Archive for November, 2004

Thanksgiving and Sir Ed

Tuesday, November 30th, 2004

It’s always an interesting week and this week was no exception here at McMurdo Sound. First a quick tour around our station. Above is Derelict Junction (meeting place/parking lot) with the galley off to the left and the housing on the right. Dead ahead are two old Seabee Quonset huts–the first is our local non-smoking pub called the Coffee House and just beyond is our two lane bowling alley. Finally the chapel which houses the only functional piano on the continent.

Thanksgiving day, we feast on canned turkey with all the canned trimmings….not bad actually. Our chefs do wonders with a can-opener and we are eternally grateful. Good wine helps, I might add.

On Sunday, our special guest is none other than Sir Edmund Hillary who most people associate with the first ascent of Mt. Everest. What most people don’t know is that he was the first to drive overland with a fleet of five farm tractors to the South Pole arriving in 1958. He arrived with only 18 gallons of spare fuel! If you think these Massey-Ferguson farm tractors were modern heated tractors with radios, guess again….
Ed Hillary's Antarctica Tractor

With a wonderful velvet voice and a tweed suit, he packed the galley with enthusiastic fans. Later, I was able to shake his hand and recall four years ago in Auckland when I was invited into his home to share a pot of tea and discuss his Everest adventures. “Did you get a good cup of tea?” he inquired. Indeed, I did.

Not to be outdone at age 84, he cut steps up a hillside with his ice axe and unveiled the new Hillary Field Centre. Then it was off in a helicopter to tour the dry valleys and a trip up Mt. Erebus. Upon landing, he exited the helicopter stepping on a specially built platform–dubbed the “Hillary Step” by the New Zealand carpenters.

The weather has been absolutely splendid this week with near 40 degree temperatures. The heat in our room is over 80 degrees with both windows open! McMurdo Station runs with small mountain streams, the sea ice is full of small lakes with breathing holes–enough to encourage the penguins to abandon their incarceration at the Penguin Ranch–a biologist research station about 6 miles north. 1000 lb Weddell seals lounge in the sun carelessly for they have no predators here. We expect the ice breaker Polar Star within a month to open the harbor and admit the killer whales. Then the seals will have predators, so stay tuned….next weekend we will go fishing at Inaccessible Island.

Cape Evans and Scott’s Hut

Thursday, November 18th, 2004

Robert Falcon Scott arrived at Cape Evans on January 5, 1911 and within two weeks erected and occupied the “Terra Nova” Hut–named after his ship. It was the largest and best built hut in Antarctica and housed up to 25 people and 17 ponies. Scott’s plans were both scientific and exploratory, notably a push for the South Pole. After being nearly beaten in this goal by Ernest Shackleton three years earlier and then learning of Amundsen’s southern ambitions, Scott redirected all his energies into reaching the South Pole. His expedition style couldn’t have been more different than that of Amundsen’s. He carried with him three Wolesley Motor Sledges–poorly designed and tested. One never reached the shore when it crashed through the ice and sank. The two others were abandoned at “Corner Camp” less than 100 miles from Cape Evans. By contrast, Amundsen’s party consisted of only five men and nearly 100 dogs and within 99 days had conquered the Pole and returned in comparative comfort.

Scott’s South Pole party consisted of 16 men, the two remaining Wolesley Motor Sledges, 8 horses and about 25 dogs–all staged to leave camp at different times as to arrive together at their evening camp. Scott was not a planner. He had never skied in his life until forced to do so after the sledges broke down. He had a mistrust for dogs (and most of his men, for that matter) and regarded “man-hauling” his sledges as the noble way to travel. After reading Shackleton’s preference for white horses, Scott insisted on the same–limiting himself to 50% of the available stock. They all died of starvation and intense cold before they left the Ross Ice Shelf. His men were underfed and dipped into the returning caches on the approach. The caches were poorly marked with one cairn and were easy to miss. Amazingly, he allowed only 4 days of bad weather for the entire polar trek. Naturally, his party slowly starved on 2/3 the caloric intake that was considered a minimum for the trek to the pole by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1957–and this was motorized. Some say that Scott’s final error was including a fifth member in his party for the final push to the Pole which further strained their tentage and rations. Incredibly, the original four had no surveying experience. Indeed, they made the Pole only to find Amundsen’s tent left there 35 days before. Thoroughly depressed, the march back to Cape Evans deteriorated into a slow death-march: Evans dying of scurvy and exhaustion, then Oates walking into the blizzard and the final three (Scott, Wilson and Bowers) succumbing in a frozen tent only 11 miles from “one ton cache.”

