By Bob Bindschadler
McMurdo (Antarctica), 16 December — It was just weird. The Herc mission to land the put-in team at PIG had become a daily mainstay of the schedule I saw on the TV monitor as I walked into breakfast every day for the past week. Sometimes the cancellation came before breakfast was finished, sometimes I was able to carry my hope with me as I left the cafeteria. If the forecast suggested currently poor, but gradually improving conditions, they would hold the mission back until the weather picture became more certain. To date, certainty usually shifted toward deteriorating conditions at either PIG or Byrd (the required refueling camp) leading to yet another cancelled mission.
Tuesday the mission actually launched, the PIG webcams showed gorgeous weather there and many in town held their collective breath. It was the topic at lunch—the flight was two hours out, three more to get to PIG and still heading the right direction. Unfortunately, a short time later word came back that the forecast for Byrd was getting worse. The refuel camp was changed to the WAIS camp, roughly 100 miles away, where the forecast was better. But soon thereafter, the WAIS forecast worsened and the mission was ordered back home. The poor folks on the plane ended up flying for five hours and got off the plane at exactly the same spot where they boarded—McMurdo—still no closer to PIG.
Wednesday’s mission tore at the heart even more. It was a good weather trifecta—sunny at McMurdo, PIG and Byrd. Mission off-deck at 0931, ETA at PIG by 1400 (2 PM). Forecasts remained good at all sites and we constantly updated our webcam links hoping to witness a successful landing. It never happened. Limited information came to me, but the most important info was clear—they had not landed and were returning to MacTown with everything and everyone still on board. I couldn’t believe my ears. Having learned from past field experiences to set aside my emotional reactions right away, I discussed the possible explanations with the head of the Herc squadron. Maybe they had the wrong coordinates? Coordinates can get confused because some use degrees, minutes and seconds, some use degrees and decimal degrees, while even others favor degrees, minutes and decimal minutes. You’d be surprised at how often this happens and how much this can matter. I checked with a mapping support person who could download spectacular two-foot resolution images of the area taken both as the camp was left last February and how it looked this September (see the pictures below). Knowing I had the right coordinates, I rushed back to Herc operations to see if I could redirect the plane if they had gone to the wrong spot. Radio communications with the plane weren’t great, but good enough to hear that they saw features that told them they were, in fact, at the proper spot. Details would have to wait for their return.
The PIG camp in February 2011 (left). Seven months later, there are large sastrugis crossing the skiway, difficulting landing (right).
They came back very late, with the delays of having to refuel at Byrd and then debrief and take the long ride back to town from the ice runway (now nearly an hour-long, bone-jarring ride). Still no word by dinner, I sat with the Herc commander, Mark Sakadolsky, just to be sure to get as close as I could to any information. He’s a friend from past seasons here together and an easy guy to talk to. Everyone in town knew the plane had reached PIG, found the weather excellent, yet turned around without landing. There were lots of ideas why; McMurdo is well known to be a fertile rumor mill. I didn’t get the official word from Mark (and Charles Kirkland, who will be the PIG Main Camp manager) until the next morning. There were large sastrugi (snow dunes) crossing the old skiway. The pilots couldn’t see many skiway markers; most were buried under the 1.5 meters (5 ½ feet) of snow that has accumulated since last season, but they could orient themselves well enough relative to the drifted cargo berm and fuel bladders to know where the skiway had been. Landing that direction made little sense because they would have chattered their way across numerous sastrugi, possibly damaging the plane. (I’ve been there, done that, and don’t want to do it anymore, so this was a wise decision). Their next option was to land parallel to the sastrugi and although they received permission to do this, as they lined up on their final approach and had their skiis nearly touching the tops of the sastrugi, they decided the sastrugi were just too big to land safely. So they got close, really close, literally a few feet from landing. I’m not sure if I want to call that progress or not.
