It was snowing when we arrived at McMurdo Station, the main logistics hub for the United States Antarctic Program and the largest Antarctic station. Built on the bare volcanic rock of Ross Island, it is the furthest south of any solid ground accessible by ship…the world’s most southern port.
Established by the U.S. Navy in December 1955, the station is located on McMurdo Sound, named after Royal Navy Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo who first charted the area in 1841. It lies about 2500 miles south of Christchurch, New Zealand and can accommodate up to 1250 people during the summer (October to February) research season. Aside from the scientists, most of the residents provide support for operations, logistics, information technology, construction, and maintenance.
In addition to the harbor, the station has 3 airfields, a heliport, and over 100 buildings, perhaps the most important of which is the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center. Communications are via NASA’s TDRS satellite system and there are 3 TV stations: Armed Forces Network, the Australia Network, and New Zealand news broadcasts. McMurdo even had its own nuclear power plant for about 10 years beginning in 1962, producing enough energy to replace the 1500 gallons of oil used daily for power generation.
For those Stargate SG-1 fans, McMurdo Station is about 50 miles from the Earth’s second Stargate (the first being the one inside Cheyenne Mountain…of course), left over from the ancient site of Atlantis. Samantha Carter and Colonel O’Neil were rescued by a team from McMurdo in the season one episode “Solitudes.”
On a historical note, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott established a base at Hut Point, adjacent to the harbor, on his first Antarctic Expedition in 1902…but much more about that in my next blog.
Upon arrival I was dead tired, since it was about 0330. After a brief reconnoiter of “Mac Town” (as the station is referred to by the locals), I retired for a “power nap” before lunch. Sleeping accommodations consisted of large rooms with 6 to 8 beds per room. For the first two days I basked in the luxury of a room to myself, but at 0200 one morning my blissful sleep was rudely interrupted by 5 weary PIG (Pine Island Glacier) people who had been stranded for 5 days in tents at a remote station because of bad weather. They appeared more exhausted than I felt, so it was difficult for me to begrudge their intrusion upon my serenity. Shared sleeping quarters and bathrooms were really the only inconveniences of my week long stay at McMurdo.
My time was mainly spent in the Medical Clinic (“McMurdo General Hospital”) learning to run laboratory tests and take x-rays using equipment identical to that at the South Pole. We also were taught some basic dental skills, such as repairing chipped teeth, restoring fillings, and performing root canals. Let me know if you need any dental work done cheaply! The dentist at McMurdo is Australian and a fantastic teacher. She provided us some human teeth set in plaster upon which to practice, as well as regaling us with stories of Antarctic dentistry.
One certainly meets interesting people in Antarctica! I was able to attend some lectures given by the scientists about their research projects. One scientist spent 17 seasons in Antarctica studying Adele penguins, which are one of the most common species of penguin. By examining 4000 year old penguin guano, he was able to determine historical diet, migration patterns, and even the extent of ice coverage since penguins require a food source, dry land, and open water to exist. Penguins are very curious by nature and whenever he would start digging out ancient penguin poop, the penguins would gather around the hole to see what was happening.
I had an opportunity to chat with a lady who was part of the first team of women to ski to the South Pole and a gentleman from New Zealand who has stood on the summit of Mount Everest 5 times! I also become friends with a young physician, Alexander Kumar, who is wintering at the European Union station (Concordia) about 800 miles from the South Pole. An adventurous spirit at heart and quintessentially British, Alex is a good hiking companion and great fun. With a crew of 12 French and Italian scientists and 1000 bottles of wine, Concordia should have an interesting winter!
While at McMurdo, I had an opportunity to hike out to Castle Rock and get some good views of the base of Mount Eribus, which is still an active volcano. I also climbed Observation Hill, atop which sits a memorial to Captain Robert Scott and his party who perished while returning from the South Pole. When the search party, led by Royal Navy Surgeon Edward Atkinson, returned to McMurdo after discovering Scott, “Birdie” Bowers, and Dr. Edward Wilson dead in their tent, they erected a large wooden cross (visible from McMurdo Station) inscribed with the names of Scott’s team and a quote from Tennyson…”To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” May we all face adversity with as much courage.