The National Science Foundation has developed a very detailed itinerary of my time in Antarctica. Then they promptly told me “this probably will not happen in this order, or on any of these dates”.
Then they told me why.
The weather. And the effect that bad weather has on everyone’s schedule. The reason for this is that most scientific work in the McMurdo region is highly dependant on air support. If the helicopters are grounded for a few days because of a blizzard, it messes up everyone’s schedule right down the line.
If you read any of the stories or memoirs of the early explorations of Antarctica, you know that getting people and equipment around Antarctica was the biggest challenge of the expedition. You had the choice of man hauling your gear on sledges, basically harnessing yourself to the sled with three other mates, and pulling for 12 hours a day; or using animals to pull the sleds for you, either dogs (good), or ponies (not so good).
Man hauling a sledge has to be the most difficult way ever conceived to move gear from point A to point B. Because the snow surfaces were often soft and deep, you were basically dragging a sled through, not over, deep snow, plowing a channel as you went. Or if it was a hard surface, very cold temperatures would turn the snow crystals into a surface resembling something close to sand, and you ended up dragging the dead weight of the 800 pound sled over this surface with your three other mates. Imaging dragging a 200 lb weight around your lawn all day, for weeks on end, in sub-zero temperatures, and you get an idea of how hard this work was.
Now almost everything moves by air, either by helicopter or, in the case of deep-field camps, buy ski equipped planes. Work being done close to McMurdo travels by snowmobiles, each dragging sleds.
The NSF makes detailed itineraries because they need to allocate resources, so even if the schedule shifts, which is pretty much a given, they know what needs to be done, and shift the schedules accordingly. There are many logistics people there whose job is exactly that – shift resources and people around when the weather gets bad.
But my first week is pretty set in stone, I’ll be doing a lot of training. Safety is huge, for good reasons, and depending where you are going and what you will be doing, there is likely a training class required before you go. Because I am going to a variety of locations, I need to take a lot of classes. There is a survival training class, also called Happy Camper class, which I will write in detail about from Antarctica, where we spend two days and a night on the Ross Ice Shelf building snow shelters, erecting tents, emergency shelters, building wind screens for the tents, learning cold weather first aid and how to survive if caught out in bad weather. This includes learning how to use the various tools, ice axe, skis, stoves, radios, how to respond to emergencies and how to look for crevasses. In October, when the average low temperature is -10 deg F and average high is 0 F, this class is going to be a chilly experience.
I’ll also be doing helicopter safety training, glacier training, sea ice training, snowmobile training, Dry Valley training – learning how to protect that fragile environment while moving around in it, radio training, and my favorite – I get an Antarctica driver’s license because I am allocated a pickup truck to use in and around McMurdo Station.
Next post I’ll talk about the various locations I will be going in more detail, and what I expect to find there.