Category Archives: Flights

Akureyri to Summit

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It’s that time of year again…I am back at Summit Station for another winter season. The past couple months have been a nice break during which I explored Southwestern Greenland (see my previous few posts) and enjoyed early fall back in Colorado. This year there are just four of us here for the winter from mid-October thru February 2018; A skeleton crew of a manager, mechanic, and two science technicians to maintain the station and support a few instruments and scientific projects.

In September the NY Air National Guard and their LC-130 ski-equipped Hercules aircraft left Greenland to return to New York. The planes require a thorough once over before heading southward to support the United States Antarctic Program based out of Christchurch, New Zealand. So deploying to Summit in October is an entirely different story. In the summer season (Apr-Aug) we travel to Schenectady, NY where we board the Hercs and fly to Kangerlussuaq, and then onward to Summit. During the rest of the year we fly to Reykjavik, Iceland then to Akureyri, Iceland. In Akureyri we spend a day or so ensuring all our cargo is in place and reviewing our plans for our arrival.

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Boarding the Twin Otter in Akureyri, Iceland

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Akureyri Church

From there we board a Norlandair Twin Otter and fly to Summit Station, stopping at Constable Point near Ittoqqortoormiit to refuel. This is a long day of flying however, and foul weather in any part of the flight path can delay or cancel the flight. This time around we were delayed 4 days in Akureyri. While this is frustrating for the outbound Summit crew it allowed us to enjoy the beautiful northern town, enjoying fresh baked goods and coffee at cafes, soaking in the hot pools, and exploring Northern Iceland.

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Historically we have chartered two flights to allow for a week or so of “turnover” – one flight from Akureyri to Summit to bring in the new crew, and another flight a few days later to bring out the old crew. This year was a little different. With experienced and returning crew members, as well as reduced budgets, we only had a single flight. Four of us flew in with our luggage, a little cargo, and a few crates of “freshies” and the four on station flew out on the same plane. Flying from sea level to 10,500ft we were highly aware of the risks associated with altitude illness and eased into our rounds and routines. Thankfully we were lucky and everything has gone fairly smoothly. We are now settling in and getting up to speed preparing for the long, cold, and dark winter ahead.

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The past two years I have been here for the autumn season, seeing the daylight hours gradually shorten and the darkness grow. This year, arriving in October, it’s almost startling to see how dark it is at night already! We still have a few hours of daylight with the sun rising at 830am and setting at 4pm, and we have seen a few auroras! Hopefully much more to come…

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High Five Turnover!

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Auroras over the Big House

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Arctic Adventures

Part III: Southern Greenland

After three days and two nights aboard the ferry we arrived at Narsaq in Southern Greenland. I disembarked, waded through the throng of people gathered to meet the ferry and headed for the edge of town. It was late and getting dark already. In Greenland one may own a house, but there are no personal claims to the land itself. Some of the larger or more touristy towns such as Nuuk, Sisimiut, Illulisat, and Narsarsuaq have designated camping areas. Obviously, it’s not polite or wise to set up a tent right next to a house, but just outside of town is perfectly acceptable.

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Glaciers in the fog

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Greenlandic horse

I spent a few days in Narsaq, joining up with two Danish girls to hike up towards the glacier, but it rained all day and soon we were in the clouds. The rest of my time was spent exploring the quiet shore, admiring the wildflowers, and walking around town. August is blueberry season and there were lots of them all around. Birds chirped and seals swam in the ocean. I spent hours watching the immense icebergs that filled the bay – catching one just as a large chunk broke off under water! It splashed and bobbed to the surface, sending waves radiating around the inlet.
Once a boat came careening around a point, skipping along the water. It slowed just in time to ride it’s wake to the shore. A man jumped out followed by another, they crouched next to some rocks and started firing their rifles at the water – as far as I could tell they were trying to shoot each other’s splashes, or maybe small pieces of ice…firing as many rounds as possible in about 5min. Then they jumped back into the boat and sped back to town. Target practice? Using up old bullets? Testing hunting equipment?

 

After a few days in Narsaq I continued South to Qaqortoq. Boarding the small ferry I noticed I was the only tourists – just myself, a young very pregnant woman with her partner headed to the regional hospital to give birth, and a teenage boy.

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Qaqortoq is a much bigger town than Narsaq. There are several grocery stores, a cafe, and well defined trails around the hills. Homes and apartment buildings spread across a low area between and two hills, the sea, and back to a lake. There are few good spots to camp. Standing by the closed Tourist Information center I noticed another traveler I had met in Narsaq walking along the road towards me. He stopped to say hello and mentioned that he was doing a tour to the Hvalsey Church ruins in a few minutes. With no other plans and the information center and museums closed for Sunday I decided to tag along. Luckily there was space aboard the little boat and the captain tossed my big pack in the back. There were several Danish folks as well.170812_Greenland_214.jpg

The ruins were amazing. Most of the Norse ruins I had seen until this point were simply mounds of dirt or piles of stones. Hvalsey Church however, stands 56ft long and 26ft wide with four standing stone walls. The masonry is remarkable with open window and door frames. The church is one of the best preserved Norse ruins in Greenland and is also the site of the last written record of the Greenland Norse – a wedding in September 1408. It was built on the farm and ruins of other buildings dot the surrounding area.

After exploring Hvalsey Church we stopped at a Danish experimental farm along the Eastern shore of the fjord. Vegetables grew in rows outside with greenhouses sheltering tomato plants and other less hardy species. Beyond the vegetables evergreen tress grew in clumps fenced off from the sheep that wandered the hills.

Back in Qaqortoq I hiked around the surrounding hills. In town I visited the Great Greenland Fur House which prepares seal skin products, as well as caribou skin, arctic fox, arctic hare, and the odd Polar Bear skin. Interesting.

