Claire Harvey on Ice: Mt Erebus sends chills of horror

By Claire Harvey

Every day, reporter Claire Harvey will file from Antarctica where she is with Sir Edmund Hillary on his return to Scott Base, which he helped found 50 years ago. If you have a question for Claire you can email her. Click here

Sunday, 21 January

Scott Base, Antarctica

It's hard to look at Mt Erebus without feeling something like a chill in your spine and shoulders. Why? Oh, of course, obviously because it is the mountain where more than 250 air passengers suddenly, brutally lost their lives in 1979. But Erebus is spooky for another reason.

It is silently, menacingly alive.

On a continent where most things are - or seem - frozen, Erebus is topped by a constant, subtle plume of volcanic steam, just like its neighbour, Mount Terror. "Just letting you know," the mountains seem to say, "I'm ready to blow any time."

Today, I saw Erebus as the backdrop to another eerie sight - the abandoned huts of Ross Island. These century-old buildings were once the winter homes of a small group of British explorers, men who travelled for adventure before thrillseeking was a billion-dollar business.

They are the first human dwellings on the continent - the only place in the world, as the conservators are fond of saying, where we can actually see humans' first habitation.

The expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton are preserved in these perfect time capsules; just as if the explorers have got up and walked out, a few minutes ago.

It's an illusion, of course; they all walked out to meet their hungry deaths (or, in Shackleton's case, their glory) nearly 100 years ago, but I've never experienced any museum so affecting as these.

In front of Scott's 1910 hut, a giant seal dozed, fat and contented, undisturbed by the whir of helicopter rotors as we arrived from the sky. Chained up outside the hut lay the skeleton of a dog left behind by Scott's men - poor thing, I thought. But then, perhaps he was the lucky one - the other dogs died on the endless, fruitless march to the Pole.

It's brilliant sunshine outside still, but it's hard not to think of the early explorers living through months of darkness, the wintry payback for all this glorious light of summer.

Tomorrow we're leaving Antarctica, and we've spent the evening packing up all our bags and dispatching them with the US Air Force; even though we're not flying out until early afternoon, our bags have already gone to be loaded on the Globemaster aeroplane.

It's always the same with military flights - the bags have to be checked in about six months before you actually fly. Painful, but who am I to argue with Uncle Sam? He's got my suitcase now.

Saturday January 20

Scott Base, Antarctica

Just over the hill from Scott Base is a little envelope of America, completely intact, as if someone has sealed it up, stuck a stamp on and posted it all the way down here.

McMurdo Station, the American base on the ice, is an enormous installation, with up to 1200 resident scientists, military personnel and support staff at once, all living in multi-storey dormitories and serviced by cooks, cleaners, mechanics, nurses - the fully equipped hospital over there even has its own hyperbaric chamber - there are only two of these in all of New Zealand.

And it's full of noisy, charming, boisterous Americans, full of the confidence of immersion in their own culture, even here in the wild south.

"Does my ass look fat in this jacket?" said my new buddy JC, an Alaskan electrician here for his third summer, when I bumped into him outside the galley. JC sat next to me on the plane over here, lent me his camera cable, and was full of advice ("Claire, while you're here don't be shy about putting on lots and lots of lotion, because phew, your skin will really dry out.")

NZPA reporter Sue Eden and I had walked over there to check out the shop (of course) and found it packed with American supplies - candy, cigarettes, booze, t-shirts, and a shampoo brand called 'Aussie', which is one of America's biggest-sellers but is completely unknown in Australia. I think it's manufactured in Florida.

I bought a couple of bags of Jerky Chips ("High in protein!") just because they were there … they might be nice to eat on the plane home instead of the US Air Force rations we ate on the way over here, an enormous paper sack full of sweet muffins and muesli bars and other diabetes risks.

All the big 50th anniversary celebrations were on this morning, and after filing our stories we've all spent the afternoon exploring the environs. Sue and I climbed Observation Hill, just above McMurdo Station, to see the cross erected in 1913 by the British explorers who found the starved, frozen corpses of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men. They had died in March 1912 on the way back from the Pole, just 11 miles away from reaching their food-stocked depot.

The Brits who found Scott were part of his original party, and had spent the winter in the hut, waiting for the Pole party to return, wondering all through that darkness if they died, and as it became increasingly obvious, whether they had suffered terribly.

