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The balloon that almost got away!

October, 2016, Oliktok point, Alaska

I was at Oliktok point, Alaska doing some measurements at the Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program’s ARM Mobile facility. Specifically, we were using a tethered balloon to lift instruments into the lower cloud layers. My instrument was a particle imager and the intention was to look at the ice particles to provide data for validation of some radar measurements. The balloon operators were a little cautious since a few months before, they had lost a balloon. They had purchased another balloon, but the company delivered a much larger balloon than they had expected which made them extra cautious. The project started out with a lot of wind, so we were not flying the balloon. Finally, the winds dropped and we were able to get measurements. After several days of less than ideal conditions, we finally had a good day on the second to last day of the project. We launched the big balloon and it behaved perfectly. In the early afternoon, we brought it down and refreshed batteries on the instruments before sending it back up. We only had permission to fly until about 7PM, so at about 6, we started to bring it down. Unfortunately, the wind had picked up substantially at this point. The balloon is shaped like a squished basketball, round horizontally, but squished by about 50%. When the wind catches it, it goes up at an angle and catches more wind which generates lift. This added upward force made it much tougher to pull in. The winch motor was more and more taxed and eventually stopped completely. We removed the cover to allow cold air to the motor (it was about 10F). After a 5 minute rest, the motor would run again for a little while. Eventually we resorted to two people at a time pulling on the line during the periods when the motor would run. It ended up taking about 2 hours to get the balloon down the final 200 meters. There had been discussions of setting of an emergency device that would puncture the balloon, but fortunately we were able to avoid that. The next day the balloon operators were replacing the motor on the winch. The data that we collected were very good data but it came at a price in energy, time, muscle, and anxiety.

The lizard reaction and the exploding tent.

September 2016, Cordillera Central, Peru

We had just returned to camp after our last climb in the Cordillera Central. It felt good to have returned safely from the last climb of an extended expedition. We had collected three snow samples and with our revised plan, we needed to process the samples in the afternoon, before we would hike out in the early evening. Our guide decided to cook up a good meal as well so that we didn’t have to carry a lot of food out. We had two MSR stoves, so I fired up one and started warming some water to melt the snow samples. Our guide lit the second stove to start cooking, then immediately shut it off as it had run out of gas. He disconnected the stove from the bottle, and started opening the bottle to refill it. I had started melting the first sample and was squatting down holding the plastic bag in the warm water so that I could prevent it from coming into contact with the sides of the pot which would melt it. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that terrified me. They say that when you have a true instinctive reaction, the impulse only gets to the “lizard” part of your brain, the less developed part of your brain, and the reaction to fire hits immediately. What I saw triggered my lizard response and I leaned back and leapt out of the tent with all of my strength with absolutely no regard for where I was going to land. Our guide had started opening the gas bottle and it turned out that it was still pressurized and the vision that triggered my response was gas flying out of the bottle in the direction of the other lit stove. It turned out that my reaction was a good one as a fireball engulfed the inside of the tent and completely burned-melted one wall. Fortunately, the gas had sprayed away from anyone and everyone escaped with only the tent as a casualty. As we put out the small grass fire, we realized how lucky we were. We cautiously returned to the remnants of the tent and resumed our cooking and snow sample processing.

Ausangate crevasse.

August, 2016, Ausangate, Peru

At about 6000 meters on Ausangate, we were faced with some challenging conditions. Fresh snow from a few months before had hidden previous tracks and our guide was breaking trail towards the summit. We had stopped to try to get some help from other groups with the trail breaking, but our guide was by far the strongest, so we started up again. He skirted to the left of a crevasse and I noticed that his tracks were a bit close to what I suspected to be overhanging. I decided that I would skirt a bit farther left, but when I got there, the snow was so soft that I couldn’t push through without extreme effort. Highly fatigued, I made my way back closer to the guide’s tracks and immediately fell into a crevasse up to my shoulders. My arms were still above the surface and our guide had self-arrested, so I was relatively secure. I could feel some snow with my left leg but my right leg could touch nothing. Through a small hole, I looked down and saw that it was a long way down if I were to continue to fall. A guide from one of the other groups immediately jumped to action and was about 5 feet away on the safe side. He reached out with two rope loops for me to grab and we both pulled hard enabling me to climb out towards him. One minute after I fell in, I was starting up the trail again, this time fueled by adrenaline.

Getting there can be half the battle.

