Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We make it to Moore's Bay

Saturday, 9 am. The weather doesn’t look too promising, with a good layer of high clouds, but the pilot is game to try again, so we reboard our Bell 212, facing the now-familiar luggage wall. The 50 minute flight is relatively uneventful, and the site is free of fog or low clouds. But, with the high clouds, the light is very diffuse, and, from 3000 feet up, there is no surface definition – there are no visible features on the ground, so the pilot can’t tell how high we are; this makes landing difficult. We fly around a bit, chasing a patch of sunlight that is an indeterminate distance from the desired landing zone. After 5 miles, it doesn’t look much closer, and we don’t want to go too much farther, so we turn around, and descend to 2500 feet. Now, the pilot and helo tech in front can begin to make out ground features, so we continue down, past 300 feet when the ground approach warning blares. In the back, we passengers can see features in the ice, but can’t tell how high we are. I was quite surprised when the pilot said that we had landed – it was a very soft touchdown, and, from the side windows, we still appeared airborne.

Once down, Brian hopped out with his avalanche pole, and quickly checked the area for crevasses. He found none, and we unloaded our gear – most of our priority one stuff. Martha checked in with MacOpps on the satellite phone – contact is required before the helicopter can leave.

The remainder of our gear – including our two large tents - was scheduled for a 3:30 supply flight, along with our science cargo. We would certainly survive without this gear, but wouldn’t be particularly comfortable. And, we would have relatively little to do.

We began setting up the tents we had – two “Mountain Tents” for Martha and I, plus a ‘Kiva” for our toilet tent. Until the 2nd load arrives, the Kiva will serve as our cooking tent. Brian sets out to check a 1 km line; we walk out along this line, and test transmission/reception over significant surface distances – 300 m and 1 km. Brian pushed a snow anchor into the snow, connected a 50 m climbing rope to it, and walked off, connected by a prussic (a knot around the rope that will hold if he falls), probing the snow every 20-30 feet with a ~ 4 m long aluminum avalanche pole. He is searching for voids that would signal a large crevasse. I follow; my job is to pull out the snow anchor when he reaches the end of the rope, and bring it to him.

He commented that, with the snow this flat, it did not appear that the site was subject to high winds. The “no high winds” contrasted with what we heard from other people, but his logic makes sense. It also meshes nicely with the almost still conditions since we got here – if this persists, the wind generator will not be useful.

By the time we get back, the tents were set up, and Martha and Thorsten have the stove going, and ‘lunch’ is ready – hot water, to which one can add a variety of dried soups, tea, etc. There is no ‘inside’ place, and it feels very ‘outdoorsy.’ After lunch, we’re out of things to do so we sit on our sleep kits and talk.

Around 2:30, we call in on the satellite phone, and learn that the helos are running about 40 minutes late. Brian would really like to get back tonight. Around 4:10, we try to reach the helo on VHF radio, with no result. We call again, and hear that 36J is about 15 minutes out, and we ‘should’ be able to see it. About 10 minutes later, we hear 36J reporting in to McMurdo that he’s 12 minutes out, and make radio contact. A little while later, he reports that he thinks he can see us; the reverse is not yet true. Thorsten is the first to spot him, 3 dots in the sky.

A few minutes later, it’s almost overhead. As he flies overhead, he kicks up a big wind; surprisingly, the wind area is only a few times larger than the radius of the rotor blades. Thorsten and Martha are (as requested), sitting on the supplies to ensure that nothing light gets blown away. He lowers the two sling loads about 10 feet apart, then moves about 50 feet away to land and pick up Brian. We unload 6 4 foot by 4 foot plywood squares – our helicopter-friendly tent floor. Of course, between the loose snow and rotor wash, dragging the plywood is not a ball of fun.
The photo below shows the helo and sling load, and the plywood unloading operation.

A few minutes later, we waved goodbye, and they flew off. It is 5 pm, and we have two tents to set up before dinner and bed. Fortunately, it doesn’t get dark here. The big tent is an “Artic Oven, 10 feet by 20 feet, with a 5 poles on each side, connecting at the top in 3 ‘spiders.’ It goes up easily enough, but then there are the guy ropes to attach. For each rope (or group), we need to dig a 2 foot deep hole, bury a 1 ½ to 3 foot long bamboo stake, wrap a rope around it, tighten it, tie the rope taut,, and then refill the hole with snow. These are called “Deadman” anchors - a fair bit of work. Thorsten’s ‘Scott Tent” also requires setup. While Thorsten and I do this, Martha makes dinner – tricolor tortellini and green beans. Yummy. By this point ( 8 pm), I’m zonked out and go to bed; I believe that the others follow my example pretty quickly.

The top photo shows most of our camp - the largest and finest in Moore's Bay.

All in all, a pretty successful day.


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  2. Oh impressive task. All the things that are you doing there are wonderful. Just very professional scientists and other could do that.