Sunday, January 16, 2005

And the next day (Friday) the fog lifted, and the snow stopped, although once again it was not starting out to be a glorious day as we headed for Beaufort Isand. We loaded up the HH-165 again, this time with pilot Greg and crew chief Matt. The Coast Guard works a day-on day-off schedule, that Wendy later told me makes her feel that she is starting the week all over again each time she flies. I again rode in the copilots chair to take another look at the traverse to the south end of the island, our plan for a third day out here if we get the chance. Greg set us down on the tip of the glacier at our landing zone, and lifted off for his return to McMurdo. The plan for today was to excavate a full-depth test pit into one of the large mounds on the terrace. These mounds are especially interesting because they appear to be emerging from under the glacier as it retreats, indicating that the colony may have been established during a warmer period (recession phase), then a colder period allowed the glacier to advance over the terrace and engulf the mounds. Finally, with warmer conditions once again the glacier is now retreating and exposing these abandoned sites. The most interesting part is that the sites appear undisturbed by the advance/ recession cycle, pointing out the fact that older sites (like Cape Hickey) can be preserved even after long burial by ice. I probed around at the flank of the glacier to convince myself that the sites were really emerging from beneath the ice (they were), and we set up a test pit in the middle of the largest mound. I later put on crampons and climbed to the top of the glacier to get this shot of the setting of this abandoned Adelie colony.

The test pit went to 5 levels before encountering permafrost. Unfortunately, the sediments were still ornithogenic at this level, so Steve was not able to excavate to the full depth of the deposit. We were only able to dry screen the topmost and driest level. After that, the sediments were too wet, forcing us to carry the bags of unscreened sediments from the site to helicopter landing site, a distance of about a kilometer. This meant another delightful exercise in man hauling- lugging 25 kg packs of rocks and sediments down the cobble-covered beach and up the glacier. Stephen especially enjoyed this exercise, as apparently skua can sense when people are afraid of them (and Stephen is), and so torment him relentlessly during his down and back journeys. He got this great shot of a skua homing in for the kill, and another managed a perfect guano dive-bombing run that spattered his bibs and hat with odiferous goo. While we excavated, Jurek returned to his vegetation survey and sampling on the steep slopes heading up to the summit of the island along the edge of the glacier. I could tell that the views of Iceberg B15K and off to the east of the island would be spectacular from there, so after making three sediment bag laps, I headed up the slopes to check out the vantage point. The view was fantastic, as the height allowed me to look across B15K and see open water beyond, plus the precipitous cliffs falling into the sea and the newly calved chunks (closeup view) of B15K were immediately below. It is quite a spot, and has probably only been visited by humans a handful of times at most. The view of the colony terrace was great as well, clearly showing the sites emerging from under the retreating glacier.

When I returned, Steve had backfilled the test pit and was packing up to go. As I carried the last sediment bag down the terrace and then the beach, I admired the spectacular home the skua enjoy, and almost walked into a young Weddell seal sunning him/herself on the beach. After carrying the sediments to the pickup, I investigated the traverse around to the southern tip of the island. This would require a cramponed traverse right at the sea ice/ glacial boundary. The situation reminded me of an icy version of a Grand Canyon route, where a scruffy, 10 m high band of rock forces you to traverse for miles to gain height. In this case, we would have to work our way along the vertical base of the glacier’s flank on uneven (and missing) patches of the remnants of sea ice. It looked possible, but would require meticulous route finding. And a short bit could stop us in our tracks, but nonetheless we planned to try.

