Camping, Antarctica-style

Bürstadt A few people have asked what it’s like to camp in Antarctica, so here is a brief summary and some photos of our home for 40+ days. Basically, think car-camping, except our car is a Bell 212 helicopter capable of lifting 3000lbs of gear…

Key to the whole operation are two Bright yellow Polar Scott tents – pimage1 (8)retty much the same design as that used by the original Antarctic explorers. One contains our kitchen / dining room in which we melt snow/ice for drinking water, cook (all on a propane stove) and eat. Cleaning the dishes usually involves a quick wipe with a paper towel. We store all of our food (about 200lbs worth, or two weeks supply) outside the tent in coolers and wooden boxes. We separate our trash into food waste, recyclables and non-recyclables, and these all get returned to McMurdo station and added to the waste stream that is removed from the continent.

Our bathroom Scott Polar tent contains a grey 5 gallon bucket with a seat which serves as our toilet and a 5 gallon container for liquid human waste and ‘grey’ water from cooking. All the waste freezes pretty quickly here, so there is no smell. Once ~75% full, the containers are sealed they are transported back to McMurdo station by Helicopter, packaged into shipping containers and returned to the US on the supply vessel to be disposed of. Incidentally, it’s important that we don’t overfill the containers, because as the waste freezes it expands and if the container is already full, it will burst and leave someone, somewhere a very nasty cleanup job…

image2 (5)We each sleep in our own mountain tent (a Mountain Hardwear Trango 2). The tents are just large enough for us to sit up in and fit all of our personal gear, our giant -20F rated sleeping bags, a foam sleeping pad and a big thermarest. Because they are small they tend to warm up quickly and trap a lot of heat from the sun, so they are quite cozy little cocoons. The only downside is that they are not as weatherproof as the Scott Polar tents, and occasionally they get destroyed in severe winds / storms.

We cook on a propane stove, and we have no need for lights as it’s daylight 24/7, so our minimal electricity needs are easily met by a solar panel + battery system that charges our various radios, satellite phones, laptops, cameras etc. We communicate with McMurdo station daily on a satellite phone, or if we are close enough a handheld VHF radio. We also have a Vietnam-era portable HF radio that we can use as a backup.image3 (4)

All in all it’s a pretty comfortable, if not somewhat basic, existence.

~ John for the Antarctica360 team

The Final Countdown

The countdown is upon us with exactly ten days left in the field. We won’t be returning to civilization the same people we were when we left it. Boots are beginning to fall apart, beards are taking their natural form, and we’ve started tapering down our consumption of fudge stripe cookies. Eating half a box of cookies a day isn’t a habit I want to bring home with me. Despite the cookies, our broken scale says I’ve lost ~10-15 pounds so far. When our helicopter pilot asks what my “flight weight” is, I’m just as curious as he is. I’ve also started to wonder about the tips of my big toes that have had a tingling and numb sensation for over a week. I try to convince myself it’s not permanent. But if it is, it has all been worth it, I would have given the whole toe. I’ve seen some great geology and scrambled up numerous peaks to enjoy arguably the most incredible views planet Earth has to offer, many of which were also first American ascents (John assures me they weren’t but has provided no evidence to discredit my historic ascents).image1 (7)

Camp life has also been surprisingly pleasant – although, it did take hours of protest to convince John that we get a day off for Thanksgiving. Even so, somehow on Thanksgiving Thursday I found myself hauling ~100 pounds of rocks hundreds of meters up a peak. Apparently New Zealanders need to appreciate American holidays more. Eventually we were awarded a day of rest and I was eager to make it feel like a true Thanksgiving. I woke up at 11am, lounged around for several hours, made a massive pile of meat including Cornish game hen and top sirloin steak, and we all gathered around to watch Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. In hindsight we never said what we were thankful for. I’ll say that I am especially thankful for all my friends and family that wrote letters and talked to me on the satellite phone while I’ve been in the field, you guys rock.

