A day in the field

So, what have we actually been doing in the field for the last 2 months? Each workday begins by starting up a snowmobile with a broken choke switch, which requires two pairs of hands, a set of pliers, and some love (i.e. Graham hauling violently on manual-ignition chord). Once parked near our destination ridge or cliffs, we dismount and set out for our farthest destination on foot and work back to the machines. “Empty” backpacks (i.e. without samples, but laden with sledge hammers, chisels, first aid kit, water, spare cloths, crampons, ice axe, etc.) are never lightweight, but the crampons are invariably necessary to climb off the glacier or up a hardened snow slope. 
When it comes to approaching fresh outcrops of rock, each geologist has there own style; Sophie, for example, crouches to look for minerals in her magnifying hand lens, whereas Graham takes measurements with his Brunton compass. I generally prefer the more direct approach of obliterating the nearest piece of rock with a six-pound sledgehammer. After heated debate of the geologic characteristics of the rocks—orthognessic? poikioblastic? porphyroblastic? pseudomorphic?—we scribble in yellow notebooks. The detail and thoroughness (and accuracy?) of my notes scale with temperature (1+ page at 25 F, 3+ lines at 5 F, and 1 line at -10 F), but I reason that writing with frozen fingers will yield illegible results anyway… Before stumbling to the next cliff, we chisel away and pack grapefruit-sized samples for extracting zircon, monazite, titanite, or garnet. Each of these lucky samples will have a scenic journey to sunny California onboard a freighter before being bombarded with electron beams and blasted with lasers.

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Sastrugi, smelly socks, and ocelli

It has been 6 or so weeks on the ice (to be honest, we’ve lost track of time and don’t even know the day of the week). If anything, time is measured by alternating cooking duties and the numbers we write on canvas sample bags—in excess of 400 so far. Some changes have become hard to ignore. For example, our toilet fortress, once a 4 ft deep hole surrounded by 4 ft walls of snow blocks has filled in with drifts and eroded down such that it hardly provides any shelter or privacy; the sastrugi on the interior adds décor. In the cook tent, snow has melted and compacted under the floor such that the stove, food boxes, and chairs are precariously inclined to crash inward.

Our clothing is also disintegrating. My pants are torn from crampons, my jacket is accumulating patches, the seams of my boots unravel more each day, all my gloves are riddled with holes, and my sunglasses have been scratched by flying rock chips. Every morning I’m haunted by my brother’s unheeded advice: “Bring 10 pairs of socks and always, always, always, save one for a rainy day.” All three of my sock pairs have long since passed from the “crusty” stage to the “cheesy” stage, but there is still no alternative to drying them at head level in the cook tent. My only consolation is the fact that the smell of dirty cloths increases asymptotically, and mine are now nearing the limit of maximum stench.
Small discoveries keep life interesting here. Upon washing my hair—something I’ve only attempted once in the field—I was humoured to find small chips of granite on my head, but was unable to identify their exact lithology. Most exciting of all are the lamprophyres, chock full of pyrite, ocelli (ask Sophie), and xenoliths of various origins.
 Unfortunately Grahams camera is on the ridge somewhere, so we’ll send pics when we find it…

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Summiting Diamond Mountain (Hill)

Happy New Year from Diamond Glacier!!! 
We hope that everyone had a wonderful 2012 and are looking forward to 2013! We certainly have had a few fun and eventful recent days. We decided that we needed to end the year with a bang, so we decided to clime a peak on Dec. 31. Diamond Hill towers over our field area and was the obvious challenge. I know, “Hill” sounds kind of wimpy, but I’m sure that it would be considered a small mountain anywhere else in the world. In truth, it was not the most technical or difficult climb, but going from 400 m to 1400 m while collecting and carrying rocks gave us a pretty good workout! We toiled to the mighty summit only to find out that a hardened Kiwi mountaineer had arrived moments before! She denies any relation to Edmund Hillary, but I’m sure that everyone on those two little islands are somehow related.   
That night we stayed up and welcomed the new year in the bright sunshine of a spectacularly warm and calm midnight. The midnight hours, when the sun is low over the southern horizon, offer the most stunning pastel views of the landscape. Sophie and I recently remarked how Antarctic vantages often appear more like paintings than real landscapes; I’m certain that our photographs will never do justice.    
We took a lovely 1st of the new year off from work to rest, relax, read, and run (the “four r’s” of leisure). The afternoon brought the warmest weather that we have yet seen (ambient temperatures around freezing, but hot in the sun). We took the opportunity to get some vitamin D and work on our tans before our return to society, that is, society outside of camp. My tan obviously leaves room for want.   
The morning of Jan. 2 brought a bit of a surprise. We got up lazily at 8:00 and proceeded with our delectable breakfast of oatmeal, soggy mini-wheats, and black coffee for the rugged “Alaska” Larry. After eating I called “Helo Ops” to provide details for the close-support day that we were expecting on the 3rd. I identified our team and said that we were calling about our close-support day; the response: “Oh yeah, they’re on their way. They left at about 7:45.”    
Ooh! “Everyone get ready; the helos are coming today!” We all scrambled to get our gear together and consolidate the items to be taken back to town, including Larry (not to objectify our friend Larry). We managed to get everything together just when we heard “gulf-zero-six-four, gulf-zero-six-four, this is zero-eight-hotel” on our VHF radio as the deep whir of the Bell 212 came into earshot. Whew! We were ready just in time… to find out that they were going to go to a satellite fuel cache to fill up! Well, an hour for some more tea then! Anyway, we had a very successful day and covered lots of ground with the help of the awesome helo team. We were sad to see Larry go back to MacTown, but happy to have some new food and mail! Thanks for the mountaineering guidance Larry!