Greg came to pick us up right on time, and joked that he could carry our heavy sediment bags home, but only if two of us stayed behind. He did feel the ship was very heavy at liftoff, and so decided to burn off some fuel on the way back to McMurdo to make it lighter for landing. We flew around the south end of the island and got a great view of the setting for the big Adelie colony, then headed out to the east to look at the big bergs that are again on the move. The southern and eastern end of B15K is grounded in shallow water offshore of Beaufort Island, and C16 has begun to drift westward towards Beaufort. This could create major problems for McMurdo, as the ship channel the icebreaker forced through the sea ice to McMurdo enters through this gap, and the re-supply ships that are due in are not icebreakers, so cannot risk an iceberg-clogged route. It will be interesting to see what develops with all the colliding icebergs. On the way back to McMurdo we flew along the ship channel looking for whales, as Greg had seen several on his way out. But except for a few glimpses of ripples in the water, I didn’t see any, but Steve saw several from the back seat. Unfortunately his comm-switch wasn’t working so he couldn’t tell us! We flew past Castle Rock and on to McMurdo, landing at the upper helo pad in short order to find a truck already waiting for our sample bags, and our second field day was done.

Saturday began clear but with a brisk southern wind gusting to a dozen knots. As we waited for the signal from Wendy to board the ship and ominous sign appeared in the form of tendrils of fog wisping around Observation Hill above us in an otherwise clear sky. Wendy was wearing her exposure suit today, as her mission after our drop-off on Beaufort was to fly up past Franklin Island and rendezvous with the icebreaker Nathan Palmer in the northern Ross Sea to drop off some cargo, a flight over long stretches of open water. These suits are very fancy versions of the dry suits we use for canyoneering, with heavily coated nylon inside and tight fitting latex cuffs at the ankles, wrists, and neck. I can only imagine how uncomfortable these things must be to spend a day flying in. As we launched and headed north, it quickly became apparent the day was anything but clear. The fog thickened around the Erebus Ice Tongue, and by Cape Royds was almost unbroken, with only the summit of Mount Erebus, Bird, and Terror sticking up out of a sea of gray. My stomach clenched as we headed north, although Wendy was comfortable. She said that we had plenty of fuel and we could fly up to Beaufort and see what conditions were there. I kept pondering what an emergency landing would be in such conditions- you would have to drop down into the fog bank hoping it would clear so you could pick a landing site- not fun at all. When Wendy’s radar showed us Beaufort Island below us, not a bit of the island protruded above the clouds, so we banked around for a return to Cape Royds, our Plan B. Wendy hadn’t landed there before, so I had to show her the helo pad and we dropped down through broken clouds to land at Cape Royds. A large work crew was there, with a pile of survival bags, so Wendy suggested that we not unload ours and I concurred, a snap decision that almost came to haunt us later. It is easy to become complacent when visiting sites that seem so close by and accessible after Beaufort Island, but I should have considered the fact that David Ainley had just spent 9 stormbound days here last week, unable to fly to McMurdo. We waved goodbye and watched Wendy lift the Dolphin bound for McMurdo.

It took us some time to relocate the large abandoned site we found at the end of last season. The greater Cape Royds region is a maze of volcanic hills and valleys, bisected by nondescript ridgelines, and since we weren’t really planning to go there we didn’t have the GPS coordinates with us for the site. Eventually we did remember that it was just past Clear Lake, and after about an hour of searching we found it. Steve set up the test pit, and we started digging as the fog thickened and the temps grew chillier. Again we only able to dry screen the top level, so we loaded sediment bags from the subsequent two levels, aware that they would likely not get picked up today. The fog added an eerie feel to the scene, and I wandered a bit around the shoreline snapping some photos of the sea cliffs and found this diminutive humerus of a seal lying on the beach. Whales could be heard blowing what sounded to be close by, but I know from earlier visits that sound carries tremendous distances here so they were probably farther away in the fog. When the first pit bottomed out, we packed up and headed a few hundred meters south, past Clear Lake to dig a second pit. This one was even shallower and went only two levels. We humped the sediments back to Site One, packed up our gear and headed back to the helo pad to see what our chances were of getting picked up. I was not optimistic as the fog was by now very thick, and the tops of the higher ridges extended well into it. While we walked I was struck once again by the juxtaposition between the large granite erratics scattered across the dark volcanic hillsides.

