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Antarctica Factoids
Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Mark Newcomb
Hi Mountain Zone, this is Mark Newcomb again reporting for the Antarctica '99 Ski and Snowboard Expedition. This time I'm reporting from a table in Adventure Network International's (ANI) dining tent at Patriot Hills, their base here in Antarctica.

A plate of hot raisin scones just showed up on the table (British tea, royal style), and I'm having a hard time not getting butter and jam all over Sicola's nice, new lap-top. We're waiting for the weather to clear up and calm down enough for the Hercules to make a skittery landing on the blue-ice runway nearby and pick us up. The ice runway is the key to the entire operation here, as the size of aircraft required to support the size and scale of this operation can only land on hard surfaces. Apparently the US Navy owns the technology to put skis on aircraft the size of Hercules C-130's but hasn't released it for commercial use. Since building a tarmac runway on a slowly moving, always changing mass of ice isn't the best idea, the only other available surface is ice.

Patriot Hills is uniquely situated to take advantage of a strip of blue ice, continually scoured clean of snow by katabatic winds blowing from the South Pole toward the ocean. Katabatic is a fancy word for winds created by differences in temperatures. In this case cold, dense air near the Pole rushes seaward replacing relatively warm air rising above the ocean. So the wind is good in that it acts as a giant broom sweeping the runway, but it's bad if it's blowing harder than 15 knots, or about 17 or 18 mph, because it then prevents the Hercules from landing. (As an aside, our correspondent based here, Mark Sicola, witnessed the Chilean Army land a Hercules here on the same patch of ice in low visibility with winds approaching twice those speeds. But their level of risk acceptance is, for obvious reasons, way different that ANI's, a commercial operation burdened with carrying litigious Americans — not us.)

The team is killing time eating, sleeping, drinking wine and playing chess. Koch, Stoup and I discovered a couple of artificial climbing holds in the shape of frogs bolted to a beam in the Cessna hanger by pull-up maniac Alex Lowe. We managed to crank off about a fifth of the number of pull-ups Alex would do in an average set. To round out the workout, we found half-filled, five-gallon drums of oil to use for curls and other exercises. This morning, Koch blasted off at 5am, having never gone to bed, and climbed the hills behind the runway, getting a 1,500-foot ride down a broad bowl on chalky, wind-blown snow in return for his efforts. He was back in time for breakfast at 8:00am.

In other news, a DC-3 is taking off as I speak to fly six people to the South Pole. Two of the group are adventurous, 50-year-old German women who have been waiting four and a half weeks for this flight. They're just about jumping out of their over-bibs in excitement. Supposedly, our Hercules may land tonight, though none of us are holding our breath.

Doug Stoup thought our faithful MZ surfers would also be interested in a couple factoids about Antarctica and where we are. So off the top of my head, here are a few I can throw at you. First of all, Antarctica plus its ice shelves, to me, looks like a splotch of hastily ladled pancake batter on a griddle. If you start at the tip of South America and go south, you'll run into a peninsula called the Antarctic Peninsula. Travelling southward down the peninsula and jogging a bit to the west away from the huge Ronne Ice Shelf, you'll arrive at a point just about exactly 80 degrees east longitude and 80 degrees south latitude, which is where Patriot Hills is located. (By the way, compasses do work down here, but they need to be re-balanced since they want to point through the earth rather than across its surface, and the magnetic variation is something ridiculous like 43 degrees. Quiz: Where in Antarctica would a compass spin indecisively in all directions? E-mail the correct answer and you'll win a set of dirty long underwear.)

Here at Patriot Hills we are about 575 nautical miles from the South Pole. Our elevation here is 2,700 feet, most of which is ice. The elevation at the South Pole is 9,600 feet, most of which is also ice. In fact, the ice covering Antarctica constitutes 75% of the entire earth's freshwater supply, which is one reason why all visitors here are required to transport all their pee and poop off the continent and dispose of it elsewhere.

There are also reports of a huge under-ice reservoir of freshwater somewhere on the continent. Supposedly the water has never been in contact with our modern, polluted atmosphere, and therefore represents some primordial degree of purity. No doubt it also harbors all kinds of alien life forms trapped millions of years ago by the ice, waiting to thaw out, take over the world and make energy bars out of the human race to survive on during their next phase of inter-planetary travel. Food for thought, anyway.

I better sign off before I go any farther. We're all antsy to head home. Oh yeah, it's a balmy 14 degrees Fahrenheit today, with a 10 to 15mph wind out of the south. Sunny right now with a trace of snow over night. Ciao.

— Mark Newcomb, Correspondent


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