Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Week on Mt. Erebus!

What a week!  Up to Mt. Erebus for 7 days to put up a number of small wind turbines or "wind birds" as we tend to call them, and to build a small solar system to power a few instruments during the harsh winter.  Mt. Erebus is the southern most active volcano in the world and we were flown up last Tuesday to almost 12,000 feet. 

We can see Erebus as soon as we are airborn, in itself always remarkable - being airborn, that is.  And during the half hour flight over the long southwest peninsula of Ross Island and then up Erebus' flanks, the mountain looms larger and larger as we climb higher and higher, the pilot flying with a nasal canula giving him some extra oxygen (a very good thing).  

Lower Erebus Hut sometime between 2-4am when the sun is behind the crater.

We landed and unloaded our 400 or so pounds of gear, crouched over it so it didn't blow away and the helo departed leaving Nick and I to ourselves many miles away from McMurdo and a few miles above it.  We opened up the camp and that night drove snow mobiles down to Fang camp a few thousand feet below to sleep in more oxygen rich air, as they say: "Climb high, sleep low", or in our case, "Work high, sleep low."  To get to the camp near Fang Ridge, one has to take the snow machine down Fang Gulley.  Yes, that's right, "gully" - a notoriously steep and icy gully that has rolled more than one snow machine.  Forgetting to put my machine into first gear and also volunteering for the extra challenge of dragging a loaded sled behind my machine (which makes it more prone to rolling if the sled starts to swing out past the machine) I raced down the gully, not really on purpose but necessarily going faster than my sled, sometimes nearly out of control, but of course still in control and thereby made it safely to camp with a little bit of nervous adrenaline.  

The camp is set in a beautiful location.  Four small Scott tents in the middle of the solid Fang Glacier.  The pictures do it justice.  One has to look carefully to see the tents.  

Fang Camp, looking north.

Fang Camp, looking south.

The next day we were back up to the Lower Erebus Hut or LEH, where we were dropped off to begin our solar and wind work.  First on the agenda was the two Cones wind birds.  At the Cones sight were two rebuilt 30 foot towers that had come down during the previous winter.  We hoped it mounting the two birds would take a day, but in fact it took 3 and a half.  It seemed like I went up and down the towers a million times during those days.  Raising the mounting poles, raising the birds, raising the blades, removing the unbalanced blades, installing the spares, dropping the whole blade assembly to try another one, then dropping that one because of an imbalance, and on and on...Like a space man on a space truss on the space station.  I took my headphones up with me for the first time and had the wonderful experience of listening to many Pearl Jam albums high on a wind tower overlooking McMurdo Sound at around 12,000 feet in a slight breeze and sunshine.  This would contrast the experience at Nausea Knob a few days later.  

McMurdo is at the end of the peninsula that stretches from the lower left to the middle of the picture.

The Cones towers awaiting their birds.

On the way up!

Nausea Knob was really like being in space.  We had a stiff wind the entire day and being away from the hut, there was no warm place in which to rest or take off the layers and layers of cold weather coverings, face mask, goggles, etc.  Not a bit of skin uncovered, no place to rest from the wind, eating and drinking because I knew if I did not keep up the discipline, I would pay for it at the end of the day in the cold, high wind.  Again, up and down the tower, all the while with toe warmers in my gloves.  Endless little tasks to another tower fixed and all the parts and pieces ready for a complete install of the new wind bird.  (The last one had been ripped off the pole in the winter.)

Finally the bird was up, spinning, all wires were landed and making power.  By the end of the long day, I was thoroughly exhausted having felt like I was never going to make it back to the hut.

The rest of our time was spent getting the winter solar and battery bank set up for the winter.  This was done during the last few days and nights.  Since the sun is always up and since we had a specified pick up done, there was much work to be done and one could to the work at any time.  This I quite enjoyed.  I was able, within limits of having some carpenters at the hut, work when I wanted to.  We didn't really have time off, but I could wake up a little later than usual, be exhausted by the time we would eat dinner at around 9 or 10 pm, but then get a second wind and work the last few nights until 2am.  These last two nights the sun was out, the wind was calm and it was just wonderful to be outside.  I love my work, and it was such a pleasure to be outside at such a fantastic place.  I wanted a few more days to work my own schedule, to see where I would end up and how it would correlate with the 24 hour cycle and circle of the sun ahead.  The sun went behind the crater rim from about 2am to 4am and this sort of became my night.  When in the shadows, it was time to stop working.  

A peaceful night with a steam vent in rising 15 feet above the snow surface.

The last night it was so beautiful and calm, I ended up sleeping outside.  So excellent to be sleeping "under the stars" in Antarctica at near 12,000 feet on the side of an active volcano!  So peaceful to look below and see the clouds above McMurdo Sound.  The last few nights before bed, I would climb the LEH wind towers to get a look into the Sound below.  So good it was to get away from town for a bit, to work hard in a wonderful place with wonderful people.

My bed for the night.

A wind bird and the circling moon.  How beautiful!
We had one bit of down time and one night after dinner we motivated to go to the crater rim.  It was a clear day and we had a fantastic time hiking around the rim and gazing far below (maybe a thousand feet or so) into the molten lava lake!  (A molten lava lake in Antarctica!)  The pictures will speak for themselves.  Closer to space I was!

A molten lava lake far below.  60 meters across!