Ice Diary 11: Indiana Jones on Ice

Ice Diary 11

Indiana Jones on Ice

10 January, 2003

Today we had three things to do: 1. Finish meteorite searching, 2. Pack up camp, 3. Get re-supply from the twin otter. Nothing went according to plan.

We woke to a windy morning with below zero temperatures. My muscles were reluctant to go right into meteorite hunting after our long day yesterday, but I was willing because of how little time we have left. Jamie started calling in weather reports to McMurdo for the flight, but it didn’t matter, they had already cancelled the flight. They thought our weather was worse than it was. It wasn’t very comfortable outside, so when Jamie and Nancy decided to delay searching an hour and a half, I didn’t complain.

We went out under gray, overcast skies and strong, steady winds. Instead of going right back to the place we left off yesterday, we decided that we would do a big sweep. Almost immediately, we found large meteorites. Danny observed that the first five meteorites recovered today probably exceeded the mass of all the meteorites found yesterday, not including the large one Scott found.

At one point, I’d lean down to plant a flag at one meteorite, and see three more. The meteorite kits started running out of supplies again, so we started taping up the bags with duct tape. You know what they say about duct tape… We recovered 29 meteorites, putting our total at 602 (Dante was happy).

Although yesterday was cold, today was miserable. Our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear kept us relatively comfortable, but you knew right away if you had any exposed skin because the wind would chill it instantly. It was hard to handle the bags, tags, and even the snowmobiles in the wind. After about 2 1/2 hours of searching, Jamie announced we were going home. Some people in our group protested that there are more meteorites to be found, but he explained that if we should have an injury or a snowmobile broke down, it could put several people in jeopardy of frostbite. Jamie explained how frostbite goes to work after the skin is numb. I know my nose felt numb, and several people had numbness in their fingers and toes. Jamie jokes that he doesn’t get paid if any one of us gets frostbite.

When we got back to camp, we decided to postpone much of what we planned today. Jamie called McMurdo on the HF radio and the woman on the other end told us a plane was on the way. About two hours later, a twin otter set down and delivered mail, a data cable, and spare bogey wheels for the ski-doos. Much of the mail was marked, "Merry Christmas," and it was a treat to receive gifts and cards two weeks after the holiday.

11 January, 2003
Last day at MacAlpine

The tent was much warmer than usual this morning when we woke up (about 30F). When I headed out this morning, I was greeted by overcast skies and lightly falling snow. Back home, we would call this only a dusting, but since Antarctica is a desert, it’s significant precipitation. On average, the continent receives less than 10 inches of precipitation annually, and that amount diminishes as you head inland.

Jamie explained that the annual sea ice is retreating right now, and low-pressure systems can bring in marine moisture this far into the continent. But Antarctica is changing too. Temperatures on the coast have been rising over the last few decades, increasing precipitation over the continent. If precipitation continues to rise, the meteorites will be buried under snow for future ANSMET teams.

Orientated meteor find that drew ‘oohs and aahs’
Credit: Caldwell

Today’s snow actually made it easier for us to finish up our meteorite hunting. The snow buried or partially buried most of the little meteorites we’ve been finding. We did find some large ones, and our final total is 606 for the season. Most of the morning was spent collecting flags from the Mouthy Ice and marking where we searched for future ANSMET teams.

We spent the afternoon doing inventory on the meteorites (they’re all here…whew!) and getting them ready to ship to the United States and eventually to the Johnson Space Center. We then started to break down camp and got as much packed up and lashed to the sleds as possible. Only the bare necessities are left for camping tonight.

Tomorrow, we will get an early start and it hopefully won’t take long to break down camp and load the last minute items on the sleds. We have the longest traverse of the trip ahead, about 75 miles. The ski-doos only go at most about 10 mph when towing sleds, so it could take a while.

12 January, 2003

Do you remember that line from "Raiders of the Lost Ark?"
Indy’s companion: "Come, we must hurry, there is nothing to fear here."
Indy: "That’s exactly what scares me."

This describes our traverse.

The morning started out overcast, with calm winds and pleasant temperatures. But by an hour into the traverse, we were heading into a fierce wind from the south, blowing snow and bits of ice into our faces. By lunch, I had two sets of toe warmers in my boots, and I was wearing my ski mask for the first time since the shakedown. We all found ourselves running in place to keep warm when we weren’t driving.

My sled was top heavy and tipped a dozen times on the sastrugi. At one point, we belayed the sleds down an icy slope. Scott’s ski-doo started sliding sideways, hit a snow patch, and tipped over with Scott still on it. He’s fine, but he rode it all the way down. Finally, the sastrugi died out, and we found ourselves on smooth, flat, powdery snow.

This is when it really got interesting. We noticed holes starting to open up behind the ski-doos. I saw Jamie stop, and realized we were right in the middle of a crevasse field. Jamie compared navigating crevasses like navigating a minefield. Sometimes, crevasses can be spotted easily by a change in character of the snow, but these came from nowhere, and in an area we didn’t anticipate them. Jamie gave us clear instructions on how to get over and around them, and we made it to Beardmore camp just fine. We got in about 8:00 p.m., about 11 hours after we started.

