I nervously fiddled with the chinstrap on my helmet as we sat in a modified shipping container known as the ‘passenger terminal’ at McMurdo Station’s helipad. Outside, the roar of engines began filling the air as pilots fired up their helicopters for the day’s first flights. Five NSF-contracted aircraft sat on the pads outside, three Bell 212’s on the far pads, and two smaller A-Star B2’s in front. Finally, the heli-techs called our flight, and we make our way out to one of the smaller helicopters. My giant red parka and oversized winter boots, required for the flight, made me feel like the Michelin Man trying to squeeze into a clown car. I fiddled with my seatbelt while the pilot did a comms check over our in-helmet radios. My anticipation began to form a hot-air balloon in the pit of my stomach as the engines whirred to a fury, and the cabin of the copter shook as it gently lifted off the ground. I watched the shadow of the aircraft grow smaller on the ground as the machine gained altitude. The pilot guided us gently towards the edge of the helipad, then suddenly we gunned forward, screaming away from station at 130mph towards one of Earth’s most unique treasures: the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
The Dry Valleys, around 75 miles away from McMurdo Station, formed in their current state when giant glaciers retreated away from the seas of McMurdo Sound towards the high plateau of the Eastern Antarctic ice sheet. They left behind 1,900 square miles of ice-free land, the largest of such a landscape on the entire continent. The newly exposed valley floors, cut through Beacon sandstone, revealed soils of up to five million years old. High peaks surround these valleys, creating a rain-shadow that squeezes any moisture from the air as it is pushed up and over the Trans Antarctic Mountains. This, combined with strong Katabatic wind that gains speed as it rushes down from the 10,000ft high polar plateau, has created a landscape that averages a temperature of -19.8°C and less than 100 mm water equivalent of annual precipitation. The unique polar desert had provided a wealth of insight into the sculpting of land, as it gives us a glimpse into Earth’s ancient past, while resembling something more likely found on present day Mars.
This otherworldly landscape is home to dozens of alpine glaciers that pour off of high slopes down into the valleys below. The glowing blue and white ice channels through gaps in the mountains, falls sharply down thousands of feet of hillside, and spills out onto the valley floors, as if someone poured cream down the side of a mountain range and then pressed pause on time itself. Between glaciers rest iridescent blue ponds and lakes, filled at a crushingly slow rate over thousands of years by sparse and ephemeral glacial melt. These frozen bodies of water are capped with ice, much of which has trapped bubbles containing air that has been isolated for up to 3,000 years. The valleys also contain the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, some of which have salinity levels of over 40%, and are just too salty to freeze. Higher above the valleys are ridges and plateaus littered with sand dunes, desert pavement, and ventifacts – huge boulders that have been sculpted over millions of years by wind and sand into surreal, alien shapes. On top of all this, scattered among the valleys are mummified penguins and seals, the oldest known being nearly 2,600 years old. No one knows for sure how they got there, but leading theories suggest a disorder in the poor animal’s navigational abilities, forcing the creatures away from the ocean, and up the valleys into certain death. The cold, dry wind and lack of carrion feeders hinders decay of the animals, resulting in mummification.
One of the most surprising aspects of this place (arguably the most extreme and inhospitable desert on planet Earth) is that it still contains life. In the places where there is even the slightest possible opportunity, life flourishes. Microbial organisms are abundant, and areas of the valleys that contain even a little water are home to algae, moss, lichens and invertebrates. The seemingly miraculous presence of life in such a challenging environment gives hope to those who look to the stars and dream that we are not alone.
