Updates from the Land of Cookies ‘N’ Cream

I thought of doing a bunch of short posts about the last week but decided it would be faster, and arguably more reader-friendly, to give them to you in one fell swoop, a round-up from ’round here:

I like the optimism of the Recreation Dept. folks who put out the communal bikes but guys, really?

– On my Hut Point Ridge Loop hike today (more on that shortly), I noticed how much of the snow has mysteriously disappeared (it’s still too cold for it to melt much, even in direct sunlight), exposing black volcanic rock. I thought, “it looks like something… it reminds me of something, but what?… wow, even though I just ate lunch, I’m getting hungry… man, I could really go for a big bowl of cookies ‘n’ cream ice cream right now…”

Yes, I am living on an island that appears to be made of Cookies ‘N’ Cream.

View of McMurdo Station, "town," from the Hut Point Ridge Trail... the road to the Kiwi base goes between the ridge on left and Ob Hill on the right.

– Last Thursday, on my stealth day off when the weather was delightful, after an hour on the elliptical in the gym and a long late morning walk, I decided there was only one thing to do… take another walk. My buddy Richard and I walked the two miles or so to the Kiwi outpost of Scott Base. It was a fabulous late afternoon (though terms like “afternoon” and “evening” are starting to lose their meaning here), bright sun and no wind and temperatures hovering around zero Fahrenheit. That may sound horrible, but believe me, it was comfy. I will take zero Fahrenheit in Antarctica any day over, say, 30 Fahrenheit in Upstate New York or Wisconsin.

Because it’s a dry cold.

Mt. Erebus in the endless twilight this time of year that I like to call "The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul."

Along the road we were treated to great views of Mt. Erebus, pressure ridges and shadows. I think it’s pretty obvious why any view of the world’s southernmost active volcano is damn cool, but let me explain the allure of the other two… Scott Base is built on a wee peninsula right about where the sea ice meets the Ross Ice Shelf. One goes away in summer, one does not. As the sea ice shifts and bumps up against the permanent ice shelf, it creates a fault line of sorts. The pressure builds up, buckling the ice in what looks like long rows of waves frozen in mid-crest, many of them larger than your average house.

Pressure ridges near Scott Base

Shadows might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, what with all the volcanoes and massive ice ridges about, but trust me, it was the most memorable sight of the walk. Ob Hill, just over 800 feet above sea level, and a shorter ridge beside it flank the pass on Scott Base Road. Mere hills, the both of them. But as we came over the pass, with the sun behind us and nothing but the flat white expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf ahead, we saw the shadows of both features stretch on and on and on into the deepening evening. With the sun low and nothing, not even a boulder, to get in the way, the shadows cast by those two modest hills seemed to stretch to infinity.

What you are looking at is the Ross Ice Shelf, covered in its entirety, it would appear, by the shadow cast by a piddly 500-foot-high ridge.

A slightly smaller thrill, only slightly, was making a snow angel just off the road while Richard filmed me with my tiny little FujiPix camera, footage that I hope to post if I one day figure out how to deal with uploading video.

Oh, those crazy Kiwis.

Scott Base itself is about a twentieth of the size of McMurdo, and on Thursday nights, “American Night,” it is overrun with us as soon as the free shuttles start running. Richard and I got there about half an hour before the madness, so it was quiet and the Kiwis, the few we ran into, seemed surprised to see us. I told them, in my best For-Entertainment-Purposes-Only Russian accent, that we had walked over from Vostok (the Russian base, several hundred miles away) and were hoping to borrow a cup of sugar.

This appealed to their senses of humor greatly.

Scott Base (the huddle of green buildings in shadow... the shadow cast by Ob Hill, more than a mile away)

We stayed at Scott Base long enough to buy some stuff at their store… I went with an inflatable penguin, a bag of the Kiwi candy I took a shine to when I lived there, and an awesome pair of lime green merino wool socks that say Scott Base but, more importantly, kept my tootsies super-cozy on the hike I took today. Which I swear I will detail in a moment.

To sum up this sign: Everything is Far Away.

We took the shuttle back because, as night finally fell, the wind picked up and the temps dipped just enough to make walking back seem unnecessary.

– You may recall my report on the unmitigated awesomeness of the Science Sunday lecture on RoboSeals last week. Based on the presentation, I had high hopes for this week’s lecture, on polar stratospheric clouds (what I’ve been calling nacreous clouds).

Well, it was interesting, and the scientists did a couple cool Mr. Wizard-style demonstrations, such as pointing laser pens at each other and sprinkling dust in the beams to illustrate the difference between forward scatter and back scatter of light. But… much of the talk was in microns and Kelvins and all sorts of scales that I couldn’t follow, at least not after a long day, undercaffeinated and well past my bedtime. Even when I was starting to feel my IQ points ebb away in the face of so much detailed but not described, however, it was a weird thrill to be experiencing SCIENCE up close and personal, despite being confused and puzzled.

This photo has nothing to do with the paragraphs before or after it; I just really like it and didn't know where to stick it. Taken today on the Hut Point Ridge Trail.

