A Season in Antarctica

ATOP THE DARWIN GLACIER, Antarctica—

Our chopper swung in fast and low, and we all scanned the massive ice field that spread beneath us like a white sea. "It's supposed to be right here," the pilot said, his voice crackling through the headset inside our helmets. "I'll make another pass."

airplane taking off
Don Voigt

A C-130 takes off over the ice.

The target of our search was critical—a buried cache with the fuel we needed to make it home to McMurdo Station, some 250 miles to the north. Find it, and we could be eating a hot supper within hours. Miss it, and a long day in the field could suddenly become a whole lot longer.

But watching the blue shadow of our helicopter chase us across the blowing snow, I had a question: just what does a fuel cache look like?

Apparently, not much. When the pilot checked his coordinates and banked around for another look, there it was—a half dozen bamboo poles sticking out of the snow, a few good blizzards from total and permanent burial.

As the pilot set the helicopter down, the wind from its rotors shattered the crusty, iced surface of the snow, scattering fragments like so many shards of glass. Unfortunately, the drums of fuel we needed lay much deeper—as it turns out, hours of digging deeper.

We had spent the day checking and servicing a seismometer 20 miles away, at a boulder-strewn site called Diamond Hill.

But with a thirsty helicopter sitting on a frigid glacier, we had more immediate concerns—getting gas and getting home. So, using a pick to break up hard-packed snow and shovels to move it, the four of us—the pilot and co-pilot, seismologist Patrick Shore and myself—dug with an intensity born of necessity.

After an hour of hard labor, we stood sweating in a snow pit that was chest deep, wondering how to wrestle the first 55-gallon drum up to the surface. Brute strength alone was out of the question—the slippery, ice-cold drum probably weighed about 350 pounds. And hoisting it out with the helicopter could be dangerous—if a taut line slipped off the barrel it could snap back up into the rotor, disabling the craft entirely and perhaps causing a crash. We needed a solution, a good one, before the weather turned.

men with red jackets inside an airplane
Don Voigt

Homeward bound, in the belly on a C-130.

Proving once again that necessity is the mother of invention, the co-pilot (a rock climber) got an idea. He set karabiners on a heavy climbing rope to act as pulleys, anchored this rig to a helicopter skid, and hooked it through an improvised harness around the fuel drum. It took a lot of pulling and grunting, but with mechanical advantage, the four of us were able—barely—to wrestle our prey to the surface.

The second drum seemed heavier than the first, a stubborn collaborator with gravity. The third barrel left us muttering curses. But after two-and-a-half hours of work, we had our fuel for the ride home. Twenty minutes later we were airborne, the chopper's mighty rotor thumping north through the cold sky.

We were not the only TAMSEIS team in the field that day, nor was ours the only adventure. Another group had endured temperatures of -30 C, as they installed a seismometer and wind generator up on the polar plateau. It got so cold out they were forced to erect a tent to protect themselves, especially from winds topping thirty miles an hour.

Ultimately, such rigors and dangers of fieldwork here make us appreciate the ordinary, small comforts at McMurdo all the more. The hot showers (especially if you stretch the official two-minute limit); the cozy Quonset hut that doubles as a wine bar; or even just the bacon cheeseburgers washed down with Sam Adams at Gallagher's, one of two bars here.

Such traces of civilization definitely seem incongruous in this icy wilderness. And they may run contrary to the spirit of heroic exploration that inspired Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton to risk their lives here, nearly a century ago. Sometimes—just for an hour or two—these comforts can even make you forget you are in Antarctica at all. That is, until the next time you have to stop for gas.

Last Updated May 01, 2002