Salient: An Organ of Student Opinion At Victoria University College, Wellington, N. Z. Vol. 24, No. 4. 1961
Me and the Penguins
Me and the Penguins
Some four summers ago a couple of geology students with semi-official backing obtained a trip to the Antarctic. Once down there these two refused to be mere sightseers but obtained a lift by helicopter to an ice-free area of land and carried out some geological investigation in the Victoria Valley, which is named after this university. So unexpectedly successful was the initiative of the two Stage II Geology students, Peter Webb and Barry McElvey, that the next summer. 1958-59, a full four-man expedition was organised from this university. The party consisted of the stalwarts Peter and Barry, and two staff members, Dr. Colin Bull and Mr Dick Barwick. By this time, 'Varisty Antarctic expeditions were becoming routine, and a third in the summer of 1959-60 sailed forth; a five-man party, Dr. Ronald Balham (leader) of the Biology Department, and two Stage III geologists, Graham Gibson and Tony Allen, and a Stage II geologist, Ian Willis, and Mr Ralph Wheeler of the Geography Department. This summer the routine carried on with Wheeler, Willis, Bull and a couple of newcomers, Dr. Dick Blank and Roger Cooper (Stage III Geology). Dick is a Yank but we had him along because he was a Yank and down In Antarctica his countrymen had been of great help to the Kiwi effort-so our way of partially showing our gratitude was to make Dick 20 per cent of our field party. Apart from the fact that Dick being a 6ft. 45in. hardly fitted a 6ft. tent and had a habit of occasionally working continuously in the field for 25 hours or more, the two cultures didn't clash at all. Also it boosted morale a bit to have U.S. personnel visiting Scott Base on the odd occasion to mistake Dick for a New Zealander.
The area the various expeditions visited lies 2,000-odd miles due south of New Zealand. We flew down by aircraft, "Constellation" or "Globemaster," to Ross Island, where lies Scott Base, a collection of six huts and a hangar, handily sited some 30 minutes' stroll from the major U.S. base, McMurdo, sometimes referred to as "Scotch Base" and "McMudhole." After packing and readying for the field and having had an aerial reconnaissance, the party was helicoptered by the U.S. Navy into the field.
The areas chosen by V.U.W.A.E. (Victoria University of Wellington Antarctic Expedition) are rarities in Antarctica in that they are ice-free. These areas, amidst millions of square miles of snow and ice, consist of thirty to fifty continuous miles of bare, get-at-able rock. This bare rock country had major advantages for V.U.W.A.E. in that: (1) Working conditions and requirements were very like the New Zealand tramping and climbing setup and no ice or dog team training is necessary—nor had we time to do it—we leave immediately after exams, and return to be greeted by enrolment; (2) equipment required (i.e., boots) for such areas Is cheaper than say dog teams or tracked vehicles; (3) we'd rather not traverse scores of miles of ice stuff looking for land when it comes in such conveniently large chunks. Actually from the Antarctic point of view our sort of work, geology, glaciology, etc., Is secondary to the primary task of reconnaissance and mapping of the continent—V.U.W.A.E. is secondary to the primary task of exploration, that Is the assessment of the country. Well, the result is that the eye-catching dog sled and snow vehicle, "Snocat," "Polecat" and what have you, is not for V.U.W.A.E. and your earnest representatives Down South looked all the world like a bunch of misplaced tramping club enthusiasts with one difference—it dawns after a while that carrying your household on your back is a mug's game and one's dogs can get just as tired, if not more so, than the genuine canine jobs.
This year's task was a 50 × 10- mile area of bare rock beside the Koettlitz Glacier about 60 miles from Scott Base. We laid out three base camps with big double skin pyramid 6ft. × 6ft. tents and lurched from one base to another, living in pup tents. In two single skin tents 6ft. × 41/2 ft. or so we housed the whole five of us. So, one tent usually had three bods in it (Dick's idea), but it wasn't the hell one expected it to be. Certainly no worse than the boozer on Fridays. Anyway, who wants to carry an extra 141b. tent? Our packs got heavy enough as It was; for instance, a few weights—Radio, 191bs.; stove, 51bs.; kerosene, 2-31bs.; sleeping bag. 51bs.; air mattress, 51bs.; and so on with extras like down jackets, cameras, altimeters, theodolite, geological hammers and food (21/2bs. per man per day). Oh yes, and ice axes, crampons, rope, first aid kit. . . To further establish a grip on the earth's surface the geologists would add in a day's work a few specimens of rock.
The country taken in by this year's V.U.W.A.E. was a piece of land the same length as the Wairarapa Valley with ridges high as the Tararuas (3-5,000 feet) separating valleys two or three miles across. This pattern of ridge and valley lay at right angles to the page 6 long dimension of the Koettlitz so that our travel through the area resembled the progress of an ant along the cutting edge of an inverted cross-cut saw.
