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GOLF 4-3-9 Antarctica Expedition 2010



Lower Erebus Hut
Lower Erebus Hut
3450 m above sea level

Life and work on top of Mt Erebus revolves around three issues: the weather, Lower Erebus Hut (LEH) and travel by snowmobile. Let me explain.

Erebus is a very tall mountain in the harsh Antarctic climate: Winds can reach 50-80 miles per hour and temperatures can drop to -40 F/-40°C even in the peak of summer. White-outs can reduce visibility to a point that you have no sense of direction, horizontally or vertically. There is nothing you can do under those conditions, just hunker down in the hut or in your Scott tent and wait until it is over. It can be a few days until the weather gods are done with their wrath, but it always clears up at some point. Then, the mountain turns into the wonderful volcano as you see it in picture book photographs. Not unlike other tall mountains, Erebus summit often emerges from a sea of clouds that commonly forms between 2000m (6000 feet) and 3000m (9000 feet). This puts LEH above the clouds, the Fang Glacier Base camp inside the clouds and Mactown below the clouds. This condition is great when you are at LEH, bearable (albeit depressing) in town and horrible when you are at Fang basecamp adjusting to altitude. If you are trying to get any aircraft-based help from McMurdo you are out of luck. Helicopters are not allowed to fly on instruments. They have to see where they are going on the ground below them. At LEH you can typically deal with the lack of aircraft support (unless you have a medical emergency) but at Fang you are just stuck. If you want to get out of Fang, you need to be rescued by buddies at LEH if they are willing and able to come down with their skidoos through the steep and icy Fang Gulley to fetch you.

One could not contemplate working up on Erebus without the LEH. It provides shelter and a staging ground where experiments can be prepared independent from the weather, and a direct supply line from below. LEH includes two permanent huts, the garage (orange colored and standing out from the snow), and the hut proper (in red and half buried in snow). Sleeping quarters at LEH are in the form of Scott tents. LEH also has a “gas station”, which is basically a bunch of 55 Gal drums with a manual rotary pump for dispensing the various fuels used. The garage is a heatable space that can be used for repairs, assembly and staging of field equipment. It also includes the only outhouse of the sprawling LEH complex that offers you some privacy for giving yourself a (baby-wipe) bath. At times the garage also serves as a dorm for scientists who do not want to stay in tents, because their equipment does not stand up to the winds and temperatures or because they are still dealing with Acute Mountain Sickness (see previous report) and trying to get a good night’s sleep that they cannot get in a tent. The LEH hut offers community space for socializing, working, and eating. LEH has heat and electricity, a kitchen with a propane stove, a phone, radio communications and most surprisingly a wireless internet connection. The LEH kitchen is stocked with lots of food stored inside the hut and in the “freezer”, a number of shelves in the vestibule, the “entry hall” between the outside entrance and the entrance into the hut. The only thing missing is running water. All water is melted from ice and snow, purified in a series of columns and dispensed in a large igloo cooler. All waste water from washing or personal hygene is collected in large drums and flown down to town where it is properly treated and disposed of.

When we arrived at LEH, we were the first ones to get there this season so we had to get everything started. First we had to get rid of the snow drifts inside the huts and deal with some of the waste that magically appeared in the hut and garage over the winter. We had to start the (diesel-fueled) heaters, melt water, start the water cleaning system, set up tents, and then organize five helicopter loads of food, equipment and personal gear. Much attention has to be paid to the type of materials piled up from the rapid unloading of the helicopters that come in short succession. You quickly learn a few more abbreviations that are on each box label: DNF (do not freeze) quickly goes into the hut before it freezes, KF (keep frozen) is put into huts “freezer” (i.e. the vestibule), CF (can freeze) is the easiest and you don’t have to deal with right away. However, it does pay to consider the contents. Your sleeping bag is “CF” but you want to fluff it up as soon as your tent is pitched or thaw it out and maybe dry it out and get rid of ice that formed in the tent down at Fang. If you did not declare your computer box DNF, you may want to thaw that one out in the hut before you can use it.

After a good day of sorting and getting settled we discovered that the promised wireless network at LEH did not work. Nobody from town could come to help us out so we had to try fixing it ourselves. The router at the hut seemed to be functioning normally, and we were advised that there may be something wrong at the repeater at CONES. Cones is a set of antennas a quarter of the way around the mountain that has direct (line of sight) communications with LEH and with McMurdo Station. Bravo Tango and Hotel Sierra decided to get on their snowmobiles, go to the “Cones” repeater station to see what may be wrong there. Armed with VHF radios they contacted the engineers in town and they walked us through their repair mission: We ended up disconnecting the repeater from an apparently dysfunctional solar panel, shifted over to another one and we could re-set the wireless hub and everything was cool. Piece of cake, mission accomplished. When we got back to LEH, we were received by an enthusiastic crowd of Kiwis who rapidly used up all the bandwidth updating their facebook pages even before the heroes of the day could check their own e-mail.