At last it was time to continue on to my final stop: Narsarsuaq. The main hub in Southern Greenland, with an international airport offering flights to Iceland and Denmark. Narsarsuaq is also served by Disko Line ferries who run several trips each day between Narsarsuaq and Qaqortoq via small boat and helicopter. Obviously I chose the helicopter option ☺
When I arrived at the Qaqortoq heliport early on the morning of my flight it was cold and damp with thick fog reducing visibility to nearly zero. Our 7am flight was cancelled. The woman working at the desk informed the handful of passengers booked for the morning helo that we would be moved to a boat leaving in about an hour. I waited until the rest of the passengers had left before asked if there was any room on the noon helicopter. She assured me that the boat was very fast and safe and seemed confused when I said I really just wanted to fly on a helicopter…it’s a very common way of transportation in Southern Greenland. She smiled though and made a few calls, securing a seat on the next flight!

A few hours later I returned to the heliport and this time the helicopter arrived, refueled, and we were led out to board. No ID checks, no safety briefings, no security, just pick a seat. Moments later we were airborne! The other 5 passengers were Greenlanders or Danes heading back to catch their flights home. It was routine, a commute for them. I had two side-facing seats to myself and spent the 25min flight snapping photographs out the window, admiring the views of mountains, icebergs, and crystal clear waters. It was awesome. After landing in Narsarsuaq however, I discovered that my backpack had been forgotten at the heliport in Qaqortoq and was never put on the helo. This seemed to be a somewhat common occurrence and the Disko Line representative made some calls and arranged for a bunk for me at the hostel as my pack held my tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. The next chance to get my pack would be the following day when a small boat was scheduled to make a run from Qaqortoq to Narsarsuaq. With nothing else to do, I hiked up to the glacier near Narsarsuaq. It was a beautiful walk, not terribly difficult except for a long scramble up a sheer rock wall – there were ropes installed in places. The glacier was huge and beautiful and wildflowers bloomed along the valleys leading to it.

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Narsarsuaq Glacier

I was originally planning on just one day in Narsarsuaq, but the next day our Air Greenland flight to Nuuk was delayed 11 hours due to weather in Nuuk. So I bought a ticket across the channel to visit the ruins of Bratthild and the statue of Leif Erikson. It was a lovely day and I hiked around a bit then settled along the shore of the fjord to eat lunch before boarding the boat back to Narsarsuaq.

At long last the Air Greenland Dash 8 arrived at the terminal and we boarded the plane. Taking off out of Narsarsuaq we headed Northwest towards Nuuk flying over some of the most phenomenal terrain; Monstrous glaciers flowed from the icecap pulling medial moraines towards the fjords. Jagged ridges of rock stood above the ice casting long shadows. Even the Greenlanders and Danes leaned towards the windows remarking on the beauty and taking photographs.

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Air Greenland Dash 8

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Glaciers of Southern Greenland

Soon clouds closed over the land below. As we descended into Nuuk the small plane was buffeted by heavy gusts and rain skidded across the tarmac. Pulling hoods tight against the wind we raced from the plane to the terminal. Inside we discovered our flight to Kangerlussuaq had been delayed due to the weather until the following day. Air Greenland had booked us at the Seaman’s Home and instructed me to share a taxi with a young Greenlandic woman. At the hotel we discovered they were overbooked and so the young Greenlandic woman and I were put in the same room as well. After nearly a month camping and staying in cheap hostels the hot shower, soft bed, and breakfast buffet were welcome!

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Nuuk, capital of Greenland!

The next day we waited at the airport as flights were again delayed one after the other. Finally we were a go and we pushed against the rain and wind as we walked from the terminal. Aboard the small plane the stewardess smiled as the plane shifted and rocked abruptly with the forceful wind. Thankfully the air calmed as soon as we were off deck and above the clouds. And I was on my way back to Kangerlussuaq.

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Arktisk Kommando

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A dramatic Kangerlussuaq Fjord

 

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Summer Ice

After a much-needed break and some good adventures abroad I’m back in the Arctic on the Greenland ice sheet at Summit Station. This time I’m here for just over a month filling the gap between two other managers.

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Welcome to Summit Station! Roughly 10,550ft above sea level.

It’s summer here and compared to winter it is literally night and day. On May 6, after a short “night” of just 30min the sun rose above the horizon for the last time. It won’t set until August 7th when it will dip below the horizon at 12:04am and rise again at 1:16am. For now it just appears to circle around us in the sky. We’re at 72° North so the sun is higher at noon than at midnight (40° vs 5°), but still above the horizon. The 24/7 sun reflects off the white snow so sunburn and snow blindness are serious concerns. We have large bottles of sunscreen around station, but there are some impressive “goggle tans.” (More sunrise/sunset data for Summit Station can be found at this site: www.timeanddate.com/summit)

The light can affect sleep too and people often suffer from insomnia – you wake up at 2am and see the sun high in the sky…it’s hard to go back to sleep. Sleeping inside a building is a bit easier with window shades, but even these are sometimes augmented with cardboard and tape to block out as much light as possible. In tents it’s harder, sometimes just a hat pulled low is enough, or a neck gaiter pulled over the eyes…everyone has their own system.

The sun warms things up too. Summer temperatures typically range between -10F and 10F. Compared to the -40F to -70F in winter this is nearly t-shirt weather! On calm sunny days it’s not uncommon to see piles of jackets near crews shoveling. It’s tempting to play games outside on a nice evening, but it’s still cold enough for bocce or whiffle balls to crack upon impact…

Aside from the sunlight the biggest difference between summer and winter is station population. In the winter we have a skeleton crew of just four or five to keep the year-round science projects running: the station manager, two or three science technicians, and a mechanic.

In contrast, this summer we’ll peak at 54 people! In addition to researchers and students we have the station crew of the manager, two or three science technicians, a mechanic, a heavy equipment operator, a cargo person, a cook, a medic, and a field coordinator. Then there are temporary carpenter (carp) crews who come up to do maintenance, repairs, and replacements of buildings and general infrastructure.

