Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 | McMurdo Station to Upper Friedmann Valley
This morning, four of us hopped on a helicopter at McMurdo Station, the United States Antarctic Program’s base, near the spot where Scott’s men built a hut in 1902 to wait out the long winter. Along with my fellow field assistant Keith Heyward, I was joining Marchant and his graduate student, Sean Mackay, flying 60 miles across the sea ice to the Dry Valleys, a series of valleys and ridges that lie roughly east to west and largely free of the ice that covers 98 percent of the continent.
Most glaciers are wet-based: A layer of water beneath the ice makes the glacier mobile, capable of creating steep fjords and other dramatic features that we associate with glacially sculpted terrain. The Dry Valley glaciers are cold-based: Too frigid to melt, their geological footprint is more subtle.
Marchant, with support from the National Science Foundation, is a veteran of Dry Valley expeditions, and this is Mackay’s fourth season. As a rookie, I have no idea what to expect. I’ve done my share of adventuring, but this is a whole new level. I’m wondering if I’m really up for this. For six weeks, I will be without a shower, peeing in a bottle and sleeping in a tent in the coldest, driest place in the world.
From the helicopter, the land below resembled a massive explosion of white cake frosting over mountainous terrain. It was covered with glacial ice — the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is the largest in the world. In parts, it’s nearly three miles thick, and, with the nearby West Antarctic Ice Sheet, it blankets an expanse roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined. If both ice sheets melted — a process already underway at an alarming rate in West Antarctica — global sea levels would rise 200 feet.
We flew over a break in the mountains, and the ice ended abruptly, revealing a flat valley. It looked like a dry, rocky riverbed. Mackay nudged me and pointed down. “That’s Beacon Valley,” he yelled, “our next campsite.” For now, we continued farther south to a smaller inlet called Friedmann Valley.
When we reached our campsite, we unloaded our gear. The helicopter took off in a maelstrom of blowing sand and rock, leaving us in the middle of a giant boulder field stretching several miles north toward Beacon.
It’s now evening, and we’re surrounded by craggy walls banded with ruddy bedrock and tawny sandstone. Farther north, buttes and mesas resembling the American Southwest flank a flat valley floor. Beyond Beacon, the shelf of Taylor Glacier shows hints of baby blue. The cliffs surrounding us are glowing red. During the austral summer — October through February — the sun never sets here, but it does fall closer to the horizon, which spreads a narrow spectrum of warm light across the landscape, drawing out vivid, contrasting hues.