When we arrived back at the helo pad, the work crew was assembling items for pickup by helicopter. We met the crew and found that they were there to take water samples from Pony Lake, the freshwater pond adjacent to Shackleton's Hut and the Cape Royds Adélie Colony, to the tune of three 50 gallon drums they had filled by carrying 5 gallon containers over from the lake! Antarctic researchers have to be ready to do a lot of physical labor in many circumstances. It turned out they had the key to the hut and so we were able to show Stephen around for a few minutes while we waited to hear from Helo Ops. I showed him Shackleton's signature, and this time I puzzled over this contraption above the front door, having noticed it before but never tried to puzzle out what its function was- water heater? –some sort of still? When we returned to the helo pad were heard the Coast Guard Dolphin fly by from up north. Shortly afterward we heard from Helo Ops that they considered the cape too foggy for landing, but that Wendy was standing by to pick us up if conditions improved. This was not cheery news, as conditions did not appear to be getting better. Our situation wasn’t dire, as David Ainley was still here with a well-stocked camp and we learned that they had some extra survival bags so we would have sleeping gear, but our schedule could be affected if we couldn’t return to McMurdo until Monday (helos don’t fly on Sundays!). But the sound of an approaching Bell-212 ended my musings of complications. Rob, the Kiwi pilot who we met our first season when he picked us up from Cape Roberts was trying to fly in to pick up the loads from the Pony Lake team. Rob has been flying down here for years, and knows the terrain well, so after a couple of passes above us, found a hole through the fog and dropped below the ceiling to land at the pad. He offered the field crew their choice of flying out now or waiting until he took the sling load of water back and risk being marooned if he couldn’t get back in. Being good researchers, the team chose the samples, the helo-tech attached the sling load, and Rob was away. I contacted Helo Ops to advise them to have Rob talk to Wendy about conditions, and perhaps she would consider giving our pickup another go. But as we waited the fog thickened again, and I once again grew pessimistic. We heard Rob’s ship return and begin to orbit above the fog, but after four passes with no success I began to think we for sure wouldn’t make it out- if Rob couldn’t make it in here then no one else would. But my pessimism was premature, as soon the Bell could be heard slowing for landing and the outline of the ship emerged from the fog. As soon as he idled down to load the field crew, I could hear the sound of the Dolphin above us, and at that very moment the biggest blue hole we had seen all day appeared directly above us, to reveal the sight of Wendy in the Dolphin dropping down into the hole. I worried briefly about two ships both needing one helo pad, but it was clear they were well coordinated with Rob just finishing loading his passengers as Wendy hovered downwind. Rob launched, and Wendy set the Dolphin down for our pickup. As soon as I had comms, I thanked her sincerely for her persistence in getting to us, as she easily could have abandoned the effort in these conditions. She told me she wouldn’t have done it without Rob’s expertise, she couldn’t believe it when she saw him dropping down in the fog, but when it cleared for a moment she saw he was right on target so she followed. As she put it, in the military they have strict rules about fog and flying not mixing, but Antarctic conditions may require a bit of bending of the rules. She also told me they made their rendezvous with the Nathan Palmer, as she managed to do it on one tank of gas and did not need to stop on Franklin Island for a refuel. She confirmed our decision to forgo Beaufort Island as she could only see a narrow strip of the peak; the landing zone was fog shrouded and the summit was in clouds. We zipped back to McMurdo and were on the ground in minutes, our adventure done for the time being.

Today, Steve and Stephen are washing the sediments from Beaufort Island, and the plan calls for us to depart for the Italian station either tomorrow or Tuesday, depending upon the Twin Otter schedule. If on Tuesday, there will be one more chance to try for Beaufort, or at a least return to Royds to pick up the sediments. However, I learned some very sad news from home that may cause me to end my trip and head home next week. I’m not sure at this point this is even possible, but I will know more when Operations opens up tomorrow. This is the first time that I have ever felt the great distance separating Antarctica from my life back home.

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