Odell Glacier

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February 15th 2008
Published: February 17th 2008
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Carp Shop Foreman: "Hey Betty, have you been to a field camp in a while?"
Me: “Not since Granite Harbor and AGAP.”
Said Foreman: “Hmmm, we’ll have to see about that.”

I HAD noticed that most of my coworkers had been venturing out a lot more frequently than me, but I assumed it was due to skill and seniority and didn't think much of it. The following day, I was summoned into the office and told that I would be tasked on an Environmental Remediation trip (right up my alley!) to Odell Glacier along with another Carp, two people from the environmental department, a mechanic and a camp manager. We were scheduled to be away from McMurdo for five days, during which time we were to dismantle the field camp and package it up to be flown out. Odell Glacier (aka Oh-Well Glacier), I learned, had been staffed all summer by two people during the austral summers of 03-04, 04-05, and 05-06 as a precautionary back-up landing site for the military aircraft that fly from Christchurch to McMurdo and the South Pole, should they ever be unable to land at the normal runways. Therefore, these two people lived at this secluded little hut for four months, grooming the skiway with a small Kubota tractor, reporting weather and maintaining comms (communication) IN CASE an aircraft should ever have to be diverted there. Long story short, since the original camp put-in, the Air Force has definitively decided that it will NEVER EVER land another aircraft in the area because it is all bumpy, crater-filled blue ice, always very windy there, and the camp is situated about two miles UP GLACIER from the skyway in a slightly-buffered "bowl" of ice (not ideal as an emergency go-to). As such, the camp became obsolete last year. Instead of just leaving it there for the Antarctic forces to claim, it was decided that we would perform an Environmental Remediation to remove the camp completely. Oh-Well Glacier indeed!

We packed our carpentry tools, ice chipping apparatuses, tents, sleep-kits and some warm personal belongings and checked them all into the science cargo "system" a few days prior to flying. Then, we waited. And waited. Flights in Antarctica rarely leave the day they're scheduled for because of the crazy weather that we have all come to respect and work with. After three days, we finally learned that we had a 5:45PM departure scheduled from Willy Airfield, where we boarded a Twin Otter aircraft for the 55 minute flight up the coast, over the Dry Valleys, to the Odell Glacier. By this time they had already done two flights to carry all of our gear to the location, and the PAX (that's people, in aircraft speak) were manifested (planned) for the third flight of the day. Each load can carry 5000 lbs, so you can do the math about how much gear six people need to bring into the field to be self-sufficient for a week.

After an INCREDIBLE flight over stunning snow-whipped mountain ranges, we landed on the ice with a thud-thud-thud as the skis scraped the uneven surface. The glare was intense (we were on a glacier!), the wind was strong, and we all strapped on Stabilicers (metal-studded soles with Velcro straps) to the bottom of our FDX super-warm blue boots in preparation for the terrain. I barely had time to take in the scenery before we grabbed bags, loaded them on the skidoo (snowmobile) and Nansen sled, and started walking (well, slipping) up the glacier to meet the skidoo at the hut to begin to establish camp. After about 45 minutes of laborious trudging (we were at 5200 ft of altitude), the skidoo came flying past and offered us a ride. We gladly hopped on and finally reached the fabled hut about a half hour later. That evening we shuttled all of our necessary food and supplies up to the camp via skidoo, set up all six of our personal tents, the Arctic Oven kitchen tent and the Scott Tent (poo tent) on the ice using ice screws, bamboo poles, and V-loops (see Sea Ice training blog)… and finished at around 2:00AM. Food… clothing…shelter… water (melted snow)… how time consuming Antarctic survival can be!

The next day we slept in a little and then began to survey the camp. We had seen photos and read end-of-season reports, but none of us had any idea of the conditions we were facing. It turns out that the winds had scoured out a huge 4 foot deep crater around the hut, dislodging the tie-down anchors (they were swinging in the wind on their metal cables when we arrived) and even freeing the rear timber supports so that they bobbled freely in the breeze. There was nothing safe about the condition of the hut and taking it down (especially given the weather conditions) wasn’t going to be an easy task.

