Pole to Pole: The Drill, Baby, Drill Episode

Off the Ice, a “boondoggle” generally means a cushy trip. Here in Antarctica, it’s a little different.

In November, I got to go on a boondoggle and attend a two-day Snowcraft class, the highlights of which included dragging a sledge loaded with tents several hundred meters, sawing huge ice blocks to build a weather barrier and digging my own personal Ice Coffin, in which I slept. Outdoors.

Saturday, I got to go on another boondoggle, Antarctica-style. I got to spend the day on the Ross Ice Shelf, a few miles from McMurdo, as part of a team flagging the road to the airstrip.

Ambient temperature: minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind chill: minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Number of toe and hand warmers worn: eight.

You may be thinking any or all of the following: why are they flagging a road to the airstrip that won’t even be used until August? What is this thing called flagging? Outdoors in minus 22 ambient temp – how many fingers and toes did you lose? Wait, you volunteered for this??

Read on.

Something I haven’t mentioned yet on the blog was the exciting bit of mischief the Ross Ice Shelf pulled back in February. The ice shelf is the permanent ice stretching out from the continent’s land mass, ranging from 250 to 800 meters thick, which doesn’t melt. I use the phrases “permanent” and “doesn’t melt” loosely. Because, back in February, a chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf fell off and floated out to sea. Oops. The chunk that fell off left the road to Pegasus, our main airstrip, perilously close to the temporary sea ice. As a result, the Pegasus road had to be re-routed further inland, only when I say “inland” I really mean “further from the sea ice” as the road, like the airstrip itself, is built on the Ross Ice Shelf.

The Fleet Ops crew marked the new road with flags every 500 feet for its nine miles from Scott Base to the airstrip. Before the worst of winter weather set in, however, somebody had to put up visibility flags every 50 feet.

And that’s where volunteers come in.

So I, with three other volunteers and two Fleet Ops guys, ventured out Saturday morning in the darkness, bumping along the rough road in a Piston Bully that dragged a sledge piled with flags. Another volunteer crew went out last week, but nearly half the route remained undone.

Our Piston Bully and its sledful of flags on the Ross Ice Shelf

The slender bamboo poles used as markers actually survive storms rather well, and the flagging has to be done now, before the worst winter weather, because crews readying the airstrip for the WinFly flights in August likely will encounter too much bad weather to flag the route themselves.

A road in need of flags... the new road to Pegasus, the Royal Society Mountains in the distance

And yes, I volunteered. Working in the galley, I don’t get many chances to get out, aside from walking the hundred feet to and from the gym every morning. I almost never get to go out onto the ice shelf. Plus, this was the day before the final sunset until August, my last chance to see light.

The sun makes a brief appearance on the horizon... that's Mt. Erebus brooding on the right. That's a damn sexy volcano.

So off we went.

The weather gods smiled on us. Yeah, it was -22F, but there was virtually no wind. I am not lying when I say I was completely comfortable in two pairs of long underwear, a pair of Carhartts overalls, two pairs of socks and two toe warmers per foot, my bunny boots, a long undershirt, fleece hoodie, Big Red Parka, neck gaiter, balaclava, hat, glove liners, gloves and four pairs of handwarmers. Really. That’s all it took to keep me comfy.

Each of us had a different job… Lan dragged a weighted rope marked with duct tape at a length of 50 feet from one pole to the next to make sure the flags were spaced properly. Jamie positioned the pole according to hand signals from Roger, who stood some ways down the line, sighting flags already set to make sure they were in a straight line. I got to drill a hole into the ice where Jamie marked the spot so that she could actually ram the pole down into the ice and then compress snow around the base to anchor it.

Locked 'n' loaded with my drill on the Ross Ice Shelf... yes, the lighting is terrible, but hey, it's winter in Antarctica, and it's light enough to see I am standing in front of Mt. Erebus (left) and Mt. Terror (right).

Yes, I can honestly say I drilled into the Ross Ice Shelf.

The two Fleet Ops guys spent the day checking our work, occasionally helping, setting mile markers and following us in the Piston Bully.

It was a great experience on so many levels. Just getting out of Building 155 where I live and work was a welcome change. The views in every direction from the shelf were gob-smackingly gorgeous and epic in a way only Antarctica can be. Just seeing the sun, which has not been visible from McMurdo itself for weeks, was a thrill – even though it didn’t rise until after 10 am and set at about 2 pm. Watching the Fata Morgana mirage craft crazy shapes on the horizon was a treat.

No, that's not a mushroom cloud on the horizon. The horizon is actually flat, looking out over sea ice. The landmass on the left as well as the mushroom cloud are Fata Morgana, a kind of high latitude mirage. As we watched, the shapes shifted into a pyramid and then something bearing uncanny resemblance to a stack of pancakes.

And throughout the day, as we advanced the flagged route by more than three miles (which may not sound like much, but remember, it was all on foot), I thought of the Ross Sea Party passing through this very landscape nearly a century ago, also on foot, stranded in Antarctica after their ship blew out to sea but still determined to lay the food depots they believed would be needed by Shackleton’s cross-continent expedition.

Another photo from the ice shelf showing Mt. Erebus looming over the puny human outposts of McMurdo (nestled between the ridges of black volcanic rock on the left) and Scott Base (far right)

And in my mundane and repetitive task, I suddenly felt like I was also part of history. People traveling to and from the airstrip will do so more safely thanks to flags I helped place. In a way I lack the words to explain, today made me feel closer to the men who came here in the Golden Age of Exploration and, in doing so, also made me feel more worthy of being here.

A day's work done... a shot of the newly flagged road before the last of the light died.

Oh, and thank the gods for hand warmers. I mean, seriously, dude. Damn.


3 thoughts on “Pole to Pole: The Drill, Baby, Drill Episode

  1. Thanks for the post – I’ve been trying to find out what McM is doing for the road to Pegasus since the Ross Ice Shelf pulled back SO far. Your post was great – I can tell your love of Antarctica is as great as mine (a former USAP/RPS worker).

  2. Awesome – these photos make me want to find a way to work in Antarctica. Thanks for sharing this very cool experience.

  3. Pingback: Groom with a View | Stories That Are True

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