Friday, December 2, 2011

The True Majesty and Beauty of Antarctica

Mt. Rossman and Union Glacier

The dictionary defines “awesome” as “extremely impressive or daunting, or, inspiring great admiration”.  In my vain attempt at finding a word to best describe what I have seen and experienced over the past two weeks, all I could come up with was “awesome”.  Try to remove yourself from the colloquial usage of the word, and think of a time when what you gazed out upon truly triggered a goose-bump raising response; A sense of shear wonderment at the spectacle that our little orbiting rock can sometimes present.  Think of a moment where you may have stood, in such utter disbelief at the beauty that lay before you, that you were unaware of everything else around you.  Now imagine that normally ephemeral feeling, lasting continuously for two weeks….

This is the “awesome” to which I refer.

Over the past three seasons, I thought that I had experienced the very best that the frozen and wondrous 7th continent had to offer.  I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.  Everything was in order for me to come down to Antarctica for my 4th season this year at the flat and white camp of WAIS Divide.  In the few months leading up to my deployment, I was asked by one of my PhD committee members if I would go down earlier in order to assist with the Polenet project.  Initially I responded with little interest, but when I heard I’d be going to the Ellsworth mountains and staying at the Union Glacier (ALE) camp, I knew I’d probably never get another chance.  Add to that the prospect of working on seismic and GPS equipment, and I was sold.

A little background:  For over 20 years, the Patriot Hills camp has been the single longest lasting privately run camp on continent.  Any time you hear about someone paying money to go to Antarctica, or paying to run a marathon there, or paying to climb Vinson Massif (the highest peak in Antarctica), OR, paying to mount a ski expedition to South Pole…it was through Patriot Hills.  If you had lots of money, and wanted to experience Antarctica apart from the NSF funded science projects, you came down to Patriot Hills by way of Chile.  Starting last year, the Patriot Hills camp moved further north in the Ellsworth Mountain chain up onto Union Glacier.  The scenery is arguably more breathtaking there, and the winds much calmer.  Most recent opinions do agree that the Union Glacier site is better overall.  This is where I was based out of the past two weeks.

But…it gets better.

For those of you that have read my blog posts before, you’ll know of my fascination and near-obsession with going to extreme and remote places.  Places that no other person would have any interest in…I’m drawn to like moth to a flame.  Nothing excites me more than the prospect of going to a remote nunatak in the middle of Antarctica, if only just to stand on it and take in the utter isolation of it.  The Polenet project is basically tailored for someone with just this sort of fascination.  The work I was asked to do, involved getting into very small ski-equipped planes, and flying to the most remote outcrops on, in, and around the Ellsworth mountains in order to service independent seismic and GPS stations.   Probably the single best job on the planet in my mind.  Let see:  Cool polar science – check, cool gadgets – check, flying in small planes – check, going to ridiculously remote places – check, working with great people – check, and seeing the most beautiful places on Earth….- check.  No brainer.

Rather than rambling on, I’m going to just post some pics to give you a small idea of what I saw.  These pictures can’t possibly do it justice, but it’s the best I can do…

Site Visit Map

Day 1 – Our first full day at Union Glacier, we flew out to, and serviced Pecora Station (Pecora Escarpment).  I desperately wanted to go to this site as it was the farthest South (86 degrees), but with all of the equipment and fuel, the pilots could only take 3 out of the 6 of us.  I worried that this would be the trend for the project, but I was thankfully proven wrong.  After this first day, I was able to come along and assist at every other site we visited.

View from my tent

Days 2, and 3 – On our 2nd and 3rd days, we visited and serviced the Mt. Suggs station up in the Merrick Mountains at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula.  This was a beautiful and remote location and my first flight in a ski-equipped Twin Otter.  It was also my birthday…and so quite a present.  I will never forget my 35th, that’s for damn sure.

Loading up the Twin Otter

Twin Otter going out to refuel

My kind of scenery

On Day 4, we all went out to the Cordiner Peak (Dufek Massif) site.  The flight for this site was long and required refueling at a remote cache along the way.  The site itself was on a beautiful and tiny spec of exposed rock just jutting up through the ice sheet.

view from the plane

Dufek Massif

Dufek site location

Work-site heroic Antarctic photo-pose

Foundation ice-stream

Remote refueling

On Day 5, the GPS team took a short flight up to the Wilson Nunatak GPS-only site about 50k away, while the seismic team (of which I was a part of), drove snowmobiles out to the seismic station that was about 5 miles outside of camp (on the flank of “Peak 942”).  Despite being only 5 miles from camp, the local site had some of the best views of Union Glacier and the surrounding mountains.

