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Rediscovering Ross Island 2012: Erin, Dan and Paul Make Their First Helicopter Flight

Written by Paul Wallace.

Mt. Terror – it sounds like something out of the Lord of the Rings, and at 10,600 feet elevation, it’s an imposing site.  Based on very limited age information, this volcano was last active about 1 million years ago and its flanks are dotted with small cinder cones and lava domes.  Our goal in coming to the east ridge of Terror is to collect samples of lava and volcanic ash that will help us figure out whether an upwelling mantle plume creates the magma that feeds the Ross Island volcanoes, as Ken explained in the first post.

Plate 1: Our first landing, in the Kyle Hills on the east flank of Mt. Terror. Dan (red jacket) gets our field gear ready while Ken (blue and black coat) does a radio check with the pilots, who are standing behind Dan. Erin and Ken walked up to the cone seen behind the helicopter to collect samples. Photo by Paul Wallace.

We first landed at a spot low on the east ridge of Terror (Plate 1), not far from the famous Emperor Penguin colony at Cape Crozier that Apsley Cherry-Garrard walked to during the Austral winter of 1911 and which he chronicled in his book The Worst Journey in the World.  Fortunately the task of sampling volcanic rocks with a helicopter is infinitely easier and safer than retrieving penguin eggs and carrying them 60 miles through the dark, frigid Antarctic winter.  Today the sun is shining and there’s not much wind, so the conditions couldn’t be better for collecting samples.

Plate 2: A view from the helicopter of the volcanic cone that was our second stop, where Dan and Paul were dropped off. We found two different kinds of lava at this cone. The summit of Mt. Terror can be seen in the background. During the next week, we plan to land at and sample many of the cinder cones seen between the summit and us. Photo by Ken Sims.

After landing, we split into two groups, and Dan and I walk up to the rim of one cinder cone and down into the breached crater.  Soon he is calling to me that he’s found a great sample of black volcanic ash, with large crystals of greenish olivine, just the kind of material we’re looking for in our research.  Compared to field work in the Cascades in the northwestern U.S. and other places I’m accustomed to, the work here feels more clunky because of all the cold weather gear we’re wearing and carrying.  But we’re excited at the great exposures of volcanic material we’re finding.

Plate 3: Our second stop. Dan (lower right) sampling black scoria and ash from a cinder cone. More cinder cones can be seen in the distance, about 3000 feet below us in elevation, and sea ice stretches out all the way to the horizon. Photo by Paul Wallace.

At our second stop of the day (Plate 2), the helicopter leaves Dan and me along with a large survival bag of gear, and flies off with Ken and Erin so they can sample at another location. It’s an interesting feeling to be left in such a remote place, but we know they won’t be too far away and we’re in radio contact for safety purposes.  We find another great exposure of rock and ash, collect a few more samples (Plate 3), and soon we hike back up to meet the helicopter (Plate 4).  On our flight back to McMurdo Station, with the ice shelf and mountains stretching out to the horizon in all directions, it’s hard not to think again of the early explorers who came here, and the vastness and isolation of this region they trekked through.

Plate 4: Dan and Paul (in foreground) carrying their gear back to the helicopter after our final stop. Our heads are down because of the strong wind from the helicopter rotor, which was enough to blow a person over. The rocky nature of the landing site required the pilot, Ryan Skorecki, to keep the rotor spinning so as not to put the full weight of the helicopter down on the ground. Photo by Ken Sims.