Thursday, December 16, 2010

Manapouri Power Station Road

Road cut deep into Fiordland, crossing by dozens of avalanche paths, looking down on one of the world's biggest landslides (forming the valley floor in bottom picture)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Clifden Caves

Glowworms in the Clifden CavesAfter Hump Ridge I left Tuatapere for the Clifden Caves. I was reading Beyond the Deep - about scientist/inventor/explorer Bill Stone’s 1960’s- 1990’s efforts to bottom the Rio Augustin Cave (mbe a mile deep) in Mexico’s Huatla Plateau. The Huatla Plateau is a big area of limestone highlands standing above the surrounding desert. It’s high enough to attract most of the seasonal rain in the area, which tends to sink into underground rivers. The place is a caver mecca, akin to Florida’s watery cave system. The bottom of the San Augustin cave is one of the remotest places in the world, due to the technical nature of the descent and the frequent long sumps blocking its tunnels. Bill Stone spent 40 years chasing the world depth record in this cave. Over the course of the book there are many near misses (his girlfriend catches her hair in a rack while descending... a teammate threads a rack backwards in the dark when his carbide light fails and when the pins flip out he is only saved from falling to his death by his own immense strength... a newer teammate, exhausted and burnt-out, makes mistakes and almost drowns in a waterfall twice... a couple divers dive a complex new rebreather unit without changing a CO2 scrubber that’s low and become hypoxic…).
And there are several deaths - one very experienced team member is an insulin-dependent diabetic. Alone in the rebreather beyond the last sump, he suffers a hypoglycemic episode and tragically drowns in a big chamber, not far from land. In a separate cave, a renowned older diver fails to resurface after attempting to set a record by diving to 1000’ feet in a cenote. His body pops to the surface days later, its tissues and the encapsulating wetsuit ruptured by expanding gases. Another friend dies in a silt-out in a Florda cave (divers on open-circuit systems have only about 20-80 min air, depending on their depth. They depend on waterproof electric lights, and even when following best practice by taking 2 backups, total failures do happen. Many underwater cave tunnels are coated in fine, flour-like silt that is easily stirred up, reducing visibility to nothing. Divers tend to reel out a thin line behind them as they go, but if they lose this line or pull on it too hard so that its cut by a sharp rock edge, odds of getting out in time in a silt-out are low.)
In the end, the initially large team is so disheartened by the work, conditions, and these tragedies, that only Bill, his girlfriend Barbara, and one dedicated doctor friend remain deep in the cave. If anything goes wrong, it will be very serious. With the flooding of the wet season imminent, Bill and Barbara dive the long sump which had blocked further progress until Bill designed his own rebreathers. They then spend a week following various dry abandoned under ground river beds, and renew the cave’s status as the deepest in the Americas. They also tie it in to other parts of the Huatla system. They are finally defeated by ‘the mother of all sumps’. I believe the cave has still not been bottomed. All this really makes me want to go into more caves!
So anyway, off to the Clifden caves. All there was to mark them was a sign on the side of the highway and a small gravel parking area. I opened a page of a book I was reading and wrote a note to leave in my windshield ‘entered caves at 1230pm’. Haha, hopefully if I didn’t come out someone would eventually notice. The DOC warns (and I do tend to take their warnings very seriously, tempting as it is to try going against them) not to go into the cave if there is any water at all flowing in to it. It’s subject to flash flooding. Inside, I found grass deposited along the walls up to 4’ high from floodwaters- yikes! I grabbed my 3 lights (flashlight, keychain light, and camera flash- what? I'm poor and have to carry all my stuff when I travel…) and wandered down to the mouth. It was very dark and the thought of going alone was creepy (and recommended against by DOC).
Fortunately just as I was forcing my self in alone, a couple Frenchies rolled up and joined me. The girl chickened out and left at the first squeeze. The cave was really great. In Te Anua I took an $80 cruise to see glowworms, but there were tons more of them here. I could take pictures and look up close at the animals and their array of threads. We'd been told in Te Anau that they were super-sensitive to light, but these ones kept on glowing merrily after the flash went off. It was incredibly beautiful, and we took 2.5 hrs to get through, stopping often with lights off to look at the unexpectedly brilliant green-blue dots of light. I wondered if they would actually cast enough light to navigate by, once one’s eyes had adjusted for a long time. There were signatures on the cave walls dating back to the 1880’s. Near the end of the cave were some fun bits that required chimneying and careful balance on a narrow ledge with awkward rock projections around a deep, cold pool.
cave was every bit as cool as Cave Stream, in its own special way.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Castle Rock Loop Manhaul

