Shackleton’s whisky

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Sailing to Antarctica in tall ships, without the technology or equipment we now deem necessary to make the journey. No flights. No communication with the outside world.  No polypropylene. I’ve read fascinating accounts of explorers, their diaries, photography, and early silent movies. I feel very fortunate to work in a part of Antarctica and to be a guide to the historic huts where many of them based their journeys from.

Ross Island – zoom

There are three historic huts on Ross Island. A brief background:

1902: Discovery Hut sits on the tip of Hut Point Peninsula, a 15 minute walk from McMurdo Station. It was built in 1902 for Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904, aka the Discovery Expedition. An attempt was made by Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson to reach the South Pole, but troubles with the dogs and the mens’ health forced them to turn back at 82°S. Subsequent journeys to this region used Discovery Hut in emergencies and for temporary shelter and staging.

1908: In a promise to Scott not to use Discovery Hut,  Shackleton’s Hut was erected at Cape Royds, 19 miles from McMurdo, in early 1908. The British Antarctic Expedition (aka Nimrod Expedition) 1907-1909, was Ernest Shackleton’s second attempt at the South Pole. After trudging for weeks through snow, frostbitten, riddled with dysentery, losing ponies to crevasses, and low on food, Shackleton and his men had to turn away at 88°S (97 miles from the Pole). The expedition did, however, claim to be first at the South Magnetic Pole and first ascent of Mount Erebus. Shackleton was knighted upon his return to the UK.

1911: Terra Nova Hut, aka “Scott’s Hut,” is at Cape Evans, about 12 miles north of McMurdo. This hut, built in 1911, was the established base for the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1912 (aka Terra Nova Expedition) and Scott’s famed and ill-fated journey to the South Pole. It also housed men from lesser-known but fascinating support expedition of the 1915-1917 Ross Sea Party (a depot-laying expedition for Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition, aka Endurance).

Cape Evans is near one of our most productive fishing sites. We have not been able to stop by Cape Evans much this season, since our commute time has been doubled due to unfavorable sea ice conditions. Last week, we made a special detour to visit the hut, and pay our respects to the explorers and scientists before us. Nearing the Dellbridge Islands, on our long, slow ride out in the Pisten Bully, Brad turned to me and said, “Is that a ship over there?” Apparently the ice edge is a lot closer than we thought.  There was indeed a ship. It was not a speck on the horizon. The hull was black and the superstructure was yellow and it was definitely the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a reinforced icebreaker/polar tour ship that occasionally makes 30-day journeys to bring tourists to the Ross Sea Region.

tour ship helo at Cape Evans

As we cornered an iceberg locked in sea ice and headed for Cape Evans, we heard the thump of a helicopter. This is not unusual, our helos fly all over the place. We are used to the sound of our A-stars and Bell 212′s. This sound was different. It reverberated differently, or came from a different direction. It was noticeable. Upon seeing it, we could immediately tell it did not come from McMurdo. It flew over our heads and landed at Cape Evans, not far from where the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) temporary camp and trailers. Tourists disembarked, the helicopter took off back toward the ship and returned with another dozen tourists. We were told they were shuttling 100 passengers from the boat.

Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, Cape Evans

In our Big Reds, we greeted them, chuckled, welcomed them to Antarctica, and bolted for the hut. Under the rules of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, there are limits as to how many people can be in the hut at one time. We wanted to get in before our chances slipped away and the mob encroached. The AHT liason recognized our McMurdo parkas and hurried us in.

This is my church. It is one of my favorite places in the world. I have been to Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans dozens of times. As a hut guide, I’ve driven there in deltas and led groups of  people from McMurdo into the hut. The history is right there; it is like walking into 1912. The provisions men  meagerly survived on, the bunks they uncomfortably slept in, the laboratory, the darkroom, the stuffed emperor penguin (slightly deflated), the pony stables, the dogs, the inscriptions on the walls, the sleds, the sledging, the illnesses, the everything.  The stories. The stories and stories of human survival and loss. I wonder if things like reaching the South Pole was ever worth it. We are disconnected from honor, glory, and valor for the sake of exploration and representing the motherland. The journals and materials left in these huts are the thing that connect us to the history of this area.