Since we were staying within an ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) due to our proximity to the famed Dry Valleys (see Dry Valley blog), we were not allowed to leave ANY trace of human activity after we had departed. This meant that we peed into pee bottles (Nalgene bottles labeled with an undeniable “P”… accomplished with the help of a “Lady Jane” pee funnel, for all you ladies out there) and emptied them into a “U Barrel” (grey water and urine), pooed into a plastic bag lined bucket (to be transported back to McMurdo with us) inside the triangular Scott Tent and meticulously gathered every wood splinter and screw that we removed from the hut. Since we were also shoveling snow to melt for water and collecting (and sorting, as always) all of our garbage, we could really watch what went in and out of our bodies each day of the adventure. Yummm…

The first three days were consumed entirely with stripping the hut to its bare-bones state. Each day we seemed to remove pounds and pounds of screws (65 lbs in all for a 10’x 10’ hut!), yet at the end of the day it appeared untouched. We started with the blue exterior trim, removed the green plywood sheathing that covered all sides, and finally began to remove the windows. Inside, we took apart shelving units, a ladder, and removed the boxes of human feces. We boxed up all of the old food that had been left for the past few years (and snagged some, like the double-stuff Oreos, for our own consuming pleasure), took down all of the posters and maps from the walls (and fought it out over who got to keep what), wrapped up the personal effects that had been abandoned over the past 3 seasons and carefully dismantled the solar power collection system that included four very heavy batteries, an inverter and many solar panels mounted to the exterior surfaces. Some of the highlights found in the hut included a Meteorite Collection Kit, clever cartoons, a homemade backgammon board, an “Odell Curling Team” poster, and some hockey sticks and pucks. Ah, living off-the-grid on a “what if” glacier in Antarctica must have been chock full of free time and ice humor.

Finally, on Day 4, we were ready to take apart the very heavy SIP (structurally insulated panels) structure, starting with the roof. The question lingered… where to begin?!? Since neither of us had actually built the thing (and the clever carpenter from years past was probably basking on a beach somewhere will all the institutional memory about its construction), we were left to the trial-and-error approach- not such a good strategy when battling 35 mph winds on a 12’ high ladder balanced precariously on bumpy ice. Unfortunately, on Day 4, the weather was not on our side. Whereas we had had fairly clear skies and moderate winds up until this point, I had had a fitful night of sleep the evening prior as I listened to my rear vestibule FLAP FLAP against my head in my tent all night long until I finally took drastic measures and flipped around so the winds were pounding at my feet instead. So, we puttered around all morning, tiding up our debris and watching the clouds move across the open sky. Finally, around noon, the winds subsided slightly, the rest of our crew skidooed down to the skyway to organize the boxes of dehydrated food and supplies left there, and the other carp and I were free to tackle the problematic (and very heavy) roof. We began by removing the small triangle above the door, then collapsed each roof panel onto the interior loft platform (that we had left intact for the purpose), and finally lowered it down to the ground via strong backs and carefully-calculated angles. As the photo shows, seeing the light of day through the top of the hut was a very momentous occasion! When our fellow campers returned and we had all chowed down on a hearty dinner, we re-donned the tool belts and collapsed the remaining four walls well into the “night” before popping a few Motrins and curling up in our respective sleeping bags with fingers curled around hand warmers and toes around our water and P bottles (to keep them from freezing).

With the hut dismantled, all that remained for us to do was take apart the floor and stack it all up in “Christmas Package” piles (each under 1500 lbs) to be sling-loaded off of the glacier by helicopters early next season. With only a small scale and our four arms to carry the panels, this became an all-day affair as we fit awkward pieces together to make rectangular-ish piles that fell under weight and were aerodynamic enough to be whisked through space 15’ or 30’ below a helicopter. As you can see in the photo, my fellow carp and I were sure to “approximate” the weights at 1012#, 1125# and 1071# respectively, before V-looping the stacks down to the ice and bunking down after another long day of work.

