BURAN!  (The Blizzard!)


Bivouac Shelter for a storm: category 2, hurricane force winds & blinding snow!


For scientists, Antarctica is a hostile but not unfamiliar environment; they've been working there for decades.  Exobiologist Dale Andersen, a veteran of several Antarctic research expeditions under the sponsorship of NASA and the National Science Foundation, certainly knows his way around The Ice.  But on a recent trip, a simple data-gathering exercise turned life-threatening in the blink of an eye.

The focus of exobiology research in Antarctica is the outer limits of conditions within which life can thrive; such studies relate to the search for signs of past, or even present, life on Mars.  Researchers are examining different regions of Antarctica with different types of boundary conditions.   Andersen spent October1991 through April 1992 in Antarctica on an exobiology research expedition to Russia's Bunger Hills station.  A cooperative effort between NASA and the Russian research establishment, this expedition included eight Russians and two Americans and one Canadian.  (It's worth noting that this team may have been the first American-Russian group to work together on the Antarctic continent, since the Soviet Union was dissolved while the team was on the way to the Ice.)

Bunger Hills is a very isolated spot, half way around the continent from McMurdo Station.   In fact, it had not been used at all for at least a year before the team arrived, and when they got there they found that much of the station had been severely damaged or destroyed by winds during the previous months.   The Russian members of the team were equipped for sending telex  and radio messages to Mirny Station, another Russian research facility, about 500 miles away, which would then forward them to Moscow.   The Americans brought with them a portable INMARSAT C communications system.  It included a transceiver the size of a shoebox and a football-sized antenna, interfaced with a computer run by solar-power-charged batteries.  With this system, the team could send and receive electronic messages via satellite.

On March 19, 1992, Andersen set out from his base camp with researcher Peter Doran and two other colleagues to conduct synchronized measurements of tidal flows at four different spots a few miles apart.  On March 22, Doran sent an E-mail message to associates in the States: "Just back from ice camp.  I understand [you heard] about us missing a radio check, so to put your mind at ease: this trip was a nightmare....  It was beautiful when we left.  First night at ice camp, the winds picked up.  We got up at 6 a.m. to start the measurements, and the winds were heavy but not unworkable."

But as the day went on, "it got worse," Doran said.  "Much worse."  Doran returned to ice camp at 5 p.m., spent the next three hours trying, without success, to contact Andersen by radio, and waited until morning to head back to base camp.  That trek "was the most horrendous trip of my life" -- a 2.5 hour walk turned into 6 hours of torture on the ice.  But he made it.

Also on March 22, Andersen E-mailed his colleagues about the incident: "The last several days have been somewhat of an adventure -- one that I hope will not be repeated...."  On March 19, Peter and I were up by 6 and out of the tent by 7.... The wind had begun to kick up a little from the east, but it was not really too unusual, and we decided to go ahead with the planned work.  I threw on my pack, put on a couple of ice-creepers..., grabbed my ice-axe and headed up the glacier,"  to a small lake resting in a depression surrounded by ice on three sides and rock on the other.  "As I walked down into the basin, the winds began to increase but were still no problem."

He set up his instruments and went to work.  "The winds continued to pick up all day, but I needed to get the tidal turnover, which would not occur until after 3 p.m., so I was determined to stay at least until then.  At 4:45 I had still not seen the tide begin to drop, and by this time I was getting concerned about getting back to camp.  The wind had already tossed me around the lake a few times, and it was getting much worse.

"I packed up everything and started up the side of the glacier, but the winds became very violent and were blowing down one side and back up the other.  The downdrafts were absolutely incredible.  I have never been hit by such an enormous force.  Each time I tried to leave, the wind would blow me back down, slamming me into the ice and carrying me about 20-30 meters over the ice like a rag doll...even as I was self-arresting with my ice axe."

It was then that Andersen realized the situation had grown very serious.  "After trying to climb out five or six times without success and with zero visibility, I decided the prudent thing to do was to stay the night." Accommodations consisted of rocks, and he was concerned about being out of contact with his colleagues.  "This was the one time we were without the walkie talkies. I had one in my pack, but someone had borrowed the other two...and I did not get them back before we left....  But I do not think I could have been heard anyway with the wind blowing at 40-50 meters per second (~90-112 mph). I did not want them to risk their necks trying to find me....

"I began to make a stone wall...to give me a bit more protection from the snow and wind....  Fortunately, I had with me my bivy sac and a sleeping bag with some food....  I removed my boots and outer garments, which had become completed covered in ice, and placed them into my pack.  I then jumped into the sleeping bag...and zipped the bivy sac shut.   It is made of Gortex, and it kept most of the water out during the night.  All night I was pounded by these horrendous downdrafts....  Although I was somewhat cold and clammy, I was nevertheless OK, and I figured that I could easily make it through the night...as long as I could stay reasonably dry.