They had suffered, of course, and I wondered while walking up the hill if Scott and the others might have welcomed death in the end. After all, they had been beaten to their great prize, the Pole, by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. It must have felt so cruel to see the Norwegian flag fluttering there when they finally staggered towards 90 degrees South. Maybe they wanted to die? Maybe they gave up hope with a little willingness? Or maybe that's just my projection, my attempt from the Gore-tex comfort of 2007 to make it all less of a tragedy.

Friday January 19, 2007

Scott Base, Antarctica

I've never seen journalists move so fast.

We were standing on the sea-ice directly in front of Scott Base, with the sun illuminating Mt Erebus behind us, watching a collection of seals lolling on the snow, when all of a sudden great chunks of ice about 15 metres in front of our feet started sliding into the frigid water, splashing and startling the seals into reluctant motion.

All of us leapt backwards about 20 metres and prepared to sprint back to the base (as nearly as you can sprint wearing polypropylene, fleece, windproof overalls, 'mukluk' boots which weigh a few kilos each and giant down jackets. Well, 'leapt' isn't quite the word - it was more of an overweight waddle, like a cluster of dopey penguins.

Then we noticed the field guides with us, Ian Whiteley and Abel Roche, were standing calmly, just watching the seals. The people who really know Antarctica, it seems, aren't too easily flapped.

Now, to make us sound slightly less wimpy, sea-ice is just what it sounds like - ice which is floating on top of the sea. We'd been warned in last night's safety briefing that the sea-ice in this particular spot was strictly out of bounds because it had been melting, and there is even a line of black flags restricting access to it.

Whiteley led us out onto the ice, poking tentatively at any dodgy-looking patches with a long metal stick. Roche carried an ice-pick and several other serious-looking pieces of rescue equipment, but in the end none of us needed rescuing.

Complaints about the heat have evaporated. This morning we headed up to Arrival Heights, a scientific research facility about 20 minutes' by 4WD from Scott Base, where Australian and New Zealand scientists are investigating the ozone layer. Up there, the wind chill factor lowered the temperature to -18 degrees Celsius. An hour later when we went to see the American base, McMurdo Sound and the tiny, evocative Discovery hut nearby, it felt a good 10 degrees colder.

After dodging a sealy death, we waddled back to Scott Base to interview Sir Ed - who held forth for nearly 40 minutes in the bar, before starting on his first Scotch. When I came upstairs to write this, he was sitting in the mess-room, having just finished dinner, with a glass of white wine in hand, then it was off to bed to rest up for a big Saturday, when he will preside over the 50th anniverary celebrations.

Thursday January 18, 2007

Scott Base, Antarctica

Here we are in Antarctica, and within an hour of our landing, the photographer began complaining about the heat.

That says something about photographers (never happy - and ok, they carry a lot of heavy gear), but it also says a little about the conditions on the ice - it's about 0 degrees Celsius at the moment, and when you're standing in the eternal summer sunlight, it feels positively tropical.

After 5 hours aboard a US Air Force Globemaster C-17, we landed at Pegasus Ice Runway about 2.10pm and stepped into the open - a gorgeous clear day. Across the ice, Mt Erebus and Mt Terror seemed to both wear a wisp of smoke (they are, after all, active volcanoes, but it could have been cloud).

After a brief doorstop press conference, Sir Ed and the rest of us jumped aboard Haggland all-terrain vehicles for the hour's trip to Scott Base - a functional collection of bright green sheds, which inside are quite luxurious. I'm typing this from the 'Library Annex, where a clothes-rail groans with fancy-dress costumes (fairies, firemen, police officers, Vikings).

There's a cupboard full of board games, too _ the inhabitants have to make their own fun for the four long months of darkness which descend on Antarctica every year.

Now it's off to dinner and then a safety briefing out in the snow - what to do if your helicopter crashes (I hope this isn't tempting fate.)

Christchurch

Along with the mountains of polypropylene, fleece, fur and Gore-tex every visitor to Antarctica is issued, there is another, far more interesting item.

It is only given to women, and it is the only item the clothing warehouse supervisors do not want returned: a Freshette Feminine Urinary Director ('A revolutionary answer to modern restroom problems!' says the packet, 'Minimal undressing when nature calls.').

It's a novel kind of plastic funnel, designed to help women wee like real men in Antarctica, when the cold makes it impractical to strip off and do it the old-fashioned way.

And no urinating onto the ice, we've been firmly told: all of it must be collected in 'pee bottles' and returned to Scott Base for disposal.

Today, all of us in the party accompanying Sir Edmund Hillary and Helen Clark to Antarctica to celebrate the 50th anniversary of New Zealand's base on the ice were issued with Extreme Cold Weather gear: socks, three layers of gloves, long-johns, two layers of overalls, a thermal undershirt, shirt and zip-up jacket, a neckwarmer, a windproof hat, a balaclava, ski goggles and sunglasses.

