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Ushuaia-Antarctica-New Zealand

Part 3 of 4: The Ross Sea

Map to triplog: The Ross Sea

The ama­zing Ross Sea was cer­tain­ly the core of our Ant­ar­c­tic Odys­sey. We got our first exci­ting impres­si­ons of the coast of Vic­to­ria Land, near Coul­man Island, from the heli­c­op­ters. Thun­de­ring with 110 knots (200 km/h) over drift ice, wide coas­tal gla­cier plains and along some towe­ring rock cliffs – not exact­ly what the explo­rers did 100 years ago, and not quite what you might ima­gi­ne as polar tim­e­l­ess­ness, but pain­ful­ly beau­tiful! Then we went on, wit­hout fur­ther delay by drift ice, deeper into the Ross Sea, towards Ross Island and into McMur­do Sound. Our pro­mi­sed land!

Milk and honey would not flow in this pro­mi­sed land, but they would free­ze to mas­ses hard as con­cre­te. The Zodiac landing at Cape Evans was cer­tain­ly among­st the col­dest ones ever for me. -14 deg C may, as such, not seem too much (or too litt­le), but com­bi­ned with wind of 30 knots and more, it is cold enough for anyo­ne who goes ashore in a small boat. Splash water – and you will get splas­hes in that kind of wea­ther – fro­ze to ice within seconds. The shoe clea­ner job out­side the old hut was not the most plea­sant occu­pa­ti­on, but it is an important one: The his­to­ri­cal huts are strict­ly pro­tec­ted, only a limi­t­ed num­ber of per­sons is allo­wed insi­de and is not only com­pul­so­ry, but it makes sen­se inde­ed, to remo­ve abra­si­ve sand from boots. So the brush was being put into good use inspi­te of wind and wea­ther

I hap­pen­ed to be the first one of our lot who ente­red Scotts hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island, and this moment will cer­tain­ly remain as one of the big moments in my polar memo­ries – which are not just a few. The hut gives you the impres­si­on that Scott and his men (or rather: his men, but not Scott hims­elf, obvious­ly, as he had died fur­ther south befo­re the expe­di­ti­on left Ant­ar­c­ti­ca) had left the place just a few days ago: the­re are tins on the shel­ves – ever­y­thing very Bri­tish inde­ed – and reinde­er fur slee­ping bags on the bunks (insi­de-out­side, remem­ber? ☺ ). Che­mi­cal instru­ments still on the table under the south-facing win­dow. The wind was how­ling out­side, but it was the spell of histo­ry that took our breath for a silent moment insi­de. And after a few hours, it was cold, real­ly cold. And this is sum­mer down here! How Scott and his men mana­ged to tra­vel here during the much col­der win­ter, in the much col­der inland are­as, with their much infe­ri­or clot­hing and equip­ment, remains a mys­tery. Well, in the end, the South-Pole par­ty didn’t mana­ge, as is well known, but fro­ze and star­ve to death on the return jour­ney from the pole in a bliz­zard not far from a life-saving depot. All the­se sto­ries had, of cour­se, been nar­ra­ted on board in gre­at detail befo­re we got near McMur­do Sound.

Admit­ted­ly, we were wimps, as we were quite hap­py to return to a com­for­ta­ble ship after a few hours. Well, had the­re been the oppor­tu­ni­ty to remain lon­ger in that hut, even spend a night the­re … but that was not at all an opti­on.

Ano­ther bit of sacred ground of Ant­ar­c­tic histo­ry is just a few miles north from Cape Evans, at Cape Royds. This is whe­re Shack­le­ton estab­lished hims­elf and his expe­di­ti­on during his first own attempt to con­quer the South Pole, the almost suc­cessful Nim­rod expe­di­ti­on. At least, they retur­ned ali­ve – bet­ter an ali­ve don­key than a dead lion, or so Sir Ernest said – and could make ano­ther attempt later, then from the Wed­dell Sea side with the famous Endu­rance. But that is ano­ther sto­ry. The sto­ry of our first attempt to land is admit­ted­ly both less dra­ma­tic and of les­ser his­to­ri­cal signi­fi­can­ce, but it was nevert­hel­ess an inte­res­t­ing one: It was not easy to push with the Zodiac through a 20 meter belt of smal­ler ice pie­ces that the wind was pushing towards the fast ice edge. And as soon as we gui­des had step­ped onto the fast ice, estab­li­shing a safe wal­king rou­te to the hut, the wind picked up and packed the ice even den­ser. Not good. An attempt to pick us up again had to be abor­ted after con­sidera­ble, but unsuc­cessful efforts. No dra­ma though, as we knew that a walk of 2 km would get us to a point were we could get back into the Zodiac. And this is just what we did.

