Friday, February 22, 2008

Mt. Erebus

A long time ago on a continent far, far away my boss sent me an e-mail. He said I would get my first taste of winter since I would have the shop to myself. My co-workers had gone out on helicopter rides with our comms department. He said I would have been able to go out as well except that I had been in training that morning. I was pretty bummed because the training was pretty routine and could have been repeated at anytime.

Fortunately enough, my boss was able to find me another spot two days later. It would be a rare chance to go up Mt. Erebus. I didn't really realize how rare until I had talked to a few people. I got everything together and headed down to the helipad all amped up to go. The weather however, wasn't ready to go and the flight was canceled. I was pretty bummed because I had been getting amped all morning for my first helicopter ride ever. I also figured they would reschedule the flight, but that they would have their regular guys take care of it so my chance was gone. Tear.

The next couple days, I stayed up pretty late saying goodbye to Annie and Meg. On Sunday night, I was up really late and woke up for work about five minutes before I had to be there. I made it on time at 7:30am and groggy. Around 7:45am, my boss asked me if I was flying today. I figured it was a one-shot opportunity so I had no idea what he was talking about. I called the comms shop and they told me that I should be at the helipad at 8am. AHHHH, no time to get ready and so much excitement! I ran to my room, got on my ECW gear, and headed down.

My view of the helipad and hangar from the helicopter.

At the helipad, I got checked in, weighed, and ready to go. Major butterflies of excitement, eeek!! A helicopter ride was one thing, but getting to go up Mt. Erebus too was amazing. It is only twenty three miles away so I never thought of it as a hard to reach destination, but the only people who head up there are scientists and comms shop, I guess.

My first view of open water.

After the helicopter took off, I had my first view of truly open water. I'd seen a little bit of water near the ice pier, but the channel was still clogged up. From where I was, I could see parts of the channel that were open that should extend all the way back to New Zealand and beyond. The reason Scott chose our location to build his base was because it was the Southernmost navigable waters in the world. This allowed him to use his ships to transport his cargo as far as possible.

More open water near Inaccessible Island.

I included the picture above so that you could compare it to the last time I saw it when I was running back from Cape Evans. It is weird to think that I was running or driving across ice that has completely melted away only three months later.

A view of Mt. Erebus from the helicopter.

I have no idea how long it took us to fly up to Erebus. I'd guess 20 minutes, but it could have been an hour for all I knew. I was so elated that I lost track of time. I couldn't tell how fast we were moving at all. It felt like we were moving incredibly slowly. The only time I really felt a lot of movement was when a wind gust came through and shook us around a little. Well, I think it was a wind gust. The pilot could have just been playing with me too - maybe us but since everyone else had flown for years, I don't think they were phased.

Bill and Mt. Erebus as the helicopter took off again.

The people who had done this before also knew to turn away from the helicopter while it was taking off. It was kicking up a ton of snow. I, on the other hand, thought it would be a great picture. I had to try three different times and I still didn't quite get the picture I wanted because of the wind.

The Mt. Erebus repeater.

That little antenna is the whole reason I had a chance to head up to Mt. Erebus. The comms guys have to set these up and take them down once a year in addition to any maintenance that comes up. They get to these sites so much that they lose some of their excitement which means that sometimes laymen get to help out. They need skilled labor to put them up and do maintenance, but they can send laymen up to assist with getting them down. It's never been so good to be a layman.

Bill works on pulling down some equipment.

We were officially bringing in two repeaters (I think) of wireless internet and radio signals. We need the repeaters because the signals can't pass through the mountains. I guess this one's internet repeater hadn't been working for a couple weeks so the scientists weren't able to check their e-mail. Sometimes it is a harsh continent.

Our landing site, Mt. Erebus, and me from where the repeater was.

Bill telling me not to head to the top . . . (picture compliments of David V.).

There weren't any problems getting the equipment down and packed up, so we had almost ninety minutes before the helicopter would be back to pick us up. We were allowed to head out and explore. Bill said the summit was farther away than it looked so we shouldn't try to summit it.

The faraway summit.


Trusting Bill's judgment, I set out on a short walk with Dave to the fumaroles. I wanted to see the volcanic gases coming out of the snow. I'm not sure how, but they result in the fumaroles which are openings in the Earth's crust. I would have figured that the increased temperatures from the gases would make crazy formation that went down into the earth as opposed to ones that stuck up. Someone? Anyone?

Fumarole with Mt. Discover shrouded in clouds in the background.

Dave and the Giant Fumerole.

Mt. Erebus is the southernmost active volcano on Earth and most active in Antarctica. It stands at 12,451 feet high and was named by Sir James Clark Ross who named it and Mount Terror after his two ships. The summit includes a crater that is filled with lava. This lava lake is one of only three in the world. The other two are in such instable parts of Africa that it is actually easier for them to come here to study it.

More fumaroles.

Thin ice and Mt. Erebus.

