Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Exploring the FOXX Moulin on the Greenland Ice Sheet

Matt exiting the FOXX Moulin
“Hey David, hope you are doing well! It looks like Will Gadd can't make it to Greenland in October, so I have an opening on the team to explore moulins on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Any chance you might be interested and available for a little under three weeks?”

That was in August. And the answer was yes, of course!

A few weeks and multiple doctor's appointments later to obtain clearance with the National Science Foundation’s arctic program, and after scraping together camping gear rated for the -20s° F (mind you, I live in Texas), I found myself on a flight to Copenhagen. After a bit of sightseeing and sampling the local craft beer, I met up with my friends Jason Gulley and Matt Covington, the two glaciologists whose climate research this trip was in support of. Together, we continued our passage on Air Greenland’s only airbus, headed to Kangerlussuaq, and eventually connecting to Ilulissat.

Ilulissat, a small town in western Greenland by Disko Bay, is home to the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During our first night there, we were greeted by a spectacular aurora borealis display. A few days were spent assembling gear from both local research stashes and what we had brought with us, and figuring out how to not exceed the weight limit for our helicopter ride onto the ice.

Icebergs in Disko Bay, seen from Ilulissat
Our research site, the FOXX moulin, was about 30 km inland from the coast. Negating any statistical likelihood, the surface temperatures were still above freezing when we arrived, and moving around on the ice even for the shortest distance required donning spikes or crampons on our boots. Fascinated by the ingenuity of the techniques used to stake down our tents, I followed Jason around carrying a running generator while he drilled half-meter deep holes into the ice to drop bamboo sticks into that would serve as tent stakes.

The next morning saw our first approach with rigging gear to the moulin. But what's a moulin, you ask? Essentially a vertical shaft created by melt water on a glacier or body of ice, funneling that water down to the bottom of the glacier, where it creates channels draining into the ocean. Similar in all aspects to how a vertical cave gets formed in bedrock, it just gets carved into the ice in a much shorter time span. Wikipedia has more details, and the illustration you can zoom into on this ESA blog post is also quite good.

Wind blowing recent snow off the ice, past our three personal tents and our mess tent
Soon after our arrival, the temperatures on the ice dropped well below freezing, and the weather varied between sun, snow storms, high winds blowing the snow off the ice again and into our faces, and anything in between. Loud cracks could be heard occasionally at any time of day, reminding us that the body of ice actually moves and is a (slow, but) dynamic beast, as was also illustrated by the fractures that could be seen all over the ice.

All in all, we spent a good week on the ice, exploring the moulin using a mix of mountaineering and caving techniques. Our little tent city was pitched a short hike away from the moulin, and we went on daily trips to survey it for a total of about 80 meters down to the water table. Time was also spent on creating photo and video documentation of the moulin, and illustrating Jason and Matt’s research goals and findings.

Other than being delayed by a day and a half as a result of inclement weather (an eventuality well within the margins of what we were prepared to deal with), our return to civilization was uneventful, and was celebrated with musk ox burgers and pints of Ilulissat’s local micro-brews.

Jason's Instagram account, and Will’s videos and documentation of their earlier expedition onto the ice sheet, offer some stunning images of what it’s like out there

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Chillagoe – Caving in North Queensland, Australia

Chillagoe Tower Karst
When the quadrennial International Congress of Speleology (ICS) – with its 2017 occurrence near Sydney, Australia – announced their variety of pre- and post-congress field trip offerings, Andrea and I decided to sign up for a three-day adventure in Chillagoe (Queensland), one of the eastern karst areas of the country. A variety of vertical and horizontal day-trip options and the moderate winter temperatures seemed to fit our bill.

Andrea inspecting a Termite mound
Chillagoe is located inland, about three hours northwest of Cairns, the latter being a convenient travel destination popular because of its vicinity to the Great Barrier Reef. Trip participants (including our Austin friends Geoff and Jean, and a number of new-found friends from Germany, UK, the US, and Switzerland) were picked up by our hosts in the morning of Day 1 in Cairns, and together we commuted in rented mini-vans to the Chillagoe Caving Club’s clubhouse. The club occupies formidable quarters – an old schoolhouse converted into sleeping quarters, principal’s house converted into the kitchen and mess hall, and a newly built bathroom and shower facility, on a spacious lot in the middle of the quaint, little mining town.

The karst is fascinating even aboveground – faulting followed by volcanic activity and secondary mineral deposits were shaped over time into karst towers that exhibit sharp and spiky rillenkarren, reminding me of what I had climbed around on years ago in Borneo. The surrounding land is a savannah that counts such interesting critters as green tree ants and the infamous stinging tree amongst its fauna and flora. Dusty and dry in the winter season, the scenery is altogether very different from the rainforest nearer to Cairns.

