Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Golf Bag Full of Snow

Yesterday, Cece, an expert mountaineer and I were dropped off at 10 am above the two icefalls of the Canada Glacier in the accumulation zone- (where snow is present, not bare ice). We landed in the white plains nestled between the Taylor Valley (camp) and Newall Glacier to the north. We started digging my 1 meter sampling snow pit, and immediately hit ice. Hard, resistant ice- possibly indicating refrozen melt--- I've seen these melt lenses in Alaska before, and they can usually be penetrated revealing a deeper snow layer. But after strenously chopping with ice axes for a half hour, frustrated I decided, it was a poor sampling site. Adjusting our plan, we radioed MacOps (logistical support) for permission to move our site north, uphill, to a better sampling location. With the ok,we roped up, put crampons on, and hauled the gear to a nearby site (pictured above)- I belayed Cece 50 feet ahead of me, and then followed her trail both of us probing for crevasses.
Before resuming digging, we spent time ensuring the new area- just a half a kilometer uphill was safe. Then we dug. After 20 cm we hit hard snow--- (dense glacier firn), We alternated between breaking this layer up with ice axes and shoveling out the pieces. By 1:30, after eating 3000 calories apiece and drinking water and a thermo of mocha we confirmed that the hard firn was acceptable to sample by relaying through Mac Ops to Berry Lyons (my advisor who had just arrived at Lake Hoare). We also extended our flyout time until 9 pm--- to insure enough sampling time. The clouds continued to migrate across the peaks, occasionally, socking us in--- (this happened intermittantly throughout the day- very unpredictableable). ---We had a survival bag and plenty of clothes and fuel and were prepared to set up camp if we had too. (I was happy to have the extra sampling time, even at with the prospect of spending the night on the accumulation zone). (I am smiling below after our samplings is complete-even with the weather not looking flyable).

Sampling went slowly (it took twice as long to sample the trace metal samples as it did at Mount Hood)- We finished the trace metal samples by 5 (including some mercury samples for Becki), took a quick refuel break, and continued to take Boron and Li samples (rare earth elements indicative of large-scale continental weathering), major ions (dissolved rocks) samples. We then took nutrient samples for Tree, a scientist and colleague of Berry and Anne's (OSU geology professor, Berry's wife) who may soon be the first person from Taiwan in Antarctica. We finished all sampling by 8. Packed up and consolidated our gear waiting for the helicopter (we were ready by 8:45- smiling happily at a job well-done).

Throughout the day the weather changed seemingly every half hour, with light snow during half of our sampling. Mentally we prepared to break open our survival bag and set up camp in this remote plain. However, by the time of our flight, the weather was calm although flat light- but you could easily make out all of the peaks surrounding us.

At 9, the helicopter attempted to land adjacent to us --- snow flew up engulfing it- and although it was very close, you could not see it. Eerily masked by the loose fresh snowfall. The whir of propellors and churn of snow the only evidence of its existence. The pilot attempted a few locations nearby, too no avail- we radioed the pilot we were fine to camp, but he had one last idea, to land above us on the mountain ridge between the Taylor Valley and Newall Glacier and there they could wait. So from 9pm until 12:30am (which looks like 10 in the morning in the austral summer) we hauled up the mountain. CiCi led, probing for crevasses, dragging the 60 lb survival bag with her climbing harness... I followed, pulling the 50 lb golf bag full of snow samples.

Together we carried over 220 lbs of equipment and samples up the mountain (pictured)--- alternating between knee deep snow and sheer, crampon-ready ice. We hauled our 'sleds' half-way up and then placed snow picks in the snow to anchor them while we climbed the steepest portion with only our packs-- the sleds pushed snow in front of them, creating additional weight for us so we decided that dropping our packs off and returning for them would be easiest.

We then dropped our packs off with the pilot and passengers, descending with our climbing gear to haul the packs. The pilot, co-pilot, and passengers waited patiently, taking pictures of the whole journey. We kept in good spirits throughout- laughing when taking rests in knee deep snow- that we were like Scott and Nansen (early Antarctic explorers)-- although, perhaps we were more like Nansen's sled dogs....but with the fear of crevasses occupying our minds.

The 4 men helped us haul the two bags up the final 200 feet with 2 climbing ropes- Before we boarded the helicopter, I looked beyond the Newall Glacier. The grey-white light magically illuminated dozens of distant glaciers and lakes. In this moment I was at peace. We were going home.

Landing at Lake Hoare at 1:30 am was amazing. It was great to see Berry- he had waited up, he is an advisor with a big heart, and to see Rae Spain- another round of hugs- I was adrenalized. She is the wonderful camp manager. We offloaded my gear, and said goodnight. I feasted on lamb, salad, potatoes, desert. When done, I saw banana on the counter and ate that too. Why not? I ate the equivalant of 3 days worth of food through this whole day doing much more physical activity than in a normal week). But it isn't easy to haul a golf bag full of snow.

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