The Dry Valleys are littered with the corpses of dead animals. Occasionally, one of the penguins or seals that land at the shore will wander up valley and become disoriented. These unfortunate individuals soon become fully lost and start a long and difficult march until they collapse from lack of food and exhaustion.

No one is quite sure why seals and penguins would wander inland to begin with. One theory thrown around is that they see the reflection of light off the lakes and head towards it thinking it’s the ocean. This event is not as rare as one might think: researchers have proposed that one seal may enter the valleys every 8 years, and penguins are even more common.

Another Dead Leopard

These awkward marine mammals crawl on their bellies up staggering heights and distances. Weddell and Crabeater seal carcasses have been found up to 35 miles up the valley, and at elevations as high as 5000 feet. Dating the age of these bodies has remained difficult, however some initial carbon-dating research has labeled corpses anywhere from several hundred years to 2600 years old.

The last remains of a terrifying Leopard Seal

The Dry Valleys are a desert. This means that the lack of moisture and the cold, dessicating air dries out the bodies long before they get the chance to rot. The absence of any carrion feeders means that the bodies remain intact as they dry. The one exception to this are Skua – a type of sea bird that comes to the Valleys only to nest. These birds pick out the eyes of the dead animals. However, since the seal’s skin is rather thick, the birds are unable to tear at the flesh unless the animal had been initially injured (from falling off a cliff, etc). Seals that are hundreds of years old lay on the rocky ground, dried stiff, missing only their eyes. As the centuries pass, the blowing sand and rock will eventually break away the body until only a few bleached bones remain.

It’s a harsh continent.

Cold day in the sun

Only the eyes

Zoom in to see the bone structure of the arm



It’s why this place exists. Every job, every building, every person is down here to support science directly or indirectly. Nearly everyone is interested in it – the helicopter pilots chat up scientists about the details of their research as they fly around, the carpenters who build the field camps are well versed in climate variations, and science lectures are packed with everyone on base – defying the norm back in the real world.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) oversees the US Antarctic Program that encompasses all US research stations in Downunderest. McMurdo (under New Zealand), Palmer (under South America), and the South Pole (under the world) act as staging and support centers for scientists. Carpenters, engineers, cooks, janitors, mechanics, electricians, and a medical doctor are all here for the purpose of supporting science. It’s an amazing array of skills and people who come together for a common goal. And everyone is interested in it.

I’ve talked about logistics a lot, but have completely neglected to say why I’m down here in the first place. Science. I’m working as a research assistant with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (UColorado – Boulder) to come down to Antarctica and help run research on the streams and rivers of the Dry Valleys. We’re part of a bigger research group called the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project. The LTER is a network of research stations across the world that are in place to monitor and collect long-term data of the environment. The Dry Valley LTER consists of five main teams – Glaciers, Streams, Lakes, Soils, and Meteorology. I like to think of this as following the chain of water in the Valleys – the glaciers melt and run off into streams, and the streams flow into lakes.

Yep, rivers in Antarctica. Still blows my mind.

I work for the Stream Team. We’re not here testing any hypotheses. What we do is open up these fancy stream gauges in the beginning of the season that monitor temperature and flow rate. These systems operate on ultra-modern technology designed around 1991. Once we’ve fed the hamsters that power the computers, we “shoot levels” of the streams and gauges. Ever see those two guys standing on the street, one’s looking through a telescope on a tripod and the other’s standing far away and holding a giant ruler? That’s us. It takes us 2 hours to survey each site to see if the elevation of the stream gauges have changed. And we have to get it correct to within 6 thousands of an inch. Or we start over. And over. If you bump the surveying instrument, slip, breath too heavily… even just think negative thoughts, you could misalign the instrument and have wasted half a day. Standing in place for hours gets pretty cold.

Now as powerful as Atari!


And lastly, we look at the flow rate and chemistry of the streams. Flow rate is measured by standing in the freezing water, holding a big stick with spinning cups (circa 1903), and counting clicks. Chemistry is done by bottling water samples and bringing them back to our shack for analysis. We process for anions, cations, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, alkalinity, and other tests with imaginary names.