For those of you following this saga, you know that this story is being written with many subplots. So you may ask “and what of the traverse?” Good question! The traverse has been lumbering onward and may arrive tonight! Their imminent arrival figured strongly into the Guard’s decision to forego any further PIG missions until the traverse party has a chance to unhitch their heavy machinery and use the skiway groomer (left in the PIG cargo line) to level those dangerous sastrugi and prepare a smoother landing strip before the next Herc arrives. The additional benefit of having the traverse there is that the “fuelie” (definition: a person who handles fuel lines, fuel drums and fuel bladders, responsible for fueling vehicles and planes) can tap into the 27,000 gallons of fuel there to refuel visiting Hercs directly, removing the need for that troublesome third camp refueling stop for PIG flights. Thus, we are on the verge of a much-improved situation for getting cargo and people to PIG. If this is an early Christmas present, I’ll take it—even without the bows and wrapping paper.
So Thursday became was a strange day. No PIG mission on the schedule. The only project contribution I could make was to transmit positive vibes to the traverse party. Nothing broke or slowed them down, so maybe it worked. I also kept talking to some of the key people here. I suggested to Mark that for every day we don’t have a mission, I want him to think of us banking one for a later date. I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the Guard and the National Science Foundation (the institutions that manage U.S. Antarctic operations and logistics) to increase either the number of planes or crews that would operate during the two-week holiday slowdown. Numbers are reduced from six planes and six crews to three planes and four crews and an extra no-fly Saturday for Christmas and another for New Year’s is added to the cast-in-stone no-fly Sunday. These are massive reductions in capacity. I have complained for 30 years about this (along with many other deep field scientists), to no avail. Call me Mr. Scrooge or The Grinch if you like, but this is Antarctica. We have a limited amount of time to work in the “deep field” so we can answer questions being put to me in Congress and by governments around the world. Check your holiday spirit when you pass south of 60 degrees south latitude! Our holiday comes when we go home. Deep field camps don’t have holidays unless bad weather affords them the luxury. (Grrrrr!)
The other unusual thing about Thursday was the visit of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. As I’ve written before, I had already met with his advance committee. The Prime Minister shot through McMurdo very fast so he could ski the last 10 km to the pole with a group of 4 Norwegians (who had skied the entire Amundsen route) and arrive at the South Pole exactly 100 years after Amundsen. He had two hours to see McMurdo on his way back north and I was asked to prepare a short presentation on the PIG project. His schedule was delayed by South Pole weather so he never made it to the science lab and never saw the poster (but you can—it is posted on our project’s web site). Better than the short presentation I couldn’t give was the fact that I was invited to join the PM at a dinner being hosted at Scott Base by the New Zealanders. To make sure that I had the chance to discuss my project with Jens, I was seated directly across the table from him and next to his Executive Secretary. I took advantage of the arranged seating and had a very engaging conversation with him. Norway is very proactive in responding to climate change. I was as impressed with the variety of steps he described Norway is taking as he was with the science of climate change and the importance of our particular piece we are trying to accomplish on the PIG ice shelf this season. Jens and Ron (the Scott Base manager) gave speeches (very good speeches, actually). Ron surprised Jens by offering him an après-dessert helo ride to both Cape Evans and Cape Royds where huts remain from Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar runs. I have no idea when they returned; I took an earlier ride back to MacTown to sleep, arriving at midnight. Prime Ministers don’t sleep much.
An extra surprise for me that evening was to see Jan Gunnar Winter with the Norwegian delegation. Jan Gunnar is a colleague and a friend I have known for many years, and he’s presently the director of the Norsk PolarInstitut. I didn’t know that he was one of the 4 skiers repeating Amundsen’s historic journey. His face was weather-beaten and he had some gripping stories to tell of their expedition. All of Norway seemed to be following them via daily broadcasts by the skiers—Amundsen had dogs to help him, these 4 had the extra burden of reporting to their countrymen every night and a deadline to keep. Jan Gunnar has become a national celebrity, but he was most looking forward to a week-long vacation in Thailand with his wife. No one has ever deserved this reward more. I’ll take the easy route and fly to PIG.