As we are just a couple of days out from our planned departure for Erebus, we are finishing off training and testing out some of our equipment to make sure it will work in the field.
On Saturday, we went out for crevasse rescue training, along with another team. They will be working on a glacier, so the training is a useful precaution – in our case, although the upper slopes of Erebus are crevasse-free, our work comes with a small risk of breaking through the top of an ice cave. We may also need to use ropes to access some of the caves.
In the classroom, we went through some knots, principles of crevasse rescue, and self-rescue using prusiks, which are friction hitches tied around a rope. These can attach you securely to the rope when your weight is hanging on them, but slide freely when they are not loaded (usually when your weight is being held by a second prusik). We then headed out to the simulator – an artificial crevasse – a short way by hagglund from McMurdo. Unfortunately, photos are a little scarce as I was busy trying to learn things! We practised self-arrest (to stop ourselves from sliding, or being pulled, into a crevasse) using ice axes, creating anchors to which a rope can be attached and used to rescue a crevasse-fall victim, then put all the elements from our training together to pull either ‘Mr Orange’ or a heavy bag out of the crevasse.
The first part, which was hard enough, was self-arresting with a bag about half my own weight falling down the crevasse attached to the rope behind me. It was then up to my supervisor to secure a second rope into the snow, set up a pulley system, and rescue the bag (which had, by then, hit the bottom). I am not yet confident that I could rescue anyone from a crevasse or ice cave (unless it were myself), so here’s hoping for a safe field season!
It has been snowing a lot this weekend, so I put off going for a walk (until after I finish this post!) and spent another day in the office today.
Our preparation for fieldwork included putting together the system that we would use for gas sampling. This starts with a soil probe, which will go into a vent. Flexible tubing connects it to a series of copper tubes that will be used to collect gas so that we can measure its composition, and analyse helium and other noble gases. A tiny pump draws air through this system so that the air already inside will slowly be flushed out, and the gas from the vent will fill the tubes. On the other side of the pump, some glass vials will collect the outflowing gas for carbon isotope analysis. All of these samples will need to come back to UNM for analyses.
We tried testing the system with the soil probe in a beaker of water. We wanted to find out how long it took for the air in the system to be flushed out, which in this case would be when it filled up with water. It’s much harder for the pump to draw up water than air, though, so while we found a few leaks to deal with, we didn’t manage to time the flushing. Instead, we found the volume of the sampling train by filling it with water. It’s about 120 mL so, at a pumping rate of 10 mL air/min, it would take (in theory) 12 minutes to flush the system. In practise, we think that flushing for a couple of hours should be enough to ensure that we are measuring gas from the vent and not the ambient air.
After dinner, I went back to pack things up…
…and finally, I can head out into the sunshine for a walk, before a busy day tomorrow – getting our cargo ready to fly, more snowmobile training, and packing up our personal gear.
Apologies for the lack of recent updates! This post will cover what we got up to during our last week at McMurdo.
Hut Point and Discovery Hut
Although Erebus is the only active volcano on Ross Island, three other volcanic centres are also located here, including Hut Point peninsula. For now, here‘s a map of Ross Island that you can zoom into to find the peninsula, McMurdo Station, and a few other key locations. One of the walks near McMurdo is along the Hut Point Ridge. I chose the clockwise direction, which passes the historic hut built at the start of Scott’s 1901-04 Discovery expedition:
There were a few seals sunning themselves on the sea ice near Vince’s Cross, which was originally erected in 1902 as a memorial to a drowned crew member on the Discovery.
The walk follows the ridge of the peninsula for a short way, with views of McMurdo and beyond, including Observation Hill:
The walk goes as far as a place called Arrival Heights, where I could finally get a good view of Erebus – although the summit was still obscured – before following the road back to McMurdo.
Barne Glacier/Cape Royds trip (aka penguins and historic huts)
The highlight of the weekend was a sampling trip on Sunday 28 November. One of the G-081 team members planned to sample some volcanic ash from the Barne Glacier, which would mean a trip by snowmobile across the sea ice.
It was a nice morning, which meant plenty of chances to enjoy the views:
while we stopped to check that any cracks in the sea ice would be safe to cross:
Sea ice is an upper layer of frozen seawater that still undergoes tidal changes. Some cracks represent weak areas, so we needed to drill through them to make sure that the ice was thick enough, and remained thick enough, over a distance that was safe for snowmobiles.
