Stories from a ski-way

The Antarctic AGSO Woop Woop experience

Woop Woop is a remote camp set up to service a Ski Landing Area (SLA) on the East Antarctic Plateau, 40km from Davis research station, over the rocky and rugged Vestfold Hills. The area is not accessible by vehicle.

During the winter months and early summer while the sea ice is still thick, Woop Woop can be reached by tracked vehicle over the sea-ice, navigating through the icebergs locked into the fast-ice and then through the frozen fjords of the Vestfold Hills.

From there it’s up and over the huge snow drifts on the edge of the ice sheet then onto the East Antarctic Plateau. Next stop: Camp Woop Woop, at first just a waypoint on your GPS, before it comes into view over the curve of the plateau.

As AGSOs (Aircraft Ground Support Officers) it’s our job to set up the camp from its winterised state. This means re-positioning the buildings and equipment which were pulled away from the runway over winter, to stop snow build up. Luckily for us this year, everything went well and nothing was buried.

Once camp is in place we have somewhere warm to eat and sleep while work on the Ski Landing Area (SLA) can begin. This is a real drag — literally. We drag a heavy steel beam up and down the runway with the groomer once, twice, three times and four. Then we groom it flat with the, wait for it, groomer.

Having made it look all nice, we then rip it all up again with more drag beaming, and flatten it out again with more grooming. No, we haven’t gone mad, all the dragging and grooming makes it nice and hard and compacted. And finally, would ya look at that, there’s a big flat area to land aircraft!

Next we find the four corners of the strip, 1500 x 50m, and start drilling flag poles in every 100m to mark the strip out nice and straight and then put up a wind sock. Now the Davis Plateau Ski Landing Area is ready for action. Voila! 

Once we have Woop Woop set up and the summer rolls on, the site is only accessible via helicopter. So all passenger and cargo movements are via our red ‘flying taxis. Weather at Woop Woop is crucial — if a plane lands but the helicopters can’t come and collect us, everyone is ‘camping’ for a few days until the weather improves. This brings us to ‘The Blizzard Experience'.

A blizzard in Antarctica is really quite something and it began just as the forecast said it would (I know, we were surprised too), with wind and drifting snow. We had everything ready to roll: food, water, books and more dad jokes than you could ever possibly want. As the day went on the winds increased 40…50…60 knots, visibility faded 30…20…10 metres and the vans began to shake with the screaming roar outside growing louder and more intimidating.

While we were perfectly happy indoors, our automatic weather station could only take so much. With wind gusts exceeding 70 knots, it staged a short protest and fell silent. No such silence for us though, the van continued to shake with a noise that was straight out of the movies. The wind blew itself out eventually and the visibility improved, allowing us to venture outside.

After the blizz, the circle of life begins again for AGSOs, with another clean up, dragging beams and groomers to make a perfect landing area once again. Totally can’t complain though….blizzards bring us job security :) …and it’s a job we love.