The whole land is striking in its bareness-only three elements made the local landscape: the bare rock ridges, the valleys floored with glacial rubble, and the stumps of glaciers at the head of each valley. Animal life, apart from the five-man expedition, did not exist except for the carcases of seals found near the coast. Some of these latter beasts have been dead, according to American dating, for 1,000 to 2,000 years. The preservative qualities of the Antarctic climate are remarkable (witness the huts and equipment of previous explorers), and this preservation operates in the case of erosion.
The main erosive agent in the south is ice which in past times has been greater in quantity than now. The evidence of much greater extent of glaciation exists today in the huge valleys now occupied by much reduced glaciers. The glaciers in the Koettlitz area rating the term small were 11/2 to 1/2 25 miles across, and the Koettlitz Glacier itself at its narrowest being six miles wide and is, in Antarctica, a minor glacier. Benches and ice-ridden spurs are evidence of the Koettlitz having been a much greater river of ice at least 1,800 feet higher than present and in the glacial valleys and along the Koettlitz Glacier are multiple moraines showing a number of comparatively recent advances of the main and minor glaciers.
It is possible that the ice-free areas of this part of Antarctica have missed the glaciations of the last world ice ages, but it is difficult yet for glaciologists to tell. Algae remains found in some of the newest moraines (judging by their location) have been dated at 6,000 years, yet the moraine still is solid with ice and much fresher-looking than moraines found in New Zealand alpine valleys. This freshness of glacial debris has deceived many observers from the northern hemisphere which we might surmise has had a vastly different glacial history and a more recent one.
This preservation of material is more easily understood when it is realised that "permafrost," permanently frozen ground, is a foot or so below the surface. A bulldozer can 'doze only a foot deep then the blade rides on solid ice-locked rock and rubble. Holes are dug with explosives. Moraines, then, are not collapsing with the melting of the ice within despite the fact that the much reduced glaciers are almost at a standstill. The millions of tons of abandoned debris that lie on the valley floors and sides have remained little changed for, perhaps, thousands of years.
However, above the permafrost in the moraine floored valleys is the foot deeper layer of dust, sand and rubble which, being dry, yields to the tramp of the traveller and makes the going extremely tedious. Elsewhere on the hills is bare rock, hard and unyielding, on which the geologists wore out their first pair of boots in less than six weeks.
The "soil" layer (nothing is growing in it except some minute algae) is dry because the climate is dry. Snow falls, yes, but a billy of snow melts to but an inch or two of water, so that the snow cover in a year is equal to about six inches of rainfall. That this is a desert climate is further evidenced by super-dry wood (ice axe handles, particularly) snapping, quite easily, and tobacco drying to a gritty powder if left open. Clothing and boots are, as a consequence, windproof but not waterproof, although a thaw this season caused our party some thought on the matter of waterproof materials. Normally they are not needed, especially in winter when snow and ice are solid and "dry."
Cooking in the south was on pressure stoves, and dehydrated meat, potato and onion were our evening staple. Once the water has been raised to boiling point the ingredients are tossed in and 20 or 30 minutes later another ration of the unvarying diet has been digested. Breakfast was porridge, dried milk, bacon, and egg powder. Lunch was a collation of five biscuits and two two-ounce chocolate bars. (Since returning to New Zealand we have been "off" chocolate). Our rations were standard D.S.I.R. Antarctic fare coasting out (wholesale) at under a pound per man per day.
The work done by the expedition was mainly geological, glaciological and gravity traverse. Weather observations were made, paleomagnetic samples collected, and a few lichen and algae collected; these latter tasks mainly for specialists back in New Zealand. It seemed at times with the poor season in 1960-61 that the work would not be completed, but in the end it was despite winds, snowfalls and sometimes very poor visibility. With but six days of clear weather the long cloudless golden days of previous seasons seemed but a fable to this year's V.U.W.A.E. On Boxing Day a sudden melt provided a stream which, when damned, allowed the party to have its first bath for a month. This hygienic folly, we discovered later, was reported in newspapers the world over. But the next bath was at Scott Base.
Scott Base was our local home despite the crowding of the large summer party of 40—the base "winters" a dozen men. We are grateful to Antarctic Division, D.S.I.R., for our temporary board there and for their great assistance in mounting the expedition in Wellington. The enterprise too, is grateful to D.S.I.R. for a grant as well as our own Wellington University and the New Zealand University Grants Committee, and further to the U.S. National Science Foundation which financed Dr. Blank. The leaders of this and earlier expeditions also wish to record the sacrifice of long vacation income by the student members of the expeditions. Without United States aid the parties could scarcely get to Antarctica. And when they were there they were further aided by U.S. planes and helicopters in reconnaissance and in reaching the field. The friendliness and co-operative spirit of the U.S. personnel in Christ church and Antarctica and the D.S.I.R. people in Wellington and Scott Base was a solid foundation on which V.U.W.A.E. relied to accomplish their task in the field, in this as in earlier years.