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If you make it through to open water, you must time your arrival at Mc Murdo Sound between the time the resupply ship arrives (the high point of the Antarctic liturgical calendar, when the entire station is occupied with Offload) and the time a few weeks later when most of the staff have left for home.
If Mc Murdo Sound is frozen over, which happens frequently and unpredictably, there are no second chances.
Shuffleboard At Mc Murdo Somewhere below the Antarctic circle, I catch Tatiana, the waitress from the port side dining room, in a moment of leisure.
This is the first time I've ever seen her off-duty. “I want to buy a Zippo.” I am not surprised to hear this.
“Is there anything you're still excited to see in Antarctica? Unlike the Chinese knockoffs sold in other ports, the Mc Murdo article is the real deal, stamped ‘Made in Bradford, PA’ on an all-metal case, with a little golden silhouette of Antarctica embossed on the side. Once in Antarctic waters, you must find a path through the belt of ice that typically guards the entrance to the Ross Sea.
There is no guarantee that this will be passable—an identical tourist trip in 2008 had to go back to New Zealand without even glimpsing Antarctica (no refunds).
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.
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.
Even if everything goes perfectly, the harbor is open, and the ship is able to anchor in Winter Quarters Bay, passengers still need an invitation from the Americans to come ashore.
The station is friendly to visitors, but tourism is not an officially-sanctioned Antarctic activity.
Mc Murdo Station has never completely shed its military origins.
The original base (Williams Air Operating Facility, named after an unfortunate whose tractor fell through the sea ice) was built by the US Navy in the run-up to the International Geophysical Year.