June 13, 2011 Thinking Back to My Time in Antarctia Part I: Arrival and Time in McMurdo
When I think back to my time in Antarctica with John Stone's research team, I have very fond memories. This reflection post is very late, I know. There have been many times when I sat down and tried to reflect on my experience. It's been difficult because there is simply so much to think about; how can I possibly put the sights I've seen and this incredible experience into words? Sometimes, I feel almost homesick for Antarctica and I've had to pause because it is bittersweet. I had the most amazing experience, but I know that most of those places I'll never see again.
My initial thoughts about what my time in Antarctica was going to be like were that it would be cold, windy, and dramatic in ways unimaginable. I had some idea of what to expect in McMurdo because when one searches on the internet about the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), much of the information is about the various research stations. I also had the opportunity of meeting people who had been to Antarctia as prior PolarTREC teachers.
The moment I stepped off the plane onto the sea ice covering the Ross Sea, a few of these ideas were immediately dispelled. The temperature was "warm" (in the upper 20's fahrenheit) and there was a slight breeze. Throughout my time in Antarctica, I was always slightly surprised at the weather. Many people told me again and again, how I wasn't seeing the "true" Antarctica; the weather was unseasonably warm and still.
As for the dramatic vistas, Antarctica never failed to disappoint. The Royal Society range of the Transantarctic Mountains ran the length of the eastern horizon and a smoking Mt. Erebus loomed high to the west; they were much more spectacular I could have ever imagined. They were only a preview of the unfathomable beauty to come during my expedition.
Upon our arrival in McMurdo, the field preparation began in ernest. We had to retrieve our scientific gear and collect all the necessary gear required to survive in the field for five weeks. There was a flurry of activity while we gathered and packed food, camping equipment, scientific instruments, and personal belongings. In addition to field preparations, Perry and I also had to attend a Snow Craft I course where we would learn how to set up tents, construct shelters and walls from snow blocks, operate radios and cook stoves, how to respond in an emergency, and above all, work as a team while performing these tasks. Once all these requirements were completed, we eagerly anticipated our deployment into the field. Unfortunately, the weather had taken a turn for the worse out at the Central Transantarctic Mountain (CTAM) base camp and we were placed on a weather delay.
While waiting to leave for the field, there was no shortage of things to do. I was able to tour Discovery Hut which was constructed and occupied by Sir Robert Falcon Scott and his men during their Terra Nova expedition in 1902-04. The interior is essentially the same as it was when they left. I saw mutton and seal carcasses, clothing, crates and tins of food, and tools. It was if I stepped back in time; as hard as I tried, I couldn't imagine almost 30 men living in that small space throughout two winters. Observation Hill is another "attraction" in McMurdo. It is a small cinder cone with a commemorative cross on top dedicated to Scott and his men how died on their return from the geographic South Pole. From the summit, there are spectacular views of Mt. Erebus, the Royal Society Range, McMurdo and Scott Base (the nearby New Zealand research station), and the Ross Ice Shelf. On the weekend, I was fortunate enough to secure the last spot in a tour of the pressure ridges. These are fantastical snow/ice formations created when the temporary sea ice is forced against the permanent ice shelf. The incredible pressure forces the ice upward forming features that have been sculpted by the wind.