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.
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.
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.
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?