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November 17, 2008


30 September, 2008

The windows are porthole sized and there are only six of them on this plane. Welcome to cargo class. We’re on the first flight of the summer “Mainbody” Antarctic season and the C-17 globemaster is roaring over the Southern Ocean. A walk to the window and a glance outside reveals breaking waves visible from 30,000’. Back at my seat I plug into my iPod and slouch under the hood of my Big Red Parka, 2 hours down, 3 to go.

I was half asleep earlier this morning when Beck and I rode the shuttle van to the Antarctic Passenger Terminal outside the Christchurch airport. After years of midnight wakeups in the mountains you’d think I’d be used to pre-dawn starts, but 5:00 AM still feels like the graveyard shift. I can’t even drink coffee at that hour. The departure ritual goes like this: stumble into the dressing warehouse, pack away the street clothes and climb into insulated carhartt coveralls, fleece, and poly-pro; strap on comically oversized smurf blue FDX polar boots; then pile all your luggage onto an airport cart and proceed through the x-ray and metal detector along with the other 120 souls on the flight. Invariably the metal detector goes off for everyone, so we all get the wand treatment. Next comes the first of six briefings we’ll receive today, a video and lecture. Strangely, the TV in the waiting lounge is playing a special about the Mt. Erebus Disaster when an Air New Zealand DC-10 slammed into the very volcano that overlooks McMurdo Station. There were no survivors. Like sheep to the slaughter, we board a bus and are whisked onto the tarmac and into the belly of the beast. Before I step aboard I take one last glance at a patch of green grass and one last breath of the humid New Zealand air. Next stop: Winter!!

Two hours is a long time to expect my second generation iPod battery to last and, predictably, 2 hours and 25 minutes into the flight my blissful date with Gillian Welch is replaced by the dull roar of Pratt and Whitney. Rifling through my bag for a book I suddenly feel as if I’ve been stood on my head and I glance around at the other passengers. Everyone is sleeping, eating, reading, drooling as normal. When the plane rolls out of its turn I understand: we’re going back. A few faces are grinning now and soon the intercom crackles the word, “Boomerang.”

The Boomerang is legendary amongst USAP participants. Capricious weather combined with the need to stick to a schedule forces the Air Force into launching planes even if the weather in McMurdo is marginal. Sometimes the gamble pays off and the flight gets in, today we’ll burn $35,000 in jet fuel and go nowhere. Tales of turning back mere minutes from landing abound, weeks spent in Christchurch waiting to fly, horror stories of 5am wake-ups and trips to the airport day after day after day without reaching the ice. However, Uncle Ray-Ray (that’s Raytheon Polar Services, my employer) picks up the tab for food and lodging, so it’s a bit of a vacation.

By mid-afternoon we’re on the ground and checking into another Christchurch hotel. There is green grass, tulips and trees, dogs on leashes, kids playing in the parks. Thai food for dinner? Why not. Tomorrow we’ll check back in at the passenger terminal, but if we’re cancelled we’ll go flying, or maybe we’ll drive into the mountains for a soak in the hot springs. Christchurch is a great city when you have money to burn and time on your hands!

October 28, 2008

Happy Birthday Sweet Bea!

28 September, 2008

Happy Birthday Becky Peace!!

Becky arrived in Christchurch this morning and after two days of non-stop travelling was rearing to go PARAGLIDING!! Time was short, tomorrow would be filled with extreme cold weather clothing issue and the following day we depart for the ice. Now or never.

I met Beck at the airport at 10am with a rental car and we sped off to the coastal town of Redcliffs, a suburb of Christchuch. Here we met Dave with ParaPro (http://www.parapro.co.nz/) who would graciously serve as our site guide for the day. Conditions were on, so it was off to the local cliff soaring site: Taylors Mistake.

