The 2010/2011 Antarctic Season is in the rear view mirror now. When it was over, I found it really easy to be caught up with vacationing in New Zealand, followed by vacationing in Australia, followed by shivering in a Colorado winter. Then a string of natural disasters along the pacific rim, like the Canterbury Quake Part II followed closely by the recent Sendai megathrust temblor in Japan lead me to absorb more digital information and news than I could possibly create.
After settling back into my old, new home of Chamonix, France, I suppose there's no time like the present to add a heap of ones and zeros to my blog.
When we left off in early December, My group of four research scientists and I had just gained ten pounds after eating a gluttonous McMurdo-Style Thanksgiving Feast. We had a few days of helicopter-supported fieldwork to the Convoy and Warren ranges, and found almost nothing useful in our search to collect samples of East Antarctic crystalline basement. Instead, we found principally late Jurassic Ferrar Dolerite and earlier deposited Beacon Supergroup sandstones, etc... Nothing useful...
[special note: For more details on the geologic significance of Dr John Goodge, Dr Jeffrey Vervoort, and Dr Mark Fanning's research in Antarctica this season, refer to Vervoorts' blog, and also to the New York Times science blog! We made it big time! (That south pole shot is mine!)]
Somewhere around December 11th, we said goodbye to Crary Wifi and McMurdo dorm life, and boarded an LC-130 (operated by the New York Air National Guard) bound for CTAM - just under two noisy hours away.
Our destination - CTAM - stands for "Central Trans Antarctic Mountains" camp. Once upon a time (prior to the mid-1980's) it was called the "Beardmore Glacier Camp". That's because it used to be located on the Beardmore Glacier - the same glacier used by Robert Falcon Scott during his ill-fated 1910-13 "Terra Nova" South Pole expedition. For some reason, beginning in the 1984-85 Antarctic field season, the "Beardmore Camp" was moved to the edge of the Bowden Neve, where it meets the Lenox King Glacier. Presumably because a crevasse-free section of glacier could be found here, sheltered from strong polar katabatics by a fence of mountains to the south.
At this location at 84 degrees south (about 650km from the South Pole) it was renamed the "Beardmore South Camp". The same location was used for several more camps over the next three decades. The 2010/11 season was the second time in the last decade that a Beardmore surface camp was installed. In the 80's, the camp was constructed with rigid, stick-frame wood buildings. During one season, flush toilets were even added. Most of the material was retroed during previous years, but one structure remains, buried under several decades of Antarctic snowdrift. Its about a 10 minute walk from the current camp location. A trap door and ladder lead downward about 15 feet, and through an old front door into a very dark and cold (-35°C) place where the only source of light is a ghostly shade of blue refracted through 2 meters of snow drifted over the old skylights. I climbed down into this man-made wooden cave with my friend and frequent accomplice, Brian H, and our other friend Bija Sass, who was juggling many tasks as one of CTAM's three "bosses".
Bija lit a candle as a light source, but like a moth I was attracted to its small, warm flame. We strolled around inside, looking at graffiti and initials left behind by occupants from the last three decades. Emergency food could be found stored in the pantry - evidently well-preserved by antarctic temps. I looked at bottle of honey and thought about how difficult it would be to get -35° honey out of a brittle plastic bear. Our boots eerily squeaked across the frigid plywood floor. The absence of people, past or present, created a vacuum only filled by imagining the events of years' past - when this structure was on the surface, being used regularly. There were names scrawled on the wall by legends of Antarctica-past, and upon deeper thought it occurred to us that some of those legends were actually present in camp this season.
Once our fingers were numb, we crawled back out of the hatch, closed it against further drifting, and strolled a short distance back to "Downtown CTAM" (Population - 75 + or - 20). This year, CTAM became the biggest deep field camp ever constructed by the US Antarctic Program. Population peaked at around 95 people in early January, eclipsing the maximum population of Siple Dome, WAIS, AGAP, or any of the other modern deep field camps. Our population pushed us into position as the third-most populated Antarctic facility, following behind McMurdo at #1 (max pop 1100 people) and the South Pole Station at #2 (max population approximately 200 people).