We found a safe route and made it out to the Barne Glacier, which comes off the western side of Mt Erebus.
We continued on to Cape Royds, where there is a colony of Adelie penguins. These are the most common type of penguin in this part of the world.
We can observe the penguins from a distance – the scientists studying them get a bit closer.
Although we saw some Emperor penguins in the distance, they stayed near the open sea.
The next stop was Shackleton’s Hut, a short walk away. This hut was erected in 1908 during Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, and was the base for the first ascent of Erebus just a few weeks later. We also stopped at Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans on the way back to McMurdo. This hut was built in 1911, and it was from here that Scott’s Polar party set out – just over 100 years ago.
We looked around the hut for a while.
It was an opportunity to reflect on the history of Antarctic exploration and science – to appreciate both the privilege of being here and the comparative luxury in which we work.
Then it was time to head home – the wind had picked up and visibility had dropped, so we were grateful to return to the warmth and comfort of the station!
More catch-up and an update schedule will follow. We’ve had a busy few days, with acclimatisation to altitude at Fang camp; moving up to the hut where we’ll be based for the next month; setting up tents and snow walls; testing equipment; and, for a few intrepid team members, trips to the caves and crater rim despite the bad weather.
The reduced visibility and blowing snow continue, but today we managed to do most of our food pull – collecting all the food we are taking to Erebus, some of which we will take to Fang camp (where we spend a couple of days getting used to the altitude), and what will go up to Lower Erebus Hut (where we spend most of the field season).
One of the training sessions we had today was run by a couple of the G-081 team members, Aaron and Meghan. Aaron’s work is in the ice caves on Erebus, so they showed us some techniques for rappelling into and ascending out of the caves.
After dinner, I decided to head over to Scott Base for American Night – because the NZ base is so much smaller (about 80 people at the moment, compared with about 1100 at McMurdo), there’s just one night a week where anyone from McMurdo is free to visit without an invitation. Since the conditions weren’t suited to the walk – which takes about 30 minutes – I took the shuttle. While waiting outside for the return trip, we got an amazing view out across the sea ice, including the transition from the shelf ice (which is connected to and fed by ice overlying the land) to the sea ice (which is a thinner layer of frozen seawater).
Here’s hoping for more good views tonight as I head back to my dorm.
Over the next week or so, we at McMurdo go through training for fieldwork and get our equipment together. The four G-081 members who are new to Antarctica are away overnight on ‘Happy Camper’, learning survival skills in the field – among other things, they’ll be digging snow trenches, and finding out what white-out conditions (when there is no visibility) are like, through an advanced simulation. Since they’re sleeping out in their snow trenches or tents tonight, here are some photos from last year:
In the meantime, the rest of us have been at refresher courses and are putting together our equipment. There’s a lot to get done before the first half of G-081 leave on Monday!
It’s a warm -3C at McMurdo today, and the weather has been starting to clear – hopefully we’ll have photos of Erebus soon.
– Your Erebus correspondent
Our Antarctic Volcanofiles, Nial and Tehnuka, have arrived safely at McMurdo base, Antarctica, the largest Antarctic base, via a C-17 flight from Christchurch, New Zealand.
The plane ride takes about 5 hours, but the adrenaline makes the whole thing go by all too fast. Boarding a huge military aircraft like the C-17 is a thrill, and seeing the continent out the window for the first time — unforgettable.
Now that they’re there, new members of the team will go through basic survival and Antarctic skills training while the experienced members will take some refresher courses. Safety is a big deal in Antarctica, especially when you’re deployed to a remote field area like Erebus. Although Erebus is only about 37 km (23 mi) away from McMurdo, the only way to get there is via helicopter. And helicopters will only fly when the weather is right. So team members need to be trained to make sure that nothing goes wrong — and know what to do if something does.
The weather in McMurdo is warm but snowing, and visibility is low. On a good day, you could see Erebus clear as day from the ice runway where the C-17 lands. But, today, it was too cloudy to see her. We’ll post some good pics when visibility clears up and we can get a good look at Erebus in all her glory. Here’s the view from today: