McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica, taken from Observation Hill. photo by Gaelen Marsden

If anyone is interested in reading up on early Antarctic exploration, see the end of this post, I’ve listed a few of the many books available.

McMurdo station sits on the shore of the Ross Sea, on Ross Island. The site is about 800 miles from the South Pole on the edge of Antarctica. This is the location where Captain Scott based the British Antarctic Expedition of 1901 to 1904. That expedition built the Discovery Hut, which still stands today, looking somewhat out of place among the nearby McMurdo station buildings. On this expedition Captain Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson attempted to reach the South Pole, and made it as far as 82 degree south, some 500 mile from the South Pole, before being turned back when they all started showing signs of scurvy. Shackleton became very ill and needed help getting back. They had marched 960 miles over three months on the Ross Ice Shelf.
A hand drawn map from that era shows the ground where McMurdo Station now sits as a “ski slope” where they practices skiing in preparation for the pole attempt. The present station dates from 1955 when it was called Naval Air Facility McMurdo. It played a major role in the 1957/58 International Geophysical Year (IGY) as a logistics hub for the continent.
My first week in Antarctica will be taken up with safety training, but between classes I’ll begin photographing McMurdo Station. Part of my proposal to the NSF is to document the station architecture and infrastructure. I’ll have my work cut out for me because it is a huge base, with something like 85 buildings, housing over 1000 people during the summer season when I will be there. It’s like a small city, employing people to fix anything that can go wrong with the station. It should be an interesting part of the project exploring all the buildings, and meeting the people whose efforts make all the science that happens in the US antarctic program possible. I will be seeking out the older buildings and technology that still lingers at the station.
So this should keep me busy around town between training, and later in between trips to the surrounding field camps in the Dry Valleys and Ross Island. It’s just as well I’ll have something productive to do around town because there may be a lot of downtime between field trips, especially when the weather is bad.
When I arrive in late October the sun will be up 24 hours a day, and it won’t set again until February 21. It does nearly touch the horizon at night, especially during the first few weeks I’m there, and should give some amazing prolonged sunset light which I will take full advantage of. And of course I will be spending several days photographing the Discovery Hut, which has stood the weather of Antarctica for 114 years, and still contains many artifacts from the early expeditions. These huts are what sparked my interest in Antarctica in the first place, so I am really looking forward to spending time making images there.


Book recommendations: Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book The Worst Journey in the World is highly recommended, it covers the entire Terra Nova expedition of 1911-1914, which is when Scott and four companions lost their lives returning from the South Pole.  But the title actually refers to a journey Cherry made in mid-winter with Wilson and Bowers to collect emperor penguin eggs at Cape Crozier. They endured weeks of sledging in pitch darkness in temperature consistently -50 to -70 degrees fahrenheit.  I’ll be photographing the stone igloo they built at Cape Crozier, in which they survived a hurricane force blizzard.

The Endurance by Caroline Alexander combines Frank Hurley’s excellent photographs with the story of Shackleton’ survival after their ship was crush and sunk by the ice. Also about the Endurance expedition is South written by Shackleton himself, and Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. More recommendations to come in future posts.


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