Crevasses are like rattlesnakes--not a problem if you know where they are, but if you do not see them, they can catch you by surprise. The danger of a crevasse is that it may be covered by a bridge that conceals a yawning space below. A crevasse opens in tiny increments with each additional fracture separating the ice by a millimeter or so. As the crack opens, blowing snow sifts down into it, sealing up the gap, and building a bridge that widens at the same pace as the opening of the crevasse. The bridge is typically thinnest at the edges and droops in the middle. To detect subtle crevasses, you need to look for faint linear offsets in the snow, and, if you find one, probe it with an ice axe or a pole to see how thin and wide it is. Then you must decide whether to cross or go around.

Probing a bridged crevasse is the only way to tell whether it is safe to cross.

I first descended into a crevasse in 1970 about a mile out from our helicopter camp on McGregor Glacier. On an overcast day, I was belayed on a rope from above and climbed down a “crevasse ladder,” (a flexible, wired ladder for crevasse rescue) into a world of deep, soft, and subtle grey. The crevasse was narrow and not more than six feet wide at the top. The walls reached twenty feet below to an irregular surface of blocks that had dropped years before from the underside of the bridge that we had chopped open for our fun. The paired walls undulated gracefully in symmetrical curves that transcended simple math, then played off to the right into a slightly larger room that pinched to nothing at its bottom. I wedged my foot across the bottom of the crevasse and looked back up. I was surrounded by a sculpture illuminated from without. The walls were translucent gray, strewn through with layers of fine, white bubbles, configured in blocks that had been broken and then fused into a brittle/ductile, mish-mash of rehealed ice. I felt as if I were underwater—it was rapture.

Crevasse interior 1

I was hooked. Unless there was a particularly good 16-mm movie showing at the camp that night, several of us would hike over to the crevasse field to fool around in our newfound world within the glacier. When the sun was shining, the grayness that I had experienced in my first crevasse was transcended by pervasive blue, pale and bright near thin spots in an overhanging bridge, dark and rich, deep down in. The blue color is due to absorption of light in the red portion of the visible spectrum by molecules of water. It is the same in water and in ice. Crevassing is indeed an underwater experience. The deeper down one goes, the purer becomes the blue.

Crevasse interior 2

For the second half of the field season, we moved camp to the west side of Nilsen Plateau. Soon enough we found a promising crevasse about a mile from camp. It was a big one, marked by subtle sags and cracks in the snow surface, with its opposing sides separated by more than 100 feet. How long the crevasse was, we couldn’t tell. I poked and chopped at the bridge along one of the sides and finally got an opening big enough to fit into. The apparent bridge of the crevasse, rather than spanning a 100-foot opening, was a solid plug of ice as far down as I could see. It sat about three feet away from the glacier wall, producing a narrow crevasse that was littered with blocks broken from the underside of its overhanging bridge.

Crevasse interior 3

Once I was down in the crevasse, I wormed my way laterally over a series of blocks, drawn toward a dark blue spot deep in the crevasse. After maybe fifty feet of this crawl, I came to the threshold of a gigantic room that opened abruptly. As I stood up on a big, wobbly block of ice, I gasped. At first glance I couldn’t see any walls, only a deep, empty space of diffuse blue. What was this place? As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I realized I was at the edge of a room at the termination of this broad crevasse. The walls were smooth and perfectly vertical, and must have been more than 100 feet high where they pinched together on the far side of the room. At that point the bridge was at its thinnest, glowing white high above. From there down to where I was standing, the bridge sagged in a graceful curve, its underside pocked by the loss of blocks that littered the floor of the crevasse. At that point the blocks met the bridge and merged into the plug of ice in the broad part of the crevasse that I had been crawling along to get here.

Diagram of crevasse interior described in the post.