A few hours later, the wind had both chan­ged direc­tion and died down. Some unex­pec­ted, hard kno­cking on my door got my out of deep sleep, and very soon the­re­af­ter, we – the small scout team – stood at the gang­way, tired, slight­ly shi­ve­ring and thin­king that a sli­ce of bread and a cup of of tea would have been a good thing, but the one and only thought that had cap­tu­red our minds was the exci­ting idea of soon ente­ring Shackleton’s old pre­mi­ses. This time, Cape Royds was inde­ed easi­ly acces­si­ble, and soon we had rea­ched the who­ly gra­le of all Shack­le­ton affi­ci­o­na­dos: in this simp­le, but beau­tiful huts, Sir Ernest and his men had lived, just a few hundred from the world’s sou­thern­most Ade­lie pen­gu­in colo­ny. Shack­le­ton and his man are histo­ry, but the pen­gu­ins are still the­re. The inte­riour of the huts put us visi­tors back in time, into the heroic age of Ant­ar­c­tic explo­ra­ti­on. The expe­ri­ence was rela­tively brief – mea­su­red in hours, not months – but inten­se.

It was and remain­ed win­dy, but the cloud cover lifted, so we took the oppor­tu­ni­ty, park­ed the ship at the ice edge on the west side of McMur­do Sound and after a 15 minu­tes heli­c­op­ter flight, we ente­red ano­ther world, not part of the pla­net Earth as we know it, as we step­ped out into Tay­lor Val­ley, one of the McMur­do Dry Val­leys. Uplift along major geo­lo­gi­cal fault has cut the Dry Val­leys off from this world long time ago, pro­tec­ting it both from the inland ice which would other­wi­se have floo­ded the­se val­leys as almost all other land are­as in Ant­ar­c­ti­ca, and the Ross Sea. The result is a cli­ma­te of cold, wind and extre­me ari­di­ty, that has now pre­vai­led for mil­li­ons of years and tur­ned the Dry Val­leys into a very silent, dead and tim­e­l­ess land­scape. Due to the lack of pre­ci­pi­ta­ti­on and warmth, the gla­ciers are so slow that radia­ti­on emit­ted from the sur­roun­ding ground turns their edges into steep ice cliffs – some­thing that I know from gla­ciers that flow out into the sea, but not from gla­ciers that and on dry land. Bizar­re!

At a first glan­ce, you may think to have seen a simi­lar lack of vege­ta­ti­on in high arc­tic are­as such as nor­the­ast Spits­ber­gen. But the­re, you will find lichens on the rocks, mos­ses and at least every once in a while a shy flower. Here – not­hing! No mat­ter how many stones you luck at, the­re is not the sligh­tes trace of life to be seen. This is some­thing only sci­en­tists will find, who hunt for it with micro­sco­pes and a lot of time.

The logi­sti­cal cir­cum­s­tances gave Greg, Elke, Juli­an and me the pri­vi­le­ge to spend about 10 part­ly very calm hours in Tay­lor Val­ley, going into some very gol­den evening and night hours. That may not be very much, but more than most peo­p­le will get who have the chan­ce to get to this part of the pla­net. And the­se are few. To our know­ledge, the last tou­rists who had visi­ted the Dry Val­leys had done this in 2009. Ano­ther place which now has a las­ting, pro­mi­nent and very dear place among­st my polar memo­ries!

Inclu­ding the impres­si­ve lack of warmth on this nice, only modera­te­ly win­dy Ant­ar­c­tic sum­mer day.

