I fired up my passenger Delta, a specialty Navy vehicle, allowing the diesel engine time to heat as I ran home to gather all my gear for the evening, in preparation of an Antarctic style adventure. I never leave home without the essentials loaded in my super awesome Osprey backpack. Inside you will find a Canon 5D, extra layers, a North Face wind stopper jacket, a buff, a hat, leather work gloves, mittens, goggles, a snack or two, hand and toe-warmers, lip-gloss and an iPod with playlists ranging from gangster rap to Alanis Morissette, a girls basic necessities for life and work as a shuttle driver in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
I needed some extra gear for tonight’s journey; I added a balaclava (full face coverage), an additional fleece hat, extra long johns and a headlamp to my backpack. Normally a headlamp is not necessary in the austral summer months of October thru February in the Antarctic, due to the twenty-four hours of daylight. However, tonight we will be inside the historic hut occupied by Sir Robert Falcon Scott and his team on an epic journey to be the first men to reach the geographic South Pole. It’s dark in the hut, with daylight filtering through small windows. A headlamp is helpful to see the treasures, trinkets, and pieces of history left behind by the Terra Nova Expedition, named after the ship. Scott and his team combined of scientists, zoologists, geologists, crew, and explorers departed Britain and set sail for the icy waters at the bottom of the Earth on a quest of science and exploration in 1910.
I don’t want to be late; I’m the one driving the Delta on the Recreation Trip to Cape Evans tonight. Knowing that my group was gathering for departure I dressed quickly. I pulled my pink, fuzzy, fleece lined, super warm insulated socks up to my knees. Next, my bright and striped expedition weight Patagonia base layers for the top and bottom, and black insulated ski pants. I pulled another long sleeve layer over my head, then topped it all off with a thick, zipped, turquoise hoody, lime green down vest and black Patagonia down sweater with a hood, my favorite red hat and my super rad Baffin knee-high extreme weather boots.
My pack is ready, I am dressed, I just need to ensure that my ECW gear bag is fully loaded and get out of my room and outside before I overheat. Extreme Cold Weather gear is issued to every participant of the United States Antarctic Program and mandated it be with you at all times when leaving base. Often ECW gear is carried rather than worn in a large orange duffle bag. Quilted bib Carhartt overalls, insulated bunny boots, a fleece hat, balaclava, gloves, goggles and a giant goose-down jacket lovingly referred to as “big red” are squished into my bag, along with extra socks, yak tracks, an emergency snack stash and a pee bottle. It’s against the Environmental department regulations to make yellow snow in Antarctica. The ladies of McMurdo may even be found gathering over a glass of whiskey, discussing tips and tricks of how to pee in a bottle. The true Antarctic woman can pee in a bottle while operating a tractor.
I zip my fully loaded ECW bag, sling it over my shoulder and I’m ready. Wearing ECW gear feels like you are in a sleeping bag, allowing movement to flow about as gracefully as a seal on ice.
I picked up my ice axe: a required piece of equipment, used to probe for cracks in the sea ice. I don’t tell very many people this, but it kind of makes me feel like a badass, guiding trips requiring me to carry an ice axe. Honestly, I’m not a ballerina, and I’m surprised I’ve never tripped myself with my ax, crashing onto the ice, breaking my camera, and poking my eye out. Wonders never cease.
Fifteen minutes later, I meet my group full of smiling, excited faces, all ready to get out of town and experience the Antarctic. I check that everyone has their ECW gear and is dressed properly for a journey into the elements of the harshest continent on Earth. Mother Nature can surprise you with a white out blizzard and leave you searching for your hand in front of your face.
I help my passengers climb the ladder into the Delta. Riding in a Delta is an adventure in itself, hell; just climbing into a Delta in a pair of bunny boots is an adventure. With six-foot round balloon tires, in perfect road conditions and a driver that can really push the wooden wedge attached to the gas pedal with bailing wire to the metal can reach maximum speeds of about twenty-two miles per hour. With four gears, minimal braking power, and few functioning gauges, she’s one of the meanest machines in town. The passenger cabin is a rustic red metal box with two bench seats facing each other holding about ten people a bench, with awkwardly high windows that frost up and freeze over. ECW bags fill the aisle making fantastic footrests. Conversation is lively in the back of a Delta with the sound of laughter rising over the roar of the engine, vibrating as it rolls down the ice road, crushing terrains of ice, snow and volcanic rock, its kind-of like Disney’s Mr. Toads wild ride.
I climb into the driver’s seat, cinch down my seat belt, plug in some tunes and turn the Delta into a disco dance party. The thirty kilometer drive to Cape Evans will take up to two hours depending on road conditions via a route less traveled, marked by flags on a road constructed yearly of compacted sea-ice.
Happiness levels cranked up to high, we reach the end of the road. The wind is calm and the icy air is almost refreshing, temperatures don’t feel far below zero, the night sunlight glowing in the sky, lighting up the ice like a stain glass window. The majestic Royal Society Mountain Range rises out of the ice to the south with massive peaks and dramatic glaciers filling the landscape. We walk the final mile to the hut and it is quite possibly the most insanely stunning mile on Earth.
