Three days into a two-month, 1,400-mile pioneering journey across Greenland's northern ice cap, the main tractor in a convoy that included crewmember Pat Smith got stuck.
It appeared to be a bad omen.
"So we were concerned," said Smith, 51, of Billings, in his calm, understated demeanor. "No one knew what kind of snow was in the arctic at this time of year. We were just kind of guessing. It turned out to be pretty tough snow to travel on."
The cross-country venture, dubbed the Greenland Inland Traverse, was funded by the National Science Foundation. The trip was devised as a possible alternative to flying supplies via Hercules C-130 planes in to Summit Station, a research facility. The planes are gas hogs, expensive and limited to 40,000 pounds of cargo. Thule Air Base, on the continent's northwest coast, was chosen as a launch point because it has a harbor capable of handling ships with large cargo. Also, a road was carved by the military in the 1950s through the cliffs that surround the base to access the ice cap.
The benefits of going overland are decreased emissions, lower cost and the ability to move oversized cargo, said Jay Burnside, of CH2M Hill's Polar Services, manager of the project.
"Going overland burns much less fuel to bring in the same amount of cargo," Burnside said.
Similar operations have already been employed in Antarctica, but conditions were tougher in Greenland, causing machinery to sink almost 3 feet.
"We discovered we had a multitude of mobility problems," Burnside said. "If we can improve snow conditions by going in earlier and putting bigger tracks on the tractor to pull more, it becomes more feasible."
This wasn't Smith's first arctic adventure. He was nipped by the bug to work in the Earth's icebox in 1984 after meeting a friend of a friend who had worked in Antarctica.
"It really intrigued me," he said.
After applying for several positions, in 1986 he got a job as a mechanic. He was hooked.
The past 10 years, he's spent in Greenland. In 1997-98, he was among the first crew of four people to overwinter at Summit Station.
"Communication wasn't so great back then," he said. "That one, I was a little more leery about. There were no phones back then, only a ham radio. Nobody commits that much time anymore."
Despite the remote locale, Smith said he was busy enough running the ongoing experiments, in addition to constantly shoveling snow, to not get stir crazy in the isolated setting.
"On average, the type of people who end up doing this are pretty well adjusted," Smith said. And he actually finds the work freeing. "It's like going on a long backpacking trip, you lose ties with all of the stuff you have to do back home. It's just a matter of sustenance and work."
During the summer, it's also an international gathering place, with scientific experts from around the world gathering at the ice cap to complete studies on such topics as climate change.
Over hill, over crevasse
Finding the overland route in June and July was no easy task. No one had ever completed the trek with cargo and machines before, so it was unknown if the trip was even plausible.
"Last year was proof of concept," Burnside said, "can we even get from here to there?"
The crew for the adventure included Smith, Brad Johnson, Jim Lever, Al O'Bannon and Robin Davies.
Smith, who has a fine arts degree in photography, signed on as a mechanic while recording much of the experience with his camera. He's married to Mary Hernandez and is currently working as a curator at the Yellowstone Art Museum. Johnson was driving the big tractor. Lever drove a Tucker Sno-Cat, as did Davies, and O'Bannon served as mountaineer.
The first 100 miles outside Thule was the most difficult, thanks to the mountains, valleys and crevasses that dominate the 4,000- to 5,000-foot thick ice cap. The Sno-Cat was equipped with a 20-foot front-mounted boom that held ground penetrating radar to scan the subsurface for crevasses. If something sketchy was spotted, O'Bannon was sent ahead with an avalanche probe to locate the crevasse. As a backup, O'Bannon was harnessed to a 1-inch rope hooked to a snowmobile. A secure route was then flagged and GPSed for the tractor that followed.
A safe, preferably compacted, route was needed for the 60,000-pound Case Quadtrac tractor. Getting the big machine stuck as it pulled its bulky loads - which included four 3,000-gallon bladders filled with diesel fuel - was a scenario to be avoided. Yet when Johnson drove only yards off the trail, the tractor's front left track plunged into a 30-inch-wide, 50-foot-deep crevasse.
While less-experienced crews may have panicked, the self-sufficient travelers quickly engineered a solution. The Case tractor's front blade could be lowered to raise the track off the ground. With the Sno-Cat's blade, the crew pushed snow under the track to compact a route for the tractor out of danger.
"We were pretty pleased nothing was broken," Smith said. "It took about six hours to get out.
"It's pretty dynamic work," he added. "You rely on the people you're with. You have to use your own ingenuity."
Pulling such heavy cargo through the mountains made for a slow trip.
"It was a little tedious," Smith said. "Sometimes we'd work 16- to 18-hour days to make a couple of miles."
In the first 100 miles, loads would sometimes have to be shuttled to reduce weight, requiring the retracing of the route.
Being self-contained had its benefits, though. When the work day was done, the radar would be used to scout a safe campsite. Behind the Sno-Cat, the crew pulled a porta-potty as well as a cook tent that was warmed by a diesel stove. A propane cook stove could crank out meals of steak and seafood, all frozen of course. Satellite phones and even a satellite Internet connection linked the crew to family and the outside world.
"It's pretty phenomenal," Smith said. "In this day, you can be anywhere in the world and get phone and Internet service."
When it came time to go to bed, each crewman had his own tent to sack out in. Smith would anchor his four-season Swedish tent to the ice with bamboo poles. Inside, he'd crawl into a minus 40-degree bag atop two thermal mattresses.
"A 40-below bag is something you would never bring backpacking, but it's pretty cozy," Smith said. "It felt like 80 to 90 degrees on a sunny day at midnight."
Temperatures ranged from 10 below to highs in the 30s and 40s. Winds could howl up to 40 mph across the barren landscape, snowing in equipment that had to be dug out in the morning. Five times, the crew was locked in a snowstorm from two to seven days. Due to the northern latitude, the sun never set on many days.
Luckily for the crew, the Quadtrac became stuck only the one time. The rest of the inbound journey, first to the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling station and then on to Summit Station, while slow, went reasonably smoothly.
After arriving at Summit Station, the crew laid over a week to make repairs and rest before mounting their return journey along the same route. Smith and Johnson were the only two members of the crew to make the entire journey. O'Bannon and Lever were replaced by Davies for the return trip.
A blizzard stranded the crew for a week, right near the end of the journey. When the storm finally broke, it wasn't long before the snow was melting. Rivers and lakes of water formed, barring the travelers from continuing.
The delay meant that only 50 miles from their destination, the crew had to stop, winterize and button up their equipment and call for a helicopter to take them out.
"It was real frustrating," Smith said. "We were a little irritated. But it could have ended within the first 50 miles. To be able to make it that far we were pretty pleased."
Smith is uncertain whether he'll sign on for the return voyage this April.
"If I could do a month I wouldn't mind doing it," he said.
Contact Brett French at email@example.com or at 657-1387.