Palindromes

An Über ride from my house in Goleta to the Santa Barbara Airport, a short hop from there to the confusing, labyrinthine mess they call LAX, a trans-Pacific flight spent watching movies and appreciating the effects of Unisom tablets, a short hop between Australia and what’s left of Zealandia, and we deployed, with the help of the United States Airforce, to the driest, windiest, coldest, most remote, and most desolate continent, spending a few days in the relative comfort of McMurdo Station before the helicopters took us out into the field and essentially out of reach of civilization. A short car ride, booked via Demian’s cell phone, ended with me being in, arguably, the most remote and untraveled place on Earth.

Five weeks of sampling later, there was a second journey: another helicopter trip, four more flights, and one last Über ride and I’d wandered back into my house with a lot of equipment in need of repair, quite a few pictures of dike exposures and seal mummies on my computer, and the strange thought that my memories of fieldwork in the Dry Valleys had indeed become “memories” and that I was back in the “real world.”  After a bit of time spent at my parents’ house relaxing and having some lovey time with a certain dog, it’s time to get to work on the several tons of rocks we now have. On we go.

As a parting note: the pictures I’ve taken that are any good (I hope) and that I’d think would be of interest to non-geologists are now on Rob’s Facebook page, where he’s set up an album that showcases our attempts at photography. Now that bandwidth is no longer in such short supply, and now that it no longer costs John $2 a minute to use the internet, it’s much, much, much easier to put these pictures out, I have to say! I’ve also put my pictures into a Photobucket album, for those who don’t have Facebook, since, as my dad will tell you, Mark Zuckerburg’s invention isn’t entirely ubiquitous just yet.

I’d like to make some acknowledgements. Firstly, I’d like to thank the NSF for funding this project and giving me the privilege of visiting Antarctica in the first place. Thanks to as many of the USAP personnel and McMurdo Staff as I can remember, and if I’ve forgotten anybody (I sincerely hope not) then consider this thanks to you, as well. In no particular order: Bija Sass and the other Berg Field Center Staff for keeping us fed and well-equipped; Jen Blum, our point of contact at McMurdo, for keeping us up to date; The Crary Science Center Staff for processing and storing the rocks we sent back; the Science Cargo workers for helping us palletize our samples; Lindsay Steinbauer and all of the USAP and Antarctica New Zealand helicopter pilots and technicians for keeping us mobile and making our day trips possible; the US Airforce pilots and staff who brought us to and from Antarctica; Genevieve Bachman and the other communications staff for helping us stay in contact with each other, MacOps, and the outside world; MacOps, for keeping an eye on us when we had, basically, vanished off the face of the earth; the Center for Polar Medical Operations doctors; the McMurdo kitchen staff for keeping us fed and content during our pre- and post-season days; last but not least, anybody and everybody who made surprise deliveries of pizza during helicopter visits, since the mere fact that it happened is something of a small miracle. I’d also like to thank Anna Cottle for keeping this blog up-and-running, my mom for outdoing herself by sending care packages to Antarctica, and to everybody who sent me mail; it was appreciated. Rob and Demian for being great field partners and for helping me out with both geology and mountaineering-related advice throughout the season. And lastly, I’d like to thank John Cottle for the experience, guidance, and know-how, for being patient with my endless questions, and for making this field season possible in the first place.

And…I suppose that’s it. Here’s to a good end to 2015 and a good 2016 for you all. Thanks for reading.

~Nick for the Antarctica360 team

IMG_0491Me at Rucker Ridge during our penultimate day trip (photo courtesy of Demian).

IMG_0504A final shot of Hidden Lake, our last campsite.

IMG_0528Demian has a patriotic moment during a post-season 5K race (I was content being the photographer)

IMG_0583One last picture…I swear I know how to smile, I promise.

 

 

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Coming out of the field

I am currently back in my apartment in Santa Barbara, enjoying a cup of coffee and cinnamon rolls on my couch, in the warm sunshine by the window. It has been strange adjusting to normal life again: sitting at my computer during the day, going to restaurants to eat, walking in the rain, actual darkness at night, driving cars, Xmas shopping, palm trees, and watching raccoons steal things out of the dumpster.

At the same time it is nice to be back. Being in the field with 3 other scientists means that you spend at least 50% of your daily conversations discussing each other’s research. Over the course of two months, with no access to internet or the computers/labs that contain our data, this lead to a frustrating buildup of ideas and curiosity that I could not follow up on until now.

For the next few months I am looking forward to my next campaign of labwork, writing, and spending time with my fiancée, but I think I will always miss the simplicity of our fieldwork in Antarctica as well as the sheer beauty of the landscape.