On the next day, the idea was to take the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a walk out on the fast ice of McMur­do Sound. While we gui­des were alre­a­dy about to mark a safe area on the ice, it tur­ned out that the ice, while being too thick and hard to park the Ort­eli­us insi­de it, bro­ke off into lar­ge floes at the edge, while the Cap­tain tried to keep the ship along­side. After a num­ber of attempts – nobo­dy can say they didn’t try ever­y­thing, serious­ly! – it beca­me clear that this would just not work, and time was run­ning out, so we had to abort the ope­ra­ti­on. It was just not an opti­on to place near 60 peo­p­le on lar­ge bits of ice, which was about to break up into smal­ler pie­ces, each one drif­ting out into the Ross Sea … While all this maneou­vring was hap­pe­ning, we gui­des stood on the ice, and sud­den­ly two very curious Emper­or pen­gu­ins came quick­ly towards us, sli­ding on their bel­lies across the ice at an ama­zing pace, to have a look at us and say hel­lo. We were quite awa­re that we were being wat­ched not wit­hout some from the ship, but this did not keep us from enjoy­ing our Ant­ar­c­tic hea­ven – what else should we have done …

The after­noon brought a strong con­trast to all the­se natu­ral won­ders. The US-Ame­ri­can McMur­do Base is cer­tain­ly a dark spot of „civi­li­sa­ti­on“ in the midd­le of this sup­po­sedly pris­ti­ne Ant­ar­c­tic wil­der­ness, I can’t think of it any dif­fer­ent­ly. Less obvious to the visi­tor who does not nego­tia­te with the local offi­ci­als, but hard­ly less impres­si­ve, were the regu­la­ti­ons put upon us tou­rists by the beau­ro­cra­cy: Wit­hout being offi­ci­al­ly aut­ho­ri­zed or accom­pa­nied by a local gui­de, we are not even allo­wed to walk 100 met­res to the shop – of cour­se, the­re was a gre­at risk of being run over by one of the­se many mas­si­ve and rather bizar­re vehic­les that cir­cu­la­ted all over the place. Well, even someone like me who spends a lot of his time in parts of the world that do not know car traf­fic would say that anyo­ne who has ever mana­ged suc­cessful­ly to cross a road in any vil­la­ge will be able to do the same in the still quite limi­t­ed traf­fic of McMur­do Base, but the Natio­nal Sci­ence Foun­da­ti­on does obvious­ly not trust us that far. Neither are pos­tal ser­vices available to the „public“; get­ting some post­cards deli­ver­ed seems to be too much for the other­wi­se quite impres­si­ve infra­struc­tu­re. Of cour­se – see­ing the mas­si­ve amounts of hea­vy machi­nery and peo­p­le that are regu­lar­ly trans­por­ted to and fro New Zea­land, McMur­do Base and the South Pole …

One could very well do wit­hout a visit to McMur­do Base if the US-Ame­ri­cans had not, sen­si­ble as always, pla­ced their sta­ti­on direct­ly next to ano­ther holy grail of polar histo­ry: Hut Point. This is whe­re Scott had sett­led down during his Dis­co­very-expe­di­ti­on (1901-1904). Scott’s hut at Hut Point is less well taken care of and accor­din­gly less atmo­sphe­ric than tho­se huts at Cape Royds and Cape Evans, but still, it is one of the important pivo­tal points in the histo­ry of the dis­co­very of the South Pole, both of the Dis­co­very men and by later expe­di­ti­ons, inclu­ding Shackleton’s Nim­rod expe­di­ti­on and Scott’s last one. So, folks, igno­re McMur­do Base for a minu­te and get down on your kne­es …

And it is the grand view over inner McMur­do Sound with its fast ice and the sub­se­quent Ross Ice Shelf from Obser­va­ti­on Hill that final­ly ans­wers the ques­ti­on as to why one just has to visit McMur­do if the chan­ce is the­re – just in case of any remai­ning doubt …

The tight sche­du­le unfort­u­na­te­ly invol­ves a far-too-soon depar­tu­re alre­a­dy on the next day, Febru­ary 07, but not wit­hout having had a look at the see­mingly infi­ni­te Ross Ice Shelf, which is one of this planet’s gre­at natu­ral won­ders. The gre­at Ice Bar­ri­er is stret­ching for about 800 km east­wards from Ross Island. A sniff of Ant­ar­c­tic infi­ni­ty. Distant parts are see­mingly uplifted, an opti­cal illu­si­on, an effect of a cold bot­tom lay­er of air. And again, no less impres­si­ve is the cold of this Ant­ar­c­tic sum­mer day: -14 deg C and a very stiff bree­ze do not invi­te for break­fast out­side on deck. As soon as we turn the bow nor­thwards, after having fol­lo­wed the bar­ri­er for a good 3 hours, we go down into the warm, wind­pro­of inte­riour of our good ship for a hear­ty break­fast. The rest of the day is lar­ge­ly spent slee­ping by many.

