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Cape Disappointment, Antarctica

November 16, 2011

Ted writes:

We have been to the Cape of Disappointment. And we have prevailed.

As is often the case here, the oddest of circumstances led to an opportunity. It wasn’t the way we drew it up on the blackboard, but it worked. Constantly in the back of my mind is this sense of foreboding about this site. It’s the name. It’s like it whispers to me. “You’ll face defeat. My name is Cape Disappointment.”

Tuesday morning, we learned two things: weather at the Cape had been spectacular on Monday, much better than had been forecast, and the weather was a bit marginal for Tuesday. By mid-morning, further satellite pictures had scrubbed our flight for the day.

Or so we thought. Another group working in the area gave it a try at a glacier valley about 25 miles southwest of the Cape, and got in. After a couple of visits to their instruments, they realized that they could use some spare components that they did not have.

I was sitting at my desk, typing. Handheld radios are everywhere in Rothera, so one hears snippets of conversations all over the place.  I am not paying much attention to this background noise, when I notice they are talking about me. No, not a paranoid suspicion (this time), they really were.

“Well if we could get Ted Scambos up to the control tower we might be able to resolve this quickly.”  The verbal equivalent of the Batman signal flashing in the sky! I ran up the control tower stairs two at a time, and burst into the room at the top, breathless but at the same time trying to be nonchalant.

“I’m Ted Scambos,” I said, casually, ‘What’s up?’  A pause.  “Hilmar has forgotten a couple of items, can you fetch them from his office and the hangar?”  Cracks in the Batman light appeared.  “Okay.”

“You know you’re going out to Cape Disappointment to deliver them, right?” Batman light reformed. “And you’ll need to round up your gear. Tamsin and Malcolm are on their way from the skiway to help you install that camera.” Batman light burned brightly now.

It was late in the day, though. We didn’t take off until about 3:15 pm. And I learned that the weather was now not so great at the Cape, and we would be out there until quite late in the evening. We loaded the plane in record time. I  thought.  “This is not the plan I had in mind, it’s too rushed, we’re too distracted, the weather is going to be an added challenge. “But we were in the plane looking down the runway. There was only one thing to do: Close your eyes and floor it. “Here we go.”

It took us until 5:30 pm to get to the area of the Cape. And, the weather: the other Twin Otter with Hilmar Gudmundsson had landed earlier, when the weather was acceptable. They set out a line of flags in the snow. Cape Disappointment is no airstrip. The ice cap (see pictures from last blog) is quite lumpy. And now a layer of heavy clouds had moved in, cutting off the light and making everything flat: no contrast, like a white-out.

But Doug, our pilot, plopped the plane down like a ski jumper sticking the landing at the Olympics, and skidded to a stop. We taxied up to the other Otter. The other pilot, Steve, explained, “The weather has been declining all day. When we landed at 2, it was great.” We learned that the stuff we brought out won’t even be of use. It was the right stuff, but it was now a bit too cloudy and murky to try any more new landing sites for the day.

By now the clouds were fairly heavy over us, and a light snow had begun. But we set out with the gear on the sleds for the rock outcrop. A hill of ice obstructed our view, and I couldn’t even tell if we’d be able to see Scar Inlet Shelf from here.

We spotted the outcrop just a few hundred yards away as we rounded an icy knoll, and dragged the sleds with the gear over to it. The rock was shattered from freeze-thaw, so we couldn’t use the rock-bolts; but Malcolm had made wire baskets that we filled with rocks to attach the guy wires too. It went like clockwork. Everything fitted, we had parts for everything, the batteries were charged, and we moved in a very efficient sequence. Step by step.

The tower went up. Got secured. Solar panels bolted on. Sensor boom mounted. Main camera mounted. Camera direction looked good. Baskets filled with rocks. Guy wires tightened. I got out the laptop to poke around the inside of the mind of AMIGOS6. And it wouldn’t boot up. The battery was dead, or too cold. I warmed it up for 20 minutes against my stomach, but it still wouldn’t boot up the computer.  Wow. Now we had some gambling going on. It is now snowing and about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold and dark, and 9:45 pm with hours to go. OK. We have to gamble that it is all good.

The plane was loaded, but the weather was marginal. There was sort of a fuzzy horizon, one could sort of see the ice shelf a distance away, but it was more like being inside a light bulb. Diffuse. We taxied to the end of the flag line, and Doug was thinking hard, looking around, going through possibilities, contingencies. We could see the eight flags, yes. But it looked like they were painted on a featureless grey screen, just poles in space. We knew there was a drop-off in front out there somewhere. And a cliff, and mountains to the west.  But Twin Otters are amazing, short take-off, tough as nails, and climb like an elevator. Light snow begins to accumulate on the windscreen. Doug ponders.

Close your eyes and floor it.

Cape Disappointment AMIGOS-6 is working perfectly. All the pictures are pointing right where we hoped they would, and the weather station, GPS, and solar sensor have sent data hourly. The Nikon is showing scenes from the front of the shelf, and already it’s clear that there has been some evolution in the past few weeks/months, relative to satellite images. A total success.

BAS and everyone that’s here have been outstanding. Everyone has a good attitude and are fun people to work with to boot. I can’t say enough about this base: its style and its efficiency in putting deep field projects into difficult places. Thank you all very much. (All photographs courtesy Ted Scambos)

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One comment

  1. Ted: not sure if you read these comments, but I found this at SCIAM today: “At the Expeditions blog, we invite researchers, students or embedded journalists to send in regular dispatches from their field work….f you are about to go out into the field to do research, let me know if you are interested in liveblogging your adventure.”

    Links below.

    Todd J. (NSIDC)

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/about-the-scientific-american-blog-network/
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/



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