Friday, June 17, 2011

Take a Right after the Plane Crash
            “After you land in Kangerlussuaq, go to the information desk and ask for a four wheel drive taxi...  Yeah, that’s right... Tell them you want to go to Russell Glacier… After driving a long time, you’ll see a plane crash… What?... Yes, a plane crash… Look you’re going to be just fine now get on your plane and come out here! Anyways, just after the plane crash, it should be obvious, take a right down the next four-wheel drive trail and have them drop you at the river’s edge. We’ll meet you there.” Catie’s instructions to Alex on the satellite phone were said with a pleasant British accent as if she were inviting someone over for tea.
            This was Alex’s first view of the team. He stood with his taxi driver on one side of the river while Catie, Stuart and myself put on baggy green chest waders on the other. Catie and Stuart were ready before me and walked downriver to the place we normally cross. Feeling a little lazy and eager to show off how clever I was, I started walking out into the river from where I was, which was a little narrower and required less walking.
            The river was still half frozen and its opaque silt laden water was just barely moving. It was still impossible to tell how deep the river was or how much ice was on it, or indeed if the sand banks in the middle were on ice or if they were part of the riverbed. The day before Stuart had crossed barefoot without incident.
            Taking small little careful steps, I started walking out into the water. The water was immediately up to my knees. I took a few more steps. Then I started sliding, waving my arms wildly as I went. Suddenly the ground gave way under me and I was swimming in water over my head, my chest waders and backpack completely filling with water. My first thought was, “wow, this is really embarrassing,” then, “oh no, I don’t have a change of clothes,” and finally, “umm… I hope I don’t drown” I started doing the breaststroke back to the edge of the drop off and found that the ground I’d been standing on was actually an ice ledge over deep water. So I kicked and paddled my way back to shore, stood up and looked around. Alex and the taxi driver were looking at me in shock while Catie and Stuart were working their way across a short way downriver. I yelled to them and said that I’d just fallen in. They looked over, saw me standing there soaking wet and began laughing hysterically. Like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
            As I was emptying the freezing water from my waders and getting ready to try crossing again, I heard Catie burst out laughing again. Stuart had fallen through a hole in the ice and had gone completely underwater, pack, chest waders and all. The water was so deep his feet didn’t even touch the bottom. He reached up and grabbed the edge of the ice and, adrenaline pumping, hauled himself out in an instant only to find Catie in tears from laughing so hard. Still laughing, she took a step back, slid into a hole and went up to her waist. Seeing Catie fall in, Stuart broke out laughing too. The horror stricken taxi driver threw them a long pole that they successfully used to tap their way across the remaining section of river. As it turns out, the opaque water we were wading through was covering a patchwork of ice that was apparently over really deep water.
            Then it was my turn to cross. Following their footsteps, I made it halfway before I decided that I needed some directions and so I asked Catie to come over and tell me where to go. Midway through giving directions, she stepped into a hole. Her fall happened in slow motion because she kept trying to save herself from going under. One leg through, then the other and finally up to her shoulders going under just enough to completely fill her chest waders, which of course Stuart and I found hilarious.
            Now, all three of us were completely soaked with freezing water on a cold windy day. We went up the riverbank to meet Alex. “Welcome to Greenland!” We all shook hands. Alex was handed a pair of wet waders.
Sam Doyle and Tom Cowton on a glacier traverse.

Tom Cowton's hero shot.

Enjoying science with a cigar.

Slinging Helicopters
“The hammer tapping worked!”
Our pilot had just finished banging on his helicopter with a wrench and was now speaking to a half-asleep mechanic in Norway where it was 2AM. After landing in camp and turning off the engine, the helicopter wouldn’t start, making a sort of popping noise every time the ignition was tried. Our pilot took his headset off, stepped out, and began taking off various panels and digging around. He asked to borrow some tools and spent about an hour messing around while Stuart, Catie and I stood back in mild disbelief.
Once banging on the helicopter with a wrench did the trick, the plan was to take off, hover five feet off the ground and wait for Catie to attach a sling to the helicopter’s belly (she had called dibs on this job). Stuart and I were supposed to make sure the sling wrapped around the gear correctly as it was picked up. In the sling was around 500 pounds of gear that the pilot was taking to Dave Chandler and Dave Ashmore on the Greenland Ice Sheet where they were setting up their ice camp.
After what seemed like awfully brief instructions, our pilot started the engine. As the blades started moving faster Stuart crouched down like someone in an action film. This looked like what you’re supposed to do when a helicopter is taking off 15 feet away and so Catie and I ducked down too. As the rotors picked up, sand started blasting us and soon there was no way to see anything.
I took a moment to look between my fingers covering my eyes, and saw that the helicopter had taken off and was swaying back and forth a few feet in front of us. Catie sprang forward, ran under the giant machine and tried to attach the sling to the underside. Not having any luck, she motioned me to come help and I ran forward too. It was like working under a floating truck in a hurricane but after half a minute we managed to attach the sling. Then we sprinted out from under the helicopter, our hands over our faces, and stumbled our way to safety. With a thumbs-up, the pilot lifted the sling while Stuart stood underneath making sure the sling picked up correctly. It did and the helicopter flew out over our little lake drunkenly swaying as the sling swung from side to side. A few seconds later, the helicopter steadied, and flew off to ice camp.
Catie Butler with the river we've turned pink after a dye trace experiment.

