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Josh's Australian Antarctic expedition 6 - Mount Menzies and beyond

Friday, 9 December 2011

Hello from Mount Menzies, the tallest peak (at just under 3300 m) in the Prince Charles Mountains. We have been here for two weeks now, and what an eventful two weeks it has been! We are around 700 km South of Davis, and our camp is at an altitude of 1600 m. We are the first people to visit Menzies since 1998, and probably the only humans in a 600 km radius. Camp put-in went very smoothly, with all three loads arriving on consecutive days, thanks in no small part to the hugely experienced Twin Otter pilot Bob. 



Our camp consists of three polar pyramid tents (same basic design as those used by Scott one hundred years ago) for sleeping, an additional pyramid for the toilet bucket, and an endura/weatherhaven tent for our mess and lab. There are multiple fish bins and chilli bins (or eskies to the Aussies) scattered around the tents. We are camped on glacial ice, and all gear had to be man-hauled by sled a few hundred metres from where Bob put us down.

Menzies is an incredible place, and full of contrasts. Amazingly steep craggy ridges tower above us, their flanks either blanketed in vast screes or snow slopes. There are a few glacial valleys in the area we have focussed our sampling in, with multiple moraine ridges indicative of the glacial history of the area. This place is perhaps described as a geologist’s paradise, and a biologist’s nightmare (Paul suggests maybe not – the less biology present, the less work for him and me!); we have seen absolutely no visible signs of life here, although preliminary ATP analyses suggest bacterial activity within the soils, to varying extents. We have really been dropped in the deep end here, and have had to harden up quickly; daily working temperatures have generally ranged between -10 °C and -20 °C, with a windless -15 °C being considered relatively pleasant. A temperature logger near the outside of the toilet tent has recorded night-time temperatures consistently dropping to around -25 °C, with coldest night being just below -27! There is now no darkness at night-time, although the sun drops behind the hill at about eight pm, its warmth being instantly and keenly missed by all. Walking the 15-20 m from the mess tent to the loo, ice forms in my beard from my breath; that’s getting cold!

 A typical day goes something like this:

You wake up to a film of ice on the outside of your sleeping bag around your face, and a light snowfall drops in your eyes from the tent walls. If you can be bothered to thaw your baby wipes (by placing the pack under your armpit or against your chest), you have a quick ‘shower’ to remove the sweat and grime of the day before. You pull on your thermals which may have been worn every day for the last ten days or so, trying not to smell them as you do so. You pull more clothes from depths of your sleeping bag (socks, polar fleeces, down pants, gloves, balaclava, beanie) and put them on with as much haste as possible in the confines of the tent. You slide your feet into boots which may have frozen stiff overnight, and struggle to tie them up with your popsicle fingers. Your nose begins to drip; this will continue all day unless it freezes solid. You release your jacket from its secondary role as a pillow, and envelope yourself in its downy goodness.  You emerge from the tent into blinding midday sun reflecting off the ice and snow, and instantly regret leaving your sunnies in the mess tent the night before. You smile, it’s a beautiful day and you’re in a frozen paradise, privileged to see sights few people will ever see in their lifetime.

Squinting, you shuffle towards the mess tent, offering cursory wishes of “good morning”. You probably mention the temperature at least three times, expletives may be employed. A bucket is passed out from the recesses of the mess tent; you grab an ice axe and trudge off to get the first lot of water for the day. This is acquired by hacking away at the ice underfoot, and is a great way to warm up and vent any pent-up emotion. You return to the mess and eagerly await the transition of water from solid to liquid to the beginnings of gas (nevermind the old adage about a watched pot), and down the first of many cuppas for the day. “Hydrate or die” is an Antarctic mantra, and you observe this religiously. You sit with a tube of frozen sunblock under your armpit, eating muesli or porridge as fast as possible before the milk (fresh from the can of powder) freezes to the bowl. You do your dishes with a paper towel, and await your turn at the toilet tent. Morning necessities complete, a lunch (muesli and mars bars, dried fruit, scroggin, vita-wheats with vegemite, mountain bread with frozen tuna and pesto) is cobbled together, and water bottles and thermoses are filled from the ever melting/heating pot. You fill your pack, including pee-bottles, sampling gear, and extra warm layers. You pull spiked boot-chains over the blocks of ice masquerading as feet, and stomp around trying to resurrect them. You check VHF radio communication, before your team of two or three heads out across the ice towards the fist sampling site. 

 If, like me, you have an incredibly acute athletic physiology, you begin the eternal battle of sweat management. You remove a jacket. Still too warm. Remove a polar fleece. Remove your micro-fleece shirt. You are now walking in just a woollen thermal top. You unzip the sides of your down pants. Remove your beanie. Your windward ear loses communication with the rest of your body within minutes. You remove your neck warmer and put your beanie back on. Your sunglasses fog up; removing them for a minute or two you walk with eyes wide shut, forgetting that when you put them back on they will have iced up. Your beard begins to freeze solid, and your nose is painfully cold. You pull a balaclava over your mouth and nose; it is rapidly saturated by condensing breath and melting beardicles. The balaclava is pulled back down over your throat, where it quickly freezes solid, useless for the remainder of the day. At least the ice collar blocks the wind. When you finally arrive at the site, perhaps after more than two hours of hard walking (anything over 2-3 km/hr is pretty good going in this terrain), you put every single item of clothing back on, hoping to halt the prompt cooling induced by evaporating sweat in a light breeze below -15 °C. Life is good.

