iSTAR struggles on despite storm

2015 started with a bang for the iSTAR team as strong winds swept in across Pine Island Glacier. Here Isabel Nias describes how everyone had to batten down the hatches:

I always thought that seeing in the New Year on Pine Island Glacier would be one to remember purely due to the location. However, I didn’t think it would end up being quite as epic as it turned out to be. Pine Island Glacier chose to start off 2015 with a bang by throwing its worst Antarctic weather at us.

Our New Year’s Eve celebrations kicked off after dinner with a pub quiz, devised by Damon, which included a picture round called “Name the Beaker” and a series of questions about our field rations. We saw in the New Year drinking Pine Island coladas and whisky and la-la-ing loudly the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

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Battling through the high winds

After midnight a few people drifted off to their tents (they were probably sick of the tuneless singing in the caboose). They were fortunate to leave when they did. By 1:30am the winds had picked up to 50 knots. By 2am it was gusting to a maximum of 65 knots. If the wind itself wasn’t perilous enough (some people resorted to crawling to their tents), the blowing snow resulted in visibility of 2m or less. This was where the real danger lay. We had all heard the stories of people leaving the safety of their tents to go the toilet in conditions such as this, never to be seen again.

Anyone leaving the caboose after that took a radio with them so they could let the caboose know when they had arrived safely at their tent. James staked out the route to the tents with flagged bamboos and checked on the people in their tents as the storm worsened.

It was already clear that some of the tents were suffering damage. The door to James’ had ripped off and the entire tent had completely filled with drifting snow. Mark’s appeared to be in a similar condition. Tim’s tent also was completely filled with snow as far as we could tell. On hearing this I decided I would stay put in the caboose for the night. In total, seven of us decided to sleep in the caboose (or in the case of some, had the decision made for us due to tent damage). It wasn’t the best night’s sleep – James slept under one of the tables and Tim camped out in the kitchen.

My first venture outside in 2015 was to the toilet tent, with the storm still raging. It felt slightly comical, in a desperately serious kind of way as I had to put on my outdoor clothing, ski goggles and all, and arm myself with a radio and a GPS (with the coordinates of the caboose). With the winds and blowing snow still like a battering ram, I staggered from the Caboose towards the toilet tent, 30m downwind. When I realised I couldn’t see the tent and may soon lose sight of the Caboose, I devised a Hansel and Gretel style trail to help me get back. At regular intervals I planted shovels in the snow on my way. All that just to go to the loo. But there we go.

I had always assumed that New Year’s Day would be yet another working day at iSTAR Site 10. We were expecting to start the ice core drilling as the tent and drill equipment had been set up the previous day. However New Year’s Day was more or less a write off. The wind was still up at 40 knots, although the visibility had improved a lot. You could now see the first row of sleeping tents from the caboose, only 20 or 30m away. But the blizzard continued, albeit moderated slightly.

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Tent ripped apart by snowdrift

After two hours of sleep during the night, I decided I could do with a nap that afternoon. It was the first time I had been to my tent in over 24 hours, although I had been assured that it was at least still there and not destroyed. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw it. A huge drift had swallowed half of it, causing the poles to bend inwards and the tent to be half the size of what it should be. I had to dig my way to my door and after stepping down into the porch it felt like I had entered a little snow hole. It was quite cosy in there really. And quieter than outside now the snow prevented the tent from flapping about in the wind. After a three hours Emma came by and offered to dig out my front door again, which had once again disappeared from view.

Once we had determined the extent of the mountain tent damage (one destroyed and several broken doors and poles), the drill tent was the other main concern – Rob went to investigate later in the afternoon. The snow had drifted up to the top of the door and covered everything on the inside with a meter or more of drift. It doesn’t help that there is a big hole in the drill tent roof where the mast for the winch sticks out, but it was also exacerbated by the fact that the wind had pulled the front panel loose.

By the next morning, the winds had died down completely and the clean up began. The main tasks were to dig out the mountain tents as required, make any repairs (another chance for James to get the needle and thread out) and to dig out the drill tent. We sorted into teams and got to work. By lunch time the majority of the digging was complete and the drill tent was operational, ready to start drilling that afternoon.

Interestingly, two of the tents that we thought were full of wind-hardened snow had actually just a thick eggshell of the white stuff jammed between tent and fly. This created what looked from the outside (once the fly was removed) to be a solid mass. But on closer inspection, and to everyone’s surprise, the inside of the tent was fine and the eggshell of snow could be removed in big chunks. No soggy sleeping bags nor damaged personal effects inside.

Camp wasn’t quite as neat as it was before – the tents were no longer in a nice 4×3 grid as three of us had been exiled to the far end, after the berms and drifts had been flattened by one of the Pisten Bullys (to prevent people unwittingly falling into meters deep trenches on their way to their tents), but least we all had a bed for the night and science was happening once again.

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