Thursday, April 7, 2016

In Deep...

The trip was on. We received permission last week to land the helicopter at the NGEE Teller and Council sites for snow surveys and the helicopter and pilot were lined up, approved, and ready to fly. Bob Bolton, Bob Busey and I were greeted by our Nome logistics helper, Crystal Anderson-Booth, who helped gather and deliver the many action packers full of gear needed for our work. We spent Sunday organizing and testing equipment, including the new commercial SP2 digital snow hardness probe and Bob Busey’s prototype laser snow probe. We packed our survival bags with food for 3 days, sleeping bags, tents and other essentials that would be required if we were stranded in the field, a long shot.

On Monday morning we dropped our gear to be weighed and loaded on the helicopter, then waited until noon for freezing rain to clear so the helicopter could fly without danger of icing.  Using the great geopdf maps created by Lauren Charsley-Groffman and Garrett Altmann, we guided the pilot to the watershed and positioned ourselves at the first of 39 snow survey sites. We offloaded a belly pod and cabin full of gear, made another round trip for more gear, and then got to work. 

The first task on our list was to test out the new SP2 probe. Bob Bolton and I were having trouble getting it through an icy layer in the snowpack, so Bob Busey offered to show us how to use our “inner chi” to smoothly insert the probe. He described the process of centering oneself, then demonstrated the proper stance and with great ease inserted the probe to its maximum depth. Shortly after the probe completed its data cycle, he extracted it from the snow. We were quite impressed! Until I noticed the lower third of the probed was missing and thin broken wires that were hanging out of the end.  So much for Bob’s Chi, and the new SP2…

 …While Bob Busey skied off with the DGPS to survey snow surface elevation, Bob Bolton and I began the snow depth and snow water equivalent survey using standard instruments. With the first snow depth transect we knew we were IN  DEEP. Vladimir had reported a 20- 50cm snow pack at Pilgrim Hot Springs, but the snow depth at our first Teller site was 1.5m, which required shoulder deep (literally) pits (10 per site) for each of the snow density measurements. 


Luckily, our next two sites had somewhat shallower and less dense snow. We noticed that the snow was particularly light, loose and sugary in the shrub thickets within the channel. Unfortunately we only managed to complete 2.5 sites on our first afternoon in the field, far short of the 4 sites per half day that we expected to accomplish. 


Tuesday we woke to brilliant clear skis and were out at the field site by 9am. The plan was to work our way downhill across our survey grid. The pilot dropped me at the ridge with a load of equipment and as the helicopter took off to shuttle the Bobs to the top, I was stunned by the otherworldly beauty of the landscape and the perfect weather conditions. 


While Bob Busey set up the second GPS base station, Bob Bolton and I completed the suite of snow measurements at 2 more sites. As we made our way over to the third location we noticed a thin fog bank moving in our direction, and alerted the pilot in Nome of the change in the weather. Within the hour, the fog was upon us, and Bob Busey said it was time to leave the field because helicopters can’t land if they can’t see the ground. We didn’t want to get stranded, so we implemented our safety protocol which included a satellite tracker text message of our coordinates to the pilot, pilot confirmation that he was on his way, stowing non-essential gear in action packers to be left behind, collecting survival packs, turning on Cathy’s satellite telephone and hunkering down for the pilot’s arrival.

 Before long we heard the helicopter’s approach… then it was right overhead, but we couldn’t see it … then it flew off into the distance and was gone. At that point the second part of the safety plan kicked into gear. The pilot called to tell us where he landed and we set off to meet him at a new rendezvous point. As we moved off the ridge to meet the pilot, we were immersed in the increased complexity of working at a somewhat more remote field site than Barrow. But we were grateful to be well prepared for an emergency, and that Bob Busey was experienced in assessing the weather condition before it was too late to evacuate. Our caution made the difference between sleeping at the Dredge7 last night or being stuck in a cold tent on a hillside for 2 days. We woke up this morning to hot coffee and grounded aircraft due to freezing fog. It’s 4pm and still no take off or landing.