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Blog entries from the transantarctic mountains...


Forrest here... "here" being semi-sheltered behind a large ridge in a flapping tent just below the Antarctic ice cap, 300 or so kilometers from any semblance of civilization---if McMurdo station can be called civilization---in the Transantarctic Mountains. After delays due to 50 knot winds, we boarded a Twin Otter, or "Twotter" as the Canadian pilot affectionately calls the small aircraft. A snowmobile was miraculously manhandled roughly into a side door after the pilot got a running start up a steep ramp. Put-putting southwest of McMurdo, I was entranced by watching the blue ice ridges and crevasses winding up the S-shaped ridges to the summit of Mt. Discovery (affectionately named after Capt. Cook's ship that first discovered this part of Antarctica) to where a lenticular cloud capped the volcano. There is no way to judge distances and sizes here; the clear doesn't cause any of the normal receding color effects and there are nothing for scale. Crossing great rivers of ice named the Koettltz, Skelton, and Mulock glaciers, we were dumped (and I mean that quite literally) behind a ridge in sunny -4 F weather. 

The ridge that shelters us acts as a dam, blocking the northeastward flow of the ice cap. Giant flows of blue ice curl around the sides and butt up against the rim, not dissimilar from water flowing around a rock in a river, but on a massive scale. Most ice I have encountered prior to arriving here has been flat and clear, but here ice has all gradients and colors, from clear, to white, to translucent blue. Most is pock-marked and covered by pebbles and boulders. Not infrequently, rocks beneath my feet startlingly give way to expose the ice below. To say the least, this is a humbling landscape. 

Our three tents were set up after some laborious digging, but most of our effort was spent digging an outhouse hole to protect from the cold, augmented with snow bricks. Upon use, I have found these efforts less than successful and the "waste bucket" is always covered with at least an inch of snow drift... 

Fieldwork has been productive so far. We drive snowmobiles until reaching rocks, steep cliffs, or crevassed ice. Then we set out on foot, filling up backpacks with samples and staggering back down scree slopes and bouncing back to camp over blue ice on the snowmobiles. Chef Cottle's dinner (fried chicken patties with cheese, bread, bacon, and frozen veggies...yum) is nearing completion, so I'll have to save the rest for later. 

Morning in Antarctica 

Each morning I wake to frosticles dropping on my face from the canvas wall of the tent, through which bright yellow sun shines. I have to check my watch because the sun shines 24 hours a day here. Our abode is a Scott tent, the same tent that Robert Scott died in on his return from the south pole 101 years ago, somewhere between us and McMurdo (Scott, however, probably doesn't deserve credit for the design because it is essentially a canvas teepee with only four poles). At any rate, significant mental preparation is required to leave the protection of the sleeping bag. It is critical dress quickly because the contents of the sleeping bag (gloves, boot liners, water bottle, and pee bottle) freeze quickly in -10 F. Crawling through the tunnel door of the tent, I am reborn with a crunch of dry snow to a landscape of white. We immediately melt snow for tea, huddled in anticipation of something warm. When boiling, the water steams so profusely that it is impossible to determine when a mug is full. Breakfast---oatmeal with nuts and a dollop of butter---must be eaten as fast as possible, before the bowl freezes to our mini aluminum table. Breakfast is followed by melting of more snow, while we start preparing for the day in the field. I defrost my frozen baby wipes and sunscreen on the lid of the water pot; I scrub off as much of yesterday's sunscreen as possible and reapply a new layer. Packs are loaded with hot water bottles, sample bags, hammers, chisels, etc. The tent generally warms to a balmy 20 F by the time we're ready to leave, so venturing out requires bundling up with long underwear, fleece, winter shell, outer down coat, and as many hats and gloves as possible. We urgently bounce off on snowmobiles knowing that the sun's circle in the polar sky will cast cold shadows on rock outcrops as the day progresses. 