To accommodate numerous science groups with short field campaigns as well as general station resupply and retro we coordinate with the NY Air National Guard. Flights in the winter months are limited by temperature and necessity to a few small Twin Otter propeller planes in October and February. Between April and August on the other hand, we have 6 scheduled flight periods with multiple LC-130 Hercules flights. These big military cargo planes bring in fuel (AN8), cargo, and passengers (pax). We might get 30-40 flights in a summer season. Between flight periods it’s relatively calm around station. We build up retro cargo for the next flight period, support whatever researchers are here for longer periods of time, and dig into some of the more involved projects around station. During flight periods things can get a bit hectic. Somehow flight days just make all this seem more real – I wrote about flight periods and what goes into supporting a “herc on deck” here: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/flight-period-4

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The view from the cockpit of an LC-130 flying over the ice sheet

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Summit fuel pits

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End of Winter

So I’m a bit late on this one – It’s been a bit hectic since I’ve been back! 🙂 The spring crew arrived as scheduled on Feb 16, 2017 and our population jumped from 5 to 13. We were pretty toasty and were pretty excited to see new faces. There were a number of returning staff members and turnover training went smoothly and well.

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Team Science!

Unfortunately, just as we were wrapping up and getting prepped for our flight out the weather closed in. A significant storm locked us down for 4 days, delaying our flight back to Iceland. We all kept busy digging out the new drifting, trying to keep our windows open (as they’re our escape hatches), and training up the new crew.

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Window wells capped with thin snow blocks glow from indoor lights

Eventually the weather broke and the two Twin Otters arrived. We loaded up the planes and headed Southeast towards Iceland. I’d been at Summit from August – February, nearly 7 months overall, in roughly 1 square mile. At the end of a deployment, especially a long one, it’s strange to climb into an aircraft and take off…to see the station that has been our whole world shrink to just a speck on the ice. It’s humbling and a little disquieting, though the rest of the world awaits.

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The East coast of Greenland is absolutely amazing. It is some of the most rugged, isolated, and beautiful terrain I’ve ever seen. Shear walls drop from high peaks to deep valleys while glaciers push over mountain passes and to the sea. There is little human habitation here – just a few settlements on the coast. This is polar bear country.

The sun sank below the mountains just as we left Greenland heading out over the ocean. As darkness fell we noticed auroras in the sky around us. A farewell treat as we headed back to civilization and lower latitudes.

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Sunset over Eastern Greenland

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Auroras, Venus, and the Moon

 

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Farewell Reykjavik, Iceland

 

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Winter

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After 4 days of weather delays the final turnover flight made it to Summit on November first. We unloaded several hundred pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and various other resupply items then refueled the plane and loaded it up again with bags and passengers. The fall crew had finished their tour of duty and were heading home at last. The rest of the afternoon here on station was mostly spent settling into winter rooms and unpacking the fresh food and supplies.

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Freshies!

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The walk in refrigerator, aka “freshie shack,” stocked up for winter with fruits, vegetables, and dairy. It is cooled with outside air and warmed with heat reclaimed from the generators (a little electric heater on the far wall augments heating when temps get super cold)

Fresh food, aka “freshies”, is a big deal in the polar programs. A few stations (such as the South Pole) have green houses and are able to grow some fresh food, but most stations do not have such facilities. As with everything else, freshies must be shipped in from elsewhere. For McMurdo and field camps these come from New Zealand. Here in Greenland it depends on the season – in the summer (Apr-Aug) we get supplies via LC-130s with the NY Air National Guard out of New York state, so food and cargo can be shipped directly from the US. In the winter the hercs are deployed to Antarctica and so for the few crew turnover flights (Oct and Feb) we rely on chartered Twin Otters from Iceland.
Even a few minutes’ exposure to extremely cold temperatures will blacken banana skins and wilt lettuce so freshies from Iceland are sent up in styrofoam boxes to prevent freezing while being transported to and from the plane. We won’t get any flights until February so the freshies we get at the Oct turnover are it – We have to make them last as long as possible. Lettuce goes the fastest and there isn’t much we can do to preserve it so we try to eat that first. Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, beets, onions, and squash can last for months and can also be frozen. Even apples, bananas, and oranges will last weeks to months before we are forced to freeze them.

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Earth’s shadow to the North

Now that turnover is complete the station is relatively calm and quiet. We are stocked up with food and fuel and are looking good for the months ahead. Winter is a drawn out marathon compared to the frenetic summer season – there’s less overall to do, but everything takes longer. We won’t get another plane until late February 2017 so it’s just a matter of keeping ourselves alive, the station functioning, and our year-round scientific instruments, such as NOAA’s observatory and ICECAPS, in working order.

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An almost noon sun behind the Big House

It is now officially winter and it’s starting to feel like it. Today the sun rose at 9:13am and will set at 1:20pm, tomorrow it will be 9:22am and 1:12pm…the last sunrise will be on November 14th (www.timeanddate.com/summit). Temperatures are variable, but they are dropping lower and lower. Current conditions here are publicly available at: summitcamp.org/weather. On Thurs evening we reached a new low this season of -52F and with the cold and the dark come auroras!

Welcome to Winter!

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Fall-Winter Turnover

Schedule a plane and you’ll get a storm…or so it seems more often than not!

Our first flight since mid-August was scheduled for Thursday Oct. 20th, but it was delayed a day due to extremely high winds Wednesday evening and into Thursday. We were hunkered down in Con 1 here (see last post) and made the best of it. On Friday morning I woke early to start weather obs. Because we are not an official airport the station supervisor is required to provide current weather observations in METAR form starting 3 hours prior to take off. The flight was scheduled to take off from Akureyri, Iceland at 9am which meant with the 2-hour time change I had to get up at 3:30am to start obs. We only have a handful of flights so that’s fine with me. Thankfully the winds calmed down significantly and the weather looked good. The obs only take 10 minutes or so every hour so I had plenty of time to make a big breakfast for everyone.

