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Lake Fryxell Camp, Taylor Valley, Antarctica

by Peter Smith

December 25, 2007 -
Over the last 2 days our research group has finally assembled in this remote valley, one of a series of aptly named dry valleys in this otherwise icy continent.  The sidewalls of this U-shaped, glacial valley are invaded by glaciers flowing down from the surrounding ridges.  We are housed between the Commonwealth and the Canada glaciers, about 4-5 miles apart, next to an ice-covered lake fed by the melt waters of these two masses of ice.

These 2 tongues of ice are terminated by sheer walls: 20 meters in height.  Chris McKay explains that until the ice is 20 m thick it cannot exert the pressure on the surface that allows it to move down the hill.  Unlike the glaciers that I am used to in the upper US, many of these glacier are dry based and do not push moraines ahead of them as they move.  Instead they advance and retreat without disturbing the surface at all.

Regularly punctuated by waterfalls bringing the melt water from the upper surface, streams form to bring the melt into the lake.  The streams are swampy and form a nasty quicksand that makes the stream crossings an ordeal.  One hops from rock to rock and a misstep leaves you half way to the knee in soft mud.

This is the warmest leg of our trip.  Temperatures are above freezing and the only unpleasantness comes from the strong winds.  However, the agencies supporting our trip have made sure that we have the proper gear to stay warm and survive under even the worst conditions.  We have a check in time of 8 am each day to report our health and safety to McMurdo's control center.

This camp is well provisioned and plush in comparison to what we may expect next week at Beacon Valley.  A Quonset hut, called a James Way, is furnished with a kitchen including 2 refrigerators!?, a gas stove and a microwave.  Water comes from the lake and is filtered for drinking.  The rest of the hut is used for desk space so that the scientists can work on their computers using the wireless internet connection.  We also have a phone and a radio for comms.

Sleeping arrangements are found in the small tent city that surrounds the main hut.  For laboratory space, five very small buildings are lined up each dedicated to a different discipline.  For instance, there is the chemistry lab and the electronics lab but the radiation lab we are told not to enter.  The building on the end houses a generator; this has not been used since a large solar panel easily supplies all our energy needs.

Our group is designated as G431 and, besides myself, consists of 4 scientists from the Phoenix team: Chris McKay (NASA Ames, Sunnyvale, CA), Doug Ming (NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX), Sam Kounaves (Tufts University, Boston, MA), and Aaron Zent (NASA Ames).  Our Principal Investigator for the International Polar Year (IPY) experiment is Leslie Tamppari (Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, CA).  She is also the Project Scientist for the Phoenix mission.  However, she is now 7 months pregnant and not allowed by policy to come to Antarctica.  For this reason, she chose a geo-micro-biologist, Suzanne Douglass (JPL), to take her place in the field.

Another research group is sharing the facility with us this season: designated B423, consists of Ross Virginia and his student, Elizabeth Traver, from Dartmouth in New Hampshire.  Elizabeth is simply known as ET around the camp.  She worked for several years as part of the support staff at McMurdo supplying equipment to the field workers.

Their research is on the bacterial mats that are found under the lake and in moist areas of the valleys.  These are the native lifeforms in this remote cold location.  There are no insects, no large animals, no large plants, and only an occasional bird, the Skua. The master of the valley is the nematode, a tiny worm-like creature that rules the bacterial mats like the buffalo once dominated the central plains.

McMurdo is an unusual village at the southernmost land accessible by ship.  Its purpose is to support and govern the US research teams as they pursue every imaginable type of investigation into the Antarctic environment and biology.  A refreshing aspect of their stewardship is that they also support artists and writers on projects related in some way to the Antarctic.  Typically, in the summer season there are 1200 souls in residence with about 800 support staff.  These are popular positions; although the work is hard, the pay is low, and conditions can be brutal, there is a wonderful camaraderie with your mates and the sense of being in a frontier town.

"Established in 1956, it has grown from an outpost of a few buildings to a complex logistics staging facility of more than 100 structures including a harbor, an outlying airport (Williams Field) with landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad. The station takes its name from McMurdo Sound which James Clark Ross named in 1841 after Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo of the ship Terror."

Getting to Fryxell was an ordeal.  Long before the trip started there were visits to a series of doctors to undergo medical procedures leading to an evaluation with the goal of becoming PQ, physically qualified.  For many, this is the most intensive physical exam they have ever had.  Only when the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency that funds all US Antarctic research, knows that you are PQ will they make the travel arrangements for you.  Obtaining this status on Dec. 13, I had to take a longer route than most of the science team; fortunately, Aaron was in the same predicament so that we traveled on the same itinerary.

A Quantas/American Airlines flight took us from LAX to Sydney, a 15-hour flight.  A quick transfer put us on the flight to Christchurch, NZ; total travel time is about 20 hours.  This town calls itself the garden city and has one of the most beautiful and diverse botanical gardens that I have ever seen.  The enormous trees are testimony to the long history of the gardens; I saw an incredible range from Eucalyptus to Douglass Fir to Sequoia and marvelous specimens.  There are several greenhouses with the more delicate plants: ferns, cactus, rain forest species.  But the joy of wandering through the paths winding around ponds and meadows is like a trip to Shangri-la.  So many of these plants are entirely unknown in the northern hemisphere and astounding in their diversity.  Quite a contrast to the Antarctic valleys we are soon to visit.

