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Josh's Australian Antarctic expedition 7 - To Accidental Valley

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas from the Mawson Escarpment.
Firstly I would like to offer a public apology, in two parts, to my new hero, and future lord and master, Capt. Adrian Corvino PhD; one for spelling his name wrong in previous posts, and for lacking faith in his predictions as to conditions here in Accidental Valley (more on this soon).
Below: Jeremy (Helicopter engineer) sending off a sling-load of gear to Accidental Valley camp.
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 We didn’t get away from Menzies until the 14th, due to conditions down at Davis. They have abandoned the skiway on the sea ice already, and are now using (or at least trying to) ‘Woop Woop’ – a skiway up on the plateau. Flights from Woop Woop require pilots and air support crew to be heli’d up to the plateau; this is a no go on days of drifting snow, as surface definition is nil and landing a heli is too risky. So we got an extra few days of sampling at Menzies, working out of a half-pulled down camp. We pushed our number of bio sites higher, as well as getting some great geological and soil work done. When camp shift was finally confirmed, sledging of gear was greatly aided by the construction of the Trans-Menzian Autobahn (a two metre wide path over ice cleared of all stones by Paul the budding civil engineer).

Bob and Al turned up in the Otter and managed to move us in two loads. This involved some very creative stacking of gear (I suspect Al has played a lot of tetris at some time) and a less than comfortable seating arrangement. Two hundred kilometres later we were turfed out at the bottom of the Turk Glacier, the landing site chosen during the recce flight that Adrain went on earlier. Just to clarify, Accidental Valley is not an official name; you won’t find it on a map. It is a small ice free valley in between the Turk and Morgan Glaciers in the Southern Mawson Escarpment. We camped at the Turk for two nights until the helicopters could get out to sling us into Accidental. The Turk camp was awesome, on the edge of the Lambert Glacier right below some incredible cliffs several hundreds of metres high. The rock exposed in these cliffs (as with the Escarpment in general) has been through the proverbial ringer. At over three billion years old, many of these rocks predate Gondwana (and indeed Rodinia) assembly  significantly, and carry evidence of intense metamorphism. Granites, gneisses and schists are all incredibly folded and deformed, by far the most amazing rocks I’ve ever seen. You wouldn’t believe the patterns and shapes that have arisen as a result of processes over 15 km below the surface during continent evolution. Apart from the rocks, we found moss about 100 m from our tents, and a snow petrel flew overhead. Quite a surreal experience after two and a half weeks of seeing no living things other than your team mates!

We were slung into Accidental Valley on the 16th, and pitched camp on rock and snow on the edge of what appeared to be a solidly frozen lake. In front of our tents is a small pile of rubbish from an old Russian camp, identifiable by the writing on the vodka labels. Accidental is paradise, I concede. At 1000 m lower than Menzies, temperatures are at least ten degrees warmer, gotta love that adiabatic lapse rate! Drink bottles don’t freeze here. A tent for the toilet isn’t necessary, neither are gloves for the majority of the time. My down jacket is now a pillow full-time. I’ve been walking in board shorts over thermals. Most importantly, when you go to get water you can dip a jug into liquid water; no more chopping water for the morning cuppa. We’re also finding life here! Not in huge amounts, but lichens and cyanobacteria are to be found, as well as plenty of hypoliths. A small amount of moss has also been found and sampled. Invertebrates still elude us though; no springtails or mites have been found. Yet.

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