Becky and I first flew paragliders in 2004 in an intro course at Taylor’s Mistake, so it was a bit of a homecoming to fly here with our own equipment. Taylor’s launch sits at the back of a horseshoe shaped valley that faces the sea. The prevailing afternoon sea breeze funnels into the valley and is forced upwards by the hills forming a soarable lift band. Coastal soaring heaven! As long as the wind blows you can stay up! Soar for an hour, top land for a pee, relaunch, soar for 30 minutes, land for lunch, launch again, fly until sunset. The scenery isn’t bad either!

September 27, 2008

Mid-Clip Snow Anchor

27 September, 2008

The Vertical Mid-Clip Snow Picket .
This snow anchor was developed in New Zealand after an accident in 2003 which claimed the lives of several experienced mountain guides on Mt. Tasman. The investigating coroner asked the NZ Mountain Guides Association and the NZ Mountain Safety Council to look into whether industry standard snow anchors currently in use were adequate. The fact that the Tasman accident claimed the lives of two of the most highly regarded mountain guides in NZ suggested that they were not. After a great deal of research and testing, the kiwis came up with the vertical mid-clip picket. This anchor is now the standard in New Zealand, having gained favor over North American type anchors like the top-clip picket and t-slot.
The mid-clip is basically a vertical deadman. Imagine a snowstake with a clip-in cable swaged to the middle. The piece is placed 30 degrees back from perpendicular to the surface and a thin slot cut for the cable. The cable makes a 90 degree angle with the picket and should emerge from the snow just at its end.
When placed properly, the mid-clip is the strongest and fastest snow anchor for a maritime snowpack like the Cascades or the Southern Alps. I was skeptical at first, but ultimately blown away by its ease of placement and strength. This is the snow anchor currently carried by the Joint US/NZ Antarctic SAR Team.

Testing data from the Search and Rescue Institute of New Zealand (www.sarinz.co.nz) in strong snow (best case scenario):

Mid-clip picket (placed 30 degrees back from perpendicular): 10kn
T-slot (deadman): 7kn
Top clip picket: 5kn
Mid clip (placed at 45 degrees): 4.5kn

Note: 1kn approximates 220lbs of force.

To fully geek-out on the mid clip, follow this link to Don Bogie’s testing report: http://alpineclub.org.nz/documents/activities/instruction/Snow%20Anchor%20Report.pdf

Conclusion: In summer cascades-style snow the mid-clip is about as fast to place as a top clip picket while being stronger than the more time consuming t-slot anchor. They are stronger than they look, but require care in angle of placement.

Available at: http://www.aspiring.co.nz/ (I have no affiliation with Aspiring Enterprises, Inc.)

Be on the lookout for an SMC version available in the US soon??

September 18, 2008

Another Season Begins!

18 September, 2008

Another season begins!!

After a furious bout of planning, mailing, packing, storing, and house cleaning I left my boat, van, and stuff in Bellingham, WA on 15 September. As always it was bittersweet to leave the ‘ham in full indian summer mode for the Great White South. As the turboprop climbed out over Bellingham Bay I could look northwest across the San Juans and into the Gulf Islands of the Inside Passage. Oh to think where Becky and I were just one year ago on this day, about to finish our three month paddle. This summer was a bit different with paragliding consuming most of our free time.

This season I’m departing about one week early in order to attend a search and rescue training in New Zealand before heading to the ice. Becky should join me in Christchurch around the 28th and we’ll fly south together.

Its worth mentioning that this season I’ll be working in a new role. As a field instructor for the US Antarctic Program I’ll be instructing scientists and support staff in winter survival skills, glacier travel/crevasse rescue, high-altitude emergency medical response and serving as a primary SAR team member. I’m also going to be in charge of monitoring sea ice conditions, something I’m looking forward to learning more about. Change is good.

SAR training in Christchurch is provided by Grant Pratley (formerly of Mount Cook Nat’l Park Rescue) and his Search and Rescue Institute of New Zealand (http://www.sarinz.co.nz/). Over the next week we’ll cover search theory, high angle rock (in the port hills of Christchurch), and steep angle snow rescue (in the mountains around Cragieburn ski field).

