Under Pressure: Recreational Peril (Part of a Continuing Series)

“Adventure is just bad planning.”

So said Roald Amundsen, who ended up being the first to the South Pole but, quite frankly, hasn’t engendered the kind of cult hero status of Shackleton or Scott, both of whom failed in their objectives (rather spectacularly, one might add). It’s quotes like the above that make me envision Amundsen, despite all his accomplishments, as a boring killjoy and not the guy you want to go drinking with.

That quote has been on my mind for another reason, though… because there’s plenty of adventure, both Amundsen’s kind and that of the more reckless variety, to be had in and around base. There are hikes were you can die (sure, you have to take an Outdoor Safety Lecture to be allowed on the trails, but no lecture is going to save you if a blow comes in and pushes you off the side of a cliff). There is the observation tube, suspended in the sea ice which is cracking and shifting all the time (a fact I did not appreciate when I was in the tube… I thought the banging sounds were the current or the wind…).

And there are the pressure ridges.

Scott Base, the New Zealand base about a mile and a half from McMurdo, sits right on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. In front of the base, thinner and less permanent (and much weaker) sea ice slams up against the thick and not-goin’-nowhere ice shelf. The sea ice bends and buckles and cracks, creating a long line of incredible ice sculptures and fissures and cracks that are constantly changing.

And you can walk on this highly unstable slice of ice plate tectonics.

There are some caveats, though. The Kiwis walk the flagged route every two days and adjust it as needed to avoid the bigger cracks and holes. And you can’t just gallivant out there on your own. You have to have a guide, and the guide has to have an ice axe (to probe holes and cracks) and a throw bag (emergency rope coiled in an easy-carry tote attached to their wrist, which they throw to you if you fall in an aforementioned crack or hole).

And, much like the observation tube, the pressure ridge tour’s season is short, just about a month, as they close it down once it gets too dangerous.

So it’s all very well planned. But it still feels adventurous. So there, Amundsen.

Ten of us from my department went yesterday on a windy but clear day. It was achingly beautiful and surreal, one of those experiences where you truly feel like you’re on a different planet. But enough yammering from me. Check out the photos:

Our tour guide (and my co-worker), Gracie, models her ice axe. Not coincidentally, there is a popular saying here at McMurdo: "We're all here because we're not all there."

Approach to the ridges (walking on sea ice along a flagged route)

Wolf's Head! I thought this looked like a wolf head with its mouth open

Another shot from the trail... these formations are 12-20 feet high (about)

One of the flagged poles marking the route... it's about four feet high, for scale

I'd put a caption here but all I can think to say is "Oooooh...Aaaahhh...Pretty."

Ooooh... Aaaaaahhh... Pretty

You know the drill... Ooooh... Aaahhh... Pretty

I particularly like the pointy translucent ridge on the right

For those of you who complain my photos never feature people, here they are... provided for scale purposes only.

Close-up of a ridge... pretty

Another pretty, pretty ridge... in the background, by the way, lurks Mt. Erebus, which people around here, totally without my instigation, have taken to calling Mt. Doom

Another amazing work of Mother Nature

Puny humans aren't the only visitors to the pressure ridges... Weddell seals come up through the cracks and meltpools, like this guy.

...and this guy. Though it's more likely a girl. The pressure ridges are a very popular spot for the seals to pup.

The ridges can also create ice caves like this one

Oh hey, look, it's a Weddell Seal and her pup like ten feet away from us... cool. The pup slept through it all but the mom lifted her head and looked at us upside down, which was just freaky. She seemed unconcerned with the puny humans, though.

I was mesmerized by how soft their fur was... and how dog-like their expressions. How could you club a face like that?

A long view of the pressure ridge area with Erebus in the background

One more pretty pretty picture

Okay, one more....


2 thoughts on “Under Pressure: Recreational Peril (Part of a Continuing Series)

  1. Haha, Gracie’s tutu is awesome! And Pippi often looks at us upside-down like the seal looked at you. I may have to start calling her ‘seal pup.’

    But more important — pretty pictures! And finally you had a clear beautiful day for an outing! I *love* the aqua tints in all the ice (or the sky showing through it or whatever) — ooh, aah, pretty!

  2. Hi! I’m finally getting caught up with your blogging. Great to “hear” your voice – sounds like some real adventures.

    Be well,

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