Nov 162011

Hiking to the Commonwealth Glacier

Here’s another, even more amazing, text & photo essay from the intrepid painter/writer/naturalist Laura Von Rosk (see her first report from Antarctica here) who flew to Antarctica (it’s spring there) early in Septembet as part of a scientific team headed by Albany, NY, cell biologist Dr. Samuel Bowser (friend them on Facebook at Bravo! 043 or visit his blog). In this report, the team continues its training at McMurdo Station’s “Happy Camper” school before heading to their own research site. The team’s mission is to dive (under the ice) and conduct studies on the the single-celled organisms known as Foraminifera from a field camp at Explorers Cove, situated at the base of the Taylor Valley, in the Dry Valleys, west of McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Laura Von Rosk (normally) lives with her dog Molly on a lagoon just outside Schroon Lake, New York. She curates the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project, a gallery dedicated to the experimental and the avant garde. She’s an old friend and a wonderful landscape painter. See Laura’s paintings on Numéro Cinq here.

Antarctica map 1, map 2, map 3, map of Ross Sea area, map 5. Virtual tour of McMurdo. Map showing McMurdo Station and Taylor Valley.


More Adventures at the Bottom of the World

Laura Von Rosk Reports from Antarctica

 View from the Observation Tube: Henry, Cecil, and Dannie

Over the last three weeks I’ve had some unusual experiences which included camping out on the Ross Ice Shelf with about 20 other Happy Campers, as we are called, observing tiny sea creatures 20 feet below the sea ice in the Observation Tube at McMurdo Station, taking my 1st Helicopter ride over McMurdo Sound, Assisting the divers at Explorers Cove, hiking to the massive Commonwealth Glacier, and seeing Weddell Seals up close as they popped up through two of our dive holes.

Hiking to Commonwealth Glacier

Happy Camp (officially called “Snow School”) is required for all (USAP participants) that will be traveling to remote camps in Antarctica. At Happy Camper you learn about all the various ways you can die on the ice, with plenty of examples of how it has been done in the past. The day began with an indoor lecture covering priorities to keep in mind while trying to stay alive in this extreme environment (water, shelter, food), assessing risks, and preparing for the worst. They handed out a small, laminated “6 step Risk Assessment Card”. Jan (one of our B-043 Scientist) was sitting next to me and accidentally dropped his on the floor. When I picked it up to hand back to him, he said, “If it is so, why do I need a card to tell me I am to die?”

After the lecture we all headed out to the Delta Bus for the 1/2 hour ride to the area on the Ross Ice Shelf where we would spend the next 24 hours. One of the Happy Campers, Bill (who will soon be on the two- month land traverse to the South Pole), told us why the Delta Bus now has seat belts. A few years back Search & Rescue was driving the vehicle when it went over an ice cliff. The S&R drivers jumped out, while everyone in the back trailer got tossed around, broken limbs, etc. (but no fatalities). Bill was down here that season and helped pull people from the wreckage. Bill is telling us this story as we travel over the exact spot where it happened.

Happy Camper School was pretty painless, all things considered. Some of what we learned: how build an ice wall to protect camp and tent from the wind, how to make a dead man stake for tying the tent down (wonder how it got that name). It was only a little below zero most of the day, with a little bit of wind chill. As the four instructors left us in the evening around 6 pm the winds had died down. We set up a communal kitchen, and later carved “HC 2011” on top of the ice wall.

I slept in one of the yellow Scott Tents, which are a little warmer than the mountain tents, but I hardly slept – not because I was cold, but because I was so uncomfortable – wrapped like a mummy wearing four layers of clothes inside my sleeping bag. I could not move! We learned the next day that it was a balmy 4 degrees F that night. The best part of Happy Camper was meeting a mix of people involved in interesting projects and work – scientists researching seals, penguins, fish, or military types working heavy equipment, helicopter maintenance, or making the land traverse to the South Pole, etc.

At McMurdo Station the team had a couple of checkout dives. Near the dive hut is the Observation Tube, where one can climb down a tube that ends about 20 feet below the ice. It can be very claustrophobic climbing down, but once you reach the window at the bottom (with a 360 degree view around) it feels open, and amazing.

Under the ice I was able to see our divers, zillions of little fish, and pteropod Sea Angels.

And I heard the strange sci-fi/spacey calls of Weddell seals.

On Oct 15 we boarded a helicopter for the 40 minute ride across McMurdo Sound to New Harbor Camp at Explorers Cove. There were breathtaking views of Mt Erebus, the Dry Valley Mountains, glaciers and large cracks in the sea ice.

When we arrived at the camp in New Harbor the Carps (carpenters) were already here busy opening up and setting up Camp. The camp consists of two large/connected Jamesway tents (for sleeping and living), a lab hut, a bathroom shack, solar panels and wind generator near the generator shack. The shore is just a short walk to the east, but it is hard to tell where the sea begins and ends because snow and ice cover both land and sea. There is a section we call the transition ice or the “moat.” Heading out from the moat is a distinct line of pressure ridges. Pressure ridges are caused by tides, shifting ice sheets colliding with each other, and are also sculpted by the wind.

