On Friday, back in our harbour in the fast ice between Capes Royds and Evans on Ross Island, we realised we are the most southerly ship on the planet. To get here this early in the season we’ve had to crunch our way through 900 miles of pack ice.
The previous day, we landed on a beach at Cape Bird at the nortwest end of Ross Island. Teperatures were just below freezing, but a strong southerly wind took the apparent temperature to about -10C.
The rocks here were different to those at Capes Royds and Evans – black lavas, probably vesicular basalts, but without the feldspar phenocrysts, erupted from Mount Bird. Amongst the black boulders were erratics of grey and red granites and the occasional block of gneiss.
Friday was spent in a whiteout, with a windchill of -40 (both Celsius and Fahrenheit, it’s the magic point where the two scales meet). So it was a day for lectures, sorting photos, drinking coffee and catching up with laundry. The wind howled through my cabin as I wrote this, mainly because the window was wide open. My room mate was sitting on his bunk with the snow blowing in behind him. Never share with an Alaskan.
In the evening the cloud thinned for just long enough to give us a glimpse of a partial solar eclipse. By saturday morning the blizzard had stopped, but the wind was still reaching over 40 knots, so we couldn’t fly. We passed the time watching Erebus slowly clear and photographing snow blowing across the ice.
Just as we were giving up, and backing out of our slot in the ice, the captain noticed the funnel exhaust – the wind had dropped to 34 knots, and we could fly. Within half an hour we were in the air.
A 20 minute flight took us to our furthest south, Hut Point, at 770 o 50 ‘ south. We landed on the fast ice next to Scott’s Discovery hut, used during his first expedition in 1902 – 4. The hut was also used by all the Heroic Age expeditions: Shackleton’s Nimrod, Scott’s Terra Nova, and the Ross Sea Party of Shackleton’s 1914 – 16 Imperial Transantarctic Expedition. The Ross Sea Party left in a hurry. Their last meal was still in the pan.
The remote setting of Scott’s hut is somewhat diminished by the presence, immediately next door, of the US McMurdo Station, the largest research base in Antarctica. We had hoped to visit the station, but they had had a Thanksgiving dinner the previous night which, according to the locals, continued until lunchtime the next day.
The landscape around McMurdo and Hut Point is a series of volcanic cones and black vesicular lavas. The view from some of these hills, and from Hut Point, was stunning. The panorama extended from White Island and Black Island to the south, Minna Bluff, and the stratovolcanic cone of Mount Discovery, with Mount Morning beyond, the Koettlitz Glacier and mountains of the Royal Society range which rise to over 4,000 metres, formed of Devonian-Jurassic Beacon Superground sediments. To the north of these was the Ferrar Glacier and the peaks around the Dry Valleys. Magnificent.
Then we were on our way around the northern end of Ross Island, to see if the sea ice will let us get around to the Ross Ice Shelf.