Some left behind objects at Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds made it into international news recently.  Three crates of Mackinlays whisky and two crates of brandy had been stashed under the hut and abandoned after the Nimrod Expedition quickly departed in 1909. Members of the AHT discovered them under the floorboards of the hut in 2006, and slowly freed them from the ice and rock in 2010. A crate was then flown to Christchurch, New Zealand for conservation at the Canterbury Museum, then on to Scotland (its birthplace) for sampling and analysis. A limited edition commemorative run of “Shackleton’s whisky” is now available to consumers (and yes, I bought a bottle of the first run the week it became available).

The AHT had an unopened crate of Shackleton’s whisky in their trailers at Cape Evans to show the tourists. Lizzie Meek, Program Manager of the AHT, said she could feel the liquid in the crate when she lifted it. It was beautiful. I was in shock. Speechless. I may as well have met Mick Jagger. It was a moment. All I could do was let my mouth hang open and take pictures of the crate from all sides.

Antarctic Heritage Trust blog.

 Shackleton’s whisky conservation blog.

Give money to the AHT.



It’s been a very productive season. There’s been fishing, there’s been catching, there’s been cribbage bracelet winning, there’s been halloween costume contest winning, there’s been tuba playing. And lots of penguins.


We’ve been out fishing 4-5 times a week, and filling in the extra time with lab work. Here is the blog I’ve been writing and hence neglecting my own blog for, It’s about our fishing operations, the type of fish we catch, and the science we do:

The group that I am working with studies the effects of changes in temperature on Antarctic fish. These fish are very sensitive, and can only survive in a narrow range of temperatures. They are used to living in sea water that is colder than freezing, -1.86C. They die at +6 degrees C. No other animal (vertebrate), not even Antarctic seals and penguins, are this sensitive. Our group is looking at what happens to these fish on a cellular level. In addition to going out and fetching “volunteers” (read: specimens), I also coordinate logistics and assist with experiments in the lab.

The ice has been different this year, which had posed some challenges for our sea ice travel and fishing operations. The sea ice surrounding Ross Island and McMurdo Station, which used to break up and blow out to sea annually, had not done so in over a decade. At the end of last summer (Feb 2011), McMurdo had beachfront property for the first time in a decade. Due to various environmental reasons (don’t call it climate change, that’s a whole other thing), the sea ice has been dynamic, shifting, weird, and cracky. There are several places where we have to keep a close eye on the ice that we travel over, and monitor some cracks. Here is a map of our sites and how we profile cracks in the sea ice. Because of the cracks in the ice, profiling cracks, and detours we have to take, our daily commute to our sites doubled from a 1 hour drive each way, to a two hour drive.

In other recent news, I made a timelapse of our day of fishing. One of our premiere fishing spots is Inaccessible Island, about 11 miles north of McMurdo Station, (a two-hour drive) on the sea ice in a Pisten Bully. The sea ice is about 2 meters thick in this area, so we use two 1-meter flights on our jiffy drill. Once we get through the ice, it’s fish-a-minute. Best job ever.




I’m back!

Oh hi Antarctica. It’s me, Sandwich.

I came down to the ice this season for Winfly,* an early deployment that comes in August to help open the station for Mainbody*. For 6 weeks, I worked in the BFC* getting gear together and ready for science groups. The night sky has been spectacular, the nacreous clouds incredible, the temperatures colder than I ever remember (-80F windchill? really!?), and the work has been busy and fun.

Winfly has been mellow, but not boring. I’ve been working on some silly things for the craft fair, went on some walks, visited the pressure ridges*, took a nodwell* to castle rock, blew bubbles in -40F (they turn to a shredded papery substance), organized a balsa man antarctic regional event, re-created the bowling alley, chainsawed holes in the ice, watched the movie “the room” (wow. just wow), and saw a face-melting concert by colorful and talented local folk. Mcmurdo, you are an excellent village full of wonderful people.