Our flight took us across the sound, over miles of frozen ocean. The chopper flew at around 1,000 feet above the surface, over a channel of pack ice carved by a Russian icebreaker and cracks that stretch for miles, dotted with seals resting between hunts. Flying parallel to the ice edge, our pilot pointed down to a pod of Antarctic Minke whales taking advantage of the seasonal melt and feeding on krill in the rich Antarctic waters. As we neared the Taylor Valley, our intended destination, the deep brown and tan shades of the valleys became more vivid. Before us unfolded the Ferrar Glacier, a giant river of ice connecting the McMurdo Sound to the Eastern Antarctic ice shelf. As the valley came into view, I was immediately struck with the shock of seeing so much ice-free land in Antarctica. Most of the continent contains nothing but endless, flat white. Even Ross Island, a relatively environmentally diverse area in which McMurdo Station is located, is mostly covered in ice. Low, dark clouds crept over the surrounding peaks and down into the valley, aiding the menace and mystery of the place. We flew into the valley and over three alpine glaciers and two frozen lakes before circling to drop into camp at Lake Hoare.
Our task here was to aid the camp staff in closing down the facilities for the winter. Lake Hoare is the largest field camp in the Dry Valleys, and contains several modules that remain out for the entire year. The buildings require some preparation, as they are abandoned and let to freeze for the long and dark winter months. Upon arrival, we were informed that there was just too much going on at the moment, and that we wouldn’t be able to begin working until later in the day when more people had left camp. Instead, Rae (the 30-year veteran of the USAP/caretaker of the Taylor Valley encampments) suggested we go for a hike. She outfitted us with a radio and a map and sent us on our way.
The hike began by crossing the iridescent blue ice of Lake Hoare. Fresh water from glacial melt flows into the lake every summer, and floats above the ancient, briny waters that have collected over years and years of evaporation and refreezing. The result is a layer of powder blue ice that sits at the surface of the lake, permeated with millions of tiny air bubbles that became trapped during a rapid freeze. Looking into the ice is like looking into a version of the night sky where the blackness of space has been replaced by a glowing blue, and the stars are bright white pockets of air frozen in time during their escape to the surface. We walked along the moat of the lake, next to the 50-foot tall wall of ice that is the terminus of the Canada Glacier. The glass-like surface of the ice was made less treacherous by the metal-spiked treads strapped onto our boots. Occasionally a step would result in a deep crack, the muffled sound of ancient ice shifting under the weight of the uncommon traveler. Needless to say, hearing such noises while walking beneath a wall of ice on top of a frozen lake is a bit unsettling.
As we arrived at the far shore of the lake, we removed our ice cleats and began the climb to the top of Andrews Ridge, a 1500-foot ridge that rises up above the south shores of Lake Hoare. The powder-blue ice beneath our feet was replaced with an astounding variety of rock. Brown, blue, black, red, pink, and orange, the otherworldly collage of pebble and stone was something I’ve never seen before in Antarctica. Most of my time here having been spent on a black-soiled, volcanic island, or a 2-mile thick ice sheet, I was not prepared for this barrage of color. We spent several hours making our way up the long and gentle slope, regularly pausing to enjoy the increasingly broad view of the valley opening up before us, or to watch the occasional helicopter pass through below. As we reached the top of the ridge, we peered around us to discover that, from this vantage point, we could see 7 different glaciers pouring down into the valley.
We walked along the top of Andrews Ridge for several miles, among the rivers of ice and craggy, snow-capped peaks of the Asgard Range. Eventually we came to a plateau, sporadically dotted with ventifacts, the surreal sculptures carved from sandstone, wind, and time. Spaced out every half-mile or so, these rocks appeared to be the fractured skeleton of an ancient, alien colossus. Smoothly cut from thousands of years of blowing sand, these giant boulders are angled and contoured into dreamlike shapes that look more like conceptual artwork rather than acts of nature. Beneath the cover of one such rock, we paused to regain some calories, climb around, take some photos and radio back to camp that we were going to be several more hours than we originally expected to be.
