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Victoria University Antarctic Research Expedition Science and Logistics Reports 1972-73: VUWAE 17

[VUWAE 17A - Part 2]

On December 12 the party (G. Lyon, Institute of Nuclear Sciences, D.S.I.R. - leader; W. Giggenbach - Chemistry Division, D.S.I.R.; J. Shorland - field assistant, Antarctic Division, D.S.I.R.; and P. Kyle, Victoria University) were put in by U.S. Navy C130 Hercules on the Campbell Glacier (74°18′S; 164°15′ E; map elevation 700 m). The same evening Giggenbach and Kyle reconnoitred a route on to the north ridge of Mt. Melbourne laying a depot of fuel and food at a height of 1200 m. Whiteout conditions prevented travel on December 13, but the following day the party travelled to a base camp on the north flank of Mt. Melbourne (74°18′S; 164°38′E; map elevation 1400 m). With one sledge towed by two Sno-Tric toboggans in tandem we managed to put in a high level camp to the south of a prominent parasite cone on the north flank of Melbourne (74°20′s; 164°38′E; map elevation 1950 m). The same evening we climbed to the summit of Melbourne examining the geology en route. On December 16 Kyle and Shorland examined the geology of the summit area and north east flank of Melbourne. The party returned to the lower base camp on December 17, and the following day attempted to gain access to the base of the north eastern flank of the mountain. Crevasses however made this impossible. The party travelled to the Campbell Glacier landing site and returned to Scott Base by C130 Hercules on December 20.

On December 24, two helicopter trips put Kyle, Giggenbach, Lyon, Lowe and Shorland, with equipment for six, on to an old lava flow on the west side of Mt. Erebus, approximately 130 m below the main crater rim. During a preliminary look at the state of the crater the next day, incandescent areas on the floor of the active area of the inner crater were seen for the first time. However at this stage it was uncertain whether the sounds coming from the volcano, and the apparent activity, were due to eruptions or to avalanches, similar to that seen by Kyle in January 1972. Lowe and Giggenbach returned to the crater rim on the 26th but found too much steam there. The other three worked lower down around to the north side of the mountain. It was decided later in the day to perform the winching into the main crater from the western rim above the camp. Here the rim was lowest, nearest the camp, and the distance down the crater wall to easy ground inside the crater was shortest.

On the 27th the five began ferrying the heavy winch and support gear up to the crater rim. Since they were still acclimatising, they found this exhausting work. During the afternoon an eruption was heard and material was seen to be ejected 40 - 50 m into the air from the region of incandescent areas. That evening Kyle and Giggenbach investigated an ice cavern system under an ice tower near the camp. Preserved ash and lava layers were found and the temperature was + 1.5°C. On the afternoon of the 28th Keys arrived, bringing the number to six, which was considered sufficient for the planned lowering of people into the crater. By the evening of the 30th the winch anchors and shelter tent were in position ready for the lowering. Snow on New Years Eve and New Years Day delayed the proceedings. On New Years afternoon Lowe went into a coma after carbon monoxide poisoning complicated by altitude effects. Oxygen was administered and support requested from Scott Base and McMurdo, who sent a helicopter. This had to break through a considerable amount of cloud and landed in poor conditions, Lowe, now conscious, was flown to McMurdo hospital and quickly recovered.

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The trial lower of Shorland on January 2 went smoothly and then Giggenbach went down with gas sampling equipment. He spent two hours away from the crater rim and returned safely, with four gas samples from a fumarole, 4 salt samples, and several geological specimens. The following day was spent ferrying all the gear back down to the camp. Shorland and Keys then investigated the ice caverns further and took several samples.

Over the next two days Kyle and Keys sampled around the Erebus cone and the Side Crater, south of the camp. Surprisingly large amounts of salt were discovered as well as recently ejected volcanic material. The last circuit of the crater rim, before the helicopter arrived on the 6th, gave the best look at the region of incandescent areas in the inner crater. At least nine incandescent areas were observed. Three of these were lakes of molten lava, up to 10 - 15 m in diameter, and the central one was observed to eject lava at one stage. By 9 p.m. on the 6th the whole party was back at Scott Base.

The height of Mt. Erebus and the camp are both uncertain. Helicopter altimeters, zeroed from sea level pressure, gave the altitude of the camp as 3800 m (12,470 ft.), and that of the summit as 4020 m (13,200 ft.). This latter height agrees with the height given for Erebus on the map N.Z.M.S. 166 Sheet ST 58-61/5. However the USGS map of Ross Island ST 57-60/6 gives the height of the summit as 3794 m (12,450 ft.). This is the generally accepted altitude.

It was found that the altitude had a severe effect for at least four days until acclimatisation had progressed far enough for headaches, loss of appetite, dizzy spells etc. to lessen, Kyle reported severe altitude effects in last year's report (Askin et al., 1972), but did not spend as much time in the summit area as did this year's party, Lowe had had altitude trouble before his sickness which caused him to be flown down to sea level, and Giggenbach ate no solid food for the two weeks he was on the mountain. Lyon suffered from morning and evening headaches for the whole period, Shorland, Kyle and Keys had fewer troubles, having had a longer time in Antarctica to get fit. The latter had the least trouble since he had spent the previous five weeks walking considerable distances in the Dry Valleys, However he missed out on almost all the heavy work of ferrying gear to the winching site, and this work possibly had a detrimental effect on the other five.

Generally five hours' work at that altitude was found to be enough for a day, although this time was extended later in the fortnight.

Askin, R.A., Barrett, P.J., Kyle, P., and Laird, M. (1972), Immediate Report of Victoria University of Wellington Antarctic Expedition 1971-72, Wellington, N.Z. 37 pp.