Here I stand on Observation Hill. If the Devil made me an offer at this moment, I feel sure I would accept. The kingdom of ice and snow is spread at my feet. From Observation Hill, on 25 February 1998, I look down on McMurdo Sound, a wide fjord plated over with white; and on the shore, McMurdo Base, the largest scientific station in the Antarctic. Its labs, its dorms, its industrial landscape of gasoline storage tanks and warehousing, all fill a hollow in the tip of Hut Point Peninsular on Ross Island. When we landed this morning, the three-dimensional glory of this scene was folded neatly flat, a lateral panorama. Sunrise behind Ross Island had lit the horizon to the west in pinks and golds but the near slopes of the land were still in deep blue shadow, chill as a wine cellar where the sun has never reached. Our Russian tour ship was moored off McMurdo’s ice pier, in a black lane of open water trembling between liquid and solid. The rubber boats ferrying us to shore picked up a glassy crust at the waterline, and left a slow, oily rocking where they passed. American guides met us, and led us up through McMurdo to the road that goes to the airstrip: the only road in Antarctica, and therefore inevitably known as Antarctic One. When Antarctic One crossed the saddle in the ring of hills around McMurdo, we struck off to the side, up the volcanic cone of Ob Hill. The last 300 – 400 feet were a hard-breathing scramble up a seam of dark clinker that forms a ridge in the snow. Then suddenly we were in sunlight. But not sunlight in the usual sense, seen from within the swathing greens and living haze of the biosphere it fuels so generously. The sun rising here has a hard white glitter, like a welding torch. Clearly, it was a bright star, close by. Here, I thought, you don’t need to read about the ozone hole overhead, or to see satellite photographs of the solar wind bombarding the poles, to know that some of the filters in the sky have been withdrawn. Your body feels it, distinctly. There are fewer veils between you and what lies beyond. You get a glimpse into the furnace.
And now McMurdo is a strew of coloured cubes and cuboids down below, linked by dirt roads along which toy pick-ups crawl, scattered with radar that register at first glance as Orthodox onion domes. Officially, McMurdo exists for research and logistics. The United States’ National Science Foundation runs it, and hires the skills of the drivers and cargo handlers who keep it running from Antarctic Support Associates, a contracting company. Hercules supply aircraft thunder down from New Zealand, bringing ice and ozone specialists and fuel and stores for distribution to fifty field camps. All very utilitarian: yet somewhere along the line McMurdo reached critical mass with all that activity, and gained the kind of identity that sustains itself. The inhabitants call it Mac Town, and even in the last week of February, with the summer contingent of more than a thousand people flown away, and a skeleton crew of 160 battening down for the coming winter – muffling empty buildings, draining fluids from the overhead supply lines – the streets still have a little urban bustle.