Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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  Paul Doherty on the Rim of Erebus  
Completely covered as protection from the cold and winds on the summit of Mt. Erebus. Click to Enlarge.

Antarctic Feelings

Touching the Icy Continent.
by Paul Doherty

January 7, 2002


Just as I expected, one of the most common sensations in Antarctica was the feeling of cold. On the summit of Mt. Erebus, I encountered -20 C (-4 F) temperatures and 20 mph (30 kph) winds. Under these conditions, the wind chill is so severe that when Noel took off his face mask for just a few minutes to operate the video camera, a white spot of frostbite appeared on his nose. He quickly covered up his face and suffered no lasting effects.

As I hiked up Erebus, my toes and fingers started to feel cold. Then they began to lose feeling. I put on another warm hat, then upped my level of exercise. As I began to rewarm my extremities, the feeling that returned was the second Antarctic sensation:


When warmth returns to your chilled extremities you feel an intense burning pain. I welcomed the pain since it meant that my feet were warming up. It also meant that my pain nerves were responding, and so hadn't been deadened by a serious frostbite.


As surprising as it seems, we were often hot and sweaty in Antarctica. Whenever I flew in a helicopter, I was required to wear my ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. This gear was designed to keep me warm in very cold and windy conditions. Having to wear it on a warm day in McMurdo (0 C or 32 F), I rapidly started to sweat and overheat. In the photo above on the rim of Erebus, I am not wearing my heavy down jacket, just my light windbreaker. I was hiking uphill and adjusted my clothing to keep me warm without sweating. Sweat-soaked clothing is less effective at keeping me warm. Experienced cold-weather mountaineers are always adjusting their clothing.


  ventifact, Andrews Ridge Tayor Dy Valley  
A ventifact or wind carved stone one handspan long. Click to Enlarge.

Wind-blown sand and extremely cold snow (below -40 C or -40 F) carve and polish rocks here, creating stones known as ventifacts. Almost every rock I had ever seen in my life had been shaped by water. But in the dry valleys of Antarctica, where it hasn't rained for a million years, the rocks are shaped by the wind. As I hiked along Andrews Ridge, a high ridge running down the center of the Taylor Dry Valley, I spotted many fine grained black basalt rocks polished and faceted by the wind. They looked so unique that I took my gloves off for just a minute to feel them, they felt as smooth as glass.

Ventifacts often have flat faces and sharp edges, unlike river stones which become more and more rounded with time. Flat-sided ventifacts are classified by the number of flat faces they possess. The stone shown on the left has three faces carved by the wind (the bottom is not counted).

Touching the Antarctic proved to be an interesting mix of the expected and the unexpected. The unexpected sensations kept us awake and alert to the world around us. We were obviously not in San Francisco anymore.

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