Here are a few sample obs:

M BGSM 200750Z 15006KT 9999 FEW100 M27/M30 2992 RMK CLDS DSNT HGT EST SDG/HDG (a beautiful day with 6kn winds, clear horizon, a few clouds at 10,000ft and -27C)

M BGSM 201150Z 150T31KT 0100 -SN BLSN VV003 M22/M24 A2865 RMK 8sc SDN/HDN (a less beautiful day with 30kn winds, 100ft visibility with falling snow and blowing snow, socked in with only 100ft visible vertically, -22C, and no surface or horizon visible)

In the summer we use LC-130 Hercs – big lumbering beasts that can haul thousands of pounds of cargo and dozens of passengers. In the winter however (Sep-Apr in Greenland), the ski equipped Hercs are put to work down in Antarctica and we rely on Twin Otter planes. They are much smaller than hercs, but they can take off and land without much of a skiway and have no temperature limitations. We use them often in the deep field of Antarctica as they do not need a skiway to land.

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On Oct 21st the Twin Otter took off on time and we got everything here ready – fuel tanks were pre-warmed and staged, the skiway was tracked and the flags cleared of frost, baggage/cargo going out had final weights taken and was staged in the SOB, and I switched on our air to ground radios. The Twin Otter stopped at Constable Pynt (Nerlerit Innat in Greenlandic) on the coast of Greenland to refuel and I got a note from the airport there that they were on their way!

When they were about 15min out I got a call on the radio from the plane asking for current weather conditions, confirming outgoing weights, and requesting fuel. We were ready and waiting with the fuel tanks and snowmobiles with sleds at the flight line. The 6 incoming passengers had just arrived from sea level and would not be used to the 10,500ft elevation or the cold. An hour later the incoming passengers were settling into the Big House and the plane was fueled, loaded,

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Training the new science techs

and on its way back to Iceland.

 

The past week has been a whirlwind of training and turning over duties to the new crew. Half of the incoming winter crew has been here in past seasons so that helps tremendously. The other two have a lot to learn, but they have both worked down in Antarctica so they have a good idea of what to expect and are almost fully up to speed. The new energy and enthusiasm is revitalizing.

 

The second flight of turnover was scheduled for October 28th. Unfortunately, while weather here at Summit has been decent, weather in between Iceland and Greenland has been poor and they have cancelled 4 days in a row now. Weather delays like this are not uncommon, but it’s never easy on morale especially with those pax due to leave. This flight is the last one until crew turnover in February. It’s bringing in fresh food and a few resupply items for the winter season and will take out the

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remaining fall crew. Everyone except me is leaving – I’m here through February.

While I don’t have to do any turnover myself I do have to do weather obs until the flight gets here. Now that daylight savings has ended in Greenland I have to get up at 2:30am to start obs…

The Green House looking intense at night

The Green House looking intense at night

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Early dawn and a partial moon at 7am in late October. The structures are the MSF and 50m tower.

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Ice to Ice

Phase II has come to an end. It was a great season and an especially interesting experience with both summer and winter operations. The new crew arrived right on schedule on October 8th via two Twin Otters from Akureyri, Iceland. The following week was a whirlwind of turnover with the new crew: training them on equipment and procedures, reviewing protocols and paperwork, getting them accustomed to the 10,550ft elevation and -30F temperatures and helping them get settled in with all the various idiosyncrasies that make up Summit Station.

On October 16th we officially handed over the reins. Two Twin Otters were scheduled to land just after noon, but the day had dawned with 20-25 knot winds and a fair bit of blowing snow in the air. Visibility was below their minimums with a worsening forecast. Still, the weather in Akureyri, Iceland and in East Greenland was clear and beautiful and they were going to try. As the day progressed we continued to submit hourly weather reports – the Phase III manager doing the observations. I stood by to answer any questions and assist with preparations for the flight. They had off-decked that morning on time, so while we were mentally prepared for them to cancel we also had to be ready to go. As their ETA drew closer the visibility stayed between 300-400 meters. The SOB was barely visible from the Big House.
The first Twin Otter called on the Air to Ground radio when they were about 15 minutes out asking for a current weather observation and confirming that they would attempt a landing. They could see the skiway markers, it was a localized storm, only a couple hundred meters high, and the wind was coming straight down the skiway. The mechanics pulled the loader and fuel tanks out to the taxiway, turning all their lights on to increase visibility, and the science techs readied their snowmobiles to transport freshies to the Big House and pax bags to the plane. We held our breaths and strained to see the plane in the whiteout as they reported over the radio that they had landed safely…”Norlandair 4 is on deck…but, we’re having a hard time seeing the flags, would it be possible to get a snowmobile escort to the fuel pits?” We escorted them in, began fueling, and unloaded the fresh food for Phase III. The pilots were unfazed and friendly. The second plane landed a few moments later without issue.

The first plane fueling with blue sky above

The first plane fueling with blue sky above

Norlandair!

Norlandair!

When we deployed in June 2015 we flew commercially to Scotia, NY where we boarded Air National Guard LC-130 Hercules planes and flew north to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland via Goose Bay, Canada. After a few days in Kanger we continued onwards up to Summit still on the Hercs. Redeploying now in October the LC-130s have flown South leaving Greenland for a period of maintenance before beginning the main summer season in Antarctica. Travelling to and from Summit then is done via Twin Otter – flying East with a quick stop in Constable Pynt on the rugged and isolated coast to refuel and Southward to Akureyri, Iceland.

I’ve never been East of Summit in Greenland and at first it’s the same flat white. The storm is indeed localized, not 15 minutes away the clouds clear and the sastrugi glitters in the sunlight as we cruise above.