Two days are required before leaving to the South.  First, all visitors must be outfitted.  A broad range of cold weather gear is stocked at a facility just across from the airport and next to a public Antarctic exhibit hall.  Depending on your destination, the personnel choose a wardrobe to meet your needs.  The last line of protection is a monster jacket called, affectionately, "Big Red."  All the gear is fitted and packed into two large orange sacks.

The Christmas season had changed the flight schedule from early morning to late night, this to accommodate travelers' desires to be home before the 25th.  For me, it meant an extra day to explore Christchurch from my base at the Croydon House B&B.  Within a block is a modern building housing the local art collection.  After seeing the collection, I watched a group of students put on a Christmas show in the lobby.  They sang songs from the local Maori tribe and their voices amplified and reflected off the huge glass fa├žade fronting the museum.  These earnest youngsters represent the future and their energy was contagious, I left with teary eyes and a lofty spirit.

At 5:30 p.m. a group from Croydon boarded the taxi to the airport and began the processing needed to get us off by 9 p.m.  Everyone is required to wear their cold weather gear during the flight in the C-17 cargo plane.  The passengers sit along each side of the fuselage surrounding the pallets containing the supplies for McMurdo.  These are not comfortable seats; we are part of the cargo.  The inside of the C-17 is large enough for two semis to sit very comfortably and is loaded from a ramp that folds down under the tail.  Time progressed slowly as more cargo was loaded, eventually we could feel the plane taxi and take off.

I spent the next 5 hours absorbed in Ken Follett's book "The Pillars of the Earth," a 12th century tale about a prior who builds a great cathedral and a dramatic story of the difficulties that he faces and the characters that attempt to defeat his holy construction.  It is the best story that I have read about the difficult lives of the common folk in medieval times.  A few hours into the flight someone motioned me to join him at the window and there was the first view of the ice-covered mountains: rugged and untamed.  The cloudless sky gave visibility to distant ranges and glaciers making their striated paths down to lower valleys to join even large glaciers on their way to the sea.  A beautiful sight.

We landed on the McMurdo ice shelf about 3 am and boarded "Ivan the Terra" bus with tires as tall as I and about a yard wide.  Off we went following red flags spaced about 10 yards apart and driven by a young girl who looked completely out of place driving such a huge vehicle.  Well wouldn't you know that after about half an hour of following flags we came slowly to a standstill as the tires mired in a soft spot in the ice.  Despite their huge size they had dug a deep trench on the back rear side and no amount of gearing could loosen them.  We waited.

Eventually, a tractor came along to pull us out.  First, it tried the frontal approach as the driver spun the wheels—the tractor strained but only managed to lose its own traction and shift sideways.  Then the lady driving the tractor tried the opposite tact and attached to the rear and pulled.  Again, nothing happened.  We all left the bus and dug out all the ice we could from behind the tires.  The tractor made a last great effort, but we were stuck fast.  Again, we waited.  Aaron looked desperately tired and certainly I mirrored his expression.

Our hopes returned when two "deltas" arrived to take us to McMurdo.  These are two part vehicles with a cab in front and a sitting room on the back wheels that holds about 14 people.  The wheels are just as large as Ivan's and susceptible to the same dangers.  However, our troubles were over and we arrived at the chalet for our briefing at 6 am.  In a daze we learned about all the regulations and protocols that would be important during our stay.  There were no questions.  Finally, Aaron and I found our room with 3 bunk beds and crashed.  There was no time for sleeping though since "happy camper" school started at 9 am.

Survival training is required for anyone who wishes or needs to go out in the field.  It covers all types of difficult situations that could present a life-threatening situation.  Also, there is a familiarization session to help newcomers understand the procedures that are expected to be followed to protect the environment and maintain communications with the officers responsible for the safety of all visitors.  Safety comes first in this harsh climate; there are many horror stories about what can happen if rules aren't obeyed.

Later in the day a delta arrived to take the 13 happy campers to the ice where we would spend the night under the watchful eyes of Danny Uhlmann, a skier and mountaineer with years of experience.  Several cabins are arranged on the ice shelf, not to worry the ice is hundreds of feet thick here.  One is for instruction and the other two house equipment.  After some lessons in how to run a camp stove, we loaded up sleeping gear, tents, shovels, and saws onto sleds and hiked a mile or so to our camping area.  Now I should point out that the weather was not sunny and warm, quite the opposite.  The wind was blowing at 25 mph and the temperature was well below freezing.  Not a fit day for man or beast.  We should have been marching toward the hospitality center with a fire and refreshments near to hand.

Nevertheless, with Danny's help we raised two Scott tents, shaped like pyramids, and two mountaineering tents.  Then he taught us how to make an ice house by stacking our sleeping gear into a big mound, covering it with a tarp, and shoveling a big pile of snow on top.  Let the snow set for a half an hour or so, then dig an entry tunnel into the bottom and remove the gear, bag by bag.  A properly constructed ice shelter is warm, silent and protects from wind.  The key here is to keep the entry below the sleeping floor so that the heat doesn't leak out.  Remember that heat rises and your body produces it.

