Frozen in Time: Recovery Mission
Author Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University, is heading to Greenland this summer to help recover three World War II heroes entombed inside a glacier since November 1942. Two of the men were Lieutenant John Pritchard and Radioman Benjamin Bottoms, crewmen of a Coast Guard amphibious biplane who were trying to rescue survivors from a B-17 bomber that crashed during a search mission. The third man was the radio operator of the B-17, Corporal Loren Howarth. Zuckoff described the historic events and the search for the lost plane in his most recent book, "Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II." In this blog, he'll be documenting the public-private partnership to carve through thousands of tons of ice to fulfill the U.S. military's promise to "leave no man behind."
Follow the stream below for updates on Zuckoff's travels. You can also follow him on Twitter @MitchellZuckoff.
Bud Richardson 7/30/2013 12:23:15 AMI can't believe it's happening. Maybe that's why I'm still here. Godspeed.
Leama 7/30/2013 7:58:09 PMI picked up your book a few days ago at random from my library and it was the last of three books I've read since. I finished reading it 15 minutes ago, Washington, D.C. time. I needed to find out what was happening and, holy moly, here you are. I will be keeping up with this extraordinary adventure and keeping you, Lou, WeeGee and the whole team, not to mention all the heroes, past and present, in my thoughts.
Aunt Doreen 7/30/2013 11:45:52 PMWishing you the best of luck on your journey. I'm enjoying reading your blog. I've only just started the book a couple of days ago - I'm sure you understand why I've been busy :) and I'm really getting into it now. Stay safe.
Mitchell Zuckoff 7/31/2013 12:29:25 AMRECOVERY MISSION -- LATE DAY 3KULUSUK, Greenland -- The first rule of a Greenland glacier expedition is that no matter how well you plan, plans always change.A six-member advance team took the first helicopter and a load of camping gear to the glacier, expecting most of the remaining eleven members of our group to follow closely behind. But a combination of weather and complicated loading requirements slowed our progress, so we're spending the night at a little hotel near the airstrip.The delay gave us time to walk a mile of winding dirt road, past two cemeteries filled with simple white wooden crosses, into the weatherbeaten Inuit fishing village of Kulusuk, home to about three hundred people and twice as many sled dogs.As we entered the village, we looked down to the iceberg-filled harbor and noticed a handful of young people gathered at the little cement dock. We wandered down to find Muku Utuaq, a 23-year-old fisherman and airport security guard whom we'd befriended last year. In addition to helping us find supplies, Muku had provided us with unusual souvenirs: four-inch-long teeth from a killer whale he had hunted to feed his community.Knife in hand, Muku was hard at work on the rocks below the dock, butchering a seal to feed the twenty-two sled dogs he cares for on a rocky outcropping next to his red wooden house. Thirteen of the huskies are his own, eight belong to his older brother, and one seems to be unclaimed. He feeds them only once every other day in the summer, and the dogs were howling, jumping and straining at the ends of their chains.Muku Utuaq butchers a seal for meat to feed his sled dogs.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Jul 30, 2013 at 11:50 PM
As he dropped piles of bloody seal meat and bones before each dog, the howling subsided and the only sound was the tearing of flesh.We walked around the village awhile, watching small children jumping from rock to rock in the harbor and bouncing on a trampoline in a field of boulders next to a cemetery. We looked at each other with a shared thought: we're a long way from home.Children play on the rocks in Kulusuk's harbor.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Jul 31, 2013 at 12:20 AMThat thought was reinforced over dinner at the Hotel Kulusuk, literally the only place to stay if you're passing through these parts. The hotel is comfortable and extremely well run, and the communal meals are first rate.I sat with Finn Siegstad, a Greenland native who is an account manager for Air Greenland. As we ate he taught me some words in Inuit, which locals call Greenlandic, that reveal a lot about this place."We never have any war, so the word doesn't exist," Finn said. The closest approximation is "sorsunnersuaq," or "the big fighting," a reference to World War II.Finn also said that living in a place so hostile to human habitation shaped the language of greetings and sendoffs. Specifically, he said there's no real translation for "hello" or "goodbye.""When we greet someone, we say 'Inuungujoq!' which means 'Ah, you're alive!' -- it's a surprise to see someone again once they've left. When someone leaves, we might not see them again, so we say 'Inuulluarit,' which means 'Have a good life.'"When the meal ended, I wished Finn "Inuulluarit," but I hope I get a chance to say "Inuungujoq!" to him in the future.Our latest plan calls for me to leave on the first helicopter early tomorrow, so I might not be posting again until we get satellite communications in place on the glacier late tomorrow or the next day. That is, unless plans change.
Jan J 7/31/2013 9:45:09 AMMitch, you make it so real. I must confess I get overwhelmed just reading about the expedition. What you, Lou, Jim and the rest of the team must be feeling!
Mitchell Zuckoff 8/1/2013 6:50:34 PMRECOVERY MISSION -- DAY FIVEBURIED
KOGE BAY, Greenland – Complaining about snow in Greenland is
like whining about sand at the beach. But here goes anyway.
The survey team sent to BW-1 last night determined that five
to seven feet of snow has accumulated atop our excavation site since last
year. One result is that the satellite-tracking
device we placed over the spot where we found the best evidence of the Duck crash
is now buried. We’ll have to dig it out once we figure out where exactly to
dig, but that’s not the biggest problem.
More snow means more work, and we already had our hands full
with our belief that the Duck and the three men it carried were roughly 38 feet
below the glacier surface. Every added foot means many more tons of snow that
must be moved to reach our quarry. Before this added burden, rough estimates
called for us to remove as much as 70 million pounds of ice, or 35,000 tons, or
the equivalent of 14 million of those five-pound bags of ice you buy at the
convenience store for a picnic. This is no picnic.Safety leaders Frank Marley and John Bradley search for the satellite tracker at BW-1.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 1, 2013 at 6:25 PM
In the meantime, geophysicist Jaana Gustafsson, surveyor Ben
Fuchs, and JPAC anthropologist Mindy Simonson spent this morning laying out a 50-square-meter
grid at BW-1 to begin deciding exactly where we’ll focus our excavation
With Ben marking off one-meter gaps, Jaana used a wheeled radar device to walk back and forth to create a computerized view inside the glacier. But with each pass, Jaana grew more uncomfortable; she didn’t recognize what she was seeing from her memory of what the radar showed last year. Her instincts were correct.
