Ice Morale

McMurdo is a fantastic hive with scientists flying around gathering their elusive field honey – while the worker-bees buzz around within the McMurdo honeycomb. Aside from various short hikes I’ve described (to Cape Armitage, Castle Rock, Observation Hill, a hike up the local ridges), the locals are a “captive audience.”

One of the saddest facts of life in McMurdo is that the hardest working residents — cooks, dining assistants, general assistants, janitors, heavy shop mechanics, carpenters, utilities engineers, office workers, machinery operators, night shift workers, and all the others who make the place tick — don’t get to see very much of Antarctica at all. Sometimes, as I am talking with someone about what I’ve been up to, I feel damn self-conscious. They’ve been down in Antarctica, working for several years in a row, and maybe they haven’t seen any of the wondrous things that I’ve been privileged to see in just the past month! Still, folks return season after season to refuel vehicles and repair generators — in love, anyhow, with a place they only experience or glimpse the edge of. It’s as if they have fallen in love with a stranger, ANTARCTICA: love-at-first-sight, but the feelings must be taken on faith, despite a gaping lack of knowledge about the other person.

Raytheon’s official solution? “Morale trips.” Names are selected from a lotto-pool, and given opportunities to go somewhere, anywhere — generally somewhere readily accessible in a tracked vehicle, such as onto the sea ice. This past weekend, there was a trip in a Delta (a large vehicle) which drove a couple miles out onto the ice, stopped, and let folks look around and snap pictures, and then it came back in. This was called the “Ride to Nowhere.”

As a Raytheon employee in McMurdo, your chance at a morale trip might happen once a season. When I went out with the Petzels to their fish-research hut at Cape Evans last week, there were several “morale trippers” riding with us. It was interesting to watch them — they were remarkably silent, looking out the windows, soaking it all in: the steaming visage of Mount Erebus, the sea ice road cutting a path through sharp volcanic islands, Barne Glacier looming blue along the cape, like a fossilized ice-scarf. On the way back, we stopped for about 10 minutes of photos along the pressure ridges. Here, the sea ice is hammered into swells, splitting open under pressure, forming dynamic shapes with translucent blue walls, pinnacles, spires, grottoes and pyramids. Along the Erebus Ice Tongue, Weddell seals use the open water cracks to surface, birthing pups and sunning themselves. To be honest, I was mostly enthralled by the shattered slabs of the pressure ridges — but the addition of cow-sized seals and afterbirth-spotted ice gave this surreal terrain a human, familiar, farm-girl touch.

Photos: Seals in Pressure Ridges along Erebus Ice Tongue

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