Overall, the training was a good refresher on industrial rescue techniques. But the big kicker was my introduction to the mid-clip snow picket. More on that in a subsequent post.

Three cheers for my friends Jen and Brian who are joining me this season as instructors for the USAP!!

August 28, 2008

Let's Go Fly a Kite

.....Yes, a real big one. And man is it fun.

Nick and I started paragliding this past spring with a school in eastern Washington. We started our training with a two week immersion course at Aerial Paragliding, a world class training facility and flight park. The school provides an ideal setting for beginning pilots with top notch instructors, gentle terrain and on site accommodations at a very reasonable price. Our hats are off to Denise, Doug, Stefan, and Dave! We passed our first two weeks completing the required ground school and logging as many flights as possible off of the small training hills.

One of the many amenities of the school is the shuttling of students from the landing zone back up to the launch, providing a fast turn around time between flights.

Most of the flying is done in the morning and evening, when conditions are generally settled. The instructors split themselves between the launch and the landing and use radios to communicate with the students in the air. The short flights off the training hills mean that most of the student's time is spent launching and landing, using repetition to reinforce two of the most fundamental skills for a beginning pilot.

After two weeks, Nick and I were just shy of earning our Novice Paragliding Certification, or P2. It only took a few more weekends to demonstrate the required skills and accurately discuss the fundamentals of the sport with our instructors. And then.....

We were on our own!

At some point, we had to leave the comfort of the flight school to get out and fly on our own. Fortunately, having learned at "The Ranch" plugged us into a whole community of local pilots who were more than willing to serve as mentors and site guides. Thanks to the Northenders of Boundary Bay: Sid, Delvin, Guy, Rita, Jan, Murdoch, Roger, Chad, TJ, Bob, Kirk, Doug, and Jim for looking after us and introducing us to the great flying to be had around Bellingham. These folks have treated us like family from the very beginning. We tried to carry over the caution of our instructors and scrutinized all of the aspects of a flight. We would often stand on launch for half and hour or more studying the wind conditions and discussing our ideas about what was happening in the sky. If we decided we were happy with the wind speed and direction, then it was time to fly.

The launch process begins with the assessment. Then we unpack our gear and lay out the fabric of our gliders onto the launch pad and go through our pre-flight check. When all of the gear is in place, we stand in position and wait for the wind to fall into the right orientation and speed, which is usually straight onto launch and between 3-7 mph. With a nice cycle, we pull on the lines attached to the leading edge of our glider to inflate it with air, transforming the limp pile of fabric into a rigid airfoil. Thanks to Jan for the next three photos.

Once the glider is squarely overhead, a few strong steps forward and we're in the air.

Happy Trails!

August 19, 2008

Mount Rainier

The arrival of summer typically brings change to the peacenick household, and this summer I find myself working on a vegetation survey crew at Mt. Rainier National Park. This particular position is one that I have applied for in numerous years past, so when the offer finally came- I decided I better give it a try.

Some benefits of this position include spending ample time outside and being active, working alongside my other great crew members, honing in my plant ID skills and learning all of the scientific names, getting paid to go backpacking and getting to sleep outside most nights of the week.

So what sort of vegetation survey you may wonder. No, it doesn't have anything to do with vegetables (a common confusion when I misleadingly refer to my job as a "veg survey". Instead, my crew members and I spend our days in the field navigating to certain areas of the park and describing the plant communities that we find at that particular location. Our sampling sites are selected from high resolution aerial photos to be representative of the immediately surrounding areas. Our job this summer is to visit as many sites as possible to create a statistically sound correlation the aerial photos and the plant communities on the ground. Then computer software can be used to make an educated guess of the plant communities found in all of the other areas throughout the park.

Now, some pretty photos....