The helicopter before it was fixed with some "hammer tapping."

The Next Day
The pilot can’t find Dave and Sam. They are somewhere on the Greenland Ice Sheet probably around 10 km from its margin. It’s about 35ºF and falling, it’s raining, the clouds are hugging the ground and its almost 9:30PM. Despite the 24 hours of light in the Arctic summer, the low clouds and rain are making it unusually dark. Their satellite phone isn’t working and they can’t make any calls. They do manage to send a short text message to base camp telling us their GPS coordinates. We get a second text telling us they are going to wait until midnight and then attempt to walk to land. The ice sheet at its margin is a maze of steep slopes and crevasses and is nearly impassable. Even if they were well fed, rested, and the weather was good, hiking to land would be very challenging if not impossible. At base camp, we begin phoning the pilot every five minutes. On the fourth try, we get through and slowly repeat Dave and Sam’s location three times to the pilot before hanging up. An hour later we call and they’re back in ice camp happily eating mash potatoes and goulash.
The pilot had dropped them off at one of their GPS stations on the ice sheet, left and then somehow forgot where he had put them. He had flown back to where they’d set up ice camp and where Dave Ashmore was waiting. The pilot was hoping someone would call him and tell him what to do.
Accidents are rarely caused by a single event, usually there are multiple things that lead up to them- a broken phone, a forgetful pilot, bad weather, no food, fatigue, all leading to a dangerous walk in an attempt to reach safety. Fortunately, we received a text message and were able to respond. Fortunately, the pilot was able to fly in the bad weather.
Tundra Running
Yesterday I went on a run up to the ice sheet’s margin. Following musk ox trails, I ran up a series of small peaks near camp while weaving my way through the hills and valleys on my way to the ice. After some miles, I reached the top of a large peak at the edge of Greenland Ice Sheet. Behind me was wilderness as far as I could see. No sign of people whatsoever only snow covered mountains, deep valleys and little ponds- nothing but the Arctic. In front of me was the Greenland Ice Sheet, a maze of deep crevasses and plains of ice stretching out into oblivion; its bleak contrast to the tundra (and me in my running shorts), made it look almost out of place. From my vantage point, I could see several massive glaciers spilling off the ice sheet and into adjacent valleys.
My run back was mostly downhill and so I was going fairly fast, hoping over permafrost hummocks, boulders and well grazed meadows. Toping a small hill, I almost ran strait into a huge musk ox. He wasn’t 20 feet from me when he jumped up apparently having just woke up from a nap. I have a bad habit of running away from wildlife when I should stand my ground and so I started running away from him. I also tend to do embarrassing things when I’m scared so I started talking to him, “Oh wow you’re a huge musk ox. Oh my gosh you’re a really really big musk ox!” I kept repeating that sort of pathetic mantra while looking over my shoulder at the big animal staring me down. Musk ox are not usually very dangerous but they will charge if they feel threatened or scared which was what I was afraid of. I stopped about 100 feet from him and looked back. As soon as I did this he started running away from me, his shaggy coat nearly dragging on the ground as he went.

Musk ox remain my favorite animal. Here are a few cool facts about them:
-They are more closely related to sheep and goats than anything else.
-They walked the arctic with wooly mammoths during the Pleistocene.
-Their wool is worth more by weight than gold.
-They form protective circles around their young whenever threatened (just like Triceratops).
-They are made into delicious burgers at the Kangerlussuaq Airport Cafe.

In other news
-Foxy Prince is trying to domesticate himself. The other day, I was sitting outside playing guitar enjoying some much needed nice weather when he stopped by. After wandering around a few feet from me he got sleepy, laid down and took a little nap while I played. Latter that day he waltzed right into our dinning tent while we were all chatting. Not expecting him, we jumped which made him jump and run out. He is pretty spry and I’ve been seeing him run around for the past six weeks so just to reassure the folks at home, I don’t think I’m making the mistake of befriending a rabid fox.
-At the moment, we’re in the middle of our first gas and dye tracer test from the ice sheet to the glacier’s portal. This means that at the moment I’m writing this, I’m hunkered down in a little tent a few feet from the river with the task of taking one sample per hour all night long (we’re a little short staffed at the moment). This is my second night in a row but don’t worry, I’ve got a French press, three huge chocolate bars and loads of ramen noodles. I got this.

Dave Ashmore (Two Hoods) enjoying a cigar (I'm a bad influence).

The Foxy Prince himself taking a nap next to me.

The winner of the caption competition! From my brother in-law Guillaume Jimenez.

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