Sunday, December 16, 2012

Stuck on Mt. Erebus

Last week, I went for a space walk up on Mt. Erebus with my co-worker, Nick.  As we were launched upwards to around 11,000 feet, my co-worker and I looked outside, looked at each other and made faces to the effect of not really knowing what was in our futures.  From McMurdo, it looked like the top of the volcano was completely in the clouds.   It had been scouted, however, and there was a back entrance to our little spot on the side of shoulder that overlooks the peninsula 11,000 feet below.  We both had questions as to the weather but we were assured by our pilot, that the nearby clouds would burn off and the rest would be blown away…I was in need of a little adventure so, what the heck, out of the helo we went! 

In my spacesuit.
We were dropped off at a place called Cones Z.  It’s on a shoulder of Mt. Erebus and serves as a communications hub for science data coming from other parts of Mt. Erebus.  It’s a notoriously weathered place.  Two winters ago, both 40 foot towers came down.  Last winter, both wind turbines were rendered inoperable, either by throwing blades or by throwing tails…or both.  The assumed mode of failure is rime ice which then unbalances the “birds” and they then vibrate themselves to pieces sort of like a washing machine out of whack. 

Cones has a "rescue apple" complete with fold up chairs, sleeping bags, food, fuel, and most importantly it is a passive-thermally heated place.  Quite a nice spot to come in from the cold to.

Video Link: Into Space

We were there to replace two wind birds and we got to work after a rest in the apple.  That is the routine when coming from sea level to 11,000 feet in half an hour – rest…work…rest…work…The weather held for a bit, but then it became windy and the cloud enveloped us.  We were up the tower, hand warmers on both sides of my hands, double facemasks, harnessed in…we were astronauts doing our space walk.  I loved it.  The tower work at Cones is among my favorite of jobs here on Ross Island.  At some point in the afternoon, it was clear a helicopter would not be coming to pick us up that day.  So we eyed the contents of the apple and saw we would be okay.  The important things: a big cylinder of Oxygen and a Gamov bag (a portable mini-hyperbaric chamber), should one of us start suffering from altitude illness.  How long we could be stuck here we did not know.  Weather in McMurdo can shut down for days on end.  Weather at Erebus can shut down for days on end.  Who was to say…at last, a little Antarctic adventure.   A little unknown!  Where would we sleep, how would we get off the mountain?!  I knew we would sleep, and eventually get off the mountain but welcomed the unpredictability of it all and hoped we wouldn’t get altitude illness.  So we continued to work like spacemen, little tasks taking a long time: 

Video Link (nothing too exciting but gives a sense of what the job is sometimes like): 

Eventually we got one bird up and were starting on the second when out of the mist came two snowmobiles.  They informed us that they had spoken with "helo ops" who said they could no longer come to get us.  So we were going to have to spend the night on the mountain.  We cleaned up our gear as were then informed that more weather was coming in, and headed to the Lower Erebus Hut (still at 11,000 feet or so).  At "LEH" we had a cup of tea, as there was a strong british contingent of scientists and support workers at the little hut here, and then we headed three thousand feet down a Fang Gulley to Fang Camp where folks go to spend two nights to acclimatize to the altitude on their way up to LEH to do their volcanology studies on the upper mountain.  (As a side note, Upper Erebus Hut, was abandoned not too many years ago because lava bombs from the lava lake were ejecting out of the crater and landing near the hut.)

We made it down the gulley, which has rolled many a snowmobile, and finally our camp came into view.  Four "Scott Tents."  There was a mountaineer and an artist in residence here acclimatizing, so at least we had some extra company.

Our refuge: Scott tents.
 We were later told that a helo would try to get us in the morning and bring us back up to Cones to finish our work.  Unfortunately, the morning brought no break in the weather and McMurdo itself was socked in.  It was soon apparent that we would spend another night at Fang.  There is not much to do there, the weather too bad for hiking, we had brought no chess board or cards, we were going to start making them but instead hung out with the artist in residence.  Cutting out the frivolousness we cut to the chase and asked her to tell us her life story.  Quite fascinating it was, and quite complicated necessitating the use of props, and we later reciprocated our own life stories.  I like the crap that gets cut out in the field.  No idle chat, let's get down to business, who are you, tell us about your life.  I like it.

So Nick slept a lot, I read a bit about a sailing adventure, tried to raise someone on my little HAM radio, made little notes in my notebook about various things and tried to enjoy the arduous task of making water which took many trips out into the blowing snow to get another pot full of snow, all the while wondering if we were going to spend the week in that little tent.  

After two nights, salvation showed up and thankfully took us back to Cones so we could finish our work.  We were able to finish the work, thankfully and enjoyed a beautiful morning on Mt. Erebus.  

Helo at Cones.
Two birds up and running.
The towers and the crater rim.
A little closer to space.
Eventually we made it back to town, satisfied that our job was done.  Many people were happy to see us back, and word had made it around town a bit that we were stuck at Fang.  It was a nice Antarctic adventure into the unknown.  Life in McMurdo seems very sheltered and it was nice to have some activity and weather on the side of the mountain.  Change is good.  Space is awesome.  

In other news, I had dinner with an astronaut last week.  He is here on a team searching for meteorites.  I met him when I briefed him and his crew on our portable solar power units.  Fascinating to talk to him  about the application process.  His recommendations: 1. Keep applying 2. Do what you love.  Done and done!  He spoke very highly of Antarctic experience as well as NOLS experience... we shall see.  My application done and gone, NASA should announce the ones who beat me out this spring.  It'll be interesting to read their resumes.  For now, though, I have plenty to keep me busy.  If you're still reading, thanks!  I miss you all back in the unfrozen land and I'll be home in two months!  

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