Unfortunately, after several of hours of work and about
two-and-a-half kilometers of walking, Jaana learned that she had been given the
wrong coordinates for the center point of the grid. She was given the
latitude-longitude point for the historic location from 1942 that we initially
called BW-1 (the designation BW-1 is for Bluie West One, the American airbase
on the west coast of Greenland where the crash report was written). Based on
our findings last year, we revised the BW-1 point to the spot where Jaana’s
ground-penetrating radar identified a large object under the ice, and where
WeeGee Smith and I dropped a video camera down a bore hole and found pieces of
wiring from a Duck. Our spot was about 50 meters from the original BW-1.
That means this morning’s work was time and energy wasted,
and Jaana, Ben and Mindy will have to go out again to design a new grid, with
the 2012 BW-1 location at its center.
On a personal note, my tent arrived this morning by
helicopter, so I’ve improved my slice of Greenland real estate by erecting a
home to call my own. The weather remains clear and mild, giving us time and encouragement to keep working.Geophysicist Jaana Gustafsson pulls a radar unit to map the glacier at BW-1.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 1, 2013 at 6:29 PMMy improved campsite, zoned residential.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 1, 2013 at 6:50 PM
Jan J 8/4/2013 1:07:06 PMSo sorry to hear that Commander Blow can't be on the ice. Pray all goes well with the equipment delivery. Thank you for making this so personal for all of us. Be safe
Mitchell Zuckoff 8/4/2013 1:19:09 PMRECOVERY MISSION -- DAY EIGHTA THUMP AND A DISCOVERY
KOGE BAY, Greenland – After hours at the dig site, expeditionHe looked over to see safety leader John Bradley poking a
leader Lou Sapienza of North South Polar heard a thump. Then he heard another,
long metal rod into the deep snow. Excited, Lou called out: “That sounds like aJohn had been guided to the area by geophysicist Jaana
Pelican case.” And not just any Pelican hard plastic storage case, but the one we’d
spent several days searching for. Inside was the satellite-tracking device we placed
last year over the crucial hole with debris from a Grumman Duck.
Gustafsson, and after scores of probe attempts by numerous team members failedAdded to the weather station Jaana located earlier, we’ve
to hit the mark, John had struck gold. He and fellow safety leader Frank Marley
grabbed shovels and dug through several feet of snow to reach the device, encased
inside a Pelican container about the size of a school lunch box, mounted on
spindly aluminum legs.
now found both satellite tracking devices we left last year at BW-1. The findBut again, one step forward is matched by one step back. This morning, when project manager Joe Tuttle hailed the Norwegian cargo ship Wilson Garston carrying our excavation machines, Captain Mikhail Chulanov delivered the unwelcome news that heavy ice was hindering his progress. The big ship was traveling at only 3 knots, and at 8 this morning was still 24 miles from the mouth of Koge Bay and 42 miles from the planned anchorage position. Instead of an anticipated arrival time of 10 a.m., the captain told Joe it might take until 8 tonight to reach the bay.
boosted morale and confidence: we’re certain that we’re in the right place and we’re
using the right approach.
Complicating matters further, he wasn’t sure how far into the bay heOne more wrinkle: we were expecting four barrels of gasoline from the ship to replenish the supply for our generators. We’re down to about nine gallons, so we’ll be rationing until our ship comes in.
could get because of the ice. Our plans for a big day of sling-loaded cargo
deliveries from the ship via helicopter will have to wait until tomorrow.
One arrival we feel more certain about today is a helicopter delivering two more team members from last year’s Duck Hunt: Alberto Behar, North South Polar’s chief scientist, a robotics expert with a PhD in electrical engineering who spent two decades at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Nick Bratton, a land conservation designer and former mountaineering guide who will be a safety team leader and work with Joe to keep the camp running smoothly.
Leaving on the helicopter that delivers them will be surveyor
Ben Fuchs, who quickly earned respect with his skills and friends with his work
ethic and affable nature. We’ll miss Ben, but I’ll be paying tribute to him
with a future post discussing the excavation plan he’s leaving behind.
* *I’ve gone too long without mentioning two other key players in our camp: JPAC forensic photographer Brian Kimball and communications specialist Isaac Moreno. Hard workers and good guys both, Brian keeps us laughing and Isaac keeps us talking.JPAC communications specialist Isaac Moreno works with project manager Joe Tuttle to install an antenna for a marine band radio so we can talk to the cargo ship.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 4, 2013 at 1:15 PM
A NOTE ON CREVASSES AND TWO LOST MENA major concern every time we leave our base camp on the solid rock of the nunatak is the threat of unseen crevasses. For the uninitiated, crevasses are deep gashes in the ice that form when different parts of the glacier move at different speeds toward the water, where they are destined to be reborn as icebergs.
John and Frank have done great work testing and marking a safe
route to the excavation site. But we’re all anxiously aware that crevasses
might be hidden, their openings bridged over by ice or snow. During team
meetings during the past few days, Dr. Ken Harman, our chief medical officer,
and Major Jeremiah Ellis, the JPAC expedition commander, have made references
to the historical record recounted in my book “Frozen in Time” to remind us all
of the deadly risk.