Just a little water

On any given day our three person team stumbles into our shack around 8am, we have a leisurely breakfast, and then jump on our ATV and drive across the frozen lake in front of us to get to our stream sites. Since we can’t drive the ATV on land (environmental restrictions) we end up hiking short distances inland to the streams. When summer actually comes, the edges of the lake will melt and we’ll have to hike the full distance. Once we’re at the stream we collect samples, feed the hamsters, and stand in freezing water. Hike back to ATV. Repeat.

We also have to monitor streams in other Valleys, which means helicopter rides. A lot of them. At least one day a week we fly over to the Wright Valley (“North” of us) and are dropped off for two hours at each site. On another day every week, we get flown up Taylor Valley to our more distant sites. At least 10 times a week we’re flying over mountain ranges, through valleys, and over massive glaciers. All for science.

Life is good.

Where The Hell Are We?

Just a small post about where we are in the world. It’s been a busy week, longer post to come soon.

In the big picture:

A an upclose view of Taylor Valley and Canada Glacier with one of our field camps:


And finally: the enormously, ridiculously, painfully long flight path:

So. long.

Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.


From To Initial
4 segment path: 13484 mi
IAD (38°56’51″N 77°27’36″W) LAX (33°56’33″N 118°24’26″W) 274° (W) 2288 mi
LAX (33°56’33″N 118°24’26″W) SYD (33°56’46″S 151°10’38″E) 241° (SW) 7488 mi
SYD (33°56’46″S 151°10’38″E) CHC (43°29’22″S 172°32’04″E) 126° (SE) 1323 mi
CHC (43°29’22″S 172°32’04″E) NZIR (77°51’14″S 166°28’08″E) 182° (S) 2385 mi



I just earned a lot of frequent flier miles.


Taylor Valley

We spent our first 4 days in Taylor Valley at a site called Lake Hoare, the control center for the Dry Valley field camps. Run on an incredibly efficient schedule, Lake Hoare can comfortably house around 15 people. There’s a central building that has a few emergency bunks and a kitchen, surrounded by a dozen tent sites and a few small shacks for lab work. I’ll explain more about the setup in a later post when I have pictures of it. I would have taken some, but weather happened to us.

Weather here doesn’t have a background existence, it controls absolutely everything you do. During our first two days there we had something called a Katabatic wind. What happens is that cool, dense air from a high elevation is brought down by gravity and the increased pressure causes the air to “warm” and RUSH through the valley. Katabatics easily reach and exceed hurricane speeds – the fastest one recorded in the valleys was around 200 knots (230mph). These winds are near impossible to predict; ours averaged around 30 knots for the two days and peaked around 40 knots. It’s tough to sleep with a tent vibrating around you.

Once the winds died we were hit with a freak snowstorm of about 8 inches. Doesn’t sound like much, but the Dry Valleys are known for being free of snow and ice. I’m beginning to think this whole ‘desert’ business is a lie. While it’s a pain in the ass to walk around on loose rocks buried in snow, I am getting a unique perspective on the valley.

Snow Day

Winter Wonderland

After running out of snow-day excuses, it was time for us to make the ‘epic’ 2 hour hike over to our base camp. Walking around the edge of Canada Glacier, the cloud cover cleared to show the Asgard mountain range looming in the distance.


Perspective is a funny thing in the valleys: what looks close is more like 5 or 10 miles away because there’s no frame of reference – no trees, buildings, anything. The view in front of me as I write this is of a mountain that looks only a mile away, but is actually 12.

Cold walk in the park

After our skirt around Canada Glacier we hiked onto the edge of Lake Fryxell towards our new home, F6. After a few miles of lake ice we arrived and finally threw down our bags in their permanent location. F6 is quite small, it’s a shack that’s divided half for cooking and half for science, comfortable enough for three people to work in. This is our “home” base; my permanent tent is pitched outside with a wonderful lake-front view.

A frozen Lake Fryxell and Canada Glacier

At the end of my first week here I’m struck with how blindingly gorgeous the place is. The Dry Valleys are the largest ice-free area of the continent (0.03%, or a little smaller than Delaware) and few people who come to Antarctica ever get to step foot on the continent itself with its soils, lakes, and rivers. Looking around, it’s easy to forget where I am and think I’m somewhere in frigid Canada. Where’s Tim Horton’s when you need it?

