An amazing and painful snowmobile trip out to Cape Evans yesterday, with 20-40 knot winds blowing down the slopes of Erebus turning our route into occasional near white out conditions. The temperature with wind chill was -36 F. Add to that the wind chill of driving at 40 kph. Ok. Need I say more? It was a very uncomfortable ride, but Mike, Ralph and I were committed and we suffered through the 1+ hr ride to get to the Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans. Visually it was stunning, the sun lit the snow to a golden color and the drift tore down 12,000 foot Erebus and across the sea ice creating small tornadoes and dense clouds of snow that would occasionally blot out all but the nearest one or two flagged poles marking the route. At times the blown snow stayed at ground level, blowing hard from right to left across our route, and it was so thick that I couldn’t see the ground, rather it felt like I was crossing a fast flowing river of snow. It was disorienting, and if not for the flagged poles it would be easy to loose direction. We stopped frequently to check on each other, adding hand warmers to our gloves to keep fingers from freezing, and covering any exposed skin on our faces. I shot a few photographs on the way over, but because of the low temperatures my camera batteries died within 5 minutes of putting them in the camera.
We arrived at Cape Evans and realized that the route had not been flagged up to the shore, but stopped a 100 yards off shore. We parked the sleds there, grabbed our gear bags, and looked for a route onto the shore across the broken ice. It quickly became obvious that there were many cracks in the ice where the fast ice met the sea ice. There is a 3 foot tide here so that area sees a lot of movement. Eventually after several attempts, we followed the track the Delta used a day or two ago, and crossed the tidal cracks on its tracks. And then we were there.
The Hut is an amazing place, full of artifacts from Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition. This is the expedition where Scott and four companions – Wilson, Bowers, Oats and Evans, the Southern Party – reached the South Pole, but all died on the return trip on the Ross Ice Shelf after walking something like 1400 miles. The wind at the hut was just as strong as it had been on the trip over, and it was just as cold, so we dropped our gear bags, fumbled for the key to the hut, and went inside. I was amazed when I walked into the hut, I expected some things to be left from the expedition, but the place is fully stocked, and looks like it could receive the Southern Party at any minute. I quickly went to work taking photographs, and the next 2 hours disappeared in what seemed like five minutes.
We packed up and started on the return trip. But nothing happens quickly here, the packing up process in those temperatures, starting the snow mobiles, getting clothing sorted for the ride are made really difficult and slow because of the extreme conditions and high winds. The drive back was even worse than the drive out because conditions had worsened during the day, cloud cover had moved in, and the light was flat, meaning I could not see surface features until I was driving over them. It was like driving the snowmobile into a white void, no separation between ground and sky. There is no way this trip could be done without the flagged route that is regularly maintained by the hard working people here at McMurdo.