Their comments referred to two brave men who were lost in
crevasses, one of them while trying to save the B-17 crew whose rescue attempt
cost John Pritchard and Benjamin Bottoms their lives; and one who was a member
of that B-17 crew who was trying to transport a grievously injured crewmate to
The first was Lieutenant Max Demorest. Here’s what I wrote
about him in the book:
“Max Demorest was thirty-two and dashing, with thick, windswept
hair, a toothy smile, and a strong, aristocratic chin. Married and the father
of a young daughter, Demorest was considered equally brilliant and brave by his
friends. He’d first visited Greenland as an undergraduate at the University of
Michigan, having spent a winter there with a professor to establish a
meteorological station. During the decade before the war, he’d earned a
doctorate from Princeton University, a research post at Yale University, a
Guggenheim Fellowship, and a job as acting head of the Geology Department at
Wesleyan University. Along the way, Demorest won acclaim for discoveries about
the movement of glaciers, achievements that placed him on the verge of becoming
one of the youngest fellows of the Geological Society of America. After Pearl
Harbor, the professor who first brought Demorest to Greenland, William S.
Carlson, became a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Eager to join Carlson
and the war effort, Demorest left his family and his laboratory, and
volunteered for the miserable conditions of a wartime posting in the frozen
Demorest and a partner reached the crew of the B-17 on
motorsleds around midnight on November 28, 1942. He dressed the gangrenous feet
of the B-17’s navigator, William O’Hara, provided medical care to several
others, and shared news of the war. Demorest camped that night a short distance
away from the wreck. The next morning, returning to the B-17, the glacier
expert turned his motorsled off the path he had made the night before. About 75
yards from the plane, the weight of the motorsled broke through an ice bridge
and Demorest plunged to his death.
The second man is Clarence Wedel, a member of the B-17 crew.
Here’s what I wrote about him:
“Born on a Kansas farm, the eldest of ten children, he was
raised a Dunkard, a tiny Christian denomination of pacifists whose members,
like Mennonites and Quakers, could claim exemption from military service. But
Wedel believed that it was wrong to use his religion to avoid the war. Six
months after Pearl Harbor, Wedel left the welding business he owned with his
father and enlisted. He left behind his pregnant wife, Helen, a violinist ten
years his junior whom he’d married on Christmas Day 1941. The two shared a love
of dancing, and they’d spent their honeymoon in the ‘big city’ of Wichita, at a
nightclub named after their favorite song, ‘Blue Moon.’”
Nine days after Demorest’s death, when it became clear that
the Coast Guard’s Grumman Duck wouldn’t be returning, Wedel and two other
able-bodied men set off with O’Hara strapped to a second motorsled. He and the
others feared that O’Hara wouldn’t live much longer if he didn’t get help.
They hadn’t made it far when they stopped to mount a charge
up a steep ice ridge. As Wedel moved into position, he stepped on a weak spot
that gave way like a trap door. He fell through the hole in the ice bridge into
Like Pritchard, Bottoms and Howarth, Demorest and Wedel lost
their lives trying to save others. Unlike the three men in the Duck, however, their
remains are considered unrecoverable. Demorest’s mentor, William Carlson, put
it best: “Nature in winter Greenland is a mother that devours her own
children.”Glaicer expert Max Demorest.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 4, 2013 at 1:17 PMClarence Wedel.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 4, 2013 at 1:18 PM
Mitchell Zuckoff 8/7/2013 12:40:44 AMRECOVERY MISSION -- DAY ELEVENJPAC Major Jeremiah Ellis, safety leader John Bradley and geophysicist Jaana Gustafsson install the latrine near the excavation site.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 7, 2013 at 12:35 AM
SNOW AND THE ALAMO
KOGE BAY, Greenland – We woke to a wet snow falling on base
camp, broke out our foul-weather gear, downed reconstituted scrambled eggs (note
to Mountain House: add some zest to breakfast), and dug into the slingloaded
cargo piles at the dig site.
Soon a construction team swarmed into action and a dome tent
sprouted like an orange-and-black mushroom upslope from the marked-off
excavation area. (Nothing can be placed inside that area, by order of “anthros”
Laurel Freas and Mindy Simonson.)
Master mechanic WeeGee Smith, happiest when he’s working, organized
his tools, arranged dozens of track loader parts – from tiny screws to heavy
lift arms – and began reassembling the Terex compact track loaders. At his side
was Lieutenant Commander Rob Tucker, who lorded it over me that WeeGee chose
him as his assistant (I told Rob that I stand ready to replace him at his first
Team members slogged through the snow and slush to untie white,
heavy-duty cargo bags and pull out generators, oil, chairs, lumber, boxes of
food, rope, safety goggles, and sundry other items for the work ahead.
By dinnertime, two more tents were in place at the site: a
green “barn” tent to store equipment and a latrine tent, dug four feet down
into the glacier, anchored with steel bars dug just as deep, and surrounded by
a two-foot snow berm to stop it from blowing away. It’s downhill from here to
Koge Bay, and we anticipate gale-force winds at some point, so that’s no idle
During the late afternoon, a thick fog settled over the bay
and rolled up onto the glacier. It vividly reminded us of an atmospheric
condition World War II pilots in Greenland called “flying in milk.” A similar
effect – fog and clouds that blend with the glacier -- bedeviled Lieutenant
John Pritchard when he tried to fly back to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Northland with his radioman, Benjamin Bottoms, and rescued B-17 crewman Loren Howarth on November 29, 1942.
At our nightly meeting, JPAC Major Jeremiah Ellis used the
fog to remind us that safety is paramount not only in terms of operating heavy
equipment, but also when moving around on the glacier.
“If someone gets hurt when the sky looks the way it did today,
no pilot – maybe Pritchard, but not anybody else -- would come to save us
through that,” Jeremiah said.
* * *
Earlier, Jeremiah led a small band of anti-polar bear
activists – safety leaders Nick Bratton and Frank Marley, electrical
engineering expert Alberto Behar, and for a while, me – in an attempt to erect
an electrified fence at a high point of our base camps nunatak.
