Tuesday, November 18, 2014


informal noun
noun: boondoggle; plural noun: boondoggles

 Work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.

2. A trip off-station to accomplish work that while necessary, has absolutely nothing to do with your normal job and is just as much for moral as anything else.

Boondoggles are an Antarctic tradition that's been around for nearly as long as the stations themselves.  With so much of our population mostly stuck on station doing indoor work, the rare chances to get off McMurdo and see the rest of the continent are so highly prized that they're offered to work centers in a rotation.

Last week, my department was called and offered spots for three volunteers willing to be flown out into the middle of nowhere to do hard manual labor for many hours with no possibility of being indoors.  Strangely, I was the only one who jumped at the chance.

7am the next morning and the Delta shuttle picks us up for the ride out to Willy Field

What it lacks in creature comforts it makes up for in, um . . . something, I'm sure.

Getting out at the airfield.  I've been told these Deltas were never designed to carry people and the giant box bolted to the back was a modification done on the ice.

We got to the airfield a bit early, as the C-130s were being spooled up for the day.  We had to wait for them to clear the skiway before they could bring out transport out.

Technically LC-130s
This is a Basler, a DC-3 that has been extensively modified by Basler Turboprops in Wisconsin.  They add modern engines and avionics to an airframe that's been strengthen and lengthened, and the result is a beautifully classic and versatile machine. The aircraft that revolutionized commercial air transportation in the 1930s is still servicing the harshest parts of the planet today.

But we don't get the C-130, or even the Basler.  No, our transport today is in the smallest planes that regularly service this continent; the Twin Otter.

Oddly, this isn't nearly my first time flying in a Twin Otter, although it's one of my first times ever landing in one.  As a skydiver I've rode in many of these up to 14,000ft, only to open the door and hurl myself at the planet (which always seems like a good idea at the time).

It is my first time riding in one with skis, however.

Nice and cozy!
And away we go!

Willy Field, where we just took off from.

The permanent sea ice edge.  For just a couple months in high summer, open ocean will come up in on the left, up to that ice cliff.

McMurdo Station, home sweet home

Our destination was a Cape Reynolds, a fuel cache that's a bit over an hours flight to the north-west and on the continent proper (McMurdo is actually on Ross Island, not mainland Antarctica).  Flying north over the ocean gave us views of the open water that is slowly making its way south.

Cape Reynolds isn't a station or structure at all; just a bunch of 55 gallon drums of AvGas that are left here over the winter as a fuel cache to assist in any long-range operations, or for emergencies.  Over the winter they get drifted over and buried, and it's a yearly ritual to go dig them out and test the fuel to make sure it's still okay.

If we're lucky the barrels will still be close to the surface with a flag or two still sticking up.  If we're unlucky, we get out the GPS and say "Well, I guess we start digging here".

If you zoom in you can just make out the slight disturbance in the snow with a few flags still sticking out, slightly upper-right of center.

Luck was with us and the barrels were only just beneath the surface, meaning this was going to be a much easier task than we were anticipating.  After making a few scouting passes to observe the quality of the snow, the pilots touched down and parked us right next to the cache.

Hooray manual labor!

We had brought enough people to assume the worst, they they'd be 6 feet under the surface and would take all day to get out.  But just a few hours of chipping and shoveling got them free, leaving us time to enjoy whatever food we'd grabbed before we left.

If there's a situation where cold pizza isn't a good option, I haven't found it yet.

With the task over in just a few hours, back into the Otter we went for the flight back to McMurdo.  The pilots were nice enough to make most of the trip back at just a few thousand feet, rather than the customary 9,000 feet, to give us all a better view of this vast, desolate and strangely beautiful place we live in.

Hello little people doing science all the way down there!

Following the road back home


Chris said...

B you need to try and get out to the dry valleys, aak Kimber about it. -Chris

Anonymous said...

Beautiful !