Saturday, November 30, 2013

Traverse Day 4-5 Update

Day 5 Progress:
Day 5 - 25 November 2013, 1300UT
Position reached: E 134° 16.588' S 69° 32.189'
Elevation: 2558 m
Distance covered so far: 417.03km (50.69 km past Virage Nord waypoint)
Temperature (evening): -30° C

Time escaped yesterday (Thursday 24th), so a combined 2 day update

Actually, I'm trying something different today, writing this on my iPad
while underway. The bumps in the road are a little better this afternoon
(Friday). The sastrugi (the hardened wind-sculpted surface bumps) are less
vicious, at around 40cm, than yesterday: where 1-1.5 m heights weren't
uncommon! As I noted in an earlier post, the Kassbohrer does the heavy work
filing holes and scraping off as much as possible from the sastrugi.

This lead work by the "kassi" is hard on driver and machine. I rode with
Anthony (our IPEV Traverse Leader) yesterday afternoon, to observe the
constant task of manipulating blade and speed; keeping a bade full of
rolling snow, occasionally backing up to have a second go at tough spots,
all the while trying to keep the speed up to avoid slowing the main
traverse caravan behind. Normally it is Sharon in the kassi with Anthony,
as she has the skill and experience to share the driving - I'm definitely
an observer in that vehicle!

I said the work was hard on the machine, and in fact yesterday the kassi
"broke" (Anthony's technical description at the time) about 90 minutes
before scheduled stop. A bent hydraulic piston was diagnosed, and the
skilled mechanics in the team were able to make it good, in uncomfortable
-25°C wind, using the well stocked mobile workshop. The whole IPEV
operation (Institute Paul Emile Victor - the logistical arm of the French
Antarctic Program) is impressive. The traverse is very comprehensively
organised and is a major operation - from the big stuff right through to
details like excellent pre-made (French) meals to keep the humans fuelled
and happy.

Despite the cold windy evening, the two French scientists on the traverse
Manu and Olivier made use of the earlier "park-up" to get an experiment
underway. Manu and Olivier are from LGGE in Grenoble, and are along to do
some studies, particularly on the return leg, after we are deployed at ABN.
This will include taking shallow firn cores and making radar
measurements....all with the aim of understanding snow accumulation on
Antarctica, and how it varies across the continent and over time (what we
glaciologists call surface mass balance). This work is needed for
determining the Antarctic contribution to sea level with climate change
impacts, now and into the future.

Yesterday included a notable transition point in our journey - it began
with the last sunrise we will see during the project. The combined effects
of approaching mid-summer and our southward march brought the midnight sun

After 5 days, we are setting into a routine, and we Australians are
becoming familiar with procedures. The driving day is long, seeing the
icescape crawling by at 7-11km/hr. There is a sameness but subtle variety
to the snow surface that is hypnotic in its own way, and today we had a
great set of parhelia (? where is google when you need it!) .... 'Sun dogs'
and intersecting rings of ice rainbows that arc around the sun, up from the
horizon, and around the zenith. Two days ago we had a visit from several
snow petrels which wheeled around the vehicles for a while, before going on
their way - wherever that was!

Conversation, music, audio books all help pass the time, and we can swap
drivers with a cramped seat swap, thereby avoiding a stop for the whole
caravan. I'm pleased that a thoughtful someone gave me some broadcast audio
of some good radio interviews that I ration to a couple a day (Richard
Fidler's Conversations off ABC radio for the interested).

After the sedentary driving day the heavy work comes at the end. Fuelling
and de-blizzing (chipping away accumulated ice and snow) tractors and
shovelling snow into the melter for our washing needs isn't necessarily the
desired antidote for inactivity when it's -25°C and blowing 60km/hr.

The experience is not unlike taking back-to-back long haul plane fights for
2 weeks plus, getting off each day into a gymnasium in a freezer, eating,
grabbing 6-7 hours sleep and repeating. Don't get me wrong, it is a
privilege and an adventure of a lifetime, but it is not for the faint-
hearted! And, of course, it is the key to being able to do the coring at

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Traverse Day 3 Update

Position: S 68deg 10.174'; E 136deg 4.539'
(just past Pt106 on map posted earlier)
Elevation: 2179m (approx)
Distance covered today: 109km
Distance covered total: 238.55km
Approx distance to ABN: 1111km

A good day's travel in reasonable conditions. Overcast with wind and
drifting snow, but visibility was adequate for following the "road", if
challenging on occasions.