The idea was to make a circular, high-voltage barrier about
50 feet in diameter if a hungry bear caught wind of us (follow-up note to
Mountain House: nevermind, keep breakfast bland and relatively odorless). It
was supposed to be our last line of defense if other methods – guns, flares,
repellent spray – failed. “It’s our Alamo,” Jeremiah said.
But Alberto advised us that it wouldn’t be possible because
it needed to be a closed circuit, and there was no way to ground it on the
rocks. “It’s good on soil and grass, but it’s not going to work here,” he said.
At the nightly meeting, several wags noted that the device
was actually labeled “poultry fence” and began making farmyard noises. In other
words, the fence was supposed to protect chickens from coyotes, not humans from
polar bears. Nick and Frank are forming a new polar bear strategy. In the
meantime, we have officially abandoned the Alamo.
* * *
Although the movement of gear and fuel occupied much of our
attention the past few days, a parallel effort was under way to refine our
The working strategy we’re following emerged from days of
work by surveyor Ben Fuchs and geophysicist Jaana Gustafsson, multiple
consultations with master mechanic and ice excavation expert WeeGee, and
oversight by forensic anthropologists Mindy and Laurel.A preliminary sketch showing our working excavation plan.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 7, 2013 at 12:34 AM
The sketch above is a working draft of the topographic
contours of the site and the preliminary excavation plan. It takes into account
the 10 percent slope of the glacier toward the water and makes use of that
slope to allow water to drain rather than pool where we’ll be digging.
The outer box is a 50-square-meter excavation zone. The
smaller box is a 15-square-meter area centered on the location where safety
leader John Bradley found the satellite tracking device over the hole where
last year we saw debris from a Grumman Duck. The lines extending from that box
represent a ramp where water can drain and the Terex compact track loaders can
dump loads of ice away from the dig.
One concern about this approach is the sheer amount of ice
and snow we’re dealing with. First, the plan calls for the removal of about
5,000 cubic yards of snow that accumulated at BW-1 since last year. Digging out
the 15-square-meter box would add roughly another 4,200 cubic yards of ice,
plus another 2,200 cubic yards for the ramp.
Those numbers are daunting, particularly in this environment
and without replacement machinery, so the plan is sure to keep evolving.
* * *
ICE CHIPS: It’s impossible to capture all that’s magnificent
and unusual about Greenland. But once in a while something turns up that’s representative
of how strange and beautiful it is here. The cloud pictured below appeared a
few days ago over Koge Bay. If someone could explain how a cloud like this
forms, I’d love to read a comment about it.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 7, 2013 at 12:38 AM
BLOG NOTE: I'm posting this entry earlier than usual because tomorrow morning I might be flying to the beach to help slingload fuel barrels to BW-1. I'll post again when I'm back at base camp.
Mitchell Zuckoff 8/7/2013 12:23:48 PMRECOVERY MISSION -- DAY ELEVEN -- UPDATEDBeachboundKOGE BAY, Greenland -- A quick update to report that I'm awaiting the helicopter to spend the day at the "beach" slingloading the 119 fuel barrels that remain there.We're a four-man team, chosen specially for this mission. Project manager Joe Tuttle is armed with the rifle. Chief North South Polar scientist Alberto Behar has helicopter expertise and EMT training. Safety team leader John Bradley is a mountaineering and glacier expert.And me? Well, to borrow a line from surveyor Ben Fuchs, I have "a strong back and a weak mind." Specifically, I'm ready to spend a day wrestling 55-gallon fuel drums into slingload hooks dropped by the A-Star pilots. Not quite as impressive as the others, but hell, I'll write about it, too.We've equipped ourselves with tents, sleeping bags, food and assorted other essentials, in case we have to bivouac among the barrels on the beach. Oh, and we've got sunscreen, too. Check back later.
Jerry in SC 8/8/2013 1:36:48 PMRead (and was fascinated by) the book. So, I'm really enjoying the updates. It's like reading the final chapter - in real time. Thanks, Mitchell!
Gabbie More 8/10/2013 10:34:25 AMDear Mr. Zuckoff, I am little sister of Communications Specialist Isaac Moreno, and I wanted to let you all know to always think positive, smile, & keep moving forward. God bless you all on this journey you have all been going through, and Isaac, I love you bro, never forget that! STAY STRONG!! Love conquers all! Thank God each and every day!
Laura G. Moreno 8/10/2013 10:35:01 AMHi Mr. Zuckoff I am the mother of Communication Specialist Isaac Moreno. I want to tell him again that I am very proud of him and hope as every goal that he has achieved to also succeed in this one. Since he was little he has been determent in everything he does. I pray for every one of you so God will continue to guide you all, and bring you guys back soon with the good news to the families of the three brave men. Good luck, and God bless you all.
Betsey Whitney 8/10/2013 10:35:44 AMExperiencing the expedition with you all gets better and better. Mitch: your sense of humor is priceless. Loving this, absolutely loving this ability to live along with the Group in Greenland. Thank you!
Lynne Tucker 8/11/2013 10:44:26 AMLove the "ice chips ." It's easy to imagine Rob saying just about any of those things. Nice to see you made some good progress today and you all still have a sense of humor ( well, most of you anyway).
Mel Lutgring 8/11/2013 10:44:33 AMMitch, enjoying your daily reports of the progress and the personal observations! Thanks! Keep up the good work!
Karen Teller 8/11/2013 10:44:50 AMAmazing work happening there in Greenland and thank you for sharing these great updates. Boston will keep all the team STRONG during these trying days which I know are not all fun but very exciting. Can't wait to here more about the Ice Shower.
Dave 8/12/2013 10:54:28 AMThank you for sharing, Mitchell.
Dave 8/12/2013 10:54:33 AMIt's so great to see our daughter, Laurel, in action.
Caryn 8/12/2013 10:54:52 AMTime to start a WEEGEE FOR PRESIDENT campaign.