September manhaul around Castle Rock Loop, camp overnight at Castle Rock.
Distance: 9.3 miles
Weather: temp average neg 20F, windchill to neg 63F, winds calm to 20-30knots. Condition 2 for return trip.
Equipment: Weight 200-250lbs for 2 haulers. Fiberglass sledge with fabric equipment cover, double-layered scott tent, 2 kiwi sleep kits containing sleeping bag liner, double-layered down sleeping bag, and inflatable insulating sleeping pad, primus stove with compressed liquid fuel, stove kit - 2 mugs, sporks, saucepan, fuel, spill pads, matches, etc., 1.5 gals water (melted snow for refill in the morning), ice axe, shovel, personal kits with spare clothing and pee bottles, etc.
ECW: 5-11 thinsulate boots (and later FDX polar boots when the 5-11s were frozen inthe morning), poly socks, heavy wool socks, 2 sets long underwear- 1 light polypro and 1 heavy, cargo pants, snowpants, sweater, big red down jacket, neck gaiter, face mask, goggles (not needed), hat.
Started from MCM end of Castle Rock trail at 1700. Found hauling harder than anticipated, due to combination of hill and high friction along snow surface. Later we found that even going down on very steep hills friction kept the sledge from building up momentum. Alternated between taking turns hauling and both hauling at once, with both hauling for most of the trip. In The Worst Journey in the World, 1912 Terra Nova Expedition member Apsley Cherry-Gerard describes hauling on winter snow in this area thus:
"In consequence of the lack of high winds the surface of the snow is never swept and hardened and polished as elsewhere: is was now a mass of the smallest and hardest ice crystals, to pull through which in cold temperatures was just like pulling through sand. I have spoken elsewhere of Barrier surfaces, and how, when the cold is very great, sledge runners cannot melt the crystal points but only advance over them by rolling them over and over upon one another. That was the surface we met on this journey, and in soft snow the effect is accentuated..."
Arrive at Castle Rock at 2100 and set up camp. I start to understand a little more about the challenges the old explorers faced. Though we have lighter, simplified gear, it takes up two hours to level out a spot on the slope, wrestle up both layers of frozen synthetic tent material, stake and tie it and clip all the devilish little rock-hard plastic clips, tie down the sledge, unpack the sleeping gear, get out of our ECW, and start up the stove and melt snow for water and cook dinner. We have to pause often to re-warm our hands throughout this process. By 2300 we are bedded down snug in the truly impressive Kiwi sleep bags, and inside the tent is quite a bit warmer than outside. The steam in the tent is so thick I can hardly see my partner. It forms a thin layer of ice on the tent's inner layer, which falls onto us every time the tent is touched. We brush the snow off our gear outside, hang up some of it to thaw out, and stuff the rest down between the sleeping bag layers so it won't freeze solid. I make the mistake of leaving my boots, usually quite cozy, outside the bag. They end up causing me a lot of pain when I stubbornly try to defrost them with body heat when we start out in the morning.
We sleep well during the night and wake to the wind howling. Looking out the door, we can see about 1/4 mile worth of flags along the path. We delay a couple hours, waiting without luck for improving conditions, then strike camp. (this was a good move, as it later deteriorates to Con 1).
Hauling downhill is a bit easier, though it's still work once we get back onto the flat. The weather deteriorates to Con 2, but we are working hard enough to stay warm and comfortable inside our ECW gear. By the time we reach Scott Base we're both pretty knackered, and my legs are starting to cramp, but it's been a great trip.

nice pics

Buiding the curling rink

Building the curling rink, midwinter.

Blasting bollards out of the old ice pier so that it can be given a burial at sea.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Adventures with Antarctic ARFF trucks

Catch 22: AFD has something like $200,000 for an ARFF truck that can be driven onto a C-130 and flown to the South Pole.
No ARFF truck that costs $200,000 and fits on a C-130 will work in Antarctica.
(Also, we later discover that ARFF trucks that cost $200,000 and fit on a C-130 and don't work in Antarctica - which is, by necessity, what we bought- ONLY fit on a C-130 if driven in- not back in. This lesson costs about $1mil and results in a C-130 sitting on the ramp at Pole with a 'For Sale' sign pasted on it. Fortunately, it was the loadmaster's fault, not ours.
The Renegades:
It's an F-550 with a 300gal CAFS/ 500 lb dry chem fire package on back. The trimax fire package is a pretty nifty patented system in which big high pressure nitrogen cylinders pressurize dry chem and foam tanks, enabling agent flow, and simulaneously injects air into the foam stream to create CAFS. Because the nitro cools when it expands, the agent comes out almost at freezing temperature. The trucks have about 90 secs worth of agent out the turret, and up to 8 mins out the handline. The forest service, loggers, etc buy a lot of these systems, and they work quite well. Everywhere but Antarctica.

