Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Hike up Observation Hill

A week ago I mustered enough energy to climb Observation Hill (also know as Ob Hill) which overlooks McMurdo Station. The elevation is only 754 ft and only a half mile long.  But it is a step climb, by my standards.

Hikers making their way to the top of Ob Hill a week earlier. 

It was a sunny day with the temperature in the low 20s, perfect for hiking.  There was some wind so I ended up wearing my neck gaiter to protect my face.  I also needed my sunglasses because of the sun.  With the gaiter my breath kept fogging up my glasses.  So it was either the gaiter or the glasses.  I chose the gaiter.

One of the webcams on the weather and webcam page is located about a third of the way up.  On this same level is a monument commemorating the site of the first and only nuclear power plant built in Antarctica.  It was constructed in the early 1960s and operational for 10 years, from 1962 to 1972.  It was decommissioned and the site released for use in 1979.

The plaque commemorating the site of the nuclear power plant.

From this level to the top, the grade of the trail steepened.  Snow covered part of the trail and made it difficult to follow.  But it’s heavily used and so I just followed the footsteps of others.  I hike like the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare story, slow but steady.  But even at a slow pace I had to periodically stop and catch my breath.  It reminded me of a hike I did in the Palm Springs area earlier this year with my friends John and Joan.  The name of that trail is the Bump and Grind, and it truly was.  The views from both trails are beautiful but polar opposites...so to speak.
I didn’t break any land speed records but made it to the top just fine.  I had the place all to myself.  In fact, I only saw two people the whole time, one on my way up and the other  going down.  And both were near the bottom of the trail.

View from the top looking down on McMurdo.
It was well worth the trip.  The views were beautiful.  The cross on top is to commemorate Captain Robert Falcon Scott, a famous Antarctic explorer, and his crew who lost their lives on the return trip from the South Pole in 1912.  

The plaque close to the cross that commemorates
Captain Scott and his crew.
To the north is Mount Erebus (elevation 12,448 ft), the southern most active volcano in the world.  It is located  approximately 20 miles from McMurdo.  To the east is Mount Terror (elevation 10,702 ft).

Mt. Erebus in the clouds with Castle Rock in the foreground.
Note the smoke at the top of Erebus.

Mt. Terror to the right and Mt. Terra Nova to the left.  Windmills help
generate energy for McMurdo Station and Scott Base.

Scott Base, the New Zealand Antarctic research station, is the only green thing you’ll see in this part of Antarctica.  It is so neat and tidy.  They house less than 100 people, so quite a bit smaller than McMurdo Station.  I went over to Scott Base for their American Night last week and visited their store and bar.  They were wonderful hosts.  Close to Scott Base are the pressure ridges which I visited last week, and the subject of my next post.


Scott Base with the pressure ridges in the background.

I stayed on top for about 45 minutes before I made my way down.  The trip down was more difficult than the trip up because of the scree or broken rocks.  My knees didn't like the slipping and sliding.  It wasn't particularly dangerous but by the time I made it down I decided it might be my first and last trip to the top.  However it was good exercise, the views magnificent and something to check off my to-do list.  There is a mid-slope trail around the hill called the Ob Hill Loop and it doesn't have much elevation gain.  That will be my next hike.  


The view from the top of Ob Hill looking east onto the Ross Ice Shelf.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Living in McMurdo

Many have asked “what is it like living in McMurdo”, in particular the food and accommodations.  Here’s my attempt to answer those questions.  To start with, room and board are provided.  Transportation to and from Antarctica is also covered.  

Front of my dorm, 203B

For those who lived in a college dorm, were in the military or attended summer camp, the experience is similar, sort of.   Our dorm is connected with two other dorms, each two stories high.  The rooms are about 12’ by 18’, have two single beds, two wardrobes, two night stands, two chairs, and a refrigerator, a lot to cram in a small space.  But it's plenty big enough for two.  The mattress I have is firm and comfortable.  Bedding is provided.  I was lamenting about not having brought flannel sheets with me but a fellow Shuttle driver found me a set left behind by a past resident so now I’m cozy and warm at night.


Small but cozy.  There is a window covering to block out the light.

There are both men’s and women’s restrooms on each floor.  I’m lucky because my dorm has heated floors in the restrooms.  Each dorm also has a laundry room.  The washers and driers are free as are the laundry detergent and fabric softeners.   

Dorm lounge with TV, chairs and a couch.  Trash and
recycling bins to the left

Each dorm has a lounge.  The furnishings differ from dorm to dorm but generally have a large flat screen TV, a variety of chairs, couches, coffee tables and desks and an assortment of books, games and movies.  Most lounges have a few ethernet cables for accessing the internet.  There is no WIFI for the general population.  And no cellular service, which is both a curse and a blessing.

Other side of the lounge, with a view overlooking
Ross Sound and the Ice Pier.

Each resident takes a turn in keeping the dorm clean.  Janitors clean the restrooms but residents vacuum, mop and sanitize the other public areas, as well as their rooms.  These “house mouse” duties, as they’re called, are assigned by the Resident Administrator or RA.  

Dining room early in the morning.  It's usually pretty crowded.

Meals are served at the galley (think cafeteria or mess hall).  It seats a little over 300 people.  Meals times are generally 2-3 hours in length, three or four times a day.  A midnight lunch meal was added a few weeks ago to accommodate those working the night shift.

Inside the galley.