Matthew Saab 8/13/2013 11:03:27 AMThanks for all the hard work, long hours, and dedication to our troops, God bless and be safe.
Brenda 8/13/2013 11:03:40 AMWhat an amazing blog. Was just finishing the book when Jenna Rizzo, wife of Nick Bratton, put on FB that her husband was on an adventure in Greenland. Next thing I know I'm reading about him in Frozen in Time. Finishing the book and reading this blog has been more exciting than reading Into Thin Air. I sort of feel like I'm there and wish everyone the best. Be safe Nick, so proud to know you!!!
Betsey Whitney 8/14/2013 1:27:26 PMHAPPY BIRTHDAY, LOU!! I am there in spirit, to wish you the very, very, very best. You are one deserving, first-class guy. Thank you.
Beth Fuchs, Ben's Mom 8/16/2013 11:26:54 AMJust finished your book, so very sad. You honor all in your quest to find these heroes. Good luck to you all.
Traci Tucker 8/16/2013 11:27:00 AMThank you, Mitch. We know that Rob has thoroughly enjoyed his time on this mission - and the friendships he has made. As you all continue your mission, know that our sister, Allison, is watching over all of you to keep you safe.
Chris Sudlow 8/16/2013 11:27:06 AMAwesome job. Keep going!!!
Jan J 8/17/2013 9:58:26 AMAll of you are my heroes and that's all I have to say about that!
Mitchell Zuckoff 8/17/2013 10:09:31 AMExpedition members pack up gear in advance of the piteraq storm.by on Aug 17, 2013 at 10:00 AMEmptying the kitchen dome tent before boarding the helicopters.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 17, 2013 at 10:01 AMMitchell Zuckoff guides Tom Andreassen's A-Star helicopter into the landing area.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 17, 2013 at 10:02 AMPilots Peter Wiis of Finland and Geir Paulsen of Norway in the cockpit of the 212.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 17, 2013 at 10:04 AMA weather map at the Hotel Kulusuk showing high winds around Tasiilaq. The forecast for Koge Bay, some 100 miles south, is far worse.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 17, 2013 at 10:06 AMPreviousNext
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RECOVERY MISSION -- DAY TWENTY-ONEBLOWN AWAY
KULUSUK, Greenland – Piteraq
storm. It’s one of the scariest phrases in Greenlandic, scary enough to send us
fleeing the glacier in an emergency evacuation by helicopter for the safety of
the Hotel Kulusuk.
After a rough 24 hours of winds that at times reached
hurricane force, we woke today to near-freezing temperatures and relatively
calm skies. We assembled in the kitchen dome intending to spend the day
repairing the damage from the just-passed storm, and resuming bore-hole melting
and down-hole camera investigating.
Then project manager Joe Tuttle arrived with a dismaying weather
forecast: the storm we’d just endured was only a warm-up. Tomorrow Koge Bay is in
the path of winds that might exceed 100 miles per hour. Our tents are no match
for such winds, and there’s nowhere on the glacier or the nunatak to hide.
Here’s how I described such storms in the book:
“[D]evastating blizzards known as piteraq
storms race more than a hundred miles
per hour across the unbroken landscape. The wind blows glacial dust that can
scour glass or blind eyes left unprotected. Soldiers stationed at an American
base in Greenland during World War II sometimes crawled from one building to
the next to avoid violent winds. An officer who stepped blithely out of his hut
was thrown twenty feet into a wall, breaking both arms.”
JPAC Major Jeremiah Ellis moved quickly to see if we could
get Air Greenland to make multiple helicopter runs to get us off the ice before
nightfall. “This is beyond just enduring crappy weather,” he said. “This is a
Some team members wanted to stay, believing that we could
tough it out and make good use of today’s fine weather to catch up on the time
lost the previous day.
Master mechanic WeeGee Smith survived several such storms
during his work in 1990 and 1992 recovering the P-38 known as Glacier Girl. With more time in
Greenland than anyone on the expedition, WeeGee is a voice of authority and
experience. He also revels in experiencing the worst that Greenland has to
offer. Storms tend to excite him. Yet he, too, supported the idea of
“We’re only going to
go backwards by staying,” WeeGee said. “Let’s protect ourselves.”
For the next eight hours, we seesawed between going and
staying, as our attempts to line up the helicopters seemed doomed by foul
weather at their takeoff points in Kulusuk and Tasiilaq, some hundred miles
from our base camp. Air Greenland pilot Tom Andreassen told me he tried to
leave Tasiilaq twice early in the day, only to be turned back twice because of
In the meantime, we completely disassembled our base camp,
packing up tents; collecting our gear in central locations and wrapping it in
heavy plastic; and organizing “go bags” of essential gear that wouldn’t weigh
down the copters if they ever came. With that done, we enjoyed a surprisingly
warm and sunny day, stretching out like lizards on the rocks. Several of us
used large Pelican cases at the edge of base camp as chaise lounges. Safety
leader John Bradley dubbed our spot “Pelican Beach.”
We saved the kitchen dome for last, waiting until we knew
for sure the helicopters were in the air. We emptied it of all our food, stoves
and supplies, then brought it down and packed it away. At that point there was
only the collection of assorted bags and boxes to show we’d ever been there. We
have a big job of rebuilding when we return.
Tom finally reached us in his A-Star copter shortly before 6
p.m., trailed closely by pilots Geir Paulsen of Norway and Peter Wiis of
Finland in a big helicopter called a 212, a bird known to Vietnam-era soldiers
as the Huey.
Five members of our team joined Tom in the A-Star while the
remaining nine of us crammed into the 212 for and hour-long flight to the
Kulusuk Airport. We arrived shortly before 7 p.m. then walked a half-mile to
our weekend refuge: the Hotel Kulusuk. Waiting for us in the lobby with room
assignments was North South Polar chief Lou Sapienza.