We must check in at 6.30am for our Globemaster C-17 American military transport plane to McMurdo Sound, which takes off at 9am and should arrive in Antarctica five hours later _ unless a storm blows up and we have to turn around and come back to Christchurch.

We must be ready for the cold as soon as the plane lands _ and that means for the whole flight we must all wear the warmest gear we've been issued, including a giant black Canada Goose jacket, complete with fur-lined hood. The ensemble, we're told, is enough to keep us warm at temperatures of -50 Celsius. At present Scott Base is enjoying balmy temperatures of between -8 and 5 Celsius (and the aeroplane is heated to normal room temperature) which means it should be a fairly sweaty flight.

And considering the bathroom routine, I think guzzling bottles of water might not be the wisest way to keep cool.

I'll update you from Scott Base tomorrow night.

Wednesday, January 17

Christchurch

Have you ever had a mental illness or suffered from depression? Has anyone in your family had cancer? How about heart disease? Any chance you could be colour-blind?

No? Alright, just answer another 200 or so questions on your physical and emotional wellbeing, lie still while we stick electrodes to you for a heart examination, step on the scales, stand still to be measured, cough loudly, breathe in deeply, give us a few vials of your blood and confess all the murky details of your medical history, and you're cleared to visit Antarctica.

That's the pre-ice drill for all who wish to see the frozen continent, as required by Antarctica New Zealand, and I seem to have passed, although the doctor did let me have another go at blowing into the peak flow meter when my first attempt demonstrated a worrying lack of lung capacity _ and I didn't mention those two minor operations when she asked me to detail my entire surgical history (every woman needs to preserve a little mystique ... all I'll say is that something deeply unglamorous happened with my feet and needed to be fixed.)

The point of all this poking and prodding is that I am off to the coldest place on earth to cover a visit by Sir Edmund Hillary, Helen Clark and a tentload of military, scientific and bureaucratic officers. It's the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund's establishment of Scott Base, New Zealand's permanent research station on the ice.

There are 12 of us journalists attending, and Antarctica New Zealand do not want any of us getting sick on their dollar (or turning nasty while confined in the close quarters of Scott Base, or doing anything to alarm the penguins).

We'll spend Wednesday being kitted out in our extreme cold weather gear at Antarctica New Zealand's base in Christchurch, then fly to Antarctica on a US Air Force Globemaster C-17, a rather utilitarian transport plane where passengers do not sit in seats, but on canvas webbing along the sides of the plane's cargo hold. The VIPs don't get special seats _ they'll be perched on the same webbing as us, just a little closer to the front of the plane.

When we arrive, we'll be taken through a briefing on how to survive in the cold (most of which we can assume Sir Ed is already on top of) and getting in and out of helicopters.

The Prime Minister and her husband, Peter Davis, are spending Friday visiting the US base at the geographic South Pole, but the rest of us will be exploring Ross Island in McMurdo Sound, home to Mt Erebus and the wonderfully named volcano Mt Terror, easily the best-monikered piece of rock outside Middle Earth.

On Saturday January 20, Sir Ed, 87, will preside over a ceremony to mark the establishment of Scott Base, where the base's youngest present resident, James Blake (son of the late yachtsman Peter Blake) will raise a New Zealand flag.

In 1957, Sir Ed was fresh from ascending Mt Everest and looking for new challenges when British geologist Vivian "Bunny" Fuchs asked him to accompany a Commonwealth bid to make the first overland crossing of Antarctica. Sir Ed's team, travelling on Massey Fergusson tractors, was only supposed to set up food and fuel depots for the British party led by Fuchs, but instead pushed on to the South Pole, arriving 17 days before Fuchs himself.

This Saturday, Sir Ed will speak about the search for a suitable site for Scott Base, as well as unveiling a time-capsule project, launching a set of New Zealand post stamps and making a speech foreshadowing the March beginning of the International Polar Year, a research project created by the World Meteorological Organisation to foster better understanding of the world's extreme places.

On Sunday January 21, the party will visit the huts of British explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, and Sir Ed and the PM are to launch an Antarctic Youth Ambassador scheme.

On Monday, we will return to New Zealand (the PM has to prepare for more mundane tasks like Cabinet and Ratana Day, her annual opportunity to connect with Maoridom) but Sir Ed is staying on a few extra days - accompanied by his doctor John McCartie - to indulge his abiding love for the white continent.

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