After four flights and over 28 hours of travelling I finally landed in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s spring in the southern hemisphere and lovely, with vibrant leaves and birdsong. The next morning, we assembled at the Clothing Distribution Center (aka CDC) for a welcome briefing and our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear issue. The standard ECW set includes everything you need to work and survive in the Antarctic climate – the enormous Big Red, insulated carhartt bibs and jacket, fleece long underwear, hats, goggles, mittens, gaiters, gloves, socks, and boots – either the Bunny, or Mickey Mouse, boots or the blue FDX boots. While Bunny boots are the classic white USAP footwear, they’re rubber and don’t breathe. FDX boots are a bit warmer and are leather/cloth so they breathe, but the soles are very thick (part of why they’re so warm) and there’s no ankle support so can be treacherous at times.
A lot of it is personal choice. I generally bring my own long underwear (of varying thickness), my extra warm fleece neck gaiter which I’ve modified with chest/back flaps to protect against zipper and neck drafts, a thin gaiter more for sun and wind protection than cold, a knit wool hat with a fleece lining, a ball cap for sun, liner gloves, thick expedition weight socks, liner socks etc…
This season I’ll be heading out to Pine Island Glacier, near the coast in far West Antarctica (75°45’S 100°16’W and approx. 850m elevation), as part of the 4 person “WAS Recovery team.” It will be cold early in the season, but will become downright warm by Christmas and New Years – we’ve been told to anticipate heavy wet snow and even the possibility of rain! So I made sure to get good rain/wind pants and a “little Red” jacket that is more of a shell than parka.
After getting our ECW and going through a few introductory briefs we were given our mandatory flu shots then had the rest of the afternoon to enjoy Christchurch and the botanic gardens.
On November 3rd we flew to McMurdo aboard a US Air Force C-17. The whole West Antarctic family is here now: WAIS Divide, the PIG Traverse, WISSARD, Siple, and now the WAS Recovery Crew. A week or two is needed in town for training, to finalize cargo lists and put-in plans, and to round up all the gear and material needed for the season. A lot of these camps have been used season after season and most of their supplies were left overwinter on the berm. Our team is a bit different; while PIG was a large camp in 2012-13, this year we won’t be setting up the buildings or supporting any science. Our goal is just to recover the material.
As soon as WAIS gets established we’ll fly out there on an LC-130, spend a night or two then load up a Twin Otter and fly to PIG, set up a few mountain tents and get to work excavating the berm. While there are a lot of supplies buried out there most of them are useless to us, our outfit is pretty bare bones. Without a skiway the planes can’t take in much cargo. We’ll be living in small mountain tents with one larger heated yurt-like tent. We’ll have no running water or showers, and will be cooking and melting water on camp stoves. There’ll be no internet or fresh food either.
Our main focus this week in McMurdo has been to decide what to bring with us: how much food, what cargo, and which flight it will go on. We’re planning for two planes. The initial “put-in” flight will bring in our survival gear and us. The cargo list for this flight includes our tents, survival bags, sleep kits, stoves and some fuel, a basic medical kit, comms equipment (satellite phone, HF and VHF radios), our Personal Locator Beacon (PLB for emergency use), a human waste bucket, a water jug, and our shovels. The second plane will bring spare parts, fluid and fuel for the vehicles out there, more food and tools such as a heater to warm up and melt out equipment.
Of all the cargo, our shovels may be used most. We’ll need shovels to knock down sastrugi to clear spaces for our tents, to dig out equipment so we can dig out the pallets, to clear drifts created by the wind, to mine snow for water. We’ll be shoveling every day. Professional D-1 Operators.
“So what kind of shovels should we bring?” Our team lead asked. Immediately all four of us agreed: short shovels with square blades and D handles. We’ll bring a long handled one as an extra. Then we all laughed shaking our heads…not only do we know the types of shovels, but we didn’t have to think about which type we like best for shoveling this kind of snow! Is that a good thing….or have we been doing this too long?
The long ones are great for deep pits, or for tall people. The rounded blades that come to a bit of a point are good for dirt and rocks…but for snow I prefer the short handled small square blades – It’s short enough to wield without knocking into things, the small blade is sturdier and less likely to crack while trying to pry out chunks of hard snow, the flat edge cuts clean blocks, which is most efficient. You can also carve smooth walls and scrape flat surfaces, and if you need a point you can use the corner. Maybe I have shoveled too much…
We were originally scheduled to fly out to WAIS Divide on the 15th, but there have been significant weather and mechanical delays so this date may well get pushed back.