On November 17th, in our camp at the bottom of the Holyoake “ridge”, I woke at 5:00am to start calling in “hourly” weather observations to McMurdo. An “hourly” is a quick, standardized weather observation that includes wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point, sky coverage, and ground definition. If the sky is clear it’s quite easy: alarm goes off at ungodly hour, I crawl from sleeping back to door of Scott Tent with Kestrel pocket weather meter in hand, I do downward-facing-dog to exit the door; I stand up outside, take the weather readings, and crawl back in – all in less than 5 minutes. I call Mac-ops on the HF radio, and report my observations; I set my alarm for a 50 minute nap, I go back to sleep, only to repeat again 6 more times on the hour until the Otter is inbound. So this time, 5:00am, I find it a little depressing because the wind is blowing at 40 kts, and it’s actually hard to stand up outside, let alone conceive of how a small airplane could negotiate such a stiff, turbulent, katabatic wind to arrive at our camp. It seems as if half the eastern ice sheet is now airborne, bouncing along, grain by grain, drifting in between our tents.
Hour by hour I call in my “hourlies”. Each time I wake I think how fruitless it seems to try to get an airplane into such a windy, mountainous spot. I never give the sturdy Twin Otter enough respect.
We pack up our camp starting at 7:00am… We are soon told on the radio that the Otter is inbound, and ETA of less than an hour. It takes four of us to wrestle a Scott Tent down out of the wind.
At the appointed time, someone sees it… “There’s the OTTER!” - their voice barely audible over the wind.
The airplane buzzes around for a while. We are convinced the pilot is about to pull the plug and fly home. The plane disappears. I’m about to call Mcmurdo to hear of our fate. Then someone spots it again – this time taxiing over bumpy, sastrugi-covered glacier a mile away.
Against all odds (and against a robust headwind) the Otter arrives, and we stuff it with our cargo. It takes two flights to move us to the Churchill Range, where we land in an almost wind-free environment. The difference is staggering, and now we can hear ourselves think! The Otter returns to Mcmurdo with Paul Myrow and 600 pounds of lower Cambrian trilobites, isotopic samples, and bulk samples of various limestones and siltstones on board. But we are left with a hefty resupply of food… More frozen steaks, salmon, rice, cereal, and two bottles of Tabasco! - well stocked for another several weeks of posh Antarctic living - and then some...
The crew erects Scott Tents, mountain tents, and our fairly flimsy toilet tent in record time - taking advantage of the calm conditions. We settle in to our first night at the new site, planning our attack for the next week of fieldwork.
The goal at this new site is the same: Collect limestones containing small shelly fossil material from the lower Cambrian in order to make more clear the sequence of evolutionary events leading to the development of the more familiar taxa that emerged during the later lower Cambrian.
We spend the better part of a week scrambling up two different ridges – each one within 3 miles of camp. Compared with the last camp, where we were pulling trilobite heads out of siltstones by the fist-full, this rock seems devoid of any larger well-preserved fossils. Despite this, the team bulk-samples different litholigies on both ridges, Lars Stemmerik does a section of painstakingly detailed sampling for isotope geochronology, and Christian Skovsted scrambles where none have dared to scramble before – in the hopes of recovering some reclusive trilobite samples. When the work is finished after a few days, a blessed spell of high pressure just happens to depart the McMurdo area, making way for the Central Trans-Antarctics, Ross Ice Shelf, and McMurdo region to be covered by a warm, moist, but calm low pressure system. We spend one extra week (not altogether uncommon in Antarctica) sitting around, eating extra food, reading books (I finished Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard), working on the best lowe-visibility glacial landing strip in the world, and walking up any piece of exposed rock within three miles of camp.
Finally on Monday, November 28th, perfect weather allows a KBA Twin Otter to pluck us out of our camp and back to Mcmurdo, where showers, beer, food, and departure paperwork await.
Another Antarctic field season in the bag... I've added some photos of the Christchurch Range camp below.