Our final camp is slightly worse than the last: the lake next to it is harder to cross and the bathroom tent isn’t on level ground. Unsurprisingly, opening a five gallon container of urine on a slant is stressful, and after multiple slips and falls I’ve found that we’ve all become far less eager to cross frozen lakes than we were a couple of weeks ago. The weather has been pleasant and I haven’t put my Big Red jacket on in over two weeks. I’m somewhat worried I won’t have enough bad weather stories to go home with – fingers crossed for a whiteout.

Even though we’re winding down to the end of the season there is still a lot of work to be done. So far the season has been highly successful with tons (literally) of rocks to ship back to UCSB and the confidence that we’ve inspected just about every dike we could get to across over 100 kilometers of the Dry Valleys. I’ll be sad to leave but happy with the work we’ve accomplished. Goal for the next ten days: soak in as much of the Dry Valleys of Antarctica as I can, I may never be back…

— Demian for the Antarctica360 team

Mummified seals

We are almost done with our third camp near Joyce Glacier/Lake Buddha and plan to move to our final camp at Hidden Lake on Monday [editor’s note: sorry, a bit late posting this one]. As it is now Thanksgiving back in the States, it seems appropriate to think about how great the trip has been so far. With the exception of a few very windy days, the weather has been beautiful; we have even had a few days above freezing! We are currently camped below the Royal Society Range, easily one of the most beautiful mountain ranges I have ever seen; they rise to almost 14,000 feet above the Ross Sea (sea level). We’ve skated across the pristine ice of frozen lakes, walked on massive glaciers, flown through the Transantarctic Mountains in helicopters, had abundant tea and food that is better than I ever could have hoped for while camping in Antarctica, and have collected over 400 samples.

Despite how well things have gone, we are dependent on lots of warm clothing, propane, and helicopter re-supplies. Life on land in Antarctica is about as harsh as it gets. As a testament to this, we have seen only 3 different kinds of lichen and 1 moss in the month that we have been here (and we have gone many days without seeing either). We have not seen any animals. As we get further into summer, seals, penguins, and orcas will become more common sights in the sea around Ross Island, but life on the mainland will not change much.

image1 (6)The absolute strangest thing we have seen has to be the mummified seals. Over the last several weeks we have seen several dozen mummified seals, dozens of miles from the sea. On the steep, boulder-strewn talus slope above our current camp, we found about fifteen, over two thousand feet above sea level.

It is thought that these seals are mainly young seals that become disoriented when they surface through the ice shelf in poor weather. The result is that they wonder until they starve/freeze, occasionally far inland and thousands of feet above sea level. Because of the dry, cold airimage2 (4) and lack of scavengers, seals that die on land are preserved until the harsh weather literally breaks them apart.

Sometimes we see them from afar and sometimes we stumble on them unexpectedly behind boulders, around corners, or in small depressions. Even having seen so many, each new one we stumble across is a surprise that immediately distracts us from our thoughts. We are not allowed to touch them, because they provide an extremely rare source of nutrients for the microcommunities in the area, but hopefully some of our pictures can convey this eerie feature of our experience.

~Rob for the Antarctica360 team

Update from Buddha Beach

image1 (5)Early last week we shifted our camp about 30 miles south from the Taylor Valley to the Joyce Glacier area. Our new home is tucked behind a steep ridge, sheltering us from all but the strongest winds  and making life generally more pleasant. We are camped on what passes for a beach by Antarctic standards, except that our lake-front view is frozen and made entirely of blue-ice (we named our camp Buddha beach after the large lake a few miles to our north).

