The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest ice shelf not only in Antarctica, but the whole world. In contrast to sea ice that is formed when sea water freezes on the surface of the ocean, ice shelves are created when glaciers flow from their land-borne origins to the sea. Upon reaching the sea, they maintain their ties to the land but begin to float on the sea water. Almost the entirety of the Ross Sea coastline in Antarctica is fringed by ice shelf and the resultant area of the 100 to 1000 meter thick ice shelf is equal to that of France. The very fact that an ice shelf rests on the sea surface means that it is completely devoid of any vertical features. Like so much of the interior Antarctic Plateau, the Ross Ice Shelf is simply white, flat snow as far as the eye can see.
The first three ozone station installations took place in spectacular, mountainous settings representative of the Antarctica that nature documentaries love to share with the world. But in reality, most of the continent is stark white and featureless. So while it was a joy to explore the regions along the Ross Sea of Marble Point, Minna Bluff, and Cape Bird, there was a looming sense that we had not yet glimpsed the real Antarctica. But on Thursday, February 2, we departed McMurdo via a Bell 212 helicopter bound for our fourth and final installation on the blank, white Ross Ice Shelf at a location called Lorne where a University of Wisconsin automatic weather station (AWS) resides.
The helicopter left our familiar McMurdo residence and headed south, quickly passing our previous bounds of exploration of Happy Camper School and the Windless Bight installation. The helo pilot pointed through the windshield and announced over the intercom that we were paralleling a linear track in the snow below known as the South Pole Traverse route. The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) has maintained a permanent base at the South Pole since 1956 and as you can imagine, such a remote and extreme location requires prodigious resources to operate throughout the year. In addition to aircraft support, South Pole Station receives a significant annual resupply via ground vehicles that determinedly trudge their way from McMurdo across the vast continent to the point where all lines of longitude intersect. We followed this impressive track into the white unknown at 130 miles per hour and, after 25 minutes, deviated towards the AWS site.
In the final minutes prior to touchdown, the helo pilot cautioned us of the local weather conditions, saying that it appeared that a front was approaching and that visibility could possibly be reduced so low that helicopters could not fly. Compared to closed-support trips where the helicopter stays with the scientists in the field, our open-support trips consisted of drop offs from the helicopters followed by 6 hours of ground work and finally, pick up from the helicopters. And whereas most open-support flights are conducted at established field camps meant to support weeks or months of inhabitance, our Lorne location was completely isolated on the Ross Ice Shelf with not a hint of life for 50 miles in any direction. This very aspect of the campaign was described by Lars to me back in July of 2011, and I found it highly compelling that the work not only had a clear scientific purpose, but an adventurous risk to it. And so it was without surprise that we heeded the pilot’s advice carefully as we parted ways with the chopper.
Our skills were well honed from multiple assembly/disassembly cycles of the ozone stations, so we proceeded rapidly with the installation in hopes of accomplishing at least part of the work before the weather could take a turn for the worst. In the midst of our busied efforts, I was taken aback by the vast expanse of white in which we stood. Pausing for a moment, I took out my camera and snapped a photo of our two survival bags against a backdrop of endless ice shelf in a foreshadowing of the events to come.
Even as our work progressed, we were mindful to keep tabs on the sight of White Island far in the distance as an indicator of the relative visibility. After a few hours, Lars dutifully radioed the helicopter dispatch to notify them of our deteriorating conditions with reduced visibility to White Island, but they replied that since all the helicopters were engaged in other activities, there was no immediate opportunity for pick up and we resumed our efforts. Not long after, the radio buzzed to life and announced to all stations that the ice shelf air fields had been declared Condition 2. McMurdo operations employ a method of describing weather conditions as a means of evaluating the ability to safely perform work outside. Our entire time spent on the continent had consisted of Condition 3 which is the most benign category, whereas Condition 2 indicates high winds (48-55 knots), cold temperatures (-75F to –100F windchill), or low visibility (<1/4 mile), and Condition 1 represents the most deplorable possible state of existence. Even in our present environment, the Condition 2 announcement was able to send a chill down my spine.
For the first time since our arrival in Antarctica, we were truly vulnerable. Providing solid leadership in response to the fact that we would not be retrieved by helicopter on schedule, Lars declared, “It may be an extra 2 hours or 2 days we are stuck here, so we need to prepare for the worse.” His advice was honest and to the point; from that point forward, we had to be particularly conscientious of our every action if we were to brave the elements on our own.
In almost no time, the installation was complete while our weather had remained pleasant with slight winds, sunny skies, and good local visibility. Fifty miles away was a different story. Visibility in McMurdo remained poor as were our immediate prospects of return to town. At regular intervals, Lars contacted helo ops using our VHF radio that employed a repeater on Mount Terror to relay the radio signal back to McMurdo. During one of these communications, helo ops and then MacOps each declared that our transmissions were broken and unclear. Switching to the back up radio, he tried radioing again, but to no avail perhaps due to issues with the repeater station. Without radio communication, our prospects were looking much grimmer. Fortunately, we also had an Iridium satellite phone which he used to call back to base. As I stood nervously eavesdropping on his conversation, the situation took yet another turn for the worse. As he described the communication schedule we would follow, the phone’s battery died, and our lifeline was left without knowledge of our path forward. Redundancy is a wonderful thing and as proper planning (Lars) would have it, there was a spare Iridium battery that was quickly swapped to regain communication with base. A communication schedule was quickly established with McMurdo, the phone was powered off in an effort to conserve battery life, and we were left to fend for ourselves for the short term.
