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One Down, Two To Go

July 14, 2013

NOTE: This post is a bit longer than usual. To aid in the reading I’d recommend perhaps choosing your favorite granola bar or pop some corn and pour a 15 oz. of your favorite beverage for this may take awhile.  Included here is a YouTube embed of accompaniment music which may aid in setting the atmosphere, as well.  Of course feel free to ignore it and choose your own reading music, or read in silence.  Whatever you do, I truly hope you enjoy it.

The Song List:


I was originally going to write this a week ago, but some things came up which prevented me from doing so and now I’m glad I’ve waited until now because it seems a bit more appropriate considering the date on which I am typing this up: July 13, 2013.

On Friday, July 13, 2012, at about 11:30PM HST, my flight from Chicago touched down at Honolulu International Airport. The following Monday I reported for duty at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. It’s been a year, already! Holy cow! Where has the time gone?

When I enlisted in the Navy and went off to boot camp on November 1, 2011, two years and some change later I never imagined I’d be living in Hawaii and traveling to SE Asia and then crawling around on a glacier in Alaska. I’m set to return to SE Asia in a couple weeks, this time to a different country. Twice I’ve been to Laos and that first time was a doozy – in the best possible way. Alaska was incredible – which I’ll get to in a moment – and I anticipate this next mission is going to be pretty amazing, too.

My favorite part of these missions is the daily interacting with the locals, especially the ones out in the remote villages at the work sites. Forming bonds with them through working together, learning stuff from them, teaching them stuff about ourselves, learning to laugh with each other and how to communicate in spite of the language barrier – I’ve yet to experience anything else like it.

So, here I am, a year in to my first duty station with two more to go.

= = = = = = = = =

And now, the conclusion of the Alaska mission.

Just past the midpoint of the mission our pilots needed to practice some of their evasive techniques. I discovered this when, one morning, as we were flying out I had dozed off as we were sometimes prone to do given the generally gentle swaying of the bird and white noise of the rotor through our earplugs. Suddenly I felt a sharp drop and was wide awake within an instant. My teammate across from me laughed at my surprised expression and I was wondering what on earth was going on.

Then the bird banked hard to the left, then to the right, then dropped to just above the deck and we watched as trees and rivers and lakes zipped past. Coming up on a hill we gained some altitude, but it was in the way a cobra rears up and up and up right before it strikes, and then, ZOOM! we dove downward, our guts simulating zero g conditions and I giggled like a gleeful madman the whole time.

As we approached the glacier, the pilots resumed normal flying as the rest of us caught our breath.

That same day, our mountaineering expert rigged up an anchor system just outside a dry moulin he had discovered the day before and as we were working we’d each take about a 20-30 minute break at a time, get buckled up, and rappel down into the glacier. It was my first time rappelling and I BS you not, I was nervous. But our expert gave great instruction in the most comfortably assuring, chilled out manner possible and I made it down without incident.

Getting out was a little more…hectic.

After my time beneath the icy epidermis, I received instruction on what do on my end to get out – pull on the rope, walking my way up, no problem. Well, I guess I should have seen it coming, I mean, it was basically a pulley-like system, so the rope moved. I didn’t count on that and feared of getting my fingers ground up or snapped off or the like, but I figured it out pretty quick and obviously made it out okay. (…or did I???! #glacialghost)

The 4th of July we didn’t work, and I believe I returned to Jitters that day… I did see some fireworks that night though. It was around 1AM, so technically it was the next day, but hey, it was mostly dark by that time and it was pretty neat. Midnight fireworks!

We worked Friday, but Saturday and Sunday we didn’t as our air support were all on leave, and actually, we weren’t planning on being there past the 3rd, but weather kept us from the glacier for a couple of days.

That Saturday I got my first real taste of mountain climbing. Two of the guys who were on our team are trained mountaineers and they were itching to get some climbing in. They invited me along and I told them about how I was a level 0 mountaineer, but they assured me they wouldn’t push me to do anything (too) crazy.

The expert who trained us on the glacier recommended a couple places so we set out in search of them traveling south of Anchorage, along the Turnagain Arm on the way to Girdwood. And it’s kind of weird, but actually pretty cool, too – along the road there are several places where you can just pull over your vehicle, suit up and climb up.

