Marc Ankenbauer's 10+ year quest to jump in every named lake in Glacier and Waterton National Parks for charity.
168 lakes. Only 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
-- Marc jumped into Fisher Cap Lake on Sunday September 8th, 2013 to complete his goal! --
Read about Marc and how this project started...

AGO 2 – The Most Remote Cabin Raising Project on Earth



As we sat in the Twin Otter awaiting our depature to AGO 2 the time seemed to creep along.

There seemed to be a hesitation that we normal don’t have.

As we heard a loud banging resinate through the plane, we became even more inquisitive.

Then the pilot popped his head in and told us that the they had to smack the skis with a 6×6 to break it loose.

The skis had frozen to the ice.

You know it will be a long day when you skis are frozen to the ice.

At least that is what my grandma always used to say.


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Everything seemed to go perfectly after that first little issue.

The skies were perfect blue, displaying the varied texture of the sastrugi as it curves away beyond the horizon.

In the seats around me were David McGaw, Tim Spuck and Bob Melville, all of us settling in for the couple hour plane flight.

Time constraints had gotten the best of David and he had to leave for the states in a few days.

He flew out with us on the first put in plane, did his science work and then headed back to the South Pole on the second put in flight.

You could tell he was staring nostalgically at the plateau.




It is one of those places that you are amazed that you even ended up here once.

You certainly don’t take it for granted.

It is something none of us may ever see again after the project ends.

Its funny, while its not a classicly beautiful landscape, its beauty is in its expansive openness.

There is literally nothing like this on earth and maybe anywhere else.

It is extremely real.  Its Antarctica at its most empty and massive!

With David departing we met up with a teacher named Timm Spuck who is affiliated with an organization called Polar Trec.

It puts science groups in the Polar regions together with teachers to help bring the two worlds together.

Timm proved to be a really nice guy and a great addition to the crew.




I had been lulled to sleep since the plane flys perfectly smooth.

For hours we are only a couple hundred feet above the expansive plateau.

I woke to the plane banking to the left and I stared out the window to see our new home.

The tiny orange AGO was the only thing breaking up the white snow as far as I could see.




When we landed and the pilots opened the door, I noticed one thing.

AGO 2 was so much more pleasant than AGO 3!

I suppose it’s good to start with the hardest situation first, then everything else is smooth sailing.

AGO 2 lies at 5900’ compared to AGO3 at 9600’ which made the temperature well lower.

The winds were only 5 miles an hour instead of upward of 25 mph at AGO3.

Bob explained that our AGO 3 put in was the 2nd harshest weather he had dealt with in his time in Antarctica.




Someone through the years had made a mile marker sign which provided directions in the “front yard”.

There were distances to McMurdo, South Pole but I was intrigued at the distances to places in the states.

The sign said that it was 9,372 miles to Olympia, Washington.

That’s really far!

We started setting camp after hauling all the gear from the plane to the AGO.

Tim helped me put up the Scott tent and it was pleasent enough outside that we started putting up everyone’s sleeping tents.

So much different than last time!




I know everything is relative but it was so pleasent to be outside.

I’m sure it was mostly weather but I also knew what I was walking into this time.

AGO 3 we had to huddle indoors just to not get frostbite and could only work in short bursts.




We were still outside setting up camp when the Twin Otter got back from picking up Andy and Gil.



I bet it was cool to fly over and see the AGO already springing to life.

Tents set up and people milling about.


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This was to be our last flight with Phil and David as our pilots.

They were spectacular!  Thanks for all the help and good times!

They were finishing up their time on the Ice and planned to get home before Christmas.

Lucky Dogs!




This trip was going to be much more in depth.

Each of the AGO’s get raised every five years in a cycle.

Luckily this year was AGO 2 which is by far the lowest elevation location and therefore the most hospitable.

The process is pretty extensive.




There is a lot of effort digging the guy lines out of the snow.

This is to loosen them so they can be extended when the AGO gets raised.




There are new platforms placed under each corner as new supports.




Then using pulleys and manual winches we raised the box inch by inch.




We made 600 revolutions to raise 5 1/2 feet.

When we were done the AGO was like a big orange tree house.

We had to climb a steep ladder to access the front door.

Just yesterday you had to climb down a set of snow steps to access our humble abode.


