Today is finally the days that sees us arriving in McMurdo Sound, a key area for our voyage. This is probably what most people think of when they imagine the Ross Sea.
We hope to start with a place that is certainly very high on the wishlist of most, if not everybody here: Taylor Valley, one of the famous McMurdo Dry Valleys. This moonlike, hyper-arid area within the Transantarctic Mountains which has been too dry even for the glaciers since millions of years. The mountains keep the inland ice away, only some smaller side glaciers reach down to the valley bottom. A fascinating part of our planet! (click here for some 360 degree impressions of the Dry Valleys)
But hard to get to. The first early morning look out of the window is not too promising: grey, grey, grey. Ice floes and whirling snow. Not good, as our birds need to see something in order to fly.
Patience is the one and only thing that helps. Frequently, I meet with the pilots and the Captain to assess the weather development. Slowly, slowly the visibility is improving and we can see the Transantarctic Mountains just a few miles away, but the clouds are still hanging low.
Gallery – The Dry Valleys – February 26th, 2017
Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.
In the late morning, chief pilot Felipe suggests to make a reconnoissance flight to check the conditions on location. Felipe makes some loops over the Canada Glacier and hovers a few metres above the projected landing area, checking the clouds above and the turbulences near the ground. Finally he gives his thumbs-up. Back on bord, anxious eagerness gives quickly way to joyful anticipation after I have made my announcement. Some final preparations are quickly made, a banana has to be enough for lunch, the first helicopter for the field team is soon ready for departure, there is no time to lose. Who knows how long the weather is going to last!
It is a flight of 19 miles over broken sea ice, barren land decorated by ice wedge polygons, the Commonwealth Glacier and then Lake Fryxell before we reach our area near the Canada Glacier. We unload the mandatory safety equipment and then we are ready. Meanwhile, helicopters number two and three are prepared on board, and soon the machinery is running. Everybody is coming out in small groups, helicopter by helicopter, one by one. It is a long operation, taking quite some time. People come flying in, get off and remain in awe for a little while.
We have to reduce time on the ground to a minimum for safety reasons, we have no idea how long our weather window will last and we don’t want to have too many people out here in case we need to get out of here quickly. This is really not a place to get stuck in bad weather. But the weather remains stable, it even improves, the sky is clearing up a bit, exposing some lovely blue spots, with sunbeams illuminating the scenery as with spotlights.
Finally we can happily finish a long, great afternoon. Everybody has had the rare chance to fly into Taylor Valley. We were very likely the first people after our own last visit two years ago, there is no other ship carrying helicopters (and on the previous trip, just a few weeks ago, Ortelius did not have a chance to get anywhere near this area, as the whole McMurdo Sound was still full with solid fast ice).