Now is the time when Winterovers leave, and the rest of the Summer crew arrives in droves. This year is interesting, since there is a lack of bedspace in Christchurch NZ due to city-wide structural damage from the massive earthquake last february. Passenger flights come south only twice a week instead of every other day. My science team, Bravo 308, arrived a couple days ago, so I have since moved from the BFC to the lab to help things get ready for our fishing season. I’ll be here until mid-December. Looking forward to more fun and fish, but until then, trainings.

All Antarctic photos here:

twitter here:!/sandwichgirl


ok, trainings.



*Winfly – winter fly-in

*Mainbody – basically, summer. when station population is at its largest and most bustling.

*BFC – Berg Field Center. Kind of the REI of McMurdo.

*pressure ridges – building-sized towers of ice formed by the convergence of sea ice, permanent ice shelf, and the land.

*nodwell – a tracked passenger transport vehicle.

santarctica 2010

Santarctica at Mcmurdo Station.

the first santarctica, 2003

I would call this the southernmost Santacon, but we’re a good 700+ miles from the South Pole, and there could be a couple of Santas making merry or doing something or other. You might say, “ah, well, close enough,” but Polies take their global position at 90 South quite seriously. So, I respectfully and  affectionately call our little gathering “The Largest Congregation of Santas Furthest from the North Pole.” It’s a mouthful, but someday it will be a world record if I ever get around to contacting Guiness.

December 12, 2010, 2pm, dorm210 lounge. Particpants trickle in and are issued Santa and Elf suits of the finest quality felt. Some have blown-out crotches or armpits, most lack belts, the Elf boots lack soles, and many Santa beards contain goo of an unknown substance. I claimed the one Rudolph suit in the bunch, complete with blinking nose. After we departed the lounge, and before reaching our first destination, we attacked three normal humans and transformed them, willingly, into Santa. Krampus carried the bag which bore their naughty street clothes.

photo by Pauline Yu

Our first stop, of course, is the iconic carved wooden sign that bears the name of our beloved work camp. In the background we see the tangle of power lines and heavy equipment preparing the new ice pier.  Beyond that, at the tip of Hut Point Peninsula, Discovery Hut (1901) stands as a proud testament to the history of Antarctic exploration. Beyond that is the 10 foot thick sea ice that bridges us with the Continent and the majestic mountains of the Royal Society Range. I would like to think that if Robert Falcon Scott or Ernest Shackleton were standing on the verandah of the hut looking north, they would approve of our antics as fifteen of us clad in red, white, and green (of the finest quality felt, mind you) clung proudly to the sign and hip flasks and posed for photographs.

Walking back to the downtown area of McMurdo, we decided it was high time for some reindeer games such as ‘Red-Santa-Red-Santa-send-SANTA-Right-Over.’ The elves, outnumbered, of course were not the winners, but did accumulate some Santas. No injuries were sustained.

photo by Antz Powell

We walked over to Ivan the Terra Bus, parked downwind of Santa’s port-of-call, the Post Office. Ivan is a 56 passenger Foremost bus, a massive beast of a vehicle with tires nearly as tall as I. Legend has it that a song has been written about Ivan. Christine Powell had suggested, when looking at a photograph from a previous Santarctica, that Ivan’s name could easily be changed to ‘Ivan the Merry Bus.’ I found that to be a marvelous and innocently mischievous idea, and led the group over to the bus with the tools to do so.

photo by Antz Powell

We frolicked around Ivan, and wished him Season’s Greetings, and built ourselves a pyramid composed of Santas and Elves. As it turns out, the volcanic grit that makes up the substrate of McMurdo is painful on Santa’s knees and paws, especially with the added weight of more Santas and Elves.

