11: Completing the Cryolophosaurus Excavation

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Transantarctic Mountains
© P. Makovicky
Robin Hood

After our success in the second week of January, we were feeling confident about finishing the dinosaur quarry. Over half of the island of rock containing Cryolophosaurus bones, which we'd spent the first weeks carving out, was now free of the quarry and lying in camp as blocks that ranged from 150 to almost 500 lbs. (To see what these bones looked like on site and in their original matrix, check out our Video Report, “Excavating Cryolophosaurus Bones: Part 1.”) We knew that we would complete everything in the coming week, as long as the weather held.

Saturday night culminated in a dance party. A group of Raytheon staff from McMurdo were visiting over the weekend and brought massive loudspeakers as well as costumes and party props with them. Unfortunately I was coming down with a bad case of the "crud," the local vernacular for a chest cold, so in the interest of being fit for more quarrying at altitude on Monday, I retired before the party took off.

Rumor has it that a great time was had by all, and that some incriminating photos of certain team members wearing drag or other embarrassing items of clothing exist. Neither coercion nor bribery succeeded in acquiring some of these photos for this website. Since we’re on the topic of men in tights, it's worth mentioning that Nate had an unexpected Robin Hood moment. During a dart game, he managed the highly unlikely feat of piercing the tail of one dart with a second one (see top photo.) Monday morning arrived with clear skies.

After recuperating on Sunday, I was ready to head up the mountain—I didn't want to miss the chance of finishing the job we had come all this way to do. By midmorning, we had the last large block well undercut on all sides and our excitement was mounting. Just before lunch, we were working around the base of the last block when it cracked along a dark, carbonaceous layer at the bottom.

After flipping the block, which weighed 730 lbs., all that remained was one large limb bone that had emerged in the trench at the back the quarry. Less than two hours later, the large bone (which may be part of Glacialisaurus) was out of the rock. Elated, we piled into the large hole we had dug to pose for group photos (see Photo #1 below.)

Later, Peter had some tense moments as he balanced on a small narrow ridge near the quarry and hooked the cargo net to the hook below the belly of the helicopter (see Photo #2 below.) With uneven footing and a bit of wind pushing against the helicopter, this lift was more challenging than the previous ones, but the combined skill and experience inside and below the helicopter ensured a successful outcome. (To see the difficult process of removing and airlifting Cryolophosaurus bones out of the quarry, check out our Video Report, “Excavating Cryolophosaurus Bones: Part 2.”)

Suddenly we found ourselves with time on our hands, giving us a chance to look around for more fossils. Within less than half an hour, Nate found the first piece of bone not 30 yards from the quarry. It turned out to be the rest of the ischium that Eva had found two parts of on the previous Friday. Surprisingly, the end of it had several unfinished saw cuts surrounding it, unmistakable evidence that it had already been found before.

So we now had a bone that had been found three times—originally in the 1990/1991 season when the saw cuts were made, then the two parts that Eva picked up before the weekend, and finally Nate’s "rediscovery" of the end of the bone still in the rock. Not far away, other pieces of bone were found, including a vertebra and some smaller limb bones. All of these were marked for extraction the following day.

Unlike the other blocks that we had extracted, the last one was too large to move and would have to be suspended on the helicopter right from the quarry. The helicopter that arrived to pick up the first half of the team for the return to camp also brought up a cargo net, allowing Eva, Bill, and I to ride back, feeling good about the accomplishments of the day. Nate, Phil, and Peter then manhandled the unwieldy 730-lb. block into the net and readied it for slinging the next day. According to Nate, it was the hardest single activity of the entire field season.

With quarrying over, it was time for us to focus on getting the fossil blocks crated and ready for their long journey back to the U.S. On Tuesday, Bill, Brandon, and I stayed in camp to get our fossils ready for shipment and to begin breaking down our equipment. With the help of Jay, one of the CTAM staff who drove the Caterpillar forklift, we moved the blocks of fossil-bearing rock out of the cargo nets and into large crates made of plywood and sections of 2x4s. Some of these crates were shipped from Augustana, but most were constructed by carpenters either at McMurdo or at CTAM.

With a combination of forklift power and elbow grease, we placed the blocks inside the crates, then used cardboard and burlap as padding. While we were dealing with the blocks already in camp, a helicopter arrived with our last monster block. We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to fit it into any of our crates, but our concerns were unfounded. Jockeying the forklift with amazing finesse, Jay gently lifted the block and eased it into one of our bigger crates with inches to spare.

Finally, we screwed the lids on to our crates, labeled them, and then quickly whisked them off to be strapped to Air Force pallets and readied for the first leg of their long journey back to the U.S. By afternoon, we were sorting through and packing camping gear and equipment on the cargo line, the first step in getting ready for our homeward journey. More soon, Pete

© E. Koppelhus
The 2010-11 Field Team
© E. Koppelhus
Airlifting a Block