The ice cap 

After spending several days sampling the lower levels of the long ridge, yesterday we decided needed to access the upper levels. Dismounting after a chilling and jolting snowmobile ride from camp, we were anxious to start ascending. After a thousand feet of scrambling up scree, and another thousand up a rocky ledges, we reach a frozen plateau, a long island of rock in a sea of ice; as I peer down at our snowmobiles below, mere specks on the ice, the cliffs feel like giant castle walls. Coming over the top, I catch my first glimpse of the endless Antarctic ice cap, which butts up against the western part of the ridge, where a wind-scoured corness, hundred of feet high parallels the rocks. The white of the clouds meets the white of the snow, the blue of the sky meets the blue of the ice, and the windblown skyline is indiscernible. We huddled in the rocks and gazed out at the emptiness, nibbling on chocolate bars, rubbing our hands to keep warm. 

Dexterity and warmth are at odds in this part of the world; otherwise menial tasks such as using a zipper, writing in a notebook, or taking GPS points are nearly impossible with outer gloves or mittens on. Consequently, I am constantly rushed to get my hands back in my gloves before they are numb and stiff. 

On the art of traversing scree 

First, it should be noted that the principles of traversing scree elsewhere do not apply in Antarctica. In fact, most common-sense rules of traversing scree are turned on their head here: bigger rocks are easier, steeper slopes are safer, and ice is found below rocks. 

As a geologist, I consider myself accustomed to loose rock/talus/scree, but I have quickly learned that my balance is no match for the Antarctic landscape. Also, because more of our time here is spent traversing scree than engaging in any other activity (although melting snow for water may be a close second), I have plenty of time to contemplate the activity. I have realized that unless on a cliff, we are invariably on ice, albeit with varying degrees of rocks covering it. Near the ice shore, low slopes have small loose rocks that skid around constantly. As slopes extend from the shore, cobbles are semi-lodged in the underlying ice and give way unpredictably. Higher on the steep scree slopes, larger boulders are more secure and more easily navigated. 

This may all sound simple enough, but is complicated by several factors: warm mountaineering boots are about as clumsy as ski boots, packs full of rock samples create a high center of gravity, and the searing winds require cumbersome clothing. All in all, at the terrain can be treacherous at the end of a long day in the field. Slipping and falling, which happens regularly, is not as draining as the uncertainty that the rocks below your feet could give way at any point. When Graham and I look up, after focusing intensely on navigating the rocks, we invariably find that John is a hundred yards ahead. His long legs cannot account for his speed and I am beginning to think he must have received his PhD in scree traversing. With any luck, he'll impart some of those skills onto us... 

Lessons learned on how to sleep warm (and dry) 

As a diligent graduate student, I researched winter camping before I left sunny Santa Barbara. The one- to two-night winter camping adventures I had before this trip consistently left me cold and soaked, so I wanted to make sure I my skills up to snuff. Prevailing literature left me with two main messages: 1) store anything you don't want to freeze in your sleeping bag and 2) body heat in the sleeping bag will eventually dry gloves, socks, etc. These guidelines have held true, but there should have been a big highlighted bold disclaimer... "BEWARE OF MOISTURE IN THE SLEEPING BAG." 

When I first arrived I padded myself with wet gloves and boot liners, waking to find them dry and warm. Impressed with myself for my savvy winter camping knowledge, I added more gloves and some soggy socks to the sleeping bag each night, finding them dry in the morning. Gradually, however, my enthusiasm ebbed, as I woke to shivers in the middle of the night; all the water from my clothes had accumulated in my bag! The only solution that remained was to painstakingly dry my sleeping bag in the top of the tent while burning the stove for most of a day. 

Moral of the story: don't get wet at all costs! If and when you do, dry gear over a stove or next to your body during the day, so that you can still climb into a warm sleeping bag at night. 

Back in the field 

We have been back into the field for the last several days after being pinned down by a windstorm. For a night and the following day, temperatures hung around -10 F and the wind pelted us with 40+ mph gusts. Sleeping in such conditions is tedious---if the howling wind doesn't disturb you, the violent shaking of the Scott tent will. We spent the day sheltered in the tents, repetitively tightening guy lines and digging out the toilet pit (Graham the most enthusiastic, or perhaps desperate, of the bunch to complete this task). 