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Fair weather just away from Summit

But then darkness appears on the horizon: mountains. Undulations form on the surface and a slope becomes apparent. I can see the ice flowing together and pulling apart, forming a more defined glacier – crevasses gape, indicating an increase in veloIMG_2677city. There’s no scale to show how huge they are. A nunatak appears, the tip of a mountain peaking above the ice. Then more – the ice lowering gradually, revealing mountains. Soon the ice is flowing between rock. Sheer granite walls rise above massive, epic, classic glaciers. Jagged peaks reach to the sky, dribbling rocks down their flanks to the ice below. Perhaps it is simply because I’ve seen only the flat white since May, but it is stunning and I can’t contain my excitement as I move from window to window. The sun is starting to set and the light is beautiful. It’s an inhospitable land: impossible to traverse. Perhaps some lichen or moss exists here, maybe the occasional bird, but there can’t be much else. Precipitous cliffs press against crevasse riddled ice as far as the eye can see. Further on, liquid water appears and the ends of the glaciers crumble into the dark reaches of the fjord. Icebergs! The sun sinks lower, behind the mountains, bathing the landscape in gold and pastel pinks and blues and we begin our abrupt descent to Constable Pynt. Not much more than a landing strip scraped clear of snow and some fuel tanks, it’s a quick stop and then we’re off over the far North Atlantic, heading south now to Iceland.

Inside the Twin Otter - the pilots up front, then the ferry fuel tank (extra fuel for the long flight) and us in the back.

Inside the Twin Otter – the pilots up front, then the ferry fuel tank (extra fuel for the long flight) and us in the back.

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Crevasses

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Constable Pynt, East Greenland

Refueling in Constable Pynt

Refueling in Constable Pynt

Arctic foxes (one white one brown) at Constable Pynt

Arctic foxes (one white one brown) at Constable Pynt

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It’s dark when we land in Akureyri. The town lights gleam and the air is laden with the smell of fall; the sweetness of decaying leaves, the hint of fresh grass and life, the salt from the sea. It’s windy and we couldn’t be happier. The next morning we fly on to Reykjavik and after a long layover, back to the U.S.

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The cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland Oct 17

It was a record fast turnaround for me this year. Less than 48 hours to unpack and repack, take a bath, enjoy some crisp fruits and veggies, then back to the airport. Greenland to Antarctica in less than a week!
This year I’ll be working as an equipment operator on a small traverse shuttling materials from Byrd camp to WAIS Divide. There are no plans for a camp in the near future at Byrd, so much like last season (Pig DiggersWAS Recovery) it will be a skeleton crew working to return material back to McMurdo where it can be used for other projects. WAIS Divide is a fairly significant camp as far as deep field camps go – a staff of 15 will support a number of science groups operating out of there. Byrd however, will have a crew of just 4; their primary task being to excavate the cargo stored out there and either return it to WAIS Divide via our traverse or fly it back to McMurdo via LC-130 Herc. As far as traverses go ours will be pretty minimal with just two of us driving Tucker Sno-cats over the 100-mile stretch between the two field camps. In the field, far from the main stations, we will have no internet access though we will be carrying satellite phones and a portable HF radio.

Byrd has a long and varied history – from a year-round station to a summer only field camp. The Antarctic Sun did a nice piece on the history of Byrd history: Antarcticsun.usap.gov

I also reviewed some of it’s history back in 2012-13 when I was working as the equipment operator out there for the summer: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/byrd-surface-camp-2012-13

So thanks for following along this summer! And stay tuned for the next grand adventure…The West Antarctic Support Traverse 2015-16!

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Kiwi graffiti in Christchurch, New Zealand Oct 22

Welcome to Antarctica!

Welcome to Antarctica! Getting off the C-17 in McMurdo, Antarctica on Oct 23

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Summer’s End

Summit (298 of 7)Winter is coming – temperatures are starting to drop and the nights are almost dark. The final flight period is over and summer has officially come to an end.

It was a full season – raising the TAWO building, supporting a number of interesting research projects both large and small, and sending out a bunch of material no longer needed on site. We had 26 LC-130 Herc flights this summer and now the Guard has returned to New York to prepare for the upcoming Antarctic season./static/images/status/weather/weather-tempout-lastweek.png

Now we have closed for winter and there are just six of us left on station: Manager, Mechanic, Heavy Equipment Operator, and three Science Techs (PFS, NOAA, and ICECAPS). We still have HF radio and a satellite internet connection (though still limited bandwidth so no youtube or skype videos). Our next contact with the outside world will be in mid-October when the next crew arrives on a Twin Otter from Akureyri, Iceland. They’ll care for the instruments and station from October through February.

In the meanwhile we have our work cut out for us to winterize the station. Pallets need to be moved to the berm, buildings need to be dragged out away from the main station to limit drifting, and vehicles need to be winterized and parked away from station as well – and everything needs to be flagged and mapped! The winter drifting is unimaginable – huge pallets and whole buildings can disappear beneath drifts of snow. Come spring there’s too much snow to shovel all by hand so heavy equipment is used, however it’s all too easy to destroy things when you’re not exactly sure where every buried item is! So we must flag everything, photograph everything, map everything and hope that any changes are recorded with as much detail as possible.

It’s almost eerily quiet with everyone gone – 19 people left on the last plane. With no cook we’ll each be taking turns cooking, and travel even on station is more tightly controlled. Everyone carries a radio. It won’t get fully dark until November, after we’re gone, but the sun is setting earlier and earlier: tonight it will set at 9:30pm and rise at 3:51am. A week from now it will set at 8:45pm and rise at 4:24am. There have been some beautiful sunsets so far!

So thank you to everyone who participated this summer season!

The Summit Summer Crew

The Summit Summer Crew

The last plane...