 

~Rob for the Antarctica360 team

Demian and Nick collecting one of our last samples.
Demian and Nick collecting one of our last samples.
Waiting for the Bell 212 to take us and our camp gear back to McMurdo station.
Waiting for the Bell 212 to take us and our camp gear back to McMurdo station.
Flying over the Ross Ice Shelf toward McMurdo station.
Flying over the Ross Ice Shelf toward McMurdo station.
Now approaching the height of summer, McMurdo is completely snow and ice free.
Now approaching the height of summer, McMurdo is completely snow and ice free.
A last view of Mt Erebus before boarding the LC-130 Hercules back to Christchurch.
A last view of Mt Erebus before boarding the LC-130 Hercules back to Christchurch.
A makeshift air-traffic-control tower at the ice runway.
A makeshift air-traffic-control tower at the ice runway.
The LC-130 “Hercules” that flew me back to Christchurch.
The LC-130 “Hercules” that flew me back to Christchurch.
Watching the sun set for the first time in two months.
Watching the sun set for the first time in two months.

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The Antarctic Summer

A wire-frame art ode to the killer whale, the namesake for Killer Ridge (which John and Demian visited) and probably what the seals in the last picture were hiding from. We saw no live ones, sadly.
A wire-frame art ode to the killer whale, the namesake for Killer Ridge (which John and Demian visited) and probably what the seals in the last picture were hiding from. We saw no live ones, sadly.

McMurdo Base is a very different place from when we left for the field, the most noticeable thing being that it’s about as dry as the Dry Valleys now: the snow is all gone. Two different trips to Hut Point Peninsula, one taken before and one after our time in the Dry Valleys, did a nice job of demonstrating the difference. The first time, I was bundled up in a wool hat and my ECW-issue parka, there was no sign of life, and it was so windy up near Vince’s Cross that my phone froze within seconds. This time, there was hardly any wind, I was able to pull out my phone (as a camera) with no trouble and had to shed down to a t-shirt at one point, and a large population of Weddell Seals had made it their new hang-out, giving me my first look at live members of the species whose mummified corpses had been an eerie fixture of our field season, as one of Rob’s posts will tell you.

It’s likely that I’ll leave Antarctica without ever seeing any penguins, though; the Emperor Penguin rookery filmed in March of the Penguins is in fact on the other side of Ross Island, not on the continent itself (as some people think), and there are a decent number of Adélie penguins on the island, too, but given the amount of ship traffic and the number of seals taking advantage of the pressure ridges and weakened sea ice around McMurdo, I’d imagine that they don’t especially like hanging around here. On the other hand, I’ve seen skuas aplenty; I came across one sitting in the trail as I was walking up it, completely unfazed and completely unafraid of my presence. There’s a reason that the disposal site for good but unwanted items at McMurdo (a handy system that gained me a new pair of pants once one of mine ripped) is called the “Skua Bin:” they steal from people largely because they have no fear of them, at this point. As I walked from Hut Point up towards the hills behind the base and eventually back down to it, I saw several more of them bathing themselves in the newly-melted ponds dotting the landscape.

 

 

 

Some of the Weddell seals enjoying a laze-about near Hut Point.
Some of the Weddell seals enjoying a laze-about near Hut Point.

The Dry Valleys themselves didn’t seem to change much over the course of the field season, feeling even more like a time capsule than I suggested in one of my earlier posts, although it did become noticeably balmier as time went along. The ice at the shore of Lake Buddha retreated from our camp along the shore, and Rob spotted several colonies of black, scraggly moss struggling to survive in semi-sheltered spots, the only plant or fungi besides the occasional crusty black lichen we ever saw. On our second-to-last day, I was hiking behind Rob on our return from the Altiplano, an elevated flatland similar to the South American region of the same name and laden with dikes, and passing a small lake located at a small mountain pass named “The Keyhole” for its shape and for the difficulty seeing it, except at a few angles , when I thought I saw him throwing his hat in the air. It turned out that there was a bird flying over his head, and that I was so used to the lack of animal life that I hadn’t immediately guessed what it was. It turned out to be a skua, wandering far afield, and when I later logged this into eBird (with my friend Carlos’ help) I learned that no skua had ever been logged this far south, some anecdotal accounts of their being seen at South Pole Station aside.

 

This wasn’t really an ornithology expedition, of course, and that was just a rather nice side product of a trip that’s otherwise had a pretty good yield, geology wise. Even as it got warmer, we had a streak of especially windy days during our last week, testing our resilience somewhat, yet for every bad, windy day, such as a trip to Renegar Glacier that yielded no samples whatsoever, we had days where the abundance of lamprophyres, the most we’d ever seen in one area, made up for what appeared to be the god Aeolus (of Odyssey fame) throwing a temper tantrum. Even as we approach the summer solstice, Antarctica is still Antarctica, and bad weather days will be ugly, but the scientific rewards make up for that.

~Nick for the Antarctica360 team

A very different and ice-free McMurdo base, taken from the Hut Point Trail.
A very different and ice-free McMurdo base, taken from the Hut Point Trail.
From Rucker Ridge, with Mt. Discovery visible in the background.
From Rucker Ridge, with Mt. Discovery visible in the background.

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Camping, Antarctica-style

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

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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

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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

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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)

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A day in the life of an Antarctic field geologist

image1 (3)
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.

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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

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Alone on Mars

image3
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.

 

image1
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

image2
John takes shelter in an ancient ventriform.

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