We drank scotch in the midnight sun, and went to sleep.
The first few days in a place like CTAM are similar to the first few days in McMurdo: One must get used to their very foreign surroundings, one must deal with a pile of cargo, and one must get careful clarification from the powers-that-be regarding what exactly is permitted and prohibited in a place like this.
Our goals were simple: get gear organized and get out of town quick, John, Jeff, Mark, and Tanya were all eager to collected old chunks of precambrian Antarctic Basement - STAT! Our plans, like so many in Antarctica, were foiled by wind. Just after we were able to get three flights worth of cargo placed at a field site out in the Miller Range, katabatic winds roared down the Bowden Neve, grounding Helicopter and Twin Otter flights for several days and forcing us to invent leisure activities to get us by until the weather improved.
Most of our field sites surrounding CTAM involved day support by Helicopter or Twin Otter. There was no requirement for us to be even deeper out in the field in yet a more distant satellite camp. However, in a camp like CTAM, demand for air support by science groups often outstrips supply, so in many respects it is better to be within walking or skidoo-distance of at least one field site so that you can actively do work if scheduling limitations or weather phenomenon will not permit air support on a given day. We chose to camp on the Ascent Glacier, within the Miller Range of the Trans Antarctic Mountains. The Miller Range is at the far upper end of the Nimrod Glacier - a twisted and tortured ribbon of ice about 80km long. The geology is fascinating, and Dr John Goodge wanted to be able to show Jeff, Mark, Tanya and I a bit of local bedrock geology in order to put their greater science challenges in context.
Almost a week went by in CTAM before the wind calmed enough for us to make it to CTAM. Our cache of skiddos was already there, as were two barrels of fuel, a cook tent, and about three weeks worth of food. But the cache was buried in a weeks' worth of drifting, and snow was packed into every orifice and cavity of the three Skandic Skidoos we had placed there. We used kitchen spoons to remove snow from the electronics, fan, carburetor, and air intake of the motors. Eventually we got them running.
We spent several weeks in the Miller Range, alternation between busy days of flying to new field sites, driving skidoos to see local bedrock geology, or staying inside the heated cook tent reading books, making calzones, or editing photos. The powers-that-be at CTAM would let us rejoin their exclusive club, but only when we finished visiting our most critical field sites and after CTAM bled off a few guests and dropped their population to a manageable level - it peaked at 95.
Eventually, our forced exile at the Miller Range camp ended, and we were permitted to return to the relative luxury of CTAM. Showers, food cooked by a chef, and easy access to 110V AC were all readily available, although the showers last only three minutes and we were permitted one a week. We returned with several dozen full rock boxes of gneiss, k-spar-rich granite, leucogranite, amphibolite schist, eclogite, quartzite, and an assortment of other odd rocks with a distal provenance. Goodge was happy.
Our final week in the Trans Antarctics was based back at CTAM again. We celebrated new years, then put ourselves on the waiting list for flight availability to our last few remaining field sites: Mt Serius (just a quick 10 minute jaunt by helicopter away), Hatcher Bluffs (several hundered miles away, via the South Pole) and Mt Howe (a little closer than Hatcher Bluffs).
We flew to Howe first with the all-female Ken Borek Air crew of Lexi and Erica. They've both been flying in Antarctica for several austral summer seasons. They spend the other half of the year flying cargo and people around the native villages of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavit, Canada. Lexi and Erica deftly landed us on rough, bare ice at Mt Howe, 85.5° south latitude. For more about their careers, check the oddball pilot blog soon (www.oddballpilot.com)
We exited the plane in -20°F temps, put on our crampons, and stumbled over to the Howe Moraine, where we found nothing but Beacon and Ferrar. Big suprise.
