We’ve been on Mars – er, I mean in Antarctica for 1 week now. It’s similar to what one might imagine being on Mars is like, but with breathable air (nice air). The landscape around McMurdo Station is all volcanic rock. Rock and dirt everywhere. Stand in the middle of McMurdo and spin around and you’ll see about 230 degrees of rock and dirt as far as the eye can see, and about 130 degrees of extraordinary beauty looking across the Ross Ice Shelf toward the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. Right across from the station, shown in the picture, is Mount Discovery (slightly obscured in clouds, the things that look like slugs on the ice are seals). In the other direction you mostly see dirt.
The name of the game upon arrival in McMurdo is: training! Upon arrival (after an 8 hour flight in a C-130 Hercules) we went immediately into a welcoming briefing followed by a day that included a science briefing, an environmental briefing (to review the quite strict environmental restrictions here – e.g. no peeing outdoors anywhere), a tour of Crary lab (where all of the lab work at McMurdo takes place and where our office is) along with a lab policies briefing, a 3.5 hour field safety course (that included learning how to use a survival bag, set up a survival tent, and light the mini-stove in the survival bag). (The word “bag” makes it sound small and light – it is actually about a 50 bag full of stuff that is required to be taken along on any trips outside of McMurdo. Each “survival bag” supports 2 people for about 5-6 days).
The next day we got “core” training – including both standard operational procedures for a variety of “daily” tasks in McMurdo (such as throwing away anything), and training on how to use and do a safety check on trucks and vehicles (they use a unique, specially installed parking brake system here called a MIDI brake – which is not supposed to freeze whereas a normal parking brake would). We also got an “outdoor recreation” briefing, to tell you what you can and cannot do in the area (not a lot: you can walk on almost any road (all dirt roads, a small network in town and one road going to Scott Base and to Willy Field (the airport)) or you can walk on about 4 trails in the area. There are a number of “indoor recreation” centers, however, including a couple of gyms, a weight room, a movie theatre, and so on (the famous McMurdo bowling alley is now gone).
One of the hikes you can do is out to Hut Point, where the Discovery Hut is. This hut was constructed on Scott’s Discovery Expedition in 1902, and was later used by Shackleton as well. The photo shows a view from Hut Point with the Discovery Hut in the foreground and McMurdo Station behind it (this view shows some of the more "Mars-y" landscape around McMurdo Station).
We (Trish Suchy and I) have also been trained to be “Hut Guides” – meaning we are now able to get the key to and give mini-tours inside the Discovery Hut. Some of the people who hike over to visit the hut know absolutely nothing about it, and others are encyclopedic in their knowledge of it. Our job as “hut guides” is primary actually “hut security” – reminding people not to touch anything in the hut (it is left exactly as it was in 1917 when it was used for the last time – there’s even food in the pot on the stove --so you know it was men who lived and worked here – I mean: who comes to Antarctica to do dishes?). We have to report any touching incident in the hut, accidental or otherwise. The hut is filled with frozen but slowly rotting seal meat, which has a uniquely unpleasant odor (although some people say they like it). Yesterday, while marginally assisting two much more experienced hut guides, we all got to see a small group of Adelie penguins (six of them) having a stroll over the ice near the point. None of us had anything other than a cell phone camera with us at the time. But we’re scheduled to get some real penguin shots at Cape Royds soon. Until next time…