This week’s exotic volcanic ski destination is the lofty and uber-remote and continuously active Erebus Volcano in the harsh and frigid Antarctic. Located on Ross Island in the Ross Sea of Antarctica, Mt. Erebus juts 12,448 feet above the sea ice. Erebus shares the island with two other volcanoes, Mt. Terror and Mt. Bird. The largest volcano on the island, Erebus takes it’s name after one of the ships of the expedition that first sighted the volcano, which was itself named after the Greek goddess of darkness, the son of chaos.
Erebus became known to the greater world on January 27th, 1841 when Sir James Clark Ross and his men sailed their vessels through the sea that would later take that great captain’s name. Ross’s crew didn’t come ashore, however, and the volcano was first climbed by the party of Shackleton several years later in 1908. Nearly 80 years passed by in the Antarctic before anyone was brave enough to make their way to the summit in the winter, when British mountaineer Roger Mear completed the journey in 1985. A few years later, the first solo ascent was made over 17 hours by Charles J. Blackmer on a snowmobile.Check out what he had to say about his experience:
I appropriated a snowmobile, got it a large chunk of the way up Erebus, and then hoofed it the rest of the way. It was a long and complex chain of events…..I took off on Saturday night, about 9 o’clock, while everybody was getting drunk. Before, during the work week, I had driven out and filled up the snowmobile gas tank, and got another five-gallon jerry can and put that on. I caught the shuttle to Scott Base, went out to the snowmobiles, threw the backpack in, fired it up and went down the peninsula. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, this is absolutely ridiculous. Why am I even attempting this?” You get further out and you get more and more committed.
(read the rest of the interview here
Erebus is the site of the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory, which is administered by the University of New Mexico. “MEVO” as it is called even has it’s own Facebook page, and scientists post daily updates during their field season. This past weekend they were surveying the inside of a cave on the volcano’s flanks with LIDAR and collecting lava samples up on the rim at the summit.Thanks to the MEVO, there’s even a live webcam inside the crater looking down at the lava lake:
In 1992, a team of scientists deployed an 8-legged tethered robot named “Dante 1” into the crater of Erebus on a mission to sample the lava in the perennial crater lake. The robot was controlled remotely via a fiber optic cable which unfortunately did not withstand the rigors of operating in such an extreme environment and did not accomplish it’s mission.
Erebus claimed the lives of 257 passengers on Air New Zealand flight 901 on November 28th, 1979 when the pilots unknowingly steered their aircraft directly into the mountain at an elevation of only 1,500 feet above the ocean. This was one of the worst disasters in the history of New Zealand, paralleled only in loss of life by the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931.
Geography and Geologic Background
Erebus easily takes claim to the title of the most active volcano in Antarctica, as the mountain’s summit hosts a perennial cauldron of phonolitic lava. Phonolitic lavas are silica-undersaturated rare lavas high in feldspathoid minerals. That probably won’t mean a thing to non-mineralogy nerds but to crystal buffs a phonolitic lava lake is extremely rare. Some of the rocks erupted from Erebus contain huge chucks of deep-mantle minerals such as olivene, shown beautifully in this specimen in the Wegener Institute in Hamburg, Germany.
Erebus has been in continuous eruption since 1972. In fact, it was in eruption when sighted by Ross and his men in the late 1800s, so it is thought that Erebus has been in continuous eruption ever since. Activity at Erebus consists mainly of strombolian eruptions, which are short gas-fueled bursts that hurl superheated chunks of magma high into the air and rain them down on the flanks of the mountain in a barrage of fire. Strombolian eruptions are explosive, and the trajectories of projectiles can be very unpredictable.
For example – this video of an eruption at Erebus should serve as a reminder that you really don’t want to be anywhere near the top of a volcano when it’s erupting:
Remember, those molten blobs have the same density as rock, and are at about 800-1200 degrees F. Here’s a picture of a climber standing next to a solidified one. You really wouldn’t want to put yourself in the position to have one of those hurtling at you at great speeds.
Over 200 eruptions were recorded in the period from 1986-1990. Eruptions at Erebus are typically a VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index) of 2 out of 5, which is relatively small, but still dangerous if you are close by. Elevated level of trace minerals such as copper, zinc, cadmium, vanadium, arsenic, gold, lead, and antimony have been reported in the Antarctic snowpack in the vicinty of Ross Island, and it is thought that these are sourced from Erebus (Zedna-Gostynska et al., 1997).
Elbrus has been summited by many and skied by a few. Japanese adventure skier Yoshi Wada was probably the first person to snowblade Erebus when he conluded his 10-Challenge Victory Series there in 2003. The skiing on this gentle sloped volcano will probably be relatively easy for those with a modicum of backcountry experience. Hazards include avalanches, hidden crevasses formed from gas vents, and the incredibly cold temperatures and remoteness should any mishaps occur.
Unless you can somehow manage to get to Scott Base on a US Government flight, you’re going to have to sign up for a commercial expedition, such as those led by Christchurch, NZ based Heritage Expeditions. All-inclusive prices range from $17-$24,000.
Either way, your journey begins from Christchurch, New Zealand. As such, the New Zealand government maintains a website with lots of great information on how to get yourself there, and they even have a list of private expedition companies that will help you set up a private trip down south.
How to Check in with the Local Scientists
The MEVO is your one-stop shop for all things Erebus. Visit their link to their website posted at the beginning of this article to familiarize yourself with what the volcano is up to for several months before you plan your trip. You will definitely want to let the staff know once you arrive that you have plans to climb and ski Erebus, and establish some sort of radio communication with them while you are on the mountain so they can keep you appraised of any new developing activity.
As always in this series – these volcanoes are no joke. Their beauty is real, and significant, but skiing them is not worth taking chances and getting yourself hurt or worse. Have fun!