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This is such a odd and remote place that every thing you do seems to be the strangest place to do that task.

This was certainly no different.

It has to be most remote cabin raising project on earth.


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To fill our time we each found our outlets.

Taking in the surreal scenery was a base level activity.

I took it to the next level and flew a kite which I had purchased back home.

You know how many times we have all gotten our kites stuck in a the neighbors trees, well that’s not an option down here.

Heck, I haven’t seen a tree in over two months.

The kite flew high and proud with nothing but the wind turbine to worry about.




When we were finished with the AGO raising project I took a bit of time to fly the kite myself.

As I wondered around, kite in hand I saw Gil far in the distance giving scale to this juxtaposed activity.




He eventually caught up to me and enjoyed laying on the ground like he was an Antarctic 6 years old.

He flew the kite with a huge smile on his face for a half hour straight.




While working on an antennae installation we sighted a Snow Petrel flying through the sky.

It’s the only animal that any of us have seen in what feels like forever.

We ponder if the bird is the toughest thing around or just plain lost.

It’s at least 500 miles away from the coast and surrounded by a sterile nothingness of ice.

No liquid water or food for an incalculable distance.

Our pick up flight got delayed by four extra days because the weather was not good enough to fly.

Five men digressing into stinky, stir crazy oddballs with absolutly no normal sleep schedule.

We would be up till 4am watching movies and working on the electronics.  Mornings came late, where we would shuffle out of our tents at noon.

Tim and I even found time to make a snow man.


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Its different than making them in the states because the snow won’t stick together because its too dry and cold.  What we had though was the fact that you can saw blocks perfectly and use them to stack like a cairn.


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In Northern Canada the natives make cairns that are formed like little rock people.

We made the same thing out of blocks of snow and named him AGO MAN.

We decided that he was there as a sentinel looking into the blowing snow for those who can’t do so for themselves.

He was standing proud still on the days we left.




Days came and went, trying to spend our time as productively as possible.

As for myself I found that if you put your goggles up to the sun when you take a picture you can really show the difference from what our eyes see and what our goggles see.




This unleashed a rash of photos in which I forced people to stand in front of the sun so you can accent the photos with your goggles.

Hobbies, you have to have hobbies in the place like this.




Gil found himself enamoured at how rock hard the ice was that he had me take this photo of the shovel with nothing more than a 1/4 “ sticking in the ground.

Pretty bizarre.


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In the respect of genuine productivity we shoveled out 37 different 55 gallon barrels of AN8 or airplane fuel.


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This at least gives the fuel a few extra years before the blowing snow completely envelopes it.




The winds blew so hard that they started making wind blown burms downwind of everything including our tents.




At this same point, I would choose to just climb inside that tent and wait it out.

Any of you who received a phone call, this these are the moments.




Eight days at an AGO gets pretty long.

Sometimes you even play air bass with the shovel.


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Thankfully its 2012 which allowed us to laugh at movies on our laptops.

We watched “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “The Other Guys”.

Warm drinks, funny movies and pretty good eating got us through.




Along with signatures from everyone that  has spent long hours in this box, there was also a 20 year old bagel that was signed in 1992.

We felt compelled to add a new bagel.

Twenty years of AGO Bagels is a pretty powerful thing to witness.

Let me tell you that people!




Well, finally the weather broke.

The skies cleared, the sun came out and created a sun dog which is a huge halo.

It signaled our escape from AGO 2!





The word had come that we would be picked up in the morning!

We had to get prepared for an early pick up so we hauled all of our cargo out to the landing strip.

Everyone helped but Gil was pretty excited to get outside and stretch his legs.



The mission had been very successful!

We had raised the AGO to a height that will keep it clean of snow for years to come.

The power system was working great and seemed like it would last for years.

The data was transferring back to the U.S like it was supposed to.

All was well, and now it was time to get out of there.




We all just wanted to get back to the South Pole!

There was warm showers, soft beds and food that someone else made.

There was also a bottle of red wine to toast…TO LIFE!


Click to open up for detail and scale

Click to open up for detail and scale

AGO 3 – Anything more remote would be outer space!

Thus begins the adventure of the AGO. 

AGO stands for Automatic Geophysical Observatory. 


In functional terms they are 8’x16’ insulated boxes in five scientifically significant spots around the Eastern Antarctic Plateau. 