Food and cooking is one of the most important things at LEH. We had a ball cooking for each other and sharing meals. Some of us mostly cooked, others mostly did the dishes. All ate very well and everybody liked the arrangement. The Thanksgiving dinner stood out, though. We went “the whole hog” with a mid-sized Turkey (brined for a day in citrus salt/sugar brine), all the critical fixings (gravy, cranberry jelly, hash brown potatoes). We also served steak marinated with fresh garlic, and dessert included an actual home made pumpkin pie! The cooks (bravo tango and hotel sierra) realized that they never have been that high when preparing Thanksgiving dinner (3400m)! It was fun all around and our Kiwi friends were very happy to be treated to a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. The only sad thing was that our buddies were still at Fang as helos were not flying and we could not get them because the weather did not allow us to go down there with our skidoos.

Almost all travel and material transport on Erebus is by snowmobile. This is a bit of a culture shock for the hiker and nature fanatic who considers all motorized wilderness transport a disturbance of the peace and quiet when being away from civilization. There is not much you can do about it, though. At Erebus and in other remote locations, the use of snowmobiles is simply a necessity, without which work, or re-supply is just not possible. We were a party of eight, with seven snow mobiles, three of them permanently stationed at LEH, three more brought up by USAP for us and subsequent field parties and one more from Scott Base, the New Zealand station.

Snowmobiling in the mountains is a very different ballgame than riding around on the frozen lakes of Minnesota. There is a bit of training one has to go through before one can dare going up into the mountains. Experience and endurance in handling snowmobiles is definitely a much needed skill without which you should not attempt traveling by snowmobile in the mountains. However, the most important skill is to know which terrain you are comfortable with and which ones you should avoid. USAP gives you some super training, but you have to practice and build up your strength before you go up on the mountains and apply your skills. Key skills in mountain snowmobiling include in particular the weight balancing on slopes so you don’t roll down the mountain with your rig. Furthermore, you have to learn how to deal with ice, when your snow mobile looses traction and your control of the vehicle becomes very limited. Riding on slopes requires you shifting your weight towards the slope, keeping the center of gravity of your rig low and on the mountainside. When you are traversing on a slope it is a bit like riding a wind surfer, the steeper the slope, the more you lean towards the wind or the slope. When you go uphill, you have to shift your weight forward, leaning well over the handle bar if necessary. When your front end starts lifting up, you are probably riding up a slope that is too steep for you. Shifting directions on slopes is a little bit like a dance. Every “tack” involves a “walk around” on your rig from one side to the other because your down slope side turns into your uphill side and you have to shift your weight to the other side. You have to lean back when your turn is a downhill turn and forward when you are turning uphill. This whole dance is particularly interesting when you have a passenger on the back seat.

Ice is a totally different matter. Handling a snowmobile under such conditions is not so different from handling a car on an icy road - except that you are less likely to ride up or down steep icy slopes with a car than with a snow mobile. When you hit ice, snowmobile tracks lose friction, and your rig may find it easier to travel sideways or backwards, depending on the load distribution. Your goal is to keep that from happening and to stay maximally in control of where you are going. Skiers are doing this kind of thing all the time, even though they don’t typically have to deal with a 1000 pound machine that has its own ideas where it wants to go. You have two main tools to stir your way on ice, the accelerator and the brake. You have to mostly use the accelerator which can give your vehicle just a tad of friction that you can use to steer at least a little bit. Above all you have to use it so the automatic clutch does not disengage and send you into something resembling a free-fall. The brake can be used to slow you down on steep icy slopes, but you have to ease off the brake when you start slipping sideways. On shallow icy slopes you can use a combination of accelerator and brakes to change direction. Above all, the trick on ice is not to freak out and to keep your wits. Do all the steering you can do until you come to a snowy patch that gives you enough friction so you can gain control over your snowmobile again. Then you get a chance to slow down, accelerate or change direction. On an uphill track, you need these snow patches to accelerate enough to make it across the next ice patch, and on your way down you use them to slow yourself down and make turns if necessary.

None of this is rocket science. Snowmobiling skills can be learned, the strength can be built up, but, again, you have to know about your skills and whether you are up to the task in a given terrain. Listen to your fear instincts, respect them, but don’t let it freak you out.

Erebus has many flagged snow mobile routes, some easy and some more challenging. There is one very easy route, more or less a highway that goes from the top of Fang Gulley to LEH and Cones covering pretty much the northern half of the volcano. This route gives us access to many of our sites: our cave sites at Harry’s Dream and Warren, and Tramway Ridge. The more challenging routes are going up to Erebus, to a place called “Nausea Knob”, named after the feeling that some get when they go up to this altitude, and the Fang Gulley, the route we need to take when travelling down to Fang Camp. Bravo Tango and Hotel Sierra did the Fang trip a few times, in the end rescuing the subsequent Fang Camp party who were stuck in no-fly conditions at and after Thanksgiving. While the Fang Gulley is a bit “hairy” with a good number of icy patches on steep slopes, it can be done and, above all, it is a very exciting ride, down and up. The down trip offers great vistas to Fang Glacier, the breaking up sea-ice and all the way to Mount Terror. The up trip is just fun navigating ice and snow, not a problem at all when you know how to handle a snowmobile, but challenging enough to keep you on your toes. I hope that I gave you a bit of the flavor of what it is like being and working on Erebus: We had to deal with a number of substantial challenges, but none of them kept us from getting our work done, and, above all, we had an amazing amount of fun!

Greetings from Hubert Staudigel (Hotel Sierra)