The entire trip was not all laborious, however. When you’re living in an ice bowl it becomes quite tempting to run up the sides of said ice and “fall” such that you slide on your padded-overall-backside at un-navigable speeds until you hit a patch of snow, rocks or even the crater remaining from the hut. Yes, I speak from experience. While sliding down again and again was lots of fun, I had to stupidly suggest a race and thus badly bruised my thumb on a rock and thereafter sported a classy duct tape “cast” on my joint for the subsequent two weeks of my life. This did not stop us, however, and when we learned that our trip was to be extended by at least one day (due to bad weather in McMurdo), we immediately planned a hike to the “Enchanted Forest” that the camp manual bragged about. Armed with a single GPS waypoint and the promise of a 30’ petrified wood log, four of us (the 2 enviros and 2 carps) set out up the glacier, over a few mountains, and into the unknown. Luckily one of the enviros was a geologist by training because we came across some of the craziest rocks and outcroppings that I have ever seen in my life! About two hours of hiking “that way” later, we cleared a ridge and a huge vista opened up- sandstone stretched out in a beach-like formation all the way down to the “water” (now frozen) and as we inspected the ground, petrified wood was strewn everywhere! Surveying the terrain, it was not too difficult to imagine the Antarctic landscape during the Mesozoic era (250-65 million years ago) when Antarctica was part of Gondwana (the super-continent) and the climate was warm enough to support a coniferous forest full of dinosaurs…

The final day we were pretty exhausted from our four mile hike but we had an extra cup of “cowboy coffee” and mustered some “we’re going home!” strength. We packed up all of our belongings and tents in a carefully-orchestrated pattern such that we would not be stuck at either the camp or skiway without “survival bags” of the essential gear we would need if suddenly stricken with bad weather. As we packed things up in descending order of importance (extra supplies, extra food, Scott Tent poo tent, Arctic Oven kitchen tent, personal tents, etc) and shuttled them down the glacier, we made final surveys of our work and spoke with the airplane pilots via satellite phone about the order of the pull-out. Should we go first and leave them to load our gear later on? Or should our gear go first, leaving us with the bare minimum for survival if the plane should not be able to return? After much deliberation, it was decided that plane #1 would be gear, #2 would be some of us with gear, and #3 would be the final PAX and survival bags. By the time plane #2 landed, however, we were all standing on the skyway ready to go and typically indecisive about whom should be the ones to go and who would stay behind. Finally, the pilots settled the score with “why don’t we just take all of you now, and a few can return with us on the next flight to help load up the plane.” It sounded sensible enough, although their next words, “it’ll be a beautiful ride until the last 15 minutes or so heading into McMurdo” should have rung clearer.

A beautiful ride back over the Trans-Antarctic Mountains it was, until we came out onto the sea ice and felt them drop our altitude due to the very low cloud “ceiling” hanging over the Ross Ice Shelf. We flew along just a few hundred feet above the ice floating in the shipping channel (broken up just the week before by the Oden icebreaker) and when we finally reached McMurdo I could just about taste my stomach contents as we swayed back-and-forth and up-and-down like a feather in the wind. We circled Ob Hill (elevation 650 ft) about half way up and when we finally touched down at Willy Field we could barely tell which way was down due to blowing snow and a low cloud cover- every direction was white white white. The entire runway was at a standstill and just as I was chanting “please don’t pick me to go back and load more gear!” silently to myself, we were promptly informed that Willy Field was now closed for the day and no more flights would be passing in or out. Phew!

Although we didn’t get our gear back for another few days, this gave me plenty of time to take some looong, warm showers, enjoy my bed that was already warm before I even jumped inside, and appreciate the soggy frozen veggies we are served (at least they weren’t dehydrated!) for dinner that evening. Although it was an incredible week of camping on a glacier, meeting new friends, working into the wee hours of the “night” and sleeping “late” the next day (all time here is relatively speaking), remembering how to cook on a Coleman stove and making Antarctica just a little less-American (trash-wise), I truly learned Dorothy’s lesson that “there’s no place like home” and realized that although humans can subsist self-supported on a glacier for days on end, there is so much more to life when the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and water are provided for us in abundance and we are free to spend our waking hours engaging in other activities, as is the case here in McMurdo. I have now had the “true” Antarctic experience and can enjoy life in the cushy dorms, guilt-free!

Antarctica is the best place in the world to find meteorites, especially in locations of blue ice. This is not because more meteorites fall here, but because meteorites are preserved (frozen) and easy to find (large dark objects on a flat blue/white background). Blue ice occurs when there is no net addition or subtraction of snow because any that falls is counteracted by sublimation and all trapped air bubbles are squeezed out from the compression of the glacier. It’s incredibly beautiful and slippery!

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