16 January, 2003

Hectic is an understatement when describing the last few days. After arriving at Beardmore Camp, we spent an entire day packing up, getting ready to leave. This meant strapping down all our cargo to pallettes, including most of the ski-doos. Everything, including the garbage, goes into large tri-walled cardboard boxes and must be secure for loading on the LC-130s.

We also planed off a "tarmac" by having the ski-doos drag pallettes behind to harden the snow. This turned into a fun ride, and we took turns riding the pallette like a bucking bronco.

We got word Tuesday morning that the planes would pick us up that day, after dropping off fuel at the Pole. Two planes would be required to take us out, so we were assigned to groups of four, some going on the first flight and others on the second.

It was such a great day at Beardmore that we went on a short excursion to a small mountain nearby. The view was incredible, but even more incredible were the "ventifacts," wind sculpted rocks that looked like mini-Stonehenge monuments. They were carved into pinnacles and platforms and formed a stark contrast to the surrounding topography.

When we got back, we received good news that the first plane was on its way to the Pole, and would come pick up the first group soon after. We broke down the tents of the people going and got everything staged.

Blizzard back at McMurdo
Credit: Caldwell

Right before the plane arrived, we heard that the second flight had been scrubbed due to a forecast of fog at McMurdo. Even though it was beautiful in Beardmore, there is no way to tell what the weather is like at McMurdo.

It’s really something to have a twin otter land in camp, but having a large, 4-turboprop cargo plane pull up right next to our tents is on another level. The loading went without a hitch, but the takeoff was a little sketchy. They taxied up and down the snow several times until they could get up enough speed to take off. They taxied for a couple of miles before they fired the Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) rockets on the side of the plane, which boosted them into the air.

I was happy for the members of the team on their way to McMurdo, but for the first time in the whole trip I felt stranded. If bad weather set in, it could be another week before were pulled out. Scott pointed out that we were the only four people within 160,000 square miles.

Carl, Scott, Jamie and I had coffee together the next morning and we heard a Pole-bound flight would pick us up on its return to McMurdo in the early afternoon. It was a warm day by Antarctic standards, 18F. Scott and I were outside most of the morning because it was so comfortable. Confident the flight would arrive, I broke down the Poop Tent. I’ve chosen to avoid the topic until now, but, in case you were wondering, we had a tent with a bucket and toilet seat inside. To let anyone know that the tent was occupied, you raised one of our meteorite flags outside the tent. This inspired Scott to modify a poem:

Red flag at morning, poopers take warning; No flag at night, poopers delight."

The plane arrived about 2:30 p.m. and we got everything loaded. The plane made several attempts at take off, but couldn’t build up enough speed to get off the snow. The snow was much softer than the night before because it was 20 degrees warmer. After about an hour, the navigator looked at me and said, "We’re off-loading."

The back of the plane opened up, and they pushed out four snowmobiles, four tents, and a pallette of our camp boxes. This lightened the load on the plane and we built up a little more speed. They fired the JATO tubes and we lifted off at about 80 knots. We found out later that they would have stalled at 78 knots and that they only had enough fuel for this last attempt. If we hadn’t gotten off the ground, we would be setting up tents for ourselves and the flight crew, waiting for a plane to come in and re-fuel this one.

We’re scheduled to leave McMurdo at 12:30 p.m. for New Zealand, but a storm has moved in that might delay things. In case I don’t get a chance to write, I just want to say how overwhelmed I am by the enthusiasm and support I’ve felt for the web site. Thank you so much for reading it and following our progress. It’s been a joy for me to write it and to get so many contributions from the ANSMET team.

Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET), funded by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation, has recovered more than 10,000 specimens from meteorite stranding surfaces along the Transantarctic Mountains. Dr. Ralph Harvey and John Schutt are members of each field party, serving as ANSMET continues to be one of the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate students and senior researchers from other institutions to participate in our field work on a volunteer basis–including the Teacher Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program. As a multi-agency collaboration, the NSF supports field operations, NASA supports storage curation, distribution and notification of recovered samples, and the Smithsonian provides long term curation facilities for the collection and assist in sample characterization.

In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentary is attributed to Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of his participation in the TEA program.

Related Web Pages

Ice Diary I: Shooting Stars on Ice
Ice Diary 2: Great Scott, A Ghost
Ice Diary 3: Cheer for Team Meteorite
Ice Diary 4: The Hunt Begins
Ice Diary 5: MacAlpine Hills or Bust
Ice Diary 6: Contacting The Mother Pod
Ice Diary 7: Summer Christmas
Ice Diary 8: Where No One Has Gone Before
Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)
Planetary Materials Curation (NASA/JSC)
Mars Meteorite Compendium (NASA/JSC)
AMLAMP: Antarctic Meteorite Location and Mapping Program (database of where meteorites have been found)
National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs
McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project
Ice Cube of Exotic Microbes
Antarctic Microbes Colonize under Mars-like Conditions
Cryobot (JPL)
Meteorite Repository (JSC) Rock Descriptions
NIPR Meteorite Collection (Japan)