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Jaunt to Nearby Island Becomes Four-Day Epic

Barry James flying in better weather. Credit: Debra Tillinger
Barry James flying in better weather. Credit: Debra Tillinger

Going to Antarctica involves a whole lot of paperwork. Before I left, I filled out an extensive medical history, was tested for every disease imaginable, gave my pants size, shoe size, hat size, until I had only one form remaining. That was the waiver acknowledging that working in Antarctica is inherently dangerous and that by going I was agreeing to certain risks. I signed it without a second thought.

Over the last few days, I’ve thought of little else. Four days ago, Greg Balco set out to search for glacial erratics on James Ross Island, a few miles away. He was accompanied by Doug Fox, a science writer for National Geographic. Their helicopter pilot, Barry James, was flying them back to the ship when the weather worsened and he was forced to make an emergency landing.

Their first night on the ice, the rest of us imagined them in their tents, eating from their survival kits and munching on chocolate bars undoubtedly stuffed in their packs. But the weather did not improve the next day, and science operations were again suspended. Their third day out, the weather worsened with whiteout conditions, and it was clear that they would spend another night on the ice. Through frequent communications via iridium phone, they assured us that they were safe in their tents. We began to speculate on which movie star would play whom in the blockbuster-version of their story. We tried not to think about what would happen if the weather didn’t clear soon.

On the fourth day, Chris Dean, our remaining helicopter pilot, took off in a second helicopter for James Ross Island, but turned back due to poor visibility. He tried again a few hours later and radioed the ship to tell us they were arriving. We climbed to the bridge to watch them land. Our ship blasted its foghorn in welcome. Everyone was fine and clearly less worried than we were. They returned just in time for supper.

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