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Survival of the fittest on the Darwin

Across from camp, seven triangular ridges expose layers of granites and metasediments, sandwiched between steep tributary icefalls. Reaching the cliffs requires crossing the five-mile-wide Darwin Glacier. Although the Darwin has a central corridor of shiny sun-scoured blue ice, strips of crevasses line the edges. Melt water runs in and amongst crevasses, creating mazes of small channels and deep cracks. Complicating navigation, variable amounts of wind-blown snow cover and hide the surface of the glacier. Fortunately, we have been joined by Alaska Larry, a mountaineering guide on Denali in the other summer, to help navigate the Darwin.

 
After an hour of zig-zagging between crevasses on snowmobiles, we reached a tumultuous region where the ice falls merge with the blue wavy ice of the Darwin. Larry dismounted every several yards to poke and probe the ice, but I kept my ice axe convenient in case I needed to make a hasty jump off a tumbling snowmobile. I can testify that the machines have an impressive ability to bridge crevasses up to two feet wide (if on a perpendicular trajectory of the crack) and we eventually made it through a hazardous rollercoaster course to the cliffs. Cramponing up a steep snow chute provided great access to several prominent granite layers that we sampled while hiding from occasional loose rocks crumbling from the cliffs above, thawed by the afternoon sun. 

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Mountaineering on the Glacier!

Hello from Panorama Glacier! We hope that all of you are well around the world, as we are in here Antarctica. Much has happened since our last update (and I apologize for the vagueness and indecision in the audioblog). We have been awaiting a resupply and a helicopter close support day since last Friday. The weather up here and at MacTown has been inconveniently complimentary. It seems that it is nice here while it is stormy at MacTown (100 km away), and vice versa. We are hopeful that the flight will happen tomorrow. The helo staff at McMurdo have been incredibly helpful and patient during the weather delays. We have plenty of food, but the variety has been impacted ☹. Jo still manages to cook up some tasty meals– I am currently watching and smelling in anticipation as she cooks up sausage with curried vegetables and rice. Despite non-ideal weather we have accomplished quite a bit out in the field. We have covered almost everything that is in range of our camp, and we should be able to complete everything that we need to if we have a few more nice days within the next week and a half. Yesterday, after waking up early only to find out that we would not be flying that day, we set out across the Kemp Glacier. Most of the glacier travel that we have done so far has been on solid blue ice. The path across the Kemp looked sweet on maps and when we approached it, but it is almost entirely snow covered, so we roped up in case there were bridged crevasses. It was our first time roping up, and Bryan and Graham learned a lot from Jo. No crevasse experiences (to my relief, rope or not). The afternoon was sunny and pleasant, but a wind storm with gusts up to 75 km/hr and wind chill down to –35° C (~ –30° F) came in when we were making our way back to camp¬– see picture of Bryan (small dot on right) and blowing snow below. It was a tid-bit chilly, but we made it back without incident.

Well, we best be signing off. It’s time for vittles. Until next time… Don’t forget to stimulate your gums!

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Happy New years from Antarctica!


