The Time I Got Stranded in Antarctica

We expected to wait 15 minutes for weather to improve enough that we could make our escape. Instead, we waited for days.
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Stranded (Douglas Fox)

The flight should have been routine: a straight shot from Sjögren Glacier on the coast of Antarctica, over an ocean sound crusted with sea ice, back to the ship where we were based, 20 miles east. But as moments passed, a haze of fog and snow flurries closed in on the helicopter. Our pilot, Barry James, glided lower and lower over the sea ice; with no horizon on sight, the ice’s rippled, wind-pocked texture provided his only frame of reference for keeping the helicopter stable in the air. Even this lifeline began to dissolve into milky white, and James wisely chose to land the helo on the only non-white object in sight: a dark swath of stone and sand that had just come into view — the small corner of an island that was otherwise cloaked in glaciers. James spoke into his radio: “Five papa hotel”—the aircraft’s call letters—“this is Barry. I've landed. There's too much snow and not enough visibility to continue.” And so began an unlikely adventure. We expected to wait 15 minutes for weather to improve. Instead, we waited for days.

The helo would become unflyable as icicles encrusted its delicate rotor. Our ship, the 6,000-ton icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer would curtail its scientific research as it attempted to reach us. Our experience illustrates the limits of what even massive resources can accomplish in the deep polar regions. It also sheds light on the drama that has unfolded off the coast of East Antarctica as crew members attempted to free the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy from the sea ice that trapped it for two weeks. Fifty two tourists and scientists were rescued by helicopter on January 1; but the ship remained wedged in ice with 22 crew on board for another six days before finally getting free earlier today. It represents the latest in a troubling trend: Tourist or fishing vessels getting in over their heads in Antarctica, exacting a heavy toll on already-stretched scientific research assets in the area. The Chinese research icebreaker that helped rescue the Shokalskiy’s passengers also became mired in ice for several days, and the U.S. icebreaker, Polar Star, was dispatched from Australia on January 2 to aid both ships.

Our own adventure began on February 8, 2010. That dim morning I flew from the ship to the edge of Sjögren Glacier, a river of ice several miles across and half a mile thick that pours through a fjord into the ocean. I collected rock samples with Greg Balco, a geologist with the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California who hoped to reconstruct the history of how glaciers in the area have receded since the close of the last ice age. Our return flight to the Palmer was waylaid by the snow storm.

Had James, our pilot, continued toward the ship, he’d have risked not finding it—and being forced to land on dimly lit sea ice with no contrast, no shadows, no visual cues for knowing the height of the helo, its tilt, or even whether the spinning blades might strike the ice. “That’s how you end up dying,” he said.

Thirty minutes after landing on the island, James shut down the helo, secured its blades against the wind with ropes staked tight to the ground, and duct-taped foil blankets over the transmission and airspeed sensors to prevent them from icing over. After eight hours of waiting, we called it a night. I bedded down in a tent next to Balco—my bunk mate on the ship whom I hadn’t slept more than two feet from in the last month.

Morning one: Weather worse, wind picking up. We cut blocks of snow and built walls to shield our tents. We rationed our freeze-dried food to one meal per day. We ventured frequently into the blowing snow to take walks for warmth. Balco found a wooden crate sitting in the snow, filled with jars and cans—Leche Condensada and other items too rusted to read—supplies likely left by an Argentine expedition decades before.

Tent with snow walls (Douglas Fox)

Morning two: Three postage stamp-sized squares of chocolate for breakfast, a packet of freeze-dried chili for lunch. Icicles two feet long hung from the helo. The wind shifted directions, prompting us to move our snow-block walls. We passed around a battered Louis L’Amour novel and caught up on sleep—easy in our hypo-caloric stupor.

That afternoon, four brown birds drifted down through the gauzy white and alighted near our camp—sea birds called skuas. They picked at a saucer-sized piece of foil—a wind-shredded remnant of the blankets that James had taped on the helo. Finding it inedible, the birds departed—perfectly at home in this place, even if we were not.

It seemed plausible that we might wait for a week before anyone could fetch us. Food would run out, but at least we’d have plenty of fuel for melting snow into drinking water. One thing, however, worried me.

Among our 100 pounds of survival gear, my worry hinged on something weighing no more than an ounce or two: the rough-textured strips used for striking matches. The wet melting snow and condensation of water was gradually rendering them unusable. If we couldn’t light a stove, we couldn’t drink.

“Washington is aware of your situation,” someone on the Palmer told us during a radio check-in. Those words, in the right context, are surprisingly funny.

The wind whined. The helo shuddered. The ropes that held it to the ground vibrated like banjo strings. During lulls, a low rumble reverberated through the air, rising and falling—the diesel engines of the Palmer, six miles away, repeatedly backing up and ramming the ice in an attempt to reach us. Doing so almost certainly involved some risk. Only a few days before, the Palmer itself had been trapped in ice.

* * *

The Antarctic peninsula is the white spit on the left (NASA).

People sometimes refer to the Antarctic Peninsula, where we were sailing, as the “banana belt of Antarctica”—the warmest, wettest, furthest-north part of the continent. But subtle dangers inhabit this area. The Weddell Sea, on the east side of the Peninsula, contains a flotilla of sea ice the size of France, composed of thousands of fragments, or floes, many smaller than half a mile across. A circling ocean current called the Weddell Gyre pushes those ice floes against the Peninsula—compressing them into the equivalent of particle board—making the area impassable even to icebreakers much of the time. This is the ice that cornered and crushed Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, in 1915. People on board the Palmer hoped to penetrate this region in 2010.

Satellite images beamed to the ship showed unusually heavy ice. "I've seen bad ice,” said Vladimir Repin, the Palmer's ice pilot: a tall, taciturn, white-bearded Russian who began his 35-year career in the icy Siberian port of Murmansk. “But this is real heavy ice,” he said, “some of the worst I've ever seen.” The satellite images nonetheless offered a ray of hope: a sliver of ice-free water, perhaps half a mile wide, that provided a potential southward path along the inland edge of the ice. With luck, Westerly summer winds would push that France-sized agglomeration of ice further from land—widening the needle that the Palmer would have to thread. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. As the ship pushed through a crack in the ice on the afternoon of January 30, the winds failed; the ice snapped shut.

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Douglas Fox is a science and environment writer based in Northern California.

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