It is such a thing with antarctic stations. They are interesting, they provide the world with significant knowledge. They are political, a display of power within the Antarctic Treaty System, always the flagg up in the wind. They are curious, from historical to futuristic. If you happen to visit Antarctica, then it is quite likely you will want to see one of them.
These stations are usually not places of great natural beauty and anything but pristine. If anyone has left their long-lived traces in Antarctica, lasting signs of human presence and activity, including signs of destruction, then it is these stations (and not tourists, by the way).
Anyway, these stations are the kind of place of which many say before visiting that they want to see it and after visiting, it could have been nicer rather to go to a more nature kind of place.
The famous US-american McMurdo Base is in many ways a magnificent specimen, regarding size, visual impression and political power. It is the hub for the Amundsen-Scott-Base on the South Pole, for logistically challenging projects in deep field such as ice core drillings in very remote locations and the more or less constant field activities in the comparatively near surroundings: Dry Valleys, Ross Ice Shelf, Mount Erebus. There are about 1000 people working in McMurdo during the busy summer season.
Call it coincidence or the urge to find a location as far south as possible by ship common to both expeditions: this was also the place where Scott wintered during his first antarctic expedition, with Discovery. His hut, the second-oldest one in Antarctica after Borchgrevink’s Cape Adare buildings, is at Hut Point, a few minutes walking distance from MacMurdo Base (click here for some 360 degree impressions of Discovery hut). They actually lived on their ship, the Discovery, which was frozen in the ice next to Hut Point, so the hut is not as big and comfy as the Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans.
And that is altogether the programme for today. The weather looks great and it is supposed to remain stable during the day, a change being predicted for the evening only, and it is said that the Americans are well in controll of their local weather. We will get back to that later. There was, anyway, nothing in the way for the helicopter flight over the fast ice to McMurdo Base. The sun was even shining from the blue sky. Lovely!
During our visit four years ago, the Americans did live up to all clichés: There was not much more than the frequently repeated advice that we should quickly move through the station to Hut Point, preferably without even touching the road and without looking left or right. Questions for anything left or right of the road were answered very efficiently: „that is not authorized, and I am not authorized to authorize this.“ Today is in a stron contrast to this: our hosts are very friendly, they have actually organized a group of guides to show us around. The tour takes us in small groups through some important facilities, including the science building, the main communications building, the chapel, the coffee house where we have our lunch (which we brought with us from the ship), and there is, of course, a souvenir shop.
Gallery – McMurdo Base – February 28th, 2017
Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.
You can spend a lot of time at Hut Point, looking over the station, the near-by fast ice, and of course visiting the hut. Another holy grail in the history of Antarctic exploration.
And then there is Observation Hill on the other side of the station. A steep hill of volcanic rocks, as everything here, with a path leading up to the top, which is about 230 m high. It is a stunning view from the cross that was erected there as a memorial to Scott and his men who died in 1912 on their return trip from the South Pole. You can almost see or at least imagine to see the place where they had their last camp out on the Ross Shelf Ice. They were never retrieved, they are still out there, deeply buried in the ice these days.
Our retrieval is still to come, the helicopters are already flying again, and then things are getting a bit more interesting than we want them to be. The weather change predicted for tonight has decided to come a bit earlier than originally predicted, some clouds and wind are coming up. The lovely warmth of the sun gives way to a biting cold. We do not have to wait outside, nobody is going to freeze or to starve to death here, but the visibility which our pilots depend on is certainly not improving. The numbers of those waiting is reduced by four or five helicopter after helicopter, a procedure that takes its time. Finally, all passengers are back on board, only two last helicopters for us guides, but I almost doubt that we will make it … the next helicopter leaves, I am standing at the heli pad with two colleagues and we are anxious to hear the sound of the engines again soon. Observation Hill is a mere silhouette in the thin fog now, I wonder if that will be good enough? If not, we may well be forced to enjoy american hospitality for some time, and I do not want to imagine the troubles that would come with that. And I don’t have to, soon we here the noise of the helicopter, which is on the ground moments later. Julio, the oldest of the three pilots, is keen on getting out, that becomes pretty clear as he takes off and pushes the throttle. Thank God, the fog is just hanging around McMurdo Base and Ross Island, and it is clear again as soon as we get out over the sea ice. Soon we are all back on board. Hallelujah!