photo by Kristin Martin

Santa decided it was time for a drink, and wandered to intrude upon the mid-afternoon serenity of Coffee House. On the way, a distraction presented itself, and the gym seemed like a good stopping point. Some checked in to the nearby library and quietly looked at magazines while others were curious about the workout regimen. The Elves assisted weightlifters in the gym with heavy weights. A Santa was benchpressed. I bounced about a bit on a yoga ball. Then, drinks.  Bottles of wine were distributed for the more refined Santas and Elves, while I opted for the candy cane taste of Peppermint Schnapps. “Ho’s” all around as we outfitted Peggy the bartendrix in Santa regalia.

photo by Antz Powell

After we left the Coffee House, a couple Santas were found sleeping in the outside cardboard bin.

photo by Antz Powell

We spread some cheer, and pulled them out. Then, on to the galley to inspect that preparations were going on for Christmas. All was well, and we moseyed on to the Chapel of the Snows, a place that I had only visited once before for a yoga class. We respectfully kneeled on the altar and said some ‘Ho-llelujahs,’ then wandered to the back of Hut 10 to crash the Environmental department’s holiday party. One, two, then ten Santas peeked in the windows. We were not invited inside, so we sat on the deck and admired the coastline.

photo by Pauline Yu

Nearby, the sound of a honking front loader at the back of Building 155 caught our attention. What could that be? The sound of the weekly beer delivery from the beverage warehouse to the store? Why yes! Santa, My Elf, and myself found it would be only proper if Santa would assist in the delivery of such a locally treasured commodity. We passed flats of Speights along the assembly line into the storeroom. Santa approves of cooperation.

photo by Pauline Yu

Krampus, My Elf, and myself found that it would be only appropriate to end the Santarctic activities with an ascent of Ob Hill, the little conical peak that watches over McMurdo. I changed into some warmer gear, and performed the Christmas miracle transformation from Rudolf to Santa. We scrambled up the rocky trail to the site of the former nuclear power plant and the remains of a warehouse in the process of demolition.

We signed our names on the blue tray that marked the halfway point, and then made the summit head on into the wind. The cross at the top was erected for the memory of Scott, Evans, Oates, Bowers, and Wilson, and their ill-fated return from the South Pole in 1912. On the cross is inscribed “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson).

photo by Pauline Yu

Photo by Pauline Yu

Thank you McMurdo, for another

fun episode of Santarctica.

Until next year,


First Dispatch

A week ago today, I was in my best friends’ 1920′s period  wedding. The following day, I got on a plane to Christchurch New Zealand. The day after that, we were issued our cold weather gear, and walked around Christchurch. Last chance for draught beer and dark nights.

The day after that, we flew to Antarctica.

In my Antarctic repertoire, I have been a dishwasher, a sandwich maker, a propane inspector and refiller, a forklift operator, and pencil-counter. This year, I am a field technician for a marine biology research team funded by the National Science Foundation. I will be coordinating field operations, organizing vehicles, equipment, and other logistics to help their project run smoothly.

As for the science:

We will be drilling holes in the sea ice about 12-14 miles north of McMurdo, and dropping in hook and lines on little noodle fishing rods. We will be here working on the sea ice and in the lab with the fishes until mid December. By that time, the sea ice around McMurdo will start to degrade and become unfit to drive on.


Our science event number is B-308. We are a team of four: Brad, our PI (Principal Investigator), is a professor of Biology at Portland State University. We met at the McMurdo coffee house in summer 2005-2006 over many games of cribbage. AK and Isaac are both his grad students. AK is an avid D&D player, a wicked country line dancer, professional carpenter, and a knower of things about invasive marine green crabs in the Pacific Northwest. Isaac has a smashing sense of humor, is recently married, has red hair, and is writing his dissertation on Heat Shock Proteins and genetics of cold-adapted fish.

As for me, I have about 30 months (cumulative) experience working in McMurdo, but never on the side of science. I am not a biologist. This is new, and I am excited to be a part of this project.

Our official team blog can be found here.

Go Science!