OC in Antarctica PART II

We promised an update from OC Eric Randall (Class of 2020) after his first report back in January. To catch up on that click HERE

Read Eric’s remarkable story of whiteout conditions and the unforgiving nature of the White Continent

Follow Eric on Instagram: @eric_17_randall

Since we arrived at the base it has been full steam ahead with not much room to rest. This email will be quite a long one as I have a short story to tell. It may be of interest to some of you back home!

Before the story I just want to give a brief update:

Upon arriving at the base (1st Jan 2022) I met up with the meteorological technician I would be replacing for 2022. For the next two weeks he showed me the ropes of the job and I felt competent by the end of those two weeks right before the “Takeover” period was complete. Takeover is the period in summer when there are approximately 50 people on the base providing training, maintaining or fixing any issues in the base that may have arisen throughout the previous year. This is all in preparation for the nine team members that stay behind for the winter to come. We are known as the “Overwintering team”.

There were a few complications due to really bad weather causing major delays before we departed the ship for the base. Leaving some Takeover team members not enough time to complete certain tasks before the originally set final date of Takeover (17th Jan). Prior to departing the ship for the base a plan was set in motion. One group of people would leave the base on the original final date of Takeover and the other would leave only on the 2nd of February back to South Africa.

The first group left on the ship (10 day trip) and the second on a plane from Wolf’s Fang, Antarctica to Cape Town (6 to 8 hour trip).

The idea being that both groups would be back in Cape Town approximately at the end of January/beginning of February. This was critical as the SA Agulhas II had been chartered out by, I believe, a Canadian or an American company to search for Shackleton’s wreck in the Weddle Sea. Their departure date was the 5th or 6th of February from Cape Town Harbor and they are currently searching before winter sets in.

SANAE IV is roughly 200km away from the ice shelf where the ship was located known as Penguin Bukta. To get to and from the base requires a “Cat Train” (A set of three or more colossal Caterpillar vehicles, known as Challengers, travelling in convoy towing fuel and luggage etc. just like a… Yup, you guessed it, a train). The duration of the trip is roughly two days depending on the cargo being pulled.

Now, with all this mind a brief story begins..

The Cat Train (4 Challengers) left the base to the ice shelf on the 16th to get the first group out and departed from Penguin on the 18th. Prior to the Cat Train’s departure on the 16th I had been looking at weather models here at base. All the forecasts were indicating a storm approaching.

The onset of the storm would begin on the 19th bringing in winds blowing at 60 to 80 knots (120 to 160km/h). Snowfall would last for three days until early morning of the 21st. Strong winds are usually indicative of a phenomena known as blowing snow. This occurs when the winds are strong enough to lift up the snow on the ground to a height of above six meters. A combination of strong winds and snowfall results in “Whiteout” conditions. A common occurrence in Antarctica.

In whiteout out conditions visibility decreases to 5 to 10 meters and depending on the severity of the winds it can get worse. If you are stuck in whiteout conditions without a vehicle or a caboose protecting you from the wind, you’re probably not going to have the best day.

Antarctica is brutally unforgiving.

Early morning (around 02:30) of the 19th, I get woken up by our team leader, JC. The storm had begun and the wind speed was rising. JC reports that “we have a problem”. Understatement of the year! Of the four Challengers (3, 5, 6 and 7) that left the ice shelf only two (6 & 7) made it to the base, but they were two km away and stuck in the soft snow which is the biggest issue for these vehicles. Thankfully we did have Ch 7’s GPS coordinates. Both vehicles cut out and didn’t start, I believe the -20 degree temperatures had something to do with that. To make matters worse the vehicles were 30 meters apart from one another. However due to the conditions they might well have been 100km away from each other. But wait, there’s more… From base, we communicate using radios (walkies). The radio in Challenger 6 was dead, but we made contact with Challenger 7. Ch 6 contained three of the four drivers. Meaning that we, at base, as well the driver in Ch 7 had no clue as to whether or not the three guys in Ch 6 were okay.

Therefore a rescue mission was our only option. Hence, “we have a problem”.

First things first, the rescue vehicle was a bulldozer, parked 30 meters away from the base. The dozer was essentially buried in snow, by 12 hours of accumulated snowfall. Around 03:00 on the 19th, about five guys left the base to try and attach the antenna to the dozer and dig it out of the snow, it was a fail. Winds were blowing at roughly 150km/h and visibility was no more than two meters. They were all connected to harnesses and a surplus of ropes to act as an anchor in case someone literally got blown off their feet. The antenna would be used as the rescuers’ navigation tool. This would show the coordinates of the bulldozer. Plug in the coordinates of Ch 7 into the GPS in the bulldozer and then have a route…sort of. Of course the only problem from here is that, that would be a route as the crow flies.

Unfortunately, the landscape itself would not allow for a straight shot. Ch 6 & 7 were both on a known, travelled road, so basically all the dozer needed to do, was stay on the road and they would be found!

Easier said than done, I guess.

Two failed attempts and three hours later of trying to get the antenna attached to the dozer, the winds became relatively calmer. We took that as an opportunity and managed to get it done. Meanwhile, we still had no contact from the drivers in Ch 6. By this time the mood began to change. We desperately wanted to hear from them and to know that they were okay. The dozer departed just in time for the winds to pick up again. Wind speeds reached between 60 to 70 knots (120 to 140km/h) in the following two hours. It was absolutely ridiculous, weather here is just insane and it’s only summer. We began to eagerly wait for the dozer to radio in and share the good news that they had found Ch 6 & 7. Naturally there were some complications with navigation, but after three to four hours of waiting the dozer team accidently rammed into Ch 6 finding the drivers all snuggled up, alive and doing well. We heard the news at the base and were all overwhelmingly relieved.

Without hesitation, they climbed into that dozer as if they were students heading to a jol offering free alcohol (so we were told).

They picked up the driver from Ch 7 and just as we all thought they were out of the woods, I kid you not, the dozer died right next to the Challangers. Again, most likely due to cold weather. You know after hearing this news I remember thinking to myself, “what on earth is going to happen next?”

Picture this, you have three men in the dozer that can fit four people, not necessarily comfortably, but four nonetheless. Then you add another four fully grown men, who on average probably weigh between 90 to 100kg’s. Seven fully grown males ended up waiting out the storm in a bulldozer for another 18 hours. A jol I would not attend. Imagine what the bathroom must be like in a venue such as a bulldozer. Those 18 hours must have felt like a lifetime. According to one of the drivers whenever they heard my voice about to deliver a weather update it brought a bit of excitement with the hope that good news was coming. But usually by the end of the message the hope fell away, and winds kept on howling and strong words were used against me, off radio of course. My excuse was “I don’t order the weather, I just deliver it.” We all got along well, so I knew it was just a bit of banter between us.

Eventually in the early hours of the 21st of Jan the winds died down, the sky cleared and the snow stopped falling so a few more people left the base in various other vehicles to retrieve the seven men and by 6am everyone was back home safely. What an ordeal and what an experience. I’ll never forget that for as long I live. It was truly a phenomenal display of teamwork and literally against all of the odds, we got it done. I heard the words “I’m never doing another Cat Train again” a few times more than I normally did on the day they returned.

However a few days later all four drivers were back in the Challengers heading for the ice shelf… Legends!

Thank you reading!

Kind regards,

Eric Randall