I signaled to let me have more rope and climbed forward and down over a half dozen of the big blocks till they dropped off steeply and I felt it would be unsafe to go further. Standing close to the middle of the room, I could feel the immensity of the space, a nearly perfect tetrahedron, crafted by Nature, hidden away. It was like being in the hull of a giant ship, looking toward the bow. I lingered longer than I thought was fair, then crawled back to the surface so the others could descend into the blue. Although I have been in many crevasses since that time, each with its own fascination, there has never been another with such grandeur. (Adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World)

Gallery – Ice-cored Moraines

Moraines are accumulations of glacial debris (till) that collect at the margins of glaciers. Typically, rocks that are eroding from outcrops will collect at the bottom of the slope, along the margin of a glacier, and be carried out of the area as the glacier flows onward. However, if accumulation of snow is too slow, ice will not flush out of a valley, or the side of a glacier will flow into a reentrant and ablate. In these cases rock collects on the ice, accumulating in ridges or other patterns indicative of the flow directions. Such features are called ice-cored moraines, the subject of this week’s gallery.

A sombre day in the La Gorce Mountains.

Photography in the Field

Last year I bought my first digital camera. Two of the photos in The Roof at the Bottom of the World were made with it. The rest were shot with film. Poor grad student that I was, my first Antarctic season, 1970-71, I didn’t even own a camera, and ended up borrowing one from a friend, a Kodak Pony 135. Because it required a hand-held light meter that I seldom used, I had few photos at the end of the season worth looking at a second time. On the way home that year with some salary earned, I bought a screw-mount Pentax Spotmatic with a 50 mm lens in the Navy store in Christchurch, NZ. This was my camera for about two years, during which I did dissertation research for four months in southern Africa comparing rocks of similar age to my suite in Antarctica. For the following six months, I took a long way home, backpacking from Cape Town to Cairo to Rawalpindi, where I cashed in my return airfare. It was a different world in 1973. The Shah was still in power in Iran and the Russians had not yet invaded Afghanistan. A far out trip if ever there was! I set off for South Africa with 10 rolls of Agfachrome and a vow that I would make them last my time away. This was about one shot per day. In order to give some structure to the resolution, I decided that every shot I took should have some geology in it, something that either pertained to my research or would illustrate something geological for a future lecture, if I made it as a professor. It took tremendous discipline, parsimony to the max, and it has influenced my approach to photography ever since (ever since, that is, until I started shooting digital, where instead of every push of the shutter costing 75¢, the more you shoot the less each shot has cost when divided into the original price of the camera.) The other thing that I took with me that trip was a 100-300 mm zoom lens, a huge barrel of a thing, that a fellow grad student had offered to me for $25 just before I left. When I got home I was sold on zoom lenses and fed up with the screw mount. At about that time, the 3/4 size 35 mm SLR’s were coming onto the market, and I bought a Pentax MX, which I have used ever since. With thru-the-lens metering and everything else manual, I found it to be the perfect field camera, lightweight, tough, and easy to use even when wearing gloves. Given the kind of research that I do, which involves a lot of strenuous hiking, sometimes on steep terrain, I quickly decided that I didn’t have time to take my camera out of my backpack every time that I wanted to shoot a photo. The old style parkas issued by the U. S. Antarctic Research Program offered a solution. Complete with genuine, wolverine ruff and a tunnel hood, these garments had a buckle across the front attached to elastic straps. I was able to wear my camera around my neck while hiking, and to keep it from swinging by putting it under the elastic buckle. I kept the camera in its carrying case, and had an extended cover with a zipper on it for zoom lenses. This arrangement worked well except that I still had to change lenses between wide-angle and telephoto shots.

Camera in carrying case under elastic buckle.

Pentax MX with 70-150 mm zoom lens with zippered carrying case.

Finally (in the mid 90’s, I think it was,) Tamron offered a 28-200 mm zoom lens that was about three inches long, liberating me from the need to change lenses ever again. I bought a holster case that I strapped firmly on my chest, hung my camera around my neck as always, and kept it snugly in the case ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. To me this is the ideal camera system for doing fieldwork under extreme conditions. If you are a climber, belly tight against a rock, it doesn’t work. But for anything short of this, it frees the hands completely, and is ready instantly when the next photo op presents itself.

