McMurdo Base is located on a small volcanic island. Towering above the station is Mt. Erebus standing just under 13000 feet. And the best view of Mt. Erebus is from the top of Observation Hill (aka Ob Hill). So, as it never gets dark here now, my friend Daniel and I took off for the summit at 9pm.
Walking up the hill is very difficult this time of year as it is covered in snow and ice. To help us climb better, we used ice cleats that attach to the bottom of your shoes. Ob Hill stands 750ft above sea level and the climb is straight up the side. There are very few resting places. You don’t actually want to stop anyway, because as you get hot on your climb up and strip layers, once you stop all that build up sweat freezes. The name of the game is dress light, climb, and add layers once you summit.
Half way up the hill
At the summit, the view is amazing. You can see the hole of Antarctica mainland wrapping around Ross Island. You can also see the divide between the sea ice and the glacial ice. The difference between sea ice and glacial ice is how it was formed. Glacial ice forms when snow builds up and compresses. This usually takes several decades to centuries and is always fresh water. Sea ice forms when the ocean freezes. The water forms into its crystal structure, forcing out the salt. The salt is usually trapped in pockets throughout the ice layer. These pockets are called brine pockets.
Also at the summit of Ob Hill is a cross that was erected in 1913 in honor of Robert Scott and his three companions who perished in the pursuit of the South Pole. The team had reached the pole and was on their way back. Eleven miles away from shelter they made their last camp that would become their grave. During the night a fierce storm rolled in form the south and Scott and his team were trapped on the ice shelf. The storm lasted nine days and according to a journal left by Scott, the team died on the 7thday. Scott’s camp was discovered in at the end of the summer in 1913. The rescue team left Scott and his men entombed in their tent. Today their camp site has become part of the glacier and is estimated to be 75 feet below the surface and 35 miles closer to the ocean than it was in 1913. It is estimated that the part of the glacier containing the camp will break off the main glacier in about 275 years.
Scott's Team monument
The climb up Ob hill took about 45 minutes. The climb down took less than 15. How may you ask, sliding. There is a wonderful hill, about half a mile long, covered with snow and ice. Instead of climbing down the rocks, Dan and I sledded on our butts down the slope. We used our elbows and snow cleats to help control our decent, which I may stay, doesn’t work well on ice. I had my camera on video and half way down the hill it froze into place and unfortunately no video was saved. But it was one of the most epic adventures of my Antarctic Trip.
Sorry to my readers that I haven’t been posting for the past few days. I have actually been out on field training on Ross ice sheet. Since the majority of our work will be out at field camps, it is very important to be able to survive in the harsh Antarctic climate. Here the weather can change instantly from a mild temperature to gusting winds up to 100mph and temperatures plummeting to -90 or more. So for newbies like myself, the host a field training called Happy Camper.
The first day we spent some time in lecture learning about the equipment in the survival bags and how to use it. We then drive to a remote part of the ice sheet and apply what we have learned. We started off with a long hike to get even further off the land and out on the ice. There is a list of things that are essential for survival: shelter, water, food, and heat.
So the first thing we went about doing was setting up Scott tents. These tents were designed and used by Captain Robert Scott who was one of the first explorers in Antarctica in 1912. He and his party of 5 were the first group of people to reach the South Pole. There tent designs are still being used in Antarctica today.
Our CampInside the Scott Tent
After we set up two Scott tents, we then started building walls to help brace the camp from the strong winds. This also helps further protect the mountain tents that we set up later. Using a saw and a shovel, our team carved out square (or as close as you can get) blocks of snow. We build up our wall to about 4 feet tall.
The Snow wall
In some situations, you may not have enough resources to be able to set up a tent with a wall, so to build a shelter you dig into the snow and make a snow cave. It usually starts with a trench and then you use blocks of snow to build the roof.
The Snow Cave
After camp was build and we had our shelter, it was time to make water. We started the camp stove and melted snow to make water. One way to keep warm is to fill your water bottle with hot water and stick it into your jacket for warmth. You can also stick one in your sleeping bag to warm it up before you get in it.
