Runways Antarctica Style

The weather has been warm, which means almost up to freezing at times here in Antarctica on Union Glacier.

The winds have been coming across the glacier, usually very rare, so we needed another runway option to provide more landing options with the variable winds.

With ski equipped Twin Otters, you can really land about anywhere snowy and marginally flat it seems, but in snowy conditions and with low contrast that can prove a bit challenging.

Simon, a past British Antarctic Survey member and now one of our most experienced guides, took me under his wing, and out into the cloud and cold to help mark the runway.

With a full box of large black trash bags, a snowmobile each, a preprogrammed GPS and a shovel, we were ready. With gusts of wind to 30 knots it proved an invigoratingly cold day. Laying out a full kilomètre of black bags, 30 meters apart and in a perfect line for the planes took a mix of GPS waypoints, sighting along the lines and a bit of fine tuning as the fog came and went.

In practice it is simple. Fill the big bag with lots of snow. But in the wind, angling the bag the right way to keep it open is essential. Don’t fill it too full or it can’t be tied off. Then line it up with the other bags, both across the runway and on the longitudinal direction.

Then one of us would go off and sight back along the line and call on the radio to get it into perfect lines – only possible with half the runway at the time due to visibility. Then place double bags a few meters apart at both ends to mark the start and end.

In between, keep the snowmobiles humming, the face warm, the gloves on and the shovel handy. Never forget to put the bags in a small hole so if the wind really comes up they don’t slide away.

Then roar quickly back to Camp for at least two large cups of tea.