Holster case with shoulder straps.


So what have I learned about photography in the Transantarctic Mountains? Never take a cold camera into a warm space for fear of condensation, which will freeze when the camera goes back out into the cold. Always take about three times more batteries into the field than you expect to need, and in the old days, several more rolls of film. Low light never being a problem during the Antarctic summer, my film of choice was Kodachrome 25 (alas), which rendered snow close to its true white, unlike Ektachrome et al., which invariably developed too blue. I have always used a polarizing filter, never backpacked a tripod. To me, landscape photography is simply a matter of perception, of being ready when all the elements of a scene align. The only advice I ever give is to be sure to look into the corners of the frame before you push the shutter.

Gallery – Pressure Ridges

The terminus of the Ross Ice Shelf connects Ross Island with the Transantarctic Mountains across McMurdo Sound. North of the front of the ice shelf is the realm of seasonal ice, which on a given summer will be open water more and less farther south. Close to the ice shelf and around Cape Armitage by Scott Base, the New Zealand Station, is a stretch of seasonal ice that seldom breaks out. Sustained movement of this ice against the shoreline has produced a beautiful set of pressure ridges. A series of cylindrical folds takes up most of the shortening, but in a line parallel to the shore a shear zone has ripped the ice for a distance of at least a kilometer.

Rolling pressure ridges, some fractured along their crests, collide with Ross Island.

Shot to the right of the previous photo, the shear zone extends beyhond Scott Base.

The Race Begins

October 19, 1911. Late news breaking. This just in. Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his party of four sledded off today, bound for the South Pole. They were driving four sleds each with a team of 13 huskies. They had laid depots out to 82° S by the end of the previous summer. As they left this morning, the men voiced confidence that they would make it. But one could perhaps detect a touch of urgency in their gait and the unspoken question: Would they beat the British?

Amundsen's base. Framheim, at the Bay of Whales. Photo from Amundsen's book, The South Pole, 1913.

Poised at Cape Evans on Ross Island, 400 miles to the west, the British expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, isn’t up to the starting blocks yet. Last season their furthest depot was 35 miles short of their goal of 80° S. The spring has been busy with preparations not only for the southern party, but also for geological parties working in the mountains to the west of McMurdo Sound. After all, Scott hadn’t planned it to be a race. This was foisted upon him when he reached Melbourne finding the fateful telegraph message posted from Madeira: Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen. Amundsen, with Fridtjof Nansen’s blessing, had commandeered the Fram to sail into the Arctic Sea, there to be frozen in, and to drift, perhaps even striking out to reach the North Pole. The program was set when in September, 1909, both Cook and Peary claimed to have gotten to the North Pole in the preceding year. With that prize lost, Amundsen hatched a bold, new plan, privy only to three others, Prefessor Helland-Hansen, his brother, Leon, and Lieut. Thorvald Nilsen, the commander designate of the Fram. At the last landfall, Funchal on the island of Madeira, Amundsen laid it out to his men, on to Antarctica and the South Pole, or home to warmth with no hard feelings. To a man they headed south. With all his promises and contracts broken, were Amundsen not to reach the Pole first would surely mean imprisonment upon his return. The stakes were high. Both Amundsen and Scott carried the other as a monkey on his back. As fortune would have it, the two camps met when Terra Nova, the British ship, found the Fram moored in the Bay of Whales at the eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. Each party showed the other the utmost courtesy. The officers of the Terra Nova were invited to Framheim, the expedition’s quarters built several miles in from the ice edge, and Amundsen and two others were received on board the Terra Nova. The intelligence that Lieut. Campbell reported to Scott back at Cape Evans was that Amundsen headed a ground party of nine, and that they were well equipped and had more than 100 dogs.

Scott's base at Capoe Evans. Volcanic Mt. Erebus fumes in the distance.

Interior of kitchen portion of the hut at Cape Evans.