At 6:30 the instructors left our group for the night. We continued to boil water to make dinner out of dehydrated meals. Anything with heat is conserved pretty well. Even our dehydrated meals were shoved into our jacket so any radiating heat would be absorbed by our body, not the environment. But a funny thing I found out about dehydrated meals is that they tend to expand as they get hotter. Since I hadn’t taken all the air out of my meal bag before it was sealed, my dinner exploded inside my jacket. It looked like I had been puked on. This can actually be a really bad thing. Since I was now wet, everything started to freeze. Fortunately for me, one of the instructors had left their jacket at the camp and I was able to use that for the night. If I had been out in an actual emergency scenario, I would have had a very hard time keeping warm.
Owning the Snow Cave
Sleep that night was fine. The only thing that sucked was that all the condensation from breathing would freeze on the sleeping bag and the tent above you. So every time you moved, you got small snowflakes falling on your face. Another hard thing while sleeping was the 24 hour sun light. The sun still ducks behind the mountains, but it stay relatively light all night long. I just wrapped a scarf around my face which also kept me protected from those little snowflakes from my breath.
The next morning, it was up and move. If you don’t move, you won’t be able to keep warm. Most people would run to the end of the road and back. Me, I pulled out my Frisbee and threw with a few friends. It worked wonders.
The other thing that I had never thought about was what to do when you have to go to the bathroom. Most places have port-a-potties, and if you can’t do that, you just go outside. But here the USAP has decided that, in order to preserve the true Antarctic environment, all trash, food, and human waste will be removed from the continent. So my question was, how do we go to the bathroom? That was when I was introduced to the pee bottle. Yes you are required to pee in a Nalgene bottle and bring it back to camp with you. And since temperature outside are so cold, it has to be kept close to your body so that it doesn’t freeze solid. Can’t say that I’ve ever done that before.
Melting Snow for waterOur Galley
As the day continued, our instructors showed back up, happy to see everyone alive and without frostbite (which does happen to happy campers). We were given hot drinks and a sack lunch. Our last step was to survive a blizzard. However we had beautiful condition that morning. Cold, but beautiful. So in order to simulate a white out, we put buckets on our head and had to make it from point A to point B. We never made it. And that was the point. The wanted us to realize that it was very easy to get lost in a white out and that it is, most of the time, better to stay where you’re at and wait til conditions get better.
At that point, we had graduated Happy Camper. It was such a relief to get back to base and have a hot dinner on a plate and a warm shower. It honestly never felt so good.
Today I finally got my ice fins. We spent the morning in the dive locker prepping for the dive. We did the basic safety briefing, and after lunch, headed to the ice whole. We drove to a spot right next to town called the Jetty.
Sam, Cecil, Me. The ride to our dive spot.The Ice hut over the snow. We will not have these in New Harbor
The dive was amazing. We spent the first few minutes just working on buoyancy and making sure that everything was working well. The water was so cold against my face that after just a few seconds, my lips were numb. But in all honesty I didn’t care. I was so distracted by everything that was around me. The visibility was incredible, everything that they said it would be. There were really interesting creatures everywhere and they were huge. Lots of sponges with openings the size of dinner plates and starfish that looked like the weighed 20lbs. I also got to see a spider crab. They live is several oceans and are usually the size of a dime, but in Antarctica they grow larger that my hand.
After I got over the initial shock of so many things to see, we started to head up to the fast ice. This is where the ice meets the land. As we got closer, the ice started to look like broken glass. Not only was it on the over head ice, but the water was so cold that ice had also formed on the rocks along the bottom of the sea floor. It was weird to have ice above you and below you while you are suspended in water.
The dive lasted about a half an hour. That is a pretty typical dive time here just because of the temperature of the water (28.6 F). I was so excited to have completed my first ice dive. Cold, but excited. It was actually pretty easy to get warmed back up once I was out of the water. The only thing that kept me cold was my hair. It was suggested that I cut it all off, but I’d rather just be cold.