An incessant wind blows unimpeded across the Ross Ice Shelf from the south that quickly robs heat from anything in its path while providing a beautiful dance of blowing snow across the ground. In its opposition that afternoon, a bright sun warmed our faces when we turned our backs to the wind. And so following instructions from Happy Camper School a month earlier, we set our shovels into motion and into the Styrofoam-like snow to build a couch set down below the surface. The snow we removed was stacked carefully on the windward side of the couch to form a wall that reduced the effect of the 20mph wind to nothing. We settled proudly onto our newly built furniture, soaked in the rays, munched on deli sandwiches, and Sam even launched a colorful kite into the sky. Our departure was delayed, but we were extremely comfortable in our little outdoor living room and in great spirits to wait a few hours for the copter’s arrival. The hours passed and our restless, creative personalities set us each on tasks that invariably involved digging in the snow and fortifying our little shelter.
As our shovels chopped and dug at the snow, we received an unexpected visitor in the sky. Rather than the helicopter that we hoped would descend upon us, the most prevalent Antarctic bird of flight, the skua, had somehow navigated dozens of featureless miles across the ice shelf to our precise location. Perhaps it was drawn by the kite in the sky or by the smell of our snacks, but in any case, it was comforting to see another sign of life in our desolate, isolated situation. The journals of great Antarctic explorers reported great excitement upon sight of such an animal when in dire conditions, and after this little guardian angel graced our presence, I felt a deeper appreciation for the thoughts and emotions that these men must have experienced.
Time passed slowly until the hour of truth finally arrived. At 8pm, Lars made the call back to helo ops to assess our possibility of being retrieved. Although we had discussed and strongly considered the possibility throughout the day, it was not until that phone call that we realized our actual predicament. Conditions had not improved, no helicopters would be flying to pick us up, and we were going to be force to spend the night. In short, we were stranded.
It is one thing to be stranded in the States where AAA or a police officer is a cell phone call away, where weather is generally favorable, and where we are comfortable in our backyard. But to be stranded on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica is something altogether different. To be left so isolated and so vulnerable in such a harsh environment, one could easily be reduced to tears and quickly succumb to the conditions. Fortunately, the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) recognizes these very real risks and goes to great lengths to minimize their impacts when they inevitably happen. For one thing, we were well equipped in our extreme cold weather (ECW) equipment that every participant must wear on aircraft flights. Second, we were well trained to handle such a situation during our mandatory Happy Camper School. And finally, we had our requisite survival bags that are dropped with all team members on open-support helicopter flights.
So after concluding the satellite phone conversation, we embarked on the uncommon act of opening and using our survival bags that contain tents, sleeping bags, stoves, cookware, emergency food rations, and various assorted items. Since we had already spent our previous waiting hours in the construction of a snow cave and snow wall, our shelter was nearly complete apart from the tent that I decided to sleep in. With our shelter accounted for and our bellies empty, the next order of business was filling them with warm fluids and replenishing calories. Minutes later, the Whisperlite stove roared to life, snow was melting into water, and we were well on our way to providing for all of our basic needs. Although the survival bags are certainly sufficient to bivouac for the short term, they are aptly named and the culinary experience is of the utmost simplicity. Daily rations consist of a freeze dried backpacker dinner, three survival hard tack bars, and a chocolate bar per person per day. Among the assorted dinners was a crowd unfavorite from Happy Camper School, Black Bart’s Chili. While the packaging of the chili had been comically rebranded to express its expected flatulent quality, Sam and I suspected that the Happy Camper prejudices against this meal might be unwarranted and decided to give it a try. Whether it was the survival scenario or just the right balance of spices we may never know, but both of us were shockingly pleased with good ole’ Black Bart’s Chili.
By the time we finished dinner and melted enough snow to maintain our hydration, the clock had advanced to almost midnight and the sun had progressed across the sky to a perfect position among the clouds to amazed us all. A sun dog arced around the sun in a partial circle from the ground up to the blue sky while a beam of light projected directly down to the snow below. It was a little blessing to be stranded in such a forsaken place and witness an event that even left my two atmospheric scientist friends in awe.
