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  snowmobiles carry geologists up Erebus  
Snowmobiles carry geologists up the steaming summit cone of Erebus.
Click to enlarge.

Climbing Erebus

From the hut to the summit
by Paul Doherty

December 20, 2001

Noel and I arrived at Lower Erebus Hut in a window of good weather. We found Phil Kyle helping his team load snowmobiles so they could rush up to visit their instruments on the mountain.

Phil Kyle is a brave man, not only because he does science while living for months at a time on the side of an erupting volcano in Antarctica, but also because he gave Noel and I two of his snowmobiles to drive up Mt. Erebus. Neither Noel or I had ever driven a snowmobile before, we are into human powered travel preferring to climb mountains on skis, snowshoes, or on foot. Our first snowmobile ride was going to be up the steep icy flank of a volcano!

Matt Irinaga gave us survival lessons for driving a snowmobile.

Lesson 1. When you drive sideways across a steep icy slope put both feet on the uphill side of the snowmobile and lean uphill. This way if the snowmobile rolls over, your downhill leg won't get crushed. This is not a theoretical lesson—the conditions this year were so bad that even Phil, the most experienced driver on Erebus rolled a snowmobile. Bill Fox didn't receive this lesson so that when his snowmobile rolled over, his leg was trapped underneath. Luckily the snow was soft and he wasn't hurt.

Lesson 2. When you are driving down an icy slope don't lock up the brakes, or you'll skid out of control. Savor the speed. Which was easier said than done.

  Jessie Crain and volcanic bomb  
Our leader Jessie Crain stops to show us a volcanic bomb. Click to enlarge.

I got the hang of using the throttle on a two cycle engine and of leaning to the sides on corners pretty quickly. I hate to admit it, but it was fun navigating the snow between the volcanic lava flows. We felt great after we successfully crossed the steep icy slope and stayed right-side-up. Eventually, the going got too tough for machines and we had to stop to hike up the final 500 feet at the summit cone. Real climbing a last!

Geology grad student Jessie Crain led the way. She told us that if the volcano erupted and threw out volcanic bombs, "don't duck, look up watch them coming down then get out of the way." That sounded like good advice.

It was cold: -30 C (-22F) with 20+ mph (30 kph) winds. Exposed flesh froze within minutes. Noel took off his face mask for a few minutes to use the video camera, and before he was done, a white patch of frostbite appeared on his nose.

When we reached the rim of the crater the world dropped away 600 feet (200 m) into a steaming pit. The mist opened briefly and let us see the coal black lava lake below us, it was laced with incandescent red fractures. You can see the same view on a live webcamera located on the rim of Mt. Erebus by visiting the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory, or MEVO , web site.

  View into the crater of erebus  
A view over the rim, down inside the crater of Erebus. Click to enlarge.

Ten-foot (3m) diameter icy tubes ran up the walls of the crater, steam belched from their tops. They reminded me of the termite tubes I saw in California, except these were a thousand times larger. If these were made by mutant ice termites then I was in a science fiction story. They were actually made by ice condensed from the steam escaping from fumaroles.

Jessie and Matt worked on her instrument mounted on the rim of Erebus. In this instrument, an air pump sucks a known amount of air through filters. The filters collect radioactive gases and particles. Then the filters are sent off to Paris where their radioactivity is measured. These measurements will allow Jessie to determine the time that the lava erupting from Erebus spends in the magma chamber beneath the volcano.

After an hour of gathering data, and savoring the company of an active volcano we headed back down the volcano. I remembered not to brake as the speed built up riding the snowmobile down the icy slope. It was a thrilling ride. I heaved a sigh of relief when I reached the hut safely again.

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