So the race is set, Scott sixty miles farther north than Amundsen at the start, following Shackleton’s trail south from McMurdo Sound to Beardmore Glacier where the route crossed the Transantarctic Mountains along a 100-mile corridor of crevasses. Amundsen’s route was south into the unknown. Would the Transantarctic Mountains continue southeast from the mouth of Beardmore Glacier, as seemed likely, and bar their path, or would the great range of mountains rising at Cape Adare and continuing south for 1,000 miles peter out, giving an east access to the polar plateau and the final sprint to the Pole? Only time will tell.

Gallery – Ice Puddles 2.0

A second Gallery featuring ice puddles.

Ascent of the Spectre

I remember the first time I saw a photos of the Organ Pipe Peaks. It was 1970, and I was a graduate student due to leave on my first expedition to Antarctica. I did not believe that any grouping of summits could be so dramatic, beautiful, and perfect. They were a fantasy of mountains rendered with bold and simple strokes, faceted grandeur in black and white. I dreamed of traveling to those peaks, bowing down before their central spire—The Spectre—and sampling a piece of the rock. The photos had been taken by a couple of geologists, Quin Blackburn, who had led a party through the area in 1934-35 and named the peaks, publishing his account in the Geographical Review (1937, v. 27, pp. 598-614,) and Rudi Katz, a New Zealander who had traversed through the area the year before and quickly published his account in the New Zealand Alpine Journal (1970, pp. 398-407.) Alas, the Organ Pipe Peaks remained beyond my reach that season.

Photo of Organ Pipe Peaks taken by Rudi Katz. The central spire is The Spectre. Mount Harkness (unclimbed) at lower right. Watson Escarpment at the rear.

Ten years later on my fifth Antarctic expedition, I found myself camped on Sanctuary Glacier, in the shadow of the Organ Pipe Peaks. My work that season had begun with geological mapping of the La Gorce Mountains and ended with a collecting traverse down the east side of Scott Glacier, essentially retracing Blackburn’s route. Now I was one day away from attempting an ascent of The Spectre—the splendid spire that had awed both Blackburn’s and Katz’s parties.

South face of The Spectre. Photo by Mugs Stump.

Being a klutz with ropes myself, I have always had someone in the party who is experienced with roped climbing in case we needed it. This time, the field assistant/mountaineer for the party was my brother Mugs, who had the year before made his first big mark in the climbing world with the first ascent of the Emperor Face on Mount Robson in British Columbia. From the beginning of the field season, Mugs and I had joked about climbing The Spectre. We figured he would do all the leading, and if necessary would winch me, the older brother, up on the rope. Now that we were camped in the shadow of The Spectre, looking up its backside, the climb was no longer a joke. It was real, sheer, and daunting. Mugs studied the fractured upper wall of the spire, and, although he couldn’t see a clear route, said “we’ll just wander around on the face and see where it leads.” I understood Mugs’s nonchalance and trusted him completely. I also trusted myself. I must admit, however, that I didn’t sleep well the night before the climb. What would it be like? Would the rough passages be vertical or overhung? Would I be in way over my head? I hadn’t had such a case of butterflies since before wrestling matches in high school.

North face of The Spectre showing our ascent route.

After a big breakfast Mugs and I snowmobiled over to the foot of The Spectre. We carried a minimal rack of climbing gear: a half-dozen carabineers, several slings, and four pitons to secure the rope. The first half of the ascent was a straightforward climb up a steep (50°) snow chute to a shoulder on the right skyline, with Mugs kicking in all the footsteps and I following in his prints.

Mugs kicking steps at the start of the climb.

At the shoulder we pulled out the rope, and while I belayed, Mugs began working his way across and up the face, which in this stretch was pretty much vertical. When he reached secure spots, Mugs would set the belay for me, and I would follow up his path. There were good-sized cracks in the rock that gave plenty of handholds and places to rest, so I mostly managed to climb with no problem.

Mugs displaying his rack.

