Farewell to the field…

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 Tonight is a special night– our last in the field. We are to return to McMurdo tomorrow via Twin Otter. The occasion is joyous, but the mood is sombre– not out of sadness, but with deep reflection of last seven weeks. It is easy to overlook the specialness of an experience when you are living it, and the realization of the wonder often lags. We now look back at all of the wonderful events of the last seven weeks– the majesty of the landscape, the extreme weather, the physical challenges, and the serenity of a small camp in Antarctica, hundreds of miles from another human. We flew over the TransAntarctics in small aircraft, climbed mountains, ran on glaciers, and came back to our cosy camp to have meals of salmon alfredo, Thai curry, and roast cornish hens. We have seen and done amazing things during this field season, and we have much to be thankful for and much to rejoice. We all feel a sense of success, and we owe much appreciation to all of the support from the contractors in McMurdo, the National Science Foundations for funding, and of course, to John, who made all of this possible. We hope that this will not be our last trip to this beautiful continent.
I know that all sounds very sentimental, but I assure you, we are all anxiously anticipating our extraction! Perhaps I should save the sappy blog updates until we have actually departed. The weather is unpredictable, and we may be spending the weekend in our tents eating the dehydrated meals that are left over. By the time you read this we will hopefully be in MacTown, groomed and warm. Wish us luck!
-Sophie, Forrest, Graham

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.

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…

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!

Hunting lamprophyres from the sky

A helicopter is the ultimate tool for geologists; it provides access to the inaccessible and views from the sky where the landscape can be seen on a tectonic scale (almost). We were fortunate to commandeer the use of a Bell 212 helicopter—a twin-engine Huey—from McMurdo with a bright red and blue NSF paint job.
First stop: Buntley Bluff on the Mulock Glacier. On the third flyby of the 1500 ft looming cliffs, the pilot finally spotted a small flat patch. Over the intercom we hear, “Might be able to set down there…heavily crevassed… need to watch for rocks falling from above…overhanging serac of snow above us…not much room to manoeuvre…lets do a compaction test…” The skids of the helicopter bounced several times on the surface without it caving in, so we were ushered out. I wielded the hammer, Graham and Sophie the notebook and GPS. We stormed up to the cliff, whacking off samples and taking some notes before returning to the aircraft. Off to the next stop.
Hopping our way back to camp in great helo leaps, we kept our eyes pealed for dark lamprophyre intrusions. Approaching our final destination, we finally spotted a lamprophyre running across the top of a mountain ridge. Sophie had to be refrained from jumping out of her seat in excitement so we asked the pilot to land us there. After a few circles, we had to abandon the idea of landing, but managed traced the dark strip of rock across the mountain, collecting a sample of the host rock at the base of the slope.
The next morning at 5:00 am, I was hearing helicopter rotors in my sleep. Then I realized I was awake and that the sound was real.  Except it wasn’t a helicopter…it was the snowmobile. I bundled up and crawled into the morning wind to investigate. All the tents were closed tight and everyone was asleep. Why was the snowmobile running? Who turned it on? I woke the others and we have yet to solve the mystery. Strange things happen in the land of the midnight sun.

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!

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

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

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

Christmas Eve on the Panorama Glacier

The last few days have been full of excitement and adventure and we are now known as “Panorama Glacier’ on our nightly radio check-in with Mac Ops. The last time we wrote we were in the midst of packing for our camp move in the sunshine. Later that afternoon the cloud on the horizon developed and filled the sky and the wind increased. During the night we were woken by the wind banging against our tents and when we arose in the morning it was pretty obvious that there wouldn’t be any choppers flying out to us. As the day progressed the winds increased and we experienced our first ‘real’ Antarctic weather. The sound of the wind was much worse than it actually was but combined with the snow being driven it was a battle to do anything outside. We tired to pass the day by sleeping and conserving energy but even this was made difficult by the noise. By mid afternoon we were registering gusts of up to 80 kph and constant high winds in between. Not that strong in the scheme of things and nothing for what the tents can withstand but still a change from what we’ve been used to our here so far. Our campsite was transformed once again, this time with drifting snow and some piles of gear set out ready for the camp move were slowly disappearing from sight. Fortunately, this storm was only brief and by early evening we were getting some respite between the gusts. By bed time things had calmed down a lot and it was difficult to believe how different life was a few hours previous.

Antarctic weather!

So it didn’t come as a complete surprise to wake to light winds and sunshine yesterday morning and thus action stations. A call to Helo Ops confirmed that the choppers were flying and we started the process of dismantling camp. Gear packed away, food into boxes, tents dug out of the snow, and sling loads built for the helicopters. We also had the added fun of digging out skidoos, sleds, and our toilet area, all which had been drifted with the wind-blown snow. We timed it perfectly and had been relaxing for about 10 mins when the sound of the first helicopter was heard. We had made the decision not to take the skidoos to the next camp, so as the first one was being slung back to McMurdo, the helitech finalised and sorted our other loads.

Bryan and Graham arranging Sling loads with a Helo tech

The larger Bell chopper then arrived with our friend the French pilot, Fromage (Flo) from the other day and we were quickly loaded with our gear and off to find our new camp. Up above the Panorama/Glimpse Glacier we circled around scoping out potential spots before choosing what we hoped would be a sheltered spot. -14degrees C still air – as expected about 10 degrees colder than our lower camp. The chopper left and returned soon after with our tents and gear slung beneath. With a blast of wind and the thwop of the blades the Bell flew off and we were left in our beautiful, high camp. 2000m surrounded by the high glaciers and peaks that we’ve been looking up at for the past 3 weeks. A stunning spot but definitely an increased sense of exposure to the elements. We were blessed with a calm afternoon which we spent up pitching our tents and organising our camp. A tiring process especially after already breaking down our camp that morning but we took our time ensuring the tents were well anchored and buried. Fortunately the sun never goes down but by the time we sat down to eat tea at around 9pm, we were hungry, thristy, and ready for bed. We’d lost the calm from the afternoon but were relieved and impressed by how little our tents shook. It looks like we’ll be getting used to the sound of the whistling through the tent guys but hopefully we’ve chosen a spot sheltered from the worst.

New campsite on the Panorama Glacier

After 13 hours of camp breaking down and building we allowed ourselves a lie in this morning and in recognition of the holiday weekend, a more relaxing day. A little more camp set up and then the boys headed off to explore the outcrops above camp while Jo spent a pleasant afternoon tidying up the mess tent, putting up Christmas decorations, and making treats for tomorrow. Adding to the toilet wall built by the boys yesterday she also discovered a new passion – snow sculpting. Despite a brief trip the boys had a productive afternoon discovering a wide range of rocks including a new sample ‘never seen before’ which they called ‘BryanNormanite’. After tea and cake made by the girls at the BFC (delivered by the chopper yesterday) we set about building an Antarctic Christmas tree with the snow saws. Pizza for dinner, the last door on the Advent Calendar opened and soon it’s off to bed to await the arrival of Father Christmas. It’s a beautiful evening here, with a little wind (up to 20kph) so he shouldn’t have any difficulty landing the sled. Captain Oates is keeping an eye out and  will no doubt provide a friendly welcome to him and the reindeer. We’re taking the day off tomorrow so should have time share our Christmas celebrations with you all. One more sleep… 🙂