Through the field of ventifacts, we then began our descent off of the ridge and back into the basin of the valley. Several exciting moments of scree-skiing brought us to the bottom, between the Suess Glacier and a body of water known as Mummy Pond. The pond earned its name due to several mummified seals that made its shores their final resting place. The silent figures, draped in taught, brown leather and sun-bleached bone lay undisturbed where they finally took their last, pained breath. Some of them may have taken that breath sometime before the birth of Christ. These creatures, more land than life, represent the enormous and ancient presence of the Dry Valleys. A place were a full life is a nothing more than the tick of a clock, and a death made certain by inhospitable conditions becomes a permanent tomb, undisturbed by normal decay. After pausing for a few moments of thought, reflecting upon such a timeless place, the far off thumping of helicopter rotors reminded us that there was still work to be done. At this point we turned ourselves around, and began walking back to camp along the valley floor.
Heading back from Mummy Pond, we walked below the high, rocky peaks of the Asgard Range. These craggy, scarred mountains rise 6,000 feet straight out of the valley, giving them an epic and omniscient authority. Certainly well described, they are named after the legendary home of the Norse gods. As we approached Suess Glacier, the clouds began to lift, and the midnight sun drenched the valley in light. Heavy mist hung to the highest peaks above the valley, steadily being burned away by the Sun.
Here, six hours into the hike and on our way back to camp, a combination of weather, landscape and emotion came together to form a perfect moment of natural glory. The Sun shown brightly just over the top of the Suess Glacier, illuminating the mammoth river of ice as it cascaded down from the rocky slopes above. The mist crawled through the jagged peaks, cut with icefalls and frozen chutes, in front of the deep and endless Antarctic sky. The whole scene reflected off of a frozen pool of melt water on the valley floor, amongst the barren polar desert surrounding it. We sat and marveled at the limitless beauty of our precious planet, feeling at one time so much apart of something so holy and remarkable, but so humbled by its massive physical and chronological scale. The moment epitomized some of the greatest emotions I’ve felt concerning my two years working and living in Antarctica. It is the endless and unrivaled beauty of a place so untouched and wild. The glory of nature, creating a landscape that is so aesthetic and inspiring, but so harsh and unyielding. It is a place that will reach deep into your being, grab your soul and latch on so tightly that you can feel your heart bursting through your ears. But it is also a place that, biologically, you were never intended to be, and an environment can extinguish life like none other on this planet. It is the attractiveness of danger and the unexplored, the promise of what may lay beyond the bend, a quenching of the deep-seeded thirst of wanderlust that first made our ancestors first begin their trek north out of Africa.
We walked back to camp, engorged with natural beauty, and the appreciation of our fortunateness for being able to behold it. Our walk back took us first through a feature known as The Defile, a narrow pathway between the terminus of the Suess Glacier and the slopes of Andrews Ridge. We walked along running our hand across the wall of the glacier, along million-year-old ice contoured by wind, rock, and sun. As we exited The Defile, the valley opened up to reveal the whole of Lake Hoare, spread blue and white between the glaciers. The path curved along the north shore of the waters, dotted with the occasional mummified seal, some on land, some forever frozen into the water. Glacial melt steadily drains into the waters, creating booming moans and groans as the entire layer of ice on top of the lake is forced upwards to make room for the new waters. The deep bass sounds like the muffled calls of seals underwater, and one can’t help but wonder if the sounds are really the cries of the animals, having left their bodies to the shore, and now residing forever underneath the ice.
Nearly 10 hours after we left, we arrived back at camp, tired and hungry, but aware that we had just taken the hike of a lifetime. It was an earmark on the pages of our life story, something that we will never forget, and will recall one day from our deathbeds when cataloging the events that comprised our lives. There is much beauty in the world. But, in this modern day of conquered nature and commercial adventure, rarely does such beauty exist without an infrastructure in place designed to make money off of it. Often times such unique and remarkable landscapes come at the price of popularity and exposure, dotted with tour buses, cement walkways, and concession stands. Here, in one of Earth’s last great, unconquered lands stands nature at its wildest, unaffected by man, and standing as testament to a world outside of our grasp. And may it forever remain so.
