observation Hill and take some photos of the magnificent panorama. Mount Erebus is stunning now that it is completely freed from cloud. Meanwhile, at the summit of Ob Hill, the wind suddenly picks up and I make a hasty retreat down the steep slopes towards warmth.

At 6:30pm we have “bag drag” for tomorrow’s flight to the Pole. “Bag drag” is where you have to collect absolutely all your luggage and take it to MCC, the Movement Control Center. Your checked baggage is then weighed and palletised and sent out to the runway, and you get to keep a small carry on bag until your flight leaves.

“Bag drag” is a very appropriate name, since MCC is on the top of a significant hill, and the bags are awkward and heavy, particularly when you have to wear your ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear and heavy boots for the check-in.

At 7pm we attend a 30-minute safety lecture on recreational travel away from McMurdo. This allows us to visit some of the slightly-further-afield sites, such as Castle Rock – a 10km loop.

The trail to Castle Rock is marked by flags and it is imperative not to deviate from it. Some years ago hikers went off the trail on what they thought was a path, but it turned out they were walking directly along a thin layer of snow covering a crevasse – it can look like a trail since the snow tends to sink slightly into the crevasse. After some tens of metres, the snow bridge collapsed and one of the three hikers fell into the crevasse, becoming wedged in the narrow crack. Fortunately, a rescue team from McMurdo was able to rescue them.

In another incident in 1986, three hikers decided to take a short cut to Scott Base at the end of the Castle Rock loop. Two of them fell 20 metres into a crevasse, but the third stayed on top and was able to go for help. His companions were dead by the time they were brought back to the surface.

December 21 – Flight cancelled

Campbell, Luke and I were up at 5am to clean out our room, pack our used linen away, and prepare for transport to the airfield at 6:45am.

Despite magnificent, clear weather and low winds at McMurdo, it appears that everywhere else on the continent has poor weather. After four hours of waiting, all flights are cancelled for the day.

The clearest view we have had of Mount Erebus. It is 38km away, but looks just 5km. Castle Rock is the squarish outcrop near the centre. Michael Ashley

Campbell, Luke, and Yael hire cross-country skis and head off to the Castle Rock trail at 7pm. They get back at 1:30am after an enjoyable hike, although Campbell declares that it is absolutely impossible to travel downhill on cross-country skis. He has a point – the Castle Rock trail is quite steep and icy, not good conditions for first-time cross-country skiers. With all the talk of crevasses, I am just relieved they all made it back OK.

Rather than hiking in what look like deteriorating conditions, I spent a quiet evening working on software for our experiment.

December 22 – Worsening weather, no flights

It is our third day trying to get to the Pole, and we are starting to get anxious. We have a lot of work to do, and every day makes it that much harder for our project to succeed.

Today we aren’t even on a primary scheduled flight. There are four LC-130 aircraft leaving today for various camps on the plateau, and we are the backup flight. This means we will only leave if one of the other flights is cancelled.

The net result is that we have to be on high alert from 6:45am, ready to travel to the airfield with 15 minutes notice.

By 11am the weather has deteriorated, and reaches Condition 1 at the airfield. Condition 1 is the worst category of weather here in McMurdo, and means that visibility is cut to metres at best, and you are required to stay in whatever building you happen to be in during the time.

At McMurdo itself, we are now in Condition 2, meaning there is a strong wind, snow, visibility is poor, but it is still possible to walk between the buildings. No off-site travel is allowed.

The weather stays this way all day, and about 30cm of fresh snow is dumped on the town.

December 23 – Taxiing for take-off to Pole

By now, our fourth day of delays and living out of our small carry-on bags, our anxiety is increasing. Air operations shut down for the Christmas weekend, and are reduced in intensity from then until New Year. The prospect of twiddling our thumbs here in McMurdo until 1 January, when we have urgent work to do preparing our scientific experiments at the Pole, is very frustrating.