Flight Out

After two and a half weeks of fattening up for the cold, we’ve finally left for the Dry Valleys. There are a lot of inane steps that occurred prior to us leaving, but if I ever get bored enough to write a blog post specifically to bore you, I’ll be sure to include those details. Briefly, we had to get science equipment, field equipment, food and medical supplies all together ready for being helicoptered out. It was an incredible grocery list of junk, totaling around 3800 pounds. The science equipment included 1200 hand washed bottles, which took about a week of my time. It did allow me the time to listen to my Spanish language tapes. Needless to say I scared onlookers by repeating “Hola señorita, soy el señor Sancho” to bottles for hours on end.

The food-pull was fun. Imagine a small grocery store, with the warm lighting of a damp third-world market, boxes piled in a vague semblance of order. Only here, everything was free. Steak, cereal, jams, teas, coffee, chocolate bars (over 12 types of Cadbury), everything. Since the field teams endure “harsh” conditions, we’re given a better assortment of things to choose from than those who stay in McMurdo. A limitless, endless supply of chocolate.

Medical supplies. Not much to say about it. Other than there’s more Vicodin, Percocet, and antibiotics than any human would need.

And field equipment: -40 degree sleeping bags, ice axes, crampons, pee bottles.. all the fun stuff.

After the weigh-in, our cargo was loaded onto a helicopter and we were set to leave. I could see the blades on the helo start to spin. I double-checked to make sure my seatbelt was on and my helmet strapped (it wasn’t). We started to lift off and I wished I had stayed awake for the helicopter safety video – too many buttons were within arm’s reach. After some strange screaming noise, the engine revved and we took off.

One of the teammates


The view leaving McMurdo was incredible. As we crossed the sound separating Ross Island from the continent, Mt Erebus was still smoking in the distance. We could see the sea ice edge where the summer’s melt was breaking apart.

Mt. Erebus. There are worse views in the world


As we approached the continent, the first mountain range loomed in front of us. We flew through a pass between two peaks and the only word to describe the valleys is enormous. Terrain passed: mountain, glacier, mountain, glacier, mountain, glacier. It’s a cold place.  We slowed as we approached Lake Hoare in Taylor Valley. Struck dumb by the scenery, I vaguely remember getting out of the helicopter, but absolutely recall the glacier that loomed over the Lake Hoare camp. I’d be sleeping right in front of it that night.

Apartment with a view


More to come on the Valleys soon, the last few days have been quite long. More pictures next time!

The Preview

I just had the chance to test out the formatting of some of my video footage, and threw together a small clip. I’m aiming to get a good 45 min – 1 hour film out of this season. Production quality should improve once I learn the software and how to press all the shiny buttons on the camera. What you see here is basically arriving at camp. Enjoy!


Since I’ve been at McMurdo I’ve heard an incredible number of stories from people who’ve been down for 3, 4, 5 years and NEVER seen a penguin. I was worried. The possibility of this happening to me was unacceptable. I was on a mission.

Twice so far my plan had been thwarted. The first time, I had been out walking on the ice and saw fresh penguin tracks only to discover that they went in circles until finally disappearing. The second time, I was bumped off a tour to Cape Evans Hut that was overfull, and that group had 11 emperor penguins come up and stare at them. I was devastated, but persisted onward.

My last Sunday in McMurdo. It was now or never to get on another tour to Cape Evans. I showed up an hour early for the tour. The list was full. There were 8 alternates. My hands were sweaty as I waited to see if they had extra space. My pee bottle was nearly full in fear. I was in luck, 10 people cancelled. They called out my name and I boarded the monstrosity that is the Delta vehicle.



(The Delta is a vehicle that they use to transport up to 20 people over the sea ice to any location at the astonishing speed of 10 mph. It’s fuel efficiency is measured in gallons per mile, not miles per gallon. Maybe.)

We were an hour and half into our drive when we came to halt on the sea ice. The driver had pulled over so we could take pictures of a glacier (oh boy, more ice). We were climbing back on the truck when someone called out “there’s two black dots in the distance”. Penguins.