As if my time at the South Pole and Kevin’s week long stint at WAIS Divide field camp wasn’t enough, somehow something mystical smiled upon us once more this season. Our names were drawn for an extremely coveted two-day overnight trip to Lake Hoare in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This is a trip that people dream about for years, and that often never materializes. The deal was that we had to do some cleaning, but all things considered, we had essentially been presented with the date night of a lifetime.
The Dry Valleys are accessible by helicopter, which meant the two of us got to ride out in an A-Star, which meant that I got to see Kevin’s face plastered in the joy and excitement of a child riding a bike for the first time. It was just the two of us and the pilot, who took the time to point out landmarks and animal activity. I got a little seasick with the heavy white helmet pressing down on my clenched neck as the pilot reveled in the acrobatics of zooming around Ob Hill. There were spectacular views of the icebreaker chugging along like a toy boat in a bathtub, an endless spattering of holes which were spiderwebbed with seals and their brown trails of feces, and the vivid textures of rapidly changing sea ice from above.
Since Lake Hoare is the hub for communication, transportation, and information within the Taylor Valley, it was very busy when we arrived. We were given a couple of Clif bars, a map, a radio, an Estimated Time of Return, and we were on our own.
We’re used to the monochromatic color scheme of simply white and blue. But here there were pops of pink in the rocks, swaths of yellow in the hills. There was an abandoning of the typical deep blue of Antarctica, replaced instead with a glowing turquoise reminiscent of that rather disturbing blue-raspberry flavor. After six months of living in a square mile or two, this change of scenery was at times overwhelming. I stopped every ten feet or so to examine a different colored rock, to look at the next glacier that was slowly revealing itself as I made my way up Andrews Ridge which overlooks the Taylor Valley. At the pinnacle of the ridge, we stood for a while, slowly spinning around; we could see seven glaciers, bright blue ponds, yellow and black streaked hills, craggy towering mountain peaks, the bright red dot of a helicopter, the distant open water of the Ross Sea, and far off we could see the slopes of Erebus. The plethora and magnitude of our vista was outrageous.
The rest of the hike involved sliding and skipping down a hillside of scree, then slowly making our way back to camp along the floor of the valley. We passed frozen, groaning lakes, which every so often would let out an ear splitting belch as glacial melt slowly pushed the ice upward. There were mummified seals, whose peeling fur and sun bleached bones hinted to a sad and confused death for these ancient creatures. We snaked along narrow pathways that were sandwiched between the foot of the ridge and the terminus of glaciers. Their grooved smooth walls were dotted with rocks which had been picked up centuries ago, had rode along at the glacial pace for untold years, and were now soon to be released. I kept looking down at our footprints, which at times joined a few others from people before us, but often were forging our own trail; footprints which are going to be there for a very long time.
The last few miles were hard; the hike had been a lot more challenging than I anticipated and we had not brought enough food. But we made it, ate several platefuls of nachos, then snuggled into our Scott tent which was itself nestled at the base of the Canada Glacier. Despite doing an insta-transition from night shift to days for this trip, we slept without stirring all night long, with complete and utter silence except for the occasional burps from the lake ice. The silence was almost startling after growing accustomed to sleeping through the slamming of doors, the raucous noises from oversexed neighbors, and the constant drumming of helicopter blades. It was one of the best nights of sleep I’ve ever had.
We cleaned for a few hours in the morning, and then took another incredible helicopter ride home, stopping on mountaintops to pick up and then drop off some researchers. We darted between low clouds, crossed over the speckled passage carved out of the ice shelf by the icebreaker, and circled around town before landing. It’s always good to come home, but this time I carried a sense of peace within me, a realization that although this season has been wickedly difficult at times, I was able to go to some amazing places, and with this one fresh on my mind, I would certainly make it through the last weeks. There can’t be that many janitorial gigs in the world in which you get to do things like this.