"Antarctic Training and Helicopter Exploring"

Geoff Haines-Stiles - November 12, 1994
Project Director, PASSPORT TO KNOWLEDGE & the LIVE FROM... specials

    Here is part two of the account started yesterday. The descriptions which will follow have been provided by Geoff Haines-Stiles. Geoff is the overall Project Director for "Live From Antarctica" and also he serves as the Executive Producer of the television programming. Geoff is currently in Antarctica gathering video footage.

MONDAY 7th November Monday was a day of meetings, both general and specific to our project. The other science groups had 15 minute reviews, but we had an hour assigned to discuss the complex logistics not only of interacting with the researchers at remote field locations, but also for the live broadcasts. The NSF and ASA (Antarctic Support Associates) staff had been reviewing all our plans, and came up with the suggestion that we move the Dry Valley live segment into the first program -- since it would give us longer to test the logistics. And we discovered that one of the researchers we hoped to cover had been in a hospital and would either be delayed or not be coming. As our stay in Christchurch showed us, working in the Antarctic requires flexibility and an ability to modify plans as circumstances dictate. But we were impressed that the 25 plus people sitting in on our review session -- representing Cargo, Vehicles, helicopter support, fixed wing aircraft, communications and information systems -- were all enthusiastic, pointing out ways in which the project could maximize its chances of success.

Next came a cold-weather survival lecture, emphasizing the importance of personal preparedness, from clothing to always traveling in pairs and checking in by radio when leaving base.

After a day of meetings, it was an evening of discussions with the scientists we had met at the Orientation Conference, or by phone. A day of talk... and we were looking forward to the next day when our own hands-on sea-ice training was to take place.

TUESDAY 8th November Breakfast, like every meal here, was good and hot. By 7:30 we were ready to get in our vehicle and head out to practice setting camp and other survival skills. We squashed ourselves into a Spryte, a tracked vehicle, and were off. As JR drove he explained how the Spryte worked, with its two levers controlling brakes on the left and right treads which turn the vehicle, and the radio and the rules of the Ice. At the "transition", where the land meets the sea-ice, he checked in with base. Though it was a beautiful, clear day, just the week before, we'd been told, someone traveling out on this same road, had become lost in a storm, on just a snow-mobile, and had been found, luckily, after a Search and Rescue Mission saw a penguin off in the distance. With no better clues in the low visibility, and knowing that penguins are a curious breed, they had gone back in the direction the penguin had been, and found the lost person. The tale was repeated in just about every briefing we had as a reminder to do things properly and take no chances.

Out on the ice, we taped shots of the Spryte in transit, and of Erebus, but the main purpose of the trip was to learn about the tents. Under JR's instruction, we soon had a Scott tent erected. It is a large, heavy tent, that he said was the warmest for these climes that he had ever experienced. Next was a mountaineers tent, lighter, a little harder to put up with its expandable poles, but also warm once up. Then we were shown how to carve snow blocks out with a snow saw, and pile them up to form a protective wall against the wind. This was hard work in the bulky clothes, and we were soon sweaty and quite warm. We were working near one of the Huts set out on the Ice for instruction purposes, and we went inside for some fruit cake and chocolate and hot drinks, very welcome after the morning's work.

As we drove off down the flagged road -- red and green flags at regular intervals to guide the way when visibility is low -- we saw something off in the distance. At first we thought it was a seal but as we got closer we found it was a piece of aluminum sheeting. The storm which had kept us out of McMurdo for so long, had damaged several radio repeater stations up on the mountain ridges, and we wondered if the incredible force of the 100 mph winds had carried this sheet from far away. We popped it in the back of the Spryte, and headed off to the ice-runway where we ourselves had arrived just a few days before. Another C-141 was flying in, and we were anxious to tape the landing.

We got there just in time, and found the place extremely busy. The 2 Twin Otter landed and took back off. One C-130 landed and another departed, and the C-141 came in 40 minutes earlier than expected. Onboard were several more of the science groups we intend to tape.

Back in McMurdo, we met with Kristin Larson, supervisor of the Crary Lab., and our point of contact for all logistics. We reviewed timetables and how the bad weather had delayed the start of the season for several of the deep field camps, and made plans for the next few days. Wednesday was set as our first "helo" trip, out to the Dry Valleys to scout a site for a possible live location, and to drop in on several of the science groups we would be taping.