 You get to work, after a minor argument with teammates over who will wear the nitrile gloves (AKA blue death gloves) to take the sterile soil sample. If you are the (un)lucky one, sample collection is followed by many minutes of stomping around with hands down your pants or in your armpits, cursing every single person remotely connected to the invention and manufacture of such thin, sweat-inducing, heat-conducting instruments of torture.  Notes are taken about the site; position, elevation, slope, temperatures (air and soil surface), geomorphology etc. Vegetation is searched for (fruitlessly at Menzies it appears). Quartz stones are overturned in the hope of finding a hypolith (algae, fungi and/or moss taking advantage of the contrasting shelter and light transmittance of the semi-translucent quartz). Flat dark stones are also overturned in the quest for springtails and mites. Nada. Zip. Zero. Nothing. Menzies appears deader than a dead thing. Yet you know there are some tenacious microbes eking out an existence in this sparse soil; you pronounce this fact yet again to an incredulous geologist.

You move on to the next site, sweat management again an issue. You may stop for lunch. A cup of hot maggi soup. A mountain bread roll, defrosted mouthful by mouthful. A mars bar which cracks rather than stretches; this brittle failure more reminiscent of a crunchie bar in the real world. You drink some water, perhaps having to take the ice axe to the mouth of your bottle before the crucial hydration can commence. You walk. You sample. You walk. You sample. It is somewhat of a groundhog day, the monotony pleasantly broken by some of the most beautiful vistas you will ever see. Judgement of distance is a problem; with no trees or anything of recognisable scale it is easy to underestimate the time needed to return to camp, or climb a steep scree. More than one team member has experienced a longer than planned day thanks to Adrian “it’s-not-that-far” Corvinho. 

You return to camp tired, sore and hungry; your pack having gained weight via samples throughout the day. Ice is melted and subsequently boiled, tea is drunk. Dinner is lovingly prepared, taking over an hour to concoct, yet disappearing in mere minutes. You are fortunately blessed with a generous food supply and gourmet-quality team mates. The menu may consist of mushroom risotto with lemon pepper salmon steaks, or caramelised onion and sundried tomato sausages with garlic instant mash and peas. You eat well. Tea, tim-tams and chocolate follow. Occasionally a splash of port or rum (with crackling glacial ice) rounds off a particularly strenuous or successful day.

Goodnights are offered, along with the mandatory observations/guesses on the temperature (e.g. – “it’s at least minus five million” – A. Corvinho, 2011). Semi-ritualistic prayers are offered for the morrow’s return of the sun and banishment of wind. You crawl into your tent, and begin the painful business of undressing. Socks are hung up to dry (and hopefully dissipate some odour). Clothes are stuffed down sleeping bags, and you quickly follow. After fifteen to thirty minutes, feeling returns to your toes. The pain elicits a semi-masochistic pleasure; your feet will be warm again soon. You sleep like a log. You wake up to a film of ice on the outside of your sleeping bag around your face…   

 If what I’ve described above sounds unpleasant or hard, that’s because it is. Sometimes. But the pain and discomfort are transient, and compensated by being able to walk upon one of the most remote and harshly beautiful landscapes on earth. Unhappiness is short-lived (as Paul puts it, “the hate dissipates”) and I am certain that I will look back on this experience, through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgic hindsight perhaps, as one of the greatest, most exciting and definitive of my life. 

 On a sad note, we have had an incident here at Menzies. Tessa suffered some injuries (thankfully nothing too serious) and had to be evacuated from the field. She will be sorely missed, and our thoughts are with her for a speedy recovery.  

We have completed our minimum number of sampled sites here, which is great considering what has happened. At present we are halfway through packing up camp, and hauling the gear uphill to the spot where Bob can land. Today was scheduled to be the start of our camp-shift to Accidental Valley (in the Mawson Escarpment), but the weather gods aren’t playing ball, so we sit and wait to see what tomorrow will bring. Our camp at Accidental should be a lot easier; we will be at around 700 m altitude, and a considerable distance further North towards the coast. Adrian assures us it is paradise there, and has promised us running water and flourishing moss beds. The pressure is on for Corvinho to deliver. After the conditions we’ve experienced here, I reckon we’re ready for pretty much anything, especially as we are now nearing the height of summer. We’ve “knocked the bastard off” (to quote one of the greatest Kiwis of our time), and should be able to get a lot more quality work done in the next areas, in (relative) comfort. 

Looking forward to it, my next update should be from the tropical Accidental Valley. Auf wiedersehen!  


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