August, 2016, Ausangate area, Peru

We had loaded up everything and were on our way towards Ausangate. Several hours later we were in our third and (planned) final vehicle for the day speeding along a new road. The van appeared to be somewhat newer yet the seats were still way too close together for most of us tall gringos. As has become habit for me, several of us were sitting sideways in our seats. The road was relatively smooth, yet narrow and it was necessary for approaching vehicles to identify a location where it would be possible for two vehicles to pass. We were chugging up a hill when just such a situation arose. A van was speeding downward towards us, so our driver chose to back up to where there was a wider spot so that the other van could pass. Upon applying the breaks, the engine died, and we started rolling backward down the road. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but it apparently the breaks were not working and we were picking up speed rapidly. Downhill backwards on a narrow steep windy road, are not words that you want to link together in a sentence generally! Apparently the driver agreed as he decided it was best to ditch onto the side of the road with the dirt and rock wall (rather than off the cliff on the other side). For us passengers, this was a substantial surprise and especially for me with my back against the shattering window. The van ground to a halt (by grinding away its side) and we all abandoned ship, several of us in an effort to remove the shattered window pieces from our T-shirts. Ten seconds later, we were rushing to empty the van as smoke had started rising fast from underneath. Fortunately nothing ignited, and ten minutes later a police vehicle passed by and after interviewing us, promised to have another van come by and pick us up. We did make it to our planned camp that evening, but we were a few hours late.

The too active moraine.

July, 2016, Ishinca valley, Peru

We had just climbed Ishinca and due to penitents, it had taken much longer than anticipated. We made it to the edge of the glacier and took off all of our climbing gear and then we started making our way towards the trail to return to camp. The glacier had receded a lot on the sides and we were picking our way through fresh moraine debris. This consisted of a lot of ice covered with rock and sand. It was very unstable and almost everything moved when you touched it. In the middle of this, I noticed a 2-3 foot mostly cubic boulder that looked to be a bit unstable. Rather than step on it as would have been the logical choice, I stepped to the right of it with my right leg with the plan of swinging my left leg over it. As soon as I stepped though, the boulder started rolling into my leg. Fortunately, it hit my leg about perfectly, hitting the ankle and knee at the same time and spreading the force across the entire lower leg rather than just one point. Once moving, it had plenty of momentum though and I had to swing my left leg past quickly and jump out of the way before it put more pressure on my leg. It hit me hard enough that I wasn’t sure how much damage it had done and as I flew through the air, I was extremely concerned about what I would find upon landing. Fortunately, nothing was broken except for the skin and I was able to walk away with a slight limp. Had the rock contacted my leg differently, it surely would have broken the bones. I was extremely lucky.

Is it ticking?

April 2015, Ny-Alesund, Svalbard

I was in Svalbard for a research project on cloud physics. Specifically, I had brought an instrument and we were hanging the instrument below a tethered balloon. We would let the balloon go up to as high as 1800 meters in altitude, and my instrument would measure the properties of the clouds. This was the first time I had used the instrument in this way, so there was a fair amount of trial and error work to be done. After a few days, I had figured out the best way to operate the instrument. Basically, the instrument consisted of a small metal box, which was the actual instrument, a red plastic toolbox which contained the batteries and the data system, and I had added an aerodynamic tail so that the instrument would always point into the wind. I had some nylon straps to hold everything together, but I reinforced the straps with a lot of duct tape. I really didn't want my instrument to fall off the balloon and come plummeting down to the earth from nearly a mile up. The resulting instrument package looked quite unusual to say the least. And, due to the way that I was operating the data system, it was important to open the data system toolbox to turn everything off as soon as possible, and this wasn't an easy task. One afternoon after a flight, I was carrying the instrument in all of its glory down a hallway in a housing unit. Two guys were standing in the hallway and watched me approach. The first said, "Wow, that looks dangerous", and the other said, "IS IT TICKING???"

Dr. Who?

August 2014, Cusco, Peru:

In the US, the atmospheric science community is relatively relaxed. It is very rare to refer to anyone as Dr. so and so. For the most part people are on a first name basis at most levels. When I arrived in Cusco for a 10 day collaborative visit at the local university, I was greeted as Dr. Schmitt. I fully understood the formalism and it didn’t bother me. After several hours of calling me Dr. Schmitt or referring to me as the Doctor, I had to take it down a level. In my bad Spanish, I explained that I was never referred to as Dr. Schmitt in the US, people use first names, and if they insisted on referring to me as Dr. Schmitt, they shouldn’t be surprised if I completely missed it when they asked me a question since I wasn’t accustomed to listening for “Dr. Schmitt”. We all had a good laugh about that and I was never again referred to as Dr. Schmitt. After that, I was always referred to as Dr. Carl. I am sure that when I return in 2015, I will again be referred to as Dr. Carl.

Skylight to danger.

June 2013, Cordillera Blanca, Peru:

A very memorable moment occurred as we were descending Ishinca mountain. My wife and I were conducting an experimental project to see if we could detect life under glaciers. The principle was simple. We had a small instrument that measured carbon dioxide which we would lower into a crevasse, and since the air low in a crevasse is very stable due to it being colder, the CO2 should pool in the air. Increased CO2 levels could indicate the presence of life below the glacier. We found what we thought might be a reasonable crevasse in an area where most climbers had been typically traveling on the glacier without ropes. As we had been doing stuff near crevasses, the two of us were still roped together. I set up a small anchor and Rebecca headed for the edge of the crevasse. It was actually a very small opening, approximately 1 foot by 5 feet or so. Rebecca approached the edge of the crevasse on her hands and knees and peered in, not quite knowing what to expect. It turned out that this was a small skylight into a huge cavern. Thirty feet away, where I had set up the anchor, we figured that I was likely still over the cavern. We were easily able to lower the instrument 60 feet without touching bottom. We took our measurements (which didn’t reveal anything of interest) and backed away carefully. The surprising thing was how huge the cavern was in relation to a very small opening at the surface, which probably had been hidden a few days before. The scary thing is that this was an area where most people didn’t use a rope, and obviously there were extreme hazards.