The caves we visited were all within an easy drive from the clubhouse and accessible by a short walk through the bush; generally housed inside the karst towers and with multiple entrances to each one, facilitating through-trips and the frequent encounter of daylight-filled rooms. Caving involved some modest SRT involvement on single drops, and an entertaining variety of climbing, a few squeezes, and walking passage. (Which we were told changes during/after the wet season, when many cave passages are navigated by swimming instead.)

Scenic lunch spot
Cave temperatures were warm and humid – much as in Mexico and Texas, to my liking but to the surprise of some of our fellow cavers from colder regions of the world. Jean was excited to find critters in a small water table sump in one of the otherwise fairly dry caves.

We generally returned from our excursions in time for dinner at one of the local lodges or restaurants. Day 3 saw a short caving trip in the morning, followed by a visit of Chillagoe’s impressively beautiful show caves, which are maintained by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and open to the public by means of guided tours. (Worth a day trip from Cairns!) The rest of the day was spent packing up and driving back to Cairns, ending the trip with dinner in town.

Many thanks go to the Chillagoe Caving Club’s members for organizing this unique visit and opening their clubhouse to us; showing us around their caves, karst, and nature; answering our countless questions; having patience with our extensive photo shoots; and generally being a fun bunch to spend time with!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Projecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla

I spent a week in the state of Oaxaca (southern México) at the end of April, joining the last days of this year's expedition of the Projecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla (PESH). I knew what I had signed up for – hauling heavy packs out of project caves, surrounded by folks who had spent the last month getting fitter and fitter by going caving every day.

Which is pretty much what happened. I nearly broke myself on the first day, hauling two packs at once while climbing up the "110" (a pit which derives its name from its depth in meters) in the upper parts of Sótano de San Agustín. Followed by a day of shuttling packs from the cave's entrance back to the field house, and a fairly pleasant day surveying and derigging upper passage in La Grieta.

View straight up at night in the entrance of Sótano de San Agustín

The rest of the week was divided between traveling to and from the town of Huautla (and village of San Agustín Zaragoza), and spending time in Huautla and the expedition field house with a bunch of old and new friends.

Looking down the jungle drop into the entrance of San Agustín

Oaxaca City itself, which United flies into, is a great tourist destination and worth a (weekend) visit. I spent a day on my way home touristing around the city and nearby Monte Albán, enjoying lots of great food and sights on México's Labor Day weekend.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Scrambling up the Canadian Rockies

A few weeks ago, on fairly shorthand notice, I decided to leave my home office and the Austin heat for a few days to go and visit my friends in Calgary. Mainly for their proximity to the mountains – drive 2-3 hours west, and you’re in either Banff, Jasper, or Yoho National Parks, at the border between Alberta and British Columbia, which follows the continental divide in that area.

While Taco’s and my original objective, scrambling up Mount Assiniboine, never worked out because of negative weather forecasts, we had a bunch of fun doing other things:

  • Batgirl took me to see the "tourist section" of Rat’s Nest Cave the night I got into Calgary. Quite a fun place! And the first time I have caved in a (borrowed) cotton suit. The next day, Taco and I climbed "Morningside", a fun sport-route next to the highway, 4 pitches, rated 5.7...

"The Grotto" in Rat's Nest Cave. (Photo by Batgirl)
  • Taco and I spent a long day scrambling up Mount Daly, a 28 km round trip with an elevation difference of about 1,500 meters. The views of the surrounding ice fields were incredible.

View from Mount Daly - the clouds have just started to clear out.
  • Batgirl and I hiked into the Little Yoho Valley Friday night in order to explore its surroundings the next day. This was the first time I got to test out my new (to me) bivy sack – and just to make things realistic, it pretty much rained all night. (The bivy held up fine. :-))

We decided to go and check out the snout of this glacier around the corner from Little Yoho Valley.
  • Having been able to get a reservation for the Abbot Pass hut, Taco and I scrambled up to it from Lake O’Hara and got an alpine start the next morning in order to climb up onto Mount Victoria’s Southeast Ridge to the mountain’s south summit. This may have been the most technical ascent I have done so far – nothing serious, but some easy (yet quite exposed) climbing moves, and we decided to rope up and get our crampons and ice axes out on the way back to get up a snow/ice slope on the ridge. 

Southeast Ride of Mount Victoria, with the summit in the clouds.

In between, I got to spend some time in Calgary. Quite an enjoyable town, with good coffee shops and food, and even a place serving a number of German beers on tap. Now I wonder what it looks like in the winter. ;-)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Photo Salon Entry...