A minor mechanical problem with one tractor's fuel line rectified in a
short stop.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Traverse: Days 1-2. Bad light didn't stop play

We are now well into the traverse/raid and making good progress.

Day 1, yesterday 25th, started around the middle of the day. It took most
of the morning to get our frozen food out of storage at Cape Prud'homme and
double haul the last vans up the steepest part of the slope, with some last
minute mechanical repairs thrown in.

The weather was overcast with very poor surface definition, but we made it
to the 60km mark, where we had pre-deployed some sleds on Saturday. We
hitched it all up and fueled, ready for the routine early (scheduled 0800)

By nightfall there was a foreboding dark sky and the odd snowflake, so it
was not really a surprise to wake up to a good amount of fresh snow and
blizzard conditions. This was an interesting way to begin our first full
routine day of traverse.

For those who haven't experienced it, "whiteout" is a real experience of
visual sensory deprivation. The light is so diffused by cloud and reflected
from the snow that there are no shadows or anything at all to give away the
ups and downs in the surface. If you are walking, stumbling is unavoidable,
if you are driving, each bump and hole comes completely unexpected:
necessitating good hand-holds, or risking bumping head on roof, etc.

We had intended to follow the track of the traverse that left last week for
Concordia Station (Dome C), but the visibility was so poor that we gave up
after a while. The lead tractor has a bank of 4 impressive lights (2.5kW
each) to help with visibility in these conditions, but even they weren't
cutting it. So we bumped and chugged along at 6-7km/h most of the day,
hitting the occasional outstanding bump and passing the warning message
back down the traverse using our VHF radios. No such warning for the two of
us in the first tractor!

We had a small breakdown today - an electrical problem, which required a
slick installation of a spare and we were on our way. The traverse has
mechanics and a well stocked workshop.

Later in the day, conditions eased and we found the track reliably, were
able to put the Kassbohrer grooming tractor out the front to groom the
path, and ramped up to 9 km/hr.

All-in-all we have covered around 130km in the two atypical days (one late
start up hill, and one in bad weather), so this is pretty good progress. We
have about 1170km to go, so a couple of weeks more for the journey is
likely - all going well.

Life on traverse is efficient and comfortable. The long days require a fair
degree of cooperation and thinking about clothing, stowing gear, what you
want in the tractor with you etc. The routine at the end of the day is very
methodical - jobs divided up so that refuelling, snow shovelling (for fresh
water), cooking and vehicle maintenance all get done in about an hour. By
the time this is all done, and a meal had, it is approaching 11pm, leaving
just a bit of time for emails, ablutions and then time to hit the hay.

Which, I need to do right now!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Traverse ready to roll from Cape Prud'homme - le depart du raid

Tomorrow, Monday 25th, we depart on traverse ("raid" in French) for Aurora
Basin. We are enthusiastic about getting started, but have greatly
appreciated the support and hospitality of our French colleagues during
our time here at Cape Prud'homme.

It has been a fairly busy week with the French team making and checking
off a long list of tasks. As I look now, there is nothing that remains
undone - even the loading of 120 loaves of bread, which happened today.

Yesterday was a key day - we took a number of sleds, with fuel tanks and
containers "up the hill" 60km along the traverse to pre-deploy them. This
was a good familiarisation for those of us new to things ... getting the
feel for driving the tractors and getting used to the pace of things.
Pre-deployment is required because the steep terrain (we gained 1250m in
the 60km) limits the towing capacity. Indeed, for the initial stretch up
from the coast, we had extra tractors "double hauling" (assisting the tow
with ropes). After 10km or so, they uncoupled and returned, leaving us to
complete the pre-deployment.

For my Australian colleagues, Sharon and Noel, driving these vehicles is
not a novelty, but as a scientist, getting my induction/training and
driving a large Caterpiller Challenger 65C is not something I had ever
expected to do and makes for a nice new experience. Nobody is just a
passenger on traverse!

The traverse itself will consist of four prime movers (the Challengers)
and a Kassborer "groomer" which runs ahead of the traverse knocking off
bumps and generally smoothing the way. We will be pulling an assembled
cargo on (I think) 12 sleds. The traverse cargo totals around 90 tonnes,
and includes the 30 or so tonnes for Aurora Basin, plus vans for living
and generator, fuel, mechanical spares/support. Should you wish to see
something of the sort, you might search for pictures of the French
logistic traverses that operate to Concordia Station at Dome C.