Feed me NOW!

July 2012, Leipzig, Germany:

Combining volunteer mountain research with cloud physics research at NCAR has its hazards. One of the biggest challenges is that at times I have to cram my travel in and will have short turn-around times. This happened in July, 2012, when on July 5, I was on the summit of Chopicalqui and approximately five days later I was headed to Leipzig Germany, for a conference. Chopi is a big mountain and I had been in Peru for 5 weeks. As is typical, I had lost about 15 pounds during the first four weeks and Chopi at the end of it pushed me even farther. I was truly on a see-food diet (not sea-food, see-food: if I saw it, I ate it). My flight was delayed out of Denver and I ended up arriving in Leipzig at about 9PM. Being exhausted from travel spanning three continents in the past week, I found my hotel and immediately passed out. Then, at about 2AM local time, which is about dinner time in Peru, I woke up. My body said FEED ME NOW! This, of course, was very difficult as it was my first time in Leipzig and I didn’t know the town at all. And even if I had, the chances of finding something open at 2AM in Germany on a Sunday morning was close to nil. The moral of this story is that you should pack a s**t-load of cliffbars with you on situations such as this. As I write this, I am contemplating whether the 6 cliffbars I have will be sufficient for the travel day I will have tomorrow.

A cow ate my research?

June 2011, Cordillera Blanca, Peru:

During the Cordillera Blanca Environmental Expedition, the precursor to the American Climber Science Program, I had a unique experience. We had climbed Pisco mountain and had collected several snow samples from different locations on the mountain. In the evening when we returned to basecamp, we were tired, and as the temperature was cool enough that the snow wouldn’t melt overnight, we decided to wait until the following morning to process the samples. Before bed, I placed the samples together in a location where I thought there would be little likelihood of them melting. At about 1AM I woke up to a very strange sound nearby the tent. Immediately I crawled out of the tent to see what was going on. There was a cow right next to the tent and it had one of the ziplock bags of snow in its mouth! Fearing for the remainder of my samples (I figured that one sample was already lost), I picked up the nearest rock and, with probably the most skilled throw of my life (which isn’t saying much), I threw the rock and hit the cow squarely in its side. It dropped the bag and flustered away. Fearing the worst, I confirmed that the remaining sample bags were OK and moved them to a less obvious location. I left the bag that been chewed on where it had landed, figuring that it was lost. Much to my surprise, I discovered in the morning that the bag the cow had chewed wasn’t even broken. It was a bit slimy on the outside, but the sample had not been contaminated. So the cow didn’t really eat my research, but I was certainly afraid that it had.

eBay to the rescue!

March 2011, Houston, TX:

I was in Houston Texas, for a field program with a NASA high altitude aircraft. We had arranged to borrow an instrument from a German group for the field program. Upon arrival in Houston, we quickly discovered that a laser in the German instrument was no longer functional. This laser has very narrow specifications and it had to fit into a very tight location in the instrument, so it was very important to get a replacement of the same type. We called the laser manufacturer. No laser available and they did not have the manpower to put someone to the task of fixing the laser. I started investigating other manufacturers. After a while, it became apparent that there was one other laser manufacturer that made a laser that would fit into the instrument. I called the company. No lasers available. This was a larger company though, so it was possible that resellers might have lasers available. I called several, no lasers available. In desperation, I did a google search online and to my surprise I found an old listing on eBay. My eBay search showed that indeed there was a used laser of the correct model available for about 10% of the full retail cost. Four hours later, I had convinced our purchasing department that this was the only option and they bought it. The laser arrived first thing the following morning and we were able to get it installed before the first research flight. The eBay seller had a great name. We bought our laser from “Junktronix”, and as far as I know, the laser is still functional four years later.

Being eaten will cost you future funding!

October 2004, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska:

I was in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, for a field project to measure the properties of clouds. It was Fall, but the sea ice hadn’t frozen over completely yet. This meant that there were hungry polar bears waiting for the ice to form so that they could go out onto the ice. Our hotel and base of operations was well away from the coast and the locals told us that it wasn’t likely that polar bears would be sighted in the local area. If we were to be absolutely cautious, we would drive from our hotel the 300 meters to the aircraft hangar, but we only had one vehicle and it would be difficult to coordinate the 8-10 people going back and forth at random times, so we all chose to walk most days. Someone at the funding agency heard about this, and a very sternly worded email was sent to us. We were warned that if anyone was eaten by a polar bear during the project it would seriously reduce the chances of our getting future funding.