Today we are once again listed as a backup flight. But then, at 8:47am I receive an email from the Movement Control Center saying a primary flight has been cancelled – we are going to the Pole!

I am instructed to be ready for transport at 8:45am. I immediately race back to my dorm room, strip the bed linen, give the room a quick tidy for the next person, throw all my gear into my carry-on bag, and struggle as fast as I can in expedition boots up the hill to MCC by 9:00am. I’m the second-last of 12 passengers.

Yesterday’s bad weather is behind us, leaving startlingly blue skies and low wind, and we are all optimistic that we’ll be at the Pole for Christmas – apparently a really enjoyable time to be there.

It takes the Delta transport vehicle an hour to lumber across the ice to the airfield, but by noon we are relaxing at the Pegasus PAX terminal investigating the contents of our “GoPicnic” packed lunches.

“GoPicnic” contains a mysterious bag of “prime cut beef steak portions” about the size of jelly beans. Some items contain “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils”, making me homesick for Mom’s home cooking with fully hydrogenated vegetable oils.

(UPDATE: GoPicnic has contacted me to politely point out their products do not contain any partially hydrogenated oils of any kind. Their products are also completely free of artificial colours and flavours, and contain no trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, added MSG or artificial preservatives.)

After about an hour, we are scooped up by Shuttle Bob, one of the friendliest people on the ice, and delivered to the door of our ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft. Thirty minutes later we begin taxiing to the runway.

These are ski-equipped Hercules aircraft: they can land on wheel or skis depending on the position of the hydraulically operated skis. Michael Ashley

The roar of the four turbo-prop engines has to be heard, and felt, to be believed. Initially when the engines start up you think, “wow, this is loud”. But then you discover that the noise you heard was probably just a fuel pump or a generator. Then the engines start, one at a time. The crescendo of noise is amazing.

And so is the disappointment when the engines throttle right back, and the loadmaster informs us “sorry folks, it looks like we have a small problem with the DVS, we will have to stop and investigate – shouldn’t take more than an hour or two”.

Hmm … years of experience with airline travel has made me very suspicious that these sorts of delays ever have a happy ending.

It turns out that the “DVS” is an APN-218 Doppler Velocity Sensor, which sounds like a useful thing to have when you are flying into white-out conditions and unknown wind velocities.

The DVS should give your absolute velocity with respect to the ice, and assist with judging a landing. A GPS can also give absolute velocity, but isn’t so good in the vertical direction. So I’m all in favour of fixing the thing.

Our aircrew sets to work stripping aluminium panels off the belly of the LC-130, and within minutes the DVS is exposed and a call is made to send a backup unit from McMurdo.

Taking the Doppler Velocity Sensor out of the LC-130 Michael Ashley

At about 1:30pm, the Delta carrying the backup unit breaks down halfway between McMurdo and the airfield (you can see where this is going, can’t you?).

At 2:50pm we have the part, weather conditions are still perfect, everyone is in great spirits, and it is only a 30 minute job to fit the DVS.

Unfortunately, two deadlines are approaching. One is that, at 4pm, the aircrew have to stand down due to US Federal Aviation Administration requirements for the number of hours on duty. The second is that we need to leave by 3pm. If we leave after 3pm, and we then have to turn back to McMurdo for some reason when we are close to the Pole, the airfield will be unmanned by the time we get back. This is a big no no.

So, with only 10 minutes available to do a 30 minute job, we are forced to abandon today’s flight.

Arrrgghhhhhh!

Back in the transporter, we arrive in McMurdo at 4pm after seven frustrating hours, and with the knowledge we are now stuck here for at least another two days.

Still, we are relatively lucky: I have heard that the people at the Pine Island Glacier field camp have been waiting for an aircraft for a week or two, and they are down to their survival rations.

And on the positive side there are various pre-Christmas parties around town. Campbell, Luke and Yael (another member of my research team) head off to Gallagher’s Pub, and I venture into the party at the VMF (Vehicle Maintenance Facility, aka the “Heavy Shop”).