* * *
I’m finishing this post in the bar of the Hotel Kulusuk, a
can of Tuborg beer within reach and my fellow expedition members at the tables
around me. We’re all freshly showered, clean and shiny, safe and sound, laughing
and drinking. No one seems eager to climb into the first real beds we’ve seen
in weeks. Coast Guard Petty Officer Jetta Disco just gave me a photo of myself
(included in today’s slide show) guiding Tom’s helicopter in for a landing. Lou
just offered to buy me another round. How could I refuse?
We’ll be returning to Koge Bay as soon as the piteraq passes, as eager as ever to
recover three American heroes whose homecoming is long overdue. Until then,
this is exactly where we belong.
* * *
ICE CHIPS: Proof of our (very minor) celebrity in Iceland
comes in the form of an image from the page-one story I mentioned the other
day. Our best guess on the translation of the headline is: “Frozen Grave.”
Anyone who knows Icelandic should feel free to chime in with a comment
providing further translation.From left, Major Jeremiah Ellis, Isaac Moreno, Brian Kimball and Frank Marley on the front page of an Icelandic newspaper.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 17, 2013 at 10:08 AM
Mel Lutgring 8/18/2013 8:59:42 AMMitch, glad you and the rest of the gang are safe and warm off the glacier for the time being! Hot shower and cold beer! Great Challenge Coin! You earned it!
Betsey Whitney 8/20/2013 12:22:57 AMWas away for a few days, just checked in. Well, Greenland "laughs" as you had said. A few storms with hurricane force winds were just the beginning , but you all made it through, safely. Was v. glad you got some R&R at the Inn. Pictures and texts throughout, absolutely wonderful. I know, pressure mounting. This experience is so amazing, helicopter video and all: and you have all had successes so far. With you until the very end and will keep tuning in. I've never experienced a story as it unfolds, such as this. God bless.
Mitchell Zuckoff 8/20/2013 9:50:16 PMRECOVERY MISSION -- DAY TWENTY-FIVEWORKING IN MILK
KOGE BAY, Greenland – A soupy grayish-white overcast moved
in, snow began to fall, and the glacier blended perfectly with the sky above,
making it impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
We’ve witnessed many things since arriving here, and today
we saw the terrifying sight that confronted Lieutenant John Pritchard on the
morning of November 29, 1942, in the moments before his Grumman Duck ploWorking in milk -- the sky and the glacier appear the same color.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 20, 2013 at 9:45 PM
into the Koge Bay glacier.
Pilots call the phenomenon “flying in milk.” During World War II it claimed numerous lives of airmen unlucky enough to experience it. We know that Pritchard, Radioman Benjamin Bottoms and Corporal Loren Howarth were among those victims because of Pritchard’s last radio transmission, in which he made a desperate plea for “magnetic orientation,” or M.O.’s, to guide him toward his waiting ship.
Here’s what I wrote in the book:
“The urgent call
could mean only one thing: Pritchard was lost, disoriented in the fog and storm,
flying at perhaps ninety knots, or about one hundred miles per hour. Pritchard
was flying in milk. By calling for magnetic orientation, he was desperately
seeking a course to the Northland.
Without it, the Duck was in danger of slamming into the water or the ice cap.
Pritchard was the airborne equivalent of a sailor searching for a beacon to
guide him past a reef. The Northland’s
radio operator hammered his transmitter key, sending the signal for MOs—five
dashes in succession, da-da-da-da-da—on a prearranged frequency. He repeated
the signal again and again—da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da—but received no
For us, the disappearing horizon meant extra safety
precautions as we moved between the base camp and the dig site, but little more.
A pilot might not be able to fly in milk, but we were fine working in it. If anything,
we’ve redoubled our efforts, increasing our work-shift hours, to maximize our
chances for success.
We pulled on our wet weather gear, finished reorganizing
camp after the storm, and resumed bore-hole melting and down-hole-camera
dropping, ever hopeful that the next hole will be the jackpot.
* * *
When we suffer setbacks; or when our hands, ears and feet
ache from cold; or when Greenland sends us 100 mile per hour glacial winds, one
name keeps us going: Nancy.
Nancy is Nancy Pritchard Morgan Krause, John Pritchard’s younger
sister and closest surviving relative. Nancy has been a guiding light for this
effort, and we often invoke her name here on the ice. “I’m here for Nancy” is a
We’re also here for Bud Richardson, the stepson of Benjamin
Bottoms, and for the family of Loren Howarth. But the connection with Nancy is
personal. She came to see us off before then 2012 expedition, and after
learning everyone’s role and name, she thanked each team member individually.
She would have done it again this year, but she already had travel plans and
was on a cruise when we left.
Here’s part of what I wrote about her in the book:
“Nancy smiles as she
talks about her ‘confident, self-assured’ big brother, nine years her elder,
and about how gentle and caring he was toward her. Nearly seventy years after
the fact, she cries when she describes the phone call she received from her
mother while at college. ‘She said, “Nancy, John’s been lost.” That was it.’
Nancy left her dormitory, went out into the falling snow, and walked around the
block, knowing that she’d never fully recover from the loss. … ‘Congress has
said they want all the MIAs, the missing in action, to be brought back to this
country, and I agree. If they bring everybody back, then by God, you bring my
We’re trying, Nancy, we promise.
* * *Nancy Pritchard Morgan Krause and her husband Bill, before the start of the 2012 Duck Hunt.by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 20, 2013 at 9:49 PM
ICE CHIPS: We’re all Duck-obsessed, to the point where some of us have had ducks – both the waterfowl and the aeronautical kind – appear in our dreams. But it reached a new and disturbing level yesterday. While changing boots in my tent, I could have sworn that I heard a distinctive quack-quack sound. I shook it off, knowing that my hearing isn’t great, and there are no such birds within hundreds of miles of here. Then I heard it again. When I emerged from my tent no one was around, so I worried that I’d be accused of glacier madness if I asked if anyone had heard something strange. Alone with a few friends in the base camp dome, I summoned the nerve. They broke into big smiles: safety leader John Bradley had sounded a hunter’s duck call he has on his iPhone. I don’t know how, but I’ll get him back.Night on the glacier, with the lit-up base camp dome under the almost full moon. (Photo by Frank Marley)by Mitchell Zuckoff on Aug 20, 2013 at 9:46 PM
Pat Wilkins, West Side News 8/20/2013 9:56:42 PMMitch, still hope for successful recovery of Duck & Crew. Holding review of Frozen in Time in anticipation of such.
