Hurry up and wait. This is a common mantra in Antarctica. There are so many unpredictable variables that influence movement and activities down here.
The primary one is the weather. If conditions are even questionable on one end of a line of travel, chances are that travel will not occur. Weather that would be favorable in most other places can halt all air travel in Antarctica. Because most of the landscape is covered by snow and/or ice, overcast days indicate "no fly" days. Days like this create what is known as "flat" light which prohibits pilots from being able to distinguish the the conditions of their landing zone. They may not be able to tell where the horizon is because it blends into the sky. If they are landing on or needed to land on a glacier in the event of an emergency, they wouldn't be able to see crevasses or melt ponds. While in the mountains, one may be able to see sky but the valleys may have dense fog. If pilots cannot see mountain tops they won't fly.
Looking toward the top of Mt. Kyffin from our camp. The peak of Mt. Kyffin is about 3,000 ft above us. Unfortunately, it is hidden in fog.
Other variables include human and mechanical factors. Pilots can only be in the air for a specified amount of time. Usually, there are multiple pilots at each "major" location - stations and major field camps. However, if some of the pilots are out on a flight and the only present one has met his quota of flight time, no flights can occur. Pilots can only fly eight hours/day, although they work twelve hour days. Time not spent flying is usually filled with fueling, maintenance checks, loading/unloading gear. Mechanical issues often occur. In Antarctica, where conditions are unpredictable, it is imperative that planes and helicopters be functioning optimally. Helicopters are especially prone to rapid changes in weather. If the wind were to become gusty or increase, they are more susceptible to flight cancellations or they may have to reduce their flight load to conserve on fuel.
On the second helicopter flight to Mt. Kyffin, we had to stop at a fuel cache on the Beardmore Glacier. Our pilot, Flo, is surveying the surrounding mountains while the helicopter technician is refueling.
Because of these factors, priority lists exist everywhere. One day, your group may be a high priority, and the next day, you've found yourself bumped to a lower priority. Several times already, we have hurried to be ready to go somewhere, only to have our next communication inform us that we're delayed yet again. This happened to us while in McMurdo waiting to leave for the field. We were only supposed to be in McMurdo for five days, which eventually stretched into eleven. For a while, the winds at CTAM were so strong that people couldn't set up their tents, and some older tents already set up were shredded by the wind. So, the entire queue of groups got pushed further and further back.
Once we got to CTAM, we were scheduled to leave the next day for our camp on Cloudmaker Peak. We got up early, broke down our tents, and packed our gear in order to get our cargo separated into different flight priorities. We needed all of this done by 10 a.m. After frantic rushing around, we were all packed, only to find our flight was delayed until 1 p.m. So began the waiting. In our move from Cloudmaker camp to Mt. Kyffin, we were told the helicopter would be there at 1:45. As with last time, we rushed around getting everything ready for our flight. This time however, it was a good thing we hurried. We were sitting around eating lunch and heard the helicopter. It was an hour and a half early! This simply reinforced the need to hurry up and wait. Everything here is unpredictable.
All packed and ready to load the helicopter. Once again, we're standing around waiting for something to happen. (left to right: Twit, Maurice, Brenda, Gordon, Perry, John)
We are once again waiting for a helicopter flight. We arrived at Mt. Kyffin on Christmas Eve. Because we've been pushed behind schedule and the weather has been uncharacteristically beautiful, we were hurried to work on Christmas day because of the fear that the weather might change. We spent two long, 10 hour days, collecting samples. Monday morning (12-27) we expected to be our last day at Mt. Kyffin; we were planning a camp move on Tuesday. We woke to find the sky overcast. That evening we found that no flights had arrived or departed from CTAM so every group had been pushed back a day. We were hopeful for a camp move on Wednesday, but today we woke to fog. Early on, the fog was just low over the Beardmore Glacier. Now, at 10 a.m., it has obscured the glacier altogether and we can no longer see the tops of the mountains. Most likely, we'll now be moving on Thursday (12-30), but only if the weather clears today.
Low fog over the Beardmore Glacier. Imagine having to land an aircraft down there somewhere at the base of the mountains. You can also see shadows on the sides of the far mountains. These shadows might mask potential hazards.
So, once again, we've hurried up, only to wait. If I've learned anything, it is to be patient.