The pre-Christmas party in the Vehicle Maintenance Facility Michael Ashley

December 24 – narrowly avoiding a skua attack

There could be worse days to be stuck in McMurdo – today is Christmas Eve, which is when McMurdo has its Christmas dinner. With over 1000 people to make meals for, and with a galley that only seats about 300, we all have to nominate a mealtime of 3pm, 5pm or 7pm.

I go for the 7pm slot, which gives me time for the 4km hike around the base of Observation Hill, with expansive views across the Ross Sea ice-shelf, and getting within 50 metres or so of some sun-basking seals.

At the beginning of the hike I come across two skuas. These are largish birds native to Antarctica and with a bad reputation for scrounging food and anything else they can get their beaks on. Similarly to the Australian magpie, skuas are known to dive-bomb people if you get too close to their nests. And given that a skua is several times bigger than a magpie, you would not want to be on the receiving end of an attack.

Fortunately, the pair of skuas appear to be just curious about me, and I am able to get quite close to take a photo.

A pair of skuas near Observation Hill. Michael Ashley

The term “skua” is used in Antarctica to refer to a place where you put discarded items that you no longer need, allowing other folks to rummage to their heart’s content and take what they would like.

Further along the walk I get close to ten-or-so seals, all aligned in their usual fashion – perpendicular to the incoming sun to maximise the warming effect. It occurs to me that seals would make quite reliable sundials. With ten seals you could work out the sun direction to probably better than 10 minutes in time.

It would be great fun to make a time-lapse movie over several hours as the seals occasionally stir from their rest and lugubriously rearrange themselves. I even wonder whether psychologists could study seal behaviour and look at the average error between an individual seal’s position and the sun. Perhaps some seals are always lagging the sun, and others are leading? Perhaps the age/mass of the seal influences how often it reorientates? Perhaps I should stick to astronomy?

The loop trail around Observation Hill cuts across some steep gradients. That is Mount Terror in the background. Michael Ashley

Half way around the loop trail I am in the lee of Observation Hill and it is incredibly quiet; as quiet as I have ever known it. Not the slightest sound. And with the spectacular, clear blue Antarctic sky in all directions. It is experiences like this that make Antarctica so special.

A view across the Ross Sea ice-shelf, with the volcanic rocks of Observation Hill in the foreground. Michael Ashley

After the walk, it is dinner time, and the cooks have put an enormous amount of effort to create a wonderful feast. And lo, there was much rejoicing.

The McMurdo galley during Christmas dinner on December 24. Michael Ashley

December 25 – Christmas Day in Antarctica

Christmas Day. A very quiet day with nothing much to do.

Interestingly, I learn that a new record was set today for the highest ever recorded temperature at the South Pole: -12.3°C. The previous record (apart from a near identical temperature on December 24) was set back in 1978.

Meanwhile at McMurdo the weather is still perfect, so I join Craig Kulesa (from the University of Arizona) and a newly arrived member of Craig’s team, David Lesser, for another walk around Observation Hill – this time in the reverse direction.

In the evening we see the launch of a stratospheric balloon – not Craig’s experiment – his launch is scheduled for next week.

The helium balloon makes a spectacular sight gradually gaining altitude above McMurdo, and then slowly heading westward to begin its counterclockwise circumnavigation of Antarctica. In about 10 days, it could pass directly overhead again.

The balloon is only partially inflated at launch, but by the time it reaches it cruising altitude the lower air pressure allows the balloon to greatly expand. Three Boeing 747 airplanes could fit inside it.

A stratospheric balloon launch on Christmas day. The payload weighs about two tonnes and is of the order of three metres on a side. Michael Ashley

At 7pm it is bag drag time again for tomorrow’s flight to the South Pole. Will we be lucky and make it to the Pole this time?

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

Follow the links below to read the previous instalments: