Saturday, September 26, 2009

Up and Down the Dome


Yesterday was a near-perfect day in the field. Katherine and I had been told by evening radio check-in on the 14th that no helicopter would be available until July 19, so we should make our plans regarding where we and our equipment needed to be accordingly. We heard nothing else the following evening, so we assumed we’d have to carry down on our backs our most essential equipment (the FTIR) and leave most of our gear on the top of the dome for later retrieval, as we both had work to do and schedules to keep in the lowlands. However, under the assumption that such a trip would be not particularly arduous or time consuming – it took me about 90 minutes to get down with minimal encumbrance earlier – we decided to go for a day-hike in the morning of the 16th, to get to the peak above the dome.

The view to the south from camp, showing the peak of the dome and the glacier immediately to the east. We set out hoping to find a non-glaciated route to the black rocks on the left.

Since we had a potentially 2-hour descent after packing up camp, we set out for our trip early, with a clear restriction that we should be on our way back from however far we got no later than 11:30, so we could set down towards base camp by about 2:00. The massive snow melt of the past few days greatly speeded our journey – the upper slopes were much clearer and drier than they had been even a few days earlier, so we hit relatively little soft mud.

The view looking back down the way we came, towards camp. This was some of the happily-rare wet and soggy terrain we crossed.

Within an hour we’d achieved the visible peak of the dome, adjacent to the “Helm’s Deep” glacier. The dome is quite shallowly sloped, though it looks steeper due to an apparent foreshortening effect when viewed from below.

The glacier known locally as “Helm’s Deep”; I gather it resembles the fortress in The Two Towers when viewed from certain angles.

The view to the south from near the peak of the Dome.

Me, standing next to a very large “erratic” boulder deposited by a retreating glacier some time ago. Despite its precarious look, this hundred-tonne monster is embedded firmly in the settled mixture of granite and dolomite that forms the hillside. Katherine took this picture, starting a trend of pictures of Martin leaning on big rocks.

Once at the top of the Dome, we realized there was indeed an ice-free route to the east to the dark rock spurs we’d seen from camp.

The back wall of Helm’s Deep glacier, viewed from near that big boulder on the shoulder of the Dome.

Katherine descending the modest, rocky slope of the shoulder of the Dome towards the back wall of the Helm’s Deep glacier.

Another photo of Katherine, closer to the back wall of the Helm’s Deep glacier.

Like most things in the Arctic, there’s very little sense of perspective or scale when photographing the landscape. Here’s another look at the back wall of the Helm’s Deep glacier. It’s actually probably about 15 or 20 metres tall at its highest point – not as huge as perhaps one might expect, but still rather large.

A picture taken by Katherine, of yours truly near the foot of that back wall.

We traversed the mostly ice-free patch behind the glacier, and climbed up to the rocky spur we’d seen from below, to an altitude around 850 metres, according to my GPS.

Looking back towards the Dome and base camp from the peak.

A view through my binoculars, looking back to the north towards camp. Our tents are just visible, to the left of center and just below the apparent ridgeline of the Dome.

Katherine traversing behind the wall again on our way back. I decided to avoid as much of the snow-cover as I could after I “post-holed” through a patch and felt the sharp edge of a rock pressing against the front of my shin – I don’t want to break my leg or hyperextend my knee.

A close-up of an Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum) we stopped to admire on the shoulder of the Dome.

We returned to camp well ahead of our schedule, and settled down for a bit of a break. We attempted to finish off the “Celebration mix” GORP we’d been rationing for our time on the Dome, but were interrupted by the arrival of a helicopter.

The helicopter we didn’t expect to see for at least 3 more days.

Caught by surprise, Katherine and I scrambled to pack up everything as the helicopter’s engines wound down. The pilot came over to chat, explained his schedule, which specifically included picking us up, and helped us load the chopper and the sling-net with our gear.

A note on helicopter slinging: this practice, which enables a helicopter to carry bulky and heavy cargo outside of its fuselage, is widely considered dangerous and my understanding is that insurance companies will not cover any items carried in this way. However, for things like our water jugs and the rather heavy box of soil probes, slinging is the best option. Attaching a sling to a helicopter requires a person on the ground to attach the hook to the net while the helicopter hovers directly overhead.

I volunteered to do this, and Katherine took these pictures, which I think are pretty awesome.
I guess I did it right, because the cargo didn’t fall out on the way down to base camp.

When the chopper returned, the pilot very graciously agreed to take Katherine and myself for a little tour of the neighbourhood before dropping us off at base camp. I asked if we could maybe fly over the valley a bit, and over the fjord. We got an absolutely fantastic tour of the Alexandra Fjord area, sometimes from extremely low altitude.

Flying over the Helm’s Deep glacier.

A view of the Alexandra Fjord lowlands, from directly over the Helm’s Deep glacier.

We flew down the entire length of the Twin River, which drains both the Helm’s Deep glacier and the west arm of the Twin glacier. I took a video on my camera, which I will attempt to embed here in YouTube format.

At the mouth of the river, instead of turning left towards base camp, we turned right, flew along the coast and out over the islands at the mouth of Alexandra Fjord: Big Skraeling, Little Skraeling, and Sphinx.

Sphynx island, showing its reflection in the melting sea-ice still covering Alexandra Fjord.

A view back towards the Lowlands, from somewhere above the area where Alexandra Fjord opens into Buchanan bay.

The five buildings of base camp are visible hugging the shoreline here. The west arm of Twin glacier is directly behind camp, and the Helm’s Deep glacier to the right.

After our incredible and wonderful aerial tour, the helicopter moved on to Eureka, and Katherine and I found ourselves alone in base camp. Our companions, Dr. Henry’s research team, had taken off for a 3-day visit to Sverdrup Pass (about 15 km to the northwest). First order of business was a shower.

The shower at Alexandra Fjord, such as it is, consists of an outhouse-like shack attached to the side of the food-storage building. Above it is a small platform supporting a deteriorating galvanized garbage can used as a water reservoir, with a gasoline-fueled immersion heater attached. The immersion heater is perhaps the sketchiest heater I’ve ever met – it runs on air currents it generates itself via its chimney, and is fueled by a steady drip of gasoline from a small nozzle. To light it, one fills a small arm-mounted cup with gasoline, ignites that, then uses the flaming cup to light the dripping stream of gas. The result is a burning column of gasoline falling into the ring-shaped burner chamber which itself is underwater. Like I said, sketchy. But, I avoided horribly disfiguring burn scars while playing with matches and motor fuel, and the shower felt amazing, once the initial charge of cold, rust-laden water got out of the way.

After showers, laundry. Given the need to rinse laundry detergent thoroughly from clothes, we decided the easiest thing to do was wash our clothes at the river, traditional-style. The nearest river, to the east of camp and the source of our drinking water, is a minor stream that runs down about 2/3 of the length of the valley, originating in the Helm’s Deep glacier. The warm, sunny weather of the past few days has had a dramatic effect on melt flow from the glaciers, and our little stream was hammering down its course, and laden with silt. Given our position only a few kilometres below the ice, the water is very, very cold. I washed my clothes wearing gloves, but my hands still got painfully cold. Katherine commented that I appear to have washed more clothing than she brought with her. Oh well, at least I now have clean undies.

The rest of our day was spent not eating canned food, and just generally congratulating each other on a very successful and surprisingly problem-free field trip to the Dome.

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