View from Peak 942 (local Union Glacier Site) w/ALE camp in far background

View across Union Glacier

On day 6, we finished strong by hitting two sites in the same day: Howard and Haag Nunataks.  Haag was probably my favorite site that I was able to see.  It was a stunning and perfect little piece of exposed rock surrounded by ice in all directions.  What made this last day even more spectacular though, was that the pilots flew us right along the main ridgeline of the Ellsworth Mountains.   About 40 minutes into the flight, they flew us up to nearly 15,000 feet and right past the summit of Vinson Massif, the highest peak in all of Antarctica.  It was mind-boggling, and absolutely breathtaking. 

Snowy Peaks

Vinson Massif

 Mmmm folds and stratigraphy

Nunatak Jumping

After 6 days of site-visits, we took a well-deserved day off for Thanksgiving.   Weather eventually turned sour in the area over the next few days and we were not able to hit the last station we were hoping to service in the Whitmore Mountains.  This was not a priority site, however, and will still be serviced out of another camp.  All in all, it was a ridiculously successful season for our little Union Glacier Polenet group, and one that I was extremely fortunate to be a part of.

Union Glacier Christmas Tree

Beautiful clouds over the Ellsworth Mtns.

Here’s a little video I quickly put together set to some music to help put it all in even better perspective:


Sara Montgomery said...

Wow, unbelievable experience. I feel kind of sick with envy to be honest! Thanks for sharing pics! So, so beautiful there.

Eliza Ralph-Murphy said...

It must be "awesome" to experience a place that forces you to redefine and refine your vocabulary.

Sara, Ditto on the envy part but at least he is kind enough to share.

Eliza Ralph-Murphy said...

Also Happy belated 35th John.

Sara, maybe this will help

Derrick said...

Amazing photos. Would be just so incredible to see first hand.

Hey...isn't there a 100km there this weekend?

Lakewood said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes :-D

I'm hoping to get more pics uploaded, but the connection is very slow from mcmurdo.

derrick, yes...there is a 100k in camp today (and a marathon yesterday)! Had our plane been delayed one more day, I would have at least run the marathon. I had actually spoken to the race director when he showed up in camp with the 40 marathon/ultra runners and he told me that I was considered part of the camp staff (which get to join in on the races for free). He signed me up and I got a bib number, race shirt, and patches...but our plane made it in on time and I missed the start by a day. Maybe next year :-) There were only 5 people running the 100k, and I had been training on the course for two weeks. It would have been interesting to run in it...

Derrick said...

Too bad you missed out. Guess you'll have to go back again next year!

phil said...

Thanks for sharing the pics, looks simply amazing. Sorry to not see ur name on the WS100 lotto list

Unknown said...


Found your blog after finding your videos on Youtube of your PCT thru-hike. I love that you took so many vids and I plan on watching all of them. I am doing the PCT in April! Also, was viewing your early posts when you made a big change in your life in 2006/07 and the way your changed direction in your life is inspiring. I will be leaving my job in April and forging a new future. Thanks for all you do and keep up the inspiration!


Unknown said...

Forgot to ask, what camera did you use on your PCT Hike for the video? I am looking at a Canon compact with 1080 HD video capability....don't remember the model name. Are you using a compact digital with video or are you using a dedicated video camera?


Lakewood said...

Thanks so much for the kind words. Good luck to you on your PCT will change your life. I bookmarked your blog and look forward to following along!

As far as camera, I just used a basic point/click that had video option (not even HD). I don't have it in front of me, but I'm pretty sure it is a canon A720? I liked it because it takes standard aa batteries and I could find them anywhere. Of course now, there are WAY better cameras out there (mine is now 3 years old).

take care, and keep in touch.


Finn Mcool said...

I have watched nearly all of your videos in the last three days. Thank you for sharing the amazing treks and personal insights. You are a very good musician as well! Liked the music on your slideshows a lot. Especially liked the piece for "The True Majesty and Beauty of Antarctica". Please let me know what that piece is. Thanks John!

Lakewood said...


Thanks so much for the kind words. The music on the video was called Lux Aurumque...a choir piece by whitaker.