Numbingly Difficult at Minus 20

By Tomas Alex Tizon

Los Angeles Times

BEAUFORT SEA, Arctic Ocean ~ For three days in March I camped on a drifting slab of ice, 200 miles north of Alaska, as close as I ever would get to the top of the world and to knowing what it would be like to live on an ice cube.

The cold crept through my boots and socks, into my toes and up my legs. It numbed my fingers and face, freezing the moisture in my eyes. It swept into my lungs.

My shelter was a plywood shack, which I shared with five men whom I seldom saw. Beneath us, under the ice, the ocean plunged 12,000 feet deep. One of my shackmates, as a way of warning, described what happened to a snowmobile that had broken through the ice. It sank, like a toy whirling through space, all the way to the sea bottom where it presumably will rest in frigid darkness for eternity.

The message: Watch your step.

“You slip under, you’re gone,” said Lt. Cmdr. Gerard DeMers, the safety officer at the camp, which was built and run by the US Navy.

To get there, I flew to Anchorage and took a puddle-jumper over the Brooks Range to Deadhorse on the outer edge of Alaska’s North Slope. Photographer Myung Chun and I joined a couple of Navy officers on a Cessna to the Beaufort Sea. Leaving Deadhorse was like jumping off a cliff. We left behind every electronic tether – cellphone, internet, television.

“No HBO,” one of the Navy guys said, smirking.

Yet the severing was very undramatic from the air. I could barely discern where Alaska ended and the Arctic Ocean began. Both land and sea were covered with ice.

We had been in the air 1 1/2 hours when the ice camp appeared in the distance like tiny dots in snow. As we approached, it looked more like toy blocks haphazardly thrown together in the middle of an immense hockey rink.

Our Cessna glided onto a runway on the ice, a smooth landing, like any other on solid ground. What hit hard was stepping out. The cold was dry, invasive, a cool burn. The temperature dips to minus 90 degrees in some parts of the Arctic. For most of my time here, it hovered at minus 20 degrees, with an occasional wind gust subtracting another 20 to 25.

We were 100 yards from camp. As we tromped across the ice, I silently thanked our handlers for forcing us to wear three layers of everything, every garment Arctic-grade. Then I noticed the sound. Every few steps, it seemed, the thump of my boots hitting the ice resonated like a drum.

“How thick is the ice here?” I asked Barry Campbell, the Navy veteran leading us to camp.

He nodded, clearly unable to hear me through his ski cap and parka. “It sounds hollow,” I half-shouted. He nodded again.

That first afternoon, I explored the camp. The sun, low on the horizon, shone brightly on this odd assemblage of buildings. The camp was about half the size of a football field, its boundaries unmarked, the horizon a faraway uniform line in every direction.

In the middle of camp, someone had stuck a pole in the ice with an arrow pointing to a spot beyond the horizon. Scribbled on the arrow: “North Pole 1016.4 miles.”

On the outskirts, about 75 yards past the perimeter, a couple of oceanography students concerned themselves with another hole, one they had made with a tripod that lowered various gadgets into the ice. One gadget melted ice in a circle.

Over two days, the “kids,” as the old-timers called them, had melted through 40 feet of ice. It turned out they had burned through an ice keel, a formation that looked like a stalactite below the surface. Keels grow to almost 200 feet deep.

“This is it. The hole,” said Tim McGeehan, gesturing at his creation as if making a formal introduction. It was 2 feet in diameter and emitted a fluorescent otherworldly blue.

McGeehan and John Bleidorn, students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, spent their days prodding, exploring and dropping devices into the hole, and studying sonar images on computer screens. They were attempting, among other things, to measure how ice keels affected ocean currents.

As the sun set about 9m, I retired to my shack, called the Dunes, where I had the place to myself – for a few minutes. The shack was nothing more than a box with six bunk beds, six sleeping bags and an oil-fired heater. Duct tape sealed the gaps in the plywood, but the cold still found ways to seep in, especially close to the floor. The room was either too cold or – when the heater kicked in – too hot. A freezer one minute, a sauna the next.

For the rest of the night, my bunkmates wordlessly flitted in and out as they traded shifts in the command hut, the door creaking and the floor squeaking every time somebody moved.

Ice Personality

After breakfast the next morning, I got my first lesson in the multiple personalities of ice. What prompted it was that hollow sound my footfall made in some areas – thump, thump, thump. It was unsettling. The fear was I would fall through a thin spot and never be seen again.

“Could that happen?” I asked Randy Ray, the man who had cracked through the ice a few days earlier. Ray was field operations coordinator for the submarine lab. He was a big, bearded man, well over 250 pounds, and hulking with his parka wrapped around him. He had been out scouting locations for a submarine to surface when he hit a soft spot. He was lucky others were near enough to pull him out.

