Scott Base and the Ice Runway

As I wrote earlier, after my tour of the Discovery Hut, I had waddled back to town as quickly as I could in my ECW-issued windproof overalls and Big Red (as we affectionately refer to our parkas), stripped down (which takes some time), put on civilized clothes, and caught the 2000 shuttle to Scott Base with three minutes to spare. I knew I was going to miss the Scott Base store’s open hours but I didn’t want a super late night so I figured if I got there by 2015 and had one drink, I’d still be home by a decent hour and it’d be a nice excursion. Thank goodness the weather was beautiful because the view on the ride there was breathtaking. And best of all, I now knew the road to take to walk there (it’s pretty obvious but still, I didn’t want to end up wandering into one of the environmentally protected areas by accident and getting sent home).

The road to Scott Base is known as the Willy Field Road (because it ends at the small Williams Field runway on the Ross Ice Shelf) and passes between Crater Hill and Observation Hill. As you clear these landmarks, it looks a bit like you’re going to drive off a cliff but then you swing around to the left and get a gorgeous view of Erebus, which is always a pretty awe-inspiring sight but particularly as this was my first proper look at our “hot-headed” neighbor. Away down the hill to our right is the tiny installation of Kiwis, known as Scott Base.

As you can see, Scott Base really is much cuter than McMurdo with it’s colour-coordinated buildings kept in excellent condition – but it’s also much smaller and so is probably easier to maintain. A lot of people have asked me if being here is like being on a space station. At McMurdo, it’s more like being at M*A*S*H 4077th but at Scott, where all the buildings are connected, it is very reminiscent of being on a space station. Their bar is quaint and well-lit, particularly as they have a large window that looks out over the ice. Drinks – well, a whiskey on the rocks anyway – costs NZD 4 although they take dollars which puts it at about USD 3.25. So I had a good time talking with some familiar faces I had seen around station but never really had time to talk with – Justin, one of the firefighters who could be Justin Nelson’s doppelganger (but might, might have him beat in the height department) and a Midrat I had been seeing come in to eat every night (and who hates parsley). After two drinks, I decided to grab the shuttle back….along with about 15 other people. The shuttle van only seats 11. We all piled in anyway and I wound up half sitting on a stranger with said Midrat on my lap, still holding his beer. The stranger turned out to be a nice young man from Donegal and we had a lovely chat about Ulster’s six or nine counties, depending on how you want to count them, to occupy the 10 minute ride back to Town. Once we clambered out of the van, I turned down invites for further drinks at our local bars and went home for some quiet time, including the luxury of shaving my legs.

And then yes, the following day, despite a late rising, I made good on my decision to hike out to the Ice Runway. I couldn’t have picked better weather for it but I may have over-dressed a little bit – I probably didn’t need my Irish fisherman’s sweater or the expedition-weight long underwear, just based on the amount I was sweating on the way out AND the way back. But the sun was shining (hence the slight sunburn) and it was great exercise.

The road ahead

Science teams heading out on their mounts

Mt Erebus

Scott Base from the Ice Runway

Quite frankly, the whole experience is just a bit surreal to think about. You see, the Ice Runway – and the road leading out to it – is set up at the beginning of every summer season on what is actually frozen sea ice, NOT the Ross Ice Shelf or McMurdo Ice Shelf.

An ice shelf is permanent freshwater ice formed from glacier runoff and it is hundreds of meters thick. Sea ice, on the other hand is frozen sea water that floats on top of the ocean. Sea ice is also usually seasonal, breaking up in the warmer months and reforming in the winter. Sometimes you can have multi-year sea ice, which doesn’t melt for several years but it never gets as thick as the ice shelf; generally it runs about 1 ½ to 2 meters thick. This means that the Ice Runway is only seasonally operational and as temperatures warm up, the ice will melt completely and what was our runway is now just open water. So at some point in November or December, all air traffic is transitioned to one of two other airfields. Pegasus Runway, which is located on the Ross Ice Shelf, or Williams Field, which is located on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

Needless to say, the condition of the sea ice is monitored very carefully. Temperature samples are taken because the colder the ice, the stronger it is. Thickness is measured by using drills and measuring tape because obviously the thicker it is, the stronger it is, and because it really is just sea ice sitting on top of water, the deflection of the ice during landing is measured – this is how much the weight of the aircraft forces the ice downwards into the water (like when you push on an ice cube in your glass). Currently, the deflection for a C-17 (which is currently the largest plane landing out there) is 3-4 inches. The maximum deflection allowed before we have to move the runway is 8 inches. I have heard stories that C-5s have landed on the Ice Runway in the past, but they unload and take off again in about 5 minutes because they really might go through the ice. Either way, when you realize that the route you’re walking on – indeed, where your giant airplane landed – isn’t going to exist in a matter of weeks, it kind of blows your mind. Especially when you’re looking at the vastness of ice in front of you.

Map of Hut Point peninsula with sea ice

Satellite image of Hut Point peninsula after the sea ice melts

Once I got to the runway, I took a tour around the buildings and looked at the planes.

LC-130s waiting to go to the Pole

Baslers waiting to go to one of our field camps

Close-up of the Basler, a modified DC-3 out of Canada.

Justin had mentioned he’d be out at the fire station at the Runway that day but none of the buildings were labeled so I had no idea which was which and didn’t really want to go poking my nose in doors so I contented myself to poke my nose around corners and into giant propellers waiting to be installed. I then started for one of the little red “pods” I had passed on my way in. I had heard there were a couple of them stationed along the Castle Rock hiking loop as a rest and recovery place for hikers who need a break or who get caught when bad weather blows in. This was NOT one of them however: it was a dive tank with a giant hole in the ice accessible via open trap door.

This could end badly…

So I hightailed it out of there pretty quickly since I didn’t like the way it was creaking while I was standing in it. In both directions, I had been passed by various vehicles going out to the Runway, including the shuttle that runs regularly, and I had been offered a ride each time but the longer I walked, the more determined I was to finish the whole damn thing, despite the fact that my boots were feeling heavier with each step. From this direction, I was able to see why we couldn’t see Erebus from Town, even though it’s very close to us.

And then my “weekend” wrapped up pretty much as I described – laundry, shower, dinner, then a drink with the firefighters at Southern and home to an early bed. That was my first time in one of our bars here in Town and I can now state assuredly that Scott Base’s is better. Southern feels like a cave. I have a feeling I’ll be sticking to the Coffee House which is cave-like as well but in more of a ski-lodge type way.

And for those that wonder why we don’t just land at Pegasus and Williams Field year-round, and why we bother with the Ice Runway at all, it primarily has to do with location. By vehicle, the Ice Runway is only 10-15 minutes from McMurdo Station. The others are 30-45 minutes away.

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