High on a ridge the other day, hunkered down on the leeward side of a boulder---the way we typically spend a few minutes resting for lunch, nibbling on brick-hard Cliff bars---I ask John "Do you think anyone has ever been here?" It is a question I have never asked before. Reflecting back on venturing into remote parts or the Rockies or Alaska, I realize I have always traveled in valleys and mountains that Native Americans explored, hunted, and lived in long before I arrived. Here in the Transantarctic Mountains, there is an utter absence of human existence. We only know of one geology group studying these ridges in the '80s. Those geologists probably clammered around on these same rocks, but each time we climb a new ridge, I wonder whether ours are the first feet to disturb the precariously balanced boulders. 

To the west on the east (yes, directions are misleading here) Antarctic ice cap, scientists have recovered numerous meteorites that are easily detectible with a magnetometer in the ice. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for extraterrestrial objects; I figure that spotting an extraterrestrial object is more likely here than finding any form or life, which adds to the other-worldly feel of this place. 

Our morning forage 

Tropical beaches are not an uncommon topic of conversation while we pound sledge hammers against frozen rock. However, we have our own pristine beaches and tranquil white sands, if you ignore the fact that the blue waves are frozen and rocks seem to be floating on them. In fact, dark rocks radiate heat, burning away the ice around them until they are precariously perched on corners like specimens on display, or earthy figures in a Salvador Dali painting. The shadows of clouds that run over the blue ice are the waves, but the peace and calm of the frozen beach is illusory; clouds approach stealthily behind the ridges and pelt us without warning. Between chiseling rocks from the cliffsides, I have taken to watching the clouds in wonder, since they are the most alive and unpredictable aspect of this landscape. 

Byrd's eye view 

On Friday, we disassembled and dug our three tents out of snow drifts in order to move to our second camp. The Twin Otter arrived ahead of schedule as we ferried our gear to the landing strip. In two short trips, all of our supplies were dropped 150 km south to the head of the Byrd Glacier, one of the world's largest glaciers and one of Antarctica's fastest flowing. From eye-shaped nunataks (Norwegian term for "island of rock surrounded by ice"), we can see the ice shelf being funneled into the Byrd, accelerating into millions of crevasses, so numerous that large crevasses look like sand paper in the distance. 

The pilot decided not to risk landing at our preferred glacial camp site, so we were deposited one drainage to the west, beneath stunning granite and migmatite cliffs. Our new camp feels like a different world; 1000 ft lower in elevation, the temperatures have been in the 20s with minimal winds. Loose rocks on the ice become surrounded by puddles of water. In addition to unbelievably good weather (we keep wondering if such warm temperatures could be precursors to a major storm), our moral has been boosted by the addition Sophie Briggs. Somehow the field team seems more balanced, perhaps because we now have two Kiwis and two Americans. 

Rapping and crevasses 

The faster the ice flow, the steeper the terrain, the more numerous the crevasses. We are now at the fringe of a fast moving glacier (by Antarctica standards) and faced with numerous new hazards. Yesterday we set off on a journey to access our intended camp site area. After driving across a mile of blue ice, we abandoned the snowmobiles to "rap" (rappel) down a nearly vertical wind scoop of ice along a ridge separating two drainages. Descending a thousand feet down steep scree and crevassed blue ice, we arrived on yet another sea of blue ice, a tributary glacier to the Byrd. With the sun scalding us from above and below, we crossed the glacier to the crunch of crampons and collected large granite samples. Returning with 70 lb backpacks full of rocks, we hopped (as gingerly as possible with large packs on) across small crevasses, stumbled up the scree, and front pointed up the icy snow scoop with crampons and ice hammers. Staggering back into camp sweaty and thirsty, we gulped down lemonade for the first time since arriving on the ice and rapidly consumed Graham's massive calzones. 