Fatal Flaws of the Renegades:
Fire Package - Foam must be used as a concentrate and is therefore very corrosive. All brass fittings and certain areas of inappropriate soft hose replaced after they blew apart when charged at a fire.
- the fire package is surrounded by a metal box. The undiluted foam will freeze below -40F, so the truck has to be heated. Current heaters are inadequate and there isn't capacity at the air field right now for high-voltage plug ins.
- 5 psi check valves between the nitro and foam system are inadequate and allow foam to back up and render the electrical actuating system inoperable. One of my favorite AFD catches: while the foam can be cleaned out by breaking down the entire system and taking apart the solenoids, the system must then be tested, which puts more foam into the system.
- THE SYSTEM HAS NO MANUAL OVERRIDE. In order to manually activate the system, a 5' nitro cylinder would have to be moved to the side, air hoses disconnected from the foam line valve, and the valve manually pulled and held open. System failed at a truck fire due to lack of manual activation capability.
- Hoseline is a 100' rubber hose reel that hardens in cold temps. This means that the truck will have to back up right to the door of a C-130 or C-17 for good reach inside the plane.
The truck - F550 is not a tough enough platform for this system.
- back overloaded - suspension system has pretty much zero spring left.
- transmission is not heavy enough for the tracks. Much time at VMF.
- trucks can go about 6 miles at 20mph before their coolant boils. Spills are a no-no here.
- trucks were nearly impossible to steer in close quarters/ low speeds due to track friction. This resulted in excessive wear and tear and a few really good years for the Ford steering pump division, until VMF rigged up a hydraulic enhancement.
- Although the trucks are used very little, the Mattracks are not very durable and end up with rips fairly frequently

- Smurf hut, winter (2007?) - warming hut at Pegasus catches fire. Glow is seen from town, a Renegade responds over the ice road. On arrival, handline is pulled, system is charged, and the corroded brass fittings in the package blow apart. Package fills with foam, hut burns while crew waits for a second truck to drive out. Total loss.

- Van fire - Pegasus, summer 2010 - Renegade works beautifully. Van total loss.
- Truck fire - Ice Runway, winter 2010 -Solenoids on foam side of system fail, system unchargeable, fire eventually put out with PKP and shovelfulls of snow. Total loss.

Testing - After the failure of Red 4 at the winter 2010 truck fire, AFD was mandated to test all ARFF apparatus. Testing of the 4 Renegades was informative, fun, and resulted in the following unique photo ops:
Foam explosion #1: Foam system switch was wired backwards -> 'off'='on'. Unfortunately handline was open in the back, so when the ignition key was turned, the package got filled with foam. Fortunately for, I left that evening for the Castle Rock manhaul and missed the cleanup.

Foam Explosion #2 - malfunction causes foam discharge out the turret. The fates present this disaster in an artistic way to me. We have just returned from building inspections, and open the bay door to back the truck in. As I signal the truck back, I turn and stare as the door slowly rises to reveal a heavy stream shooting from the turret and a huge expanding pool of white foam rapidly spreading across the bay. Perfect timing. Cleanup takes the rest of the afternoon. Note how our noble fire crew is still smiling.
Foam Explosion #3 - A similar event causes a similar spill the next day - picture a slightly smaller bubbly puddle and a few less smiles.

Eventually all 6 ARFF trucks were returned to serviceable condition, for now. Plans are being worked on for fixing the unintended foam-air system interface, and adding manual overrides. Two new units will be ordered for Pole, and these will be dragged on sleds to reduce the strain on the F550s. Their packages will feature compressor-generated CAFS and full manual overrides.

PKP Explosion - The grand finale. I've lost track of the details on this one, but it was a big cleanup for the other shift, with lots of 55 gal drums, masks, and brooms. A fine purple film can still be found by running one's finger along most any horizontal surface in the firehouse.

Testing the Chieftons: 25 years old and still going strong

Red 1 - separate pump and generator in back package. Passes flow test without a hitch. Package was completely rewired in back last month after being plugged into the wrong phase power source.

Red 2 - PTO pump and separate generator in package. Everything is nice and solid, heavy and old. It doesnt break easy. It isnt simple. Steps to use this truck during our test:

1) Pre-startup truck check... outer 30" of water intake pipe is frozen solid. Two hours of thawing necessary.

2) Unplug 2 power cords from under engine.

3) Climb up on tread and turn on front battery switch.

4) Start engine by turning ignition and holding ignition cutoff switch for at least 30 seconds.

5) Turn off outside breaker for package power

6) unplug cannon plug from truck

7) climb into package and start generator by turning on fuel, turning off circuit breaker, pulling out choke, and turning key for electric start. Use pull start when electric start fails to work.

8) Unplug and re-plug 3 cords to transfer all package heater to generator power.

9) Open main valve and recirculate valve to get pump wet.

10) Return to cab and follow normal steps to engage PTO: place air brake on, truck in neutral, engage PTO, put truck in drive, switch on high idle.

11) Truck stalls. Experiment until you figure out this is the order needed: Truck in neutral, parking brake, high idle, PTO, drive.

12) Climb back into package and open the valve to the turret if you havent already.

13) Climb back into the front and use turret controls. For handline, pull handline, then charge with valve at back of package. Remember that you only have 1000 or 1100 of the 1200 gals that could fit in the tank , since the agent sloshes out the top vent if the tank is filled all the way.