Despite the lead in to my recent article in The Atlantic, you cannot reach the top of Mt. Markham by helicopter nor did I do it one foot after another. In my new post, I tell the story of how I made it to the top if this 14,000+ foot mountain. Check it out at TheAtlantic.com.
My new book, The Roof at the Bottom of the World was recently reviewed by Nikki Cassis for the SESE SOURCE. The SOURCE is the monthly newsletter from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU where I teach. The November issue also features one of my photographs of the Transantarctic Mountains on the cover. Download the November issue or visit SESE.ASU.edu to check out the review.
In the static, lifeless landscape of the deep field, the wind is the only animate force. It is movement and sound, alternately relentless and fickle. When it stops and the sun beams down from a cloudless sky, you can strip to bare skin and immediately feel the warmth. But let one puff of breeze disturb the thin layer of radiant air, and shivers will well up. When the wind picks up, it buffets the parka and bites at fingertips, ear lobes, and nose. In its full fury the wind has flattened tents and thrown men from the decks of ships. At these times it is an awesome, fearsome force.During the 1980–1981 field season I was camped between Mount Mooney and the La Gorce Mountains a few miles from our put-in site on Robison Glacier. For the better part of the two weeks we spent at that camp, frigid, katabatic winds poured over us from the polar plateau to the southeast. With wind speeds generally around ten to fifteen knots and temperatures about minus 10° F, our days mapping the outcrops in the surrounding area were seldom comfortable, especially along ridgelines where the wind compressed and accelerated. The La Gorce Mountains at the edge of the polar plateau are a first obstruction to katabatic winds that originate deep in the interior of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. The flat top of these mountains slips smoothly from beneath the ice sheet and rises to the northwest to a dramatic escarpment that drops steeply more than three thousand feet and splays into two major ridge systems. When the katabatic winds meet the southeast or back side of the La Gorce Mountains, they split into three streams: two follow the descending glaciers on either side of the mountains, and a central stream shoots across the flat summit and plunges off the lip of the escarpment. From our camp on the glacier we looked up to the escarpment. On days when the wind was light and there was only a trickle of granular, blowing snow around base camp, we could see a churning plume of wind and snow plummeting from the escarpment lip high above. We would watch it and imagine that somewhere back from the edge beyond where we could see there was a valve that tapped the source of all winds, screaming as it released its jetted fury. During one three-day period, the wind speed rose to forty knots around camp, and we were forced to hunker in our tents, enveloped in blowing snow. It is during storms like these that I have learned to love the Scott tents. When planted properly, these four-sided pyramids will bear the fiercest gale, their double walls flapping loudly as they keep out the force of the wind. During this storm, tumultuous clouds ripped through the scene, opening periodically to reveal the escarpment lip beyond the adjacent ridge. A storm such as this can move in quickly, so we always have to be cautious if working far from camp, and watch that the weather doesn’t turn. To be caught out can truly be a matter of life and death. But back at camp with the warmth of the cookstove at hand we can feel secure and even cozy. Then it is good to go out into the blast, not to confront the wind but to feel its pressure, to lean the body into it, to find the angle of balance, to sense the vagaries in the flow, to feel the cold, to listen to the voices wheezing and whistling around every obstacle in camp—tents, boxes, bamboo poles. Out beyond the noise of camp, we hear only the soft shoosh of blowing snow streaming through the sastrugi. We look up to a blue sky and down into the miasma of snow and wind at ground level, opaque beyond one hundred yards. We are walking at the dynamic interface of atmosphere and solid earth; wind pants flap, and we squint with one eye peering down the tunnel of the hood, balancing between the cross gust and the pitch of our strides. Noses drip and fingers begin to ache from the cold. The wind is right there with us: we slip on through its stream. (Adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World.)
Gallery – Disturbed IceBy early January seasonal ice has begun to breakup in McMurdo Sound. This week's gallery is was shot at the interface between shore and sea at Hut Point, adjacent to McMurdo Station.
