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A Gorgeous Day at McMurdo

October 13, 2008

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– The last couple of days have been really busy down here at McMurdo. I’ve been going through a lot of training sessions and have had many meetings with our Team. We’ve been trying to get all of our equipment together for the long journey across the sea ice to New Harbor. It’s a really long process to make sure we have everything we’re going to need at the field camp.

But today I had some free time in the morning. The weather was incredibly clear and crisp. I took the opportunity to climb up Observation Hill.

Observation Hill.

Observation Hill is a large hill that is 750 feet tall next to McMurdo Station. It is commonly called “Ob Hill” by the people who live and work here. It is the most climbed peak in Antarctica. The hill was named by Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition when they explored this area of Antarctica between 1901 and 1904. Members of Scott’s team would climb to the top to make weather observations.

The further I got up on Ob Hill, the better the views became. I could see all the way across McMurdo Sound. I could see Mt. Discovery (right), Black Island (left), Brown Peninsula (low, and in the middle), and the Royal Society Range of mountains (not shown) as they stretched to the north as far as the eye could see. The straight line on the ice was the roadway that I traveled on from Pegasus Field just a few days before.

Southwest view across McMurdo Sound looking at Mt. Discovery (right), Black Island (left), and Brown Peninsula (low, in the middle). The straight line across the ice is the road to Pegasus Field where we landed.

As I climbed higher and higher, it became windier and colder. Snow was blowing around and I was glad I brought my thick insulated gloves and my ski goggles with me. With the cloudless blue sunny sky above, I bundled up and continued up to the summit.

Almost to the top.

Finally I got to the top of Ob Hill. I gazed down on McMurdo Station 750 feet below me. It looked like a tiny town. There are fewer than 1000 people here now, with more on the way. The population will grow to nearly 2000 during the height of the summer season. I’m amazed at how efficiently this small community runs to support the lives and activities of the people who venture down to the white continent. Looking down at McMurdo Station from this vantage point reminded me just how isolated we truly are down here.

McMurdo Station from the summit of Observation Hill.

There’s a giant cross that was erected on the top of Observation Hill to honor Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the members of his expedition who died on their return traverse from the South Pole during their Terra Nova expedition between 1910 and 1913.

Observation Hill Cross.

Scott and his men got trapped in their tent on the Ross Ice Shelf during an unusually long storm. They were already very weak and they ran out of food. When they got trapped, they were only 11 miles from a depot where they had enough food to get back to their camp on Ross Island. On the cross that Scott’s men built is an inscription from “Ulysses” by Alfred Tennyson which reads: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” These words are inspiring to me. I will try to not cease my own efforts to understand future climate change. To do this, I am in pursuit of knowledge of the past climate on the continent of Antarctica.

This place is so stunningly beautiful. Everywhere I look away from McMurdo Station I see various shapes of dark grey rocky peaks covered with white snow and ice. That or the smooth, flat ice of the Ross Ice Shelf and the lumpy sea ice floating on the surface of the Ross Sea in McMurdo Sound. It’s easy to get lost in the sheer expanse and isolation of this wilderness. But focusing on the details of the shapes, the way snow blows over a mountaintop, or how the sun moves around the sky in a circle gives perspective on singular aspects of the beauty of Antarctica. I can’t wait to get out into the field, to be away from “civilization” in town, to see new views of this other world.

Looking northeast across the summit of Ob Hill to Mt. Erebus.

There are constant reminders here of past exploration. Looking to the north from the summit of Ob Hill I could see Hut Point at the end of Hut Point Peninsula. The peninsula sticks out 15 miles to the southwest like a little finger off of the side of Mt. Erebus. There, a cross memorializing another fallen explorer and Scott’s Discovery Hut.

Looking north to Hut Point and Scott’s Discovery Hut.

As I descended Ob Hill to get back into the warmth of my room, I snapped one more photo of the wind-swept Mt. Erebus. The smoke and vapor coming out of the top of the volcano, and the snow and ice crystals being blown across the landscape show me how dynamic this environment is.

A windswept Mt. Erebus.

The glorious day turned into an amazing night. Seeing the sun dip behind the Royal Society Range around 11pm was a rare picturesque treat. Our last sunset here will be on October 21st. After that we’ll just watch the sun circle around the sky, neither rising nor setting. It will just roll around the heavens all day.

Sun setting across the Royal Society Range.

Tonight’s vivid scenery was accentuated by thin wispy clouds illuminated by the setting sun behind Mt. Discovery. I had to go outside and take some photographs. I could get used to this place!

Sunset behind Mt. Discovery.
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4 Responses »

  1. Howie –

    You and Andrea are really getting my psyched about my own trip down south. Sorry I’ll miss a sunset. It will be all sun all the time by the time the Explo crew gets there in a month or so.


  2. Hey Howie,
    Nice blog. I am a middle school Earth Science teacher. I received an email from a mutual friend and was hoping to communicate with you to see if we could set up time that you could speak with my class over the web. Please email me back and I will get back to you to give you the particulars on how I have made it possible. It will only take you some time and i am thinking that we could do a test on November 4th election day. All you need is a web cam and log into our account. Let me know and keep up the good work.

  3. WOW!!! That really is a beautiful day. Was it cool to be watching the sun set across the snow?

    Cool pictures, Brandi N. Billing

  4. writing a screenplay based on the McMurdo Station. Anyway to give me an idea of your typical day? I love your sunset pictures I saved to my desk top. Thanks