We’ve been hiking as far as we can each day to map and collect samples, and although our target samples, are rarer here, we’ve learnt a lot, and also managed to make ascents of most of the surrounding peaks (all of which Demian has claimed are first American ascents).

image3 (3)In a change to our daily routine, last Wednesday we were picked up by helicopter and headed north to sample some outlying locations. After 6 hours the helicopter returned and collected us, and our now substantially heavier backpacks,with us having spent the intervening time sampling everything within walking distance. Once again, we all feel very privileged to have experienced one of the most exciting parts of doing science in Antarctica – geology by helicopter!

As I sit writing this, we are all safely back at camp relaxing and eagerly anticipating Rob’s dinner creation of chicken-sausage-hash brown-vegetable stir-fry, followed by (canned) fruit de-jour. Tomorrow is thanksgiving (which I’ll let Demian describe in detail in a later post) then we’ll shift to our final camp on Monday, and we’ll be on the home (2 week) stretch.

Enjoy thanksgiving wherever you are! We’re certainly looking forward to a couple of days of rest and good food.

~John for the Antarctica360 team.image2 (3)

A day in the life of an Antarctic field geologist

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Rob and Demian experimenting with adding condensed milk to Oreos for additional calories

7.30am  – wake up. Think about getting out of cozy warm sleeping bag. Look at temperature outside (-15C today) then delay for 10 –  20 minutes (depending on temperature) while contemplating what fieldwork in Hawaii might be like.

7.40am – get out of sleeping bag and dress in 5 – 7 layers of clothing, depending on how loud the wind is howling outside.

7.50am – run to cook tent (empty pee bottle into barrel on the way), turn on stove, melt ice for hot drinks/breakfast. Further contemplate advantages of tropical field areas.

8.15am – eat 3 bowls of cereal with hot milk, two pieces of butter-fried bread, drink 3 cups of tea with extra milk powder and sugar.

9am – pack bag for the day. Do not forget chocolate, candy, cookies, cheese and salami, spare clothes, radio and extra socks. Brush teeth and apply sunscreen.

9am – 6pm – walk as far from camp as possible, collect samples, map, make notes and take photos. Enjoy the indescribable experience that is wandering amongst the mountains and glaciers of Antarctica. Return to camp when pack is full of rocks (~80lbs) and all snacks have been consumed.

6pm – return to camp, melt ice for drinks, drink several cups of soup, eat crackers/chips/anything in easy reach. One person prepares dinner (tonight is vegetarian peanut satay with rice noodles).

7pm – Call “Mac Ops” (the communications center at McMurdo) for mandatory 24hr check in by radio/satellite phone. Our only communication with the outside world goes something like this:

“Mac Ops, Mac Ops, this is Nussbaum Riegal [name of our camp] on Taylor Valley [name of radio repeater].”

“Nussbaum Riegal this Mac Ops, Good evening”

“Nussbaum Riegal calling for our daily check-in. We have four souls in camp and all is well.”

“Mac Ops copies all. Have a good evening.”

“Nussbaum Riegal clear.”

8.30pm – do dishes (consists of wiping off plates etc. with paper towels)

9 – 10.30pm. Drink more tea, eat more cookies (tonight was an entire bowl of cookie dough), fill a water bottle with boiling water for inside sleeping bag, brush teeth and off to bed. Contemplate another day in paradise tomorrow.

Moving camps again…hopefully!

image1 (2)After spending a week here at Nussbaum Riegel, in the Taylor Valley, we’re done with two of our four camps and have collected about 350 samples (well over a ton). At 2000 feet, this camp has been colder than our camp at Lake Vanda, but generally less windy, which means it has been more pleasant.

The geology here has been wonderful as well. Our camp is centrally located among several 2-3 mile exposures of bedrock, meaning we have been able to work very efficiently, collecting several hundred lbs of rocks per day. One day we were even able to come back to camp for a hot lunch and tea before heading back out for the afternoon. Very civilized.