The other day on predeployment we were able to make a speed around 11-13
km/hr. Our days will start with warm-up of machines at 8am, departure at
8.30, and stopping for the night at 8.30pm, with an hour lunch break. In
the 11 hours driving, we hope to cover around 100km per day, but this is
"good" progress, and will probably not be achieved every day. Weather and
visibility can slow the traverse, or even call a halt if bad enough. The
snow surface is also a potential impediment, especially in the second
stage of the traverse when we turn west toward ABN. For the first run,
several hundred km up to D85, we follow the known traverse route to Dome C
(which in fact has had a traverse over it in recent days).

The end of each day, from 8.30pm will have an hour or so for fueling,
servicing vehicles and any science tasks we undertake, with dinner at
9.30pm, before wind-down and sleep.

So that is a run down on what will be happening. There may be some blog
comment along the way, I hope, subject to how much time and energy remain
at the end of the day!

As a small side-story and postscript, last evening we went across the
sea-ice from Cape Prud'homme to Dumont D'Urville and enjoyed a barbecue
and convivial evening with the station population. Today, we went back
across to DDU for lunch and were treated to a tour of station, powerhouse
and a visit to an emperor penguin colony. The emperors were a special
treat - one came over to us within just several metres and was well
photographed. This was good for us - but the year has not been good to the
emperors, since the fast ice is unusually thick and extensive, reaching
still to 50km. This is a very long march for the penguins and has
prevented many from being able to return to support the chicks, with high
mortality as a result. To be hoped such an event is just an anomaly.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Arrival at Cape Prud'homme, Dumont d'Urville

Yesterday, Monday 18th, we succeeded in getting our flight across to
Dumont d'Urville by Basler.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned the Basler aircraft, but it is a workhorse
here in Antarctica - they are fully reconditioned/rebuilt DC3 airframes
with ski landing gear. The one we flew on yesterday was built around 1942,
from memory (I've flown in it before during our ICECAP radar flights in

We got away around 0830 and had a 4 hour flight, arriving in perfect
conditions: blue sky and a bare zephyr of wind. The area here is most
picturesque: the skiway is up a steep ice slope from the coast and on a
day like yesterday it has a panoramic view down to the sea (ice) and
across to a group of islands upon which the DDU station is located. There
are scattered icebergs all across the bay and out to sea.

This siting, with the main station of DDU on an island creates some
logistical issues, requiring helicopter and water craft during the height
of summer to get gear ashore to the continent itself. For this reason
there is a small satellite station called Cape Prud'homme (CP)on the
shore-side, and that is where we are staying. At the moment, the sea from
CP out to DDU is well and truly iced over and there is a road. We hope to
drive over sometime before we depart on the traverse.

CP itself has a couple of sheds for storing heavy equipment over winter
and a congenial living/accommodation area made up of containerised
modules. The population at the moment is around 20-21 persons, and we are
actually living out in the van-on-sleds that will be our traverse home.
Our traverse will have 9 people: we three Australians, three mechanics a
doctor and a couple of scientists.

CP is abuzz right now as preparations are finalised for two traverses. The
first one is scheduled to leave today and will travel to Concordia
Station, at Dome C. It will also groom a road for us as far as about D85
(500km) where we turn off to the west. We will follow in 2-3 days (no
point following too closely as we will just catch it up on the prepared

Once the Concordia traverse leaves, that will leave around 12 of us on
station. Our living van will be towed up the hill in readiness for our
departure, so we will relocate temporarily into the main CP quarters. One
minor ongoing challenge of this exercise since leaving Hobart has been
managing our kit for ever changing transport and accomodation options so
that some essential piece of clothing or equpment isn't buried in a bag in
a container out of reach. We did a quick rationalise yesterday to see what
could be "archived" until we reach Aurora Basin, and the rest we are
cramming into our living van for traverse. I failed to compact my stuff
sufficiently before bedtime yesterday and slept in my bunk with an array
of unsorted clothes and gadgets - today's job includes some rationalising!

There is not a whole lot left for preparing our traverse - mostly sorting
a last few items into the containers and getting things up the hill to
where the vehicles and sleds are being marshalled.

