Stranded in Eden

Saturday’s day-trip to the Dry Valleys (with Dr Bess Ward, Dr Mark Wells and Mark’s PhD student, Ben Beall) had a slow start — helicopters weren’t flying, due to a weather hold. I knew something was up as soon as I stepped outside: the top of Observation Hill was missing — lopped off, halfway up. Would we really be able to fly? Hmmm. I doubted it. It was absolutely beautiful, if unsettling.

Eventually the call came that we had a green light to fly, and we clomped through Crary Lab, out the back door, and hauled our orange duffels to the helicopter pad, located just above the ice of McMurdo Sound. A quick glance at the still-foggy sky, loading, adjusting helmets, check-check-check, then we were off — into a weird scene. The opaque sky had an incredibly low ceiling, pea-soup gray, the sort one might expect to find in Seattle. Everything in the McMurdo Sound landscape felt constrained, yet the clouds were moving. Helo Ops figured the system was lifting, breaking-up overall.

The pilots discussed the ceiling, tried to rise, and reported the upper limit was near 500 ft. Above that, soft gray cotton swallowed us completely, like anesthesia. Below 500, the view was somewhat like looking under your bed: darkish, with gray quilts above, gray-white floor below, gray dustbunnies, and a wide thin swath of landscape between them. Here and there, the dark blue feet of the mountains were visible.

The weather did not improve. The Dailey Islands lost their heads. The Strand Moraines got fuzzy. The Piedmonts misplaced their luminosity. Glaciers seemed flat without their vast blue rooflines.

Fog over Ross Sea

Flying up the stunning Taylor Valley, with dark mountain walls on both sides and a gray tent roof fluttering above, was like negotiating a fun-house hallway, a lowered ceiling, with the perspective intentionally skewed to give the illusion of meandering length. The low slate-gray clouds were not still — they drifted above. We were dropped off at the Polar Haven research tent (in the middle of the East Lobe of Lake Bonney), and the helicopter lifted, fwuttering away to other errands.

Every time we looked up from our work, the landscape was dimmer, the clouds darker by just another shade of charcoal. About noon, I walked over to the shoreline, to look for ventifacted rock, while Mark Wells headed out to the West Lobe to retrieve some of his gear. I had nearly reached my destination, a wind-worn ridge of boulders, when the radio I carried went off in my pocket. It was Rae, calling from a camp further down the valley, saying that the weather was getting worse and the helicopter was coming to pull us out earlier than planned. Damn! I turned and ran for the ice, clomping quickly across the lake. I knew was moving too fast (ahem, especially when I fell, bashing my shin and raising a great lump) but the cardinal rule with helicopters is: BE WAITING & READY.

Do whatever it takes to be ready. Helicopters don’t like to wait, and they generally don’t shut down unless they have to. I had one radio, Mark had one radio, and weather-haven had none. Bess and Ben couldn’t hear the news until we reached them. In the end, we mustered quickly, coiling hoses, shutting down the equipment, arranging science cargo and piling duffels. Meanwhile the sky dropped. We were getting weathered-in. The helicopter tried, but couldn’t get back into the Valley to pick us up. They said they’d try again later, until about 7 PM. The smoked-shut look of the sky suggested there was a forest fire raging somewhere up the Taylor Valley, though it was barren rock and glacial til. Back in McMurdo, theoretically, I was supposed to be “bag-dragging” tonight (weighing and checking luggage, done the night before a flight) for my trip back to New Zealand.

After a few hours of waiting for word from Helo Ops and dozing in the small Polar Haven, we hiked to the fixed buildings of the Lake Bonney Camp. (3 tents, 3 tiny labs and 1 historic Jamesway hut). Another group of researchers, stranded by the weather, were already there — they’d hiked up the Taylor Valley from the other direction, to pull soil samples from the riparian zone (along lake edges).

Stuck in Eden together, perhaps for the night, we decided to make a group dinner. First we looked through the shelves, considering our various freeze-dried and just-add-water options. I baked a gingerbread cake, adding lots of dried apples and extra nutmeg. Items were pulled from a cold freezer, including some shrimp frozen into a block of ice, and frozen veggies, and a giant pot of water was prepared (for boiling several bags of pasta). As 7 PM approached, dinner was almost ready — but we walked away before we could actually eat it, back out to our Weather-Shelter, to be ready for the helicopter, just in case.

Finally, we received word that the helicopter wouldn’t return. We were weathered in for the night – the valley to the east was moody with clouds. The flight to New Zealand was also delayed, so that problem was solved for me. A helicopter would try to pick us up in the morning. We walked back to Bonney camp, and the snow descended. Lake Bonney and the rock walls on either side became a snow-globe, jostled by a gentle hand. It was truly magical. Someone had decorated the Bonney jamesway with a hodge-podge of holiday decorations — some ragged tinsel, a few ornaments. There was a refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen, but it wasn’t running: on the door was an old advent calendar, with all the windows already opened, but pushed back shut for the next occupant. The pre-way (primus) heater creaked and dripped, warming the hut until it felt downright cozy. We sipped hot tea.

Bess, Ben and Mark had sleep-kits, complete with thermorest pads and sleeping bags, and decided they would sleep inside the weather shelters out on Lake Bonney. The hiking researchers pulled sleeping bags from their emergency kits (heavy rubberized just-in-case duffels that had been dropped at Bonney Camp by helicopter), and it was decided they would sleep in the tents that had been left standing at Bonney camp. One generally does not open an emergency kit unless absolutely necessary, because each one must be packed and carefully checked and resealed, to ensure that it contains everything it is supposed to have. I would sleep alone in the Bonney jamesway, on a bench in the corner, using an army bag left at the camp.

Because the Bonney Camp uses solar and wind energy, there was no generator to interrupt the perfect silence. Heavenly and absolute! I could hear snowflakes falling, grit scittering. The dry rock slopes went white as the hours wore on, which is unusual in the “Dry” Valleys. Some folks played cards, and others read books from the camp bookshelf. “Cribbage anyone?” asked a geologist, and the everyone laughed at the cribbage board — a odd bit of a 2-by-4, with meandering rows of holes punched in, using a nail, and slivers of wood (perhaps they were match sticks?) in lieu of cribbage pegs.

At about 11 PM, a few of us decided to take an after-dinner stroll, and we hiked up to the Hughes Glacier. The valley walls are loose scree, and the snow melt-water was running downhill. Unusual weather for the Dry Valleys! Sometimes we were hiking through running water, an inch deep, stepping from rock to rock. The round head of the Hughes lies just SW of Lake Bonney. The Hughes is unique in that it has multiple sources, or necks, which drop from a snowfield in the mountains above in three long distinct bodies, like noodles extruded from a press (there was a fourth neck to Hughes, but it has abated, and now hangs from the ridge top like a raindrop, not quite falling). Large hunks of the ice lay shattered at the base, impossibly blue, as if they were radiating a blue fluorescent light. It was midnight in Antarctica, and I found myself sitting on a blue boulder of ancient ice, high above Lake Bonney, crunching on bits of ice — each containing ancient air bubbles — from my cold, bare hand. A taste of the Sublime.

Bonney Overnight: Hughes Glacier

Bonney Camp, Dry Valleys

Ventifact, Shore of Lake Bonney

Research Hut on Lake Bonney

Dry Valleys - Flight Out

Mt Erebus - Return from Dry Valleys

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