"After a very, very long night without sleep, the morning arrived without any lessening of the winds or snow.  Visibility was only a few feet.  At 9 o'clock, I decided that I would have to.get off the glacier....  The sleeping bag was simply a bag of soggy feathers, and my clothing was losing its insulative properties, too."  He also was worried that his colleagues might try to look for him.  One stranded scientist was enough....  "My first attempts at getting up the side of the glacier resulted in my body getting slam-dunked against the ice, again and again.  At one point I thought that I would actually be carried over the lake ice and up the other side of the glacier...."  Finally the winds died down a bit, and he made it up.

"At first, I was filled with joy that I had finally gotten out of that hole, but this happy feeling soon disappeared as the wind redoubled its efforts....  I was carried another 30 meters or so across the ice (believe me, it hurts like hell to be dragged across rough ice) again for what must have been the 30th time by now...."

Finally, he anchored himself with his ice axe.  "I remained pinned to the ice for almost 30 minutes.  As I lay there, I lectured myself on how important it would be for me to move with as much caution as possible.  I knew if I injured myself I would be dead....  As soon as I was able to stand again, the wind immediately slammed me down and this time managed to slam my head into the ice, giving me a bloody nose and a sizeable lump on my forehead...."

By then, he had advanced only feet rather than meters or kilometers across the glacier.  "The camp was only a few kilometers to the northwest, but the winds were such that I could only walk to the northeast, into the wind.  Walking with the wind was impossible....  After another five hours of struggle, I finally made it to solid ground.  I had not eaten much since I could never get my stove lit, so as I rested in the protection of a large boulder I ate a little jam and snow.  I made it back to the camp about 4 p.m., just in time for the radio check."  The practice of Andersen's team was to check by radio every hour on the hour on people who were out of contact.

Field team member Dr. Nicolai Chernyh’s sketch of the Grim Reaper trying to catch me!

At camp, one tent had been blown down and torn up, but another was still in good shape.  He set up his radio and heard his colleagues broadcasting a message to him.  "Unfortunately the radio batteries were getting low and communications were so bad that [the team] could not hear my reply....  The good news was that Peter was back at the main base and OK."  At 5 p.m., Andersen finally got through to the team and told them he was all right.  The next radio check would be at 10 the next morning.  He spent the night in a sleeping bag left in the surviving tent.  In the morning, he told his colleagues that he would set off for base camp at 1 p.m.  They advised him to take the long way around Lake Figourney because wind had ablated away its ice cover, making it unsafe for walking.  "Instead of a 3 hour walk in the wind, I now had a four to five hour walk."

He did make it back, in one piece, much to his colleagues' relief.  The next morning, Andersen found out that, while he was stranded on the glacier, one of his colleagues had watched an anemometer at base camp hit 46 meters per second before the wind blew it off its pole.

"It was certainly an excellent lesson in the dangers of this place," Doran commented in his message from The Ice.  "It's a real good sign that Momma Antarctica has given up enough secrets and wants us to get the hell out of town."  P.S., he wrote -- "I would still very much like to know whether the met station is transmitting...."

"It was a difficult two days," Andersen concluded of the episode.  "I must say that in addition to the bumps and bruises I received from the glacier, I learned a little more about human nature and a bit more about myself...plus we did get some reasonable data....all in all a positive experience, but once is enough.

Andersen returned to California late in the spring of 1992 after more than six months on the Ice. In October 1992, he went back for another three months of research, this time under the auspices of the Antarctic Space Analog Program, a joint endeavor of NASA and the National Science Foundation. These Antarctic investigations are proof that researchers are willing to take substantial risks for the sake of exploration and discovery -- and some of them are willing to take much greater risks by traveling to other planets in pursuit of answers.    

Google Earth has made it possible to explore this region by satellite imagery. Here are a few of the coordinates so you can see where this story took place.

Main Camp (Oasis Station): -66.274418°, 100.745051°

White Smoke Lake:  66°19'20.16"S, 100°36'25.57"E

Fly Camp:  66°19'23.41"S, 100°34'52.37"E

Storm Shelter:  -66.333761°, 100.650153°

The nunatak on Apfel Glacier


An Antarctic Adventure

NASA  Magazine Spring 1993, pp. 18-21

By Linda Billings

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Aerial image of White Smoke Lake, a perennially ice-covered lake in the Bunger Hills.

Apfel Glacier

White Smoke Lake


The path over the Apfel Glacier, back to the fly camp

The small lake around this island was tidal, quite unusual for a lake.

As you can see, getting down to the lake from the Apfel Glacier and then back up to the glacier was not a trivial walk, especially during high winds.

Fly Camp

Having hiked back to Oasis Station,  Dale Andersen relaxes in Valery and Nicolai’s hut, recounting the last couple of days.