On this morning Ray and a small group traveled two miles from camp and were waiting for the US submarine Alexandria to surface. The 6,900-ton nuclear submarine was engaged in exercises with the Tireless, a 5,200-ton British nuclear sub. Though largely unseen, Alexandria and Tireless were the twin players around which the camp revolved.

At that moment, Alexandria was about 200 feet directly below us.

“See –” Ray began, lightly stamping the surface. “This ice – it’s not homogeneous by any means.”

The pack ice, made up of many pieces, like rubble, as small as granules and large as islands, shifts and breaks apart, melts and refreezes. It’s pushed by ocean currents and scraped and shaped by wind. Large cracks, called leads, create free-floating floes like the one our camp was on.

Sometimes a pan of ice will crash into another one and overlap, creating formations above and below, and uneven layers in between. The hollow sound, Ray said, could indicate spaces between ice layers.

I was still pondering that when a voice yelled, “Here she comes!”

Within moments a black tower broke through the ice, like a giant chisel through glass, and rose nearly three stories. It was Alexandria’s sail. The position of the sail indicated where the shorter rudder would surface, but the rudder was off target by about 30 yards.

“Oh no,” someone groaned.

“Get out, get out! Go, go, go!” yelled Ray, as the rudder broke through in the spot where bags and radio equipment had been placed in a mini-encampment. Blocks of ice, 3 feet thick, fell away. We quickly moved to safety as the 25-foot rudder eased the equipment and bags aside, like a whale’s gentle nudging.

“I have never seen anything like it,” exclaimed Lt. Erik Reynolds, arms raised in the air as if praising God or warding off an attack.

But the worst was still to come.


At the nightly camp meeting, officer in charge Campbell was just commenting on the success of the day’s submarine surfacing when lab test director Jeff Gossett, a big gray-bearded man (there were a lot of them in camp), rushed into the mess hall from a side door. He told the group there had been an accident on Tireless. There might be casualties. Submerged a few miles from camp, the sub was frantically searching for a spot to surface.

Normally it would take days to plan a surfacing. Pilots scout the terrain for an appropriate span of ice, then a land crew conducts tests and plants sonar devices in the water – in essence prepping the site. Surfacing at night through unknown ice was risky. Doing anything on unknown ice, especially at night, was dangerous. But for the next few hours, camp members broke all sorts of safety rules.

Suddenly there was no talk. Everybody burst silently into motion. The mess hall was turned into an infirmary, the tables and chairs replaced by cots and medical equipment. The pilots began prepping the helicopter. People in the command hut worked frantically to coordinate what would become a rescue mission.

When word came an hour later that Tireless had surfaced about 1 1/2 miles from the runway, Campbell approached divers Kevin Parkhurst and Pat McKeown. “We need you to take the snow machines out,” Campbell told them. Tireless needed help fast, and landing a helicopter in that area, where the ice was thought to be thin, would be too dangerous.

Parkhurst and McKeown, after some moments of questioning silence, suited up, started the snowmobiles and drove off toward the runway, the lights on their snowmobiles marking their path to the stricken sub. It was a long, perilous ride in darkness through tracks of ice they had not traversed before.

“We didn’t know how serious it was until we got there and they told us there were two deceased,” Parkhurst later said.

Apparently an oxygen canister – used to generate breathable air – had exploded in one of the sub’s forward decks, killing two sailors and seriously wounding a third. No one was prepared to say what caused the blast; the investigation is ongoing.

Back in the mess hall-turned-infirmary, four hours after he had broken the news, Gossett slumped in a chair and sipped a cup of coffee. Sagging circles weighed down his eyes. “In all the years, nothing like this has ever happened,” he said softly. “You can’t prepare for it. Not something like this. You can’t.”

The next morning Chun and I packed up and headed out to the airstrip. A few others were flying back too. Just beyond the runway, I could see Tireless’ black sail and rudder jutting from the ice.

“We don’t want you here,” Campbell said with a weary grin. Just as he met us when we arrived, he saw us off. “Things happen when you’re here.”

The flight back to Deadhorse was much like the one to the ice camp, wordless, with nothing to look at but the ice below. It looked different now. It was still flat but no longer featureless.

I could see lines where cracks had formed. There were networks of cracks like arteries. I could see riffles and tiny crests like freeze-frame waves. Even the whiteness had variations, sometimes tinted and diaphanous, other times dense like porcelain.

There was a lot going on down there in all that stillness. That was the lesson, if any, of my three days in the Arctic. More a reminder than a lesson: Where you think there’s nothing, there could be everything; when you think you’re on solid ground, the ground could give way. The picture could change in an instant.

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