In the morning, a whiteout howled across McMurdo Station, Antarctica with 100 mile per hour winds and minus 60-degree temperatures. I had been confined to my barracks for two days as a 'Condition One' storm worked its way over the icepack before me.
By late evening, a high pressure center turned the weather placid with a warming trend taking the temperature to a "balmy' minus 20-degree temperature that kept most people inside. A report came over the base radio that a few Emperor penguins were waddling toward the open sea near the ice runway. Not wanting to miss a chance to see those majestic birds, I bundled into my cold weather gear--insulated boots, heavy mittens, five Thermax layers, fleece, three hats, face protection, along with ski goggles--and headed out the door to ride my bicycle over the ice runway.
Yes, there were bicycles at the scientific station for me to ride. I HAD to see those birds no matter what the cold. I jumped on my bike looking like an over stuffed bear with all my cold weather gear on. My breath vaporized as I rode toward the ice-covered ocean. My lungs burned with each inhalation of polar cold. About a mile around the cove, the setting sun glinted off the roof of
the great British polar explorer, Robert
Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut.
He had died 90 years ago on his last attempt to reach the South Pole. The Hut had stood on the point of McMurdo Sound since 1902. It gave mute testimony to the courage those men displayed in their polar adventures. This was a cold, miserable place. Upon reaching the South Pole in second place behind Admundsen, the crafty dog sledder explorer from Norway, Scott cried out, "Oh God, this is an awful place."
I rode along a path that led toward the ice pack in the sound. From there, a plowed road headed eight miles out to the makeshift runway for the air port out in the middle of McMurdo Sound. That's right, the ice was 10 feet thick and could hold the weight of massive C-140 Starlifters with four jet engines.
I rode along carefully on the packed snow on the smooth ice. On both sides of the "ice road' was the pack-ice. It's hard to describe pack-ice, but it's jumbled-broken ice chards being heaved and smashed into multiple shapes-triangles, domes, squares, tubulars, and wedges--like an Erector Set gone crazy. However, near the shore, it was reasonably smooth with a thin veneer of snow from the blizzard.
Above me, a gold/purple sky glowed brazenly in its final glory into the crevasses of the Royal Society Range across the sound. For once, a rare quiet softened the bitter edge of the crystal white desert before me. One of the glaciers, more than ten miles across at its terminus radiated liquid gold from the setting sun. Riding along, I nearly tipped over, but soon, I pulled through and gained the edge of the ice. Even with polar weather gear protecting my body, the numbing cold crept through the air, as if it were trying to find a way into my being.