A Summer of Loss and Luck

There’s a saying in McMurdo…The 1st year you do it for the experience, the 2nd year you do it for the money, the 3rd year you do it because you don’t know what else to do.

That about sums it up. We were surprised at how unexpected it seemed to be for so many people when they heard we would be spending another season on the Ice.

Over the summer, we came across a lovely piece of land just prior to our deployment to McMurdo – and bought the thing. We are now amongst the gentry! Proud owners of six acres outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. It was loss and luck that found us there. A bittersweet ending to our time in the States – our beloved dog, McKinley, suddenly and unexpectedly took ill and died a few months after we arrived back in the States. We all know the loss that is felt when we lose our four-legged best friend. They’re irreplaceable. That’s all I can say about that…

Dave is just finishing up the design of the house and garage. This summer we’ll be installing the septic and well with the intention of building the house next year. Dave and I will be owner-builders, measuring, cutting and erecting every piece of wood, metal and any other miscellaneous material the house contains. The ultimate goal is to be debt-free when this thing is all said and done. With that point, we’ll be coming down to McMurdo as long as it takes to do this. Friends and family beware.

Everything will be as environmentally friendly as we can make it, meaning within financial reason as well as still being within county code – not to mention in the event of ever wanting to sell it down the road, we’d like something that will be appealing to a demographic other than bohemians, freethinkers and hippies.

Land 360

Alright, enough with that.

We deployed to Antarctica early this season, getting a contract to fly in during Winfly (winter fly-in). I switched positions and am working in the carpentry shop this season as a coordinator, which gave Dave and I the opportunity to come down early. It was, by far, our favorite part of the entire season. Winfly is gorgeous. It’s still winter in Antarctica at this time, so we got a month-long taste of the formidable conditions; 24-hour darkness, constant winter storms, regular 70 knots winds (winds have been clocked here by instruments reaching 200 mph, some days it was so windy that Dave had to help me walk to work because the wind was knocking me down), Nacreous clouds, auroras, the Southern Cross and Magellanic Clouds and weeks of perpetual sunset and sunrise. Granted, this season was particularly intense regarding storms thanks to El Nino, I’m told it’s not always so extreme this time of year.

This seasons Winfly produced the most snow on record. It was a surreal month. We’re hooked.

Flight down to McMurdo
Flight down to McMurdo

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Due to the government shutdown last season, very little science occurred, causing this season to be crammed full of it.

That has created a very busy season, so Dave has flown all over the place, which isn’t new for him but he got lucky and was one of the carps to fly to the peak of the active volcano, Erebus, just behind McMurdo Station. I’ve even been fortunate to go on a handful of helo trips to help in setting up some of the Dry Valley camps, including Blood Falls on Taylor Glacier, Garwood Valley and Cape Royds (home of the beloved Adelie penguins and Shackleton’s Hut).

Helo landing on Taylor Glacier right near Blood Falls – what a weird experience, being dropped off in a helicopter on a glacier in Antarctica. I would say it’s something checked off the bucket list, but this one was so unexpected I had never dreamt of adding it to the list.
Dave’s helo dropping him off on Erebus, at LEH (Lower Erebus Hut).

Dave standing on Lake Bonney.
Dave standing on Lake Bonney.
Dave standing on Lake Bonney.
Dave standing on Lake Bonney.
Blood Falls.
Blood Falls and Taylor Glacier, from the viewpoint of Lake Bonney.
Blood Falls.
Blood Falls.
Taylor Glacier has pockets of frozen dirt that produce spectacular designs as the air escapes during slight warming trends.
Taylor Glacier has pockets of frozen dirt that produce spectacular designs as the air escapes during slight warming periods.