The views have also been spectacular: huge glaciers pouring thousands of feet to the valley floor from Matterhorn-like peaks (including a peak also named the Matterhorn), the meeting of the Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf below the volcano Mt Erebus, and the Taylor glacier flooding down the head of the valley from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Our next two camps will be in the Marshal Valley/Joyce Glacier area on the southeast flank of the Royal Society Range, 30 miles south of our current camp. We were planning to move today (Thursday), but all helo flights were cancelled due to bad weather at McMurdo. Instead, we have spent the day in camp reading, playing cards, and eating a lot (brownies, pancakes, grilled cheese with pepperoni…). Fingers crossed that we can fly tomorrow!image2 (1)

~Rob for the Antarctica360 team

Alone on Mars

The Matterhorn, or at least its Antarctic equivalent.

As I write this somewhat overdue post, it’s our fifteenth full day in the field, and it’s just about time to leave our second camp in the Taylor Valley. There’s one moment, looking back, that drove in the fact that I’m really about as isolated as I’ll ever probably get in my life: a few days after landing at Lake Vanda, Demian and I were deposited by helicopter, geology gear and survival bags in tow, at Mt. Loke in the Eastern Wright Valley, for a day of dike-hunting.  We scrambled off the helicopter onto the bare slopes and then lay face down to avoid being flattened by the blast of its spinning rotors; as it disappeared into the distance, Demian rose up and shouted something to the effect of, “we’re really in the middle of nowhere now!”
And indeed, I’d been out here for several days already but that was probably the moment at which the remoteness of this place fully sunk in. Of course, McMurdo isn’t really that far away, even if the memories I have of the fresh bread and warm showers seem distant, now, and the support staff there have been more than helpful when we’ve come across them; on one occasion, when we were expecting helicopter support, we asked them half-jokingly if they could bring us pizza, only to be surprised by not one but three boxes of pizza straight from the McMurdo kitchens! But still, it’s basically just the four of us in this desolate land, chipping off rocks, searching these barren hills for good dike exposures, and enjoying the scenery when we get the chance to.


Among several mummified Weddell Seals seen in the Wright Valley.

As for myself, I’d say that while the cold has been a challenge (to say the least), the biggest obstacle is that this has probably been one of the most physically intense periods of my life; as they say, geologists are the only people whose packs grow heavier, not lighter, while hiking. But I’ll probably be in quite decent physical shape at the end of it, and after about two weeks, I think I’ve somewhat settled in. I’ve made some progress on the art of stopping my water bottles from freezing in the field, and thanks to a French Press from McMurdo, some beans from Santa Barbara Roasting Company, and the hand-crank coffee grinder my brother gave me several years ago, I’ve had plenty of good coffee to warm me up. There are a lot of dikes and metasediments to sample, but there’s also the likes of the ventriforms and seal mummies to take in; somebody in our group joked that the latter had wandered out to this strange place as part of some bizarre and ill-advised pilgrimage. Needless to say, we’re far better off than them: we’ve gotten some good samples and stayed warm, or at least thermally sound, and our field season is in full swing. Until next time.

— Nick for the Antarctica360 team

John takes shelter in an ancient ventriform.