Gail 8/21/2013 10:19:45 PMSo glad you are all safe !!! Best of luck on the rest of the mission - please tell Mindy that Gail and Keith love reading the blog !!!
Barbara Long 8/22/2013 9:51:26 PMJohn and I read your blog every day. Know that you are all in our thoughts and prayers for both your safety and your success in finding the Duck. Mitch, your writing is superb, as usual.
Ryan Otte 8/22/2013 9:51:31 PMLooking good out there on the ice, Andy! More fun than sitting on the hangar deck, i bet!!
Aunt Doreen 8/24/2013 12:39:25 PMReading about the daily progress in real time is very exciting; also a little scary - crevasses, guns and bears, oh my! You are all so brave. Keep up the good work. Hoping for success. Stay safe.
Marc Storch 8/25/2013 10:44:30 AMGreat to see a picture of Lolly I have never seen before. Thanks so much for what you and the rest of the team are doing to find those three young fellows who never had a chance to make it home. My mom, 91 now, same age Lolly would have been had he been alive today, read your book. She was amazed to see what one of my dad's best friends went through and pronounced your book "impossible to put down". Hoping the team finds "the boys" but even if they don't, the commitment and dedication of the team would make them proud. Thanks again! Marc
Jenna Rizzo 8/29/2013 11:35:54 AMLove the Ice Chips sounds report. I can almost hear the symphony from here. Wish I was there to lift the boiling kettle and have a cup of tea with you. Great job on the blog, Nicholas. Can't wait to hear your stories in person.
Michelle Donovan 8/29/2013 11:35:58 AMThanks for keeping us updated Nick. I hope all the winds die down soon. Yes, Brian Horner does bring good luck everywhere he goes! I should know, he is my big brother! Keep up the good work all and give my brother a big hug for me.
Mike Burns 8/30/2013 1:38:25 AMThanks for the "live" update Nick. I've heard that fortified walls work well against the Piteraq.
Deborah 8/30/2013 11:20:21 AMMy son Major Jeremiah Ellis might like to hear about the weather here in Iowa. We have had record breaking temperatures this week. Temperatures have been in the high 90's, even broke, 100. Sounds like you could use some warm and we could trade for some cooler temps from you. Great read... Wait with baited breathe every day... Such commitment, determination, and perseverance. Hats off to the group... Job well done!! You should all be so PROUD!!
Mitchell Zuckoff 9/3/2013 10:45:52 PMRECOVERY MISSION -- WEEKEND UPDATESEvacuating the Koge Bay glacier. (Photo by Frank Marley)by Mitchell ZuckoffThis much-anticipated string of updates, delayed by weather and other issues, was written by safety team leader NICK BRATTON
August 30, 2013
Our team emerged this morning from a two-day hibernation in
high spirits. However, the same cannot be said of our wind-worn equipment. The 80 mph piteraq battering camp since
Saturday claimed one sleeping tent and inflicted heavy damage on another. While
the winds remained above 30 mph today, skies were clear and we were able to
resume our activities at the dig site.
Given our dwindling days on the ice and unpredictableWhen the helicopter arrived bearing supplies,
weather, today Major Jeremiah Ellis put into motion the initial stages of our
departure plan. In anticipation of
having a helicopter at our disposal to reposition equipment, a crew of strong
backs labored to free our fuel drums from their icy imprisonment.
it did not have the accessories necessary for moving fuel drums, so it departed
with our trash and some Hotsy pressure washer parts for repair in Kulusuk.
Meanwhile, reprising her original role with North South Polar, geophysicist Jaana Gustafsson patrolled the glacier with her ground-penetrating radar to expand the survey area. Anthropologists Mindy Simonson and Dr. Laurel Freas explored two new holes with the camera as persisting winds scoured the dig site with airborne ice crystals.
A new construction project arose from adaptations to our search tactics. In consultation with master mechanic WeeGee Smith, the anthropologist team decided yesterday to attempt to locate more conclusive evidence of the aircraft using a new approach. WeeGee would expand an existing hole to a four-foot diameter and descend into the depths of the glacier to investigate a point of interest. In order to accomplish this feat, WeeGee proposed construction of a gantry – an elevated frame from which to lower him into and retrieve him from the glacier with rope and pulleys.
North South Polar revealed its latent engineering talents, taking WeeGee’s concepts and seizing power tools with gusto. We measured, sawed, and bolted throughout the afternoon, finishing our sturdy structure moments before the call for dinner crackled over the radio. The gantry and hole would be covered by a dome tent, allowing WeeGee to operate in inclement weather. The photo shows Project Manager Joe Tuttle joined by Safety Team Leaders Nick Bratton, Frank Marley, and Brian Hornerdemonstrating the strength of the finished product.by Mitchell Zuckoff
More unpleasant weather is just around the nunatak. High winds augmented by one to three inches
of freezing rain are due Sunday, so we are returning to Kulusuk on Saturday to
wait out the storm. WeeGee will use the
visit to repair some Hotsy components.
ICE CHIPS: Communications specialist Isaac Moreno sustained
a calamitous avian mishap last night. In
his haste to respond to a late-night page from headquarters, Isaac heaved
mightily on his sleeping bag zipper, tearing a long hole in the fabric. An explosion of down filled his tent. For a
full hour Isaac attempted to clear his tent of fluffy, floating plumage. Apparently this is a difficult undertaking,
especially in the wind at 2 a.m.