Think of them as small Antarctic single wide trailers. 

They have to be the most remote livable structures on earth. 

I might be wrong, but I’m not sure how. 


There are four men who make up this AGO group other than myself. 

They remind me of an Antarctic Science A-TEAM. 

Bob Melville, Andy Stillinger, Gil Jeffer and David McGaw. 

Bob and Andy are the main two while Gil and David are new to the project this year.

Their specialties range from engineering, electronics, computers, physics and science in general. 

The night before we left they were still up at 3am going over last minute details.


Our first round of five brought us to AGO 3 which lies at 9600 feet and is five hundred miles from the South Pole. 

Because of weight restrictions we had to break into two flights. 


It takes 3 ½ hours to fly there from the South Pole on a Twin Otter. 

We sent three people and gear in on the first flight and two more people and more gear in the next day on another flight. 


The South Pole and the AGO camps have the same landscape which is flat white snow.

The difference is that the South Pole is surrounded by buildings which break up the flatness a bit.

The area around the AGO is board flat and surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.  


There tends to be a texture of wrinkles and ribs. 

The Russians call these Sastrugi which means “groove”. 

I enjoyed explaining to Bob, that I want to start a band called Sastrugi.

Or, that he should “get his Sastrugi on”. 

You get the point.


As we arrived the Twin Otter banked left which gave me a perfect view down at the expansive AGO compound. 

We would call this place home for the next week.

Click to open this photo so you can understand the scale properly


After landing, the pilots must refuel the plane using 55 gallon barrels that have been stashed at the camps through the years. 


We loaded the Twin Otter the evening before with food, camp gear, electronics and tools. 

Bob, David and I began the process of unloading and hauling the supplies across the windswept landscape on a banana sled. 

When we arrived at the AGO we saw that the winter had deposited a huge ducktail of snow in front of the door which blocked our entrance. 

Bob kept hauling supplies back and forth. 

He is a hauling machine, its impressive!


I started slashing through the barrier of snow that blocked the entrance to the only wind block in thousands of square miles.

When finished shoveling, I took over hauling and let Bob and David work on getting heat going in the AGO. 

We first start heating with a propane device called Mr. Heater. 

Eventually the wind turbine will create electric heat.

Before that happens they will have to give a lot of attention to the labyrinth of internal electonic devices. 

It didn’t take long for Mr. Heater to warm the small insulated structure to a safe temperature. 

Even 20 or 30 degrees is better than the blustery -20F conditions outside. 


The pilots departed for the South Pole leaving us alone at our new home. 

They will return tomorrow with Andy and Gil. 

They are busy completing last minute touches on the electrical system that will be installed over the coming week.

We had to work in short bursts because of the unrelenting wind and cold outside. 

David addressed the stove which he found had water in the propane lines.  

As he tinkered, Bob and I got the Scott tent prepared. 


There’s obviously no plumbing in this high end middle of nowhere. 

The toilet is a hip deep hole dug in the ground with a wooden box placed over it. 

There is a toilet seat carved out of thick foam insulation board. 

It’s warmer than any toilet seat I’ve ever sat on. 

We all muscled the pointed Scott tent over the wooden box and dug the anchors deep into the snow using a technique called dead men. 

We placed a piece of bamboo into a 3ft deep hole in the snow and used it to tie off the anchor ropes. 


Scott Tent Toilet



Then we rushed back into the AGO to warm up. 

We functioned in bursts of productivity. 

We would go into the AGO to dry out our frozen facemasks. 

Then back out to triple team one of our mountaineering tents. 

The winds would have beaten a two person tent team. 

Then back in to thaw ourselves and eat frozen chocolate bars. 

Then another triple team tent detail.


By the time Andy and Gil showed up the next day, camp was set up and all was well.

The following days were spent huddling in the AGO from the elements and dancing around each other. 

Five grown men in such a small space is beyond tight. 

Then add in five huge parkas, food, tools and electronics.


It is beyond claustrophobic on normal American standards. 

Every time you had to move, at least two other people had to move also just to allow the process to unfold. 


Having a huge bald guy as a field coordinator did not help the situation any. 

So when I was not needed I would often adjourn to my tent to stretch out. 


Tent life in Antarctica is well better than it sounds. 

We are here during summer which means the sun never sets. 