The last plane…

IMG_1841

All quiet in the Big House

All quiet in the Big House

Summit (297 of 7)

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Filed under Arctic, Flights, Greenland, Summit Station, Winter

Flight Period 4

Herc!

“Down South” (meaning the USAP and Antarctica) flights happen almost daily through the summer season to field camps and Pole. It’s at a bigger scale, more planes involved, more crews. Up here in Greenland we have Flight Periods during which a few hercs at a time fly up to Greenland and complete missions to Summit. This means that we have a week or so of intense flight activity, one or two flights a day, and then a break of 2-3 weeks without any flights at all.

The arrival of an LC-130 Ski equipped Herc is a significant event at Summit. Most of the fuel on station is brought in via plane, so the morning of a flight requires that the mechanic reconfigures our fuel system to receive fuel. The cargo coordinator is busy prepping and staging cargo. The HEO is involved if we plan to use the cargo sled. The field coordinator is busy gathering loose load, helping with the fuel pit reconfiguration and with last minute cargo issues. As the manager, my role is to provide hourly weather observations, aka wx obs, 3 hours prior to the offdeck (the first ob is usually due at 450am). These are sent to a wide group of folks in the US and around Greenland via email and will determine whether the conditions meet the requirements for the flight. The manager also coordinates with the Air National Guard unit based in Kangerlussuaq regarding manifest or schedule changes and relays this to the team at Summit.

Approachway Flags

Approachway Flags

When a plane is in the air we monitor designated HF and VHF channels in the Big House. Once the plane is approximately 30 minutes out we are able to make contact with our air to ground radio and confirm current weather conditions, estimated fuel amounts, and cargo details.

The herc lines up with the skiway and comes in to land, much like on a tarmac runway except there are large skis that sit below the wheels. These can be raised or lowered so they can take off on the tarmac of Kanger and land on our snow skiway. The skiway at Summit is one of the longest in the world – 3 miles long and lined with rows of black flags. Approach flags extend 2 miles off both ends of the skiway. Near the station are the fuel pits and a groomed area marked off by lesser flags, this is the taxiway where the planes park for fuel and cargo operations.

Looking down the skiway at Byrd surface camp in West Antarctica

Looking down the skiway at Byrd surface camp in West Antarctica

Once the plane has landed and pulls off onto the taxiway, the skis are raised to prevent them from freezing to the snow surface. While the plane is on the ground at a cold remote site such as Summit, field camps, and the South Pole – the propellers are left running to circulate fluid and to avoid potential problems from shutting down and restarting the engines. It makes for a very loud and potentially dangerous environment. The propwash is incredibly strong and the exhaust at any point behind the tips of the wings is overpowering so those working behind the plane in the exhaust plume wear fitted respirator masks. When it gets really cold (below -50F or so) contrails form on the ground limiting visibility and restricting cargo operations.

A skier coming in to land at the South Pole - contrails grow pronounced in the very cold.

A skier coming in to land at the South Pole – contrails grow pronounced in the very cold.

On the ground the loadmaster steps off herding the pax if any, away from the props and around the front of the plane. The flight engineer follows and walks around the wingtip to the fueling port while the rear doors of the plane open and cargo offload begins. Our mechanic hauls out the heavy duty fuel hose just under the wing and works with the flight engineer to pump fuel into our bladders and tanks. This flight period we’ve been averaging about 3000 gallons of fuel per flight. Meanwhile cargo is unloaded and loaded onto the plane with loaders or sleds. The Hercs can fit 6 pallets with no pax.

Kitted out for cargo operations

Kitted out for cargo operations

In the office I relay information over two different radios between the flight crew in the plane and the folks on the ground and back to Kanger as necessary. Often the pilots will want updated wind speeds and altimeter readings or forecasts from Kanger.

“Summit Station, Skier 71”

“Skier 71, Summit, Go ahead”

“Summit, what is your current wind and altimeter please?”

“Skier 71, wind is one eight zero at zero seven knots, altimeter is three

zero zero seven”

“Copy all and can you relay to Sonde our ETD Summit is 1330 zulu?”

“Affirmative”

Loading a LC-130 at Pole

Loading an LC-130 at Pole

I log all operations, communications, fuel numbers, and pallets loaded with their weights and dimensions, watching as I can from the Big House office. The planes are often on the ground for an hour to an hour and a half, though it’s a fast hour.

The Big House office comms suite...

The Big House office comms suite…

Once they depart there’s a weight off of everyone’s shoulders. Folks get busy cleaning up – reconfiguring our fuel system to transfer fuel between tanks and bladders, checking in and delivering cargo, grooming the skiway as needed, delivering baggage, and orienting passengers new to Summit.

The whiteboard of Summit. Flights, projects, to dos, population...

The whiteboard of Summit. Flights, projects, to dos, population…

With cargo and fuel operations completed any departing pax are ushered onto the plane and they prepare to depart. On skiways, especially here at Summit, being at 10,550ft and with summer temperatures as warm as 25F, taking off can be a bit of a challenge. Soft sticky snow, thin air, heavy loads…all of these can result in a futile “slide.” The plan taxis back onto the runway and gives it a good go – engines gunned, props spinning, snow flying up behind the skis…they rush down the runway with all eyes on station watching for the moment they offdeck. Often they just can’t get enough speed and at the end of the skiway they feather the props, slow, and turn around for another go. They gun it again, the sound washing over the station…props spinning, snow flying up in a cloud behind the plane, binoculars are out and folks are pressed against windows and on the decks, holding their breath. This time the front ski lifts…a little more…and the back skies are off the snow – we have an offdeck! Someone shouts over the radio “the skier is offdeck!” and I log it in my records and send out a notice to the wider group that the skier is headed off.

We’ve had good luck this flight period – almost no slides. The most I’ve seen here at Summit is 11 tries…at that point they had unloaded most of the cargo and even taken on some of the fuel they just delivered. The fewer slides the better. The earlier in the day the colder…the better.

