In the footprints of giants

Antarctica: A Johns Hopkins geologist shares the sense of adventure that attracted the leaders of early expeditions.

March 12, 2000|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

BULL PASS, ANTARCTICA -- The unwary can still freeze in this howling wilderness, or fall off a knife-edged ridge. But Bruce Marsh, a Johns Hopkins University geologist who has spent five seasons here, knows that exploring Antarctica isn't what it used to be.

At the turn of the century, Roald Amundsen led the first party to reach the South Pole, in what has been called the last great feat of terrestrial exploration. He and others traveled by sled dog, ski and on foot through the planet's coldest and windiest continent. Their clothes were bulky, rations meager and navigation equipment crude. Communications were impossible. Some went mad; others died of scurvy or plunged into hidden crevasses.

Today, Marsh and his students zoom around in helicopters equipped with satellite navigation systems. They wear lightweight synthetic fabrics, carry two-way radios, listen to a solar-powered compact disc player and dine on steak. Still, Marsh and other researchers may be the closest thing to true explorers left.

Surveyors and space shuttle crews have mapped nearly every square foot of the planet, and submersibles have inspected the ocean floor. Here on Earth, there are no undiscovered lands, no inaccessible mountains, no terra incognita. Today, it takes specialized knowledge to extract new information from familiar territory.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, the British Antarctic pioneer, regarded scientists as "ballast," one biographer wrote, while Sir Clement Markham, the organizer of several other expeditions, sneered at them as "mud larkers." Today, scientists lead expeditions, and the celebrated Shackleton would be the excess baggage.

Underground rivers of lava

Marsh works in an area of the Transantarctic Mountains called the Dry Valleys, which has been called the driest desert on earth. The topographies of these valleys weren't completely mapped until the late 1950s. Marsh charts the underground rivers of lava that cooled 180 million years ago and now sit exposed on the sides of the region's peaks.

Winds sweeping off Antarctica's 2-mile-high icecap scour this region and keep it free of snow and ice. It hasn't rained here in 2 million years. There are no animals, no trees, no grasses, no plants larger than lichen. Outside of camp here at Bull Pass, there are no smells. During the high Antarctic summer, which runs from mid-October to mid-February, the sun circles overhead 24 hours a day. Boulders shaped like dinosaur skulls jut out of the red-brown cliffs above the valley. When the wind is blowing, these natural gargoyles turn into organ pipes. To Marsh, they sound like whales singing. "It's like the Earth was 3 billion years ago," he says.

But Bull Pass isn't as isolated as it feels. Marsh and his team have been hosts to three members of the House of Representatives and a U.S. senator. McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation's main Antarctic base, is a 40-minute helicopter ride away. A cross between a mining camp and a college campus, McMurdo has two automated teller machines, a bowling alley, two bars and a coffeehouse that serves California wines and lattes.

Quickly disillusioned

"I was very surprised by how civilized it seemed," says Michael Zieg, 27, one of Marsh's graduate students. As he first flew across the Southern Ocean toward McMurdo on a ski-equipped cargo plane a few years ago, Zieg says, "I thought, `This is weird. I'm going where no man has gone before.' I was quickly disillusioned when we arrived and I saw a woman about my age in jeans and sneakers, and she said: `OK, get on the bus. We're going back to town.' "

By international treaty, Antarctica -- the size of the United States and Mexico combined -- is reserved as a kind of park. McMurdo is only one of about 100 research stations, run by 29 countries, including Uruguay, Bulgaria and Finland. Each summer, these camps attract about 4,000 scientists and support staff.

A touch of home

Each outpost reflects the sponsoring country's culture. At Dumont D'Urville, a French outpost, scientists take turns working as waiters and serve dinner in courses. Menus may feature lobster, escargot and a selection of wines.

Perhaps reflecting Americans' obsession with health, there is no smoking in most buildings at McMurdo. But Vostok Station, a remote Russian site that once recorded a world-record 129 degrees below zero, stinks of cigarette smoke. The highlight of the week is a sauna bath, followed by a dash outside into temperatures that sometimes dip below minus 120.

Before 1821, no human being had set foot on Antarctica. In recent decades, a tiny tourist industry has sprung up. About 10,000 people a year cruise the stormy Southern Ocean, landing on frigid beaches in inflatable boats. And 150 wealthy adventure travelers pay upward of $30,000 apiece to visit the interior by airplane, overland vehicle or ski. Sometimes these latter-day Shackletons seem to be stumbling over each other.

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