Just Hanging out over Lake Bonney -
So this morning started out as normal as most. I woke up in my sleeping bag, to my alarm on my watch, which is velcroed to my eye mask (yes I wear an I eye mask for darkness in this perpetual light). I unzipped myself out of all the layers I'm wrapped up in all night. Then I collect all my gear for the day - I pull out my parka from under my sleeping bag, and put my pee bottle and funnel in the pocket (oh, yes. that is how nature calls in Antarctica). Then I put on my cold-weather hiking boots and this particular morning I grabbed a new pair of socks and liners. Change your socks, change your attitude! I walked down my hill, up near the helo-pad, and into the Jamesway. The smell of coffee and the hussle and bussle of a rushed Lake Bonney morning was upon us. The Endurance team, and me, are out the door and onto the ATVs by 9am. Just imagine 8 people trying to get anywhere on time and add many layers of clothing and lunch for the day... and you've got it (it reminds me of the mornings before school at O.L.P.H, my grade school, when my Mom had to get my brothers and sister and I out to school on time!) So I grab some oatmeal, my go to breakfast here, and pack up my bag and gear for the day ahead. Lael, our GA (General Assistant), who is here from McMurdo helping to lighten the load from an injured Maciek, helped me move some things around before our upcoming inspection from Environmental, and then we were off, with Bart, on our morning commute.
Me driving the ATV
Every night, after they tuck the robot into bed, the team leaves a hot finger in the hole, to keep the hole melted through the night. But even with that, the top of the hole still freezes over about a quarter of an inch thick overnight.
The hole in the morning
Lael and I had the job of chipping and scooping away the ice, so the robot could get into the water. Bill was explaining that it takes some effort to reach the ice, "usually we just put someone in a harness over the hole, but you two probably don't want to..." I immediately, and without thinking, jumped at the chance to get harnessed up and hang over a large hole in the ice! I couldn't believe it when Bill actually said okay, went to get me a harness, and told me to step in. Well there was no backing down now. While (almost) every part of me was super excited that I was getting to do this!... I was actually going to belay down over the Bot Hole... there was still a part of me, whispering doubts and fears... Doubts about my ability to hold myself over a hole, and chip and scoop ice; Fears of belaying myself down, to hover over a hole in the ice, with nothing to catch me but 125 feet of frozen water!!! Honestly, the most challenging and thrilling part of life in Antarctica, is there is rarely time to be stalled by your fears. I was in a harness, and Bill was going over the use of my hand and foot ascenders and foot loop. Oh wow, this is happening!
Bill teaching the ups and downs of ascending
My harness/life-line and ascenders
Bill is an expert caver and rock climber. I was sure he was the only one I would trust completely to put me in a harness and hang me out over the depths of Lake Bonney. Also Vickie, another season caver, and was only a shout away if I felt unsure about anything. With this support, my excitement, and the bot waiting for its clean bot hole, I leaned back from the Bot House floor and allowed my weight to fall into the harness. With one push I was out over the center of the hole. 'Holey' cow! It is entirely unnerving to be supported by a harness and foot rest, over 100+ feet of water. Especially when it would only take 2 or 3 feet of that water to put me straight into cardiac arrest, and only a few more to kill me.
I was surprised though, how comfortable and safe I felt in the harness. I did not expect to feel like the harness was really holding my weight. I was over the top of the hole, at floor level, and the surface of the water was about 8ft down. So with Bill's help, I lowered myself down. I had to stand on my foot loop, in order to release the tension on my hand ascender up at my chest. Then I released the hand ascender at my chest level and pulled it down about a foot. Then I leaned back and put my weight in my harness and lifted my foot off the foot loop to release the tension there, and moved the hand ascender at my feet down. I did this a foot at a time for about 8 feet, until I was hovering just above the water level. Lael then took control of my ropes, and handed me the fish net we use to scoop ice out. The net, and anything else held over the hole, is tied down so if we drop it, it is secured and doesn't fall into the lake (a BIG environmental and scientific no-no).
The process of clearing a hole requires breaking up the surface of the ice and scooping it out into the bucket (which is also secured).
Me scooping out ice with my net
Me dumping ice out of the net and into the bucket
After about 30mins of scooping ice, Lael handed me the ice-chipper. This was the truly difficult part. It is impossible to put force into a chip, without anyway to stabilize yourself. Every time I pushed down to chip something away I got pushed away from the wall and spun around. The spinning made it difficult, but Lael was great! All the ropes got very confusing. I was new to this and was never sure where to release tension and where to hold more tension. Lael did a great job pulling be around the hole, and giving me tension on the ropes when I needed to move or stabilize myself. Bill spent a previous day scuba diving and chipping ice off underwater! I don't know how he managed. It must have been impossible, with the buoyancy and weight issues in water, I do not know how he put any force behind his strikes. But he got off way more ice underwater than I did on top of the hole.
I spent about two hours over the hole. The first hour was breaking the ice cover, and scooping out the ice with my net. Then I got the chipper and chipped the edges off so the robot would have some extra room in its already tight squeeze down through the hole. After that, I had to pull out all that new ice! It was a lot of work! But every time I looked down, into the blue depths of Lake Bonney, I was blown away with exactly where I was hanging!
The shattered ice cover
I was really sore after my hours of harnessed chipping. But it was and still is unbelievable that I get to hang in a harness over a hole in the ice. The bot had a ice-free hole, and was ready to be lowered down and start exploring. Now this job has become my daily job, and everyone warned me that while the first day was exciting, the excitement will fade every day I have to do this. I told them, "No way, this will always be one of the coolest, coldest, scariest, and bravest thing I have ever done!" The next day, I had to get harnessed up again, except I could do most of it myself this time... and as I was leaning my weight back into the harness and lowering myself over the hole I thought "This IS the craziest thing I have EVER done!!" Tomorrow will be just another day, hanging out, just chillin'...