Ascent of The Tusk, Liv Glacier, Antarctica

People always ask when they see this picture, “Is that you out there?” To which I always reply, “No, that’s me behind the camera.” Were it not for a crooked back, I would have been out there with Phil Colbert, and would have missed the shot. Sometimes things work out the way they are supposed to. This peak, named The Tusk by a New Zealand geological party that had traversed the area in the early 1960’s, is a 600-foot horn of pure marble that juts up at the edge of Liv Glacier close to where it enters the Ross Ice Shelf. Overridden by a much thicker Liv Glacier at a time in the past when the ice shelf was grounded and backed into the mountains to higher elevations, the profile of the peak is vertical to overhung in the upstream direction, but tapers smoothly at a consistent angle of about 30 degrees downstream. The peak is basically a walk-up from the north.

The Tusk viewed from the south.

When I first became aware of this beautiful hunk of rock was in December 1970 during my first trip to the Ice. Directly to the north of The Tusk is a shoulder and high ridgeline called Mt. Henson, which had been mapped by the New Zealand party, as having a contact between marble and schist. I had been there is December, 1970, on my first trip to the Ice, landed by a helicopter at the foot of the mountain. My partner and I had climbed to the summit of the ridge and measured and collected the stratigraphic section of the marble and metavolcanic rocks along the ridgecrest.

South face of Mt. Henson, with dark schist on the right side of the massif in contact with the narrow band of white marble and gray metavolcanic rocks to the left.

When we were finished, we high-tailed it off the ridge, dropped the samples by our survival gear, and started hiking straight toward The Tusk with time we thought to climb and collect it. Much to our chagrin, the helicopter came a couple of hours early and we did not even make it to the foot of The Tusk. Four years later, on my second trip to the Ice, I was working in the Duncan Mountains, directly across Liv Glacier from Mt. Henson and The Tusk. The Kiwis had also mapped a contact between schist and volcanic rocks in the Duncan Mountains. As with the contact at Mt. Henson, they had interpreted it as being conformable, meaning that one group of layered sedimentary (or volcanic) rocks follows on top of another, their beds parallel. In the course of our mapping, we had decided that the contact in the Duncan Mountains was in fact a fault, a break in rocks along which there had been movement or displacement. It now occurred to us that the contact at Mt. Henson might also be a fault, and since I had not given it more than a passing glance in 1970, we decided to cross the mouth of Liv Glacier and check it out.

Charlie Corbato, my advisor, and Phil Colbert check the air photos during the crossing of Liv Glacier. This photo looks south along the medial furrow on Liv Glacier, with a ridge of crevasses immedaitely to the right.

We followed the Kiwi route which skirted a huge and obvious crevasse field on its north side, then locked into a deep furrow up the middle of the glacier that was smooth with snow, but flanked by heavily crevassed ridges on either side. After following this south for a couple of miles, we cut straight across the Liv again. In the furrow we crossed lots of crevasses that were a couple of feet wide and very deep, but because of their width we were able to drive across them comfortably given the length of our snowmobile. But on the far side of the furrow, we encountered wider and increasingly subtler crevasses, and so were forced to probe for a couple of miles. When we finally made it to the far side we sledded to the north of Mt. Henson to have a look at the structure and then drove back into the reentrant to the south of Mt.Henson were we camped.

North face of Mt. Henson, with dark schist on the left and light-colored marble throughout the rest of the massif.

The next day, December 27, we climbed to the top of the ridge and examined the contact close up. It was highly sheared and deformed, and although the layering on either side of the boundary was parallel, the degree of deformation right at the contact led us to interpret it also as a fault.

Contact between schist and marble near the summit on the south face of Mt. Henson.

When I awoke the next day, my 28th birthday, my lower back was spasmed so badly that I couldn’t stand. I lay in my sleeping bag all day with only slight improvement to my pain. The next day I could at least walk and sit on a snowmobile, so we drove over to The Tusk and climbed it. Each step was painful to me, but the incline was so smooth and gentle that I was able to gut it out to the top. When we reached the summit, the bulbous end of The Tusk beckoned immediately to the south. Phil said he was going out to see what the view was like from there. I declined. On the steepest part to the right of the sharp edge leading to the tip, Phil used his hands to scramble along, but otherwise he frictioned his way along on two feet. When he got to where he was going, he stood for about five minutes contemplating the scene then turned and came back. I shot a single photo, as was my practice at the time, of what I perceived to be the best frame of the shot, and that was that.

This is me sitting on the summit of The Tusk with my spasmed back. The tip of the massif is visible to the left.

We made it down, more painfully than I had ascended, and drove the snowmobile back to the Duncan Mountains following our footprints and snowmobile tracks to the spot where we had started this side trip across Liv Glacier. In hindsight we had hung it out more on this traverse than any other in my Antarctic career.

Gallery – Intrusive Patterns 2.0 (TAM) 1.0

This week's galley is more patterns of intrusive rocks.

Amundsen Reaches South Pole; Scott Starts up Beardmore Glacier

December 14, 1911, 100 years ago this week, the Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen arrived at the South Pole. Their apprehension that the British team had beaten them to their goal evaporated like breath in the cold air. Here at Earth’s still turning with the sun inscribing a perfect circle in the sky, Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting posed, heads bare, before their nation’s flag. Olav Bjaaland, operating the camera, missed out on the heros’ shot.

Norwegian party at the South Pole. (From "The South Pole" by Roald Amundsen, 1913.)

