Antarctic Diary: December 11, 2002

No more negotiation

Now that everyone is gone, it can be told.

When the megadunes team went out into the field a combination of weather delays and cargo system gaffes prevented their gear from reaching them. They wound up on the polar plateau, five hundred miles from McMurdo, with no gear other than two scott tents and a few cans of kerosine.

They were at a camp called TAMSEIS -- Trans Antarctic Mountains SEISmic station. A small camp populated by eight transient geologists living in a small jamesway and a couple of tents. The plan was they'd stage there. Planes would arrive within hours with all their cargo. They'd set up a temporary camp beside TAMSEIS, and then more planes would come in to take them and their gear to their final location, several miles away from TAMSEIS.

They arrived with minimal cargo.

The outside air temperature at TAMSEIS never exceeded -38F. The winds never slowed below 30kts.

There was physically no room for the megadunes team in the jamesway when the TAMSEIS team was in there.

Their stove, the primary source of heat, had been crushed by an overzealous loadmaster under cargo straps in the outbound herc.

There was no funnel for the kerosine.

The expedition-grade boots they'd been issued at the CDC, advertised to work to -100F, got wet immediately and were impossible to dry.

Their satellite phones failed immediately. Their GPSes failed in the middle of a traverse.

They broke out their HF radio, set it up, and called McMurdo cargo ops. While I was pinned down at Lake Hoare by weather, enjoying the 70F interior of the hut during thanksgiving, they were stuck digging trenches for warmth.

Cargo wasn't moving. The megadunes team would have to make due with what they had and with what they could skua from the TAMSEIS folks.

The hospitality of the TAMSEIS team wore thin when supplies got low.

The megadunes folks fashioned a funnel from duct tape and cardboard, and were able to donate their fuel to the TAMSEIS camp facilities. They shared food, but as most of their food was still in USAP science cargo ops back in McMurdo, they were eating more than they provided.

Surely the flights would resume and all their supplies would arrive. Then they could replace the TAMSEIS stock and continue onward with their own expedition.

For six days all cargo flights were halted. Supplies ran low.

On the seventh day, a single Twin Otter got through. It had bits of their scientific gear, but not enough of any one experiment to be put together completely. Some more fuel was provided. There was a box containing a couple days food. The box bore the note about Karla. Cargo ops wanted her back. She wanted to go back. The megadunes group felt they might have a better chance at securing their shipments if Karla stayed at TAMSEIS and said so jokingly during one radio transmission.

One box of food bore the hastily scrawled words: NO MORE NEGOTIATION. It was a joke. It wasn't a joke.

Karla is the head of cargo ops. She had been visiting TAMSEIS camp to check their condition when all operations had to be stopped.

The cargo ops team was apparently hopeless without her. Cargo shipments were FUBAR all over the continent.

Karla went home on the Twin Otter that brought out the message.

No further cargo was to be seen for two more days.

By the time the next plane arrived, the megadunes field season was in jeopardy. They'd taken out a snomobile to try to get to one of their locations. Five miles out, with the camp tiny on the horizon but still in sight, their GPS'es gave out. They decided to turn when the weather threatened to take them out of sight of camp.

Then one snowmobile sprung a leak. When they lifted the seat, a fountain of fuel hit their mountaineer in the face.

They tied one snowmobile to another and dragged it home as the plane arrived.

On board was a replacement for their crushed coleman stove. Unfortunately, it too had been crushed under a cargo strap and was inoperable. There was more fuel--cans lacking funnels, and boxes of their science cargo, still not enough to complete any one of their several experiments.

The team leader had to call a halt when the TAMSEIS team had to ask them to stay away from TAMSEIS supplies. That meant they coudn't have access to the jamesway -- the only warm building in the area. For warmth they'd have to retire to their tents and huddle in their sleeping bags. Their stoves were not working. It was never warmer than 20 degrees inside the tents, and that only from a level of about four feet above the ground to the tent roof. Below, the ground effect kept the temps well below freezing.

They could not dry out their boots.

Their team leader got second-degree frostbite on his face.

Continuing was a threat to survival. Cargo ops couldn't guarantee them the delivery of the rest of their food and supplies. The system had become so munged up it would take Karla weeks to repair. The small Twin Otter left with the message the megadunes season was finished before it could get underway.

With only two spotty days of science out of two weeks planned, they struck camp and waited for the plane to take them back. And as with everything else in Antarctica, the herc was late in coming. Four hours late.

Now they had no tents for warmth. They had to rotate through the jamesway, one at a time, huddling in a corner to get warm by the preway while their teammates lay in hastily dug snowcaves outside.

The official megadunes outbrief meeting with the National Science Foundation in McMurdo lasted hours. In a slightly politically charged meeting, megadunes acknowledged their mistakes and the unavoidable weather circumstances. Megadunes might have staged their cargo better. They might have been better served to not heed the suggestion of the transport people who suggested they go out to camp ahead of their cargo. They might have planned a "heavier" camp.

For it's part, McMurdo operations has still not acknowledged it's part in the debacle, choosing rather to foist the blame completely on the scientists who had no control over their situation from the moment they arrived at TAMSEIS camp. Damaged equipment. Poor choice of items to deliver on limited cargo flights. Failure to notify the TAMSEIS team of the visitors they'd have to host, and to stock their supply larders appropriately for such an emergency. For these items there seems to be no accountability.

Two years of planning and preparation dissipated completely on the plateau.

Fortunately, with the exception of the leader's patch of frostbite, no one sustained serious injury.

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