Thursday, November 22, 2007

Beacon Valley...or Gilligan's Island?

Beautiful view of a huge glacier in the Dry Valleys.

Two tiny climbers in red are on this mountain--can you find them? This is to give an idea of scale!

Remember the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island? Well, we also started out on a fateful trip…

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…a tale of a fateful trip.
It started from this icy shore aboard a flying ship.

The mate was a mighty helo tech, the pilot brave and sure…
Eight passengers took flight that day for an eight-hour tour…

The weather started getting rough, the tiny craft was tossed
Helo Ops stopped all the flights, so the crew would not be lost.

The explorers hiked across the hills, to the shore of New Harbor Isle…
They had to make the best of things, they’re here for a long, long time.

We took a helo field trip out to Beacon Valley--it's a valley farther than the Taylor Glacier which was as close to the polar plateau as I had been before. The mountains at the end of Beacon actually hold back the polar ice sheet. Beacon is one of the Dry Valleys; an incredible landscape that reminds one of Mars—red sand and rocks, and dry as a bone. According to written records, it has not precipitated there in over fifteen million years, and what does fall is all snow or ice, which often ablates before hitting the ground.
Louise showing scale of a rock split during freeze-thaw cycles. Looks like Our helo taking off after dropping us in Beacon Valley.
a huge 3-D jigsaw puzzle!

It was windy and very cold, but as long as we kept moving, we were quite comfortable. We hiked around the bouldery valley floor and up the mountain slopes to take a look at the outcrops of rock, which are partially responsible for feeding sediments into Victoria Basin where we are drilling right now. After about four and a half hours the helo picked us up and took us to Commonwealth Glacier where, in 2002, I had studied the streams that melt and run-off in the summer. It was exciting to “come home” to the place I had spent eight weeks my first time in Antarctica.

We were dropped with our survival bags about a mile and a half from the glacier, so we hiked over to take a closer look, then hiked back to the drop point. We still had an hour before the helo was to come back, so some (I opted out--I had already hiked about five hours--a lot of it uphill) climbed down a steep embankment (about fifty yards down) and then up the other side to an outcrop there. I took a nap on a huge, tabular rock--great view of the glacier and mountains, and it felt great!

The rest of the group finally came back, and we waited about half an hour for the helo which didn't come-our radios weren't working in the valley, so a group hiked to the top of the closest hill and tried again. Mac Ops told us that they were weathered in and no flights could get to us. We had two choices: make camp with the survival bags--ugh! Nasty freeze-dried food, tents, pads and sleeping bags that aren't all that great, and stoves that we were trained to use in Happy Camper School, OR, walk three and a half miles over a small mountainous or hilly terrain to New Harbor camp. We chose that option. Our weather was fine--so off we went. I felt it was tough going—others thought it was a walk in the park! I’m sure it was all a function of age and fitness level—guess which end of the spectrum I ended up on! You decide where on the spectrum you would have fallen. Some of the way was through snow that would break under your feet and end halfway up your calf--you'd have to pull your leg free. Then you'd be on large rocks that turned and twisted under your boots; then over small, pebbly surfaces that moved like sand and were hard to walk through. I preferred the larger boulders and hated the snow! I was carrying a heavy backpack and sweating as we crossed the last of the three hills (not quite "mountains" but enough elevation for me!).

But the walk was well worth it. We arrived at New Harbor about 10 PM. The camp was a double "jamesway", a curved canvas shelter with electricity, wooden flooring, tables, chairs, a gas stove and cots with blankets and pillows. It also had two large propane heaters, so we were toasty for most of the stay. There wasn't a lot of food, but we had hot chocolate, granola bars, and Ramen noodles--so not a bad deal at all. In the morning we found that some frozen food had been stored in a cold cellar, so we baked raspberry turn-overs and if we had had to stay longer, we also found bagels we could toast up.

The only difficulty was during the night. There were only five cots and eight people, so three slept on the floor or on tables. The cots weren’t exactly cushy, but I fell asleep fairly quickly just wishing for a toothbrush! In the middle of the night, my shivering woke me up, and I knew from survival training that your body is heading toward hypothermia if you don’t take steps to warm up. The propane heater had gone out, and I was closest to the outside wall. The cold air was sucking the heat out of my body from under the cot. I got up and folded a blanket to give me four layers under me, put my Big Red on, and found another blanket for my feet. I can’t say I was warm, but at least I wasn’t shivering anymore.

The next morning the weather was still bad in McMurdo and we had a low ceiling in the Dry Valleys, so we explored the sea ice and a small fishing hut that was located in the harbor. The sea ice is amazing. I think this is multi-year ice, so it is very thick, but it also had huge pressure ridges, cracks, and lots of sediment that has built up on the surface. While on the ice, we found a large seal that had pushed her nose through a dive hole, lifted off the cover that the divers had attached, and flopped down to take a nap in the sun. She was funny to watch. She’d lift her head and check us out, but it was obvious that she knew the redcoats were no threat because she plopped back down and went right back to sleep. Have you ever watched a dreaming dog with its paws running? Well, she, too, seemed to be dreaming as she flipped her tail and made little grunting noises. I’m not sure if it was a happy dream or a nightmare, but she was certainly busy!

Finally around noon, the ceiling lifted enough that a helo was able to go pick up our survival bags, about 100 pounds of rock samples we had collected, and then it came to get us.

Our eight-hour tour had ended up being a twenty-four hour “boondoggle.” When we arrived back in McMurdo, we were met with concerned looks over our “survival trial”—that is until they found out what a cushy setting we really had! So they wanted to know how ‘Gilligan’s Island’ really was, and although I thought we should have agreed upon a good story about facing the harsh Antarctic winds as we fought our way on foot across the mountains…we couldn’t help but just grin over our grand adventure!

Thanks Kate Pound and Joanna Hubbard for sharing your pictures! My camera was dropped about a week ago, and I am so grateful that you are taking so many great shots!

Kate Pound in front of the jamesways at the New Harbor field camp.
Joanna Hubbard

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