Mt Howe has the distinction of being the most southern bit of exposed rock on Planet Earth. How ironic, then, that while scouring the Howe moraines for something that wasn't distally derived, I could see heat plumes shimmering above the horizon everywhere I looked. At that far south, the sun's rays hit only high albedo snow and ice, and at that, they hit them at a very oblique angle - thus hardly any radiation can be absorbed by any material on the earth's surface. The dark browns and greys of Mt Howe are the only thing around that can absorb any radiation from the sun, and as such, Mt Howe is the only radiative heat source for miles and miles around.
With Howe behind us, we only had to collect rocks at Mt Serius and Hatcher Bluffs before we were finished for the season. A few days later, a Bell 212 helicopter landed us on the flanks of Mt Serius. We spent 10 minutes hovering and scoping the mountain for a decent landing spot. When Gregg Liebert spotted a flat, smooth, surface to set us down on, we realized that we weren't the first to land here. After Gregg took off, we inspected the landing site and found that while his skids left no print in the frozen gravel, a set of Bell 212-skid prints existed just feet from where he landed, but they were depressed into the mud by about 2 inches. No other scientists were landing on this part of Serius over the last 10-20 years. Several feet away, Goodge found an old smoke grenade - used by helo crew to mark wind at landing spots back in the VXE-6 days of operation Deep Freeze. Interesting - a set of nearly 30-year old Heli-skid prints left in gravel and mud.
Mt Hatcher was our final hurdle. The logistics to fly there were proving difficult. The Otter carries enough fuel to make it from CTAM to Hatcher, and halfway back again. That means we'd need to refuel at one of the several dozen fuel caches scattered around the Trans Antarctic mountains. Pilot John Rees predicted that the Leverett Glacier fuel cache would be the most optimal site to refuel, but weather predictions from the egg-heads back in Charleston, N.C. predicted valley fog and obscured horizon at Leverett for days. The weather was good at CTAM, the weather was good at Hatcher, but the weather was poor where our fuel cache was. We couldn't fly our last mission until the weather was good in all three places. John suggested we use the South Pole as an alternative fueling station. It was a bit more out of the way (about an hour each way), which would cut into our time on the ground anyway, but we really just wanted to confirm or disconfirm whether or not Hatcher moraines were just the usual dolerite and beacon melange. John got the official ok and we were off to the most southerly gas station and convenience store on the planet.
We kidnapped Bija Sass for the day, since she had been working about 16 hours a day for the past 70 or so days in a row. She needed a break, and a long twin otter flight seemed just the ticket.
At the Pole, we had time to get the whole group - John, Mark, Jeff, Tanya, Bija, and myself over to the ceremonial pole marker. It was my second time at the pole, and I had yet to get my "Hero Shot" (photo sans vetements) at the pole. We only had 20 minutes to take a few snaps before the tanks were full and we were off to Hatcher.
When we landed, we realized small crevasses riddled the blue ice. Safely taxiing the otter close to moraine was difficult. We parked in a relatively crevasse-free zone, collected some exquisite chunks of granite, and flew about 10 miles further to the other side of the bluffs, where we found mainly Ferrar and Beacon. There were just enough samples collected to call the day a success, and we were off the deck and airborne as soon as possible, so that John and Braden didn't exceed their duty hours for the day.
Back to the pole with half a tank of gas, and stomachs on empty. We dined in one of the world's most expensive cafeterias (I shudder at the cost of flying frozen cauliflower and salmon from NZ to the southernmost semi-permanent base on earth), and had real ice cream (South Pole ice cream is way better than McMurdo frosty boy, if anyone is curious) and I ducked out after dinner, stripped down to my birthday suit, and got some hero shot snaps that will probably stay hidden on my hard drive until I attempt to run for president in 2024.
When we arrived back at CTAM at 10:00pm, we all released a collective sigh. The 2010/11 field season was in the bag. John and the crew had their samples, and I had my four scientists safely retured to McMurdo. I only had a couple weeks to vacation in New Zealand and Australia before "winter" would control my life back here in France.