Because of the fierce wind, we built walls from snow bricks to shield the mountain tents.  Snow bricks are easily made from cohesive snow by using the snow saw to cut rectangular shapes about 10" deep, then popping them out with the shovel.  If you make them too large they become heavy and hard to move.  Bricks are easily shaped using the saw to give a snug fit along the wall, just don't leave chinks because the wind is relentless.

The quarry where the bricks are made can be deepened into trenches for sleeping and two of our group elected to sleep in their own trenches.  Various forms were tried, but the one that works best is to dig a hole exactly the size of your body, or even a little smaller, then at a depth of 3 feet open out a larger area to give adequate room for sleeping and gear.  The top of the trench is covered with long snow bricks to hold in heat and keep out the wind.  The last brick is kept just to the side like a door to cover you in.  For this reason we referred to this portion of the campsite as the cemetery.

Food was hot water poured into the bag of a freeze-dried meal, mine was beef stroganoff; these are for fuel purposes only and don't look at the expired date on the bag.  I also slept in the Scott tent, fairly comfortable actually, and prayed for better weather the next day.  My prayers were not answered and even after a day in Antarctica, I had not seen anything but whiteness—looking down and looking up were the same.  We broke down camp as soon as possible, no one wished to linger, and walked back to the 3 buildings to put away our gear and endure further instruction.

Now was time to learn about radios and communications.  There is a very sophisticated radio network set up around McMurdo; hand held VHF radios can communicate along line of sight or through repeaters on various mountain peaks.  The HF radios can bounce their signals off the ionosphere and follow the curvature of the Earth; we chose to call the South Pole 1000 miles away and ask how everyone was doing.  Things were going well at the pole.  We seemed ahead of schedule when Danny dropped a bomb on us.

What would you do if one of the team went out to the crapper, then a strong wind blew snow to the point where visibility was near zero?  How would you organize a search?  To test us on this point and emphasize the seriousness of the situation, each of us was to wear a white bucket over our head and, using only a rope, devise a search strategy with a high probability of finding our lost team member.  So, for 20 min we walked aimlessly around holding a rope tied to the door of the hut until we blundered into Danny lying on the ground near the crapper.  Unfortunately, the person who found him did so by stepping on Danny's head.  A very poor rescue technique and points deducted.

The next half a day before leaving in our helo is a blur of packing and preparations.  Finally, Aaron and I boarded with our helmets and gear; Aaron was gracious enough to allow me to take the front seat next to the pilot.  Soon we were airborne and over the sea ice heading west along the coast.  McMurdo is actually on an island just to the south of Mt.Erebus, the active volcano.  To the east of Erebus is Mt. Terror, named after McMurdo's ship.  Luckily we were traveling on a beautiful, clear day and visibility was excellent so that I could finally see the famous mountain.

Our pilot noticed that I was interested in an iceberg in the middle of the bay and we went straight toward it.  Gauging its height with the altimeter we measured it at 100' above the water with a flat top and sheer sides.  We're told that it came from B-15, a monstrous iceberg that broke off the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000, of which I'll have more to say at a future time.  As we flew by its vertical face, he made a quick turn and within a minute we had landed on top of the berg.  "Now you can say that you've been on top of an iceberg," he said as we took off again.

Zooming low to the ground into Taylor Valley we passed Explorer's Cove and the Commonwealth Glacier.  The ground here is fractured into polygonal patterns very similar to the polar regions on Mars.  This is what has brought us here and will keep our small science team occupied for the rest of the journey.  The scientific venture will wait for a future blog, because today is Christmas.

The joy of the season became obvious shortly after we landed.  Another helo rapidly approached as we were organizing our gear and landed nearby our helo.  Out jumped 5 Santas and 2 elves bringing gifts of food and good cheer.  They sang a few songs before going off to visit several other camps.  An opportunity to get away from McMurdo is deeply appreciated by the staff even if they have to dress in Santa clothes.

Today Doug has taken charge of the Christmas dinner.  He brought a 12# turkey from McMurdo along with powdered mashed potatoes and biscuits that he made this morning.  ET put together an apple pie and we have eggnog and wine.  Doug has been busy today.  He put on waterproof boots and waded across the moat to the thick lake ice to rescue an ATV that was sinking.  Then he repaired the trenches that were dug over the last few days so that you cannot tell that they were ever there.  And he has been analyzing samples in his small lab using an instrument that is a copy of ChemMin, an instrument to fly on the Mars Science Lander due to launch in 2009.

The weather is closing in and winds are increasing in speed as the temperature drops.  It looks like we will socked in tonight as we sit around the dinner table and enjoy our turkey and finish it off with some apple pie.  Life is good on the Antarctic continent, the only thing lacking is family and friends.  And they are sorely missed.

Merry Christmas from our small group in Antarctica, may each of you readers have a wonderful and love-filled holiday.