The long day’s work in the snow had taken its toll, and I gladly collapsed into my down sleeping bag for a full night’s sleep that was uninterrupted until my watch alarmed at 7am in preparation of the next scheduled call back to helo ops. Any hopes of retrieval were quickly dashed when I poked my head out of the tent into near white out conditions. Nonetheless, Lars made the satellite phone call and learned that conditions in McMurdo had improved markedly in spite of our locally deteriorating conditions. While the news was somewhat frustrating, the next call was agreed to occur at noon and we retreated to our shelters for additional rest. As the morning progressed, conditions improved enough to allow us to leave our shelters, and we were finally able to melt more snow. Meanwhile, Sam bravely tore open the aluminum packaging of the Coast Guard approved emergency food rations and discovered that the thick, blocky rations were actually quite palatable with a taste that reminded me of a lemony, Crisco-y, sugar cookie. The quick brunch was followed by more napping in our shelters and reading books that were thoughtfully included in the survival bags.
Noon check-in time came and our local visibility was still poor, but the call was made and the next check-in arranged for 5pm. We had been at the Lorne site for 26 hours and it was becoming apparent that it might be several days before a helicopter could reach us. Furthermore, there was the possibility that the weather could remain poor and a helicopter could not reach us for much longer. While we were comfortable in our present shelters, it was becoming obvious that the survival bags were meant for the short duration with food and fuel for only 3 or 4 days. Once more, we retreated to our shelters and passed the afternoon like Weddel seals. Following the example of the seals, they in their thick coat of blubber, us in our tubes of down, we emulated their minimal motion on the ice as the best way for mammals to survive in the harsh conditions.
5pm arrived but improved visibility did not. The call was made and an arrangement was struck. If we noticed improved conditions before the helicopter night shift ended at 11pm, we would call helo ops and they would see if they could send a copter. On the other hand, if a pilot decided that conditions were favorable, we would simply hear an approaching helicopter and would quickly break camp to our welcome retreat. If neither of these conditions were met, we would call the following morning at 7:30am to tag up.
We resumed resting like seals for a few hours followed by our second warm, dehydrated dinner at Lorne. This time, I fondly revisited my old friend Leonardo da Fettuccini while we each studied the horizon to the north. Our local visibility was good, but the long view to White Island was still unimpressive. Still, we maintained our patience and optimistic outlooks. In order to provide a helicopter sufficient time to reach us, we needed to alert helo ops by 9pm if a window of opportunity was present. As the time approached, we could barely make out the flanks of White Island, but the visibility waivered and we decided to wait until the morning for better weather.
We were preparing ourselves for second night bivouacking on the ice and the reality was that we could only continue on our present course for two more days. We discussed the possible options if a helicopter could not reach us in that time. Walking 50 miles across a crevasse-ridden ice shelf was clearly out of the question, so we were completely dependent on rescue from McMurdo. Perhaps a twin otter airplane could land in more difficult conditions than a helicopter or at least drop food and fuel. If not, our close proximity to the South Pole Traverse route provided a reasonable location for a ground rescue by a search-and-rescue tracked Hagglund equipped with ground penetrating radar for avoiding crevasses. Regardless of the method, we all agreed that this topic need to be broached during our satellite phone call the next morning.
With these heavy realities in our minds, time and the sun advanced to the location in the sky where the previous night’s sun dog had occurred. On the second night in a row amid the blowing ground snow, the ice shelf and the sun treated us to an atmospheric delight but this occasion presented two concentric sun dogs nearly circling the sun. While our situation was serious, the beautiful phenomenon in the sky provided great encouragement before we headed back to our shelters for our second night on the ice.
The stark Antarctic environment is rich in some qualities and almost completely devoid of all others. Sight is filled with blinding white, while colors are limited to the blue of the sky and browns of the barren rocks. Smells are almost completely nonexistent. Sounds belong solely to the wind and that which it blows. In our camp, the wind flapped my tent and caused the rattling of the rime ice cups on the ozone station. And every 15 minutes, the ozone instrument sprung to life with a predictable buzzing tone of its pump. These sounds and no others had filled my ears as I rested in my tent the entire day, but as I was drifting off to sleep at 10:47pm, a new hum entered my brain. With little else to occupy my thoughts, I locked onto this faintest of sounds and imagined the best. My heart began to race faster and the sound seemed to increase in amplitude prompting me to pop my head out of the tent. A minute of careful listening later, and there was no doubt in my mind. Excitedly, I shouted to my compatriots in the cave below, “A copter is coming! A copter is coming!” In short order, Lars had raised them on the radio and confirmed that they were on their way to get us. And finally, the beautiful, red shape began to materialize in the sky. We raced at a frantic pace piling gear into bags hoping to beat a quick retreat, but the copter set down and powered off the engine to allow us ample time. We gratefully greeted our saviors who were as interested in hearing about our story as we were in seeing them. Not much later and with great relief, the helicopter floated up and above our icy home of two days and we were on our way home.
The half hour flight was filled with quiet gratitude. On the one hand, we unwittingly had a genuine Antarctic experience that provided the smallest taste of what the legendary Antarctic explorers encountered in their bold explorations of the continent. But unlike those heroes, we did not extricate ourselves from our predicament; we were in complete dependence on the dedicated contributions of the entire intricate, logistical system that USAP operates in McMurdo. So while it was satisfying to competently weather our short storm on the Ross Ice Shelf, it became overwhelmingly apparent how much gratitude I owed to the USAP team members who kept us safe. With much humility, Thank You.