Cracking Up

Finally found time to enjoy the tradition of a Sunday hike along the Cape Armitage Loop trail, which arcs out onto the sea ice of McMurdo Sound, and loops around to the south, crossing some gentle pressure ridges and eventually leading to the Scott Base on the other side of the Erebus Peninsula. Because the flagged route runs out on the sea ice, one must have completed a “field training course or be accompanied by someone who has.” Travelers must also “check out” at the local Firehouse, travel in pairs, and take a radio (the Firehouse checks out radios and tracks departures of all recreational travelers; if someone fails to check back in at the time specified, alarms start going off and Search and Rescue team is soon called out). Having fun in Antarctica requires serious responsibility.

“Cape Armitage is located at 77 51S and 166 40E. This cape forms the South end of Hut Point Peninsula and the southernmost point on Ross Island. The Cape was discovered by the BrNAE (British National Antarctic Expedition), 1901-04, under Robert F. Scott, and named by him for Lt. (later Captain) Albert B. Armitage, second in command and navigator on the Discovery. Solitude, detachment from the hustle and bustle of McMurdo, and large vistas of the Trans-Antarctics, White Island, Black Island, and the backside of Observation Hill await.”

Historically, Cape Armitage ice appears in several tense scenes in The Worst Journey in the World including the one where ponies are lost on ice floes, with toothy Orcas bobbing up and down in leads of open water. A good reminder that the ice changes drastically during the course of the year!

View Image: Photo of Cape Armitage pressure ridge (by Patrick J. Boyle)

The Armitage trail is only 5 miles long, but any slog can feel epic when a strong head-wind is blowing in your face. The sun was shining throughout our walk, but the wind created thin layers of clouds and whisps of white-out for those walking on the ice. It was also interesting to watch the amazing rate at which the snow was drifting: my friend Bill pressed his boot into a fresh white drift to make a footprint. Then we bent over and watched it: the boot mark was mostly scoured away after 15 seconds, and soon it was entirely erased.

View Image: Braced against the wind (flag at attention)

One of the rewards of the windy hike: stopping to buy Kiwi postcards and other non-essentials at Scott Base store (run by New Zealand’s Antarctic Program), then catching the Sunday shuttle-van back to McMurdo. Hikers can also walk back to McMurdo, but the road between McMurdo is a steep grade, covered in the sort of volcanic shards that chew holes in soft mukluks.

Note: perhaps I experienced the Armitage hike just in time… according to the McMurdo Firehouse, the Armitage Loop trail will soon be closing for summer due to increasingly unstable sea ice conditions. Hmm. The open sea is still 40 miles away from us, but pressure ridges are changing dramatically, new cracks are being monitored, and sea-water is upwelling onto the surface of the ice in a few spots.

I can’t help thinking that we’ve become amazingly risk-adverse over the last century. Forty miles of ice between us, and the sea? That’s not the sort of “condition” the old polar explorers would have worried about. According to journals, they thought nothing of jumping around between actively drifting ice floes with ponies and sleds of vital gear as killer whales patrolled the waters all around…. Not that I want to relive any of this, mind you. Just think it’s interesting.


Most of McMurdo turned out to watch a screening of MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. A meta-experience if I’ve ever had one. Even better than watching it this summer in Minneapolis, with my pal Stuart Klipper, during a heat-wave. I found it indescribably powerful, to be watching a gorgeous movie about Antarctica, while in Antarctica. Looking around the galley, I saw almost everyone was deeply engrossed in the film. During the more suspenseful moments (like penguin parents passing the egg back and forth between their feet), the crowd visibly leaned forward. You could have heard a pin drop during several key scenes. Given time, I suspect that it could become a cult classic, like the Sound of Music or Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps one day, McMurdo residents will memorize all of Morgan Freeman’s lines, and recite them together as the movie plays? Luckily, not everyone was equally impressed. I heard that one woman summed up the plot something like this: “they jus’ maatchh’d around — fo three friggen hours.” That’s a good thing (as Martha would say). If everyone says they like something uniformly, myself included, I get suspicious….

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