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The Dry Valleys are a unique geologic feature within Victoria Land, west of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. They are one of the world’s most extreme deserts. Glaciers have carved deep valleys that receive very little moisture and are subject to katabatic winds. The area was unknown to humans until the Robert Scott expedition of 1903. He referred to it as “a valley of death.”
by Megan Berg
and without further exploration, these valleys remained a mystery, with mummified seals and ventifacts mysteriously scattered, silently bearing witness to its secrets. It wasn’t until Rugby/Cricket player, English/Philosophy student-turned Geologist, Frank Debenham “Deb” came along that this mysterious land began to whisper revelations of its past.
Photo: Griffith Taylor and Frank Debenham working in the Cape Evans hut. © H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand
as a junior geologist in 1910, avoiding the ill-fated South Pole expedition due to a knee injury while playing football in the snow. He went on to live a long life and is remembered in his obituary (d. 1965) as “a warm hearted individual who, around his hospitable fireside, could inspire young men to take up a career, or a voluntary immolation into polar exploration.” A master of plane-table surveying, he kept a diary containing many drawings and sketch maps. Along with Griffith Taylor and Raymond Priestley, he published the geologic maps and field notes, setting the perfect stage for the next generation to fully map the area during the 1950s and 60s.
Photo: US Geological Survey map showing the large exposed areas known as the McMurdo Dry Valleys lying to the west of Wright Valley and McMurdo Sound.
when he came for a visit to the ANDRILL Science Management Office at the University of Nebraska. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to Antarctica with him and working next to his office in Orton Hall at The Ohio State University campus. His story has always intrigued me.
Photo: Peter Webb on ship in Wellington Harbor, New Zealand, 1957/58. Photo provided by P. Webb.
New Zealand, Peter would watch the Globemasters fly overhead on their way south (way, way south). Upon commencing his undergraduate degree in Geology, he launched an extensive career in Antarctic mapping and research.

His timing was perfect- he entered the scene at the initiation of the International Geophysical Year- arguably the biggest science mission of the 20th century, marking the end of the Cold War and a new age of international collaboration.

Photo: An Air Force C-124 Globemaster at the first sea ice runway at Williams Air Operating Facility, now called McMurdo Station. The US Navy winter-over crew built the runway by moving 3 million cubic feet of snow during the total darkness of winter. Observation Hill can be seen in the distance. Taken November 1956.
Photo by Jim Rooney, from the Antarctic Photo Library, National Science Foundation.


is perhaps one of those rare crossings in life that often times you don’t see coming, but you wonder how you could do without. I was preparing for my first trip to Antarctica at the age of 19. Peter had also spent his first season on the ice at the same age 50 years prior. On a continent that has experienced more exploration and development in the last 50 years than ever in human history, I was enthralled by his stories of Antarctica during the “wild west” years- before the bureaucracy, before the satellites were launched, back in the days when the U.S. Navy ran the whole crazy operation.

Photo: Peter Webb and ANDRILL scientist, Paola Montone in the Dry Valleys, 2007. By Megan Berg

discussing these early days. Peter arrived on the Antarctic scene just in time to be in contact with some of the early geologic explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Frank Debenham, Griffith Taylor, and Raymond Priestly. His letters and conversations bridge the tail-end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration with the modern age. His sharp sense of wit and curiosity inspired me. His discussions often led to the idea that the exploration of a scientific question will never lead to a solid, neatly packaged understanding of our planet, but will result in more of an unraveling; rather, a deeper set of more complex questions that require a broad imagination and an infinite patience. These qualities have led him to be one of the most influential mentors and researchers in the Antarctic community.

Watch: A Day with Peter Webb (4 minutes)

Photo: Barrie McKelvey, Peter Webb, and Richard Barwick camping in the Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Photo provided by Peter Webb.
to Antarctica alone. It quickly became obvious that the key characters in Peter’s stories were men I had to meet.

And lucky for me, the perfect opportunity presented itself. At the 50th Anniversary conference of Antarctica New Zealand in Wellington, I met Peter’s fellow university student, Barrie McKelvey, and their two advisors, Richard Barwick and Colin Bull. All four of them had the self-deprecating humor and tactful chivalry that brought forth a great bubble of energy and enthusiasm as they recounted those days of hiking up and down the Dry Valleys and across the Beardmore Glacier together with nothing but some mapping gear, a few pairs of solid boots, a stash of food, some tents, and a set of radios.

Photo: Colin Bull, Megan Berg, and Richard Barwick at 50-Year Antarctica New Zealand conference, 2007.
with me through all of this and did my best to capture the energy of this cast of characters. It became one of the video podcasts for the ANDRILL project and highlights both the story of these 4 men in 1950s Antarctica and the evolution of these science investigations through the years.

Watch: ANDRILL Project Iceberg Video Podcast #3: Antarctic Historical Journey (13 minutes)

Photo: Barrie McKelvey, Peter Webb, Richard Barwick, and Colin Bull en route to Antarctica, 1958. Photo provided by Peter Webb.
brings a sense of confusion, dis-association, and a long, arduous process of becoming one of the locals. Antarctica is no different. In Werner Herzog’s film Encounters at the End of the World, one McMurdo resident comments that “If you take everybody who’s not tied down, they all sort of fall down to the bottom of the planet.”
Photo: Barrie McKelvey, Peter Webb, Richard Barwick, and Colin Bull en route to Antarctica, 1958. Photo provided by Peter Webb.
Innocents in the Dry Valleys, a book capturing their adventures. Colin’s art for colorful storytelling shines through and I can hear his voice whenever I read through the pages. You can find a copy at the University of Chicago Press.
Photo: Colin Bull, Dick Barwick, Peter Webb and Barrie McKelvey, from left, pose for a picture during their 1958-59 expedition to the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Photo provided by Colin Bull.


in his sleep on the 7th of December, 2010. In memorium, Peter wrote “He was always youthful in spirit and an enthusiastic adventurer at heart… He never espoused a desire to become a dour, humorless, upwardly mobile professional administrator and maintained strong personal and professional ties with his numerous science colleagues to the very end… A little digging beneath the cloak of informal, rambling, cheerful, wise-cracking and apparent benevolent chaos revealed many other qualities that I valued greatly. Words and phrases such as – humor, informality, optimism, generosity, loyalty, frankness, focus, honesty, unconventional out-of-the-box thinking, calculated risk taking, sharing, etc, etc, come readily to mind.”

Photo: Colin Bull.



on the other side of the continent, at Byrd Surface Camp in 1964. I laughed when he asked me in 2009 to look for it during my time there. I like the idea that his wallet is lost, deep down in the ice, in layers upon layers of snow accumulation. Like the stories that bind us together- our world is not only linear, reaching forward into the infinite of time and space, but deeply layered, rooted in the people and places that come before us.

A special thanks to the four of them for their time, their stories, and their inspiration!

Photo: Megan Berg filming in the Dry Valleys, Antarctica, 2007.