So we face the "difficult" task now of spending a couple of days in good
French hospitality, being well ahead of our departure schedule, after some
favourable weather windows all down the line. If we get away later this
week, that will put us a few days ahead still, and so we are all pleased.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tracking the traverse progress

With primitive satellite phone link, I'll not be able to do anything fancy while on traverse. It will be short text messages (130 characters), so posts will be tiny. I'll probably send lat/lon updates and/or waypoint names for anyone who wants to see.

It may be that AAD will generate something as we go, but if not, and for those who want to see progress,  I include here a couple of maps. The basemap was kindly provided by AAD, and the waypoints are ones that our French colleagues provided a while back. The route as it stands follows the established French traverse route to Dome C as far as waypoint "D85", or maybe "V0 RDC". There is still some doubt about exactly where we turn off and the precise route after we turn off but these waypoints and maps will give some context.

The first map is the large scale big-picture map, and the second one is a zoom in on the region from DDU to D85...

Not so fast...

In my last post I was conscious not to be overconfident, and noted the DDU weather was looking a little uncertain for flying. Well, we got ready for a 6am briefing yesterday and departure straight after, but the weather did indeed turn out to be unfavourable. So here I am blogging from Casey again.

We had hoped that at least the benefit of another slippage would be the arrival of the C130 from McMurdo with some of our cargo. The 6am briefing brought the news that indeed the C130 was in the air - but half an hour later it turned back due to mechanical issues, so we are thwarted on that front, it seems. As I said in the last post, the C130 cargo isn't a show stopper, so never mind!

At this stage, it looks like the weather will line up for a flight to DDU on Monday, so we are waiting to see. The word from our French colleagues at DDU is that they are nearing readiness for the traverse departure, so the timing is looking nearly ideal.

So what to do with an unexpected day or two longer here? We are digging a bit deeper into planning for the sequence of events to take place once the traverse arrives at ABN. Given the cold and the pressures to locate gear, make the most of the French snow-grooming assistance and make a safe and self-sustaining camp as rapidly as possible, the more thinking now the better. Details can be critical, like how to orient traverse vehicles post arrival relative skiway, quarantined areas (clean snow and drilling) so that we don't paint ourselves into a corner and can minimize hauling. Some of this depends upon what the surface looks like when we get there, but clearing flat areas will help the task of putting up tents.

A pause here also has a couple of other benefits. One being a chance to fiddle with new gear. We have a couple of GoPro cameras we want to use over the project, for example. The other significant benefit is a first opportunity to get out for some fresh air and exercise, and relax. And Casey turned on a brilliant day for this.

We took a walk to Shirley Is., which is a must-do Casey outing. Shirley is home to an Adelie Penguin rookery, and only a few km walk. At this time of year, the island is accessible across sea-ice. This is therefore and excuse for wildlife pictures. Adelies are most inquisitive and will often come over and check out visitors before dismissively walking by. The photo at the top of the post is part of a caravan of penguins that decided to follow us for a while, until our choice of direction didn't suit and they peeled off.

Adelie Penguin (Photo T. van Ommen)

At the moment, the females are laying eggs and about 10% or so are incubating eggs already. The first thing that greets visitors is the cacophony of squawks and calls and the unmistakable smell of penguin poo.

Most of the birds were milling around the rookeries, and just a few like the fellow above were out strolling around.

Adelie Penguins aren't the only wildlife, we saw some Weddell seals basking like slugs on the sea ice, but the really noteable others were the Skuas perched on almost every high point around the rookeries; or cruising menacingly a metre or so over the penguins looking our for an unguarded egg.

Skua (Photo T. van Ommen)

Skuas (Photo T. van Ommen)

Shirley Is Adelie Penguin rookery (Photo: T. van Ommen)
Interestingly, the skuas and penguins aren't too fussed by each other if they are just bird-to-bird. I saw one skua sitting next to a rock and a penguin less than a metre away eating some snow. Neither seemed to care at all for the other.

It was a very warm day, probably getting close to being above freezing, and a pleasant change of pace for the ABN traverse team:
ABN Traverse team

To finish up, a couple of pictures of Adelies getting out of the water...
Adelie penguins emerging from the water (Photo: T. van Ommen)

... "flightless" birds indeed!