Our first site we checked out was a bit too steep and the wind was obnoxious, so we set out a little further down and found a place a little further off the road which was acceptable.

The two other guys – we’ll call ’em T-bag and G-sauce – scrutinized the climb, spotted bolts for belays (I think that’s the right term), and then G-sauce took the first climb making it all the way to the top. I think they said it was 30 meters…or maybe it was 30 feet; I’m really not sure. My standard for 30 feet is the height of a tyrannosaurus rex, ever since watching Jurassic Park. I remember in the book they said it’s about 30 feet high, and in the making-of book for the film they say it’s about 30 feet high. So whenever someone says something is 30 feet high I imagine a t-rex standing there, shooting the breeze, or if someone describes something as 30 feet long I imagine a snoozing carnivorous king of the thunder lizards racked out on the ground.

Saying all that to say, I could easily imagine a t-rex standing there with about ten feet of wall still above its head.

So, G-sauce rigged an anchor system at the top and sent the rope down for T-bag to climb up, then they’d set up a top-rope system or something and then I would make the climb with them relieving me of a portion of the gravity by keeping tension the rope or something like that.

Well, we had both noticed how G-sauce got to a certain point and then took a while to pass it by. T-bag soon discovered it was due to a lack of handholds – and in his case, actual climbing shoes. Had he those instead of boots, we all figured he would have made it. As it was, he couldn’t find adequate handholds so he came down.

And then it was my turn.

G-sauce returned to the bottom, maintaining the anchor system at the top, they just re-rigged it so that T-bag would be keeping tension on the rope for me from the bottom. So there’d really be no relieving of gravity, it was just for safety in case I were to fall.

I made it about a fifth of the way up – actually right to about the spot T-bag made it. I was a little proud of myself and G-sauce complimented me in saying I took to it kind of naturally. He gave some pointers, such as use your lower body as much as possible, and I figured out the significance of that pretty quick – I didn’t realize it at first until I was able to rest a moment and discovered how incredibly tight my forearms and hands were; I mean, they were almost hurting I had been holding on so tight!

Well, after that it didn’t take too long to figure out I wasn’t going to get any higher. I said I was going to come down and then when I looked for a way down my heart sank: there was no way down except to fall.

Now, apparently, in mountain climbing and such, falling is a perfectly normal thing to under the proper circumstances. If you’re not roped up or the person supporting you is an idiot, don’t do it. But if you’re tied in correctly and the support person is skilled at what they’re doing, all will be well. It just took me about ten minutes to finally believe that.

Well, maybe it wasn’t that long, but it was long enough.

Ah, and another point of clarification: the anchor was about 45 degrees to my left, I was about 15 feet up, and there was about 20-25 feet of rope between the top and myself. For me to get back to the ground in the safest and most efficient way possible I was going to have to put on a live performance of The Pit & the Pendulum, doing my best impression of said pendulum.

As much as I enjoy acting, I was not looking forward to playing this part.

G-sauce was saying to just put my body in an l-shape and let go. I asked him about 14 and a half times if he was sure – the half being when I started to ask but shutup to keep myself from audibly weeping.

About seven times I said I was ready, but then common sense grasped me desperately by the collar demanding, “LISTEN TO ME, MAN! THIS IS MADNESS!”

To which I replied, “I know! But I have to get down! These guys pretty much know what they’re doing! I have a good bit of confidence this will work! I’m sure I’ll probably be okay unless I’m not!”

The one thing I knew for absolute sure was I could not wuss out and just try to climb down.

Finally, I just said, “Okay,” and then let out a sustained profanity in the key of F, with a fermata, as I let go and swung like Tarzan on his first day of swinging lessons. At the top of the first swing fear turned to exhilaration and my bellowing turned into the Goofy yell, punctuated with crazed laughter and a couple of muttered, “ohshitohshitohshitohshits” when I brushed up against the rocks.

Needless to say, G-sauce was about to bust a gut laughing, but thankfully T-bag maintained his composure and got me safely to the ground.

From then on the other guys went up a couple more times, but I kept my clodhoppers planted on terra firma. There was one time T-bag discovered the elasticity of the rope and came down like a wrecking ball which scared the mess out of all of us, but we ended the venture without incident.

