National Geographic : 2012 Jul
But we've stopped. Herbold is on his hands and knees digging, looking for another of the temperature probes. I hope he finds it soon; I want to start moving again. I have a sudden sense of vulnerability, of being in a landscape that is not benign. ree, Lower Erebus Hut. Outside, a swirl- ing storm. e door crashes open. Arnold and Moore stride in, their jackets icy, their faces grave. Arnold tosses an ice ax onto the table. It's broken; part of the top has sheared o be- cause of the cold. ere will be no ice climbing this a ernoon. But we can enter the biggest of the nearby ice towers---the one that looks like an astronaut---and drill an ice core from inside. Inside, the air is moist and warm. e oor is rocky, with a dusting of ice. Sky is visible through an opening high above. e drill bit looks like a boy-teen fantasy. It's enormous--- three feet long---and bright yellow, with a thread of lurid orange. It takes two men to operate, one to cradle it in position, the other to push it into the side of the tower. e interior of the bit is hollow, and pushed like this, it lls with a core of ice, much as an apple corer lls with apple. Success! Arnold and Cary remove the ice core from the drill bit and stow it in a bag. e hope is that such cores will contain microbes that have been lo ed from inside the volcano and then frozen into the ice, giving a window into the microbial life in the vent below. up the mountain we come down. A few days a er that McDon- ald and Cary and I y back to New Zealand, along with boxes of samples destined for the laboratory---"where the real work gets done," says Cary. Shortly before the end of the ight a man comes over to McDonald and me and asks if we'd like to come to the cockpit for the landing. Yes please! We are landing at sunset. Strange how refresh- ing the impending darkness is---how starved for darkness we have been. Strange too the lush, saturated colors of the New Zealand spring. It's like coming back into a Technicolor world. It's like coming back to Earth. j of scientific fieldwork is o en humdrum. But on Erebus the humdrum takes you to astounding places. Let me paint three scenes. One, we're wearing harnesses and hard hats and descending on ropes and ladders into an ice cave known as Warren Cave, which has been hollowed out by steam from the volcano. We unclip the harnesses about 40 feet below the surface of the mountain. e oor is moist, so soil and rocks; the walls are ice. We are here to retrieve a temperature probe---one of 23 the group le on the mountain a year ago in the hopes of determining how much the soil tem- peratures change and thus whether these envi- ronments are relatively stable. As we move away from the entrance, the light fades, and we have to use ashlights. Any microbes living here do not depend on the sun. Now we have entered a cavern that glitters with clusters of delicate, feathery ice crystals. We stop to stare in wonder. en Moore disappears down a corridor and a er a few moments gives a shout. He's found the probe. Two, we're standing on the rim of Mount Ere- bus. To get here we've driven as far as we could on snowmobiles, then hiked up a steep, slippery slope of scree---a mix of a glassy pumice and "Erebus crystals," large oblong pieces of feldspar from lava bombs that have been tossed out by the volcano. It's a gorgeous day: e temperature is around minus 13°F, the wind is light, the sky cloudless, the views huge. And the volcano is quiet. Whereas the crater is o en full of swirling steam, today we can look down to the bottom, more than 750 feet below, and see the lava lake glowing redly. It's an eerie sight, like looking at a conduit to the center of the Earth. Up here the air is thin and walking is slow. I'm wearing a thermal shirt, thermal leggings, wool leg warmers, eece trousers, heavy overalls, a down vest, a eece jacket, two down jackets, two pairs of socks, heavy boots, three pairs of gloves, a balaclava, a hat, a snowmobile mask, a neck gaiter, ski goggles, and two hoods. Dressed like this, I am bulky and clumsy but warm. Just. As long as we keep moving.