Monday, November 06, 2006

Taylor Valley

Wow. The whole field trip experience was awesome.

The helicopter flight was pretty cool. It was my first time in a helicopter. There were 8 of us on the trip so we were packed into the helo pretty tight. The view was amazing, especially coming back when the pilot did a circle around McMurdo and Ob Hill so Alexander could do some video filming. The helicopter dropped our survival bags and extra gear down at the mouth of the valley and then took us and our daypacks up to the top of the valley. The plan was that we would hike down the valley to the survival bags and get picked up at 5.

The Dry Valleys weren't as dry as today as normal because they got a pretty decent dusting of snow that hadn't melted off yet. Nonetheless, Taylor Valley was pretty breathtaking. One of the first thing you notice after the helicopter takes off is that the valley is really quiet. The only things making noise are you and the people around you. And the occasional sound of a glacier calving. Another thing you notice is that you're surrounded by glaciers. They seem to hang from the walls of the valley, and each has a name. Ellen was telling me that these glaciers are unique because they have very flat face as opposed to a sloped face. This is because these glaciers stay frozen year round and have very little melt water, which contributes to a sloped face. The final thing you notice, which is a little subtle at first, is that there is a complete lack of vegetation.

The landscape was littered with all sorts of debris--from boulders of granite the size of a pickup truck all the way down to pebbles and ice chunks of all sizes from the glaciers. The ground ranges from pretty solid stuff to very soft sand. There were also places where there were very many loose pebbles and cobbles that made walking somewhat treacherous. When we first got out of the helicopter, we wandered around for a while pretty leisurely. After a bit, we realized that we needed to head towards the bottom of the valley if we were going to make our pickup time. Ross set a pace that made for quite the workout. The temperature was also pretty warm--20F--so between that and the hiking, everyone got warm and sweaty pretty quickly. It was a long hike to get to the bottom of the valley where we were going to eat lunch. My hips and knees were sore from hiking across a steep slope of loose sand and stones. Sitting down for lunch was one of the greatest feelings I've ever felt :) We ate lunch overlooking the mouth of the valley with Taylor Glacier and Lake Bonney at our feet.

After lunch we wandered down to the lake and decided to hike across it to the survival bags and then explore the glacier further. The ice in the middle of the lake is permanent but the ice around the edge melts aways and forms a moat during the summer. Fortunately for us, it was still frozen solid. The ice was really clear but also very slippery. Ross said that the lake is really salty, but it didn't taste very salty when I got down on my hands and knees and gave it a lick. I guess the salt water sinks to the bottom :)

Taylor glacier was the best part of the whole trip for me. We got to climb on it and the moraines in front of it. It also has this unique feature called the "Blood Falls". It looks like there is a frozen waterfall of orangeish 'blood'. I guess it is caused by some lake minerals and salts that are underneath the glacier and getting forced up through it.

The helicopter picked us up around 5 and took us back to McMurdo. On the way back, I got a couple of nice pictures out the window. When we got back, I was dog tired. But considering we'd hiked quite a ways over some tough terrain, and it was during the time I'd normally be sleeping, and I was running on two hours of sleep, I guess it wasn't too surprising that I was tired. When I get a chance, I'll upload a few more photos from the trip. I need to sort through them and pick out the best 15 or 20 since I took about 130 pictures.

EDIT: I uploaded the pictures to the Taylor Valley album.

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