End of the world at the end of the world 

Highlights from our sunny Byrd Glacier camp include hiking the edge of the icefall behind camp on an especially warm day. By afternoon, heat radiating off the dark gneissic rocks caused enough melting for small streams of water to flow over, beneath, and within the blue ice. Graham got down on his hands and knees to slurp water from his cupped hands. I crunched down the stream in crampons, mesmerized by the trickling and gurgling sounds (amazingly refreshing after listening to the wind, flapping tents, and the propane stove for a month). 

Another day, John and I trekked up Mt. Rummage to a view of the full wasteland that is the Byrd Glacier. Near the top, we spotted unusual signs...first a kitchen match, then a footprint, then helicopter skid marks. On the summit, we discovered the remains of a cache including tattered black plastic, a wooden board, and a rock pile, beneath which there was a survey monument. Being the closest sign to civilization we've seen yet, I've dubbed the peak "Mt. Rubbish". 

The effects of the Mayan calendar even penetrated the Antarctic continent. Early in the morning of Dec. 21st, we all lay huddled in the sleep tent in anticipation of moving camps, having taken down the Scott tents and sledded them to the runway. After weeks of peaceful calm, the ice below us showed signs or restlessness, beginning with distant pops. As we disassembled camp, the cracking noises grew to explosions that reverberated off cliff walls. The suspense grew again when we failed to reach the McMurdo base on the satellite phone for an update on our camp move. As we debated the origins of the explosions, we nervously joked that an enormous crevasse would open beneath us. 

But the calm returned, as did the Canadian pilots to shuttle us to Darwin Glacier, our final camp. Our world did end, in a sense, but it has been replaced by a new one; we have left the world of sun and entered the world of snow. Gentle snow was falling when we arrived to laboriously dig tent platforms in heavy fresh snow and now we are pelted by the first snowstorm since arriving, with blustering wind covering our new camp with wet drifts. 

Hunting lamprophyre from the sky 

A helicopter is the ultimate tool for geologists; it provides access to the inaccessible and views from the sky where the landscape can be seen on a tectonic scale (almost). We were fortunate to commandeer the use of a 212 helicopter---a twin-engine Huey---from McMurdo with a bright red and blue NSF paint job. 

First stop: Bucknel Ridge on the Mullock Glacier. On the third flyby of the 1500 ft looming cliffs, the pilot finally spotted a small flat patch. Over the intercom we hear, "Might be able to set down there...heavily crevassed...need to watch for rocks falling from above...overhanging serac of snow above us...not much room to manoeuvre...lets do a compaction test..." The skids of the helicopter bounced several times on the surface without it caving in, so we were ushered out. I wielded the hammer, Graham and Sophie the notebook and GPS. We stormed up to the cliff, whacking off samples and taking some notes before returning to the aircraft. Off to the next stop. 

Hopping our way back to camp in great helo leaps, we kept our eyes pealed for dark lamprophyre intrusions. Approaching our final destination, we finally spotted a lamprophyre running across the top of a mountain ridge. Sophie had to be refrained from jumping out of her seat in excitement so we asked the pilot to land us there. After a few circles, we had to abandon the idea of landing, but managed traced the dark strip of rock across the mountain, collecting a sample of the host rock at the base of the slope. 

The next morning at 5:00 am, I was hearing helicopter rotors in my sleep. Then I realized I was awake and that the sound was real. Except it wasn't a was the snowmobile. I bundled up and crawled into the morning wind to investigate. All the tents were closed tight and everyone was asleep. Why was the snowmobile running? Who turned it on? I woke the others and we have yet to solve the mystery. Strange things happen in the land of the midnight sun. 

Survival of the fittest on the Darwin 

Across from camp, seven triangular ridges expose layers of granites and metasediments, sandwiched between steep tributary icefalls. Reaching the cliffs requires crossing the five-mile-wide Darwin Glacier, which Sir Ed Hillary (of Everest fame) once putt-putted up on a tractor en route to the Pole. Although the Darwin has a central corridor of shiny sun-scoured blue ice, strips of crevasses line the edges. Melt water runs in and amongst crevasses, creating mazes of small channels and deep cracks. Complicating navigation, variable amounts of wind-blown snow cover and hide the surface of the glacier. Fortunately, we have been joined by Alaska Larry, a mountaineering guide on Denali in the other summer, to help navigate the Darwin. 