The most difficult passage of the climb—the crux—occurred at a place where there was a slight overhang. The only handholds were high above my head, but there was nowhere to place a toe if I pulled myself up. I thrashed around some as Mugs laughed and tightened the rope. But then I found a bulge on the rock out to my left side that could be grasped between my knees. From there I could reach the next handhold, and we were both past the touchiest part of the day.

Mugs (in circle) belaying on steep part of the climb. I am in the shadow below. Photo by Steve Self.

After about two hundred feet of roped climbing (two pitches), we made it past the steepest stretch, and came out onto a rock face with a slope angle closer to 60° than to vertical and with lots of snow-filled cracks that made planting steps easy. Here Mugs packed the rope, and we continued upward across the face. We had started the day in full sun, climbing in shirt sleeves with our parkas packed, but as the sun circled its way to the south, we slipped into shade and the chill that it brings. Rather than take off our packs on the steep terrain, we decided not to pull out our parkas, and pushed on to the summit.

This is me freeclimbing the upper portion of The Spectre. Photo by Mugs Stump.

A small cornice of soft snow maybe eight feet high was the last barrier to the top. Mugs chopped and kicked his way through and over it, and we emerged into sunlight on the flat of the summit. In all directions splendid peaks reached for the heavens, piercing the undulating mantle of white and blue. No sound stirred the silence. We took a round of photos and then had some lunch.

Bros at the summit of The Spectre, shot to the west.

You could say that we were pleased with ourselves. I can also say that we brothers never felt closer. Each of us knew that he wouldn’t be at this spot were it not for the other. I had provided the opportunity and Mugs the expertise. What I recall most was agreeing with Mugs that our parents would be more than doubly proud. We lingered a bit longer and finally descended; I rappelled most of the distance down to the shoulder, and Mugs mostly downclimbed after me, stripping the hardware from the belay points. At the shoulder, we figured a glissade down the snow chute would be the fastest way back to the base of the mountain, so we sat back on our heels, set the points of our ice axes in the snow for braking, and slid all the way down to our snowmobile. My dream a decade earlier of bowing before The Spectre had been exceeded. What a grand and memorable day in the mountains it had been! (Adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World.)

Gallery – Intrusive Patterns

When liquid magma intrudes solid rock, it often produces interesting patterns. When more than one episode of intrusion occurs in an area, the results can be highly complex. This week’s gallery highlights several localities where multiple intrusions have left their marks.

Adélie Penguins

20 miles north of McMurdo station, at Cape Royds, is the southernmost adélie penguin rookery on Earth. At the start of most of my seasons, I have done a shakedown run for the snowmobiles out to the rookery. Already by early November the penguins have walked in many miles from the ice front and have staked out their space in the rookery, built a nest of stone pebbles and laid an egg, or rarely two. Where the penguins reside is off limits to everyone except for the odd biologist that might be doing research there. However, it is possible to get quite close and still be outside the boundary. By late November or early December the chicks are hatched and the parents become a tag team walking to and from the ice edge to catch food to feed the chick. As the summer progresses the sea ice breaks up and travel across it ceases. Only once did I visit the rookery in mid January, flown there by helicopter. By then the chicks had grown to the size of their parents, but still had not lost their gray down. What follows are several of my favorite adélie penguin shots.

Adelie penguins mingle at the Cape Royds rookery. The ice edge appears in the middle distance, stretching across McMurdo Sound.

Snow drift spots the rookery after a storm.

Proud parent.

Doubly proud parent, or did I detect a note of concern?

Adelies have the ability to shoot poop out from the nest without ever leaving the egg.

"Where's Fred? I know I saw him back there a little while ago."

"Now how do I get down from here?"

Adelie on pancake ice near Hut Point

Work it!

Nearly full grown chicks in the Cape Royds rookery await the molt of their down before learning to swim and hunt.

Gallery – Sastrugi 2.0

A second Gallery featuring sastrugi (windblown patterns in snow.)