The Ross Sea (gal­lery)

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

To the gal­lery:
The Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la    Peter I Island and the Amund­sen Sea    The Ross Sea    Scott Island – Mac­qua­rie Island

Pan­ora­ma: Ross Sea – Cape Evans

The hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island is one of the tre­asu­red holy grails of Ant­ar­c­tic histo­ry. It was built during Scott’s final expe­di­ti­on with Ter­ra Nova (1910-13). Scott and 4 other men rea­ched the South Pole on Janu­ary 17, 1912 – about 5 weeks after their Nor­we­gi­an com­pe­ti­tor Roald Amund­sen. On the return jour­ney, Scott and his com­ra­des star­ved and fro­ze to death in their tent during a bliz­zard on or around March 29. Their fro­zen bodies were found by other expe­di­ti­on mem­bers in Novem­ber the same year. The dia­ries were retur­ned and edi­ted; pre­cious rea­ding for all afi­ci­o­na­dos of south polar histo­ry!

Cape Evans – 1/5

Cape Evans – 2/5

Cape Evans – 3/5

Cape Evans – 4/5

Cape Evans – 5/5

Pan­ora­ma: Ross Sea – Cape Royds

The hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island was built in ear­ly 1908 during Shackleton’s Endu­rance expe­di­ti­on (1907-09). In Octo­ber 1908, Shack­le­ton and 3 more men, among­st them Frank Wild, star­ted their trek towards the South Pole, but had to turn around 180 km away from their desti­na­ti­on due to a lack of pro­vi­si­ons. One of the expedition’s other achie­ve­ments was the first ascent of Mount Ere­bus.

Pan­ora­ma: Hut Point

The hut at Hut Point, Ross Island, was built during Scott’s Dis­co­very expe­di­ti­on (1901-04). This first attempt by Robert F. Scott to reach the South Pole was of litt­le suc­cess: The pole par­ty, which included also Ernest Shack­le­ton, did not get bey­ond the Ross Ice Shelf. Scott made important expe­ri­ence with various means of trans­por­ta­ti­on, inclu­ding ponies, but did not draw the neces­sa­ry con­clu­si­ons and con­se­quen­ces when he retur­ned later for his last expe­di­ti­on with Ter­ra Nova. The hut was used on seve­ral later occa­si­ons, inclu­ding Shackleton’s Nim­rod-expe­di­ti­on and Scott’s Ter­ra Nova expe­di­ti­on. Today, the his­to­ri­cal atmo­sphe­re of Scott’s hut at Hut Point suf­fers from its neigh­bour­hood, the US-Ame­ri­can base McMur­do.

The hut at Hut Point – 1/2

The hut at Hut Point – 2/2

Pan­ora­ma: McMur­do Dry Val­leys – Tay­lor Val­ley

The so-cal­led McMur­do Dry Val­leys, west of McMur­do Sound in the Ross Sea, are among­st Antarctica’s high­lights in terms of sce­n­ery and natu­ral histo­ry inte­rest. They are among­st the lar­gest most­ly ung­la­cia­ted land-are­as in Ant­ar­c­ti­ca. The reason is the lack of pre­ci­pi­ta­ti­on: the­re is sim­ply none, apart from some wind that is blown through the val­leys by the wind, which can be vio­lent. The val­leys appear com­ple­te­ly dead, the only life the­re is micro­bes that are not visi­ble with the naked eye and live main­ly in the few melt­wa­ter lakes and streams. Some of the­se are even hyper-sali­ne. Occa­sio­nal­ly, a con­fu­sed seal comes up into the val­leys from McMur­do Sound, losing track in the Ant­ar­c­tic desert, and then dies far away from the coast. Dried by cold and wind, their mum­mies have been res­t­ing in the Dry Val­leys for cen­tu­ries and can still be seen.

Tou­rists may only visit a limi­t­ed area near Cana­da Gla­cier in Tay­lor Val­ley. This area is far away from the coast and can only be rea­ched by heli­c­op­ter.

To the gal­lery:
The Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la    Peter I Island and the Amund­sen Sea    The Ross Sea    Scott Island – Mac­qua­rie Island


last modification: 2021-03-22 · copyright: Rolf Stange