Ice Diary 5: MacAlpine Hills or Bust

Ice Diary 5

MacAlpine Hills or Bust

13 December, 2002
Post by Dante Lauretta

Today was a transition day for the ANSMET Beardmore team. Yesterday we completed our survey of the blue ice fields surrounding Goodwin Nunatak. Most of this region had already been searched by previous ANSMET expeditions so we only had a small area to cover.

We spent most of this morning loading up our sledges in preparation for the traverse to MacAlpine Hills tomorrow. Fortunately the weather was on our side. We had a beautiful, sunny, windless day. Every member of the team worked hard. I was given the task of refueling all of the Jerry cans with snowmobile fuel, then loading four 55 gallon drums onto a kohoutek, a large, flat sled that is wider than the sledges we use to pull most of our gear. Those fuel drums are heavy and difficult to move around. They had been partially buried in a snowdrift, requiring a fair bit of shoveling to set them free. I am surprised by the amount of hard work required for a successful meteorite season. More often than not I go to sleep with sore muscles.

I am amazed at the level of technology that we have out here. Right now I am typing on my laptop computer, which I have been recharging with a small solar panel for the past week. As soon as I finish writing this I will plug into the Iridium satellite phone and send this message via email to the web site. The other night we used my laptop to watch a movie on DVD. These advances make the distance from home seem that much smaller.

15 December, 2002

Antarctic team member, Dante, collecting meteorites.

I’m afraid today’s journal must be brief. We have been delayed a couple of days in leaving Goodwin Nunatak for our traverse to MacAlpine Hills. The other day was beautiful, so we took advantage of the good weather and packed up all but the essential gear, including our solar and wind power generators. That night the wind picked up, causing ground blizzards and delaying our departure. The weather is fine today, although the horizon looks fuzzy, indicating ground blizzards exist in the direction of our destination. It’s not worth risking frostbite or extreme winds that could topple our sledges to get an extra day of meteorite searching.

Tent days are really a part of the Antarctic experience. None of us are bored. Jamie is teaching himself French. Dante, Danny, Linda, and Nancy learned some new card games. And Scott, Carl, and I seem to making great progress on our reading. Scott enjoys light reading like "Crime and Punishment" while I polished off 120 pages of "Lord of the Rings."

17 December, 2002

"It was like a train wreck," said Linda Welzenbach, describing part of our journey yesterday. It was probably the hardest day of this entire expedition.

On Sunday, we spent our second day in a row in the tents and were not able to do the traverse. Jaime, Scott, and Carl used the time to scout out part of the route on snowmobile, and came back optimistic about our traverse. The weather cleared and although it was still a little cold (0F), the wind had died down and we could get started. We broke down camp and left at 9:30 a.m.

The first few miles went fairly well. We were all dragging a couple of sleds and occasionally, one would tip and two or three people would gather to right it. But overall, it wasn’t too bad. After about eight miles, we reached a cliff of pure ice. We really had to gun our ski-doos to go up the hill, but we still didn’t make it on the first try. But when we made it we were on the high ground that sits above the Lewis Cliffs.

The next several miles consisted of a gradual climb on which my snowmobile started going slower and slower. I felt like I was driving my VW Bus in Denver’s rush hour traffic with all the rest of our team clustering up behind me. Dante drove up to see what was the matter and I explained I had no power. I thought it might be just a bad spark plug, but it seems to be more serious. By the time it was getting critical, it was time to begin our downhill leg.

Jaime scouted out our route and by this time it was getting to be late afternoon and we had only gone 30 miles. As we went downhill, we started encountering blue ice with patches of snow. Blue ice is good for finding meteorites, but bad for towing sleds. They take on a mind of their own and go whatever direction they wish. Often they turn sideways, hit snows patches, and flip. My food sled flipped twice, along with many others.

Nancy and Jaime kept everyone’s morale up by letting us know that we were less than an hour and a half from camp, and that we could see our campsite in the distance. All we had to do was go down a rather steep blue ice slope and we would be there shortly.

Jaime went first, and I’m not sure if he steered his sled of snowmobile fuel, or if it steered him. He got it to the bottom and I followed. Shortly, my two sleds were outracing me down the slope and would turn and flip, spraying up a cloud of snow. I could only imagine the pieces of my computer I would find later. Soon, Jaime raced up and helped me right the sled, only to have it happen again.

The rest of the team started down the slope and one sled after another flipped. I’m not sure there was a sled that didn’t flip. The sleds are heavy; some nearing 1,000 pounds, so it takes many people to right them. We would race to right the sleds, only to see several others flip.

This went on for a couple of hours. We tried leading them down one by one after seeing several double flips. Finally, we had one snowmobile act as a brake on the sleds while another led. It took twice as long to get down, but we had only a few more disasters.

