Dreaming of Dry Valleys

I’ve had a touch of the flu (locally called ‘McMurdo Crud’), which I am battling with zinc, vitamin C, Theraflu cocktails (mixed with hot apple cider) and 2 fresh kiwis I’d been saving.

It might be the Theraflu (technicolor dreams guaranteed!) but days later, I am still dreaming about my helicopter flight into the heart of the Dry Valleys. Our destination was Lake Bonney, in the Taylor Valley, a route which brought us zooming over about forty-five miles of frozen McMurdo Sound — to the mouth of Explorer’s Cove and New Harbor –before we stared straight down the throat of the valley. We merged with the landscape, and disappeared.

Believe me: we disappeared. I watched helicopters flying up into this valley, while I was at New Harbor. They dwindle rapidly in size — first a toy helicopter in the sky, then something birdlike (cardinal?), then a red winterberry, then a speck of red lint, then poof. Gone. The helicopter is still there, of course — one knows how fast they are going, and which direction, but the eye can’t track that speck of helo against the vastness. One hears the helo for some time — the sound of an invisible chopper resounds along the bone-dry scree and scoured stone of the mountains rising on both sides. Then sound disappears, too.

We were flying, shrinking like Alice, moving forward at whatever speed a large helicopter with “somewhere to go” will go, and yet for long moments it also seemed we were suspended halfway between the floor of the valley and the peaks, hanging like a cable-car, not moving at all. Sometimes our shadow flew along beside us, on an adjacent mountainside.

This illusion of stillness must be due to the bewildering scale of the landscape, the lack of visual reference points like trees, houses, roads — everything your eye looks for in the “other” world. A glacier hung outside the window, motionless. I felt like I was riding on a hummingbird, paused effortlessly in midair, drinking it all in.

There is no “human scale” in Antarctica. We look around for things we know, try to size up the world around us. The eye has a tiny yardstick marked “average pine tree” and when we are uncertain about distance and scale, the eye darts around the world, searching for a pine tree, any tree. If the eye finds a house on the next ridge, we can suddenly calculate the distance of the ridge. No trees here, tho. No houses. I know that we passed over a couple remote field camps (huts & tents), but these are really quite invisible from the air, unless you know exactly where to look for their colored dots. The Kukri Hills form a wall on the south — the Asgard Range guards the north.

We flew over the Commonwealth Glacier, Canada Glacier, Suess Glacier, Lake Fryxell, Lake Hoare, all the way up to Taylor and Rhone Glaciers, and Lake Bonney. Impossible for me to describe how perfectly the great glaciers hang their heavy heads down into the valley — a drop of fresh cream freezing over the curve of a frozen blueberry? Photograph of pouring milk, frozen in time, never reaching the saucer? White wrinkled tongues? Messages scrolled down from the accumulation zones high up in the mountains? The crevasse fields resemble scar-tissue, stretchmarks; their ice-falls glow with all hues of blue in the sunlight. They evaporate more than they melt, dead-ending in sheer walls, 50 to 300 feet tall.

In short, glaciers seem as timeless as the mountains. And yet they are really flowing like rivers, grinding forward, a million subtle feet hidden beneath their white skirts. Three times that day, at Lake Bonney, we heard great rumblings from the Rhone Glacier, hanging above Lake Bonney’s western end. A sound like dynamite blasts in a mine! This was the glacier, breaking and calving into rumbling avalanches of ice. One event happened on the face: a section (perhaps the size of an office building?) gave way along the wall of the glacier, and shattered into ice-blocks and slivers of glass.

By a stroke of incredible luck, we left by a different route than we’d entered! First, we lifted from the ice of Lake Bonney and flew straight up the Rhone Glacier, which drops on an almost vertical slope. The route was sheer, with eye-popping views of crevasses just out the window. Seen from below, the Rhone is foreshortened, and seems smaller than it really is. The helicopter occasionally flew around in tight circles, to gain lift as we rose in altitude. Lake Bonney dwindled to a white puddle at the bottom of the valley, then disappeared entirely, and we were still rising along the Rhone. Flying over the Asgard mountains, we dropped down into the “Valley of the Cirques” above remote Lake Vanda. The cirques resemble old castles or fortresses, peaks of highly weathered rock, sculpted by wind and glaciers into towers and spires. From there we followed Wright Valley to the east, towards the Ross sea. Wright is spectacular, and different from the Taylor Valley. The highlight was flying along a ridge of “ventifacted” stone. Ventifacts are wind-sculpted rocks. This ridge (sculpted intact, with windows blown through) resembled totem poles or temple-carvings — I saw birds, fish, cats, monkeys, deer, corn, vines, trees, Greek vases, you name it. The eye delights in ventifacts, populates them with creatures and gods and tangled knots. If this ridge were anywhere else in the world, it would be sacred to a dozen peoples and there’d be sweat-lodges, mosques and cathedrals in the valley below, and a city of Bedouin tents shivering in the wind, welcoming all the pilgrims.

For a fantastic article on the Dry Valleys science and terrain, read: Natural History Magazine: “Cold Fire”

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