An Arctic hike

9 August 2012

When I woke up this morning, the wind had not settled down. Quite the opposite to be honest: For the first time since we left Thule the boat was significantly moving in other directions than forward. Taking the helicopter to Cape Baird was absolutely out of the question, and the usual 8-o’clock science meeting was cancelled because it did not seem we would be able to do anything in this weather.

I took a cup of coffee to my cabin and wrote a bit on this blog. After finishing I decided to go up to the bridge to get the latest info on the state of affairs. At the bridge it turned out that the idea to take the FRC to shore and climb up the cliff was being considered more seriously. Apparently, something that is considered impossible one day is suddenly not such a bad idea the next one out here. I was asked to come along and immediately agreed! I knew it would be a tough climb and a windy exercise on the plateau, but this unique opportunity to walk up a glacial outlet and be part of this, admittedly, somewhat absurd plan, I did not want to miss for the world. The carefully-put-together list of absolute essentials to dismantle a weather station was, figuratively speaking, thrown overboard and replaced by a light-weights-only list, as we would have to carry everything up the hill. The magnitude of the team was now determined by the number of people required to carry tools up the hill and tools and a dismantled weather station down the hill. The science team was therefore expanded to four (Humfrey, Dave, Andreas and me) and a crew member with a shotgun (Melvin) was added to the team in case of a polar bear attack. Chief officer Brian, aided by seaman Derick, skillfully maneuvered the FRC from the ship to the beach below the cliffs (while making sure we all got absolutely soaked were it not for our waterproof floater suits),  where we jumped out of the boat onto the beach with our backpacks.

From the beach the least steep route (but still steep) to the plateau where the weather station was situated was through a dry glacial valley. The ground was covered in loose gravel and stones, which made the climb up not an easy hike. In some less covered spots small mosses and tiny plants had been able to find a habitat to flourish, really amazing! I am not a biologist and know little about plants, but this surely is not an easy environment for most life I know. Humfrey later explained that some of the plants we had seen were actually even tiny trees. While sliding backwards we made progress upwards (being Dutch I am not really used to steep slopes anyway) and finally the weather station came into sight. The wind conditions up here were far from ideal to do anything at all! Wind gusts down at the ship reached well over 30 knots, up here they were a lot more severe. We had to strongly lean into the wind and secure everything we laid on the ground with heavy rocks to prevent them from being blown away. Some of the dismantling had already been done for us by local animals (one of the damaged items was definitely the work of a polar bear; cut wires could have been done by other animals). We wrapped the sensors in bubble wrap and put them in my backpack. The tools went back into other backpacks and the battery box and the solar panel had to be carried down while holding them in our hands. Humfrey decided we would take the short way back, which meant sliding down the steep side of the hill straight to the beach. Being only a little over sixty kilos, and very aware of the insanely expensive equipment on my back, the combination of this route and the wind made me go down very slowly. We all made it down to the beach safely, and quickly afterwards Brian and Derick came to pick us up. With a tail wind the ride back to the ship was a lot more comfortable than the way out. Time for a shower and some laundry…


A met station in action after servicing in 2009.

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