Snot and cookie dough

image3Almost two weeks into our field season and things are in full swing. We’ve moved camp once, collected 300+ rock samples, and almost eaten all our chocolate bar rations. Our first camp in the Wright Valley was nestled next to a frozen Lake Vanda that we slowly chipped away for drinking water. We’ve had mostly good weather other than nearly 50 knot winds one day that ripped Rob’s tent off its tie downs. Although, what’s considered good weather here is still capable of freezing your urine container in your tent overnight. Living in a tent with 24 hour sunlight in freezing and windy conditions seems inhospitable but we’ve quickly made our Trango 2 tents home; it’s impressive what a massive sleeping bag and a water bottle full of hot water can do. Our eating habits have also changed significantly to include: powdered and condensed milk, 4+ cups of Earl Grey tea per day, candy bar lunches, and food well past its “best by” date. FYI: pudding mix over a decade past due tastes exactly like it sounds. Our dinners have been great despite our assortment of aged food. We’ve had all sorts of meals from Thai curry to burritos and we even have dessert. We made a batch of cookie dough and only made one cookie, apparently we all prefer the dough. Ultimately, living conditions aren’t bad and I’d like to assure my mom that I’m eating my vegetables and brushing my teeth twice a day!
Working conditions are slightly worse as you battle to take copious notes in the frigid cold with clumsy gloves on and snot constantly leaking from your nose. We’ve hiked up hundreds of meters of steep scree and across miles of rolling landscape with packs full of rocks every day. The only deviation from that daily schedule was a couple of days with helicopter support. image2Essentially, a helicopter picks you up and drops you off at the foot of the outcrop of your choosing and later returns for you and your hundreds of pounds of samples to whisk you off across glaciers and valleys right back to camp. If a helicopter ride in Antarctica doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing will. Now we’re camped in the Taylor Valley at a place called Nussbaum Riegel but the scenery hasn’t changed much – dozens of glaciers, jagged peaks, frozen lakes, and a view of the East Antarctic ice sheet. I don’t think that will change much regardless of our camp location. In summary: life in Antarctica is good as long as your hand warmers are still working, you’ve wiped the snot from your nose, the geology is good (and close), and you’ve got a hot dinner to look forward to… t hrow in a helicopter ride and some cookie dough and life is great.

~Demian for the Antarctica360 team


Antarctica360 in the news!

The team from Antarctica360 have been featured in our local news twice in the last few days – it’s great to see the word is getting out about what they are doing.

The UCSB Current has a feature article about their trip – you can see it by clicking here.

Then the Santa Barbara Independent picked up the story – that’s here.

Maybe the New York Times will be calling next?!

–The Antarctica360 “Ground Team” (aka Anna, John’s wife).


Geology by Helicopter

image3 (1)Our field area is huge and it is impossible for us to cover all the ground we need to on foot, so occasionally we receive some friendly assistance in the form of a helicopter.  At about 9am yesterday morning, we heard the distinctive dull thudding of Bell 212 helicopter approaching our camp. When it is calm here sound travels very far, so it took several more minutes before we spotted a tiny red and blue speck flying up the valley. After a few minutes, the helicopter was directly over our camp, and with a blast of sand and ice it was on the ground and ready to pick us up.

We piled in and headed down valley from our camp. In about 5 minutes we covered more distance than we could ever hope to by foot in one day – and no rocks to carry either!

Demian and Nick were the first to be dropped off at the mouth of the Wright Valley, where they spent the day ascending Mt. Loke and collecting lots of samples. It’s always an apprehensive feeling being left in the middle of nowhere, watching the helicopter fly off into the distance, but we are all well equipped with lots of clothes, food and a red “survival bag” that contains everything we need to stay safe if the helicopter is delayed or the weather turns nasty. We also each have a satellite phone and VHF radios to communicate if needed.

image1 (1)After dropping Demian and Nick off, the helicopter turned north and took Rob and John a further 15 miles to a spectacular area called Killer Ridge. Despite its name (after the whale, rather than its reputation) this area has beautifully steep, 600 – 900m tall valley walls with excellent exposures of the rock we are interested in sampling. It was a rare ‘perfect’ day in Antarctica with no wind and lots of sun. John and Rob were joined by Paul Koubrek, a guide based at McMurdo, who made sure it was safe enough to sample. He also helpfully carried some rocks – thanks Paul!

Just before 5pm, we heard the familiar noise of the helicopter, and within a few minutes we were flying back to collect Demian and Nick, then onto our camp. A few more minutes and we were standing outside our tents watching the helicopter disappear into the distance, reflecting on possibly one of the best experiences to be had in Antarctica – Geology by helicopter!

A huge thanks to Paul and the crew of Helicopter 36J for all their efforts!

Off to bed now, but more to come soon….

~the Antarctica 360 team