Fortunately a cup of hot chocolate revived him in the morning as he made
light of his feathered flurry. With a
replacement sleeping bag Isaac has returned his tent to its stylish state.
* * *
August 31, 2013
Kulusuk, Greenland -- Sitting around the tables of the
hotel’s dining room it’s hard to believe that a few short hours ago we were
rushing to strike camp on the nunatak.
We survived the wrath of the piteraq only to learn from the Danish
Meteorological Institute and the U.S. Navy that more adverse weather was headed
Having assumed the mantle of the blog from Mitch, I am
discovering how difficult it is to write about subjects other than the
weather. Our activities revolve around
the forecast; each morning we hang anxiously on every word Project Manager Joe
Tuttle exchanges with his Danish friends on the satellite phone. For the last few days we’ve been hearing
intimations of the return of high winds, only this time bringing its friend,
freezing rain. Or maybe snow. They weren’t certain. But the forecasts agreed: something was coming.
Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, we
undertook a protracted helicopter evacuation to Kulusuk under the direction of
JPAC. In four separate flights aboard an
Air Greenland A-Star we moved the team to the security and comforts of the
hotel, each flight arriving two and a half hours after the previous.
Since there isn’t much going on in Kulusuk tonight, I have
taken the creative liberty of re-writing one of my favorite poems: Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For your literary pleasure, I present
In Koge Bay did Gustafsson a stately sleeping tent decree:
Where holes into the glacier ran
And WeeGee worked with steady hand
Above the frozen sea.
At base camp winds blew all around
And tents were anchored to the ground;
Unshaken these bold and driven wills,
Where weaker women and men would flee;
The bergs of ice, the fractured hills,
And naught a spot of greenery.
But would our probing wish be granted
Within the frigid glacier cover?
As under heavy toil we panted
To lift and move and melt undaunted
And taste the Mountain House’s savor.
Yet with our howling Hotsies steaming
Down our necks piteraqs were breathing.
A mighty wind from the north was forced
Amid whose swift and ruthless burst
Crushed several tents in ferocious gale.
How could our tiny band prevail?
Somewhere nearby a Duck had ever
Since ’42 lain under the river
Of ice meandering with glacial motion.
Towards the fjord this river ran
Bearing three heroic men.
History gave our team the notion
To seek beneath the ice and star
These heroes from a distant war.
* * *
September 1, 2013
The lassitude and heavy weather descending upon the hotel
has made for a slow and restful day. The
most activity anyone mustered was to catch a lift into the village with Jesper,
the hotel manager, to pick up snacks at the general store. This recovery day gives us an opportunity to
review photos and post a selection taken in the preceding weeks. They tell their own stories.
(PHOTOS TO FOLLOW)
* * *
September 2, 2013
Sunshine greeted us this morning as the clear, radiant
arctic light cast the craggy island countryside into sharp contrast. The weather on the glacier continues to be
harsh: forecasts call for winds up to 70
miles per hour and rain. Our team will
remain here until Thursday when winds are projected to recede to a pedestrian
35 miles per hour.
This was a day of excursions. After spending all day yesterday cooped up as
sheets of rain assaulted the hotel it was time to venture into the sun and
explore. Communications specialist Isaac
Moreno and forensic photographer Brian Kimball headed up the shore toward a
collection of towering icebergs for a closer look. Anthropologist Mindy Simonson made friends
with Zita, a beautiful white sled dog kept near the hotel by Karsten, the local
aircraft mechanic. Project manager Joe
Tuttle also took a tour along the inlet to check out the herd of icy giants
looming off the shore. NSP Team Lead Lou
Sapienza strolled into the village to peruse the handcrafted wares at the
souvenir shop, returning with a sculpture made from a whale’s tooth.
Safety Team Leaders Frank Marley and John Bradley,
Geophsyicist/Epicurean Jaana Gustafsson and I undertook an ascent of a nearby
peak. Jaana and I ascended the casual
north ridge while John and Frank made what is possibly the first American
ascent of the west direct gully. The
views from the summit were spectacular.
Sadly, Jaana is leaving us tomorrow, reluctantly flying back to
Stockholm. Everyone on the team will miss
her endless energy, exemplary work ethic, and magical ability to elevate
Mountain House to new culinary heights.
Jaana has been instrumental in the history of this undertaking, as it
was her radar survey in 2012 that identified the spot where we found evidence
of the Duck.
While the rest of the team was either soaking up the sun or
enjoying restful interludes in the hotel, Master Mechanic WeeGee Smith was
exerting his willpower on a leaking Hotsy coil with a welder in the airport’s
maintenance garage. The good news: his repairs resulted in the coil withstanding
170 pounds per square inch of water pressure without leaking. The murky news: when operating on the ice, the Hotsy pushes
water through the coils at 4,000 pounds per square inch. While I have confidence in WeeGee’s handiwork,
we have learned that Greenland has its own way with our equipment.
Thanks to all the loyal readers who have been following the adventures of our expedition from around the world. We appreciate your comments, encouragements, and well wishes. Knowing that you are supporting us from afar helps us keep focus on the job at hand. We’re going to need all the help we can get as we enter the final leg of the mission. While the winds are predicted to ease off later this week, our return to the ice will be greeted with a few days of freezing rain. But until then, there is more sun to enjoy in Kulusuk.by Mitchell ZuckoffA Kulusuk sunset.by Mitchell ZuckoffGeophysicist/epicurean Jaana Gustafsson, who personified the can-do effort of the North South Polar team.by Mitchell Zuckoff
Sally V. 9/5/2013 3:04:31 PMBest of luck to everyone returning to the ice today.
Brenda Dawson 9/5/2013 10:32:48 PMStill loving all the updates. Keep up the good work on the blog Nick and all of you for your determination to find the duck and the three lost heroes. Stay Safe!!
Angela S 9/5/2013 10:33:09 PMI second that! Be safe.