Meanwhile, the British party, led by Robert Falcon Scott, was toiling its way on the lower Beardmore Glacier, still more than a month out from the end point of their march. On December 9, two miles short of The Gateway, they had shot their five ponies. The next day the 12 men (combined polar and support parties) man-hauled through the pass that Shackleton had discovered three years before in his own, failed bid for the Pole. Where the mighty, outlet glaciers of the Transantarctic Mountains enter the Ross Ice Shelf, they tear great chasms of crevasses. Such features had stopped Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson in 1902 from reaching land at the mouths of both Byrd Glacier and Nimrod Glacier. However, at the mouth of Beardmore Glacier the land head on the north side is an isolated mountain (Mt. Hope) with a narrow passage of smooth ice between it and the main portion of the mountains.

The route through The Gateway shielded Scott's party, and Shackleton's before them, from the savage crevasses where Beardmore Glacier enters the Ross Ice Shelf.

On December 13, the day before the Norwegians reached the Pole, Scott had written that the day was “most damnably dismal,” and that he had had trouble sleeping because of indigestion and his soggy condition. On the 14th, conditions improved as deep, soft snow gave way to harder snow and easier pulling, but the race had already been lost. (The following figures are from "The Roof at the Bottom of the World.")

Shaded-relief, topographic map showing route taken by Scott's party enroute to the South Pole.

By December 17 Scott's party was rounding The Cloudmaker, the broad ridge midway up Beardmore Glacier, and heading south along the snowy, less-crevassed margin of the glacier.

By December 20, Scott's party had reached Mt. Darwin, the last outcrop of rock at the head of Beardmore Glacier. What lay ahead was the polar plateau and uncertainty.

Gallery – Transantarctic Mountiains (TAM) 1.0

This week's gallery features four photos of the Transantarctic Mountains that were to appear in an App that never materialized..

Wildlife around McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Although McMurdo nightlife can be pretty wild on a Saturday night, wildlife in the general area thereabouts may be found any day of the week. For this week’s post I showcase some of my wildlife photos, except for the mummified seal, all taken within 20 miles of McMurdo Station. Three birds and two mammals are about all of the air-breathing, macrobiota that frequent McMurdo Sound. Adelie penguins are the quintessential, tuxedoed avians. The closest rookery to McMurdo Station is at Cape Royds, a little more than twenty miles to the north. I have had numerous opportunities to visit it early in the season when the sea ice in the sound is still solid. It is also common that individual penguins or small groups will come waddling past the station, obviously not quite on track for either open water or the rookery.

Fresh drift spots the Adelie rookery at Cape Royds.

Adelie penguin head-on, displaying the sheath that warms the egg.

Adelie swimming off Hut Point.

Smile, or not.

The closest Emperor penguin rookery to McMurdo is located at Cape Crozier, about 50 miles around Ross Island at its eastern end. It was to this point that Apsley Cherry-Gerrard and his mates took their Worst Journey in the World. I have crossed paths only a few times with these most-stately representatives of their clan.

Emperor penguins amble along the seasonal ice south of Cape Evans.

Stretch it out there, guys.

The Emperor.

The ubiquitous skua is the scavenger of the southern realm. During the summer these powerful birds feed on penguin eggs and chicks. In bygone days, when open dumping was practiced in front of McMurdo Station, the skua population burgeoned, putting extra pressure on the Adelie rookeries around Ross Island. It’s slim pickins around McMurdo these days with every bit of waste, including foodstuffs, finding itself into some specific bin for retrograding and recycling. I have had skuas visit my camps more than 500 miles from open water. Sometimes they would accept some salami, sometimes not. Sometimes they would hang around for a day or two, then always move on, whither I have always wondered?

A wary pair of skuas rest son Hut Point.

Skua on its nest next to Adelie penguin rookery.

Two skua eggs in the nest.

Show us how smart you are and pick up that stone.

Good boy!

Catch you later.

Weddell seals are quite common around McMurdo, lounging on the sea ice close to shore where tidal cracks give access to the surface. Practically their whole lives Weddell seals live in the water; mating takes place there. But birth and nursing of the new-borns takes place on the ice, out there in the open air, exposed to the surface elements, but safe from the predators beneath the ice.

Maybe I'll come back later.

What more could a pup desire?

Twins are quite rare. These are fairly newly born.

Sometimes Weddell seals have become disoriented and crawled inland into the Dry Valeys where they have died and become mummified. This one is from Barstow Valley .

Orcas or Killer whales stalk the ice edge and leads of the seasonal ice of McMurdo Sound, hunting for penguins or seals. During the 1982-83 field season, I was working in the Dry Valleys. The Navy helo pilots liked to try to spot whales along the leads when they were flying across the sound, and who was I to say that I was in such a hurry to get to the rocks that they couldn’t stop for a closer look?

Orcas prowl a lead in McMurdo Sound.

That guy over there with the camera looks tasty.

Gallery – Sastrugi 3.0

In keeping with the post above, this week's gallery revisits sastrugi with an avian theme.

The Roof at the Bottom of the World Reviewed by The New York Times

The Roof at the Bottom of the World has been reviewed by The New York Times. The review of my new book by Robert R. Harris is below or the original review is available online at For ice and death fans there’s also THE ROOF AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: Discovering the Transantarctic Mountains (Yale University, $29.95) by Edmund Stump, a geologist with much firsthand experience and a professor of exploration at Arizona State University. Stump clearly and ably recounts the history of Antarctic exploration from James Clark Ross in the 1840s through the 1950s. (Fair warning, though: there’s lots of geologizing.) Best, he includes very fine topographic maps, color photographs (many his own) and satellite images. And most helpful for anyone ever confused about just where and how the explorers made their way, Stump has superimposed the actual routes they took on many of the ­images.