Sunday, October 5, 2014

Antarctic Snow School, German style

Excerpt from Chapter 11. 
GANOVEX VII team practices crevasse rescue at 
Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand. 
Photo © Bruce Luyendyk 

[Scene. Bruce and Christine are part of a German Antarctic expedition. Before departure for the Antarctic the GANOVEX expedition trained for snow and ice safety at Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand.]

“Tomorrow they’re goin’ to fly us up to the peaks to practice crevasse rescues.” Chris said she had heard their plan. Early next morning helicopters took us up to a broad snowfield perched in the highest peaks of the park. It was summer in New Zealand but sunny winter up there. The experience to fly up the faces of the cliffs to the peaks can’t be imagined – the vertical relief must have been near a mile. The pale blue glacial waters of Lake Pukaki lay below us as we ascended above the tree line, flew by the gray rock above and below – a magical elevator ride where at the top floor we landed in a brilliant white snow plateau settled between black sawtooth peaks under a clear deep blue sky.

Bradley was our instructor, a middle-aged man like me, Kiwi, soft-spoken, grayed, weathered. He pointed to a snow canyon at the base of a peak about 500 yards away from our group. “That snow scoop over there is more than fifteen stories deep, has a nice vertical cliff edge - we’ll practice crevasse rescues there,” he said. We walked across the snow over to the canyon - a deep chasm in the snow carved by incessant winds that rebounded off the peak next to it. The scoop, a couple of hundred yards across, semi-circled the peak, as a part moat - I could see its walls left and right of where I stood. They extended down for almost two hundred feet. My stomach turned over. I looked at Chris as to say “Holy shit. Is he kidding?” but I didn’t, because he wasn’t.

Bradley explained. “Three people will tie-in on a rope, walk in a line towards the edge. The lead person jumps off the cliff and the other two drop to the snow, arrest the fall, then pull the man out with a Z-Pulley1 rescue setup. Monty and I will show you how to rig it.”

We had done this in McMurdo Survival School a couple of years ago, but not over a canyon, nothing like this. I looked around at my classmates. Most had experience, not all of them looked in top physical shape. We had a few former East Germans with us, no Antarctic expeditions on their résumé.

My turn, I tied–in at the lead of the rope, two burly Germans tied-in behind me about fifty and a hundred feet back. Had they done this before? I walked to the edge, didn’t look down and jumped off. I fell, hit the snow wall, and bounced. The rope stretched. I jerked to a stop about forty feet down. The Germans caught my fall. I looked up to see Bradley at the cliff edge - pieces of snow I had knocked loose fell past me. I gave thumbs up, acted like I was cool. He acknowledged then helped the two guys on the rope above me rig the Z-Pulley. I waited at the end of the rope. Then I felt heave stop, heave stop, and repeat. They dragged me up to the edge. I was pulled over the lip and out. I thought, that was fun, but did I need to have the crap scared out of me?

 1 A Z-Drag or Z-Pulley is an arrangement of lines and pulleys commonly used in rescue situations. The basic arrangement provides a theoretical mechanical advantage of three. The name comes from the fact that the arrangement of lines is roughly Z shaped. Besides the mechanical advantage to pulling, it also uses only part of the total length of the rope for the block and tackle arrangement. (Wikipedia)

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