Tour of the Ross Ice

The first thing I noticed after getting off the plane from Christchurch to Antarctica was the sun. It is bright here. The sun reflects off of the ice and snow, and the sun is always up in the summer. After my eyes adjusted, however, the second thing I noticed was the bright red Kress waiting to take me from the Pegasus airstrip to McMurdo Station, or MacTown as they call it down here.

A Kress is a beast of a bus, capable of hauling dozens of people over the sea ice and slippery steep hills between the large runway where the C17s land and McMurdo Station. When Harm and I arrived on the C17, our first inclination was to stare out the windows while more experienced Antarcticans described the lay of the land to us. The seats on the Kress bounced up and down over the ever changing ice roads, as we continuously scraped away the fogged up windows.


Going from Pegasus, you get a complete sense of the terrain. One of the first things you see is Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano. Most days a white plume emanates from the lava lake at the summit that allows hot gasses to escape, thereby keeping the lava stable. It occasionally burps out lava bombs that solidify into an impressively light and very rare crystal.

Next up is the Long Duration Balloon Facility, where I work everyday. Two enormous hangars and one large heated tent allow us scientists to construct and test our payloads. These are the tallest buildings in Antarctica, and with good reason. Our experiment is over 20ft tall!


Continuing on you drive by Willy Field, where most smaller, fixed-wing planes embark on trips to field camps in and around the continent. I rode in a Bassler last week to get to Siple Dome (more on this to come). It's a beautiful orange plane, one that I'd imagine Indiana Jones flying in. About twice as big as its cousin, the Twin Otter, the Bassler lands on retractable skis. Larger cargo planes, LC-130s, also live at Willie.



At this point the road makes a 90 degree turn, and head straight towards Castle Rock and the pressure ridges that form where the sea ice buts up against the ice shelf. Cracks in the ice give way enormous towering sheets of sea ice. This is a prime place for Weddell seal sightings, as they climb up through the cracks in the ice.


The pressure ridges are right at the base of Scott Base, the Kiwi Base. It's such a charming base. All of the buildings are painted a lovely shade of green, and you can often spot Kiwi's windsurfing on the Ross Ice Shelf. Americans are permitted on the Kiwi base as guests of th New Zealand government every Thursday ("America Night!"), and I often get the sense that the Kiwi's are having loads of fun.


At this point, we transition from the driving on ice to driving on the island that hosts Scott Base and McMurdo Station, the American station. The Kress kicks into low gear, and one could undoubtedly walk faster as it chugs up the hill. Slowly, Shuttle Bob weaves the Kress around Observation Hill and you arrive in McMurdo.