Erebus, the Mini-Series

Erebus from the sea ice
On occasion, if the wind isn’t blowing too hard, you can see the smoke rising from the volcano. This view is from the sea ice near the Dellbridge Islands. The sun threw the crevasses on the slopes into relief.

At almost 12,500 feet high, Mt. Erebus dominates the landscape of the western side of Ross Island, where I spent my time in Antarctica. It’s an active volcano, and not part of a range, so it stands apart from other mountains. Also, its western slope ends at the flat sea ice, even though its summit was about 50 miles away from New Harbor, which is on the opposite side of McMurdo Sound, it was a prominent feature of the horizon. I found myself photographing it from a variety of locations. The cap and banner cloud formation on top of Mt. Erebus featured in the last post is just one of them. I ended up with a small series of photos of its snow-covered slopes in different weather as well as different vantage points. The funny thing about Erebus is that it doesn’t look as big as it is. Distances are incredibly difficult to judge in Antarctica anyway. I kept trying to figure out what was messing with that perception. Part of it must be that there are no trees or other cues to help provide scale. And with Erebus, I think because the profile of it is rather spread out and horizontal rather than steep and vertical, you don’t realize how gigantic it is.

To get an idea where we’re talking about, here’s a Google Earth Map of McMurdo Sound:

Map of McMurdo Sound
Google Maps satellite view of McMurdo Sound (click to enlarge): The black spot labeled “Ross Island” on the right is the summit of Mt. Erebus. McMurdo Station is labeled below it, at the end of the peninsula. Scott Base is just around the corner from McMurdo. The Erebus glacier ice tongue is the sawtoothed shape on the sea ice and those dark specks above it are the Dellbridge Islands. Cape Evans is on the other side of the ice tongue from McMurdo Station, and Cape Royds is the larger dark area north of that. If you draw a horizontal line from the summit of Erebus, through Cape Royds and across the sound to the indentation in the dark shoreline of the Dry Valleys opposite, that’s where the New Harbor camp is.
Erebus from Cape Royds
Erebus adds drama to the view from the field camp at Cape Royds, which is on top of a tall hill.
Erebus from New Harbor
Far away, across the sound from Cape Royds at New Harbor, Erebus stands out. In the foreground is multi-year sea ice.


Erebus from Scott Base
I made two different visits to the pressure ridges in the sea ice near Scott Base, which is New Zealand’s Antarctic outpost and close neighbor to McMurdo. One evening the sky was hazy.
Erebus from Scott Base pressure ridges
Revisiting the same site the following week, the sky was clear, the landscape a study in graphic blue and white shapes.
Erebus from Hut Point
The hills around McMurdo Station block the view of Erebus until you get up on a ridge above the base, like this one on the Hut Point trail. You can glimpse Erebus behind one of the “golf balls” as people call them — geodesic domes that house satellite dishes.


Erebus ice tongue
Erebus in the background of a panorama of one side of the Erebus glacier ice tongue. The red flags mark the entrance to the ice cave. The dark rock on the left is one of the Dellbridge Islands. Click to enlarge.
Erebus and sea ice edge
On the flight back from New Harbor, the helo pilot showed us the sea ice edge with Erebus in the distance…
Erebus from helicopter
…and flew closer so we had a good view from the air. The Dellbridge Islands are in the foreground.
Erebus from Observation Hill
One of the last days at McMurdo I climbed to the top of Observation Hill. This is the last photo I took of Erebus.







Erebus Ice Cave: The Sequel

Ice cave
On my second visit to the ice cave, I experimented with indirect lighting and got some otherworldly images.
Mt. Erebus
Smokin’ hot: Tuesday you could see that Mt. Erebus is an active volcano, with a little puff of white smoke rising above the crater at the summit.

Tuesday I went out with Evan, one of the mountaineers on staff here, whose assignment for the day was to take me to any icebergs frozen in the sea ice that interested me and back to the ice cave in the Erebus Ice Tongue. We went in Gretel, the same Haagland tractor featured in my sea ice training blog post, so it was lot easier riding around than driving a snowmobile. Snowmobiles are fun, but they get somewhat less fun when you have to travel for an hour on one — your right hand gets tired from being on the throttle, and it’s obviously colder, too, though aside from inside the cave, it was a nice day with little wind. I photographed three icebergs that are frozen in the ice, so you can walk right up to and around them, certainly impossible when they’re floating because it’s too dangerous — a floating iceberg can flip unexpectedly. I’ll post those photos another time, because I haven’t really had time to go through them yet, but I’m certain I’ll get some 3D files from them. Also got to see Mt. Erebus with no clouds and little wind, so you could see a puff of smoke rising above it.

Hexagonal ice crystals
Evan checks out some unusually large hexagonal ice crystals.

Then we went back to the ice cave, and this time, it was just me and him instead of a group of 15 people, and he brought a couple of good lights, which helped me get some better results. It also was a few hours earlier in the day, and it seemed to me there was more light coming through the small opening (very small — you have to crawl through it on your belly). I had learned from the first visit that the flash lit things too evenly. They were nice exposures, but you couldn’t see the depth. Even when I tried notching the flash down, it didn’t look so great. So, we experimented with having him point the lights he’d brought in different places to see what would work best for photography, and I discovered that indirect light worked the best — bouncing it off a wall, backlighting formations, or aiming it so the center of the beam was hidden behind a feature. Aiming the lights in that manner, we lit up some crystalline formations that I hadn’t even noticed the last time I was there, including some very large hexagonal crystals, an inch or more across! This is Evan’s first season here in Antarctica, but he leads winter mountaineering and backcountry ski camping trips in Idaho and Wyoming, and though he was familiar with hexagonal ice crystals he was astonished by the size of these.

Ice cave, hexagonal crystals
A closer look at the giant hexagonal crystals.

Ice cave entrance

Being inside the cave was literally being inside a walk-in freezer so I had to pause periodically to warm up my hands — my glove liners are usually pretty good for photographing but it was very cold in there after a while. Evan showed me some tricks that helped — swinging arms or pumping your hands up and down with your palms facing down. But after we’d been in there for a little over an hour, my fingers and toes had had enough, so it was time to go. But I left with some magical and strange images. They did remind me of some of the photographs I’ve made of cloud formations:

Ice cave

Ice cave


Ice cave

Ice cave
A change in the lighting makes this formation look different — see next photo.
Ice cave
A change in the lighting makes this formation look different — see previous photo.

Ice cave

Ice cave entrance
Approaching the entrance there’s a blue glow from the sunlight outside.
Sunlight illuminates the cave walls near the entrance
Leaving the ice cave