GPS Surveying

By: Kurt Powell

730am. Wake up call. I roll over to go back to sleep in an attempt to restore as much energy as possible before another day on the icefield begins.

745am. Someone’s alarm screams beside my ear. I roll over again in hope to regain my necessary slumbers.

755am. My alarm calls to me. I rise gleefully, knowing that by the time I arrive at the Cookshack, the breakfast line will be near empty, so I won’t have to wait for food. It’s a great start to a rainy day at C-17.

Promptly after smooshing into a packed table and eating a couple of spoonfuls of hot peanut butter oatmeal, Annie, the camp manager, calls out “Goood Mooorning”. We respond with a weary good morning as we have only finished a quarter of our coffees. Daily shout outs to the cook with resounding applause are heard from outside of the camp, today’s agenda and work details are quickly stated – today we are doing science. This is exciting as safety training has been successfully completed as of yesterday, and we are all ready for this new adventure of doing science. Probing, mass balance pit digging and GPS surveying are available to everyone’s excitement; we all become a little more eager despite the fact that our coffees are now only half drank. Annie announces all the assistant GPS surveyors have already been selected as the JIRPers whose first names start with the letter K; Kim, Kelly and Kurt. My name starts with a K! Thrilled, finally science is about to occur, science that mysterious thing that we have travelled so far for, I am about to do this thing called science and GPS surveying.

Shortly after finishing my meal, everyone is about to start their second coffee and the morning conversation picks-up, the buzz of excitement from today’s agenda flows into the conversation, people slowly begin to file out as time moves on. I make my way to my sleeping quarters to gather my daily materials.

1025am. We all meet in the staff shack as Scott and the German surveyors, Martin and Paul, pull out the equipment that the team will be carrying for the rest of the day- a tarnished yellow bag with black alloy structure supporting the antenna, a controller, and a circular GPS unit node on a tall metal rod. They briefly explain the logistics of the system–find the spot, press buttons, move on, done. We divide into two teams to discuss how and what points of the Lemon Creek Glacier we will survey. We will be traveling by skis along lines of latitude measuring pre-arranged points every fifty meters or so.  This is done in order to find the glacier’s snow depths. Kelly and I throw on our personal packs with the teams’ lunches packed inside, and Kim throws on the GPS backpack. Raining more heavily now than early today, I feel that today will be amazing and we make our way down to the glacier.

1045am. With our skis strapped on, both teams head south making their way to the first locations. Martin begins to explain to Kim and I how to use the controller, a few swift button pushes and we arrive at the home screen. We select the point in which we want to measure, travel to it, locate the measuring point within a 50cm radius, press measure to send a signal to the satellites to ratify our measurement, alter a setting to show that we have measured this specific point and move on to the next point. Shortly after Kim nails her first point within a few centimeters, we move on and ski into the rain.

Paul teaches Kim how to use the survey equipment

Paul teaches Kim how to use the survey equipment


In a short matter of time Kim is hitting every surveying point within a few very short minutes with wicked accuracy. As we cross beside Lake Linda and begin to ascend its mountain side, she hits her points and we travel north along the farthest reach of the glacier.

While Kim surveys, Martin and I ski behind chatting about the EU and the status of Germany post-2008, the cost of the equipment, his part-ownership in his surveying company and how he has been a part of JIRP for the past nine years.

Skiing along the mountain-side, the group begins to separate with the oncoming white out and intensifying rain storm. Feeling the distance grow between us, the gradient of the mountain side amplifies and I begin to realize that I am not as confident in my skiing ability as I once thought. Stopping and looking down, I stare at potentially steep fall downward, a blanket of white covers all that I see below, gusts of wind cause me to teeter side to side, the rain begins to seep into my jacket with its cold jaws clamping around side. One moment passes into another, and dazed, I think to myself that I could seriously get hurt here…  pausing yet again, I take a deep breath.  I stride forward attempting to catch-up to my team as I have fallen even further behind, the cold following closely behind me.

Kelly taking measurements on the Lemon Creek glacier

Kelly taking measurements on the Lemon Creek glacier


Quick elongated strides allow me to close the gap, the cold fades away, and we reconnect at the end of the mountainside.  Relieved, we ski down a less steep hill side to group together to enjoy lunch – JIRPs famous peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches.

Swapping packs with Kim, I begin to orientate myself with the cardinal directions and punch the first settings into the controller. Hopefully I will be as quick as Kim.  Beep…Beep, the controller received its coordinates from the responding satellites, I step forward, Martin and Kim follow closely behind me. Striding forward I am within two meters of the point of measurement, I stop and inch my way forward still, the screen on the controller flashes to show a display of my location as an X and my point within 50 cm as a large zero. I fiddle with the tall rod trying to place it correctly, one step this way, no the other way, no back again, damn – my frustration begins to build, all while Martin and Kim patiently wait for me to work it out.

Some five minutes later I feel satisfied with my work, I send off the coordinates, and I am finished my first point. My second point is quicker, third more efficient. My confidence grows, perhaps I’m not as fast as Kim, but I am capable.

The hours fade away just as the cold wind blows past us, and the afternoon slips away without hesitation until I arrive at my last few points. I notify the group that I am feeling relieved, and even victorious as we have finished this quest to acquire snow depth of Lemon Creek glacier! Martin looks at me with a kind smile and we turn to ski towards camp.

Survey crew Paul, Kim, and Kelly pose in the middle of a cloudy Camp 17

Survey crew Paul, Kim, and Kelly pose in the middle of a cloudy Camp 17

??? pm. Cold, wet, sweaty, tired, hungry, I have lost track of time, it been a full day. From the bottom of camp I look up at the cook shack with icy, wet, dripping skies on my shoulder and I can only hope that there will be some food left for me, I don’t care if there is a line anymore.

Special thanks to the GPS crew, JIRP coordinators, fellow students, my family and especially my editor in Windsor for making all of this happen – its been a life changing ride.