The many flags flying at base camp.

Surprisingly, there were few losses in terms of our equipment and food. I think that’s a testament to how well the sleds were lashed up. We arrived in camp about 10 hours and 40 miles after we left Goodwin Nunatak. We’re sore, tired, and hungry, but relieved to be here.

Today we established camp and got our power hooked up. I’m happy that my computer is now working with the satellite phone so I don’t have to bother Dante to use his anymore. Unfortunately, my ski-doo completely died today, so I might have to ride along with someone else tomorrow when we go searching for meteorites.

We were going to set up a weather station, with temperature and humidity probes attached to rocks to study weathering effects on meteorites. A device called a data logger is attached to each and must be started by a computer. However, the cable that attaches the data logger to the computer never made it to Antarctica, so we’re trying to get one flown in from McMurdo. Too bad we can’t just run down to Radio Shack.

18 December, 2002

This is Scott Messenger – since this is my first journal entry I’ll introduce myself and then give you the news for the day. I am a space scientist from Washington University in Saint Louis Missouri. I spend most of my time studying stardust and cosmic dust. These are tiny cousins of the meteorites, and some of them are probably our only samples of comets. They are all too small to see with the naked eye. It’s a refreshing change to work with samples you can actually hold in your hand and admire! If you want to read more about cosmic dust and stardust, go to:

The landscape is remarkable, and the entire continent is obviously dominated by ice. This ice is so thick that it covers up entire mountain ranges. It is strange to be at an altitude of over 8,000 feet, yet at the same time we are living on an incredibly flat vast expanse of ice. But we are reminded of the altitude whenever we exert ourselves and start panting, or see the peaks of nearby mountains enshrouded in clouds that seem close enough to touch.

Another striking characteristic of the landscape is its obvious age. The ice surface has been sculpted by wind and occasional surface melting over thousands of years into a texture that you might expect from instantly freezing a lake, where the waves and ripples are frozen into place. The wind also sculpts striking ‘wind scoops’ in the ice and snow. Almost all of the rocks we see in exposed areas have their own wind scoops in the downwind direction. In the right lighting, the mountains seem to be draped in white satin sheets of snow and ice.

It’s no secret that it’s cold here – today it hovered between 0 and 5 degrees F, with a light wind and clear skies. But, frankly I have been much colder in Saint Louis when the temperature drops to 15 or so with strong northerly winds. That’s probably because here, we are very well equipped for the extremely cold weather. But any exposed skin becomes chilled very quickly. The biggest problem we have is cold toes and fingers, but this can usually be sorted out by changing gloves, putting on dry socks, or using chemical hot pads (which are fantastic!).

Today we began searching the Mac Alpine Hills region for meteorites. Very little of this region has been searched in detail, and it’s possible that we will end up in areas that nobody has ever visited before. We collected 14 meteorites today, putting our total for the season to over 100, with four weeks in the field left to go.

We found several large meteorites today, including one that weighed several pounds! This area had the highest relative concentration of meteorites we have seen this season. Almost every rock larger than a golf ball turned out to be a meteorite. But there were not as many small meteorites as we would expect. We think they have piled up on the south side of the moraine, so we’ll tackle that area on another day.

Expedition chronicler, Andrew Caldwell.

Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET), funded by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation, has recovered more than 10,000 specimens from meteorite stranding surfaces along the Transantarctic Mountains. Dr. Ralph Harvey and John Schutt are members of each field party, serving as ANSMET continues to be one of the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate students and senior researchers from other institutions to participate in our field work on a volunteer basis–including the Teacher Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program. As a multi-agency collaboration, the NSF supports field operations, NASA supports storage curation, distribution and notification of recovered samples, and the Smithsonian provides long term curation facilities for the collection and assist in sample characterization.

In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentary are atributed to Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of his participation in the TEA program.

Related Web Pages

Ice Diary I: Shooting Stars on Ice
Ice Diary 2: Great Scott, A Ghost
Ice Diary 3: Cheer for Team Meteorite
Ice Diary 4: The Hunt Begins
Ice Diary 5: MacAlpine Hills or Bust
Ice Diary 6: Contacting The Mother Pod
Ice Diary 7: Summer Christmas
Ice Diary 8: Where No One Has Gone Before
Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)
Planetary Materials Curation (NASA/JSC)
Mars Meteorite Compendium (NASA/JSC)
AMLAMP: Antarctic Meteorite Location and Mapping Program (database of where meteorites have been found)
National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs
McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project
Ice Cube of Exotic Microbes
Antarctic Microbes Colonize under Mars-like Conditions
Cryobot (JPL)
Meteorite Repository (JSC) Rock Descriptions
NIPR Meteorite Collection (Japan)