The little creatures were nearly two miles off and coming straight for us. They moved insanely quickly; running, hopping, and sliding they made it over to us in record time. They looked like little aliens, the way they stood out against the white landscape and how awkwardly they moved. As they got closer we could see that it was a pair of Adelie penguins. Penguins are funny little bastards. If they see humans on the ice, they’ll coming running up to check you out, presumably since they think you’re another penguin and might share some warmth or company. As these guys came up and stared at us, they brightly noticed that we were not, in fact, similar. Squaking to themselves they ran off to the next dark spot on the landscape.


Preparing for take-off


I wonder if it tastes more like chicken or fish?

There’s no way to adequately describe how strange it is to see them move. I’ve seen footage before, but in person it’s another experience entirely. It’s like watching an alien in a tuxedo hobble forward without bending its knees. While wearing a back brace. Easy enough to imagine?



I had accomplished my penguin goal. I wouldn’t have to return home ashamed. When people will ask me “Did you see any penguins while you were in Antarctica?”, I won’t have to turn away and hide the tears. I can stand there proudly and say, “Yes. Yes M’am, I saw penguins.”


That’s the term for people who stay for the 8 months of Antarctic winter. Generally, someone begins their contract in October, the start of “summer”. Over the next four months they are deluded into thinking that staying for the year would be an interesting adventure (I would love to do a winter. Once). These poor souls then extend their contract (if they hadn’t already signed a year contract) so that they’re now stuck on the continent for 12 or 13 months.

When I was at McMurdo I met a bunch of Polies coming through town on their way back home after having just spent a full year at the South Pole. They started off with 4 months of permanent sunlight, then a few weeks of sunset, 6 months of darkness, and then a few weeks of sunrise. They looked like they’d seen a ghost. Or been to war. Or seen me naked. Their first day was spent sitting in a huddled group together in the mess hall, staring blankly at cups of coffee. It was their first time seeing new faces in over 8 months. They’d been confined with the same 40 people in a small base in the coldest temperatures in the world, unable to leave, no chance of evacuation, in permanent darkness. I’m half-surprised no one was eaten.

I ran into one of the pale-face people out at the coffee shop later that day. He was standing around with one eye bigger than the other and had his sunglasses on the table. “Nice glasses” I said. “Oh. Oh yea, these are really good. You use them outside.”

Those guys were completely toasted.


Robert F. Scott was one of the early British Antarctic explorers. He led two of the most ambitious expeditions into the continent, the Discovery expedition (1901-1904) where he walked around a lot, and the infamous Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) where he walked to his death.

Discovery represented Britain’s first main exploration of Antarctica’s interior. Scott and his team (which included Shackleton at this time) had major finds including the Polar Plateau and the Dry Valleys, however this trip didn’t represent a push for the Pole. During their time on the ice, Scott and his men set up Discovery Hut on Hut Point, Ross Island, which is within easy walking distance of McMurdo. This hut served primarily as a store house for the expedition, but also was used on occasion for living and other work.

Scotts Hut

Like a ski chalet

Last week I had the chance to wander down there and have a stumble around inside. The most impressive thing is that in 100 years since it was built the exterior of the building looks immaculate. Structurally sound, it looks like quite a pleasant place to live. Until you step inside. It’s an incredibly cold building, amazingly more cold inside than it feels outside. Laws under the International Antarctic Treaty mean that historic relics must be preserved for future generations with as little interference as possible. Old seal carcasses hang frozen in the back room, a rack of rib meat sits on the floor of the hut, blackened but still in one piece after a century of aging. Boxes of goods line the walls, and are used as building blocks to separate sections of the hut into “rooms”.

Scotts Kitchen 2

Then there’s the kitchen. A pan of something, cooked fat it seems, rests where they would have eaten meals and looks decidedly unappetizing. Cases of biscuits made of rock are uneaten and are next to cases of cocoa powder and hard liquor – the necessary item used to convince yourself to force down what’s in the pan.

Scotts Supplies

Scotts Barrels

Scotts wine

Scotts Me

The clothes they give me are a little more advanced

If the food doesn’t evoke enough sympathy from tourists, the early explorers’ clothes hang across the room. I complain about having 4 pairs of clothes for 3 months. These guys had one pair for 2 years. After having read the stories and now seen their hut and supplies, these explorers must have been made of tougher stuff than most of us mortals. Exceptionally tough though they may have been, it didn’t mean they were exceptionally brilliant.

