On February 10th, the sun briefly peeked above the horizon at noon and lit up South Mountain. Everyone waited eagerly for that moment because we had not seen the sun for two months. A group of us were so eager to see the sun that we took the base commander's plane up for a 'training mission'. This is a snapshot of that precious few minutes of first sun on South Mountain in 1968.
As soon as there was daylight for several hours, the activity began to pick up on and off the base. The sea was frozen down about 40 inches (100 cm), and it provided a smooth dog sled 'highway' for the Greenlanders living in small villages along the coast. The men were anxious to get out and hunt for fresh seal and walrus. Also, the women and children were ready to go visit friends in other villages after being confined all winter to small houses.
March was our windiest month. However, we had to be cautious all year long because the wind could come down off the ice cap at any time and in minutes be blowing dangerously hard. I only saw it blowing up to 100 mph (160 kmh) once during the year I was there. That only lasted a few hours, but the wind chill factor was -110 F (-79 C). Everyone just stayed wherever they were whenever something like that happened. It might last just hours, or it might last several days. At P-Mountain, where we had some communications equipment, the winds were recorded up to 134 mph (214 kmh).
Once two men were walking to the dining hall, but before they arrived there, they were caught in a sudden wind storm. They couldn't see, or even stand up, and could not get into any buildings. We almost lost them due to the extreme wind chill factor.
We had a crashed aircraft cleanup project on the frozen sea ice one time. Here is our 'out house' toilet there on the ice. See how it is tied down so the wind wouldn't blow it away.
Look at what the wind did to the big fuel tanks! Notice how they are caved in above the fuel level. These tanks are made of sheet steel, yet they gave way to the strong Arctic winds.
After the sun was out for a few hours a day, the temperature started gradually rising. After the long dark winter, I was anxious to get out in the sun. I started taking short trips, always keeping close to the truck and roads with emergency shelters. Here is one of the shelters:
They were each stocked with supplies for three days and were about a half-mile apart along the approximately 30 miles of off base roads.
The roads were nothing but graded permafrost. However, the permafrost was as solid as concrete most of the year. During the summer, the permafrost would melt down only a few inches in the sunny places. Notice that there is very little snow on the ground in most pictures. That is typical because it snows very little. During the winter, the air is very dry, often at about 5 percent humidity. Instead of snow falling, generally ice crystals are blown off the ice cap. In fact, in this picture, there is a cloud of ice crystals blowing off the ice cap shown above the truck.
One of our first trips in spring was to the ice cap edge. Shown here, we are approaching to within several hundred feet of the ice cap edge. It is over 100 feet (30 m) high. The dark bands are gravel that was picked up many miles away by glacial action as the ice cap constantly spreads out toward the edges. This beautiful vertical wall of ice and gravel was several miles long. We stayed well away from it because we were reminded that this was a moving wall of ice by frequent loud cracking sounds! It was a fantastic experience to be near such awesome beauty and incredibly powerful natural forces at work.
The age of this ice has been measured anywhere from a hundred to a thousand years old. A few miles from here a research project in 1962 dug 1,100 ft (330 m) into the ice cap edge to study the feasibility of living and working in ice caves. They discovered that the ice moved up to 1 meter per year. Also that the floor pushed up faster than the roof came down because of the terrific pressure from below. They also learned that coal mining equipment worked best for tunneling and that explosives were not practical. Thirty-one thousand cubic meters of ice was removed, and a camp sufficient for 25 men was built with all conveniences but was never used. Lucky men!
It doesn't look like it, but I am still several hundred feet away from this massive and awesome wall of ice with glacial drift gravel. And I know that it doesn't look very high, but along this edge of the ice cap the height was from 100 to 180 feet (30 to 54 m)! One of the problems explorers and researchers have, even to this day, is getting up on to the ice cap. Thule is one of the few places that has easy access to the ice cap via a road.
Below is another snapshot, taken from an airplane, of the ice cap edge showing the same area where we hiked to, as shown in the pictures above.
Below is a photo taken from near Thule Air Base toward the ice cap several miles away. I believe the distance was approximately 10 miles. The ice cap access area can be seen in the picture, just to the right of center. However, the road going up on to the ice cap is not visible from this distance. The gentle slope there is one of the best places to get equipment up on to the ice cap. That is where Camp TUTO (Thule Take Off point) was located, also.
Glaciers flow down from the ice cap many places, such as this one we flew over in summer time. Notice the water is in a huge fjord carved out by an ancient glacier.
© Copyright 1999, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
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