Introduction to Digging Mass Balance Pits

by Carmen Braun   

Today marked the first day we weren’t all doing safety training!  While some JIRPers continued doing some safety training, others expanded our horizons to probing and surveying, and nine of us began digging mass balance pits.    After the standard morning time activities (wake up call, breakfast, and work duties), we started getting ready.  Considering the fact that most of us were already wet after our work duties, we all knew we were in for a cold, wet day. 

Those of us responsible for digging mass balance pits were divided up into two groups, each with a safety staff member to show us the ropes.  We skied north down the glacier for about half an hour before arriving at the dig location. The other group’s location was a bit closer to camp.  Upon arrival, we got to work right away, after covering our packs with our tarps in a futile attempt to keep them from getting wetter.  We dug, rotating positions from time to time, for about 4.5 hours.  That warms you up quickly!  My group was really quiet; I spent most of the time in a zone where the only thought in my head was where to shovel.  It was very meditative work.  The other group was chatting most of the time, which I’m sure created quite a different atmosphere. At one point, Dougal, one of the guys in the other group, started yelling out names of things he hates as he chopped at the snow. In these cold and wet conditions, I was very happy to just dig.   However, in nice weather, I can see how digging with a little music and good conversation would be great as well.

As for the actual digging of a pit, everyone starts in the pit until snow starts to accumulate around the edges.  At that point, one moves to clear the rim of snow and the other four start focusing on one quadrant each.  We would rotate from time to time at the beginning, but I think I spent about 3 hours in the same quadrant after that.  Eventually, you have one quadrant that is very deep, and then the other three become progressively shallower.  The one in the lowest quadrant eventually starts passing snow to people in higher ones so they don’t need to throw the snow up and out of the pit. 

This has been a low accumulation year, so we only had to dig to a depth of about 2.25 meters to find last year’s layer.  It was really fun to finally see all the structures people had been telling us about, like the ice lenses and the layer of less dense depth hoar that formed above the much more dense snow from last year.  We finished our pit before the other group, but they had all the scientific equipment so we skied up to their pit to grab that.  Most of our boots were at the point where water sloshed from the toes to heels and back each time the angle of our feet changed.  My overmitts had started retaining water long before, so each time I brought my poles up water splashed over my fingers.  We ended up just separating into two new groups, one to head back to camp, and one to do the measurements because so many of us were very cold at that point. 

I am pretty sure we all enjoyed ourselves, at least in the type B version of fun.  Below are a couple quotes from other students.

“If it’s raining it sucks” – Jenny

“I like it, it’s my friend” – Matt

“No matter how vertical you think the walls are, they’re not.” – Kelly

“A good way to stay warm in the freezing cold rain.” – Randall

“Chat through adversity.” - Randall

“Good way to get in shape.  Once we get to the dry parts I think it will be really fun!” – Natalie

“If I ever want to become an ice sculptor, digging mass balance pits will prepare me well.” – Danielle

Erik talked about how it’s the only way to really see the inside of a glacier, in a way we are evolutionarily developed to understand. He compared it to probing, which is completely uninformative for the senses we use.

“Sometimes it’s like highway construction, one person is working and five people are watching” – Tristan

(This was in reference to a pit we dug where the last annual layer was only 92 cm below the surface.  It ended up being about 1m3; we fit 7 people in there and took a couple selfies once all the science was done!)