Update #9

Our last day at Terra Nova was exciting, and started very early. I woke to find Steve standing next to my bunk at 5:00 AM; telling me that if we wanted to try for Cape Adare, we had to leave in one hour. In my sleep-drugged state, I struggled to comprehend how he got this information, and why we were leaving so early. We had heard a rumor late in the previous evening that a Russian fishing ship had called from the Ross Sea requesting a rescue for an injured sailor. It turned out that it had been a very busy night in the Operations room at Terra Nova, as the Italians had notified the U.S. Coast Guard in McMurdo and were told that the Russians were out of their jurisdiction, and they would not respond. The Italians had decided to mount their own rescue mission, and we were going to dovetail with this mission in a final attempt to get to Cape Adare. Attilo, the other meteorologist, had come into the bunkroom to tell Steve, and he was waking us up to get moving. We slipped quietly out of the bunkhouse; the sounds of our preparations masked by the loud snores of our 12 roomates.

The rescue mission involved one Twin Otter and two helicopters. The Russian ship was currently near Cape Hallett, and the rendezvous would occur there. Helicopters cannot fly as far as Hallett or Adare without a second ship to accompany them in case of trouble so far from base. And helos would be needed to transport the sailor from a boat landing near Cape Hallett to the Twin Otter at the ice runway on the fast ice at the back of the bay. So we would fly with Jim and Dave in the Twin Otter to the Hallett ice runway while the helos flew to the coast to await arrival of the Russian ship. Then the injured sailor would be loaded into a helicopter and flown to the Twin Otter for transport to McMurdo and then to Christchurch. Once the rescue was over, we would try for Cape Adare with the second helo at Hallett for backup. It was a complicated plan with a lot of expensive machinery in the mix.

Umberto drove us to the airstrip, and we loaded into the Twin Otter with an Italian team that extracts ice wedges from the margins of polygons to study the old ice, as their work would also dovetail with the rescue mission. The flight to Cape Hallett lasted about 50 minutes, and as we circled out over the ocean to set up for landing we got this great view of Cape Hallett and a quick glimpse of the Russian ship. After landing, we waited on the ice runway catching snatches of the story behind the rescue, and hearing sketchy details of what was going on. The sailor was injured in a vodka-fueled fight, and had been hit in the head with a hammer. We learned that the ship had been heading away from Cape Hallett this morning, as their knowledge of the Ross Sea was poor and they probably had out-of-date navigation charts. A key question still remains: what was a Russian fishing ship doing in protected waters of the Antarctic? After being notified by the helicopter the correct course to follow, they slowly were working their way through pack ice to reach a place they could safely launch a Zodiac to send the sailor ashore. This activity was slowed by the fact that this ship was not an “ice-class” vessel, and had to very carefully choose its route. While waiting near the plane, a loud boom followed a serac collapse on a nearby wall, and I shot a quick picture of the settling ice particles.

While Bob was flying to monitor the progress of the ship, Dave brought the other helo over and flew the Italian team to a site to begin their work. Shortly thereafter he returned to pick us up for our Adare attempt. We flew first to the Kiwi camp at Cape Hallett, both to be in a back-up position for Bob during the rescue, and to check whether the Kiwis had a survival bag we could borrow. We only had one three-person survival bag along, and Dave wanted to make sure we knew that and accepted the risk if something went wrong. When we got to Hallett, we learned that the sailor had made it ashore and been checked out by the Terra Nova doctor. He was conscious and alert, but had a dent in his head and trouble moving one side of his body. He definitely needed the rescue that was taking place. Bob flew him to the Otter, he was loaded up and shortly airborne for McMurdo. We learned later from Jim that the Coast Guard made a big scene at Pegasus, the McMurdo ice runway, and held up a C-141 flight to transport the sailor to Christchurch. But their only real involvement was to fly his passport to McMurdo and back to make a Xerox copy of it. He was flown to Christchurch, and within less than 24 hours of his injury in the Ross Sea he was in a hospital in New Zealand, the result of a pretty amazing effort by a bunch of very skilled and caring folks.

