Coming around the top of Ross Island, the suspense is almost too much for me to bear. With the exception of the small polar station it supplies, Mc Murdo is the southernmost outpost of American empire.
It is also the only significant human settlement in the Ross Sea.
No one had been back to the Pole since the Amundsen and Scott expeditions of 1911, and it was the obvious prestige location in Antarctica. All that remains of the station today is a bust of Lenin staring out towards Moscow from a snow drift.
Whoever controlled the Pole would control—well, a tiny area of featureless ice cap. The stymied USSR had to settle for a base at the Pole of Inaccessibility, possibly the only place on the continent more miserable than the South Pole. Once built, Mc Murdo proved a useful staging area for other activities in Antarctica.
Even if the ship makes it to the station, the Americans are willing, and our leader Rodney allows the crew to come ashore with the passengers, dark forces can still come into play in the gift shop itself.
The Third Mate tells me about a frustrating visit to the station the previous year.
“Why would we build a secret military base at the bottom of the world? ” “You put missiles in the ice.” “Why not use our huge fleet of nuclear submarines? I make a mental note to approach America’s premier research station with my eyes open.
But I also start to worry about what the Russians are up to at their ring of stations around Antarctica.
I ask the cornered Tanya a few questions about her life on the ship, and she tells me she’s been working the Ross Sea circuit for the last six years. Portable, useful, and stylish, it is the most desirable consumer item on the Antarctic continent. For starters, you have to cross the Southern Ocean from New Zealand in a tippy little ship, a two-week ordeal that leaves everyone bruised and miserable.
Tours are conducted by NSF volunteers in their free time; if the volunteers are busy, you stay on the ship.
It’s perfectly possible to reach Mc Murdo, sit at anchor and stare at the gift shop, three hundred meters away, without being able to come ashore.
In both cases, the terms of a restrictive treaty prevent the open pursuit of more practical goals.
This fits with a long Antarctic tradition of using science as a fig leaf for ambition.