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Josh's Australian Antarctic expedition 8 - A White Christmas

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Two hours after writing the last sentence, Adrian and Fiona returned to camp with mites. It’s alive! Amongst melt streams at the face of a hanging glacier halfway up the valley, the geologist and soil scientist found the first reported invertebrates in the southern PCMs. Mites are less than a millimetre in size and quite difficult to spot. After the first discovery, we have found them at a number of different sites throughout the area, liquid water seeming to be the major determinant of mite presence.

Below: Adrian walking back into Accidental Valley after a day of mite hunting to the north.


 Work at Accidental has gone very smoothly, with over 80 sites sampled and much valuable geomorphology and soil data/samples being collected alongside the biology work. The back of the valley is more than 6 km from camp and over 500 m higher, requiring at least two hours solid walking to get to these sites. In order to cut out a lot of walking time, and gain a headstart for the next day, Adrian, Fiona and I bivvied out one night near the back of the valley. Sleeping on a foam mat inside a nylon bivvy bag on the lee-ward side of a large granite boulder at 1000 m altitude, under the invisible stars. It was a surprisingly comfortable night and definitely saved a lot of time. That afternoon we made another exciting discovery; lithified bird poo! In the overhang of another large boulder Adrian found piles of rock-hard guano with visible feather fragments), which we assume is evidence of a past petrel nest. Samples were taken, with some moss found nearby, and since then two more such nests have been found. It will be interesting to see if we can get a date on the nests, as they were only found above the LGM (Last Glacial Maximum) boundary, and thus have the potential to be fairly old  (post-LGM morraines in the valley have been dated at 20,000 years or younger). These finds coincide nicely with our repeated sightings of at least one pair of snow petrels flying round the cliffs at the mouth of the valley. Amazing to see them here, as we are still several hundred km from the coast; the only potential feeding grounds for these resilient little birds.

On the 23rd we had a visit from Ali, the station leader at Davis (Ali is from Timaru originally; it seems  the Aussies can’t trust one of their own to run a base). Ali came bearing gifts: fresh bread and non-dehydrated fruit, christmas puddings, a cricket bat and tennis balls, wine, a crate of home brew and a bottle of Grey Goose vodka. Thanks very much to Renato and Brigid (Davis chefs) for the bread and puddings, and Linc  (deputy station leader and met-observer) for the goose! That same day saw a moat melt out along the edge of the lake outside our camp; return from the landing strip on the Turk glacier was somewhat hampered by several party members breaking through ice and having an unplanned swim. Thus Adrian’s prophecy was fulfilled, and our camp sat on the edge of a flowing riviera for at least 24 hours (it refroze the next day, sadly). Ever since this first melt out I have found myself to be leading ice crossings. It has been decided that since I have the greatest ‘thermal mass’ of any team member, I am most suited for testing ice strength; if I don’t break through, noone will! Cheers guys, glad to help.

I have been having having trouble with my left knee, especially descending the unstable screes that are so common in this area. Because of this I have been saddled with a greater proportion of the lab work while I rest it. So while the others trek up to the back of the valley, I sit in the lab tent sorting and preserving samples and running ATP tests. Work speed is greatly aided by a playlist of thrash and death metal at high volume, as well as helping to ‘motivate’ my knee back to full strength. Science and Slayer at 73° south, what a workday!

We had snow here on the 25th, my first white christmas. Exchange of secret-santa gifts was followed by a prolonged breakfast (mine consisted of: smoked oysters and wasabi on crackers, a “Fray Bentos” tinned steak and kidney pie, and a glass of homebrew stout), as we took the day off to relax. The iridium satellite phone was used throughout the day (according to varying time differences)  to call loved ones back home. One of the most surreal experiences so far occurred on this day. Sitting in the tent eating sausages and drinking beer for lunch, we were surprised to hear the music playlist had switched to Cypress Hill (“Insane in the membrane, insane in the brain!”) without us realising. A very funny moment, and much preferable to the usual cheesy christmas carols. The weather cleared in the evening, allowing an al fresco dinner (on the shores of the riviera) of eye fillet steak and instant mash, a glass of champagne followed by a nightcap of the mighty goose. HONK! Quite possibly my most memorable christmas day yet.

Four visitors arrived via helicopter on the 29th; Frank, Dougie (pilots), Ben and Jeremy (engineers) stayed with us for two nights and took us out to several nearby nunataks for sampling over the wider region. It was nice to have the extra company, although the mess tent was noticably smaller, and dinner was served in staggered sittings.We managed to visit Rimmington Bluff (further south on the escarpment), Wilson Bluff, Cumpston Massif, Mounts Rubin and Stinear, and a few sites in the north escarpment. Mites were found in at least four of these locations, including Rimmington Bluff (the most incredible rock face, over 1000 m high, and now the site of the southernmost reported land animals in the Australian Antarctic Territory). The northern sites yielded moss beds comparable in size to the Ureweras (well, almost) and stampedes of mites under every rock turned. The helicopters moved us back to the Turk Glacier midday on the 31st, and they then flew back to Davis with much haste in anticipation of the on-station festivities.

New years on the Turk was celebrated in the traditional fashion, aided by additional Vestfold Brewery supplies, Mr. Johnnie Walker, and a certain migratory fowl. Dinner was followed by a screening of the movie ‘Old School’; Will Ferrel’s character providing inspiration for at least one of the expedition members… We partied till the sun came up (remember it never set) , then had a well-deserved (and necessary for some) rest for the first day of the new year.

We planned to move down to Lake Terrasovje (in the Beaver Lake region) by the 5th, but again weather is against us. A blizzard down at the coast has prevented flights from Davis for the last four days, we eagerly pester base for updates during our daily 1700 sched (call in to base to ensure we’re fine). The weather has been pretty good here at our end however, and we continue to work on different bits and pieces. A trek up the back of the Turk was aborted after one sample due to white-out conditions; very strange to have 20 metre visibility after weeks of 50 km plus. Adrian has been having a great time scampering along the magnificent cliff face behind camp, geologising his heart out. Fiona and I have been sampling cryconites (columns of water in the glacier formed from rocks and sediment melting in) as a side-study, and Paul continues to pick up a few samples along the front of the glaciers, often finding mites. Our time at the Escarpment has been great, and I would love to return one day, but we are now very keen to move on as we are due to be pulled out of the field before the 26th (some weird holiday called Australia Day), and want to cover the Terrasovje area well.

Bis spaeter!


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