It is hard to imagine the expedition hardships that were self inflicted by blind obedience and poor leadership. Seven out of eight horses were lost in the earlier depot-laying party when Scott ordered a direct path to be taken back to Hut Point. Prior to leaving for the Pole, Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Girrard man-hauled sledges to Cape Crozier, on the other side of Ross Island, in mid winter to gather penguin eggs. Temperatures were consistantly at minus 60F; their entire camp blew away in a blizzard yet they stumbled around in darkness for a month before returning to Cape Evans with only three eggs. (see Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World”) The Cape Evans Hut was also used by Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) as a base to lay depots across the Ross Ice Shelf. Unfortunately, their ship, Aurora, blew out to sea and was lost with most of the provisions. Nevertheless, the men manufactured wooden shoes out of box crates and raided the three existing huts for enough provisions to complete their tasks loosing three men in the process. A most telling epitaph is that of Dick Richards’ of the 1915-1917 Ross Sea Party. On the inside of his bunk was penciled “RW Richards August 14, 1916–Losses to Date” then four names: “Haywood, Mack, Smith and Shack (?)” for Ernest Shackleton had by then been stranded in the ice 3000 miles across the continent and was presumed dead. Of course, Shackleton survived his ordeal after loosing his ship Discovery to the ice and returned in 1917 to rescue his men. This marked the close of the heroic-era.

Today, the hut survives almost exactly as it was when Scott and his men occupied it. A penguin about to be skinned (the men sold pelts to finance the expeditions) lies frozen on the table next to a copy of the London News (February 29, 1908) . This is not a museum but a moment frozen in time. How to preserve these sites is a complex issue with the Antarctic Heritage Trust with Shackleton’s hut 5 miles north listed as one of the 100 most endangered sites on Earth. Next week we’ll show you some of the life around town–and maybe a penguin or two. Stay tuned…..

South Pole

Saturday, November 6th, 2004


About 850 miles due south of McMurdo Sound is the South Pole–the object of exploratory fascination 100 years ago, and indeed, today. I am lucky enough to be the only passenger on a Pole-bound LC-130 ski plane and therefore get to ride in the cockpit. There are 10 such ski equipped C-130s in the fleet. The take-off (on tires) is smooth off our ice-runway and after several slow bounces, the nose of this huge beast lifts skyward. The scenery from this point onward to the Pole is nothing short of spectacular. About half way into our three hour journey, we cross the Beardmore Glacier, the pioneering route to the pole on skis used by Shackleton and Scott 100 years ago. Pictured here is the upper portion where it merges into the Mill Glacier which leads directly to the polar ice plateau:


The polar plateau is immense with the Amundsen-Scott Station another one hours flight away (a month on skis). The elevation at the South Pole is 9300′ however due to the unique polar conditions the barometric altitude is actually 11,200′. Seven hundred fifty miles to our right lies Vostok, the Russian base at an altitude of 11,200/13,500+, where the coldest temperatures on earth were recorded in 1983 at -128.6F. A grey smudge is visible out the front cockpit window which, upon closer approach, is a cluster of buildings and an ice runway. We land smoothly on skis and “combat dump” the cargo (jettison while taxiing) as it’s too cold to stop. The engines contrail at polar temperatures making it hazardous for crew and forklifts to approach the aircraft. I’m next and I grab my two orange USAP bags and carefully climb down the stairs onto a flat white vista. It’s minus 61.6F–and these are spring temperatures!


A snow machine brings outgoing bags to the plane and exchanges them for mine. In the distance are two waving red parkas who guide me into the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. After work, I discover a piano in the Sky Lab section above the original 50 meter dome built in 1975, about four flights of stairs above my “meat locker” apartment. Combine this with 13 flights of stairs in the new building’s “beer can” stairwell, and the “rabbit warren” of tunnels under 50 years of snow accumulation, I meet my daily exercise goals.


The sun now circles about 20 degrees above the horizon as it climbs to 23.5 degrees at the summer solstice. Three pm affords the perfect photo opportunity on the geographic south pole. We walk around the “earth” three or four times (note the “doughnut” path around the pole), then pose for pictures and hurry back into a warm building. I return in the Austral autumn for another week–and I can’t wait! (Next week, we’ll tour the largest hut: Scott Hut at Cape Evans)