Happy New years from Antarctica! 2012 is here, which means are field season is winding down. The weather in Antarctica as been up to its old tricks with 2 days of strong winds 1 day of nice weather and 1 ½ days of snow. When the winds started we all tried to be tough and work anyway, but that left us fleeing the hills after 70 km/h gusts made field work nearly impossible. New years day greeted us with beautiful weather, sunny and warm (if you can call a few degrees under freezing warm). On January 2 we woke up to 3 inches (~7.5 cm) of fresh white fluffy powder. Although the snow is pretty and fun for boot skiing it covers all the wonderful rocks, making geology more difficult. January 3rd we left camp with a light dusting of snow covering are tracks. At lunchtime the weather looked as though it was taking a turn for the worst. We were slowly being buried by snow as we enjoyed crackers with cheese and tuna and bumper bars. We finished eating and continued up the steep ridge we had started before lunch. The wind began to pick up and the visibility was decreasing. We decided it was time to call it a day and make are way back to camp. Currently the wind is still blowing and we are recording some of are coldest temps of the season at -29o C (-20 F) with wind chill. Hopefully the wind blows away the snow covering the rocks. Today graham emerged as a rugged Antarctic mountain man he is, with a healthy beard filled with blowing snow and icicles hanging from his mustache.

Well that’s all for now, we wish all are friends and family back home the best and Happy New Years. Panorama Glacier Out!

The top of the Panorama Glacier with Mt. Erebus in the far distance

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Some new videos

Now that John is back in Santa Barbara he’s had a chance to upload some videos. Check out these selection (there are a bunch more on our youtube channel – Antarctica360). They play best if you open the Youtube link in the lower right of each video.

A ride across the Radian Glacier on a skidoo at 8x speed. The skidoo sound isn’t normally quite this bad…
Our first camp put. Flying into the field from McMurdo station

Bryan’s review of the Tundra skidoo – our trusty field vehicle…

Graham’s mineralogy exam

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Christmas Day in Antarctica!

A lot has happened since are last blog update, including the celebration of our first Antarctic Christmas. Jo and Bryan made a tree out of snow and decorated it with miscellany from camp. Santa Claus came, even for Graham. Bryan and Graham did some shovel-sledding (videos to come pending bandwidth), and Jo cooked a feast– by Antarctic or any standards. It wasn’t quite the same as home, but we had a great time regardless.

Panorama Glacier Christmas Tree

Monday was business as usual. We had he snowmobiles slung back to Mac Town for lack of appropriate terrain, so all of our work has been on foot. We have trekked across the panorama glacier a couple of times and also checked out some of the rocks close to camp. The new field area has introduced a great deal of variety of the geology, and Graham and Bryan are reinspired. A particular highlight was finding huge books of biotite, the largest weighing in at over 20 lbs! We walked back with overloaded packs full of samples for mineralogy class– hopefully our students don’t need a hand lens to identify a Bt crystal the size of their heads!

Very large Biotite Crystals manlig-halsa.se/!

We have just past the half-way point of our field season. For those of you anxiously awaiting our return, especially Mike awaiting Graham, we will see you soon! I promise, we will shower first! The last few weeks will fly by, as did the first few. At first it seemed that we had a surplus of time, but we are now trying to maximize our efficiency to get everything done! Cheep Cheep!

Shovel sledding on Christmas day

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Sun, sun, sun!

While the previous week had been governed by seemingly continuous snow showers we are now basking in sunshine. Today and yesterday we have been blessed with calm, sunny weather which we weren’t sure existed in Antarctica. There was wind up high yesterday which was moving all the fresh snow around but at lower elevations we only got the occasional gusty breeze. With the wind and sun working together the mountains have mostly been transformed back to what we previously knew them as – less white and more rock.
  We made the most of the weather yesterday with a long day out up the North side of Rucker Ridge, above the Walcott Glacier. Finally the snow had melted away and we were able to actually see the rock and outcrops. Jo spent the day lapping up the views and sunshine whilst drinking her tea while the boys geologised. Although the sunscreen was the order of the day, we must point out that as soon as there was a breeze the temperature was around -10oC so we refrained from sunbathing. Late afternoon we reached around 1550m and the wind hit us. Still plenty of snow at this height (much of it being blown around) and with the anemometer registering a windchill of -22oC our motivation to continue waned pretty fast. We’re going to be dealing with enough of that at our other camp, no need to push it now. The wind dropped as quickly as we descended down the edge of the glacier. Blue sky, beautiful ‘evening’ light, stunning situation with seracs towering high above us, the valley below stretching out to Walcott Bay and Mt Discovery. The snow underfoot was still light and fluffy and Jo almost shed tears at the injustice of not having skis to take advantage of such perfect conditions. As we rounded the corner back to camp we were greeted with the rather ominous sight of cloud pouring over Mt Huggins and the other peaks (very similar to The Divide from Mt Cook Village for the Kiwis). With the whole upper glaciers being stripped of their snow by the wind we were somewhat fearful of what to expect from the weather but the wind stayed high and we slept well.

