Saturday, October 30, 2004

Chapel of the Snows

Chapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, Antarctica - (c) Keith C Dreher

Why start with a photo of a distinctly average–looking chapel? Because this is the romantically–named Chapel of the Snows, which is the world’s most southerly place of worship. Not surprising, since it’s located at McMurdo Station, Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica.

The history of the place is fascinating. I won’t go into the geology, as the respectful conflict between human and landscape here is what interests me, and what made me discover more about the area. Ross Island was discovered in 1841 by James Clark Ross who sailed the area in his ship Terror, whose Lieutenant, Archibald McMurdo, inspired the naming of McMurdo Sound.

In 1902, Robert Falcon Scott landed on Ross Island from his ship, the Discovery, and used the area as a base, building a hut there in the same year. He — and, later, Shackleton — used the hut as an exploration base.

Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale WSW and SW. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

R. Scott

Last entry.
For God’s sake look after our people.

Scott and his men had placed the first ever building on Antarctic ice, and the hut is still there today, protected as a historic site under the Antarctic Treaty (which also rather chaotically divides the continent into different ‘claims’ like this. Some news links: Antarctic Huts Conservation Cash Plea (a couple of weeks ago), Exploring Nations Asked for Help (end of July 2004).

The hut is kept locked at all times, and undergoes a programme of patching and restoration, but will eventually disintegrate. Stepping inside really is like entering a time capsule as all the original fixtures and fittings are there: the men’s bunks, the stove — and outside, a dead seal which has lain there for nearly 100 years: no–longer–needed dogfood. (Since seals are the only viable local food source for sledge–dogs, instead of killing the seals, dogs have been banned from setting paw on Antarctic ice since sometime in the 80s.) People do steal things from inside the hut — one guy returned a stolen biscuit after 30 years of guilt.

McMurdo Station, a US base, was first established early in the 1950s and has grown from a tiny outpost next to Scott’s hut to a sprawling complex which houses 1,100 people and yet still does not dwarf the strong historical presence of the hut (excellent photo here).

A fascinating page about the conservation of the Scott Hut, and others, with photos, is here.

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