We landed at the Three Sisters Cones site which is at about 11,000 feet. We had to worry about hypoxia (altitude sickness) due to the sudden increase in altitude. I can run ten miles in the snow without pushing myself in about ninety minutes. I figured the summit could only be one or two miles away. Four miles round trip. Then, make it seem like six miles since I'd have to gain over a thousand feet. As I was approaching the last of the fumaroles, the summit seemed closer than ever. I've never seen lava. Few people get to ever go up there.


As I processed all of these ideas, something snapped. Maybe it was my decreased mental faculties compliments of hypoxia that made me check my watch and decide I could probably get to the summit crater and back in the hour we had left. Maybe not. Either way, I left Dave and headed for the summit.

Me disappearing past the last fumaroles toward the summit (picture compliments of David V.).

As I was climbing, I was losing energy. I kept slipping and losing my footing. My muscles just didn't want to cooperate and I wasn't focusing enough to force them to cooperate because I was rushing. It reminded me of when I climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan after sleeping on a ship the night before. We were trying to summit so we could watch sunrise in the Land of the Rising Sun, but it was tough. We had started late waiting for others and had chosen to start at station 0 at the bottom instead of station 5 where most people start. It made for a long night.

Approaching the summit.

I chose land marks and kept forcing myself onward. At each landmark, I checked the time, listened for a helicopter, and found where Dave and Bill were. I could see them, but since they didn't know where I was heading, they couldn't see me. This turned out to be a poor choice. At some point the cold effected the reliability of my pager to tell time and I started to get nervous about if I could make it up or not.

I chose a final landmark that was a manmade antenna. I didn't look close enough to be at the smoking crater, but I thought maybe it was one giant crater and the lava lake was only on one side. I started my final ascent and the snow gave way to loose rock. At first, I didn't realize what I was walking on because I was trying to focus on getting to the top. When I finally sat down to take a break, I realized that I was sitting on the Erebus crystals that everyone talks about so much in town. I don't appreciate geology enough to truly appreciate them, but I scooped up a few to bring back to town for those who would.

My final vantage point of the summit.

A view of the top of Mt. Erebus. (Photo: Antarctic NZ).

My stopping point turned out to be a secondary summit crater. As you can see in the last two pictures, the true summit crater wasn't that far away. I suspect I could have done the rim on the left side of the picture it in fifteen minutes. However, I knew I was working on borrowed time so I forced myself to turn around. In the second picture, I was at the rightmost part of the secondary crater.

The journey down the mountain came straight out of a movie. I broke into a sprint down the mountain made all the more difficult due to my Bunny Boots that we have to wear. They are heavy, practically treadless, and not made for running. The first part of the descent was basically taking a few steps and then going into a crouch as I slid up to ten feet across loose rock. When I finally got back to snow, it was most of the same but with summersaults when I suddenly caught a rock as I was sliding. Run, slide, run, slide, tumble, tumble, shake it off, run some more.

As I neared the landing site, Bill and Dave were walking away towards the fumaroles we had first explored. I started hearing the helicopter in the distance. I would get back just in time. I headed down to the site and flagged down Dave on the way. Because I didn't have a radio and they couldn't see me, they weren't sure what had happened to me and were starting to search since it was almost time to go. In retrospect, it was pretty dumb to head off without a radio. I got off easy because it was a beautiful day but if anything would have gone wrong, I'd probably still be up there. I felt bad for making them wonder and that sobered up my experience a little bit. It kind of put a damper on the flight home, but it was still a beautiful flight back.

My parting view of Erebus.

The pilot took a different route on the way home which was great. I don't if there are flight lines they have to follow or if he was just feeling generous, but it was great. It let me see some of the ice breaking up and drifting North.

Broken up ice.

More broken up ice.

Another view of Inaccessible Island.

The very last part of the journey took us over the ice channel that the Oden had been making to let ships come in. I struggle to believe that ships can pass through it since I couldn't see much water. It was almost all broken up ice.

The ice channel that will become the ice runway.

The ice channel will become our ice runway next August. Apparently, new ice is better for making the runway because it is smoother. It's weird to think that right now a ship is working on that exact area. Over the winter, fleet ops will run machines over that same area to prep the surface to be a runway, and finally in August planes will land on it.

The Oden, Hut Point (left), and town in the distance.

So close, yet so far. If I had made up my mind to go right away, I would have made it. I'm bummed I didn't, but at the same time I had such an amazing experience. I doubt I'll ever get the chance to be on Mt. Erebus again and I'm thankful for the chance that I did have. It made for the best day I've had in Antarctica yet.


  1. Liked all the pictures and your commentary. What are the crystals made of? Are you planning on bringing some back? You really do like to push the limit sometimes. So glad yoy got to make he trip!!!!

  2. I'm green with envy, dude. That's asolutely amazing to think that you were able to get so close to an area that so few have been. Of the thousands who have been to Antarctica, how few have been that close to the top of Mt Erebus!

  3. Glad you aren't still there.

  4. Great post. You're insane.

  5. i agree with mrl, you are insane. :-)

  6. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!