Cornice Cutting

A few days ago the Technical Rescue team paired up with the UT’s(Utility technicians) to create a safer way of cutting the snow that accumulates above the arches. I am the lead of the Technical Rescue Team (TRT), because of experience I have in the past working on ropes Courses.

The arches before we started. You can see how high snow is piled on top of them. When the station was first built the bottom of these arches could be seen on the ground. About ten years later, they are now starting to cave in because of the weight from the snow piled on top of them.



A week before the cornice cutting, we got together for our usual TRT meeting and discussed snow anchors and making anchor systems. We then went outside and practiced these systems. It is much harder making figure 8 knots and putting rope in carabineers with mittens on.

Then, the day before we met with everyone who would be involved with the process to get a solid plan and create a JHA(job hazard assessment) of how we will do it, what equipment will be used, and things that have or have not worked in the past.

These panels are supposed to help keep snow from building up on the edge of the arch, but the cornices still need to be cut a few times a year.
here is the bottom person cutting the cornices


The day of the cutting was a full moon, which made it a lot brighter. We also set up a big light on top and bottom to make sure there was visual communication as well as talking. In the morning TRT went on top of the arches and set up 3 different anchor system locations so the person cutting could move across the arches to access all of the cornices. This way we were not rushed and we could let the anchors set before testing them. We buried ice anchors and shovels as our anchor points. We tied webbing to the shovels before burying them.

Max is making the figure 8 knot and I am standing behind him


Then, after lunch we had everyone meet in the carp shop to get hand warmers and confirm that everyone understood their jobs before beginning. Max and I were on top in charge of the anchors and getting the person cutting roped in. Everyone else was on the bottom. The person cutting on the top switched halfway through since it is a lot of arm work. We used a long thin cable with a handle on each end. One end of the cable was thrown down and then there was a person on each end sawing back and forth to cut the cornice. The whole process took over an hour and we got down five or six big chunks of snow. The hardest part for me was not taking off my mittens to make the job go faster. We had to change the length of the rope a few times and I kept wanting to take off my mitten to make the figure 8 knot much quicker or get the rope out of carabineer. Touching metal in -90 degrees is a great way to get a nasty burn on your hand.

another shot of Max trying to get the fixed rope in the carabineer
Josh looking at the cornice while roped in and wearing a fall protection harness


Overall, the process went very smoothly and the UT’s were very appreciative of our help making it safer. Plus it was really nice for TRT to finally get hands on practice and be involved in the experience.

the finished product above the VMF arch
the finished product above the LO arch (Notice the pile of fresh snow that fell in front of the arch)


  1. lots of prep before you start, and I wondered what is “UT’ and “JHA” ? And your mittens? More than one pair, silk underneath? Merino? And top layer?? Goretex or something else totally snow and cold and windproof? Our grandson is at University in Wellington and studying Antarctica this semester. So if I pass this onto him, it all adds to his knowledge. His areas of study might well be environmental science. Here in NZ we are having more daylight hours, but gales forecast for tonight where we live.


    • Thank you for asking. I sometimes forget how many acronyms the Antarctic program likes to use that are not used in the real world. I edited the blog so it says what they stand for. UT- Utility technician JHA- Job hazard assessment

      The mittens are issued suede mittens from Christchurch. They do not provide the best mittens, but they work with hand warmers in them. I found that wearing a liner glove underneath actually makes my hands colder since it keeps my fingers from touching and keeping each other warm. We don’t really use Goretex since it is the driest place on Earth (plus it is more expensive and the company has to provide gear for a lot of people). People who brought their own mittens down have nice down mittens with Gortex shells. But in reality, no matter how good the mittens, our hands get cold no matter what after an hour in -90F.

      There is another blog from a long time dedicated Polie. He also has links to other blogs from years past and present to give other perspectives on different jobs.


  2. Thanks so much Hannah, I have looked to see when you get the first rays of sun, still a while yet. Do you do another term there or go home in the summer? And the link, I’ll go there and get some more inside info on how life really is down there.


    • I arrived to Mcmurdo on October 27th, and you can only do a year before having to be off the continent for at least 42 days. So I will be leaving early November. The first flight to Pole is October 27th and they usually have all the winter people out by the 4th flight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s