Now, with Bob available to stand by at Hallett as our backup, we were ready to try flying to Cape Adare with Dave. We borrowed another survival bag and took off, heading north. A steep climb took us out of the Edisto Inlet, over a ridge at the very end of the Admiralty Mountains, and onto the Moubray Glacier. Dave called Terra Nova to enquire about the fuel depot at Cape Adare, and was informed that there were 9 full barrels of fuel. High clouds obscured the sky, but other than flat light, visibility was clear on the ground and we had high hopes. As we flew up the glacier, I shot this photo of beautifully folded rock layers on Mount Ruegg. We flew through Adare Saddle, and as the long skinny final peninsula of Cape Adare came into view our hearts fell. Thick clouds obscured the entire 20 mile-long promontory, and although one tiny hole was visible Dave pointed out that if we dropped down through it we would be trapped when it closed. Our best and last attempt on Adare had failed, but not through lack of effort. As we wheeled around for a final look, we flew out over the dramatic Downshire Cliffs above the sea on the eastern side of the peninsula. Dave swung around again because the view was so dramatic, and he mentioned that although we were only just above the edge, we were at 7000 feet in elevation, so this sea cliff is more than a mile high!

We asked if we could return to Hallett via the coastline, so we could scout for abandoned colonies and get a look at Possession Island, where a modern colony exists. Dave agreed, but needed to refuel to take this longer route. We skimmed back across the summit of the peninsula, and Dave pointed out how hard it was to determine your altitude visually when the light was so flat. The glacier below us could be 200 feet down, or 20, you really couldn’t tell. The fuel depot was on a small, exposed hill in the saddle, and Dave wheeled around for a look. One red barrel was visible on the hill, but no more. As we set down, Steve and I studied the strange shapes we spotted far out in the snowfield below, and with Steve’s binoculars we confirmed that these were the other fuel barrels. They had blown off the hill and at least half a kilometer away across the snowfield- 5 clustered in one area, and one far off to the west. Steve joked that this would be a nice place to camp, as the winds must not be too bad! We got this view of the craggy coastline west of Cape Adare as Dave refueled the ship in this bleak spot, and then we took off again for the coast. The coastline itself was composed of either steep cliffs or glacial tongues, so no possible sites exist. But Possession Island and Foyn Island were visible across a stretch of open water and we could make out modern colonies as well as hummocky terrain above them that could contain old sites. Like Cape Adare, these islands would require extraordinary efforts to reach them and work on them, and they will have to be saved for later. As we headed back to Hallett, I was once again impressed by the fractal patterns created by pack ice.

Landing again at Cape Hallett, we were invited into the Kiwi kitchen hut for some coffee. They are working on remediation of the old U.S. base and conducting some vegetation studies, so Jurek had much to discuss with one of the world’s leading polar bryologists, Rod Seppelt, whom he had met briefly during his transit to Cape Hallett. The Kiwi hut was warm and cozy, and we learned that this design snaps together without tools, and goes up in only a little over an hour. We had time while the Italian team finished their work to do a bit more survey around Cape Hallett. The colony itself was much smaller than it had been weeks earlier, with most of the adults gone and chicks in crèches guarded by the remaining mature birds. Many adults had returned to the colony to molt, and this one was a perfect penguin imitation of Beethoven. We also spotted this deformed Adélie with a crossed-bill, most unusual since this was an adult bird in molt implying that the deformity did not prohibit his feeding. While surveying the beach line, Steve spotted a profile of the seaward mounds that had been exposed by wave erosion. This profile showed distinct breaks between occupations with deposits of beach sands, possibly the result of storm episodes. Steve exposed two of these profiles, and sampled egg shell fragments from the very bottom to use in radiocarbon dating to determine the age of this colony. On the way back to the helo I spotted this bright orange lichen, an endemic named Xantheria mawsonii, growing among rocks on a nearby slope.

Shortly before 3:00 PM, Bob took off to pick up the Italian cryologists, and Dave cranked up the Squirrel for the long ride home. The views during the flight were fantastic, and I could hardly decide which way to point the camera. We flew past rugged peaks and massive glaciers and icefalls, almost all of which has never seen human footprints. Dave needed to refuel again en route, and the Mariner Glacier fuel depot felt like the end of the earth. A little over 2 hours of flying got us back to Terra Nova and our last good meal. At 11:00 AM the next day our Twin Otter from McMurdo arrived, and we flew back down the Ross Sea to the base, now recognizing most of the landmarks along the coastline that are visible from the plane having visited so many of them. We are currently in an overcrowded McMurdo, watching bad movies and eating second-rate food, but we may get a chance to visit Cape Royds tomorrow to search for some abandoned colonies that Steve only recently learned about. If so, I will write another update that will probably do it for this field season.

Cheers, Larry

On to Update #10

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