Flight days are long and sometimes stressful, but they’re exciting too and it’s always good to see retro cargo leave and to receive mail and freshies! Today’s flight was the last of this flight period. We sent off 19 pax leaving just 11 of us here on station.

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Filed under Arctic, Flights, Greenland, Summit Station

“The PIG Diggers”

Our crew's sticker (a field camp tradition) The WAS Recovery Team has returned victorious and with smiles on our faces yet! To quote our project manager announcing the successes of the season: “…The Pine Island Glacier (PIG) Traverse arrived back at WAIS Divide field camp yesterday afternoon, Sunday January 25th NZDT, completing the full return of ~ 90,000 pounds of camp infrastructure and equipment from the PIG C site. The excavation of the buried equipment and cargo by the 4-person recovery team prior to the arrival of the traverse proved critical to the success of this effort.” We had a great season in the field, making it to all three sites: PIG, WAIS, and Byrd. We had no internet access out there, only an HF radio and two iridium phones. So let me start at the beginning… On November 19, after several weather delays, we finally boarded a LC-130 Herc and departed McMurdo for WAIS Divide. The first day at WAIS was spent digging out the PIG Traverse berm and sorting our cargo into first and second flight loads for the Twin Otter. We put-in at PIG on the 21st with the Twin Otter making two trips – first with some of our cargo and then a second flight with the four of us and more of our survival supplies.

The Twin Otter loaded down with our gear and cargo

The Twin Otter loaded down with our gear and cargo

Coming in for the landing at PIG

Coming in for the landing at PIG

PIG_20141121_15 A deep field put-in requires shelter, comms, and a heat source before the plane is allowed to leave. We had delegated tasking beforehand and the Scott tent was erected right away, McMurdo Operations (MacOps) was called on the Iridium phone, and our little whisper-lite stove was fired up to prove we could melt snow for water.  The Twin Otter pilots said their good byes and headed back to WAIS. Thankfully it was a calm and beautiful evening and we spent the next few hours settling in. I dug an outhouse trench and set up a little tent over it. Andy, our mechanic, got busy digging out and setting up the Nordic diesel drip stove which was wonderfully right at the surface of the snow on the PIG berm. DeVal, our camp manager, and Jen, the field coordinator, quickly excavated some proper floor panels from the berm and began shaving down a level area where we could set up the larger more comfortable Arctic Chief tent. Scott tents are great shelter – they are sturdy, but there isn’t much insulation and they’re quite small for a primary shelter.

Town set up

Town set up

By midnight that first night we had the Scott tent and the Arctic Chief up with the Nordic stove burning and a big pot of snow on top to melt. We sat in a circle and ate our dehydrated dinner packets then rolled out our sleeping bags and slept side by side on the floor. The next day we set up our individual mountain tents (Mountain Hardwear Trango’s) and unpacked and organized the rest of our food and cargo. Then it was time to get down to business…

The berm, buried to the top in places…

The berm, buried to the top in places…

Pine Island Glacier is located near the coast of West Antarctica – from the air you can just see a dark line that is the ocean and on a clear day on the ground you can see two little mountains peaking over the horizon. For the most part though it is flat white with awful weather, even by West Antarctic standards. Being so close to the ocean we were visited by a few South Polar Skuas and Snow Petrels! This area gets significant accumulation and it had been two years since the camp was closed and the cargo bermed. The satellite photo I posted earlier showed the cargo lines fairly clearly which was encouraging and some pallets were quite scoured. The Tucker however, was almost completely gone, with just a few inches showing above the surface!

Andy surveying the Tucker

Andy surveying the Tucker

We marked out the area to be cleared and fired up the chainsaws. The snow there is heavy and hard, more like sandstone than snow at times! Shovels worked great for the first half meter and for cleaning up edges and the bits thrown out by the chainsaws, but the chainsaws were really the star of the show. And the pick axes. The blocks were heavy too, the snow being about 50% water. Blocks were cut, heaved to the lip of the pit, and then loaded onto little sleds and dragged out of the way downwind. We did this in part to keep the working area around the pit clear and also to reduce drifting as we would eventually have to dig up buried items on either side of the Tucker as well. It took 5 days to fully clear the Tucker; to excavate around and under the vehicle, chip out the ice in the tracks, and melt out the engine and cab. And then we connected the battery and…it fired right up without a hitch and I drove it out of the hole! PIG_20141123_47

Making the first ramp cuts

Making the first ramp cuts

Hauling blocks downwind

Prying out blocks and hauling them downwind

It seemed to go a lot quicker once we were working our way down the machine itself!

It seemed to go a lot quicker once we were exposing new parts along the machine itself!

DeVal looking epic

DeVal looking epic

Nearly there!

Nearly there!

On November 28 we celebrated Thanksgiving, sleeping in and indulging in frozen corn and stuffing mix. With perfect timing the weather closed in and for the next two days we were stuck inside as the storm raged – filling in the giant Tucker hole we had just cleared. Then we started digging out the Cat 297 and fuel tank following the same process as the Tucker. 4 days later we drove that out of the ground and got to work digging out the other pallets of cargo. Just a few days after that we were hit again with another storm. And so it went…digging, sawing, and chipping out pallets of cargo, then when we’d reached a good stopping point a storm would roll through and we’d hunker down in the Chief. Old Star Trek movies proved to be a good source of entertainment and conversation.

The 297 almost ready to go

The 297 almost ready to go

Our in-house theater

Our in-house theater

Meanwhile, back at WAIS the PIG Traverse was working hard to get their sleds and tractors together and in working order. This far from McMurdo all fuel is brought in via LC-130s. Delays and cancellations meant that the WAIS Divide camp was low on fuel itself with none to spare for the traverse. So the PIG Traverse had to make a trip out to Byrd to fill their fuel bladders and on December 17th they finally headed our way. It was perfect timing, delays and all – On the 20th we unearthed our final piece, the groomer. We had been dreading this skeleton of metal, which would be rocked in hard with ice and snow. Big square things were easy to pull out, but something with so much open space meant we’d have to clear it out completely.