The Terra Nova Expedition. This was Scott’s death-march to the South Pole. While history books often endlessly praise Scott’s bravery, I tend to think these are glorified tales of a guy who was either negligent or ignorant when planning his expedition. Briefly, this expedition was a race to the South Pole. Scott was racing Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, to become the first team to reach the Pole and claim the glory and nationalistic prize that such an achievement brings. Scott and his men struggled against some of the worst conditions in the world, only to reach the Pole and find a tent flying the Norwegian flag, and a note confirming that Amundsen had gotten there first. Scott’s devastation is well recorded – “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.” On his return, Scott and his men froze to death in their tent, having marched themselves to near starvation after running out of supplies, getting lost, and blizzard after blizzard. The manner in which they died was incredibly dignified and brave (Oates, a member of Scotts team who knew he was dying and slowing down the team’s progress, stepped outside their tent during a blizzard and said, “I am just going outside and I may be some time.” thus relieving the team of the burden of caring for him). However, the British just didn’t have their brains on when planning things. They were inept with and had not practiced using sled dogs or skis as transport, they brought ponies and early motorized vehicles to try as alternative means of moving across the continent, and they generally had no Arctic or Antarctic experience among them.

The Norwegians on the other hand were masters. Amundsen and his men were experienced with their equipment. They planned their provisions correctly. They used sled dogs. Amundsen had coldly calculated that they could carry less weight with them across the continent if they fed the sick and dying sled dogs as food to the others throughout the journey. Thus they may have started with 50 dogs, but they returned with 25 (I don’t have the actual numbers in front of me). Not a story for the kids, but incredible planning. The Norwegians’ journey to the pole and back was relatively straightforward and mundane when compared to the harshness of Scott’s. Perhaps it was this martyrdom that garnered the attention, perhaps it was the vivid imagery of his death. Regardless, I think the Norwegians have been overlooked as masters of the continent in favor of a harrowing story of poor planning and incredible misfortune.

Upon hearing the news of his death, the men who had remained on Ross Island erected a cross on Observation Hill memorializing Scott and his South Pole party. The cross still stands to this day. If you look closely you can still read the inscription, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

Scott was a brave man, but his expeditions chronically suffered from poor planning and over-ambition. His historical status has been the equivalent of hero-worship. There’s someone else I respect much more:

Before the race between Scott and Amundsen, one leader had gotten within 97 miles of the pole. Facing deteriorating weather and running out of supplies, Ernest Shackleton knew that continuing on meant certain death. He turned around. In a letter to his wife he wrote “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion”. That’s my hero.

Scotts Writing

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"

Happy Camper

One of the major perks to being a “Grantee” (scientist in Antarctica) are the multitude of training programs that we’re required/forced/coerced into taking. Most of these are pretty generic safety lectures about the fact that it’s cold outside, knives are sharp, and don’t stand in front of moving vehicles. However, some are quite interesting – ATV training, generator training, and helicopter safety information. But one such training regime holds a special place in my heart.

Happy Camper. This is a two-day, overnight snow survival school where the mountaineers at McMurdo train all the scientists and personnel going out to work in field camps. Training begins with a group icebreaker (get it?) where we say where we’re headed and our cold weather experience. My only previous snow camping has been by accident, and I have been foolishly trying in vain to keep it that way.

Happy Camper

Happy Camper

The first morning started with an ease in to camping on the ice shelf. We were transported out to the ice flow near Mt Erebus and into a little ihut. Training in the hut on multi-fuel stoves provided an opportunity to acquire individualized burns to remember the occasion by, followed shortly after by the explanation that the afternoon and evening would give us ample time to cool the wounds as we would be sleeping on the ice.