 

 

 

The crew I went out with to Taylor Glacier. Awesome crew, awesome time.
The crew I went out with to Taylor Glacier. The guy on the right, Geo, is one of my bosses. Best boss ever.
PolarHaven being assembled on Lake Bonney just below Blood Falls.
Polarhaven being assembled on Lake Bonney just below Blood Falls.
Erebus Glacier Tongue protruding onto the ice.
Erebus Glacier Tongue protruding onto the ice.
Strangely, the glacier looks almost identical to enormous penguin tracks. Kind of bizarre.
Strangely, the glacier looks almost identical to enormous penguin tracks. Kind of bizarre.

We were able to do a couple new things, thanks to a really great recreation program this season. Including the Ob Tube; a hole is drilled into the sea ice and a metal tube is inserted. People can crawl down inside to a glass tube protruding under the sea ice to see everything below. It was, by far, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever encountered. It’s deafeningly quiet, while also exceedingly noisy. I know that sounds strange, but once you get down there, you are almost suffocated by the weight of silence. Once you sit still for long enough, your ears pick up the orchestra of subtle sound; the popping of the ice, the crackling of microorganisms, the alien-like whistles and high-pitched chirps of nearby Weddell seals. If you click the link, it will take you to a YouTube audio recording of what it sounds like. It’s extraordinary and worth hearing.

Here's what it looks like from inside.
Here’s what it looks like from inside.
The bottom of the sea ice has brinicles, hollow stalactites made of ice created by super cold saline water.
The bottom of the sea ice has brinicles, hollow stalactites made of ice created by super cold saline water.

Another really great recreational trip Dave and I took was to Cape Evans to visit Scott’s Hut.

Scott's Hut at Cape Evans.
Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans.
Dave and I inside Scott's Hut.
Dave and I inside Scott’s Hut.
Scott’s Hut.
The beautiful melt pools on the way to Garwood Valley.
The beautiful melt pools on the way to Garwood Valley.

I was able to go to Cape Royds this season to help in closing the camp. Cape Royds has been on the top of my list since we first started the program – it’s home of an Adelie penguin rookery as well as Shackleton’s Hut.

Adelie penguins are the beloved curious and comical creature of Antarctica. They were the favorites of many of the polar explorers, like Scott and Shackleton. They are only found in Antarctica.

I spent a few hours watching the penguins chase each other around, jump in and out of the water, steal pebbles from each other’s nests and feed their young.

When a group of them wants to get into the water and they’re unsure as to how safe it is, they’ll all inch towards the ice edge and the poor little guy closest to the edge will be casually pushed into the sea by a random flipper behind him. The rest still standing safely on the ice will peer over into the water to see if he gets eaten or not. If all is well, the rest will go jumping in.

The whole cape is covered with penguins. It was a noisy place to be, with them all squawking and cooing.
As for Shackleton; there’s no way to eloquently describe how humbling it was to be in this hut. Don’t get me wrong, Scott was an amazing explorer, however as Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the members of Scott’s team on the Terra Nova Expedition, wrote “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.” There is a link to a PBS documentary at the top of this paragraph for anyone curious about the most phenomenal rescue ever made.
Dave and I have been enamored with Shackleton since we first started sailing. To be able to exit the boat-life (hopefully only temporarily), come to the bottom of the planet and step foot inside Shackleton’s Hut will forever be one of the highlights of my life.
Shackleton's Hut at Cape Royds.
Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds.
Inside Shackleton's Hut.
Inside Shackleton’s Hut.
Shackleton's signature on his bed frame.
Shackleton’s (upside down) signature on his bed frame.
Just behind the hut is the penguin rookery.
Just behind the hut is the penguin rookery.
A cape of penguins.
A cape of penguins.
They’re inquisitive little guys, they came close to check me out. And yes, that’s a little foot in the foreground. A sad truth to visiting a rookery is seeing the limbs and bones of countless penguins. The Skua here are formidable predators.

Adelies lounging on a floating chunk of ice.
Adelies lounging on a floating chunk of ice.

It’s been a hell of a season so far. They just keep getting better.

We leave here at the end of February. Who knows where this summer will take us.