There is a wide variety of food and plenty of it.  It is good, especially the breads and desserts.  You can make yourself a deli sandwich or panini, and pizza is available a good part of the day.  In the morning I usually have two eggs over easy or an omelette (made to order), yogurt with fruit, and a danish or turnover.  You can eat healthy, or not.  So far I’ve been good and have actually lost 4-5 pounds since I got here.  I guess that’s not normally the case.

The Glacier Deli and salad and dessert bars.

As many of you know, I enjoy coffee.  The coffee here is good which was a pleasant surprise.  When I was warned it might not be good I mailed myself a 5-cup coffee maker and six pounds of Peet’s French Roast (both decaf and regular).  Recently I’ve been making a pot in my room.   It’s a morning treat that gets me out of bed. And I've become an herbal tea drinker.  That's what I have with my lunch and dinner.

Right now there are plenty of fresh veggies and fruit but that will end in the next week or so when the C-17s stop flying between Christchurch and McMurdo.  The C-17s, based at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State, are the work horses because of the large payloads they can handle.  I’ve been warned to enjoy the “freshies” while I can because the C-17s flights won’t begin again until January.  This will also affects mail delivery.

C-17 at Phoenix Airfield.  Photo by Colin Harnish.

All in all, I’m very happy with life here in McMurdo.  That’s not to say I don’t miss my little house on Frazer Lane and all my friends and family.  But compared to the early Antarctic explorers, I have it quite nice.  

  • As of November 25 there are 895 people in McMurdo.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Working at McMurdo Station

I know there are long delays between posts.  It seems I have little time for anything but eating, sleeping and working.  The first two plus weeks I worked 6 9-hour days, with Sundays off.  But on Monday, November 5th I started a new schedule.  I’m now working 5 11-hour days with Fridays and Sundays off.  Even though the work days are longer, it’s nice to have two days off each week. I’ll try to be a little more regular with my posts.

McMurdo Station from the Hut Point Loop Trail.

In Shuttles we have day and night shifts Monday thru Saturday.  The shifts are generally 0600 to 1800 and 1800 to 0600 the next day.  I’m working days.  Shift times can vary a little in order to cover all our scheduled runs and to accommodate changes, particularly the arrival and departures of aircrafts.  I’ve started as early as 0515 in order to do a 0530 run.  

Just a note about the times.  As you can see, we use the 24 hour format.  In order to get used to it I’ve changed my phone and my Fitbit (which I use as my watch) to that format.  It’s taking a while to get used to the change.  Afternoons seems to be the hardest for me.

Delta Gale at Phoenix Airfield.

So what do I do?  As the name implies, in Shuttles we transport people around McMurdo Station and the surrounding area.  Many of our shuttle runs involve transporting passengers and workers to and from the two airfields.  The vehicle we use depends on the number of passengers.  I have mostly been driving our vans which seat 7-14 people.  But I’ll also be driving a Delta, which seats 14-17 people.  There are also two large vehicles, the Kress and Ivan the Terror Bus (pictured in my last post), which seat 72 and 56 passengers, respectively.  

Before each shift, each vehicle is inspected before being put into service.  The vehicles are serviced based on the number of hours instead of miles.  Many of the vehicles are plugged in when not in use to keep the engines warm.  The vehicles are exposed to the elements all year round.  It’s a tough life for vehicles here on the Ice.  My car doesn’t realize how good it has it sitting in the garage.

My friend Shuttle Bill with the Kress.

What about the roads?  On Ross Island, which is where McMurdo is located, the roads are carved out of volcanic rock.  Once you leave the island and on to the ice shelf, the roads are a mixture of ice and snow.  The snow roads, as they’re called, are continually being groomed.  The road maintenance crews do a pretty good job of keeping them in good driving shape.  But changing weather conditions, like snow, wind and sunshine, makes it a challenge to keep the surfaces compacted.


Shuttle Rex in front of one of the vans.


Besides driving, each person in Shuttles takes a turn at dispatching.  It can get pretty hectic taking phones calls for rides and vehicle requests, monitoring two channels on the radio system, updating the vehicle status and aircraft status boards and numerous other tasks.  There are a lot of moving pieces and I’m impressed with the seasoned folks who can juggles all these tasks with ease.  I’m still working to get there.

I’m including a few pictures from a recent hike.  In a couple of months I’ll take some photos of the same area once the ice has melted.  Right now there are Weddell seals laying on the ice in front of Ross Island giving birth to their pups.  Penguins probably won’t show up for another month or so, if at all.  I hope to see both the Emperor and Adelie penguins, so stay tuned.  A few people have seen skuas, a gull like bird.  They are bigger than the sea gulls we see in the States but similar in they are both scavengers.

The Ross Island coast line to the west of McMurdo Station.


  • It’s continuously light until the next sunset which will be February 20, 2019. 
  • A couple of new weather terms I’ve not heard before.  Today our weather was “gloomy” and there are a couple of frontal systems “conspiring together” as they head towards McMurdo.  Actually, very descriptive terms.
  • There are currently 850 people at McMurdo Station.
  • I posted a link to the Nova series on McMurdo Station.  They are here right now filming. It will give you additional information on life at McMurdo and some of the ongoing research. 

The view of the Royal Society mountain range from the office and my dorm.





One last Antarctic Adventure

I promise this will the be the last post.  But I wanted to share with you one of the most powerful experiences I had while on the Ice. ...