Ventifact, Antarctic Dry Valleys

Ventifacts: In a Surrealist Sculpture Garden

Ventifact, Antarctic Dry Valleys
It’s a bird?: Granite boulders at the top of the ridge above Lake Bonney have been sculpted into strange shapes. From this angle, this one reminds me of a cartoon bird (beak on right).

On Dec. 17th, with Forrest McCarthy as my guide, I hiked up some steep gravel inclines in the Antarctic Dry Valleys above Lake Bonney to elevated ridges and plateaus to see the ventifacts. These are large granite boulders that have been pummeled by fierce winds picking up grains of gravel — imagine a giant sandblaster over millenia.

Ventifact, Cape Royds
There are modestly-sized ventifacts at Cape Royds, carved from the black volcanic stone that dominates the landscape.

I saw smaller ventifacts at Cape Royds. Those were volcanic stone hollowed out into curved shapes, sometimes pierced with holes and generally in the one- to three-cubic-feet range, and mostly on the smaller side of that range. But nothing prepared me for the ventifacts of the Dry Valleys. It was a steady climb for some time and then we came over a ridge where the ground was strewn with huge granite boulders curved, hollowed and pierced into strange shapes. I felt like I’d entered the world’s largest Surrealist sculpture garden.

Ventifacts above Lake Bonney
Surrealist sculpture garden: boulder-sized ventifacts are strewn across a rocky plateau. In the distance is a mountain with a huge expanse of deep black and dark red stone.
View of Lake Bonney
Facing the opposite direction from the above photo, you see the ventifact field in the foreground, with the white expanse of one of the lobes of Lake Bonney below (the white line in the center is the part of the lake that connects them and you can see a sliver of the other lobe, blocked by the hill in the middle). There’s also the Rhone Glacier on the right, and beyond that, the huge Taylor Glacier, The Friis Hills, with their striking large horizontal stripes of contrasting shades of brown, rise above the Taylor.

 

Ventifacts, Lake Bonney
Many of these forms made me think of 20th-century Modernist art. This is kind of like an Arshile Gorky abstraction come of life. Or maybe Yves Tanguy.

The ventifacts obey a cardinal rule of good sculpture — that it should present different forms as you walk around it. Believe it or not, these are two different views of the same ventifact:

Ventifact, Lake Bonney
One side of a ventifact grouping…
Ventifact, Lake Bonney
…around the other side it looks completely different.
Ventifact above Lake Bonney
Seated figures, real and abstracted: Forrest waits for me to walk around the ventifact making photos for the 3D file creation process. You can get an idea of the scale from this photo.
Ventifact above Lake Bonney
Here it is again. Some of the carved forms are surprisingly thin and articulated.

 

Ventifact above Lake Bonney
This one looks like rippled cloth with a line of a contrasting color running through it.
Ventifact above Lake Bonney
This is the only one I saw with a large shape of a different stone mixed in.
Ventifact above Lake Bonney
This one frames a vista of a mountain on the opposite side of Lake Bonney known as The Matterhorn.
Ventifact above Lake Bonney
The tall one reminded us of a monolith.
Forrest on ventifact
Forrest climbed up on the “diving board.”
Black stones
Stone wall: Black rocks piled on a ridge appear to be made of the same stone coloring the side of the mountain shown in one of the above photos. That’s the Matterhorn in the distance.
Helen and ventifact
Me among the ventifacts.
Yellow rocks
Follow the yellow brick road: On our descent we saw a vein of yellow-orange rocks that stretched across the hillside in a fairly straight line.
Lake Bonney camp
The Antarctic landscape makes you aware of how small you are in the scheme of things. It’s also really hard to judge distances. You walk and walk, and wonder why you aren’t there yet. Where this photo was taken we had about another 10 minutes of walking downhill to get to the camp. The second yellow tent from the left, closest to the lake edge, is mine. The main hut is in the middle near the shore, and the helo pad is on the right.

 

 

 

 

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