2AM is like noon when the sun is highest in the sky and there for the warmest. 

The constant battering winds didn’t help anything but the tent often got up into the 40’s and 50’s at times. 

The sun combined with warm layers and a huge -40 degree sleeping bag, tent life is quite pleasant.


Bob, Andy, Gil and David worked chaotic schedules. 

Often they even worked around the clock to get all of their science, power and data transmission devices up and running.  

I can only imagine this is an extremely difficult process compared to what their peers deal with back in the United States. 


High tech science is very internet based in 2012, something that we have absolutely none of. 

There are two Iridium satellite phones, but we are 18 hours different from the East Coast where all their team members are located. 

Often Bob would stay up till 4 in the morning to make a telephone call to people in the States. 

That way they had a full day to address the issue and get back with us. 

Scheduling is a constant issue.


Antarctica, is a harsh continent and nothing is border line easy. 

AGO life is a fine line between intricate science and base level grunt work. 

Twice a day we would go outside with a large box lined in plastic. 

Filled to the brim with snow chunks the box is hauled back. 

Then for the next hour one of us will sit in the corner and melt snow for drinking water. 


It tastes amazing by the way. 

Not much in the way of pollutants to worry about.

The key is to walk up wind from the AGO where no past groups have ever placed their designated pee flag. 

Very key indeed!


When things get too out of control and we need to calm down, Bob jokingly brought a “therapy penguin”.  

With the same thought in mind I brought a talking head that says, “Calm down, don’t stress, take it easy” that was given to me by John at the Vitamin Store in Missoula.  

I named him Carl. 

We have now made them a couple, Carl and Therapy Penguin of the Central New Jersey Penguins. 

They make a lovely couple.

We need outside stimuli, BAD! 


Four days later the Twin Otter pilots came and took Andy, Gil and David back to the South Pole. 

*Youtube video*

They got a head start on further power system production while Bob and I stayed two more days at the AGO. 


As the field coordinator, I have to go in on the first plane and out on the last plane. 

Things slowed down tremendously once it was just Bob and I. 

We each got our own side of the AGO. 

After you do the dance of the AGO with five guys, two feels like you live in a palace.

Bob was in heaven working on this science and listening to music. 


We both got a bit of much needed rest. 

I even watched a movie and worked on this blog post a bit. 

On our last evening we both enjoyed a celebratory toast from a bottle of Wild Turkey that was left there from a past group.

We celebrated what seems like the whole process working properly. 

No small feet and worthy of a cheers.

Wild Turkey on a block of Antarctic snow seemed like a romantic rite of passage. 

Certain things are just the right thing to do when posed with the option. 


One of my main job duties is calling in weather observations many hours before a plane departs to pick us up. 

This process has started to become one of my favorite times at an AGO. 

There is almost no quiet personal time with such cramped quarters. 

But, 5am at an AGO is pleasant. 

My mug is filled with coffee and powdered milk.  

Before I left Montana I downloaded a lot of BBC News and Dirt Bag Diaries podcasts. 

Hourly I have to walk outside, take wind speed and direction, temperature, visibility and barometric pressure measurements. 

But then it’s back inside for 50 more minutes of peace, quiet, coffee and podcasts. 


All in all, this first round of AGO went great. 

Despite what Bob describes as the second worst round of AGO weather he had experienced I was very happy. 

The tent and the AGO box felt very normal but then you open the door or the vestibule.  

Then expanses of the Eastern Antarctic Plateau rolled out before you. 

I’m obviously a person that derives happiness from a mountainous landscape, but this massive expanse of frozen nothing holds a calming beauty for me. 


Now that I know what to expect I’m excited to see and experience the other four AGO sites. 

But, for now its time to go back to the South Pole. 

The pilots are on their way and there are lots of last minute jobs to complete. 


After they land we only have about another 20 or 30 minutes to make sure everything is dialed in.


Blue board has to be put back up to insulate the electronics from the cold Antarctic winter.

Then break down the Scott tent and put the shutters up on the two windows. 

More than anything else double, triple and quadruple check that nothing is being left behind. 


There will be no going back to turn off the stove or flip the lights off. 

We will be the last two people at this building for a couple years. 

Leaving behind the wallet, watch or keys would be an irreversible mistake. 


Up, up and away to 90 degrees South and a well needed shower. 

To Life