Then it was lunchtime.

We loaded back up in the vehicle and continued on down to Girdwood for the annual Forest Fair, which is a music festival type fair thing where primarily hippies and artists come out to sell their wares and it’s a big deal because from what I understand it’s one of the first and few times after the winter when everyone gathers together for something and visits with one another. During the long winter months they’re holed up because of snow or other such adverse environmental conditions. And it was really cool witnessing folks recognizing old friends and hearing the loud, “Heeeeys!” of familiarity and welcome.

We kicked it around the fair for a couple of hours or so, had some food, but then we were ready for a full on meal, so we returned to the Double Musky. Whoo, doggie. That is one of my favorite places ever now. The food is wonderful, the staff are all terrific, and the atmosphere is just so warm – it’s like home and I love that.

The three of us took our time – we had about an hour wait time before we were seated anyway, and at the end of another scrumptious meal we headed back up to Anchorage.

Our last day on the glacier was probably the most exciting, but not in a way you’d particularly relish.

We split off into two groups – one on the lower area of our work zone to go over old ground again to see what had melted out since our first survey, and then another on the higher area we had most recently finished to mark it off for final photos from the air.

I’d say it took about 40 minutes to mark off the area. All the while I noticed the glacier was a little more talkative than usual. There was a marked increase in sounds of trickling, sometimes running water. Crevasses were noticeably wider. Once or twice I heard a couple distant subterranean thumps as ice calved off somewhere beneath us – but always in the distance; still, we were all a little more alert than usual.

Once the area was marked, I set off to get a few sets of survey photos from the ground. No biggie; just don’t choose the wrong spot to cross and fall to your death. On my way back I passed by the group, just watching my steps, hood on so as to keep the sun off my head and wind off my ears, when suddenly I heard the voices of everyone escalate and I realized they were calling out to me.

“Bailey! Don’t go over there!” they said.

“I thought you wanted some photos from up here,” I replied.

“Yeah, not anymore. We want to bring you back alive.”

Turned out they had heard that fearful sound of ice cracking, or hissing more like, akin to an invisible snake racing around their perimeter at a distance of about 40 feet, then a brief silence followed immediately by a rather loud thump and muffled splash accompanied with a slight shudder in the ice they were standing on.

So I snapped a couple quick photos from where I was and kind of jogged as best I could manage in cramp-ons to their position. We still had about an hour before the helo would be back to pick us up for the aerial shots, so I flipped over an empty bucket, copped a squat and started updating my field journal.

And then…the invisible snake returned, racing around us, a little closer in, followed immediately by that ominous thump and splash and a definite tremor – not a shudder, a tremor – in the ice. The mountaineer with us said, “I don’t want y’all to panic or anything, but I think we should go to the lower LZ.” We concurred in action, if not word as we rapidly got to our feet and were already headed down by the time he said, “LZ.”

And then…

CRASH! BANG! The whole glacier was shaking as we began our trek down. The moraine, the flat portion, shimmied and swayed as the ice came alive, opening up chasms right where we were about to step. The tremors were continuous as some crevasses closed and others widened into bottomless pits.

We lost Smitty, the wreckage recovery guy from the Air Force, about halfway down. Becky, the anthro tried to go after him, but Joe, the mountaineer kept her from plunging to her own death and shoved her out of immediate harm just as the ice opened up beneath him.

He fell but was able to catch himself with his ice axe. Becky and the plucky photographer looked back and were about to help him when he realized the ledge he was on was about to break loose.

“Fly, you fools!” he commanded, and then he was gone, claimed by the glacier.

The plucky photographer urged Becky on saying, “There’s no time for tears! We have to make it to the others and pray the helo’s on its way!”

The glacier cracked, groaned and roared as it succumbed to the devilry of global – er, manmade climate change. The two leapt across a crevasse; Becky stumbled as she landed and just then a dire yeti sprang from a hole in the ice, roaring with a chilling ferocity.

The heroic photographer, possessing an arcane knowledge of obscure, fantastical creatures, knew that the souls of such creatures could be taken by the use of photographic technology. Luckily he had chosen the nice lens that day and proceeded to take photos of varying exposures and aperture settings, sucking the soul of the dire yeti dry. It moaned and fell over, catatonic. The epic photographer laughed, but he should have kept his bearing…for the dire yeti’s mate then appeared and was not happy about its partner’s death.