– The weather has been a bit surly the past few days… Condition Three all the time, but windy enough to flirt with Condition Two. Flights have been delayed, meaning we are still without our package mail and, more importantly, the promised shipment of fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy from Christchurch, or “Cheech” as those in-the-know call it here, though I cannot bring myself to call it that because it sounds like trying too hard to be all cool and stuff.

Damn, that was a long sentence.

Here's another pretty photo, this one to get your mind off that god-awful sentence.

Anyway, I assumed today, my day off, would be nasty weather, as has been (almost) always the case. Well. I was treated instead to mostly cloudless skies and, more importantly, virtually no wind. It is the wind, not the actual temperature, that cuts you down to size here.

Fully outfitted, I set off for the Hut Point Ridge Loop, not a loop so much as an elongated C shape that starts at Hut Point, site of Scott’s Discovery Hut, and heads up, up, up a ridge along the coast to Arrival Heights, an off-limits area. There the trail turns and heads back to town. Eventually. It’s listed as just under three miles but that, I assume, is if you don’t get lost.


Cozy in my puffy Big Red and Scott Base merino socks, I found the trail easy and fairly peril-free, aside from a stretch across a steep scree slope. Blown snow had hardened at an angle on the narrow trail, inviting you to slip and end up sliding a few hundred feet to the sea ice below. At least it was ice, I told myself, and almost certainly still thick enough to hold my weight if I came crashing down onto it.

Snow and Scree combined make me think of another four-letter word that starts with "S"...

The portion of the trail across the scree slope is, however, just after the Our Lady of the Snows shrine, erected in memory of one of the Navy men who built McMurdo back in the 50s… he died when the heavy equipment he was operating broke through the sea ice and plunged 350 fathoms through the icy water to the bottom of McMurdo Sound with him in it. His body was never recovered.

That’s gotta be an awful way to go. I’m jus’ sayin’.

Our Lady of the Snows shrine... still standing since 1957. Pretty amazing considering the extreme weather conditions of the place, no? Though truth be told the lady looks a little too dewy. I think she's had some work done.

On a more positive note, while climbing the ridge I got to see my first helicopter of the season, taking off and landing after a few practice turns.

Helicopter coming in for a landing

The higher I got on the ridge, the more I noticed how much the landscape has changed just in the last couple weeks. Where once was simply snow is now the gleam of ice… on the slopes and especially on the, well, sea ice. It may sound obvious, but when I got here and you looked out onto the sea ice, all you saw was the matte white of snow. Now there are large patches of exposed ice that, quite frankly, doesn’t look that thick, much of it scratched and grooved with what I imagine are smaller versions of pressure ridges.

See Ice? Yes, the sea ice is now exposed in places, even though it won't melt until January or so.

Looking northwest towards Cape Evans, site of another of Scott's historic huts. Note the gleam of ice on both the slopes and sea pack.

I was following the red flags that marked the trail when I came to an intersection… snowy footprints led in two directions, one up, one down. I picked up and, after a long and rather slippery haul up a partially iced-over incline, came to a sign informing me I had entered the Arrival Heights area that was off-limits to me and didn’t I know better?

The "what were you thinking?" sign


I made my way back to the intersection and chose the low road this time, across a field, in full view of Mt. Erebus. Well, it would have been full view if Erebus decided to come out and play, but he kept behind the clouds.

Mt. Erebus hiding from me on the trail

Across the field, up another slope and… another intersection. This time it was a crossroads, as in actual roads, not trails. I chose north and was greeted with another “Arrival Heights – off limits” sign. I tried south and realized I was heading to what looked like a power station and a dead-end. I ended up walking east, down and around a winding road that eventually brought me back to town… but not before I looked across the ice to the Royal Society mountains and saw my first Fata Morgana.

Fata Morgana is the polar version of a mirage… inversion of the cold air and other sciencey things I don’t understand create what looks like land masses that simply do not exist. I don’t think the photos captured it, but it was way cool to see it in person.

See where the mountains meet the sea ice? See those formidable cliffs, or maybe what looks like the terminus of a massive glacier? Yeah. Not there. Doesn't exist. Fata Morgana. On a related note, the 30 extra pounds I appear to be carrying when I wear my red parka is another optical illusion, one that I like to call Fat Morgana.

A close-up of the Fata Morgana for those of you who don't "embiggen" the photos I post by clicking on them.

Another item checked off my must-see list for Antarctica.


2 thoughts on “Updates from the Land of Cookies ‘N’ Cream

  1. OK, so I wasn’t paying attention and thought I was clicking on a previous post of yours. Um. Let’s just say your mention of cookies and cream generated some interesting “Possibly related posts.”

  2. “give them to you in one fell swoop” — Ouch! That hurts! 🙂

    And how *cool* that you can take a picture of a mirage! I didn’t think that was possible! (That must mean it’s firmly in the realm of the physics of light and atmosphere and not about some weird eye-to-brain message misfire.)

    LLqool — haha! I can guess which link is the interesting one. Too funny!

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