I say “weekend” because the official work week there is six days (only Sunday off), and if you’re in a field camp or doing science, that often means working seven days a week. Although we were in Antarctica to work – and we did work a lot – when you are on site for three months, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. You have to take breaks to care for your mental and physical health. I haven’t posted much about all the fun I had there, partly because I was focused on the work we were doing. But now I’m reflecting on my first season from back in Boulder, and I have some experiences too good not to share. (Also, the internet is fast enough here to upload all these photos in less than a day!) Some of the things we did for work were honestly the most fun (it’s hard to beat helicopters rides onto glaciers). But there was some good old goofing off, too.
Weather in Antarctica can be extreme. Therefore, one of the first (of many, many) trainings you have upon arrival to McMurdo Station includes safety regulations in high wind, extreme cold, or poor visibility. These weather conditions are classified as follows:
- Condition 3: Normal. Most of the time – and pretty much all the time in the summer when most researchers are there – is considered Condition 3: no additional rules. (I never experienced anything other than Condition 3.)
- Condition 2: Severe cold, wind, or poor visibility. Here’s a video someone posted of McMurdo in Condition 2.
- Condition 1: The most extreme cold, wind, or low visibility. Someone else posted video of walking to work in Condition 1 – holding on to a rope to find their way!
Given this system, can you guess what Condition 4 might be? It’s too nice to work – go play outside! That’s the joke around McMurdo, anyway. So here are some of the outdoor adventures I had:
The Ob Tube
McMurdo Station is actually on an island just off the coast of Antarctica, and much of the research there is on the marine life – under the sea ice! Although there are pretty stiff requirements for diving, someone has built an observation tube of metal and glass for all of us who don’t get to dive. You walk out onto the ice shelf from the station until you reach what looks like a manhole, then you go down – one at a time (it’s a tight squeeze!). The second time I climbed down, I was lucky enough to be there when a couple divers dropped through the ice from a hole inside the nearby dive hut!
Observation Hill is a high point looming above McMurdo, a cross at the top in memory of lives lost. A trail around its volcanic rocky sides was one of my favorite running routes. It felt so much like running in the Tucson Mountains or Pinacate that I half-expected to see a saguaro or a brittlebush sprouting beside the trail – except for the snow.
Taking the Long Way Around
If we finished field sampling early and didn’t have to catch a lift home, we could hike through the more interesting features of the glacier on our way back to camp.
Sometimes you need samples that represent a bigger area…. and sometimes you just keep hiking along that ridge even after you collected your samples, just for fun. As we kept saying, hey – it’s not like we were going to run out of daylight!
Less than a mile from my dorm was one of the original landing points of several of the epic and storied British expeditions led by Sir Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton in the early 20th century. It has been somewhat restored and preserved after years of use and abuse, and I was lucky to take a tour with a volunteer guide. I have read several accounts of early expeditions, including The Worst Journey in the World and Endurance. Seeing firsthand the conditions and the carcasses and the supplies I had read about gave me chills.
The longest hike from McMurdo is to climb up to the high point of Ross Island and scramble up a rocky outcropping. You can make up to a ten mile loop by heading down the slope by the Kiwi ski hill (the Skiwi hill?) and back on the road. I didn’t make it up to Castle Rock’s summit until a few days before I left, when I headed up with my friend Jim – and it immediately became my favorite place on Ross Island. The photos don’t do it justice on a beautiful day.
One of the things I was really excited about when planning this trip was running a marathon. I had run three previously, but none since my first year in grad school, due to the time and energy required to train – and it was feeling like time for another race. I managed to get some long runs in before we left Boulder, but couldn’t run while at our field camp. Luckily, I had about a month to ramp my running back up in McMurdo as we started processing our samples in the lab.
I had some beautiful long training runs on the ice shelf road, Mount Erebus smoking in the distance against the deep blue sky. The actual race, though, was definitely Type II fun. The course was to run out 6.5 miles to a warming hut, then turn around and come back, and repeat. We battled 35 mph headwinds running out, with visibility so bad we could only see a few red flags marking the road ahead of us, no one in sight. The flat light made it impossible to tell the difference between ankle-deep drifts and patches of ice on the groomed road, and I saw a number of people wipe out hard. Fortunately Brendan ran slowly with me the first half of the first half, and let me draft off him! The second out-and-back I was on my own, though. I was proud to be one of only 14 finishers (3 of us women among that).