Saturday, January 15, 2011

Helicopter Rodeo

Aviation and Science in the Dry Valleys

Just under an hour away from McMurdo by helicopter is a landscape that looks like Death Valley, or maybe what Death Valley would look like if that national park had been magically sheared off, flown north a few thousand miles, and dropped down in the middle of Banff, Alberta. This area is called the Dry Valleys.

Interesting hydrology and geology happens here—there are brief, seasonally flowing streams and even some trace amounts of life. It is a good place to come if you want to imagine extraterrestrial ecosystems or even just the early days of life on Earth. A series of camps are opened up at the start of the Austral summer and then closed down at the end of the field season. Very strict environmental controls stay in place: all the food scraps and waste oil drips and human poo and anything at all that comes in because of people, goes out with those same people at the end of the season. For ethical and scientific reasons, the idea is to keep the ground utterly pristine. That means a lot of loads by helicopter, and almost all of it moved around with 1/10th horsepower engines called human beings.

One interesting aspect of this landscape is how huge glaciers spill down from adjacent high ground, then just stop off shear, leaving open ground at their terminus walls. The view below shows the Commonwealth Glacier, and is a clearer shot than some of my aerial work because the helicopter for that leg had a side window that opened up. I could open up the window and stick the camera through, so that I was not trying to shoot the landscape through an inch of scratched Plexiglas. The Commonwealth Glacier was named and mapped by Scott on his 1912 expedition, since he believed that exploration should always be joined with basic scientific research. The first people to stand here were wearing reindeer fur underwear and eating the kinds of biscuits shown in the time machine photos back in the last blog post. I think I prefer the helicopter method myself.

The field camps are perhaps a hybrid between the early explorers’ huts and the space-age materials our field gear is made from. This camp at Lake Bonney is being prepared for winter storage, and also carpenters are upgrading the windows and doors for next year. As they pulled off one of the older sections, the Army’s serial code showed that this building was manufactured in 1946, just at after the end of World War II. It is older than some of the worker’s grandfathers.


Yet the modern world chases us everywhere, and if you have a camp, you’ll need radios, satellite phones, camera battery chargers, and even the Internet. The main tent may be from the Second World War, but these solar panels are much more recent.

And with or without their email accounts, people are still people. Ever drop in to visit a friend and clearly they were not expecting company, so that their house is a disaster? That may have happened in the shot below, since maybe nobody warned the construction crew that a journalist with a Nikon was due in on the next helicopter load. I took several pictures of this table, up and down, and each shot shows a different brand of wine or hootch. Live hard, play hard: I for one do not begrudge somebody an evening cocktail if he or she has been working outside in Antarctica for 14 hours, building (for example) a solar-heated outhouse. I had better not—I may be the person using that outhouse next day.

There’s a whimsy to most camps in Antarctica, whether it’s giving workers nicknames or making a “Penguin Crossing” sign. (There are no penguins in the Dry Valleys, though over the hundreds of years, a few misguided seals have wandered up from the McMurdo Sound area and forgotten which way to go to get back. Their ancient and mummified bodies can be found here and there, a good reminder to carry a radio and check for dry socks before you leave on a hike.) Here is a nice summer day at Lake Bonney.

For me, I had come up not to enjoy the views of the glaciers or penguin crossing signs but to understand better how the helicopter support network functioned. The pilots have amazing finesse and precision as they pick up loads mid-hover then take them off to staging areas down-valley. In the shot below, the person making the hook slot in the right hole is Rae Spain, manager of the Lake Hoare camp. I am not sure I could ever be that brave, to stand still as the helicopter settles on top of my head and waits for me to make the hook. Some of our AVC students have done their service in the Middle East, so if you’ve ever been around helicopters in the dirt, you know that the prop wash sends grit shooting out like a Gatling gun full of BBs. If there ever is some kind of helicopter rodeo, I know that these pilots will be the ones who will win.

From here, I was about to go to someplace a bit odder and a bit more wonderful. I also was going to go there for longer than planned (four days instead of one), because bad weather and poor visibility grounded the helicopters for an unusually long period. This time of year usually has a lot of good flying days, but even so, it’s still God’s world, not ours, and sometimes human plans just have to be put on hold. From the sling load camp, my next stop was Marble Point, which as Alice would say, was a very curious place indeed. When you land, here is who's waiting to greet you....


  1. Charles- Don't forget to speak to the helo mechanics who work at night down there. They are the ones that keep the helos running so the pilots and scientists can do there thing. It wouldn't happen without them!

  2. Thanks for the heads-up, and it's definitely on my list of things to do. The behind-the-scenes folks are the ones whose stories I especially want to tell.