Destination: Olympus Range! It sounds so grand. And oh how it was. As there were helicopter movements in the area, we were dropped at the top of the Olympus Range at sampling routes to follow down to the Valley floor. It’s amazing how 5 minutes by helicopter can take days to cover on foot. Steve Pointing, a Professor of Ecosystem Ecology from the Earth and Ocean Sciences Research Institute at AUT and I were dropped off by helo at 1700m elevation on the crest of the mountains. A vista of naked mountains and perfectly sculpted glaciers were matched with distant icebergs in the frozen white Ross Sea. All under a calm and cloudless blue sky. One of the difficult things to judge in Antarctica is the distance. The atmosphere is so crisp and the scenery so big, that without trees for scale judging distance is almost impossible. More than likely if something looks 1km away, it is probably 10km away. But with a trusty GPS, you can tell just how close or distant it is to the next sampling location.
We trotted our way down through ancient mountain landscapes, most likely where know one had ever trodden before. As we travelled, we crossed an assortment of distinct and beautiful landscapes: weathered slabs of granite bedrock, desert pavements of dolerite, sandy polygons, and dreaded chunky boulder fields.
So how do we take a sample? Well, firstly we hiked by GPS to the specific location – a point chosen to be an indicator of a specific geology, aspect, slope, elevation and temperature. The first sampling task requires doing just what you feel like after hiking kilometers of rough terrain. Lie down and spend 10 minutes hunting beneath rocks for springtails and mites, the only VISIBLE invertebrates that live in Antarctica, which are mere millimeters in size. Then soil samples are taken which are analysed in the lab. Lastly a 10m transect is laid out and any lichens, mosses or cyanobacteria that are seen are noted down. In some locations there is a lot of life to be found. Where we were, we saw not one springtail, mite, moss, lichen, or any sign of life. I can sympathise with Scott – these valleys do appear to be void of life. However what will be seen in the lab will show another story.
As we hiked and sampled, our packs grew increasingly heavy with samples of soil. Our packs lost weight as we drank our water, but gained weight with bottles of pee. In Antarctica nothing in left in the field, including human waste. As a woman, peeing into a bottle is something of an art! With the aid of a FUD, a female urinary director, hey presto, peeing is not a problem. Go on, Google it, I’m not going into any more detail here…..
10 hours of walking later, we arrived into sub camp 2, otherwise known as Camp Curry, to the warm welcome of Marwan and Peyman and a big pot of delicious hot steaming curry. Situated on the side of Lake Vida in the center of a perfect polygon, the site of 3 yellow tents and an array of atmospheric gadgets was a welcome site!