After an hour of zig-zagging between crevasses on snowmobiles, we reached a tumultuous region where the ice falls merge with the blue wavy ice of the Darwin. Larry dismounted every several yards to poke and probe the ice, but I kept my ice axe convenient in case I needed to make a hasty jump off a tumbling snowmobile. I can testify that the machines have an impressive ability to bridge crevasses up to two feet wide (if on a perpendicular trajectory of the crack) and we eventually made it through a hazardous rollercoaster course to the cliffs. Cramponing up a steep snow chute provided great access to several prominent granite layers that we sampled while hiding from occasional loose rocks crumbling from the cliffs above, thawed by the afternoon sun. 

Sastrugi, smelly socks, and ocelli 

It has been 6 or so weeks on the ice (to be honest, I've lost track of time and don't even know the day of the week). If anything, time is measured by alternating cooking duties and the numbers we write on canvas sample bags---in excess of 400 so far. Some changes have become hard to ignore. For example, our toilet fortress, once a 4 ft deep hole surrounded by 4 ft walls of snow blocks has filled in with drifts and eroded down such that it hardly provides any shelter or privacy; the sastrugi on the interior adds decor. In the cook tent, snow has melted and compacted under the floor such that the stove, food boxes, and chairs are precariously inclined to crash inward. 

Our clothing is also disintegrating. My pants are torn from crampons, my jacket is accumulating patches, the seams of my boots unravel more each day, all my gloves are riddled with holes, and my sunglasses have been scratched by flying rock chips. Every morning I'm haunted by my brother's unheeded advice: "Bring 10 pairs of socks and always, always, always, save one for a rainy day." All three of my sock pairs have long since passed from the "crusty" stage to the "cheesy" stage, but there is still no alternative to drying them at head level in the cook tent. My only consolation is the fact that the smell of dirty cloths increases asymptotically, and mine are now nearing the limit of maximum stench. 

Small discoveries keep life interesting here. Upon washing my hair---something I've only attempted once in the field---I was humoured to find small chips of granite on my head, but was unable to identify their exact lithology. Most exciting of all are the lamprophyres, chock full of pyrite, ocelli (ask Sophie), and xenoliths of various origins. 

A day in the field 

So, what have we actually been doing in the field for the last 2 months? Each workday begins by starting up a snowmobile with a broken choke switch, which requires two pairs of hands, a set of pliers, and some love (i.e. Graham hauling violently on manual-ignition chord). Once parked near our destination ridge or cliffs, we dismount and set out for our farthest destination on foot and work back to the machines. "Empty" backpacks (i.e. without samples, but laden with sledge hammers, chisels, first aid kit, water, spare cloths, crampons, ice axe, etc.) are never lightweight, but the crampons are invariably necessary to climb off the glacier or up a hardened snow slope. 

When it comes to approaching fresh outcrops of rock, each geologist has there own style; Sophie, for example, crouches to look for minerals in her magnifying hand lens, whereas Graham takes measurements with his Brunton compass. I generally prefer the more direct approach of obliterating the nearest piece of rock with a six-pound sledgehammer. After heated debate of the geologic characteristics of the rocks---orthognessic? poikioblastic? porphyroblastic? pseudomorphic?---we scribble in yellow notebooks. The detail and thoroughness (and accuracy?) of my notes scale with temperature (1+ page at 25 F, 3+ lines at 5 F, and 1 line at -10 F), but I reason that writing with frozen fingers will yield illegible results anyway... Before stumbling to the next cliff, we chisel away and pack grapefruit-sized samples for extracting zircon, monazite, titanite, or garnet. Each of these lucky samples will have a scenic journey to sunny California onboard a freighter before being bombarded with electron beams and blasted with lasers.