Safety First

Safety First

Snow school is essentially a very quick course on what to do in the event that you find yourself stranded on the ice. The first thing done was establish shelter – Scott tents, four-season mountain tents, and a wind wall. The wind wall was pretty cool. I’ve never made a proper igloo or snow shelter before, so to see and learn how to quarry snow is slightly amazing. Essentially, you take a flat, untrampled area of snow and take a hand saw and cut brick shapes. Then, using a shovel just “pop” the brick out. If done correctly, this gives you perfectly square building blocks – which amazed me in its simplicity. I’ve never thought of snow as such a workable building material capable of being quarried. Once the quarry was in working order, a walled city was built using the Scott tents (capable of sustaining harsh Antarctic winds) as corners and the wall to block the wind for the mountain tents. The brave members of the group even had the opportunity to dig their own graves and sleep in a snow trench for the evening.


Cool, eh?

The remaining hours of the day were spent boiling snow for water, eating, and fighting off hypothermia (it was -30 out without the windchill). I froze my ass off. After deciding that no matter how long I starred at the sun it wouldn’t go down, I hobbled into my nipple-high sleeping bag designed for hobbits and spent the night nursing my toes.


Sometimes it does get close to the horizon

The following morning was gorgeous weather. I mean that with sincerity. We broke camp with incredible speed and went off to more training – radio training on HF radios left over from Vietnam, white-out training with buckets on our heads, and basic first aid drills. After falling asleep to a relatively important safety lecture we were packed back into a goliath transport beast and brought back to McMurdo.

I must admit that despite my midget sized sleeping bag, I rather enjoy winter camping. Damn good thing too, since starting on Friday it’s what I’ll be doing for the next three months. Time to think warm thoughts.

Summer Sun

There's nothing like make-believe


McMurdo Station is the largest research base in all of Antarctica. It’s one of the three primary US research stations (the other two being Palmer, near South America, and South Pole, near nothing at all) and during peak summer months has a population of around 1100. Despite what you may think, the base is actually 34% female. McMurdo is located on Ross Island, a straight 6 hours south of New Zealand and just a few kilometers away from the main Antarctic continent. Visually, it looks like an arctic mining town – snow, ice, ugly. The buildings mostly resemble storage units, and the surrounding area is covered in gritty volcanic rock. Despite the visual appearance, the most striking thing about McMurdo is how comfortable it is. For all its isolation there’s a large number of amenities and entertainment available: there’s a half-size basketball court, a gym, rockclimbing wall, two dingy bars, a coffee house, wireless internet (for the scientists), a cafeteria, and dorms. One guy described the base as being the perfect cross between university (the dorm and cafeteria) and prison (in that you can’t leave). An accurate description that leads into my next observation.


The Mining Town

The dynamics here are strange.  Women get a disproportionately large focus during any group coversation due to their relative rarity. There’s an entire language of acronyms and Antarctic references that would make normal coversation unintelligeble. Its a very confined community where rumours spread fast and anything you do is noticed quickly. While an innumerable number of rules and regulations are written up by officials in DC and Denver to prevent people from doing stupid things, there’s a large “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy. I’m not referring to the fact that there’s a lot of isolated men. I mean doing activities that break the rules. Safety is the main concern, though if there’s something cool you can do there’s an unwritten rule of keeping secrets secret, since some rules written from off the continent seem counterintuitive and oddly restrictive here. But if you’re going to have your fun, you have to accept the risk that there’s little to no medical help.  As two people from the Pole put it, “You have to be tough to be stupid.”

I’m doing a poor job of elaborating on the strange dynamic here however. Perhaps a short example would paint a better picture:

Last night was Halloween. There was a base-wide costume party down at the basketball court where they blocked all the windows to pretend it was dark outside. Someone came as a giant banana. 4 girls came in “nude” painted cardboard around a guy dressed as the South Pole as a group costume of a “Hero Photoshot”. It was like being back in highschool – bad music, desperate boys, and awkward dancing. I will say it was pretty cool stepping outside and squinting my eyes because of the midnight sun on Halloween. I don’t mean to sound negative about the night at all. It was just a surreal experience to be at a highschool dance party in Antarctica.


All that's missing are the chaperones

So while the events make me think of what it would’ve been like growing up at an all-boys Catholic school, I’m writing this post from a high-tech, world class research library and just came from a packed public science lecture where people were genuinely interested in research.

With that in mind, I leave you with something that Abraham Lincoln said to me last night:

“A house divided cannot stand.”