WEDNESDAY 9th November No doubt, this day was the high point so far. We reported to the Helo terminal early, and met our pilots. We reviewed where we hoped to go, and they came up with a flight plan. We had to leave JR behind because the helos can only carry 5 passengers, plus a crew of 3, and we were traveling with one of the telecommunications specialists who was to help survey the microwave location. It was fairly windy, but we were soon off over the sea-ice, passing back around McMurdo to let us tape it from the air. The sea-ice changed character as we flew over it, from smoother to really ridge-ridden, with dark splotches of sediments (which "T" -- our pilot, who turned out to be a great tour guide as well as flyer -- told us was aptly called "dirty ice"). We flew by Cape Chocolate, leaving Black Island and White Island to our left. We made land about 30 miles across has distinctive shapes. The ground, where it was not covered by snow, had cracked into large polygons. The brown soil appeared stamped with regular black shapes; this was caused by the freezing temperatures over time. We started climbing over ridges, and eventually saw the Joyce Glacier.

From the air glaciers seem unreal, huge tongues of ice slithering over the landscape, and ending in sheer cliffs that seem to defy gravity. We turned right and looked for Dave Marchant's camp. They had been informed by radio about our visit, and as the helo landed, two red-parka shapes huddled down out of the rotor wash, close to their two Scott tents. I hadn't realized just how windy it was till set down, but on the ground we were all soon wrapping our hoods and parkas tightly around us. The aircrew delivered mail, and picked up letters, as we talked with Dave and his partner Brent about their work. They are part of a group that has been studying these rocks for many years and they are obviously in love with field work. We plan to feature them in Program 1. Dave sometimes stays out for 90 to 100 days, saying he gets acclimated to life out here, and finds McMurdo too warm and crowded. After talking more about their research, we promised to be back, and flew off, leaving their two tents looking very small amidst the wind-sculpted crags and glaciers.

But we had only seen small glaciers to date, it turned out. We flew on, over the Ferrar, making out crevasses and on over into the Taylor Valley, one of the "Dry Valleys" discovered by Scott. Drier than the Gobi desert, they contain a number of strange lakes, perpetually ice-covered. Each lake has a distinctive chemistry and unusual life-forms, such as algal mats whose existence no-one had believed likely till divers melted holes and explored the bottom.

We stopped first at Lake Fryxell, where two of the scientists we'd met in Christchurch had now joined their team. A skull and crossbones flag was flying, welcoming the "Ice Pirates", and there was coffee and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Obviously, this was a very hospitable crew, but their research is also intriguing, looking at Fryxell with its salty waters for clues to marine ecosystems around the planet.

Then on to Lake Hoare, with the camp set right up against the walls of the Canada Glacier. Lake Hoare has the most spectacular camp, with a mix of the older Jamesway huts, canvas heated by kerosene, and we are told, surprisingly warm, and the very new, high-tech structures erected just this season. A week before, we were told, this place had over twenty helo flights in one day, bringing in the new structures. Now there were solar panels and a waste water processing "pyramid". I'd known about the science from my work on writing a documentary with Dale Andersen, one of the team who would be working here, but seeing the Dry Valleys in person -- as we hope students will do in our first two programs -- was truly amazing. With each lake with its own camp, and with each researcher in love with his or her own lake, it seemed symbolic of how much we humans come to appreciate the landscape in which we live and work.

The pilots checked in with "Mac Ops", and were told the weather was closing in. so we ate a hurried lunch, and flew off to the highest point as we flew upwards, past rock spires. Then we were at a saddle, high between Hill 1882 and the Matterhorn. The pilot carefully flew over the site, and said, yes, there was somewhere he could land. The crew-chief threw out a smoke flare, to gauge wind speed and direction, and we carefully circled and hovered, ever closer to the only flattish ground around. We were all impressed by the team-work of the air crew, as the crew-chief guided the helo down amid the rocks which could have upset the skids.

The view was absolutely sensational, down over Lake Hoare and the Canada Glacier, on past Lake Fryxell and over to Mount Erebus. Since this was known to be a good site from which to send microwave signals back to McM, and since we had just proven you could land here (in good weather) we decided this could work well as a wonderful way of introducing Antarctica for our programs.

Well satisfied, we headed home, refueling at Marble Point, and doing more aerial taping up the Wright Valley at the Airdevronsix Ice Falls, a frozen Niagara of ice, spilling off the Wright Glacier. We flew through the Labyrinth, a kind of Bryce Canyon of the Antarctic. Our pilot told us it most probably was formed by the sudden breaking of an ice dam, and a release of powerful cascades of water. If the Imax film about the Antarctic did not shoot here, they should have, since banking and turning through the rocks was both exciting, and incredibly revealing of the geology of this continent. With over 98% covered by ice, the few exposed places like these Dry Valleys, have a special magic, which we hope to share during the programs.

Back to McMurdo, with weather closing in, and the last few miles in brisker winds and light snow. We landed, exhilarated at what we had seen and learned. There was more good news when we learned that some of the remaining technical equipment might get here even earlier than expected. We hoped that this day would be only the first of many successful video excursions.


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