Our first evening here a Katabatic windstorm blew in. An interesting introduction to New Harbor for me – wondering if it was always that windy… Here is a short video from that evening:

Sunday the winds died down so Sam & I were able to take the 30 minute Skidoo ride to Cape Bernacchi, where we have since melted a dive hole. The Skidoos here in camp are much more cooperative (no more fears – I love riding them!).

Jan, Cecil, and Laura (and the leg)

The first two weeks here we focused on melting dive holes, troubleshooting and repairing equipment. Just about every muscle in my body is sore from all the heavy lifting (moving 55 gallon fuel drums, propane tanks, etc.), and performing tasks, or using equipment that I normally don’t. For example: the jiffy drill is like a jack-hammer – the vibrations are hard on the wrists! (that’s the 2 person drill for starting ice holes). Even just opening a jerry can for fueling various tools and equipment is a project. My carpal tunnel syndrome has kicked in again. Whenever we work outside we wear our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather gear). Often, if it is really cold, it looks like we are moving in slow motion (walking on the moon!). Everything takes longer to do down here because we are all bundled up, or we have to take certain precautions, or just do things differently because of the cold, or the wind, or both.

Cecil had her 1st New Harbor dive at the Delta Hole on Oct 21st.. The dive was cut short because below two Weddell seals were swimming around the dive hole. They are not dangerous because they would attack, but because of their size – females weigh over 1000 lbs. You wouldn’t want to come up the dive hole with one of them at the same time. A couple of minutes after Cecil surfaced from her dive one of the seals popped up for a breath of air!

Yesterday we heard the seals below the dive hut (a rack tent we have renamed The Janeway). One seal popped up a couple of times – looked at us, gulped some air, and went back down. They are amazing creatures, but we don’t want them near our divers, and we don’t want them to come up the dive holes and make a stinky mess around the hole (if you know what I mean).

Speaking of Weddell seals, we learned last week through the VHF radio transmit that one of our Happy Camper mates had a bad encounter with a seal. She was part of a team researching Weddell seals, and was most likely tagging a seal when it rolled over on her, breaking her leg. We overheard part of the drama as Search & Rescue communicated with the research team on how to transport her back to MCM Station. She has since flown home to the States.

Not far from the camp Jamesway tents are the mummified remains of a Weddell Seal.

In the past Jan and Sam have come upon the mummified remains of penguins. A penguin out this way, heading into the Dry Valleys, is usually a death sentence for the bird, since there isn’t open water and/or food supply.

Last week we took the afternoon off for a 5 hour roundtrip hike into the Dry Valleys to the Commonwealth glacier. I found this panoramic photo online. It was a beautiful sunny day, and good to have a break from the chores at camp.

Things I love down here: The way Mt Erebus looks different every day, and at different times of the day. The weather is different everyday (yes! but always cold!) Along with bizarre cloud formations, there are “ice mirages” on the sea ice. Sometimes the distant icebergs are very pronounced white shapes in a blue-ish landscape, other times they look ten times the size from the day before, transformed into gigantic dark towering craggy hills. Sometimes one side of the horizon is dark and gloomy, and the other side has rays of sunlight and blue sky, or everything will be shrouded in clouds, and a single hole will open in the sky offering a peek of a mountain, or “flat light” will make the sky and (snow on) mountains merge together.

Today is a quiet day in camp, but there have been very busy days, with helicopters every couple of hours either dropping off people, (carpenters, comm. techies, machine repair guys – like Vito from MEC who was stuck here three days), or sling loads with supplies or fuel, etc. New Harbor Camp is on the way to the other research camps at Lake Hoare and Lake Fryxell, so we often hear the helicopters as they pass and head down the valley. There is a lot of research going on in these hills. Even in camp there are signs of other past projects, like three bore holes remaining from the Dry Valleys Drilling Project of the 1970s. The bore holes go down several hundred meters and were used to collect sediment cores to the analyze geology of the Dry Valleys. Now they use the bore holes to measure the temperature of the earth.

View from Cape Bernacchi

Every day I see or learn something new, or find myself doing something I never thought I would – like the other day I took a one hour solo round trip skidoo ride out to Cape Bernacchi to pick up some supplies we left there. The clouds were threatening and dark in the south, but there were breaks of sun in the east and north. It was a beautiful ride along the shore, surrounded by large pressure ridges and dramatic views of the valley. At Cape Bernacchi I lay down on the ice next to the dive hole (were the ice is eight feet thick), ready to take in the quiet (no buzzing generator or hotsy as background noise there). I didn’t hear any seals, but the ice was loud – cracking and shifting underneath me. Although we all get along fine in Camp, it was great to have some time alone.


—Laura Von Rosk

Laura Von Rosk, far right

  5 Responses to “More Adventures at the Bottom of the World — Laura Von Rosk Reports from Antarctica”

  1. Please keep these coming! Absolutely fascinating.

  2. From Alexandria to Antarctica, Numéro Cinq really gets around! Another great report Laura. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

  3. Wow! Amazing stories. I’m supposed to be doing something else, but I had to stop and read this. Thank you.

  4. amazing Laura! Absolutely amazing. My sister is taking a “Quark” trip to Anarctica early January. Thank you for sharing your adventures and stay safe! Merry Christmas! Siggy from North Country Wildcare.

  5. Hi Laura! Wonderful report, keep them coming!

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