Today we are unfortunately not able to take advantage of the beautiful weather as we are on the helicopter schedule to shift our camp tomorrow and need to spend the day sorting, organizing, and packing. We also snuck in a sleep-in, have done some washing, and are communicating with the outside world. Although we’ve had another calm, sunny day so far, as I write this the cloud from the far horizon has finally developed over us, the temperature has dropped, and it disappointingly looks as if the MacTown Weather Ops forecast for an incoming storm might be correct. If we can’t do our camp shift tomorrow or Friday it will be Boxing Day, as the pilots are having the holiday weekend off. We’re keen to have as much time to geologise from our high camp as possible but there’s plenty we can do down here now that the snow has melted. Captain Oates would prefer to stay at lower elevations as it means less distance to travel to the sea should he no longer wish to be part of our team.

Tune in next time to find out where we’ll be having Christmas!

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Slight failure in comms…

So it seems we had a slight failure in our communication system, this blog is actually from December 15 but it didn’t get to me then. So here it is now!
Any excitement over the past few days has been completely outdone by the arrival of the fourth member of our party. Captain Oates will be a quiet, yet significant member of our team, assisting us to stay positive and in good humour whilst not consuming too many of our resources. See photo of him keeping an eye on the weather for us, out the tent door.

The last couple of days have been a mixed bag – another day of low cloud and big fat snowflakes saw Graham go almost insane and Bryan retreat to his sleeping bag. In an attempt to ward off cabin fever, Graham and Jo spent the afternoon developing an aerobics routine to Blondie ‘Heart of Glass’ much to Bryan’s dismay. We plan to post the video once we’ve perfected the routine.

Yesterday we were stoked and relieved to wake to improved weather and finally some SUNSHINE! We’d forgotten what it felt like to have the warmth of the sun on our skin (faces) and to make all the daily tasks seem that much easier. With heaps of snow still lying on the slopes and outcrops and the weather not completely settled we decided to head across the Walcott – our closest destination. Our walk through Dr Seuss-land was made more bizarre and stunning by the additional 3 inches of creamy sparkly snow topping all the features. The fresh snow also made the trip a bit more challenging, as we were unable to determine what sort of ice was hiding underneath. Once we reached the slopes on the northern side of the Walcott it was crampons off and another day of interesting measuring and sampling whilst Jo amused herself with the lightest, fluffiest snow that she had ever seen. By mid-afternoon the clouds had thickened and clusters of stellars were again falling on us. We headed further up the hill but soon found the geologizing difficult with the thick snow layer hiding many interesting features. The descent was somewhat slippery until we reached a ‘road’ conveniently carved back down the hill. Back across the Walcott and through Dr Seuss-land with our tracks barely visible from the new snow that had fallen during the day. Satay for dinner and we weren’t long out of bed. To our surprise and delight the sun burst through the clouds just as we were brushing our teeth and continued to shine through the walls of out tents as we fell asleep.

This morning we were treated to views of the mountains that we had forgotten existed – Dromedary and Huggins against a blue sky. Yay for sunshine and warmth. This beautiful weather was unfortunate timing as we were expecting visitors to our camp this afternoon for the first time so couldn’t get out to work. We’d received a message from MacTown that the Environmental Officer would like to bring some NSF representatives to view our camp set-up. This proposed visit had provided us with a great source of amusement and distraction over the past couple of days, so it was with some disappointment that the helicopter containing our visitors arrived two hours early. Fortunately our camp was already in good order and our visitors were impressed with what we had going on here – a tidy, compact base camp in a beautiful environment. They had a couple of suggestions for us and we provided them with some feedback so the trip was mutually beneficial. In addition to bringing us some baking from MacTown, still warm, our visitors were kind enough to deliver our mail and some other items we required. The afternoon was spent opening our packages and enjoying the delights within. Graham’s feet are now toasty warm with his new down booties and Jo shared her Dark Ghana chocolate with the boys whilst reading copies of the Listener magazine. (Bryan’s family and friends – put something in the post soon, he felt left out!). Thank you to all those who sent us mail, it’s a great joy to receive in the field. A special thank you to Jo’s folks for Captain Oates, the inflatable Emperor penguin, who has already begun an integral part of out team.

To our dismay the sky clouded over yet again and snowflakes fell from the sky, our sunshine and views once again hidden. This weather cycle is becoming somewhat tedious because even if we can get out onto the slopes, the snow has no chance to melt meaning the time spent is less efficient than desirable. On the plus side, we were delivered a weather monitor today as well, so we can now keep an eye on the wind speed and wind chill. Watching the temperature drop by 60 C with the slightest breeze has increased our understanding of the cold we’ve been experiencing.  Captain Oates is more than content with the cold climate but we are hoping that this weather system will move on and we can get out there and geologise some more.


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