Chapel of the Snows


At McMurdo, most folks work long hard hours from Monday-Saturday and breakfast hour ENDS at 7:30 am. (The artists and writers miss a lot of breakfasts…). On Sunday, most offices are closed, there are no flights and no breakfast, everyone washes their socks and long underwear, and folks take hikes or ski on the official recreational routes.

Instead of breakfast, there is BRUNCH, noonish, and everyone attends – a gathering with great food (fresh fruit, mild NZ blue cheese, eggs to order etc). A very civilized ritual!

Speaking of ritual: someone very thoughtfully invited me to “mass” last night! —- “Where two or three are gathered in my Name…” I wondered? —- but no, mass turns out to be the nickname for the regular gathering of friends, en mass, socializing in a dorm lounge. I actually planned to buy a bottle of wine and attend, but then my Saturday night was consumed by more pressing matters (a geology lesson on the unique terrain of the Fosdick Mountains!). A few snapshots of Christine Siddoway’s meeting with her S.T.A.M.P. team are posted online now (STAMP = Structure Tectonics and Metamorphic Petrology]. View Images: [Fosdick Mountains meeting (C. Sidddoway and team) -> ]


Does gravity affects us a bit differently in Antarctica? I know the earth has a slight bulge at the equator, compared to the poles, so perhaps we feel the pull of the mantle more strongly here. According to Siddoway, there is a giant “mantle plume” located beneath us, somewhere beneath here (Ross Island and the Erebus volcano) and Marie Byrd Land / West Antarctic Ice Sheet (which also has a great deal of volcanic activity). Mantle plume or not, I feel somehow more subject to laws of gravity here, or maybe all the heady conversations are just weighing heavily upon me.

Tonight, for example, I struck up a friendly “light” chat with a fellow who I’ve seen sitting with his laptop at the common table outside my office. Says he’s sitting out there because he didn’t get assigned an office space, due to the fact that his group is supposed to be in the field, heading out to drill into Lake Vida soon. I’d heard about the Lake Vida coring project, so I asked him for a few more details. He tells me that he works with a drilling component, which turns out to be a space-age “ice gopher” drill that cuts through ice DRY, using only SONIC WAVES to bounce the drill against the ice, and then pressurized AIR to blow the ice chips out of the hole — this means that no liquid drilling medium will be used (whereas the Russions used tons of kerosene to drill down towards subglacial Lake Vostok…. ugh). Cool, I think. So is this fellow a drilling expert? No. An equipment technician? No. An academic glaciologist? Nope. He’s a NASA physicist and engineer ,and the ice gopher drill he’s describing is being developed for use in the Space Program, for ice/sediment core work on other planets!

Surrounded on all sides by intelligent curious modest people. Geesh. I’m loving this place.


Here on the Ice, a large number of folks refer to the “spirit of the place” or the “spiritual” elements/experience/effects of being in Antarctica. A much smaller percentage choose to worship together in a congregation-sharing-communion sense. For those who are seeking a place to worship, there can’t be a more lovely location than McMurdo’s non-denominational “Chapel of the Snows,” just downhill from my dorm, overlooking the harbor (sea-ice runway). Chapel of the Snows holds both Catholic and Protestant services, but all faiths are welcomed. Even poetic Gnostics, it seems.

Last week I had dinner with Chaplain William Ziegler (and the outgoing Catholic priest from New Zealand) and I asked some questions about the spiritual community life of McMurdo. Ziegler invited me to attend chapel, which I did last Sunday (ahem, after I slept through the earlier Catholic mass). Afterwards, he gratiously opened a locked display case and handed me the Erebus Chalice – and invited me to take pictures inside the chapel. Here is a brief blurb on the chalice:

In 1841, Sir James Clark Ross, aboard the HMS Erebus, led an expedition to what is now Ross Sea. On board the ship was Lieutenant Edward Joseph Bird, who carried a silver and gilt William IV style communion chalice. Bird attained the rank of admiral, and when be died the chalice was passed through his family as an heirloom. In 1987 the Bird family, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1911 expedition to the South Pole, had the chalice engraved and dedicated, and offered it for use at the Chapel of the Snows. The chalice was first used in services in the chapel on Christmas Day, 1987. The chalice is housed and displayed during the austral winter at the Christ Church Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the beginning of the Antarctic summer the chalice is presented in a ceremony to the McMurdo chaplain, for transport back to the Chapel of the Snows. (Source: Keith Dreher)

View Images: [Chapel of the Snows-> ]
(Erebus Chalice, Stained Glass Window looking out onto the ice of McMurdo Sound and Royal Society Mountains, 65 miles distant).


Thus I found myself singing Amazing Grace in Antarctica, at the Chapel of the Snows.

“Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come
’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Surreal footnote: the song sheets were copied from a missionary hymnal; below the traditional score and verses are the phonetic transcriptions of the hymn into Cherokee, Kiowa, Creek, Choctaw and Navajo….

Image: Simulated Search-&-Rescue in White-Out Conditions. Also known as “grace will lead me home,” “the blind leading the blind” & “poet with a bucket on her head” (I’m in the bucket on the far left).

One thought on “Chapel of the Snows

  1. Hello, My name is Matthew Nelson. I wintered in McMurdo in 1996, and spent almost every Sunday morning in the Chapel of the Snows. This year I took a float plane trip to Franklin Lake, north of the Arctic Circle. Sir Franklin had used the ships Erebus and Terror in his search for the Northwest Passage. I am in the process of writing a story (not for publication, at least at this time)and I wanted to make the ship connection between the polar regions. I remembered the “Erebus Chalice” and did a web search. Your web page (which is very well done) came up. I would like to have your permission to use your photos of it. Naturally, I will give you photo credit. After I finish the story, if you want, I can mail it to you (although the section on the ships will be small), as well as my Winter-over journal. It looks like you are still on the ice, so it may be better to wait until you return. If you want these stories, please send me your mailing address.

    Thanks a lot
    Matt Nelson


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