Digging out empty drums…

Digging out empty drums…

Triwalls to be dug out

Triwalls to be dug out

It was completely buried. If we didn’t have a photo of the berm before they’d left in Jan 2013 we’d never have known it was there at all! Only a flag marking the tip of the hitch was visible. Thankfully with a little help from our friend, the Tucker, and some chainsaw work it came out smooth as butter in just one day! We were done – all cargo excavated, ready and waiting for the Traverse to arrive.

Drilling down to find the groomer…

Drilling down to find the groomer…

The groomer emerging

The groomer emerging

As soon as we were done, with impeccable timing, the biggest storm yet closed in on us. We huddled inside the Chief for nearly 4 days waiting it out as it dumped snow and howled at 25-30kts. We read, and slept, made breakfast for dinner with some dehy hash browns and frozen eggs and watched movies on the little laptop – powering it via a little 1KW generator when the clouds were too thick for the solar panels to work. With the sun up 24/7 we had little need for electricity. A few light weight solar panels charged small electronics like our iridium phones, camera batteries, and kindles, but we had brought along a 1KW portable generator as well.

Stormy day at PIG

PIG Breezy!

A mountain tent nearly gone!

A mountain tent nearly gone!

Cargo drifts

Drifted cargo

The Traverse arrived late in the day on Christmas Eve bearing mail and baked goods from WAIS. The 9 of us crammed into the Arctic Chief for a special Christmas dinner and good times were had by all as we shared stories of the prior month and cracked open a few cans of egg nog.

The PIG Traverse rolling into town

The PIG Traverse rolling into town

Building up the cargo load for the traverse

Building up the cargo load for the traverse

Fueling the traverse tractors

Fueling the traverse tractors

The Traverse double teaming to break the load free

The Traverse double teaming to break the load free

The Chief succumbing to the ice…

After only 6 weeks – The Chief succumbing to the ice…

Andy’s contract was up at the end of December so the Twin Otter picked him up the day after Christmas – and we set to work digging out all the cargo for a second time. That big storm had created whales of drifts that had engulfed not only our tents, but the cargo we had so carefully unearthed. With everyone helping we got the traverse loaded up and on Dec 28th they left PIG with the first load of ~15 pallets. We stayed busy organizing and palletizing the remaining cargo while they drove halfway to WAIS and staged the first load. They returned a few days later and on January 4th with a break in the weather we flew back to WAIS. Job complete.

Welcome to WAIS Divide!

Welcome to WAIS Divide!

The metropolis of WAIS

The metropolis of WAIS

Tent city at WAIS

Tent city at WAIS

We spent a week at WAIS Divide, enjoying the home cooked food and the larger camp facilities like the showers…After 6 weeks at PIG with only baby wipes I didn’t mind shoveling a bunch of snow for a shower! The Twin Otter pilots had taken some photos of the buried Tucker and the folks at WAIS were pretty awed. The next task was to fly out to Byrd camp to repair the Tucker and bring it back to WAIS so it could be utilized at other camps as needed. While we waited for two mechanics from  McMurdo to join us, and then for a flight out to Byrd, we helped around camp. As an operator I mostly groomed and helped with the winter berms. WAIS_20150121_69 On Jan 12th we finally got good weather and permission to fly and it was off to Byrd. The berms at Byrd were the complete opposite from PIG, well scoured, still quite high above grade, and with much softer snow. We set up personal mountain tents to sleep in and opened up the hard sided galley module for cooking and as a DNF (do not freeze…aka heated) space. That week was spent digging out the Tucker, repairing it, verifying the fuel inventory, raising the skiway drags, and putting together a mini-traverse for the drive back to WAIS. Byrd and WAIS are only about 100 miles apart, but both sites are so remote and the environment so inhospitable that it could be very serious should anything go wrong. We loaded a piece of high molecular weight (HMW) plastic with survival supplies, the Scott tent, extra food, twice the amount of fuel they expected to use, backup iridium phones, and various other pieces of cargo to lighten the final Twin Otter flight. This ultra-slick material is the foundation for almost all Antarctic traverses these days. Then, on the morning of Jan 17th, one of the mechanics and our team lead departed Byrd for WAIS Divide. Thankfully the snow conditions were just right and the Tucker had no issues, and they sailed in to WAIS by the end of the day! The following morning the Twin Otter managed to fly out to Byrd and picked up the remaining three of us who had been left behind. We spent the final week at WAIS waiting for a flight to McMurdo and helping out around camp.

Jethro on the the Byrd Berms

Jethro on the the Byrd Berms

Fixing the Tucker

Fixing the Tucker

The mini-Byrd Traverse heading off to WAIS Divide

The mini-Byrd Traverse heading off to WAIS Divide

The Twin Otter loading up our last flight

The Twin Otter loading up our last flight

I’m back in McMurdo now, heading on to New Zealand shortly. The PIG Traverse just made it back to WAIS on Jan 25th successful in their final haul to bring the 90,000lbs of PIG cargo back. WISSARD, Siple, and WAIS Divide are in the process of shutting down. It’s been a great season with a great crew! I want to send a huge Thank You to all the McMurdo field support staff, the PIG Traverse guys, the Twin Otter crew, and the WAIS Divide camp staff!

The Herc at Willy Field, McMurdo

The Herc at Willy Field, McMurdo

Ivan the Terra Bus!

Ivan the Terra Bus!

WAIS Divide camp staff

WAIS Divide camp staff – and the vintage Alp 1 snowmobile

The WAS Recovery Team at PIG

The WAS Recovery Team at PIG (photo courtesy of DeVal)

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, Flights, Pine Island Glacier, Traverse, WAIS Divide