Adelie Penguin emerging from the water (Photo: T. van Ommen)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Exiting Casey - Exciting Dumont d'Urville

The title of this post is a little optimistic - don't want to get too confident - but it looks very much like we will transfer to Dumont d'Urville tomorrow, just a week after arriving in Casey.

It has been a busy week getting final preparations lined up, sourcing miscellaneous cargo items from Station, doing field training etc. It has been slightly complicated by the fact that the C130 flight from McMurdo that will bring in some of our cargo is now not going to make it before we leave. This is manageable, as we have been able to source most of what we want from station. Some minor inconveniences - most noteable for this blog being the fact that our full communications kit (and hence email) won't be with us on traverse. So posting to the blog will be limited to text messages from a satellite phone - if that proves practical: we'll see.

The lack of C130 cargo doesn't ultimately affect us at Aurora Basin, because it can and will be flown in with expeditioners once we have the camp skiway operational in early December.

So some gratuitous images now, since I won't be able to do this again - at least on traverse and at Aurora Basin.

The flight into McMurdo last week was the usual scenic pass across the Trans Antarctic mountains in Victoria Land, out into McMurdo Sound and then onto the sea ice runway at McMurdo. Unfortunately it was pretty cloudy, and Mt. Erebus didn't show itself, but we still got a nice view a little before McMurdo.

Casey, as always provides beautiful scenes out the front of the station. Here is a moody view of Newcomb Bay. After a calm and warm day, the wind whipped up from nowhere!

So that's it from Casey, most likely. If we get some internet access at DDU, I may sneak in a post from there.

Postscript: Unfolding logistics in the last hour or two are casting some doubt over DDU weather, so we may be at Casey a little longer ... a final assessment will be made in the morning...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Casey update and test post

The trip to Antarctica last Friday (8th) went ahead like clockwork, just as planned and defying the typical Antarctic pattern. We went straight through McMurdo with just an hour or so on the ice, transferring from the AAD airbus to a USAP C130 and on to Casey. If I have time I'll post a couple of pictures and further detail.

Things are proceeding apace, and after 4 days at Casey, it looks like our onward flight to Dumont d'Urville (DDU) could happen on Friday, just a couple of days away.

We are expecting a few tonnes of further cargo in from McMurdo, hopefully before Friday, and have been busy doing last minute jobs: checking gear and assembling cargo for the onward flight.

Our next leg will be on a Basler (a rebuilt DC3) ski equipped plane. This aircraft has been working at Davis Station, west of here, and the weather looks promising for it to arrive here on Thursday. The whole chain of events requires a sequence of good weather windows at Davis-Casey-DDU which might normally require delays of a week or more. So, for us to get to DDU this Friday would represent a great head-start.

The real purpose of this post is a test of the technology; using email rather than a web interface, in readiness for the satellite phone link we will soon be using.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Getting Ready

For the three of us heading in to start the Aurora Basin project it is starting to feel pretty real now. We have been issued our kit - all manner of cold weather clothing from thermals to down outer layers, gloves and head coverings, to boots: and everything in between.

ABN Traverse team: me, Sharon (Field Leader) and Noel (AGSO/Mechanic)
We are scheduled to fly to the US McMurdo Station on Friday. This means a flight on the AAD Airbus A319 from Hobart - likely at the crack of dawn - connecting with a US C130 onwards to Casey.

A319 at Wilkins Aerodrome

C130 at Casey (Sheri Newman)

The challenge at this point is to figure out what you need/want in addition to the basic kit and fit it all into the 55kg allowance. For the deep field work at Aurora Basin, this requires additional thought about the implications of cold camp life. The temperatures will be around minus 25 and likely below minus 30 at times. The only warmed places will be our kitchen/living tent and generator tent: the latter serving also as a shower and wash "room". This means careful management of everything from changes of clothing to use of battery-powered devices which don't cope well if "deep soaked" in cold....sleeping bags tend to host a range of gadgets and water bottles etc as well as the intended warm body.

So the next couple of days means making this lot fit:

A bit of culling and some hard decisions remaining!

On a different note, the last couple of days have been devoted to pre-departure training. For some of the group this is their first trip to Antarctica, and some will be away a year. For those of us who have been before, it is a good chance to refresh our knowledge and to catch up on operational changes.

The medium range forecast is looking good for Friday, so a departure looks increasingly likely. The next post will likely be from Casey.