Dec. 19, 2006
While one of the secrets of survival back in North America may be "cash" management, for over a century the key to survival in Antarctica has not been cash - which is worthless here - but "cache". It pervades Antarctic life.
In a nutshell, here's the story. Once one leaves the coast, Antarctica is incapable of sustaining life. It has no water in liquid form and little precipitation, and is technically a desert. This means that one cannot live off the land, and must carry all sustenance with him. Proper management of the necessities of life becomes an imperative.
In the days of the early Polar explorers, the technique was to carry all of one's needs on a sled, and lay aside supplies for the return trip in clearly identified locations known as "caches". If one planned things right, on the way home you would find your cache and be all set for the journey to the next cache. If one was unlucky with the weather and traveled slower than planned, you could make it to your objective - the Pole - yet die on the way home having failed to reach the resupply cache. This is what happened to Robert Falcon Scott, who led the second team to reach the Pole in 1911-12, froze to death on the way home and was perhaps the most adored failure in British history. He and his remaining men died 11 miles short of their cache...
Roald Amundsen, the man who beat Scott to the Pole by a few weeks, had a different philosophy of caching. Unlike Scott, who used ponies and hauled his sleds by hand, Amundsen used sled dogs to take him to the Pole, and then - as planned - began eating them one by one on the way home. I don't think Disney will make a movie about that one.
Nowadays, things are done differently. Except for the few stalwart souls who walk and pull sleds to the Pole (and with whom I talk every day on satellite phone as part of my job), the key to life in Antarctica is not sleds, but airplanes, and the key to airplane travel is of, course, jet fuel.
Jet fuel is the main currency around here. Government bases trade it or sell it reluctantly at exorbitant prices, or in the cases of unexpected private visitors, refuse to trade or sell it at all. Everyone who has fuel, hoards it. It is so precious that at the American base at the South Pole, fuel is brought in by Hercules C-130 aircraft that consume two barrels of fuel for every one that they bring in!
Here at Patriot Hills life similarly hinges on the availability of fuel. Every few weeks a massive Ilushin 76TD aircraft makes a ten-hour round-trip flight with a load of eight tons of fuel - jet fuel for aircraft, propane for melting snow into drinking water, gasoline for ski-doos, and fresh food for the human population. (BTW, our electricity is generated entirely by solar panels). Life here would be impossible without these flights.
The jet fuel we receive is brought from the main ice runway about a kilometer away up to our snow ski-way alongside camp. At the skiway - which is groomed by machines designed for ski slopes in Aspen and Innsbruck - are two leased DeHavilland Twin Otter aircraft chartered from Ken Borek Airways in Calgary, Alberta. The Otter is the Chevy Suburban of life on the Ice. Each has a load of ten passengers, a range of about 600 miles, and with skis they can land just about anywhere down here provided the surface is well-illuminated. Sastrugi (hard wind-blown lumps of snow up to 3 feet in height), crevasses, and poor visibility do not seem to discourage the intrepid Otter pilots. By the way, when they are not flying ski-planes in Antarctica, the Borek pilots - all from Canada and including both men and women - are flying floatplanes in the Maldives.
The main limitation of the Otter is its range. A six hundred mile range means that without a source of refueling, the aircraft would be limited to destinations within 250 miles of Patriot Hills, which given the enormous expanse of Antarctica is limited indeed. Here is where caching comes into play. Twice each season, we send a team of three with a tracked vehicle pulling two enormous sleds loaded with jetfuel on a 300 mile journey to a location in the middle of nowhere near the Thiel Mountains, roughly halfway to the South Pole. Here the team offloads the barrels of fuel, grooms a skiway suitable for Otters, and returns straight away to Patriot Hills. The first roundtrip this season of 600 miles took approximately 87 teeth-jarring hours of non-stop driving through massive fields of hard sastrugi.
With the aid of the cache, the Otter crews can set about flying expeditions and resupply missions in the direction of the Pole, with refueling stops in each direction at Thiels.
Other caches, much less extensive than Thiels, are regularly resupplied by air from Patriots to enable occasional flights in other directions. A great deal of attention goes into the maintenance of these caches during the course of the season.
Food is also cached by government programs in refuges at numerous locations around Antarctica to aid expeditions in distress and they are carefully listed by international agencies with detailed GPS locations. One recent visitor to Patriot Hills - a veteran British Antarctic explorer - recalled how during the 1960's, he and a hungry group of fellow scientists feasted on an unexpected cache of Hershey's candy bars left behind by Admiral Byrd and his crew decades before.
Here at Patriots, we store our food in what is known as the "Ice Cave". It contains not just food brought in this season, but the uneaten food of years past - some of which tastes just fine. And in case we have a problem getting resupply one season, the kitchen reckons that they have enough food stored in the ice cave to feed the staff and guests for months, albeit without beer, Coke and chocolate bars, which seem to be consumed as fast as they arrive.
So there you have it. Bet you didn't know that Antarctica was the world's largest supply depot and refrigerated warehouse, the result of both necessity as well as humankind's evident innate propensity for stashing things away.
See you all later,