Friday, 6 June 2014

Way up Woop Woop

During the summer months, Davis generally has a large air program due to the science that is conducted on station. Most years there are two Squirrel helicopters with the occasional Sikorsky S-76 and we also have some fixed-wing aircraft for deep field work and transport between the other Australian stations, Casey and Mawson.

Obviously the fixed-wing aircraft need runways. Toward the end of winter and early in the summer there is a runway made on the sea ice out the front of station, when the sea ice is still in good condition. Early to mid summer the ice rots directly out from station so the skiway is moved further north to Plough Island where the ice is locked in by islands. When Plough starts to rot, a skiway up on the Plateau (Antarctic ice cap) is constructed which can be used until the start of winter. The Plateau skiway is a considerable distance from station (40kms as the Skua flies) so is affectionately known as 'Woop Woop'.

Making all these skiways requires a lot of machinery and because the plateau skiway is the last to be built, all the equipment is 'stranded' up there until the sea and fjord ice is thick enough for vehicle travel again.

The Australian Antarctic Divisions policy on ice thickness for travel is as follows:
Foot: 200mm+
Quad: 400mm+
Hägglunds etc: 600mm+

We had finally received ice readings in excess of 600mm from other reccie parties and as Diesos, we began planning to venture up onto the ice cap and retrieve all the equipment for servicing and repairs in the comfort and safety of the station.

Our team of four (Craig - Dieso, Adam - Sparky, Paul - Chippy/BSS and myself) departed station on Monday 02/06 at 0800 in the trusty Blue Hägg under a spectacular display of the Aurora Australia or 'Southern Lights'. Things had started beautifully.

Not too much traffic on the roads

Ferrari of the Antarctic: A Hägglunds

Inside the old Hägg

We made excellent progress dodging grounded icebergs along the fresh sea ice and skirted up around Bandits hut and Barrier Island (mentioned in my last post). We made it to the edge of the Vestfolds and were awestruck at the looming sight of the Antarctic Plateau.

A break before the ascent

The climb begins

The ice cap is one of those things that is hard to describe. I can still remember first laying eyes on it, from the bridge of our supply ship, the Aurora Australis. It looked like a low, thick cloud in the distance but in actual fact is pure ice with a light dusting of snow. It is incredibly steep and directly in front of us rises about 50m per kilometre for as far as the eye can see.

We began our ascent into nothingness, imagine a steep, white desert with no features. One thing we did notice was the dramatic drop in temperature as we were climbing. More on that soon...

Nothing as far as the eye can see

Eventually we arrived at Woop Woop and were greeted with lots of snowed in equipment and excruciating cold.

This will take some work...

Ice crystals inside a container

First on the agenda was to fire up the Diesel 'UFO' generator and try to get some heat into the 'Sprunky Van', our cozy accommodation and invaluable source of heat and warmth for our trip.

Our Cozy accommodation

We used an electric heater powered by the generator to defrost and pre-heat the gas heater so we could get some heat into Sprunky. I had bought two methods of recording the temperatures during our trip. One was a Fluke IR temperature reader with thermocouple cord which proceeded to read 'out-of-range' whenever I tried to use it. After checking the manual to see why it could be failing I noticed that it only read down to -40deg! Undeterred, I removed my trusty Suunto Core hiking watch and placed it outside to see if that could give me a proper reading. After leaving it outside for a few minutes I retrieved it to find the screen completely blank and unreadable, I had to warm the watch up and reset it before it became useful again, even a watch made for hiking/skiing/camping couldn't handle the cold. This was only the beginning of our cold induced troubles... We could only estimate the temperatures and I would put money on it being constantly around -45deg.

Even the inside of the hut, which we could get sitting around 20deg (yep, POSITIVE 20deg) would still develop frost on anything that wasn't insulated and could conduct to the outside!

Inside Sprunky

Working outside in these temps is challenging. Any batteries are reluctant to hold charge and produce power, oils become thick and syrupy, plastic and rubber refuses to flex and just breaks and then to top it all off any piece of exposed skin is liable to freeze. Even removing gloves for less than a minute can generate great pain and a risk of frost bite/nip.

Gurney Bird

The G-Bird showing off the latest in eyelash extensions

The Kernel

Myself, posing

 The main goal of coming all the way up here was to retrieve the equipment. Equipment that was well and truly reluctant to start. First we would dig the snow from outside, around and inside the vehicles, then try to warm them up by any means possible. Usually this meant attaching a small 2kw generator to a engine block, battery or hydraulic heater. Yes, sounds simple but after using a 240v heat gun driven by our trusty UFO to warm a 2kw gennie so it would run, then allow us to run the same 240v heat gun off the recently started 2kw generator to start the next 2kw machine it all became a bit monotonous. Once the engines were warm, we could attach the jumper leads and attempt to crank over the engines. Remember how I mentioned that plastic and rubber would crack and split before bending? We would have to take the jumper leads into the hut to warm them, then arrange them in the rough position needed before racing them outside for them to freeze rock solid in that position again. It was hard work.

A bad Häbit?

Inside the Hägg

There is a Skidoo here somewhere

The BR350 Groomer waiting it's turn

 Eventually, after two solid days of working outside in -45deg we had everything packed up and ready for the long journey home.

Ice Cap, Plateau, Woop Woop, Hagglund
Heading home

We had achieved everything that we set out to do and done it all safely which is a huge credit to the team we had. Great job Adam, Craig and Paul, couldn't have done it without you guys!

Coincidently while we were up at Woop Woop, we saw the last sunrise. Davis is far enough south that the sun refuses to rise for around 6 weeks starting from 03/06. We are now officially 'in the dark' down here. A positive of this is we can get Auroras nearly all day now! and Woop Woop proved to be a pretty good spot for viewing the southern lights... 

Aurora Australis, Aurora, Southern Lights
Stunning Aurora

This shot didn't come without its dramas though, I intended to use a 240v adaptor for my camera and take a time-lapse of the sky since I had never before seen an Aurora moving this fast but due to the cold the cables proceeded to crumble apart in my hands, I had to resort to taking shots on the internal battery until that too, decided it was too cold.

Till next time...