Not much news on the outdoor front for me in recent times. So, purely for the purpose of keeping this blog alive... :-)

This photo won a Merit Award at this year's TSA Spring Convention:

Follow the Flowstone!
Taken in April 2014 in O-9 Well Cave by David Ochel,
with assistance from Geoff Hoese and Susan Souby.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Playing in the Snow... A Visit to the Upper Peninsula

Back at the beginning of February, I spent ten days visiting friends in Houghton and Hancock, two towns across the Portage Canal from each other in Michigan's UP. When they moved up to the Keweenaw Peninsula from Austin, Jason had told me about Michigan Tech's winter carnival happening every year, and this being a good time of the year to visit. (Assuming one likes snow.)

Gotta keep the mailboxes accessible. (Copper Harbor, MI)
So I packed some of the mountaineering gear that is pretty useless in Texas and flew into the tiny airport that sees about one (or two?) departures a day. (As opposed to certain other airports, they know how to deal with snow and ice there, though.)

I went cross-country skiing for the first time -- lots of fun! Besides stomping around in the snow a lot and building a snow cave, we also went ice climbing twice, and toured the very tip of the peninsula by car. Conveniently, by the time I got there the lake had frozen over to a large extent, resulting in less cloudy (and snowy) days and a fair amount of sun. (Are you familiar with the phenomenon of lake-effect snow?)

Beginner waterfall, not too vertical. I have a lot to learn. (That might require living somewhere with more frequent access to ice, though.)
There are surprising amounts of awesome micro- (and home-) brewed beer to be had in the UP! The local cuisine has tasty Finnish influences from immigrants that came to work in the copper mines. And it took me a while to figure out how to pronounce pasties properly to indicate I was actually talking about the food item that is popular up there.

I managed to bring enough layers to not freeze on this trip, and had a great time playing in the snow and ice. Nevertheless -- next time I come back, I plan on checking the place out in the summer!

Scene from Beauty and the Beast entered into the Snow Carnival snow sculpting competition.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend, Texas

We went on a little adventure over the extended Thanksgiving weekend a few weeks ago. Friends invited Andrea and me to go canoeing on the Rio Grande, in Big Bend in the western part of Texas.

The drive from Austin to Terlingua is about eight hours. Andrea, Jean, Kristina, and I enjoyed the luxury of being able to take most of Wednesday off and to get out of town early. We piled a bunch of gear and ourselves into a 4Runner and made it to our destination in time for dinner and drinks at the fun Starlight Theatre. Our other old and new friends arrived long after we had cuddled ourselves into our down sleeping bags in the parking lot of the Far Flung Outdoor Center at sub-freezing temperatures.

View of Big Bend Ranch State Park from the Rio Grande
We rented canoes, which seemed like a significant reduction of hassle compared to dragging individual boats from Austin to Big Bend, and had Far Flung shuttle us in our cars to the put in at La Cuesta in Big Bend Ranch State Park. I was amazed by how much stuff fits into these boats -- amongst other things, we traveled with two camping tables, plenty stoves and cooking gear, a (national park-mandated) fire pan and portable "waste containment system" (toilet), and of course many coolers full of food and beer.

The border between the US and Mexico in Big Bend is pretty much represented by the Rio Grande, providing for a US and a Mexico bank of the river. It was enjoyable to spend a few days oscillating back and forth between the two countries without being subject to scrutiny by immigration officers at every occasion. The only person we met on (and off) the river during our 4-day trip was a lone law enforcement ranger in his canoe, just after we entered Big Bend National Park and before getting into the canyon. The majority of animal sightings on our ~30 mile trip were cattle and horses on the Mexican side.

Rock Slide rapids, Santa Elena Canyon, as seen from the Mexican side of the slide
The most exciting part of the trip surely were the Rock Slide rapids, not too far from the beginning of Santa Elena Canyon. A huge number of impressively sized boulders are piled up against the Mexican canyon wall, and several of them strewn across the water channel provided for the most challenging rapids on this trip.

Andrea and I managed to pin our boat against a boulder sticking out of the water right before the Rock Slide. Luckily, nobody got hurt and we managed to get the boat off the rock easy enough. And the trouble of packing all of our stuff into waterproof bags and containers paid off. Our two most experienced paddlers ended up running all of our six canoes through the Rock Slide, with some of us being bowmen and others (including me) scrambling through the dry part of the slide on foot.

Our camp for the last night, across from Arch Canyon
The canyon with its steep limestone walls is truly beautiful. In fact, everything of Big Bend we saw on our trip makes me want to go back. Maybe for some hiking for a change? We certainly didn't starve on this trip, either, having organized dinner responsibilities into a different group of four for each of our camping nights. And the company turned out to be most excellent, despite the fact that some of us hadn't really known each other before this trek.

Jean compiled a little video of our trip from her GoPro footage:

Navigating the Rio Grande by canoe was a whole lot of fun. I'm glad I got to go and experience this with my friends. Before I commit to another canoeing trip I probably should spend some time improving my sternman skills, though. ;-)