Raising the camera to his eye, the steely photographer snapped off a few photos until he realized his mistake: he hadn’t formatted the memory card from the day before and shooting at such a high resolution limited the number of photos he could take! If only he had followed standard protocol the night before instead of trekking off into the wilderness to save the family of sea otters he sensed to be in peril…

“Becky! Go on without me!” he commanded. “I can hold it off, but you need to get going!”

She called out his name, but he said, “No! We must preserve the science! And you have your whole life ahead of you! Who’ll take care of Sparky if you don’t make it?”

Finally Becky complied.

The grim photographer turned back to the yeti which let out a fearsome roar. As the two sized up each other, the tenacious photographer dropped his camera, let down his back pack and took out the small, empty whiskey bottles. He broke them on a nearby rock and positioned them in-between his fingers, using strips of his torn balaclava to secure them to his hands. Narrowing his eyes, the yeti growled and leapt for the imaginative photographer…

Yeah, obviously none of that past that last “LZ” happened, and we made it to the lower LZ totally fine. But I couldn’t help but think, there the four of us were, somewhat archetypal in our jobs and demeanors, making our way down a glacier because it actually was threatening to swallow us up. You’ve seen the pictures from previous posts! It’s like another world out there! My imagination just started churning these ideas out and I shared my thoughts with the others, starting it off with, “You know, if this was a movie or TV show…” and it helped take our minds off the danger, more or less, and passed the time as the original path was long gone by that time and we had to find new ways down.

Not long after, “Becky” – ha, you think I’d use real names in here? – and I were picked up by the helo and I got to sit in one of the crew chiefs’ seats to get the final photos of the area and glacier at large – it was amazing! In case you don’t know, it’s a seat facing out of the helo and there’s a door there. For the purpose of getting the photos, the door was open. In times of war, I learned that those are gunner seats and something along the lines of a 50 cal are set up there on either side of the aircraft.

Once I was done we flew in to get the rest of the team and I got to stay where I was for the flight back to the base. 🙂

When we took off for the last time and I looked back I actually felt a twinge of sadness as the Colony Glacier began to shrink from view. Sure, it was just a land mass, but it had something of a personality. I think in my first post I mentioned how our mountaineer expert told us glaciers are almost like living organisms. And sure, we were briefly frightened for our lives that day, but that was probably going to be the last time we’d set foot out there.

Anyway, the flight back was really cool. We flew kind of low to the deck, but there were no fancy maneuvers or anything. We did spot a herd of moose, though. They were all just walking through the grass, slurping from the lake and being, well, moosey, I guess. Everyone had their own forms of cameras out the whole time as well, as it was a very beautiful day.

And that’s pretty much it. The next day we checked out of our lodging, got to the airport in time for lunch, we saw the police escort drive out with the hearse on the tarmac for the transferring of the remains and we got to talk to some folks about that, then we boarded and flew back here to Hawaii.

It’s the shortest mission I’ve been on, but definitely one of the more interesting. And that’s not to say any of the others have been less interesting, but each one is different – in nature, in locale, in terms of team and work – but where on other missions I experienced new cultures, on this I experienced, … I don’t even know what. A glacier – like going to another planet. Alaska, almost like its own country except everyone speaks English.

It was an amazing experience and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have gone as the team photographer. And I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had over the last year at JPAC and the opportunities to come. From what I understand it’s only going to get more exciting.

And of course to be part of the mission itself – as amazing as the experiences are, the whole reason for any of us being out there is to bring home America’s fallen. Just to be a part of that is humbling and an honor; everything else…I can scarcely believe I’m not dreaming and will wake up from an extended, deepsleep nap in a cubicle in a customer service call center somewhere.

Ouch. Just pinched myself. Here I am. I need a spinning top or something that falls to let me know I’m not dreaming.

Anyway, it’s been quite a year. Two more to go. Thanks for coming along with me through these posts and the emails before.

And thank you for your invaluable support.


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One Comment
  1. Esther Tousley permalink

    “let out a sustained profanity in the key of F, with a fermata” — BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!

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