Finding Cairns

Anyone who travels to the deep field in Antarctica experiences setting foot in places where no human previously has traveled. Even if several field parties have worked in an area, there are still many ridgelines, moraines, tributary glaciers, and drifts that are virgin surfaces with no footprints. I have always felt a certain thrill, along with privilege, good fortune, and satisfaction, when I see a new perspective and frame a camera shot of a new location. I have climbed many mountains in places other than Antarctica and have often wondered if I was the first to reach some lonely spot. But I could never be confident that some old prospector searching for gold or a herder chasing goats into high country had not previously climbed a ridge on which I was standing. In most of the Transantarctic Mountains, however, the travelers have been precious few, and those who have gone before have typically left maps and scientific reports of exactly where they went. Nevertheless, I must admit that after thirteen expeditions to Antarctica, the excitement has faded somewhat. Now, what gives me an even greater thrill is the knowledge that I am standing exactly where members of a previous field party have been and I am gazing over the same vista. I imagine their approach and wonder how it felt to them to be the first. I feel a connection, especially when I discover a cairn left by a field party as a marker of its achievement, and sometimes even a written record of who the men were and what they did. For instance, in the early seasons after the International Geophysical Year in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when topographers were scouring the Transantarctic Mountains to prepare their maps, they built cairns at many of their survey stations. Perhaps a half-dozen times over the years, I have come upon these robust, chest-high constructions built from whatever stone the bedrock offered. Invariably they are placed at some high point overlooking a spacious panorama. Some might say that they are blemishes on pristine wilderness, but to me any cairn is an apt monument to the human history of this frozen land. The most memorable cairn I’ve found was left by Laurence Gould’s party on Supporting Party Mountain in 1929. This was the end point of a 600-mile traverse begun at Little America with pause at the mountain front when Byrd flew by on his historic flight to the South Pole, and thence eastward discovering new mountains as the party progressed. During the 1977–1978 field season, my party was working in the area to the north of Leverett Glacier. From Gould’s writings, we knew that his party had built a cairn at the summit of the mountain there at the easternmost reach of the exploration. In it Gould had left a note claiming the territory to the east of longitude 150 in the name of the United State of America. Five years later, a field party associated with the second Byrd Antarctic expedition, revisited the cairn at the beginning of a traverse up Scott Glaceer. We knew the leader, Quin Blackburn, had left a note of his own, copied Gould’s note, and carried the original back to him. I was determined not to miss this remnant of the heroic era, and planned a day of mapping that would include a climb to the summit of Supporting Party Mountain and to its cairn. We approached up the gentle north ridge, whereas Gould’s and Blackburn’s parties had climbed up the steep western spur. Because of the convexity of the ridgeline we did not see the cairn until we were almost on it. Then there it was—an alien sign of humanity in a lifeless landscape! We peered into the chinks between the rocks and spotted the treasure deep within.
Cairn Supporting Party Mountain Antarctica

Gould's cairn on Supporting Party Mountain

The proper construction of a cairn in which a record is left includes a stone that can be withdrawn so that the contents can be easily accessed, and indeed that was how this cairn was made. I carefully removed the doorway stone, reached in, and took out a colorful tin can that had once held dried oats for Gould’s party. Inside the tin were the penciled notes, written with precision and flare in a surprisingly steady hand, given that Blackburn must have written them either with a gloved hand or a bare hand stiffened by the cold. In addition, there were a bamboo splint and a broken thermometer, left as relics of their heroic traverse. My group lingered by the cairn, looked out at the scene that Gould and Blackburn had beheld, discussed the route that they had taken to this spot, took photos as souvenirs, then replaced the notes, added our own, and descended the mountain. (Excerpt from The Roof at the Bottom of the World.)

Gallery: Vanda Ice Cracks

Lake Vanda sits in the middle of Wright Valley, one of the ice-free valleys to the west of McMurdo Sound. The center of the lake is a permanently frozen plug of white ice. During the summer months, meltwater from glaciers at either end of Wright Valley pours into the lake, producing a broad moat of open water. During the winter this moat freezes with a clarity that allows one to peer many feet down into the azure blue of the ice. As temperatures deepen and the ice contracts, lacy fractures propagate through the upper reaches of the ice, begging to be framed and shot. Each of these images is approximately one foot across.

Lake Vanda, early November, 1975, is frozen tight, awaiting the deluge of the summer thaw. The blue ice margin is home to the ice cracks in the gallery.