Geoff Sims @ UNSW
Home South Pole Diaries 2012/13 23rd January, 2013


Wednesday, 23rd January, 2013

Ridge A (John)

Because communications from Ridge A are limited to Iridium phone and HF radio, there's been a bit of a lull in our blogs. This is therefore a monster blog, covering the past six days.

Gathering with the pilots over breakfast on Thursday morning we looked at the PLATO webcam pictures of Ridge A and pondered the forecast from Charleston: clear now, but strong winds forecast for the afternoon. Since we'd already concluded (prematurely, as it turned out) that the Charleston computer is clueless, we all agreed: let's go!

First up we grabbed our sleep kits, dressed up in all of our very finest ECW gear, and headed out to CKB, our Twin Otter.

The first step is to load the cargo. Everyone helps, including Craig, Abe, and a bulldozer appropriately called Quinn.

Lighting the engines one by one, CKB taxis around to be refuelled.

Refuelling takes about 15 minutes, during which time the Basler seems to have got the jump on us. I think it's headed for Dome C.

I've often wondered what's inside a fuel bowser...

All set, we (Geoff, Nic, Ben the field camp guide, and myself) clambered aboard (not as easy as it sounds, with all that gear on), and settled down for the two and half hour flight to AGAP South.

Nic appears to be looking forward to the adventure.

AGAP was an international project to map the Gamburtsev mountains range lying under East Antarctica. It required a number of temporary bases to be established, including AGAP South. Now, AGAP South is just used as a fuel cache.

Our pilots, Brent and Darrin, refuel the plane. Twin Otter pilots throw full fuel drums around like they were empty. They are also very resourceful and self-reliant: on the way home Brent fixed a leaking fuselage window with a parka and a dessert spoon. When climate change has reduced civilization to a scattered collection of warring tribes, the winning side will be the one with the greatest number of Twin Otter pilots on it.

Nic finds that rolling a fuel drum is not as easy as it looks.

Darrin cracks another tinnie, then calls it a day.

Another hour and half later, we arrive at Ridge A. OMG, the Charleston computers were right about the wind! A temperature around -45C is one thing, but add 20 ~ 25 knot winds to that and, as Malcolm Fraser once famously quoted, life wasn't meant to be easy!

First item of business was unloading the plane, and then setting up camp. The first tent up was our kitchen/living room tent. Then, while some of us opened up the two yellow and green PLATO modules to extract the faulty electronics boxes to send back to Pole with the Twin Otter pilots, others put up the sleeping tents. The Twin Otter stayed as long as it could - about two hours - then once they were sure we were safe the plane headed back to Pole via AGAP again.

One of the key recommendations of our altitude training course was: "Don't do anything too strenuous for the first day or so". Huh? I confess to being cold, exhausted, and feeling somewhat apprehensive.

An hour or so after arrival at Ridge A in the middle of a wind storm. The yellow "Instrument Module" has been unfolded so we can extract some electronics boxes. Meanwhile, Ben can been seen securing the orange kitchen/living tent by shoveling snow onto the side flaps. Around about now I nearly lost the end of my nose to frostbite - which wouldn't be such a bad thing as it's too big anyway.

Safe inside the tent at last, Geoff's expression reveals what we were all feeling. Even my camera is struggling - particularly with its automatic aperture and white balance.

Ben soon has the stove fired up, with hot drinks and soup all round.

Nic makes Iridium contact with the outside world, and seems mightily relieved to find it still exists.

During the first night we all slept fitfully, as the wind whistled past the weather tower and rattled our ripstop nylon sleeping tents. It gradually calmed however, and by morning it was clear, quiet and sunny.

Geoff sunbakes and surveys the scene. Ben has done a very professional job of securing the tent with bamboo-pole deadman anchors and trucker's hitches - just like we all learned at "Happy Camper" snow school.

The Instrument Module is in great shape, but the wind has scoured out a surprisingly large crater around it. The SCAR flag has survived an entire year and HEAT looks fantastic, as does the solar cube.

HEAT, the terahertz observatory that PLATO supports, looks as splendid as it did the day it was constructed.

The Engine Module is in good shape, too, although there are a few "issues" do be dealt with. One of the two Hatz diesel engines has died, bizarrely the result of eating copper filings from a bit that fell off.

The sun cube, which provides a kilowatt of electrical power 24 hours a day (at least in summer...). For the next five days we will rely heavily on this wonderful, minimalistic piece of modern technology. It reminds me of the black monolith in Kubrick's "2001 - A Space Odyssey", and all that it symbolized (or didn't).

The aftermath of last night's wind storm can be seen in the snow drifts around the two new engines that we brought in with us, each on its own sledlet. Note that the wide-angle lens I'm using makes things lean outwards - our weather tower is actually vertical. For this and similar reasons I've decided to stop pretending I have an expensive DSLR camera, and am cropping my images 4:3 again...

For the next few days we settled in to the maintenance tasks we'd come to do: replacing dead batteries and failed electronics, patching up the software and firmware, swapping the two engines for two new ones, refuelling, and making a number of what I hope are improvements to the Engine Module cooling thermal management systems.

The first step was to erect a large tent over each of the modules. By trapping the air inside and absorbing the heat from the sun, they raise the temperature inside by as much as 35 C, bringing it up to a comfortable zero degrees in the hottest part of the day.