Remote helicopter camps have been a recurring logistic feature of the U. S. Antarctic Program every several years since its origin following the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. For my first Antarctic season, 1970-71, I was part of a field party from Ohio State connected to one of these installations. At that time, NSF granted field camps to individual proposals, and Ohio State had been funded that year for extensive geological reconnaissance in a 150-mile swath of the Transantarctic Mountains, about 450 miles south of McMurdo Station. We had three HU-1B (single engine) Huey helicopters, flown by Navy squadron VXE-6. We were a team of seven grad students, one undergrad, a couple of post docs, several faculty, and a mountaineer. Every day the helicopters would take us out to a field site and at the end of the day, bring us back to camp. The Navy crew included a half dozen pilots, about the same number of maintenance personnel, a weather watcher, a medic, and a cook. The camp was built of Jamesways, modular, portable, quonset-style huts that were a holdover from the Korean War. They were warmed with gasoline-fueled Preway heaters. All the scientists slept together in one Jamesway, with a small, partitioned workspace at one end, two other Jamesways bunked the Navy pilots and enlisted men, a fourth served as a mess hall, and a small fifth unit was designated the comms shack. It only takes one person snoring in the room to mess with your sleep, but if there are two or three going off at once with different pitches and rhythms, sleep can become a desperate affair. Earplugs are issued when you climb onto the Hercules aircraft in Antarctica to preserve your hearing in the deafening noise at the back of the plane. They saved me in the Jamesway that season. A decade later the approach to remote, helicopter logistics had evolved. In 1981-82 I was Chief Scientist at a remote, helo camp in northern Victoria Land (NVL), 400 miles north of McMurdo. Instead of the dozen and a half geologists that worked from the 1970-71 camp, we served 65 geologists (a record number at the time) from five countries. What made this manageable was that we put parties out in the field with tents, and in some cases snowmobiles, where they operated independently for much of the time. The camp used the same Jamesway set-up, flown in by Hercs. The Navy was still flying the helos, but the management and maintenance of camp, and the cooking was in the hands of the civilian contractor. A single mechanic maintained the camp generator and electrical system, the snow melter, the Caterpillar front-loader, and the snowmobiles. As Chief Scientist, I slept in the science Jamesway to keep a closer pulse on the camp, but a number of the geologists that stayed at the base camp set up tents at the edge of town in “the suburbs,” to escape the snorers, and gain a modicum of privacy.In 1985-86 I worked with a party of three as a satellite of a remote, helo camp in the central Transantarctic Mountains, 350 miles south of McMurdo. The basecamp had been erected the previous season to host a meeting of international representatives from developing nations that had been agitating at the United Nations for wider inclusion in the Antarctic club. The motivation of the organizers of the meeting was to impress the participants with the severity of Antarctic field conditions and the expense of fielding a program. The basic operations were the same, but in addition to the Jamesway structures, the kitchen area was built of plywood with a plumbing system that included flush toilets and multiple showers. There never has been such a cushy set up for a one-off field camp so far from McMurdo Station. The next time that I participated in a remote, helo camp was in 2010-11, again as Chief Scientist. The camp was built on the same site as the camp in 1985-86. The remains of the old, plywood structure still existed, minus the plumbing, buried beneath about 20 feet of snow. In the 25 years since my previous association with a remote, helo camp, a number of changes had occurred. VXE-6 was disestablished on 31 March 1999, ending 44 years of distinguished service by the Navy to the U. S. Antarctic Program. The switch to a civilian contractor brought with it a more streamlined approach to operations. The Navy had always required that one helicopter sit on the ground as a safety precaution in the event of a necessary search and rescue operation, so the remote camps had three helos as part of their operation. The civilian contractor now stipulates only that if two helos are in the air at the same time that they must be operating within a prescribed distance from each other in the event of an S & R operation. Also, the Navy always required two pilots plus a crew member on a helo. The contractor requires only one pilot, a pilot in training, and no crew member. Another change in logistics was the inclusion of de Havilland, Twin-Otter, fixed-wing aircraft in the field operations of remote camps. The normal operating radius of helicopters is 100 nautical miles. The addition of the Twin Otters has extended that range by many hundreds of miles. During the 2010-11 season, one of our parties was flown to the Reedy Glacier area more than 300 miles to the south, with a dog-leg to the South Pole for refueling enroute. The camp itself, which served 100 scientists throughout the season, was considerably bigger than any I had previously experienced. The Jamesways were replaced by Rac-tents, similar in modular design to the Jamesways, but with low walls beneath the arches, so that there is more shoulder and head room inside if you are sitting near the side of the structure. The Rac-tents also have skylights, precluding the need for electrical lighting. All sleeping, except for small darkened structures for the helo and Otter crews, was done in individual tents in a “tent city” at the side of the camp. The cargo yard was so vast and far away from the main structures that some of us joked that we needed a GPS unit so we didn’t get lost when we were tending to our gear and samples. In many ways the remote camps have become more efficient over the decades, but with regard to support personnel they have not. During the 2010-11 season, the camp staff, not counting pilots and mechanics, numbered 18. This included a camp manager, a camp supervisor, a field support coordinator, two weather observers, a paramedic, a fuels operator, a cargo specialist, three general assistants, a chef, two sous chefs, two heavy equipment operators, a heavy equipment mechanic, and a snowmobile mechanic, plus a rotating dining attendant, and for the better part of the season, a carpenter.
Gallery – Reflections
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.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. 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. 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. 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. 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)