Getting to Garwood

Last you heard from me, I was languishing in Crary Lab (the scientific heart of McMurdo Station) awaiting appropriate weather conditions for helicoptering over to Garwood Valley. A few helo flights made it to other nearby valleys—Taylor Valley, for instance, which is probably the best-known of the group and contains a fairly permanent camp which is staffed during summer. Garwood, however, had slightly different weather conditions and no available shelter should anything go wrong.

I’ll take a moment here for a parenthetical discussion of our original Garwood plans. Initially, you see, we’d hoped to drive there. This sort of ground-based expedition is locally referred to as a “traverse”—such as the “South Pole traverse”, a caravan of tractors that drags fuel and supplies to the Pole. To get to Garwood, we would have driven a couple of tracked vehicles across the sea ice and along the coast until we reached Garwood.

Along the way, we would have had to get across ice that had melted and re-frozen into fantastical structures. Some aerial photos from the previous year, showing sea-ice features whimsically named by some creative individual involved in taking them, gave us a small idea of what to expect:

'The Marshes of Insanity.'

'The Rivers of Woe.'

'The Wall of Despair.' We would have had to find a gap in this ten-foot ice wall, through to the 'Straits of Impunity', in order to actually enter the valley.

Our stalwart compatriots in the Field Safety department spent many hours working out a way to accomplish the traverse in a way that would be both safe and scientifically successful. Alas, as we planned it became clear that the mission was logistically unfeasible, and we returned to the less adventurous, but more efficient method of helicopter flights.

On Tuesday, the 12th of October, the weather finally looked good enough to try it. Myself, Rich, and Karen—our field safety person, who did much of the original traverse planning—donned our helicopter helmets, packed our bags, and lifted off in a Bell 212 bright and early that morning. I was thoroughly excited to be on my first helicopter flight. The sea ice went past beneath us at a good clip, and we arrived at Garwood Valley around half an hour after we left McMurdo.

Our first glimpse of Garwood.

The weather was marginal, though, with turbulence making us all a bit queasy on our way out. At Garwood, winds in excess of fifty knots were roaring down into the valley and up the other side. When our pilot went in for a banking turn that would allow us to get a better look at the study site, the wind flung the helo upwards and then shoved it down practically into free fall. Our pilot pulled us out without too much difficulty–McMurdo’s helicopter pilots are among the best–but it was clear that landing was out of the question.

But the trip was not entirely in vain; we had taken as many photos as we could during that single pass over the valley. We could see the pond we wanted, tantalizingly close and showing what we thought to be just the salt crust we wanted.

A reconnaissance photo of Garwood's saline ponds.

We were eager to get back, and Wednesday obligingly dawned as clear and calm as we could hope for. This time the valley was dead calm, and the helicopter landed without a hitch and left us to enjoy a day whose sunny and windless weather made it feel nigh-tropical to our cold-adapted senses. The pond was just a couple of hundred meters from our landing site, over some hills whose steep sides hadn’t been apparent from the aerial photos, and we set out optimistically to examine it at close quarters.

Tune in next time for The Case of the Salty Pond!


2 Responses to “Getting to Garwood”

  1. green_knight Says:

    ‘the Case of the Salty Pond’ throws up the question ‘who killed it’…

  2. Dirk Says:

    You know that you’re up to something awesome when a helicopter flight across Antarctica is the less adventurous option of the two 🙂

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