Ridge A is sufficiently far from the south pole that it experiences a significant diurnal cycle, although at this time of year the sun never comes even close to setting. Temperature when the sun is at its highest is around -34C; at its lowest around -44C.

Our campsite. In the foreground are the sleeping tents, while the white tents cover the Engine Module (left) and Instrument Module (right). The large orange tent is our kitchen/living tent, and the solar cube simply defies description.

My work environment for much of the time. The white tent provides a "cosy" work space around the Engine Module. The two lights, running off the solar panel through an inverter, are to heat whatever it is I'm working on. In the foreground is the fuel circulation pump, which pumps fuel from the bladder through the alternators and back again, cooling the alternators and recovering heat to keep the fuel warm (and hence liquid).

Living at Ridge A for six days and five nights was tough, requiring a disciplined routine. In particular, there is an ongoing struggle not against the cold per se, but against freezing. Once water is frozen, it doesn't pour anymore and you cannot drink it. However, because of the cold and the altitude, one has to drink an enormous amount. Thus, at night we filled our drinking-water bottles with boiling water and tucked them into our sleeping bags with us, using them both as hot water bottles (keeps the toes warm!) and for sipping on during the night. By the end of the trip I was sleeping with a drinking-water bottle, an Iridium phone battery, my camera and my watch, using my own body heat to keep them alive.

Ben kept the stove going almost continuously during the "day", melting snow to provide us with water for drinking and cooking. You cannot survive by eating snow. The energy required to melt it (333kJ/kg) is simply too great for your own body heat to provide.

Although we'd planned that Geoff would only spend two nights here, and Nic and I four, bad weather at Pole and various other factors meant we saw no Twin Otters for five days. At 8 am each morning Ben would phone Comms. at Pole via Iridium, while we waited in anticipation for news that the plane would come. Morning after morning, it didn't. We were starting to feel very isolated.

My bedroom for five nights. The effect of wind scouring from the storm can seen.

I looked up the price of the Snow Goose sleeping bag on the web - a cool thousand dollars. By thirty minutes into the first night I was convinced it was worth every penny.

Lying awake in my tent in the morning, tiny ice crystals drop constantly from the roof, having condensed there from my breath. I can see them but can't feel them until occasionally one lands ever so gently on my lips. It's a delicate and quite exquisite sensation.

Ben did a fantastic job, cooking us three tasty meals each "day" and providing endless hot water for hot chocolate and indeed just for drinking on its own. Hot water never tasted so good! It's fun to be able to eat as much as you can of very high calorie food, and know that you're not putting on any weight. Ben's using the HF radio as a bench - I was looking forward to playing with it, but in the end we were too flat-out busy the whole time.

And since you asked... The underground cavern provides a modicum of privacy and some shelter from the wind. It's still cold of course, requiring nerves of steel when Mother Nature becomes insistent. The waste is snap-frozen and thereby becomes relatively inoffensive. When the can is full it is sealed and, believe it or not, sent off to the US for processing.

The field camp starts with the Twin Otter bringing in people and gear, and taking off almost empty. It finishes with the Twin Otter taking the people and gear out again, and thus taking off with as heavy a load as it can. At this elevation (roughly 4,500 m pressure altitude), and on skis, even the Twin Otter needs a good length to get airborne. One of our daily tasks was thus to shovel snow off the skiway to smooth out the bumps, while adding black plastic garbage bags full of snow as skiway markers.

Ridge A International Airport.

As we shoveled snow, but the Twin Otter still did not come, I think we started to develop a bit of a Cargo Cult attitude: surely if we make a very fine skiway, they're bound to come!

Ben puts the finishing touches onto a skiway marker. As the pilots pointed out, flags are next to useless when you're landing into wind (as you'd like to), as the flags are end-on to you and virtually invisible.

Surely the Twin Otter will come from the sky now! Geoff and Nic head back to the camp.

By the fifth morning we'd done almost all we could do, and it became increasingly important that the Twin Otter find a way to get to us. Fortunately, Ben's daily weather reports, plus a new-found respect for the Charleston computer, converged favourably today.

Is it a bird!? Is it a plane!?

Geoff and Nic form a welcoming party.

Craig steps off the plane, well rugged up.

This time the Twin Otter could only stay about 45 minutes. Ben cunningly fed the pilots hot soup, giving us time to show Abe, Craig and Daniel around and explain to them where we'd got to./center>

Craig and I pose under the SCAR flag, symbol of international cooperation in Antarctic science. At least, I think that's Craig.

The new SCAR flag I brought with me this year is white-on-blue, rather than our earlier blue-on-white, a much better colour scheme for Antarctica! As these are the only SCAR flags in existence, I feel we can design them however we choose.

In fairly short order Geoff Nic and I clambered into the Twin Otter and were on our way. Despite our grooming efforts, the take off run was "interesting", although considerably less dramatic than the AGAP strip.

On the way back to Pole we stopped at the AGAP fuel cache once again. While the pilots refuel, Geoff and Nic are clearly discussing an issue of some significance. Should it be called a 44 gallon, 55 gallon, or 200 litre drum? Will one of these things really fit in the boot of a Leyland P76?

Back at Pole I headed straight for the shower, then joined the pilots for dinner.

We'll spend a couple of days at Pole, then back home via McMurdo and Christchurch. Abe Craig and Daniel get back to Pole tomorrow, so with luck there'll be some more news to report in future blogs.


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