We glide and slide on frozen sea ice fused with cracks and seams like veins extending in all directions South. Icebergs, radiating colors of turquoise that a Crayola box is yet to see. Icicles bigger than me drip with a slightly salty taste from the sea; frozen walls of fresh water ice feel smooth as butter, adrenaline-pumping beauty of pure wild nature surrounds me. Seals sprinkled the flag line barely lifting their heads as we wandered by. A view of the hut in the shadows of Mt Erebus, the southern most volcano on Earth is a view that demands attention. Giddy with amazement, we carefully navigate toward the hut, jumping over larger cracks in the ice as we moved closer to shore. Standing on the doorstep of history, in the foreground of a snow-covered volcano, smoke pluming, lives a museum that is frozen in time.
After seven months at sea, the Terra Nova expedition anchored to the ice off Ross Island, and prepared for the real work of the expedition to begin. The wooden hut was constructed in two weeks. It housed twenty-five men for nearly two years. It was insulated with quilted seaweed, lined with matchboard and lit with acetylene gas, providing protection from the bitter subzero temperatures and relentless winds of the Antarctic.
“Great God! This is an awful place.” Said Scott in the winter of 1912.
Just like the resident workers and scientists of McMurdo today, the men entertained themselves by reading books, writing in diaries, playing music, games and engaging in good old- fashioned conversation. There is no cell phone service in Antarctica. Many traditions of the Terra Nova crew are still carried out today. McMurdo celebrates the mid-winter dinner on June twenty-first with a feast of food. Down the road, our friends at the New Zealand base host the Miss Ross Island contest, the men dress up to see who can be the prettiest woman on the Island. A night that is sure to entertain. Humor, being the element of grace in almost all situations.
As the first winter melted into summer and daylight returned Scott set out on his polar journey. The first man at the geographic South Pole was not Scott, but a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen. Today the United States Antarctica Program operates a science station at the pole year round which is named after the polar explorers, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Back at Cape Evans, Scott’s remaining men nervously waited, having no way of knowing if their comrades were surviving in the elements. A geologist wrote in his diary “It seems useless to hope any longer but whilst I cannot give up yet, we must face the fact that we have lost five of our strongest men,”
After enduring another winter at the hut, a search party set out to find their friends. After suffering of frostbite and starvation, Scott and his men were found dead in their tent eleven miles from home. Their bodies still rest there today under a cairn of snow and a cross-made of skis.
“Had we lived, I should have a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.” Robert Falcon Scott, 1912.
With my headlamp on, I brush the snow off my boots and enter the time capsule. Standing in the kitchen, I feel like a guest in a home. Shelves of spices, salts, vinegars, oils, jams and Heinz ketchup line the kitchen wall. Rusted blue and white vintage camp style tin cups hang from hooks, plates stacked on counters, pots on the stove, and a royal blue hand-painted porcelain vase with an Asian flare rests in the center of the kitchen table. Boxes are stacked floor to ceiling of flour, wheat meal, tins of meat paste and ham loaf. Workstations full of colorful glass science vials, potions, maps, and books are scattered among the hut. Storage areas filled with ropes, tools, shovels, and even two bicycles.
The men’s personal spaces captured my heart with newspaper cutouts and ink drawings of cats and dogs taped to the ends of the bunks, clothes lines strewn about with rags of what used to be wool socks and shirts protecting from the chill. What most captivated me though was the smile of a woman in a photograph printed on silver, old, stained and scratched, with a weathered turquoise oval frame. I wondered who she was and why her photograph was there. I was certain she was someone of importance, someone one of the men loved. Later, I found out the woman in the photograph was the Mother of Captain Scott.
“But we have been to the Pole and we shall die like gentlemen. I regret only for the women we leave behind.” Robert Falcon Scott.
Our shoes like ice skates we smoothly move through the field of icebergs and back to our mighty Delta delighted by the magical scenery of the Antarctic. The midnight sun is now low in the sky lighting the ice like a polished mirror. The colors of the ice with the contrast of the sky were saturated in my mind. We boarded our Delta, the engine sounding like an angry kitten, topping out at speeds of twelve miles an hour on the turbulent ride back to McMurdo.
Ready to gear up and go to Cape Evans? I’m here to tell you that it’s not impossible, but it’s much easier if you’re James Cameron, David Attenborough, or perhaps the President. If not, you can become a participant of the United States Antarctic Program. To apply for a job at McMurdo Station, Antarctica navigate the interwebs to PAE.com. Departure for the main summer season is October, although the hiring process is completed as early as March or April giving the participants time to fill out the stack of paper work as tall as the average size adult. Once you arrive at McMurdo keep an eye on the bulletin board outside the recreation office, When trips to Cape Evans are announced write your name on the little piece of scratch paper provided, place it in the hat, cross your fingers and hope your name is picked before the road melts. Wa-la, you’re on your way to Cape Evans.