Exploring McMurdo

    For me, the reoccurring theme of this 2 month adventure has been, "Just when you thought it could not get better….”.  As we walked off the Oden on Jan 12 we were told that our flight home would be delayed for one more day and we would not leave until the 14th.  This meant that we had an extra day to explore the historic and interesting area around McMurdo.  Our first stop was our dorm room.  Although I was suddenly sharing a room with 4 others, the beds were fine and the food was great.  On our first evening we had a chance to tour Scott’s Discovery Hut which was built over 100 years ago by Robert F. Scott and later it was used by some of the other early Antarctic explorers.  The most fascinating thing about he hut is that because the climate is so cold and dry, decay is extremely slow.  The wooden building is still quite sound and inside the belongings of some of the expeditions are still intact after a century.

    Castle Rock, Ross Island
    Along the entire 7 mile hiking trail we walked, there were red and green nylon flags attached to bamboo poles about every 50 feet. This section of the trail was on a completely exposed portion of a glacier where the wind is so strong that, over time, it shreds the flags. During a storm, you may not be able to see from one flag to the next.

    Hiker's Emergency Shelter
    Along the 7-mile hiking loop to Castle Rock there were 2 emergency shelters. The are make of fiberglass and are stocked with sleeping bags, food, a stove and other things you would need if you were caught in a storm. You can see my friend Henrik peeking out of the door.


    The next morning I attended a training meeting in order to qualify to go on the most interesting hike in the area.  About 11am I joined Dr. Henrik Kylin from Sweden and Dr. Xiaojun Yuan from Columbia University on a 7-mile hike to Castle Rock.  The hike took us out of McMurdo and up onto two of the glaciers nearby. Everything on Ross Island is either volcanic rock or glacial ice and this hike gave us the chance to explore both.  After filing a hike plan with the emergency office we were issued a portable radio and off we went.  The landscape was very odd.  Brown and black volcanic rock was weathered into what looked like soil but there was almost no organic matter in it.  You cannot find a tree or a blade of grass or even moss anywhere.  And then the trail turned to an ice path up onto the glacier.  Bamboo poles with wildly flapping flags were driven into the ice every 50 feet to mark the trail and to keep us on safe ice.  After a steady uphill hike for about 3 miles, we reached the barren pinnacle of Castle Rock and stopped for lunch.  Of course, after 7 weeks on a Swedish IcebreakerAn icebreaker is a special purpose ship or boat designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters. I now refer to coffee/snack breaks as Fikas.  

    Beware of Black Flags!
    In this photo you can see the new red trail marking flag above me and I am touching a similar flag that has been shredded by a few years in the wind. As we hiked away from Castle Rock we were walking on another glacier and following its downhill flow toward the sea. As the glacier slowly flows over the rock, it develops cracks called crevasses that can be as much as 100 feet deep and hidden by a thin snowbridge layer on top. You can see the black flags that indicate a dangerous crevasse hidden under the snow.

    Fika at Castle Rock
    After hiking uphill for about 3.5 miles, we stopped for a Fika and to rest on some boulders at the base of Castle Rock. I brought hot cocoa for everyone!

    Our group of three then turned right and hiked down another glacier and headed for the sea ice. Our goal was about 4 miles away at Ross Base, operated by New Zealand.  I have always been a fan of sled riding and the next 1 mile of trail had the most amazing potential for sledding that I have ever seen.  Smooth, solid, glacial ice, covered with 3 inches of powdery snow, all downhill for 1 mile until it reached the frozen sea.  There were no trees or rocks or even level areas to slow you down.  In fact, I kept thinking that if you started at Castle Rock on a sled, you would be going so fast after the first 100 yards that you would be unable to stop for the full 1 mile run.

    All 139 Flags Fly at Castle Rock!
    The wind was blowing pretty hard but the flags stood up to the abuse!

    All 139 Flags On a Glacier
    Dr. Xiaojun Yuan and Dr. Henrik Kylin helped me attach all 139 expedition flags to the trail making poles on a glacier above McMurdo. In the background you can see the Ross Ice Shelf, White Island and Black Island. In a white and blue landscape, the flags looked great!

    The Flags on Scott's Discovery Hut
    Robert F. Scott built this hut over 100 years ago as a base for his first attempt to reach the South Pole 850 miles to the South. It is an historic landmark now. You can see Observation Hill to the right and modern McMurdo Station to the left.

    Shackelton's Dog Food
    In 1915, Ernest Shackelton sent a ship with dog teams to Scott’s Discover Hut with the task of hauling supplies toward the South Pole that he would use to help him cross the continent. These are some of the crates food and dog biscuits that were left behind. The cold, dry air has preserved them.

    Lamb and Peguin in the Meat Storage Room
    After nearly 100 years, the cold dry climate has preserved the carcasses of sheep that were brought to Scott’s Hut as part of the food supply. You can also see the skeletons of Emperor penguins that he early polar explorers killed and ate.

    Flying Off the Ice

    The next morning we were all taken to the airport for our flight to New Zealand.  It is important to point out the like everything else in Antarctica, it was unique. The shuttle bus was a vehicle I had read about for years.  Ivan the Terra Bus has huge tires that allow it to drive many miles out onto the sea ice and the glaciers to each of the 3 seasonal airfields.  All of the airstrips are on ice and the flight takes about 8 hours.  First the cargo is loaded into the open back of the C-130 Hercules and then the humans get to sit on benches made of nylon webbing.  The plane has little insulation so we were required to wear our extreme cold weather clothing and earplugs during the flight.  Once we were in the air, many of us were able to walk around inside the cargo storage area of the plane and some took naps on top of the luggage.  I was able to get a tour of the cockpit and I had a nice chat with the New Zealand crew as they explained how they use the original equipment 1965 instrument panels.  It was like flying in a fully functioning antique.

    Ivan The Terra Bus
    This is the most famous vehicle in all of Antarctica. It is the shuttle bus that takes you from McMurdo Station, several miles out onto the ice and then onto the glacier where the airport is.

    C-130 Hercules
    This is the airplane that we used to fly off the ice. The New Zealand crew was great but consider that the plane is using a runway made of ice floating on the ocean and the plane was built in 1965!

    Roommates 'til the end!
    Dr. Ellery Ingall and I were roommates on the Oden for 7 weeks and I could not have asked for a better person to spend time with. He is generous and funny, and I would go anywhere with him!

    Inside the Herc
    The C-130 Hercules is designed as a cargo plane that can lift heavy loads with a short runway. However, it was not designed for passenger comfort. The nylon web seats were ok, but even with earplugs, it was still very loud. The vibration in the plane felt like someone had strapped me into a vibrating back message chair…….for 8 hours!

    After 8 hours we had flown from Antarctica to another planet.  For the first time since Thanksgiving, I saw trees and grass and green.  As the door of the plane opened, we could all smell the sweet air of summer flowers.  That evening, most of us sat outside for dinner and watched the sun go down and the stars shine for the first time in 7 weeks.  Then I found an old friend in the sky.  There was the constellation Orion the Hunter with his 3 star belt.  I have looked up at this constellation my whole life but this was the first time I had ever seen it in the Northern sky and Orion was standing on his head!       

    Take care, have fun & make memories,

    Jeff Peneston